Matthew Barlow & Andy Loebs
Northwest Passage






Northwest Passage is a collaborative 12-track effort by the Asheville, North Carolina-based musicians Matthew Barlow and Andy Loebs, released in a limited music cassette edition – complete with hand-written notes and track titles – on Barlow’s own Twin Springs Tapes label. This first tape of the label is available to buy and listen to in full at Bandcamp, a download version comes with each purchase, but can also be fetched separately. Both musicians play the guitar and are responsible for tape manipulations of all sorts, with the specialty of Andy Loebs being his eclectic-labyrinthine performances on the drums, and Matthew Barlow’s additional skill comprising the processing of the various sounds as well as the appliance of filters. Based on various improvised sessions, Northwest Passage is torn between several genres, among them Dark Ambient, Drone Industrial, but its real benefit is twofold, one being entirely planned and specifically designed, the other of an accidental nature. Northwest Passage is an ode to David Lynch’s genre-breaking TV series of the 90's, the infamous Twin Peaks, with many quotes and even more track titles paying homage to this peculiar milestone. Those who do not know the series at all can still thoroughly enjoy the harsh-mellow duality of this release. There is a second, inadvertent connection in terms of the structuring of sounds of which I made Matthew Barlow aware months prior to this review: Northwest Passage is an unintended but ultimately fitting continuation of The Orb’s aesthetics on Orbus Terrarum (1995). Both albums burst at the seams, are bustling and do camouflage their loops or repetitive rhythm structures with convoluted live drums, shedloads of samples and piles of reverberation, echoes and hall effects. Barlow’s and Loebs’ album lacks the synths and embracing melodies, but as with every good Drone album, the melodious structures can still be entirely captivating if the textures are enchanting. Rest assured that this is the case here, with many of the duo’s guitar waves resembling synthetic flumes. The result is a carefully edited and curated version by Barlow and not as creepy, crestfallen or forsaken as a short glimpse might suggest.


Two Twin Springs Tapes and a thumb: Northwest Passage and Riot MeadowsNatural Circuitry.


The thing with short introductions and openers on all sorts of albums is that they ought to set the tone and emphasize the artist’s or collective’s vision, but eventually turn out to be unnecessarily overloaded with effects due to time constraints. Matthew Barlow’s and Andy Loebs’ opener on Northwest Passage, however, is supercharged with melancholia which only a certain but probably large audience might thoroughly enjoy: Intro (It’s Been 20 Years) does not give away the key to the prerogative of interpretation. Its title as well as the spoken quotations leave no doubt that the listener finds him- or herself in Twin Peaks territory. Strongly fizzling tape hiss veils waft along, cylon-oid filters are grafted upon the recitation, echoey whispers create a spectral aura, and a mysterious fluxion of strongly metallic yet strangely aquatic synth-like streams floats through the dun cavity of mystique. The aural cornerstone is as tightly set as the overarching theme. The opener cross-fades into Dweller On The Threshold where the enigmatically processed guitar globs designedly clash with Andy Loebs’ mega-incisive cymbals and hi-hats that cut through the dense air. Since the vaulted synth-esque stream continues to increase its impetus, the result reminds of The Orb’s Orbus Terrarum for the first time on the album when Punk roots and piercing drum kits conflate with clear cut Ambient structures. The offspring is dark and bubbling, highly energetic and industrial, yet never fails to be curiously soothing and to retain melodious hooks. Once the arrangement becomes more acidic and overdriven with sanguine electric guitars, the ambience wanes, but again, this frantic conclusion fits and does not destroy the preceding semi-mellowness.


Traces To Nowhere focuses a tad more on variously texturized guitar slaps which sometimes resemble violins or mimic Dark Ambient ingredients, and as the duo continues to offer blurred Drone vignettes for a change and rounds this diffusion off with spacey whistles, this track uncovers another luring quality: the interplay between sound, sustain and silence. The tune meanders along, but instead of a silky meaningless way, it is rather fond of a serpentine, excitingly alatoric flow direction. In hindsight of the album’s bigger picture, Traces To Nowhere is balmy indeed, and so is the following Laura whose aural physiognomy is awash with lachrymose orchestra string-like drone sequences of the transformative kinds. Like a good dose of makeup, this quiescent counterpoint straightens out any protuberance, making Laura appear like a transcendental figurine in the murky darkness. An astute description of the series' case of Laura Palmer, eh? Andy Loebs’ drums are also muted in Glastonbury Grove, but this polymorphous Ambient tune emanates the peaceful kind of tension regardless, you know, the one that is so nerve-racking. Orientally spiced and cosmically elasticized guitar strumming are in a constant dialog with quirkily vesiculating half-moist bubbles, digital buzzsaw artifacts and an infinitesimal dawn period. The phrase has been used millions of times, so here it comes again: the tune lightens up over its course. Relatively speaking. This may have to do with the screeching sirens that resemble braking trains. Glastonbury Grove remains acroamatic and shady, but lets silence recover large portions of the soundscape. The short interlude Garmonbozia then forcefully merges the brass jingles of yore with oscillating twists. Side A of the tape is over.


Side B does not break with the flow at all, but seemingly increases the pressure in-between its brazen structures. Moving Through Time may well float into the chopped up shrapnel of the preceding interlude Garmonbozia, and yet is its real complexion a magnificent maelstrom of intense drones and clashing cymbals. The feeling of the titular movement is further augmented by their afterglow which passes the listening subject and twirls into the distance. A tune that is admittedly easy to create, Moving Through Time succeeds with its nasogastric tunnel vision and widened panorama. This oxymoronic simultaneity of incompatible viewpoints works really well. While Owl Cave features wobbling dark matter pads (these must be synths, but they are not), electric bass runlets and owl-evoking flapping wings, Wounds & Scars is a voluminous critter and pieced together by woodpecker-like faux-goblet drums, malevolently foaming guitar cascades and a distinctive progression towards an Industrial noise hodgepodge akin to Dark Ambient dungeons. This is Matthew Barlow and Andy Loebs at their harshest peak: jejune, adamant, merciless.


Cooper’s Dream is based on similar noise erections, but boosts the Glitch factor via a hi-hat galore, ever-spiky cymbal shards and simulated gamelan globs. Short and hopelessly unbridled trips into Jungle territory in tandem with ferociously glistening bells and whistles lead to a Mesopotamian mesogastrium that is draped in crepuscular wastelands. Earthquake ahoy! Doppelganger meanwhile is a galvanized gunmetal gallimaufry of the bedazzling kind that is mostly relying on Andy Loebs’ talent on the drums. It is hard to peak behind the micro-eruptions, wooden tocks and luminous alkaline capsules, but below this rotorama float rivers of droning guitars. The finale is called Beyond Life & Death and brings back the humanoid element of spoken word samples that was heretofore mostly neglected on side B. Residing in comparatively mellifluous and silkened washes of cavernous guitars and shrubberies of whispers, the duo of Barlow and Loebs tone down the nihilistic notion and instead decide to rev up an almost New Age-like peacefulness akin to Steve Roach’s and Robert Rich’s Seduction Of The Minotaur off Soma (1991). I do not want to overanalyze the importance of this closer, but in a way Northwest Passage has come full circle. It is comforting that Asheville’s talented denizens do not fall prey to the very hacksaw-sawtooth splinterscapes they created themselves, but are in control of the situation, illumining the ambience with a dark-red spotlight. Hey, at least it's some sort of light.


Northwest Passage is a strong artifact that does not beg for your attention. It does not ask politely, but simply overwhelms the listener with a wondrously synergetic hyperbole of Drone, Glitch, Industrial and Dark Ambient. There is never a boring minute, Loebs and Barlow manage to humanize the cold steel of their compositions with the organic feel of fortuitousness, accidental happenstances and a dose of good old-fashioned contingency. There is not one single loop-based incident that can be pinpointed as such, and I believe such a moment does not exist in the given prospect of improvisation. Since everything instrument-related is improvised, a stale aftertaste is almost mandatory; a exclusive “let’s see what happens” approach inherits the danger of letting a work become all too meaningless. Not so Northwest Passage, for it is, I believe, obvious that the duo has many plans and decides on the fly which one to apply. The omnipresent whispers and frequent spoken words from Twin Peaks characters are carefully placed and heavily reverberated. Noise and melodies work in tandem despite their constant fighting scheme, and this is what makes the album so delightful for fans of The Orb’s Orbus Terrarum where the Punk attitude and stealth architectures conflate with astonishingly dreamy, even elysian melodies. These are not as catchy and mutable on Northwest Passage, but eminently contemplative and a great counterpoint to the ubiquitous bane, with their texture base being excitingly varied and more often than not synth-resembling. The first release of Matthew Barlow’s Twin Springs Tapes label is a gorgeous work which, at the publishing date of this review, shows the perceived focus of the label: uniting shimmering beauty with dissonances and soupçons of chance. Twin Peaks fans will pry the most out of this release, but the series-related nods and winks do never prevent the nescient listener from enjoying this tape, let alone letting him or her feel left out of the peer group. The paralyzing oomph has to be experienced. Give this one a chance, it really is not as harsh or miasmatic as a quick, desultory check might let you believe!



Further listening and reading:

  • You can purchase and listen to Northwest Passage in full at Bandcamp
  • Follow Matthew Barlow and Twin Springs Tapes on Twitter: @MattCBarlow.




Ambient Review 239: Matthew Barlow & Andy Loebs – Northwest Passage (2013). Originally published on Jul. 17, 2013 at