When I first heard the Owls Are Not What They Seem (henceforth referred to as the Owls A.N.W.T.S.), I assumed that this York, Pennsylvania collective producing “experimental ritual soundscapes” was a studio-only kind of project. But group founder Bobby Yagodich has conspired with several close friends to perform this music live since at least the fall of 2013. I have seen them numerous times, and each performance is more haunting than the last.
The Owls A.N.W.T.S. have a rich portfolio of recordings and many live sessions recorded in churches, with several EPs released by Eleventh Key Records and distributed by Dark Holler Arts. Now comes the massive and unearthly Hearth, their fifth full-length, featuring seventy-three minutes of black ambient and drone doom that will slither into your subconscious, writhe around your soul, and wreak havoc on your imagination if you allow it. Those who enjoy the bloody aural assaults of a group like T.OM.B. or the unbridled horror that is Gnaw Their Tongues will find calmer respite in the Owls A.N.W.T.S.’s more tribal and organic approach to this elusive genre. The project’s own descriptor, “experimental ritual soundscapes,” can mean different things depending on your perspective, so allow me break down what I think the Owls A.N.W.T.S. is doing with their music.
Let’s begin with Yagodich’s rhythms, which are steeped in complex and unsettling cadence. There are hints of Native American, African, Asian, South American, and industrial/mechanical patterns separately, but taken as a whole, there is absolutely nothing about these beats that feels culturally appropriated from anything else. Bells, rattles, cymbals, floor toms, and djembe all work together. The effect feels familiar yet entirely alien simultaneously. You may step inside the fire ring, but you won’t be sure if you are welcome. The rhythms build a tightly woven foundation for every song.
Next, the vocalizations serve as counterpoint to the rhythms and lead each track like a shaman casting an incantation, words floating into the air and rising like smoke. Otherworldly growls, gasps, screams, howls, chokes, and whispers are provided by long-time collaborator Dustin Nispel with supporting groans and chants offered by Yagodich himself and guitarist Brian Magar. Nispel, who is also a visual artist and poet, casts his lyrics and vocalizations into spells that communicate at a subconscious level. It’s not so much as what is said but how it is said that causes you to shudder.
Along with vocals, Nispel contributes sounds from a didgeridoo, flutes, chimes, and hand drums. These sounds create accents, like beads and feathers in a dream catcher. The didgeridoo is used extensively, more so than in previous recordings and possibly a little too much at times. The drone becomes so common that one forgets that this isn’t just a sound that Nispel can create naturally. Still, the presence of this tubular instrument of aboriginal Australia does not feel gaudy or forced. Every auditory element of the record melds together like the spices in a perfectly balanced meal.
Magar and bassist Matt Jackson spin the final golden threads in this mystical sound web with their guitar and bass. Yagodich also adds synth on a few tracks. All of these more commonplace instruments are channeled through a dizzying array of pedal board processing, creating a hissing, rattling, buzzing drone that binds the rhythms and vocals together. These elements fall away into the background throughout the album but are never lost entirely, despite the intensive vocals and drumming. They are the glue that holds the unruly elements together.
The title Hearth could be misleading for the Owls A.N.W.T.S., causing a potential listener to believe they might hear some warm and comforting sounds. But really, what is warm and comforting to one could seem cold and isolating to another. The clue to the album’s content is hinted at in the album cover art, created by Magar’s wife Rebecca Magar. The image features a painting of a hookah in the shape of a demonesque, winged woman. Standing around her, four figures in hooded robes smoke from hoses extending from her vagina, while fire and smoke billow from her head. Inviting? Maybe. Transformative? Definitely, just as the music contained within will be. Trust me, this is a pipe you are going to want to smoke again and again.
02) Remains of Your Ruin
06) Flight of the Specter
11) Dark Escapes
15) The Illusion