A Pentecostal minister’s son, Joshua Barton’s musical upbringing was the Church of God’s red hymnal, but his musical education was the punk rock basement shows of the Great Lakes state’s largest prison town. These, together with a taste of 90s shoegaze from a nearby, short-lived college radio show, are Joshua’s foundation.
On his latest release, The Wood Panel Program, Joshua takes a headlong old-souled plunge into a merger of shoegaze, primitive folk and dark country, assembling an immersive album of 10 songs each bookended by ambient found sounds recorded during travels from coast to coast. Joshua’s subdued and honest voice tells tales of devotion, disorientation, death and dying over layers of fingerpicked guitar, percussion and drone. Songs like “Sacred Heart”, “Glass Down in the Sand” and “Doubting Tom Thumb Blues” evoke spiritual themes at once playful and solemn.
Joshua started recording and self-releasing cassettes as Fields of Industry in 1999. That project lasted for 12 years, becoming a Michigan mainstay that ran the gamut from Spacemen 3-inspired shoegaze to Roky Erickson psych-garage; from sparse electric guitar duo to all-out free-rocking, triple Telecastered band. Fields of Industry produced one EP and three full length albums, including 2008’s Two Dogs, A Television and 2010’s Trouble House. Fields of Industry played Michigan and Midwest shows with the likes of Unwed Sailor, Aloha, Viva Voce, Elephant Micah and many, many more. All this while trying to bridge the gap between the tune in/drop out message of Joshua’s reverberated heroes and the drunkard’s plea prayers of the church’s red hymnal and St. Johnny Cash.
In the meantime, Joshua and friends launched the Arts vs Entertainment label, and fiddled with noise, feedback loops and function generators. Taken together with some pent-up songwriting, this led to Joshua’s first solo album, the 2009 online and CD-R release Thanks, I Missed You, Too. Assembled of spaced-out guitars, primitive finger picking, clarinets and found sounds, the album found receptive ears in music blog circles. Other solo releases followed, including a live set from a Brooklyn house show and a split EP of solo guitar music with Fields of Industry bandmate, Eric Gallippo (also of Man at Arms and Congress).
Joshua’s The Wood Panel Program, released in 2012, continues to hone in on a new balance between outerspace sounds and downhome hymns. Originally available on cassette from Lafayette Recs, it remains digitally on Joshua’s Bandcamp page.
But on Witness, Joshua’s 2017 release with band Seerstones, there’s notably less whimsy and more weight.
Part of that has to do with a fullness of sound unheard on previous recordings, thanks to the Seerstones, a stringband assembled to fill out Barton’s acoustic arrangements.
But it’s not only the instrumentation making for the change in tone. Barton has always been gifted at repurposing despair as a secret vehicle of hope, but he’s never been more unflinching or willing to lock eyes with the void as he is on the first three tracks here. From the opening “Dark Side of Your Soul” through “Sardonia at Sea,” Barton front loads the record with a raw-nerve, ego trip of violent fantasies, disillusioned liturgy, and self-damning proclamations, underscored by the ad infinitum final refrain of the dirge-like “I Am Not Living My Calling.”
After confronting these phantoms, he turns his attention outward to accepting what is (“The Old Piano”), mourning what’s been lost (“The Dog and the Buzzard”), and longing for lost ideals (“I Wanna Go Down”) in the record’s gentler second movement. Nothing’s going to be alright, and that’s going to have to be fine.
Which brings us to the closing “The Silence I Endure Each Day from God.” A heartbreaking country ballad that opens with Barton’s lone voice and strumming, the song first gives the impression we’re actually listening to a restless crooner’s midnight plea to an unfaithful deity before the barroom accompaniment kicks in, as if to say, “Grab a partner and dance. It’s a lonely life, filled with our own demons, and if we’ve got a prayer against them, it’s the same as it ever was: ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.'”