This double album had the misfortune of being released near the end of 2020, so it lamentably did not quite get the attention that it deserved (and being a live album probably did not help matters much either).¬† Granted, it has admittedly been a while since the NWW camp dropped an album that I would breathlessly proclaim a stone-cold masterpiece, yet the project's current era features quite a formidable lineup. In fact, most United Dairies/ICR releases in recent years have been refreshingly solid for an entity with such a vast and historically erratic discography. Barren happily continues that trend, documenting two performances from differing lineup configurations that have been deemed "amongst their most unusual performances." In this context, however, "unusual" means "very professional-sounding longform works conspicuously free of sinister whimsy." Significantly, the two performances are almost unrecognizable as NWW despite cannibalizing a pair of studio releases. They make for quite a satisfying deep-psych/spaced-out ambient release in their own right, however, as there is no rule stating that albums need to be representative to be enjoyable.
On the first disk, Steven Stapleton, Colin Potter, and Paul Beauchamp warp and deconstruct "Letter From Topor" & "Eyes Of A Scanning Girl" from [Sic] in a 2012 Florence concert. On the second, Andrew Liles replaced Beauchamp for a 2013 show in Karlsruhe that mangles "Opium Cabaret" from Terms and Conditions May Apply. The two pieces feel like they spring from the same vision, however, and that vision is one quite fond of extremely slow-burning psychotropic drones. More bluntly, that means both halves of this album take a while to catch fire, as it seems like the trio is recording, mixing, and subtly adding new layers in real time (the first disk is even called "Confluence"). As such, Barren demands some patience, as each drone-heavy performance seems to unfold on a supernaturally stretched time scale. In fact, Barren feels akin to a deep space ambient album a la The Magnificent Void, except there is a dimensional rift and a cacophony of lysergic bird songs, garbled voices, found-sound pile-ups, space crickets, exotic pop songs, and heavy electronic buzzes kept bleeding into the cold emptiness. The more eclectic second disk ("Transfiguration") is the stronger of the two and "Transfiguration 2" is probably the most stand-out piece on the album, as it follows the faint strains of a ghostly cabaret chanteuse into a shape-shifting mindfuck of smoky noir jazz and wah-wah-drenched desert psych oases. Both disks build into sufficiently surreal and vivid crescendos to justify their duration, however, as the overall trend is that each gets better and better as they unfold. Epic length aside, my only other caveat is that the all-enveloping drones dilute too much of NWW's essence to make this a crucial release by normal Stapleton standards. That said, it is nevertheless a very likable one-off plunge down a deep space rabbit hole, roughly resembling either a Black Stars-era Lustmord remix of a NWW album or its reverse.