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Barn Owl - Ancestral Star

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Artist: Barn Owl

Album: Ancestral Star

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: Nov. 2, 2010

This San Francisco-based duo has established itself in the past few years as a talented drone machine, with releases on taste-making labels like Root Strata and Not Not Fun. Ancestral Star is the band’s third full-length, and its first for Thrill Jockey’s wider audience. It also marks the first time Evan Caminiti and Jon Porras have recorded in a larger studio, and it shows — in a good way.

Barn Owl has always exhibited a sort of Western feeling, like a good Ennio Morricone soundtrack. Dusty passages of guitar reverberate into the distance, while wind-swept drones bring to mind desolate plains and dry mountains. The song titles here are clearly intended to invoke those environs: "Sundown,” "Flatlands,” "Visions in Dust" and "Light from the Mesa" all establish a setting for the music before one even hears a note.

The first two songs on Ancestral Star — the brief opener "Sundown" and the longer "Visions in Dust” — exemplify the templates for the album. After the brief but heavy guitar-fuzz drone of "Sundown,” we get a quiet, almost peaceful guitar melody over slow, solid drums. Everything’s drenched in reverb, but remains clear and present. More so than the band’s earlier releases, Caminiti and Porras leveraged their studio time to balance atmosphere with clarity.

Given the slow, heavy mood and the minor-key guitar lines, one can’t help but be reminded of late-period Earth. The gradual movements of The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull are a close relative to pieces like "Visions in Dust" and the album closer, "Light from the Mesa.” Melancholy Americana, they can’t help but create visions of a lone horseman slowly making his way through drought-stricken rocklands.

Amid shorter interludes, the other longer pieces, including the title track, mine the drone. Occasionally exercising some muscle, they more often tread closer to a dusky ambience. Peaks and valleys prevent even the longest piece from becoming tiresome, but the middle of the album sags nonetheless when compared to the impressive bookends.

Having demonstrated their ability to adeptly blend movement and atmospheric melody, Caminiti and Porras should aim higher than simple — albeit skillful — drones. That said, Ancestral Star delivers more than enough to reward the patient listener.

By Mason Jones

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