Barren Earth: When the Prog/Metal Fusion Works Out Right…

BE_promo_2

By Laura Wiebe Taylor

I’m an incurable Dan Swanö addict. You might as well know that right up front, because that addiction, or maybe its underlying cause, colours my perception everytime I hear a new album. That also means I take the man’s recommendations seriously (along with a few grains of salt – he has some odd tastes), so when I read a Swanö rave after he mixed and mastered a slue of songs for new Finnish band Barren Earth I was ready to pay attention.

As a band, Barren Earth is fairly new, but the musicians themselves have been around a while. Founder Olli-Pekka Laine (Mannhai) used to play in Amorphis, as did keyboardist Kasper Mårtenson (Ben Granfelt Band). You might know vocalist Mikko Kotamäki from Swallow The Sun, or drummer Marko Tarvonen from Moonsorrow. Guitarist Janne Perttilä also plays in Finnish band Rytmihäiriö, and you’ve probably heard Sami Yli-Sirniö play guitar in Kreator if not Waltari. Unsurprisingly, both the debut ep (Our Twilight) and full length album (Curse of the Red River)have Amorphis-like moments, but Barren Earth’s death-prog fusion exceeds the members’ accumulation of influences, talent and experience. I posed a few questions to Kasper, trying to get a better sense of why these particular combination works so well.

Why Barren Earth — the name, these particular musicians, now?

Kasper: The name is taken from a line in a Van der Graaf Generator song. No particular meaning, it’s just a name we think looks and sounds cool. The band was put together by Olli-Pekka Laine. He wanted this particular lot. We (with the exception of Mikko the singer) all knew each other from way back, so it was quite natural to start playing together. The band was formed in 2007, because that’s when Olli-Pekka’s previous band went on a hiatus.

Most often I’ve seen or heard you described as progressive death metal, and it sounds like this was an intentional style or genre choice. Did the style determine the group of people involved or did it emerge from this collection of people?

K: We all listen to progressive rock, so it’s natural that it comes across in the music. It was clear from the start that progressive elements would be featured in the band’s sound. And that was the reason for me to join. I remember seeing Opeth in 2006, and being very impressed by not just the music, but the whole presentation, and the juxtaposition of metal and prog. I thought then that this is would be an interesting musical path to explore. And Barren Earth has provided me with that path.

You all have other projects, current and/or previous. How much did this work with other (metal) bands shape what Barren Earth is or has become?

 
K: It is difficult to assess this objectively. We do music we feel like doing. Judging by the reviews, quite a few see a connection with Amorphis. But a lot these views are inconsistent. Some people think we sound a bit like old Amorphis, some people say it’s a bit like the new Amorphis, and some people say it sounds like the type of music Amorphis should’ve started playing in the late 90s! Go figure. I’m too close to it to be able to analyze. Olli-Pekka has a very distinctive way of writing melodies. Since he has written more songs than the rest of us on the album (four out of nine), and since he was one of the main writers on Tales From The Thousand Lakes and Elegy[both Amorphis albums, 1994 and 1996], it is obvious that some similarities are apparent. Many people have said also that “Forlorn Waves,” which is a song written by me, sounds like Amorphis. Then again, many people have said that they immediately knew that it was a song written by me…

You draw on a range of sounds that span a wide stretch of time, for example, 70s prog, early 90s and contemporary death/doom… You’re not the only metal band that has successfully embraced the 70s prog/death metal fusion —why do you think these two kinds of music go together so well?

K: A bit of variety doesn’t hurt. It’s good to use a bit of dynamics and adventurous song structures. It keeps things interesting.

Along that thread of combining prog and death metal, how would you describe the role or influence of Dan Swanö on Barren Earth? Obviously, his mixing and mastering has some tangible effects on the sound of Curse of the Red River, but what would you say he, specifically, brought to the record?

K: He brought clarity. He is very good in thinking in terms of foreground-middle ground-background.

Are you fans of Swanö’s work? (I hear some reasonance with his Moontower album in some of your songs)

K: Our drummer Marko has talked aboutMoontower. He’s actually familiar with a lot of Swanö’s work. As for myself, I haven’t heard Moontower. Don’t know about the rest of the group.

What other influences would you identify in Barren Earth’s sound, maybe ones people are less likely to notice on their own?

K: I think there’s a bit of a King Crimson in there. Partly because of the mellotron sound, and partly in things like the 7/4 rhythm in “The Ritual of Dawn.” Many people have also mentioned hearing Camel influences on this one, and that is a great compliment!
 
Keyboards play a really prominent role in your sound. Is this part of the initial songwriting, or something that developed as you were working on the material together?

K: Both. The writers usually have a keyboard melody in mind when they present their songs. But some keyboard parts are developed in the rehearsal situation, or by experimentation in the studio. The trick is to know when NOT to play!

The clean vocals you use are also fairly distinctive. Did you have a particular sound in mind for how you wanted to vocals to come across?

K: We had a rough idea. It was obvious that in some places it would be a good idea to employ the vocal talents of the other members as well, since there really is talent in this department. Sami did quite a bit of lead singing. I, too, sing a bit of lead in the middle section of “Ritual.” It wasn’t planned, Mikko just suggested that I do it, since it was my song anyway, and I had a clearer idea of how the words were to be delivered. So there was a lot of good-spirited vocal experimentation going on. Apart from Olli-Pekka, everybody contributed background vocals.

You recorded the album fairly quickly by the sounds of it. Did you go into the studio with the songs fully formed?
 
K: The recording process took about five weeks. We had demoed every song beforehand, so we had a pretty clear picture of what we were aiming at, though new ideas were constantly coming during the recording process itself.

How did you divide the songwriting duties for the album (who does what)?

K: Once we knew that we were going to make an album, we became quite active as writers. Marko and Janne started to bring in material as well, and me and Olli-Pekka wrote more. So there was an abundance of material to choose from. We then had the difficult task of choosing the songs which would not make it to the album.

The lyrics on Curse of the Red Riverare somewhat abstract, rather doomy or melancholy at times, sometimes fantastical, sometimes drawing on nature imagery… Were you going for a particular atmosphere or aesthetic to the lyrics? Are the songs connected in any way?

K: Unfortunately, I still haven’t received my own copy of the album. Therefore I haven’t had the chance of properly analyzing the lyrics so as to be able to give an in-depth assessment. But as the music is pretty doomy, the words would have to complement that. Many people have asked if it is a concept album. Alas, the answer is no!

The record begins very ominous and heavy but that’s immediately disrupted by the complexity of the song structures and arrangements — not that it’s necessarily any lighter (except for a few passages) or cheery-sounding, but the atmosphere created by the music is never static. Would you agree? Is that what you had intended, or is that something that developed more organically?

K: I agree. It came naturally. I suppose it has to do with everybody’s experience as players. When you have players in the class of, say, Sami Yli-Sirniö and Marko Tarvonen, things will automatically avoid staticity.

You’re based in Helsinki, Finland — what kind of environment (musical or otherwise) is Helsinki for starting this kind of band? Is environment even important at this stage in your musical careers?


K: Being the capital of Finland, Helsinki is ’where it all happens’. That’s not to say there aren’t interesting things going on in other cities as well, but Helsinki seems to be the place where one has got the best connections. We’re all from here, except Mikko who lives in Jyväskylä (300 km north). I don’t know if being from Helsinki has influenced the music as such, but it’s certainly the best city for a band such as to exist in, not least because there’s quite a few venues where we can play here.
Why did you decide to start with an ep first before releasing the album?

K: There was quality leftover material lying about, so we decided to put in good use.

I’ve read that Curse of the Red River hit 14th on Finnish charts. Can you explain the significance of that chart position to a non-Finnish audience? It sounds like a successful accomplishment, but what does it actually mean for the band?

K: As we have been, quite understandably, labeled a ’supergroup’, it has guaranteed a certain visibility in the music media. A lot of people are interested to hear what, if anything, this particular combination of players is capable of achieving. As we’ve had time to promote the album in advance, the interest has accumulated. Once the album was finally released, all the people who were interested in the album after hearing the excerpts on MySpace and so forth, went to buy it. Judging by the #14 position, there was quite a few of them. It is still too early to tell about the longevity of the album’s chart performance, though.

It looks like Barren Earth is going to be a touring as well as studio band. Are your plans for touring modest so far, or do you have something bigger in the works?

K: We are hoping to do a tour in the autumn, but obviously it’s not going to be easy, since there are so many other bands whose schedules must be taken into consideration. Hopefully something will work out.

Any specific goals yet for Barren Earth’s future?

K: I try not to think too much about the future. So far we’ve taken it one step at a time. Now that the album is out, we will do our best to promote it, but we are already writing new songs for the follow-up…

What’s at the top of your listening playlist right now?

K: Eat A Peach by the Allman Brothers Band.

(www.barrenearth.com)

Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.