DESERT DEVOTIONAL Barn Owl

On their
fourth album the San Fran duo stirs up a primordial musical stew of Middle
Eastern drones, ominous black metal and Saharan Touareg rock.

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

For much of the year, fog drifts in off the Pacific Ocean and
shrouds San Francisco’s
Avenues district in a gloomy sea of shifting, spectral mist. It’s a damp, dim, cold
and often oppressive environment, the kind of atmosphere that calls to mind the
old saw — wrongly attributed to Mark Twain – that the coldest winter ever
spent was a summer in San Francisco.

 

The Avenues are also home to San Francisco State,
where Evan Caminiti and Jon Porras first met in a science class in 2006 and,
with similar backgrounds in metal-shredding and Fahey finger-picking, began
playing music together as Barn Owl. Now signed to the venerable Chicago label
Thrill Jockey, the instrumental rock duo wraps up a breakthrough year-long stretch
with their second full-length release since Nov. 2010 (and fourth overall), Lost In the Glare. (They also released a
24-minute EP, Shadowland, in June.)

 

Over the years, the Avenues’ eerie, claustrophobic climate seeped
into Barn Owl’s hypnotic drones and sludgy, monolithic riffs. “Sometimes you’d
look up through the gloom and the sun would be shining through the clouds in
this really magical way, giving off this celestial feeling, and we couldn’t
help but want to capture that in our music,” says Porras, 25.

 

But even more prevalent in the duo’s music has been their reaction to being fogged in, evident in
Barn Owl’s near-obsession with desert vistas and bone-dry climes. Ancestral Star, the band’s first Thrill
Jockey full-length, was a chronological look at a passing night in the desert,
where vast star-filled skies and barren terrain dwarf quotidian concerns in a
strangely liberating phenomenon.

 

“The desert is a big motif in our music,” Porras concedes.
“And also that feeling, given its vast space, of being anonymous. That’s
something we try and capture in our music.”

 

“It was also the polar opposite of the environment we were
living in at the time,” the 24-year-old Caminiti adds. “The desert, being so
different, just helped channel this other state.”

 

That combination of elements is what keeps Barn Owl’s music
from aping, say, Calexico’s sun-baked Southwest tones; if that band’s
instrumentals are the desert seen from the vantage of a lone gunman on
horseback or a border-hopping migrant worker, Barn Owl’s guitar-built blend of
ambient, drone, Americana and black metal is the desert experienced over eons, stretching back to when the
desert was primordial and fog-shrouded ocean-side real estate.

 

 


Barn Owl – Turiya by thrilljockey

 

 

And in that time-transcending embrace of elemental light and
dark, Barn Owl’s music has earned the band comparisons with the raga drones of
Sunn O))) and Spaghetti Western soundtracks of Ennio Morricone, the lumbering
riffs of early Sabbath and even Japanese avant-gardes Fushitshusha. Now, on Lost In the Glare, the band has fallen
under the spell of Saharan Touareg music like Group Doueh and incorporated it
into its own brand of desert music. It’s expanded Barn Owl’s sound into older
musical traditions, befitting an act that seems intent on capturing time itself
… and then obliterating it.

 

“We were really inspired by the sound of
devotional rock,” Porras adds, citing Popol Vuh and Alice Coltrane’s spiritual
jazz, like her 1970 classic Journey in
Satchidananda
. “We were trying to combine those elements with the typical
Barn Owl epic American desert sound.”

 

“In the past we’ve drawn more inspiration
from American desert and American music tradition,” says Caminiti. “This was a
fresh way to approach the desert sounds that really spoke to us.”

 

There were other key changes in their
approach after Ancestral Star. Despite
drawing on many of the same influences, Porras says they were freer to do
things less conceptually as they worked on the latest record over last winter. Instead
of turning to the Norman Conquest as producer, Lost In the Glare, like the EP Shadowland, was recorded to
tape by Trans Am’s Phil Manley in San
Francisco’s Lucky Cat Studios. The instrumentation
also changed: friend of the band Michael Elrod (The Alps) added tanpura, the
instrument essential to classical Indian music’s ragas; Porras exchanged the
harmonium of Ancestral Star for
farfisa, and gladly ceded the drum seat to the adventurous S.F.-based percussionist
Jacob Felix Heule.

 

The result suggests a band so confident in
its own skin that these changes hew seamlessly to Barn Owl’s existing ethos. The
tracks “Devotion I” and “Devotion II,” for instance, are emblematic of the
duo’s turn toward mystic spirituality, but fit right in with their more
elemental tendencies. On “Devotion I,” tanpura and gong anchor overlapping
plucked guitar lines and delicate piano chords that reach upward in earnest
yearning, while on “Devotion II” Heule’s processional beat marches layers of
guitars toward a primeval and cathartic crescendo to close the record.

 

The blend works just as well in either light
or dark shades. “Pale Star” opens the LP with a swirling, dawn-of-time cauldron
composed of howling ebow lines and a lumbering riff-melody that detonates like
a time-lapse supernova; finger-picked guitars and looped ebow eventually
refract “Light Echoes” into a luminous single-tone drone of middle
Eastern-flavor. Phase-shifter storms highlight the ominous black metal of “The
Darkest Night Since 1863” (at 7 1/2 minutes, the LP’s longest track); and the contrast
of electric and acoustic guitars on “Temple
of the Winds” creates a lovely tent-fluttering effect on the most Touareg-inspired
cut.

 

What emerges over Lost In the Glare‘s 42 minutes – which pretty much demand
front-to-back listening – is the sense that Barn Owl has unearthed only what
matters in these tracks. That, they say, was a long process often undertaken live,
a part-structured/part-improv setting where songs evolve naturally. “A lot of
the songs really benefitted from us playing them for over a year during live
shows, just honing in on the essence of a song and getting rid of the rest,”
Caminiti says.

 

With a load of touring in front of them –
both have quit their day jobs to concentrate on Barn Owl – and seemingly
inexhaustible musical curiosity, Caminiti and Porras aren’t sure what future
musical adventures await, but are eager to find out. At a recent gig in Grass
Valley, at the foot of the California Sierras, the laid-back vibe had Porras
thinking they might turn to a back-porch record of “less amplified”
finger-picking; Caminiti countered that they could even go in the opposite
direction of “working with no guitars at all,” relying on organ and vocals.

 

“We’ll just have to see where we land,”
Caminiti says. So far, no matter what clime they’ve landed in, Barn Owl has
turned it to their musical profit.

 

Barn Owl is currently on a US tour through Sept. 19, then resumes again in mid October. Tour dates here.

Leave a Reply