As one half of San Francisco’s Barn Owl, Jon Porras is quickly cementing his status in the psych-rock field. The group’s 2011 release, Lost In The Glare, was a towering instrumental affair that firmly points to greater things to come. The duo is restless and prolific, and so it should come as no surprise that they occasionally like to go it alone. Such is the case with Black Mesa, a solo release from Porras.
Records themselves (especially instrumental ones) are more often snapshots in time rather than definitive statements. So kudos to Porras and his musical partner Evan Caminiti for regularly releasing new music. Their individual guitar styles are constantly in flux, so it makes sense that they’d want to document that change over time. However, as shown on the past few Barn Owl releases, the two have developed a musical dialogue that’s truly special and symbiotic, like limbs sharing the same mind.
For Black Mesa, Porras chose to step away from the deliberate construction of Barn Owl epics and just roll tape. The process unfolded gradually over a ten-month span, with songs building from a simple repeating guitar line. Improvisation and noise were later added on, a formula that repeats itself seven times over the record’s 48-minute timeframe.
Without studio time constraints, the songs stretch out, and Porras developed a loose theme to connect the different strands. The concept of the "black mesa" is tied to lofty ideas like string theory, and the song titles—“Blue Crescent Vision,” “Embers At Dusk,” “Beyond The Veil)—are meant to evoke that inward searching. It’s powerfully lonely; Porras wanders into the desert and comes back with doom-filled meditations (“Into Midnight”) or more celestial offerings (“Desert Flight”). Guitars murmur and buzz continuously.
Even when the songs crescendo, there’s not much on the other side. “Candlelight Mirage” keeps up a feedback racket that ebbs and flows, but it disappointingly lives up to its title: it’s just a mirage that disappears before it can truly catch fire. Porras’s improvisational chops are indisputable, yet he’s missing the interplay and conversation with an outsider. Black Mesa ventures deep into individuality but it’s ultimately a fever dream that’s more accessible to the man who created it rather than to an audience.
It could be that Porras just needed to clear his musical palette and try something new. Compared to his main gig, his solo excursions are deeply ethereal and internal. The differences are subtle, but they’re substantial enough to favor Barn Owl’s meatier rumble.