In a non-trivial sense, scrutinizing an ambient album like Barn Owl's latest, V, along the lines of traditional music criticism goes against the grain of the music itself, which aspires to a state of receptivity rather than one of full-bore, intentioned creativity. During the course of everyday life, this is the sort of record that will find its listenership without trying very hard or needing much in the way of explication. V has two main qualities, and its value is in how Jon Porras and Evan Caminiti allow them to coexist without any particular agenda. On the one hand, it's a ritual piece of work, something which arrests the general busyness of life. At the same time, it's a quotidian, potentially serving as a palliative against stress, or simply offering a clean backdrop for multitasking. It's useful music, whether the listener is seeking something to be present with in the moment, or merely wants a placeholding reminder that they can come back to at odd intervals. Still, even music that is designed somewhat outside the analytical mind has its qualities and shortcomings, things that are felt first and become articulable only later, if ever. V does just enough to keep Barn Owl on the cusp of something more completely its own, but doesn't quite clarify what makes the outfit unique.
The album immediately strikes the familiar big-sky, desert-noir angle, as "Void Redux" rolls in with a measured, subliminal sense of threat, like dark clouds over an unpeopled spaghetti-western set. In this moment, Barn Owl come across like a spiritualized take on what the cinematic expansiveness of recent Earth output would feel like dissolved in Labradford's sharp gray drones. If V is an evolution of the previously known Barn Owl, it's a matter of proportion rather than content. The presence of guitars in particular is restrained compared to earlier releases, though somber riffs are still the rudders steering the songs into their murky, bulky middles. Scrutinizing any given moment is bound to reveal layers of distinct activity, including a surprising amount of percussion, inside of what looks from a distance like a school of tiny fish. One of the album's strong points is the balance it confidently finds between active and passive, as if it's encouraging listeners to be aware of their attention drifting between their thoughts and the spacious terrain provided by the music.
Naturally, that means V runs into the same difficulty that many other albums of its ilk do—without actively focusing on the details, things just average out to a brownish hum. It's evocative of the natural world, like Mountains' music, and yet it presents a circumscribed, almost safe environment. As such, the details embedded within don't teach us what we didn't already know by ignoring them. Listening to V, there's some concern that the music's own resistance to being merely relaxing isn't backed up by destabilizing ideas about where this kind of organic-electronic drone music can go. In a live setting, Barn Owl offers a distinctly wild pleasure. Granted, how much of this is circumstantial is up for debate; it's possible that the group's instruments and samples just sound better when they're threatening to max out a PA, or maybe the ritualized quality of submitting to a live performance opens the mind. The 18-minute closing track, "The Opulent Decline," clarifies that it's also a question of duration. Although the five preceding tracks share many characteristics, listeners can feel when one has run its course and a new one begins in that clearing, but those track lengths feel somewhat too intentional for such organic music. Given an unbroken span of time to marinate on "The Opulent Decline"'s appropriately eerie motifs, Barn Owl sustains a tone of alien beauty that sounds a bit stifled in those shorter time frames.