The wingmen of Barn Owl – Jon Porras and Evan Caminiti – have an uncanny knack of coaxing a hell of a lot of atmosphere out of just their guitars, pedals and amps. They’ve spent the last five years trying out different contortions of their ambient guitar rock from these elements, ranging from the brutal to the sublime, without settling on one exacting formula. Which is great, as you get the sense the San Francisco duo are flying by the seat of their pants. And once again, the pair throw caution to the wind on their fifth album V.
This time around, the formula involves the addition of a drum machine and some spooky synthesizers – a surprise indeed if you heard them light up Café OTO last year with their scorching, heavy and stripped down guitar-riffic set. With the extra sonic trickery adding some depth and ballast to their tormented guitar work, the duo set off to explore their new arsenal over the first five tracks, lasting 22-plus minutes, of the album. From the opening dry twanging guitar strings of Void Redux and its menacing, almost video game-like dramatic pulse, to the chiming glory of Pacific Isolation, they don’t plot a destination as such but instead enjoy the journey through their dense sound worlds. And it’s pleasant enough. But for a band who specialise in six strings, the electronica often overwhelms – or at least oscures – the work they are doing with their guitars, leaving it all sounding a bit like it’s been cooked up in a late-night bedroom on a laptop. They are sketches – nothing more, nothing less.
But it all changes on the final, aptly-named, track Opulent Decline. Weighing in at a hefty 17 minutes and 32 seconds, it is apparently distilled into ‘movements’ sliced from a mammoth 30-minute piece. But tucking it away at the end does the work no service. Here is where the experiment comes to life as the music eerily recalls the narcotic bliss of Fripp & Eno’s No Pussyfooting with its ethereal shifting hues supported by the ever-present guitar manipulations. Or as Porras describes it: “It was our goal to harness the fluidity and unpredictability of improvisation within considered arrangements. Special care was taken to convey the ever-changing flow through each piece, a continually shifting set of colours and textures and atmospheres.”
Play the first 30 seconds and the last 30 seconds and you get a good idea how far the piece travels during its lifespan – the shimmering ascending and descending organ and guitar runs threaten to shatter into a static-laden tumult by its, rather unexpectedly, joyous ending.