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The challenge of ambient music, or hauntological music, or even psychedelic drone, is to try and keep it engaging for the listener. Light Divide, the new solo album by Jon Porras of San Franciscan duo Barn Owl, manages to do this by dropping some beautiful sounds into its intricately layered music.
Throughout his solo releases and his five albums to date with Barn Owl, Porras has gradually steered away from doomy psych rock towards a more ambient, almost dub-like sound. On Light Divide washes of electronic sound mix with the subtlest hint of a percussive pulse, and the guitars are either absent or so heavily manipulated that you do not notice them. There are no tunes as such, just atmospheric electronic noise.
There are two things that emerge from repeated listens to this album. First of all, the elongated melodic touches are incredibly pretty and recall Brian Eno's work from the days of Thursday Afternoon and the Apollo soundracks. Secondly, that subtle percussion gives this album an identity, as it cuts through the ambient wash like some ghostly rattling dub effect, nudging you out of your trance. At times it reminds me of Burial with everything but the haunted parts removed. It has a steady pulse, yet sometimes you only notice it if you squeeze your headphones onto your head, and I'm sure that is the intent.
'Apeiron' is possibly the best example of this, during which those barely-there beats mix seamlessly with the harmony laden synths. Track titles don't always matter in ambient music, but it fits that this opening track is named after the Greek word for infinite or indefinite. 'Pleiades' is where the distant rattle picks up a pace, and sounds like it is drifting quickly off into space.
With five tracks over the course of 32 minutes, it never outstays its welcome, though if you listen to it at the wrong end of the day, the overall effect may become soporific. If you are seeking this out because you want more of Porras's psychedelic guitar drones you may be disappointed, although ultimately this progression towards ambient dub is still well worth your attention.
You have to have some level of engagement with it. You - the listener - will have to try, otherwise it will drift on by and get lost. You won't hear how damn pretty this is unless you stop and listen.