(Barn Owl -- the two dudes on the left -- courtesy of the band's MySpace page)
July 1, 2008
By Jennifer Maerz
Better Than: Swimming with seals at the South Pole
I recently saw a movie at the Lumiere that makes it into my all time favorite non-fiction films. It’s director Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, a documentary about the people who become unhinged at other parts of the planet and "fall" down to the South Pole to work and live. It’s a look at the scientists and their subjects in Antarctica, but it’s also about the crazy ways nature reveals itself. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Herzog visits a group of scientists studying seals. One woman talks about how silent Antarctica is, except for the inhuman sounds the seals make underwater. She said they sound like Pink Floyd. So Herzog cuts to a clip of the seals swimming, and sure enough, they do sound like some creepy Meddle outtake there, darting through the sea. The next shot is just as odd: a trio of scientists kinking their necks to put their ears on ice, performing strange rituals of their own in order to better hear their subjects.
I was thinking about those seals and their Pink Floyd sounds as San Francisco’s Barn Owl played the Hemlock last night.
The duo of two young Devendra-looking boys fused their efforts to make a warm, ambient drone of guitars and vocals. Like those slippery mammals in the movie, these guys made long, low hums that were both comforting and kinda eerie. They moved their spidery fingers only slightly on their instruments, making invisible adjustments to the strings so the songs took delicate shifts in direction. The reverent crowd was like a group of scientists – seated, studying, silent. One guy toward the back held his legs and rocked, doing a slow see-saw head bang thing. But otherwise these Owl creatures created a trance that kept folks pretty still.
For the most part, I like this kind of music. I hear bits of Six Organs of Admittance in there, and also bits of Pink Floyd, and I’m sure there are other names to be dropped here if I was a super geek in the drone genre. But I’m only an occasional tourist to this foreign territory. Music like this can get really Northern California New Age sometimes, so I occasionally have to run a mental checklist on it. If I can see myself hearing this same music on a massage table, we’re getting a little too far from weird/cool and heading into weird/crystals. Luckily, though, Barn Owl kept off the massage table for the most part. And for their finale they brought in a drummer, while one of the guitarists picked up a bass, so they could launch into some serious thinking man’s metal riffage, more Om than New Age oasis. Something I bet the seals way down south would really dig.