Owwl, gathered their harmonium, guitar, and effects pedals together in an attempt to recreate the atmosphere and innate human fear of these locations, resulting in the eerie, shifting Dark Places album.
In honor of the album's subject matter and specific song titles, I'm going to take a different approach to this review, so bear with me.
Track One: "44° 25’ 39” N, 26° 5’ 15” E": What is currently home to the Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, Romania, the hill formerly known as Dealul Spirii or "Arsenal Hill" holds a dark past. Underneath what is considered by the World Records Academy to be the world's largest civilian building, most expensive administrative building, and heaviest building overall lies a mass grave dating back to the Black Death. What was once home to the home of Alexander Ypsilantis, Prince of Wallachia, in the late 1700s eventually gave way to a stadium known as the Arsenal, which was bombed on December 8th, 1920 by Communist sympathizer Max Goldstein.
After learning about the hill's deep history, dating back to the era of the Bubonic Plague, I could not help but associate this first track's stagnant, slow oscillation with the slow rot of its hidden mass grave. To think that such a massive collection of bodies could be lost to the ages is a clear indicator to the horrors of the Black Death, where Europe lost over one third of its population, and this track embodies the sort of worthlessness human life held back then.
Track Two: "29° 15’ 0” S, 70° 44’ 0” W": Located deep within Chile's sprawling Atacama Desert lies La Silla Observatory. Due to La Silla's distance from light pollution and extreme isolation, it has been home to many discoveries, such as the first rocky, potentially inhabitable land and other low-mass planets outside our solar system. While this place isn't necessarily "dark" like Dealul Spirii, La Silla Observatory lies underneath what is supposedly one of the darkest night skies on earth.
Like the extreme isolation of the Observatory, this track sounds rather lonely and empty. A relatively faster harmonium oscillation, performed by Stefan Otto, takes the forefront, leaving Schulz's bleak, unnatural guitar sounds to fill the cracks, spreading the sounds further and further apart. To think how depressing it must be to knowingly distance oneself from society to fulfill one's dreams of gaining knowledge, only to live in under the darkest sky in the world.
Track Three: "60° 53’ 9” N, 101° 53’ 40” E": This point exists in the middle of Russia's taiga, extraordinarily far from any documented city or town. This is nowhere; ice, evergreen trees, and a few hardy animals. Though there is a human element of isolation in the previous given location, there are no people here. No buildings, no streets, no cars. It is pure, utter, and absolute desolation.
Fitting the given "frozen wasteland" theme, Schulz takes the sonic foreground with an icy, treated guitar drone, completely devoid of any organic warmth, as Otto's harmonium echoes a freezing, bitter wind across the plains. Some people might consider black metal to be the sound equivalent of permafrost, but they certainly haven't heard this.
Track Four: "31° 18’ 55.1” N, 35° 21’ 13.5” E": Atop an isolated rock plateau in the southern district of Israel lay the ruins of an ancient fort known as Masada. During the first Jewish-Roman War in the first century, CE, the infamous Siege of Masada led to the mass suicide of the Sicarii rebels, a splinter cell of Jewish zealots. Of course, this is only a legend, as the only real accounts of this mass suicide are in the writings of early historian Josephus, and no mass graves have been found on or around the Masada site.
Again, Otto and Schulz take the "picturesque" route with this track, creating sounds as arid and expansive as the Negev Desert in which Masada exists. The harmonium sounds most at home here, emanating a low, nasally hum, reminiscent of local reed instruments used in meditation and worship. This is by far the most "mystical" sounding track off of Dark Places, conjuring ghosts of ancient bazaars and Sufi mystics. At a whopping twenty minutes, track four is a long and entrancing listen, by far the most impressive and picturesque effort Otto and Schulz have offered.
Track Five: "39° 14’ 8” N, 20° 28’ 55” E": The river Acheron in Greece is considered the river of pain and one of the five rivers of Hades, the Greek underworld. To make matters more sinister, the name Acheron has been known to be interchangeable with Hades as a synechdochal title of the underworld. In his Divine Comedy, Dante refers to Acheron as the "border of Hell." Unlike its mythological connotation, the Suda, an ancient encyclopedia of Mediterranean life, considers the river Acheron to be a place of healing.
Taking on its "Southern" history, this final track is a deep, subterranean drone, increasingly growing in volume over its sixteen-minute length. Aside from a quiet layer of feedback, there is no real reference tone to this track, giving it an especially sinister, haunting atmosphere which is wholly unlike any other moment on this album. However, unlike the "fiery Hell" vision of Hades held by the ancient Greeks, we see Owwl taking on a much more Dante-like interpretation of the underworld, one that is frigid and devoid of light and human emotion. This is cold, colder than the taiga, and infinitely more evil.
A sound experiment deeply rooted in extensive research and perfectly improvised drones, Owwl's Dark Places is a wholly enveloping, haunting listen which is unlike any other drone album I've heard. These picturesque, immensely dark tracks are by far the perfect atmospheric representations of these feared places. If you're willing to take the plunge, Dark Places is available from experimental music haven Utech Records, who in a month's time will be releasing material by Philippe Petit, Mats Gustaffson, and Suzuki Junzo.