Although still centered around the guitars of Evan Caminiti and Jon Porras, the second album from San Francisco’s Barn Owl through Thrill Jockey finds the duo beginning to further branch out of themselves. Lost in the Glare maintains the heady soundscapes of its predecessor, 2010’s Ancestral Star, but revels in deceptively complex “minimalism” that includes manipulated cassettes, bass clarinet, and (gasp!) drums, which serve as well-placed landmarks for the full-length’s eight tracks. There are still plenty of stretches where it’s just Caminiti and Porras, but the deviation from that formula is what gives Lost in the Glare its character, which nestles somewhere between Hex-era Earth’s Americana and the ethereal inaccessibility of SunnO)))’s amplifier overload. Barn Owl place themselves in solid company sound-wise, and don’t so much innovate the notion of what drone is as add their personality to it – I acknowledge that might be splitting hairs, but what I mean is that as evocative as some of this material is, it’s that evocation that’s most particular to what Barn Owl does, rather than the sounds themselves. There are a lot of people who plug in guitars and sustain notes for unreasonable amounts of time, feed through effects and loops and build impossible tension and crescendos therefrom, but far fewer who do it as richly as does Barn Owl on Lost in the Glare.
Still, especially for the material on which Jacob Felix Heule contributes drums, the principal point of comparison is Earth. Naturally, those tracks – “Turiya,” “Midnight Tide,” and “Devotion II” most prominently, though gong washes show up on “Devotion I” as well along with tanpura courtesy of The Alps’ Michael Elrod – come off as more structured than some of the others, but even opener “Pale Star,” which is among the farther-ranging cuts on Lost in the Glare, has some sense of progression to it, and when the abrasive feedback cuts out with just under a minute left, there’s a sense that the song is over and what you’re hearing is a sustained conclusion. Such is the method by which the album teaches the listener how to read it. Barn Owl follow “Pale Star” with the aforementioned “Turiya” and move briskly through the song at a pace set by Heule, with Caminiti and Porras playing distinctly off each other rather than working in tandem to create a general wash as they did on the opener. It’s not fast by any stretch, but “Turiya” is one of the album’s most active moments, with Heule keeping time on the ride and adding tom flourishes to the midsection. With the gradual development of “Devotion I,” the lushness of “Pale Star” is affirmed. The song starts with echoing guitar and moves gracefully into psychedelic melodiousness; the gong and tanpura giving a classic Western feel to classically Eastern ideas. Caminiti and Porras don’t so much step aside for Elrod as they did on “Turiya” for Heule’s drumming, but the fluidity of the former’s contribution and punctuating nature of the latter’s add to the overall versatility of the droning. It’s as peaceful as it is complex.
The first half of Lost in the Glare rounds out with “The Darkest Night Since 1683,” which itself commences with the sound of mechanized static – probably the manipulated tapes – to lend an immediately inhuman feel that Caminiti and Porras capitalize on with their most SunnO)))-inspired riffing. True to that spirit, “The Darkest Night Since 1683” matches its atmosphere to its title and is the longest song on the album at 7:32, unfolding with plague-worthy sprawl and further gong-ification. The feedback is excruciating, as it should be, eventually giving way to a quieter, more ambient uneasiness in the latter reaches, peppered with Steve Dye’s bass clarinet, which reminds of the danger preceding without harkening back to it tonally, and one feels transported as the back end of Lost in the Glare opens with “Temple of the Winds,” soft acoustic guitars giving respite until the swell at 1:21 introduces floating lead lines and the full breadth of the song takes hold. There’s a similar feel here to some of Six Organs of Admittance’s bedroom-type experiments in layer construction, but Barn Owl dial back from taking it too far, cutting the song short to bleed into “Midnight Tide,” which sublimely works Heule’s toms back into the texture of spacey swirling – that could be guitar or it could be Elrod’s Juno 60, I won’t hazard a guess. The progression that gets under way in “Midnight Tide”’s first half doesn’t last, and instead Heule and the ringing notes under which his toms lay fade out under the influence of deeper, more densely-packed droning. Lost in the Glare is almost orchestral here, or as close as it comes, anyway, and were it not for the spirited build of “Light Echoes,” I might consider “Midnight Tide” the apex of the album.
We don’t get to hear Barn Owl’s pedals click off at the end of “Light Echoes,” which is an interesting choice on the part of the band, since that’s clearly what’s happening and they decided to keep the quiet, fading echoes afterward in the last nine seconds of the song. If their purpose was to remove the human element from that moment following Lost in the Glare’s most successful build, it’s in keeping with the rest of the album’s barren feel. And though “Devotion II” might seem at first like an afterthought, the inclusion of Heule’s full kit and the heavier riffing that ensues serve as a fitting summation of the record as a whole. For a second there, I thought they’d be so brazen as to include a vocal – top it with Tanner Olson and it could easily be an answer to Across Tundras’ formidable Sage from earlier this year – but they don’t, keeping the cacophony instrumental for the duration. Heule’s cymbal crashes become frantic toward the end, and Caminiti and Porras respond with amp-blowing noise, never quite losing the sense of progress from which they’ve come, but feedbacking into grandeur as well. They end “Devotion II” and the album with a singular tone fading out and then cut, and the point isn’t lost. Even drone, as infinite as it sometimes seems, ends. Lost in the Glare is bound to find more welcome in those heads already converted to its atmospheric ways, but as Barn Owl continue to grow past Ancestral Star and the slew of self-released limited cassettes, CD-Rs and vinyls with which Caminiti and Porras got their start, the complexity of what they’re doing is bound to get them some notice in a form more than just hipster cred. If Lost in the Glare is the beginning of that process, it will be exciting to see where it goes from here.Barn Owl, California, San Francisco, Thrill Jockey Records