Release Date: Nov 1, 2010
Record label: Thrill Jockey
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Doom Metal
There’s something darkly ponderous about this San Fran duo’s third effort – in fact, the record sounds like the scariest Catholic mass you’ve never been to. A relentlessly ominous thrum, clanging metals, eerie choral voices, sawing violin and does-what-it-says titles such as ‘[b]Cavern Hymn[/b]’, ‘[b]Visions In Dust[/b]’ and ‘[b]Night’s Shroud[/b]’ conjure up the enduring image of the biggest fucking thurible a priest ever did swing in God-fearing fury. Even on tracks where celestial melody and light shatter the swirling fug of riffs – making [a]Barn Owl[/a] sound more like a whacked-out Dead Meadow – the mood within is h-e-a-v-y like a bewitching series of black metal incantations.
As lonely and unending as the desert While the term ‘Americana’ might normally be reserved for grumbly country blues, the third Barn Owl full-length could easily fall beneath that same banner, albeit a depiction of the beautiful, hostile West as told by the likes of John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy rather than hee-hawing good ol’ boys jawing round a campfire. Lonesome guitars wend their way through the shimmer of rising heat, synth swells collapse into dust and a plaintive violin calls to a long-lost lover, all of which twines itself together to form a rich experimental drone that’s as vast, lonely and unending as the desert images they conjure. .
For all the bombast that Ancestral Star summons from its beginning, the remainder of Barn Owl’s third album finds itself still ominous, though more tepid. Opening track “Sundown” comes in with all of the bowel-shaking, evil bass fuzz that one expects from acts like Sunn O))), but that influence starts and stops there. Despite the duo having honed their chops in Bay Area metal acts, from the second track (“Visions in Dust”) on, Ancestral Star plays itself out as a Six Organs of Admittance-like experiment in sound and silence.
Barn Owl is the guitar drone collaboration of Evan Caminiti and Jon Porras. On their new release for Thrill Jockey, Ancestral Star, they continue to explore the Morricone tinged Western soundtrack side of the genre—first pioneered by the heavyweights Earth—that they have done so thoroughly and competently on their previous albums. For this album, Caminiti and Porras took their time in the studio and expanded the instrumentation on the songs by experimenting with bowed guitar, and by inviting Marielle Jakobsons to play violin, the Norman Conquest to contribute eerie chanting vocals, and Portraits to add some nuanced percussion.
Ancestral Star is Barn Owl’s third record, but it’s unlikely that many readers will be familiar with their previous two. Readers of our very own Joe Marshall’s Articulate Silences, Ambient Sounds should be familiar with the San Franciscans through a review of previous record The Conjurer and a subsequent interview with the duo. Their very presence in that feature gives you an idea, however, of the (left)field they are operating in.
It would be unfair to discount Barn Owl’s Ancestral Star on the grounds that it simply regurgitates and combines Earth’s pre-Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method aesthetic — slow, muscular, low-end drones and sludge — with their post-Hex trajectory, which has reached its current apogee on The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull — slow, muscular apocalyptica with rich Americana melodies. It’s a plausible claim, but it’s not the full story. While the San Francisco duo’s Thrill Jockey debut doesn’t quite reach the beautiful doom of Earth 2 or the terrifying grandeur of The Bees Made Honey, it shows Barn Owl bringing their past work together with the solo project aesthetics of band members Jon Porras (Elm) and Evan Caminti (who releases under his own name and with Lisa McGee as Higuma) for their strongest collective effort yet.