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Review: NormanOak's Ancient Friends
Posted January 15, 2015 by Taylor Peters
WRITTEN BY
Taylor Peters
ON
January 15, 2015

 

 

I remember seeing Chris Barth play as NormanOak at the Art Hospital in Bloomington in what must have been either 2007 or 2008. I was young enough that I’d still only really been to punk and hardcore shows, and so when his solo acoustic set kicked off with an invocational chant before leaning in to songs about dark forces and poxes, it was a headspace flip, and it convinced me that the town I’d just moved too had shadowed spaces and ancient roots that were only visible at the very edge of my periphery for microseconds when I went too far south on Walnut or found myself out late and alone. In a recent feature in NUVO, Barth says the NormanOak project came about, "when [Barth] was really fascinated with understanding how land was shaped by glaciers, and realizing Indiana was under the sea hundreds of millions of years ago," and that feels about right. 

 

Bloomington feels more like a mapped territory to me now, fewer outlands, more faces I remember. As such, I hope you’ll understand that when I say that Ancient Friends takes me right back to leaning against the wall of the Art Hospital, my lizard brain tensely buzzing at what I can’t quite see, what I mean is that the album does its work effectively. 

 

Hear a few tracks from 2012's Follow Your Dreams via the player above. 

 

The production sets the scene. It’s largely unadorned: vocals, guitar, a little bass, drums occasionally. The real stick, though, comes in the details that carve a huge stereo space around the otherwise tight figure of the performances. On closer “Wild Prime,” Barth’s lead vocal is chased around by a cavernous and distant vocal counterpoint, circling nearly into a round. Ancient Friends is filled with flourishes like these, elements of surprise that force up the feeling of being in a small, cramped, dark room right up until a loud thunk sounds far away--the space is much bigger than you could’ve imagined. 

 

The songs themselves are all about manifesting a physical sway. “Please Don’t Sell Out,” leans like a pendulum. Its occasional choruses act not as affective peaks but as tension release valves. When Barth sings “It’s never too late,” his voice is weightless, suspended at the top of a loop, before speeding back to the verse. The guitar solo, too, in the back half of the song, is no explosion, no crack, no peak. It is, instead, a thickening of the song’s extant momentum, moving neither forward nor backward, but even wider. 

 

The motion is sly, slipping a little in places. “Walk Down the Ancient Road” is backed by drums that seem as if they are constantly threatening to pull from the finger picked electric guitar. It doesn’t come off sloppy though, it comes off dreamlike, the beat a soft pressure instead of a driving pulse. 

 

In fact, that--the looping without grooving--is the surprising trick across most of this album. As based on repetition as much of the music on this album is, it never cajoles the listener to dance along. Instead it wafts on in a way that pulls us along before we even realize we’ve been carried the last few miles. In “Just Say Yes,” the sweetest sounding song on the album, Barth sings, “Do what you want all the time,” but at that point, it’s hard to imagine doing anything else but being lead by the nose. 

 

Barth himself seems a little caught up, at times relishing what sounds like a dim bit of surprise at the strange words coming out of his mouth. And his melodies are elemental. A fragment of a second of a guitar lick, take “The Navel of the World” for example, and I can hear--better yet, I can feel--the song unfolding as a single unit. Barth’s lilting vocal lines feel baked into the accompaniment in a way that feels immutable and necessary, as if he’s not singing songs that even had to be written. Instead, they just leapt forth from the ether. 

 

Ancient Friends is, above all, an album made up of thorough, mantric inertia. Any motion set out tends to, seems as if it almost might, extend forever at the same rate. Songs loop and loop, established from small phrases and moments ridden to satiation. As such, a first listen might come off underwhelming, but come back, come back, come back. The well is still and dark and deep as hell. 

 

The Ancient Friends release show is tomorrow night, January 16, in Bloomington at Magnetic South. Barth will be joined by Magician Johnson, Lake Daggers, John Flanelly, and Open Sex. You can buy the album now from Sygil Records

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