Owl Splinters is the long-awaited follow-up to Deaf Center's 2005 release Pale Ravine, a recording that helped usher in the dark ambient genre now such a familiar part of the electronic music devotee's world. The Norwegian duo of Erik Skodvin and Otto Totland kept themselves busy with other projects in the time between the group releases, with Skodvin having overseen his Miasmah imprint and issued solo releases like last year's Flare on Sonic Pieces and Totland having collaborated with Huw Roberts for the Nest release Retold on Roberts' Serein label. Listeners having heard about Deaf Center without having actually heard the music itself might come to Owl Splinters bracing themselves for a nightmare-inducing experience designed to set their nerves on edge. And while the forty-three-minute recording is, in fact, capable of doing that perfectly well, it also catches one by surprise for being so musically elegant and exercising a greater than anticipated degree of restraint. What also stands out is how much of the recording is given over to the natural timbres of the cello and piano as opposed to processed sounds and field recordings. Some of the eight pieces even register as solo settings for Skodvin's cello (“Animal Sacrifice”) and Totland's piano (“Time Spent” and “Fiction Dawn”) that the two conceivably could have recorded individually and then decided to contribute to the group project.
Owl Splinters is immediately identifiable as a Deaf Center recording from the first moments of “Divided” when the grainy scrape and shudder of strings enters, alone at first but quickly building up into a thick layered mass. In having the material not stray radically away from such beginnings but more subtly swell in intensity, Deaf Center exercises a control that bodes well for the tracks to come. That carries over into the subsequent piano piece “Time Spent,” which—despite an undercurrent of disturbance—is often as pretty and delicate as a Dustin O'Halloran piece (the later “Fiction Dawn” is even more O'Halloran-esque). A somewhat nightmarish plunge into the darker realm of the unconscious, “New Beginning (Tidal Darkness)” immerses one within the haunted, submerged sound world one typically associates with Deaf Center as low-pitched piano chords and droning strings intone with ominous portent amidst a field recording that suggests it was taken from some night-time harbour.
There's an elegance to Owl Splinters that comes conspicuously to the fore during “The Day I Would Never Have” when Totland's pensive piano melodies opens a path for Skodvin's groaning cello lines to fill. The track's eleven-minute running time, however, suggests that the piece will not likely stay in one place for long and sure enough the materials slowly blur into a droning swamp that grows ever murkier until a gentle coda of harp-like piano sprinkles brings it to an impressionistic close. Perpetuating that style is “Close Forever Watching,” which gradually rises like an enveloping mist until its grey shroud is punctured by a single piano note before the pressure builds again and the sound cluster expands into a quietly seething ambient mass. No doubt some of the credit for the album's clarity of tone can be attributed to the fact that it wasn't home-recorded but instead laid down at Nils Frahm's Durton Studio in Berlin, and consequently Deaf Center's world, as unsettling as Owl Splinters can sometimes be, has been brought into even sharper focus.