It would be unfair to discount Barn Owl’s Ancestral Star on the grounds that it simply regurgitates and combines Earth’s pre-Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method aesthetic — slow, muscular, low-end drones and sludge — with their post-Hex trajectory, which has reached its current apogee on The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull — slow, muscular apocalyptica with rich Americana melodies. It’s a plausible claim, but it’s not the full story. While the San Francisco duo’s Thrill Jockey debut doesn’t quite reach the beautiful doom of Earth 2 or the terrifying grandeur of The Bees Made Honey, it shows Barn Owl bringing their past work together with the solo project aesthetics of band members Jon Porras (Elm) and Evan Caminti (who releases under his own name and with Lisa McGee as Higuma) for their strongest collective effort yet.
The Eastern modes, acoustic fingerpicked phrases, evolving and towering drones, country-western twang, peyote ghost moans, overdriven feedback wails, and canyon wall echoes appear throughout the 40-minute desert journey, as they successfully combine the winning tropes from Caminti’s Psychic Mud Shrine and Elm’s Nemcatacoa with Barn Owl’s 2007 self-titled debut and the massive Not Not Fun episode From Our Mouths a Perpetual Light. Time is stretched out on “Visions in Dust,” with its patient and minimal drumming grounding a loose doom-blues riff and chimerical vocals. The 10-minute title track emphasizes the drone process, allowing the distorted guitars to evolve architecturally and then drop into wide-open space once the structure disappears. The short “Cavern Hymn” sets rumbling static behind a reverb-blessed acoustic guitar for one of the more optimistic moments of the album. The finale, “Light from the Mesa,” shows Caminti and Porras successfully merging their past work, creating a thriving drone-scape that encounters a growling riff and bare percussive scaffolding.
For those smitten with the notion of the dark, mysterious West and its expanding, crushing, absorbing, destructive, albeit beautiful tendencies, there’s much to enjoy on Ancestral Star. The album takes a cinematic approach from nightfall to daybreak as the hero attempts to reconnect to her time-concealed roots, wandering the barren desert alone in search of X in one of the last places not scarred by the monsters of modernity and capital. Renewal, though, does not seem to be Ancestral Star’s destination. Upon conclusion, the hero has only survived the night, and now confronts the burning sun and dry heat of the desert. Barn Owl’s drone mirrors this quest: perpetual, unhurried, dense, and satisfied with its own unchanging reflection. Now that they’ve successfully mined their own past (if not Earth’s), it will be interesting to see what’s revealed when they step into the fresh light and out from these shadows.