It seems logical to this writer that the first question a listener must ask him or herself upon the first listen of an album by a familiar artist should be “Does this record surprise me?”. Against expectations, the latest album by San Francisco drone duo Barn Owl does just that. Recent releases, such as 2010’s Ancestral Star, were dominated by thick, pungent guitar drones in a style reminiscent of Earth in their post-Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method incarnation. But V is remarkably different, owing more to the traditions of dark ambient music and the current dub underground.
And it’s amazing what a change of tack can do to make an act sound fresh and intriguing. “Void Redux” seeps out of the speakers like a wraith clambering out of a barrow, probably because Evan Caminiti has been busy exploring the murkier depths of drone over the last 12 months via solo albums Night Dust and Endless Sleep, both of which have echoes in this song’s moody, crystalline gauze. Plucked bass notes pick out a repetitive refrain over which Caminiti and Jon Porras sprinkle minor-key synth lines like so much poisonous pixie dust. The remit is clear: Barn Owl have turned their gaze away from the dusty vistas of their recent Earth-inspired output and are instead considering, with dead eyes and more than a little dread, the cavernous depths of the human psyche. As “Void Redux” dissolves in a chorus of disembodied voices that sounds like undead monks, the first things that springs to mind is Popol Vuh’s timeless score for Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu. Suffice to say that V is an intense and brooding record.
Such a premise, as fragmented as it is (this is not music that is driven by anything as obvious as a concept), could easily become predictable, but Porras and Caminiti refuse to be sucked in by convention. “The Long Shadow” is initially centered around graceful, albeit down-tuned, guitar arpeggios that build into a haze of six-string drone that’s as indebted to shoegaze as it is to the bleak ambient tradition set out in “Void Redux” or Earth’s countryfied doom. In contrast, “Against the Night” is dominated by sweeping synths that wouldn’t feel out of place on an early ‘70s Klaus Schulze album or played out underneath pulsating bass lines and dub rhythms on a Tri Angle Records release. Far from resting on their laurels, Barn Owl demonstrate a remarkable ear for the various forms and styles of modern music, and incorporate them expertly into their own aesthetic. Hell, track titles such as “Blood Echo” and “The Long Shadow” wouldn’t have seemed out of place on a black metal album!
It all coalesces on the 17-minute closing epic “The Opulent Decline,” which gradually evolves over its hefty duration, taking in most of the preceding five tracks’ material. Barn Owl mostly avoid the major trapping of this kind of drone/ambient music (which can quickly fade into the background, imprisoned by its own natural inertia). Instead, the duo allows the music time to develop almost organically, without rushing, whilst maintaining a sense of dynamism that guards against boredom. V may be more intimate and introverted than Ancestral Star or Lost in the Glare, but it is no less cinematic. It’s a remarkable return to the fore for Porras and Caminiti.