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Matthew Barlow
Sun Showers Tristan Bath , February 27th, 2014 08:47

There's a moment on John Fahey's masterful Days Have Gone By where his guitar stops entirely, and the track simply drinks in the surrounding atmospherics - a dog barking, a breeze blowing and a distant train. The incidental sounds all around momentarily become his music, and the world his instrument. It's similarly added to the charm of a thousand Alan Lomax recordings, and imbued several other of Fahey's most mystical recordings with that ghostly rambler vibe. Several artists since, vitally also outside the area of purely field recording, have taken this to further extremes. Noughties folk drone masters, The Blithe Sons were a top example, playing unobtrusive acoustic drones in caves, fields and meadows, and recording the results to often devastatingly powerful effect, consistently bringing into question whether they are augmenting the natural ambience, or vice versa. This debut release from North Carolinian Matthew Barlow - put out by Sydney's brilliant Preservation label, who also released undersung recordings on tape by the likes of Barn Owl's Evan Caminiti and Loren Connors in 2013 - reinvents the entire concept of field-recording-as-musical-instrument, crafting some unusually encompassing and beautiful ambience in the process.

There's an insistent pulse beneath the rustle of forest trees, and a hum deep in mountains that Sun Showers both captures and sings in tribute to. Atmosphere is at the core of Barlow's sound, not so much inhabiting an inherently alluring natural backdrop as synthesising something new from the amalgam of organic and man-made sound. The opening seven minute 'Warm Air' sets the scene aplomb with birdsong while a synth pad gently emerges. Ultimately the two are joined by acoustic guitar plucks and harmonics, first in reverse and then switching to a cycling fingerpicked series of chords that goes nowhere slowly. The seams are barely perceptible at times, the flickering of acoustic guitar singing in return to the birds. 'Warm Air' paints a vivid picture of some remote porch, surrounded by vegetation and bathed in light, while Barlow quietly rocks back and forth, taking it all in, with guitar in hand.

The quarter of an hour title track is further besotted with languidity, albeit in a far hazier and more dreamy fashion, and minus the folky touch of guitar. Distant bells drift across the mix along with a murmuring synthetic ambient hum. It's like wandering across a marina covered in fog, with only the disorienting sound of nautical bells to misguide you. Later in the piece, the familiar sounds of flora and fauna re-emerge, and surprisingly a perfectly timed jazzy snare sample enters the mix right out of leftfield, bringing to mind some twisted noir soundtrack that's following its protagonist into a distant unknown. Ultimately the conclusion sees the marina bells and latent synth lines coalesce into one amorphous diminuendo. The title seemingly refers to those rainy showers that arrive along with sunlight, briefly placing us between extremes of the grey and the bright, the dry and the wet. It's an ambiguous central space, and something Barlow suggests perfectly with his bag of field recordings and sparse instrumentation.

The following 'Halflight' treads a similar path, melting from the pitter patter of rain to lamenting piano tinkling. The boundaries between dour and dreamy remain as consistently blurred as the separation between the track's disparate organic and synthetic elements. The final 'Breathing Space' proves an appropriately languorous climax, returning to the duetting of guitar and birdsong from the first track, albeit this time both recorded in built-in mic low-fidelity and morphed via stereo phasing delay effects into a blurry lingering apparition of its former self. Multiple guitar tracks indeterminately interlock with one and other, ultimately fluttering off over the reverb-drenched horizon.

Atmospheric, sluggish drone music is so madly rife in the online underground right now, it's increasingly tough to discern any diamonds in the rough, yet Barlow stands out. While the general populous seem hell bent on grabbing their trusty MIDI controller, jumping in to the nearest spacecraft and careening straight off into the outdated electronic futurist sonic galaxies of Klaus Schulze and ambient Eno, Matthew Barlow remains immovably back home on Earth, wandering the forests, gently plucking at his guitar and periodically stopping to record snippets of nature's very own empyrean drone.

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