Last week to celebrate the annual reoccurrence of possibly the most significant event in human history I went to a lovely place in Shropshire* and did a morning of hawking and falconry, which was a fabulous thing but the best bit of all was when we got to meet and handle a selection of owls. I’ve always had a bit of a thing for owls, the fact they are so elusive is possibly part of it – I grew up hearing them at night around the farm, but rarely spotting them and we do occasionally hear them here outside 1537 Towers. I have also always thought of them as feathery cats, which can only be a good thing to me, a good friend thinks it’s because they have intelligent eyes and I think that’s about right.
Anyway, I got to meet several fabulous owls, giants like the European Eagle Owl included but it was the more common barn owl that I fell in love with. In particular the lovely Fizz. I had no idea their patterning was so intricate and beautiful.
But I do appreciate that you don’t tune into 1537 for reviews of the latest owls to be released and so there is a subtle musical link here**. This week I have been playing Lost In The Glare by Barn Owl an awful lot. Barn Owl were formed by Evan Caminiti and Jon Porras, two guitarists studying in San Francisco and after a whole big pellet of self-releases, CD-Rs and what have you they signed to, perennial 1537-faves, Thrill Jockey. 2011’s Lost In The Glare is the only LP I have of theirs, which is a state of affairs that needs rectifying.
The cover of Lost In The Glare is something of a statement of intent. A nighttime desert^ looms up at you, mysterious, intriguing and slightly foreboding – it’s a mission statement that Barn Owl’s music more than lives up to. It’s an entirely instrumental album and so the tendency is to think that this will either be a cosmisch jam of epic proportions, or 45 minutes of pleasant ambience; this is much much better. Step this way.
The opener ‘Pale Star’ is a rather beautiful confection, it sounds more like a longed-for dawn to me than anything by starlight. From a couple of simple notes, the music swells and builds, one guitar picking out the same refrain of notes, the other warped into a soaring overarching orchestration, in fact it’s only when it feeds back you realise that you are listening to a guitar again. It is at once masterfully and deceptively simply atmospheric. And that’s just the first track.
Second track ‘Turiya’ benefits from some beautifully slow and heavy drumming by Jacob Felix Heule, as well as some subtle synth textures in the background. There is almost a narrative push through the whole song, it trips purposefully, strongly forwards into a quiet resolution. ‘Devotion I’ is possibly my favourite track on Lost In The Glare, again we start with a lone guitar, sonically very much back in that desert, that soon morphs into an exotic drone, courtesy of some gentle tanpura playing. This track is a triumph of quiet.
Lest Lost In The Glare starts to sound a little too much like hipster background music, ‘The Darkest Night Since 1683’ arrives next and puts its muddy experimental boots on top of your coffee table. The longest track on the LP and an uncompromising low-end beast, that is heavy and almost slow enough to swing with Sunn O))), after 5 minutes we again break out into a wary quietude which feels very much like the aftermath of something you’ll need to drink to forget.
In utter contrast the dainty, folk-tinged ‘Temple Of the Winds’ sounds like a spruced up Led Zeppelin instrumental that has spent 40 years simmering in a vault – it’s a cracking piece of instrumentificationism. In contrast Barn Owl go all cinematic on our asses with ‘Midnight Tide’, washes of guitar and organ painting the scene for us ably before a slight flexing of the amps show us that not all is easy and melodic in their conjured world. ‘Light Echoes’ follows a similar, but more strident path again demanding our attention, forcing us to listen, not just to hear.
It all ends with ‘Devotion II’, a slow-building raga-touched widescreen beauty of a track. Borrowing a trick from Mogwai, Barn Owl explode this track from quiet devotional music into a big climactic surge, full of free drumming and droning guitars, setting everything up in a glare of light you could get lost in, before a perfectly judged guitar line takes us home. Needless to say the playing of everyone involved in this LP, as well as the crystalline production of (Trans-Am’s) Phil Manley, is superb.
Okay so I may have got a bit carried away and just gone all track-by-track on y’all but Lost In The Glare deserves it, deserves a lot more really; in fact it bears comparison with one of my very favourite LPs, Six Organs of Admittance The Sun Awakens and I can offer very little higher praise than that. The band have a great, original sound, difficulty to pigeonhole – it is effortlessly experimental, spacey, folky, droney, dark and doomy. I have heard nothing else of theirs at all, for all I know Barn Owl may knock off wondrous transportive instrumental albums like this every 10 minutes or so, or this may be the most fully-realised example in their canon. What I do know though is that this is great playing and a fully realised vision of light and darkness, subtlety, suppleness and shade.
PS. The management here at 1537 would like to reassure you that the fact that this was a limited edition of 500 copies on 180g beautiful blue vinyl had nothing at all to do with the purchase of an LP that I had never heard of before.
*bucolic setting for Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture.
**probably such a subtle subtle subtle link between the bird and the band that I’ll have to point it out in a footnote to you all.
^not to be confused with trifle eaten in your pyjamas.