Barn Owl is a band from the Bay Area that, last time I checked, was being compared to Sunn O))). But those comparisons put aside (as well they should be, for no band other than Earth could come near Sunn), this duo crafts more along the lines of Mogwai or even Terry Riley’s Dervish series than the thick, constant, one note tonal assault of any drone doom band. Not merely content to work within the limitations of a guitar and a keyboard, their use of effects, primarily stereo panned delay and clever overdrive, and multi-tracking on their latest (Shadowland) keeps them as a uniquely purposed act more suited for driving at 2AM than slo-mo headbanging at 3AM. As this sound remains consistent and unique in approach and craft, the band plays with the tropes of their genre, from two chord minor excursions to the slow build of an all-consuming bass frequency. In the end, their music relates the sadness and depth of temporality as much as it repurposes the sound of joyous discovery, the sound of a dichotomized band that rests in the median. As much a dark wood as a lighted path, Shadowland balances its depressive mood with the extreme comfort of extended song lengths.

Now, that isn’t to say that Barn Owl always sounds down in the mouth or coldly distant – no, their music conveys a wide range of emotions, but all filtered through a darkened lens. Equally conformable with loop-based constraints (opener ‘Void and Devotion’) and lengthy post-post jams that sound in place with Sigur Ros, the soundtrack to Diablo II, and the venerated Godspeed, this showcase of skill reaches into the depths of murky waters and comes up with a decent catch. As far as the songs themselves go, each of the three tracks can be directly traced to no greater than three “sounds like” progenitors:

‘Void and Devotion’ skirts most snap comparisons by placing a keyboard ostinato up front, verging closest to sections of Lift Yr Skinny Fists before thick bass waves courtesy of what could be either instrument pull things towards the limits of Printing in the Infernal Method while remaining in touch with the past keyboard works of the above mentioned Riley’s ‘Dervish’ series. For as common (and as loathe) as the practice of this sort of comparison is, here it proves especially trying as over the course of 7’48” only three chords are ever played, with the I keeping it all in line as the pulse. The end result defies real relational categorization, only tied to the insidious genre titles by sonic trademarks that are used to dog-ear music like old books – the thick droning bass, simple keys, and effected guitar reigning in what could be described as “dark ambient drone jam rock” to the much simpler title of “post-rock,” a term so grossly over-inflated and so firmly hoisted by its own petard that the adoption of “post-“ has become a joke to all but those who practice the style. Troublesome? On a surface level, yes, but this is the pseudo-linguistic exercise of determining the roots of a sound to a definite style and has no bearing on the musical output. That said, it would be easier to learn Coptic in a week than define this band’s sound by some previous utterance.

‘Shadowland’ reveals itself slowly, unfolding from a riff that reminds this listener a bit of ‘Coda Maestoso In F (Flat) Minor’ without the distortion and with an added dose of high end, to a general guitar workout emphasizing interplay and power over notational value. To Barn Owl more than most bands of this style, the value of the whole note is damned in favor of constant movement that leaves an impression with the timbre as much as the volume. Length is a factor in the success of each track, as removing any minute would alter the build to the point of ruination, resulting in a disc of slow builds and endless teases at drops that never come (and never need to appear). Picking up where ‘Void’ ended, the titular track almost warm feeling is enough to remove the frost of the prior’s distortion pulse that deprives the senses while overloading them. Majestic sweeps of chorus’d guitar recall the suspended chords of ‘Rogue’ (the theme from Act I of Diablo II – yes, I just referenced the best RPG/hack & slash ever) while the clean plucks instead bring to mind the more dulcet moments of a campfire session. It would not be too far off from the moods evoked by the distant embrace of the music to imagine Barn Owl playing these songs on the side of the 17 between San Jose and Santa Cruz next to a giant pile of removed earth and a large fire or collection of road flares, dressed in black with heads bowed as endless waves of fog laze by and obscure their bodies while intensifying the light nearby.

Closing out the set, ‘Infinite Reach’ consumes both previous tracks and uses their blood to fuel its trip, Unit-01 + S2 Organ style. What sort of devilish trickery is it that leads to this sort of evocative power? What demoniac possession could possibly have taken over Barn Owl to convince them to begin with a slick but foreboding guitar line and stereo delayed cable noise before gravitating towards the sounds of nearby doom? This is the sort of music dreamt about in apocalyptic nightmares; the sound of the visions of the final predictions of Nostradamus; the music of the modern brood is here, and it calls forth each shadow as its domain. Shafts of light peek through the thick black air, but are devoured by more sulfurous wafts of ash as the descent continues.

As has been stated before in my reviews of ambient and drone projects like Golden Retriever and Beaunoise, the ability for an album that relies on the tropes of it genre(s) (lengthy songs, lots of reverb or delay, few chord changes – all of which are here in Shadowland) to create the feeling of transporting the listener elsewhere serves as vital a role as the music itself. Where Barn Owl succeed has been made clear, for the overall experience does indeed take the listener to some other (shadow?)land. Their dance over dangerous clichés is exhilarating for fans of the style who can identify what’s going on, as the chord sequences and often even the structure relies as much on the foundations of drone and doom as it does their interpretation – an obvious thing upon first listen. Their only failures may be the lack of real bass, which often is relegated to a distant rumble or an upfront rumble with no real bearing on the song, an issue likely able to be chalked up to the keyboard playing those frequencies instead of an effected bass and a minor gripe overall. Spending time with this EP may leave one wont to depression themselves should the mood strike at the end, but the overarching sound of two guys enjoying the process saturates Shadowland as much as the distortion. Melancholia, happiness, confusion, peace, and chaos all reside comfortably within the digitized confines of this disc, waiting for their chance to be emphasized over one another while respectfully waiting in the back…or something like that.

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