BARREN EARTH – Setting Metal Alight
Barren Earth (l-r): Marko Tarvonen, Janne Perttilä, Jón Aldará, Kasper Mårtenson, Olli-Pekka “Oppu” Laine and Sami Yli-Sirniö
Helsinki, Finland-based progressive death metal outfit Barren Earth was originally the brainchild of former Amorphis bassist Olli-Pekka – “Oppu” – Laine during late 2006, the four-stringer requesting that Moonsorrow drummer Marko Tarvonen form a progressive death metal ensemble with him. In roughly 2005, Olli, Marko and keyboardist Kasper Mårtenson had performed as part of a progressive rock entity dubbed The Camel Gang, and so Marko, Kasper and guitarist Janne Perttilä ultimately joined. Completing the line-up was Swallow The Sun vocalist Mikko Kotamäki, and Kreator guitarist Sami Yli-Sirniö.
“It had to do with Oppu, the bass player,” Sami credits. “He had this work space – a rehearsal room – on this island I live at called Valkosaari, which is almost next to the centre of Helsinki. I knew him from before, back in the 90s. He just asked if we should go and have a session, to jam around just for fun. When I went there, I noticed ‘Oh, there’s Kasper Mortensen as well.’ I actually used to go to school with him when I was a kid. We were in the same class at school, but I hadn’t seen him for a long time.
“I thought ‘This is cool’ and Marko was there too, but I usually go to a jam session just to fool around and improvise or something. All of a sudden though, these guys had songs written already, and notes with them, and all that. Immediately, I thought ‘Hey, why not record this stuff and see if it takes us anywhere?’ Before we knew it, we had a recording contract. From my point of view, it was kind of an accident combined with a jam session with old friends. That’s how it came about.”
Inaugural EP Our Twilight arrived in November 2009 through Peaceville Records. “We didn’t have a singer then, so Mikko came only at that point – our previous singer,” the axeman remembers. “Yeah, it was a pretty magical session because there were these four songs and nobody had any kind of preconception or general idea about the sound, and what direction it should go musically. It allowed us to let everything happen naturally and take its own course, and to play exactly what the song required. It was a very refreshing recording session for all of us who play in other bands. To do that every once in a while can be… It’s very important for you in terms of creativity, and to be exactly what you want.”
Barren Earth is often referred to as progressive death metal in nature. “It would be wrong to call it a death metal band,” Sami reckons. “It would be wrong to call it a progressive metal band. I don’t know what it is. It’s some kind of metal, for sure. Kind of complicated, and kind of progressive but with a death metal twist. We always feel free to go further than any boundaries that might be set for a band, so we don’t think there are really any. I don’t know. I guess it’s Barren Earth (laughs).”
As is the case for each and every respective assortment, various acts inform Barren Earth’s musical style. “Everybody has their favourite music, and favourite influences,” the performer shares. “They also come from the past, and which kinds of bands you’ve played in yourself. There are 70s prog bands that we all like; the legendary ones and also the ones that were in Finland back then that nobody knows so much about, like Tasavallan Presidentti and Wigwam. Everybody has favourites, like Opeth is a cool band from Sweden and Paradise Lost is a cool band from the UK. Nobody wants to sound exactly like anything else, though. We want to make sure that it always has an original touch to it, so being careful to not take too many influences from any particular band is always important, I think.”
Barren Earth takes its moniker from a composition by Manchester, England-based progressive rock group Van Der Graaf Generator. The composition in question is ‘A Place To Survive’, taken from October 1976 outing World Record. “It’s just a cool band name,” Sami observes. “When you’re in your 40s and form a new band, you don’t even have a name for the band at first, and then you start thinking ‘Oh, shit. Should we call this something?’ and it’s like ‘Oh fuck.’ Kasper came up with this idea from a Van Der Graaf Generator song, and it’s cool.”
Debut full-length Curse Of The Red River surfaced in March 2010. “Jukka Varmo ended up producing,” the axe-slinger recalls. “He used to own a studio back in the day in Helsinki, so it was really cool. We had not limitless time in the studio, but we usually went there at like ten in the morning. The clock wasn’t really running because it was our friend’s studio, so there was plenty of time to let the ideas grow in the studio. It was an amazing time. It was also during the summer that it was made. Unfortunately, that studio doesn’t exist any more. It was mixed by Dan Swanö, the first one. We were very happy with the sound that he did, because we all like his music and what he’s done, and the kinds of albums he’s produced. Good memories, only.”
Sophomore affair The Devil’s Resolve emerged in March 2012, meanwhile. “The second one, we went on a tour of the States,” Sami notes. “The band was in really good condition then because we had played 40 shows, one after another, but when I think of that album retrospectively, we could’ve given ourselves a little more time to write for The Devil’s Resolve. It has great songs and it’s well made, but we didn’t wanna make that mistake with the new album. That’s why it took a little bit longer to get it finished, because we wanted to give ourselves enough time for the songwriting and arranging. Good memories of both, but we should’ve given ourselves more time for The Devil’s Resolve.”
Frontman Mikko Kotamäki departed as a result of conflicting schedules following a tenure which had spawned one EP and two studio efforts, this development being revealed on July 8th, 2013. Hamferð vocalist Jón Aldará was confirmed as his replacement on January 7th, 2014. “It was a couple of years ago now, but Mikko decided to kind of step aside because of time problems,” the composer reflects. “It was actually Mikko himself who had recommended Jón for this job, because they had met before in the past. It was cool in that respect, but we were also looking for a singer. We had some candidates, like through the internet we had several offers. In the end though, we decided to check out Jón, and he seemed to be the best guy for the job. Our drummer Marko and other guitarist Janne, they had been on tour with him in the past with other bands, so they knew that he was a cool guy and a down to earth guy. We just thought that this was the man for the job.”
Naturally Jón’s inclusion has been warmly received within Barren Earth’s ranks. “I like both of course, but now that we have a new voice for the band, of course it sounds completely different,” Sami recognises. “Jón is not just a great, versatile singer, but he also wrote the lyrics for the album and is like a completely new, fresh energy that we have now within the band, and it’s a very cool feeling. The fact that he lives in the Faroe Islands, he lives kind of far away, but he’s coming around next week. He’s flying from Copenhagen to Helsinki – we’re gonna shoot a video for one of the songs – and then he’s coming over in April. We’re doing a record release party over here in Helsinki at a club called Nosturi, so he’s going back and forth all the time. I’m actually trying to persuade him to at least move to Copenhagen, so that it would be a little bit cheaper and easier to fly him over (laughs). We’ll see what happens.
“There’s like one flight every day from the Faroe Islands to Copenhagen. From Copenhagen, there are four or five flights every day to Helsinki, so it’s all pretty easy. We’re actually going to also play a festival there at the Faroe Islands with Barren Earth next July, which is going to be interesting. I’ve never been there. It’s a small group of islands as you might know, but there’s one festival there called the G! Festival. That’s the only one, but next July we’re playing there, so I guess we’ll see how it is over there as well. It’s kind of isolated, for sure.”
Writing sessions for March 2015 full-length On Lonely Towers – the first Barren Earth outing to feature Jón behind the microphone – began prior to the Faroese native’s arrival. “Making this album was a very long process, like two years,” the musician informs. “We started writing the songs immediately after we put out the last album, so songwriting had been going on for a really long time. We even threw away some ideas, which was also when we were looking for a new singer – where we had people record their own versions, like home demo versions of songs. First, we asked these candidates to sing one of the older songs and send it over, and then if we thought it was good enough.
“We sent them some of the newer stuff, and saw if they could come up with something for a new song. Jón’s version of the song ‘The Vault’ – which is on the new album – was very promising. We thought ‘Hey, this is obviously the best guy for the job.’ Most of the raw versions of the songs were somehow written before Jón came onboard, but he wrote most of the vocal melodies by himself and almost all of the lyrics. He had a lot of input in the songwriting.”
Each of Barren Earth’s respective members pen tracks, but two happen to be the most productive. “I guess the most productive guys would be Oppu the bass player and then Kasper Mårtenson the keyboard player,” Sami names. “They come up with the most ideas, ready songs with everything already figured out. The rest of the stuff that we do has to do with jamming in the rehearsal room, doing it the old school way. It’s mostly Oppu and Kasper though, and Jón writing lyrics. Of course, they sound different.
“When Kasper writes songs, he actually comes up with sheet music. He writes down notes for everyone, and so he usually doesn’t even bother to record a demo. There’s a slightly more traditional feel to it, but the more complicated stuff actually comes from Kasper, though – there’s no real rules to it. Oppu our bass player, he records home demos before we start working on them all together. Kasper is like a real musician, though; he actually writes notes (laughs). Oppu doesn’t write what Kasper does; Oppu writes more death metal-type riffs at times, even sounding shit (laughs). They both have their certain style of writing songs though, for sure. It’s good to have different people working on songs, so then the songs sound different from one another and not too similar.”
Of Barren Earth’s approach towards the songwriting process for On Lonely Towers, Oppu stated: ‘If there ever was a certain pattern in a basic Barren Earth song, this time we consciously tried to think things differently.’ “It was more like letting go of the traditional verse-chorus-verse-chorus-solo-chorus thing,” the guitarist elaborates. “We didn’t have so much of that before either, but now we really gave ourselves the freedom. For example, the title track ‘On Lonely Towers’ is basically three songs put into one, like progressive music often is. It was done in the 70s like that. Yeah, we tried to think outside of the box in terms of arrangements and in terms of song structures. That’s probably what he meant by that. Of course, doing things that way creates a little bit more work, but we gave ourselves time to do this album. It was a very long process.”
Critiqued against past efforts, On Lonely Towers’ most prominent trait is the fact that the opus sports a different vocalist. “It’s a big part of the sound of the band, but we gave ourselves a little bit more time with this one to arrange and to write,” Sami discerns. “It’s still got certain Barren Earth trademarks, if there are any. Yeah though, it’s always hard for a musician to describe it because you’re so close to it, but I’m very happy with the new one.
“I can’t wait to go out and play those new songs live. We’ll play at least six, I would say. I mean, they’re very long songs, but we’re excited about the new songs, and they’re the most fun to play. Also, when you have a new vocalist, he’s the most comfortable with the stuff that he wrote himself. There’s gonna be an emphasis on the new stuff for sure, because we’re all very excited about it.”
Performing pre-existing material, Jón adopts a faithful stance. “The stuff that Mikko did, he wants to keep similar,” the axeman explains. “He wants to pay respect to the original versions. We’ve already played some of those songs live – we did some club shows here in Finland, and one festival last summer. We played the old songs of course, so he wants to do them pretty much the same way as Mikko did them. Of course, there’s a twist to it because the tone of his voice is different, but the basic idea he wants to keep the same.”
Lyrically speaking, On Lonely Towers “can almost be considered kind of a concept album. Of course, you would have to ask Jón more about that, but I know about it pretty much. It starts with a song called ‘Howl’, and that introduces kind of a wild man (laughs), who feels strongly connected with nature and who has trouble living in the modern day world, and doesn’t always seem to fit in, and do what is expected of him. That comes up in the song ‘Frozen Processions’, and of course there’s a boy meets girl theme in the story as well. I’d suggest checking out the lyrics; everybody can interpret them the way they want.”
Recording sessions for On Lonely Towers were a “pretty long” affair. “I don’t know if you know, but here in Helsinki, there’s a studio called Finnvox Studio,” Sami divulges. “A lot of Finnish bands have recorded there, and foreign bands too. It’s not just Finnish bands who record there, but bands from all around the world. It started in the 60s, so they’ve got loads of this vintage equipment over there; equipment like SSL analogue mixing desks, and Hammond B-3 organs – the ancient one with the original Leslie amplifier, with the propeller and pretty old compressors. Vintage stuff that sounds really good. It’s all there.
“We got to record there through this guy who engineered the album, whose name is Petri Majuri. He’s mostly known for other kinds of music; if you think of Hanoi Rocks and Michael Monroe, that’s the kind of stuff he has engineered and produced. We like the organic, kind of lively sounds that he managed to get on those albums, though. That combined with a death metal approach, but also having the possibility to use the vintage equipment they have there. It was a really good idea to go there, so that’s where we recorded all the drums and bass, and the guitars, and all that. Four of the songs, Jón ended up recording in the Faroe Islands. We were sending stuff back and forth until everybody was happy, so the last four songs, we did them all together over there in the same studio. That was last August. It was two sessions, basically; first five songs, and then another four songs after that.
“We were already finished with On Lonely Towers in September, but then we didn’t have a label for sure yet. We had interest from a few labels, but then it took a while to get the whole release planned and settled out, and so that’s why it took a little time. We had already planned to put it out at the end of 2014, but it just took a little while due to stuff that wasn’t necessarily to do with us – stuff to do with management and so on.”
Barren Earth’s agreement with Peaceville Records was a two-album commitment overall. “They said that they would like to release the third one as well, but as the record contract was over – we had delivered two albums – we just thought ‘Well, why not ask around and see if anybody else is interested?,’” the performer reasons. “We got some offers, and even slightly better offers. Although we enjoyed working with Peaceville very much because it’s a legendary label and absolutely cool guys who are into the music, we just thought ‘Maybe it’s time to see if another recording contract would open any new possibilities for the band, just to try it out.’”
Century Media’s feelings towards Barren Earth’s overall output was a determining factor in the group inking a contract with the German label. “They seemed to be into the music,” Sami judges. “They were already thinking about signing us back in 2008, but for some reason they didn’t – I don’t really know why. Century Media have a slightly bigger reach, though. You have to remember that Barren Earth is a fairly unknown band. It’s like a hidden secret in metal (laughs). We thought a release on Century Media would be noticed by people a little bit more. They’re cool guys also and into the music, and that’s the most important part; that there’s excitement in the air when it comes to a new release.”
Production for On Lonely Towers fell to the band themselves, to an extent. “When we went to record with Petri (Majuri) though, we always told him ‘If you hear some mistake or something bothers you, please say something,’ but he didn’t,” the axe-slinger chuckles. “A couple of times, maybe, but he didn’t say too much about it. It’s fair to say that the band produced the album, yeah.”
As referenced earlier, Barren Earth’s initial two records were produced by Jukka Varmo. “He had ideas about song structures and so on, but we wanted to try something different this time,” Sami discloses. “We had rehearsed the songs so much, and so we didn’t wanna change them around any more after that. Maybe that was the biggest difference, that we were more prepared for studio sessions. That’s also why we did it in two separate sessions; to be able to concentrate on roughly four songs at a time. Yeah, it was a lot of fun.”
Fellow member Janne Perttilä played the majority of the rhythm guitar tracks. “He played most of the rhythm guitar tracks as he was playing together with the drums and the bass,” the songwriter clarifies. “Mine though, I wanted to work on a little bit more, because I do a lot of harmonies and stuff on top of each other. There’s a 12-string acoustic guitar there too and a six-string acoustic, so I wanted to double it up more just to make it sound bigger. It didn’t take too much time, because I had already kind of written the solos already – most of them I had written in advance.
“A couple of them are improvised too, like the one at the end of this song called ‘On Lonely Towers’. It’s more improvised at the end, but 90% of the stuff was written before we went to record. I did it at the studio, though. I didn’t wanna do it at home or some demo studio. It’s much cooler to do it in a real studio, just for the feeling of it.”
In authoring a guitar solo, Sami generally employs a specific approach. “If I think about solos, they usually start from a main improvisation point, but I always take something from the actual song, or from the chorus melody, or the chords in question,” he outlines. “I usually record something, and then I pick out the best parts that I think are working the best for it, and then play a guitar solo. Often for me, I think of it as a song within a song. It has to have a strong beginning, and a middle part, and an explosive ending (laughs). If it’s a longer solo, it’s important to build it up, like take it more easy in the beginning. It depends on the song, but it’s usually a song within a song.”
Mixing duties fell to Petri Majuri. “When it comes to the drum sound, we’re lucky to have Marko, who’s an amazing drummer,” the musician comments. “There’s really no need to correct or edit any of the drums to have a lively feeling with them. Therefore, we didn’t use triggers on the bass drums or anything actually either. That was all possible this time, because we got to record in this Finnvox Studios, which has a really big room there. You can mike it up from several different places, so we wanted to kind of keep it real and not correct it too much. Since we were playing all of the basics in one room together, we wanted to make it sound like that this was the real case – that it was noticeable that there’s a human factor in it.”
Cover artwork responsibilities for On Lonely Towers fell to Travis Smith. “He did the album cover for our debut album Curse Of The Red River, and we were very happy with that,” Sami muses. “Then on the second album, we had this guy called Paul Romano, who did covers for some Mastodon albums and so on. To be honest though, I think the album cover for The Devil’s Resolve is quite terrible. He did a better job for Mastodon than for us (laughs). It was kind of strange; it didn’t have so much to do with the album idea itself. Everybody was kind of disappointed with it, but there was no time to get a new one because the CDs had to be pressed already – there was like a timetable.
“This time, we thought that with Travis Smith, we could be certain that something good would come out of it. Jón, he sent Travis the lyrics to give him some inspiration for the album cover artwork. Of course, the song ‘On Lonely Towers’ gives a lot of visual ideas for something from an artist like that, and that’s one of the reasons why it ended up being the title of the album. I think it looks beautiful. This time, we had more time to consider stuff like that and more time to plan. That’s why it worked out better this time. Everybody’s happy with the new album cover.”
Performing Japanese bonus track duties is ‘In Flight’. “The funny thing is this is mainly for Japanese releases, because they sometimes want to have an extra song that is nowhere else,” the guitarist augments. “We weren’t prepared for that at all, but a couple of weeks ago we heard that they were gonna release it in Japan and that they want an extra track there, so what we did is we just recorded one (laughs). It’s just a piano track that Kasper had in mind. We couldn’t have drums on it because our drummer (Marko), he broke his knee a month ago doing aikido training. He had to take six weeks off on sick leave and have crutches on for a while, but now everything seems to be fine. They operated on it. He’s done a show with his other band, Moonsorrow. It went fine, so he’s back in business for sure. Aikido is a dangerous sport; no musician should ever choose that. It’s the wrong thing to do (laughs).
“So, it’s a track without drums (laughs). It’s an instrumental piece with some guitars and some percussion. It’s a bonus that we recorded extra because they wanted us to, so we just did it quickly by ourselves.”
Elsewhere, ‘Sirens Of Oblivion’ acts as a deluxe edition bonus track. “It’s a death metal tune,” Sami describes. “It has a guest musician for that one, like this saxophone guitar riff there in the middle that has kind of a King Crimson feel to it, but with a death metal twist of course. And yeah, it’s the only song that Janne our guitarist wrote the lyrics for. Other than that, it’s the bass player’s tune; he came up with the song, and then Janne wrote the lyrics, and there’s this saxophone guy featuring on it (laughs).”
At the time of interviewing the axeman for this feature, Barren Earth were in the midst of preparing to film a music video for ‘Set Alight’, which has since been recorded. “There’s this Swedish guy called Owe Lingvall, who has made many metal music videos in the past,” the axeman tells. “He sent some kind of draft, like a script, but we’re still working on it. He’s coming here on the 25th of this month (February), so we still have time to work on it, but I hope it’s gonna be good. Music videos, sometimes I’m a little bit sceptical about them. The one we did for ‘The Rains Begin’… ‘The Rains Begin’ is a great song, but I wasn’t 100% happy with the video. It’s just old dudes performing the song, and posing in front of a camera (laughs). It’s a kind of video where you have probably seen other ones that are similar, that are too similar.
“It’s not easy. It’s not easy, but we’re gonna make this one work better. It’d be better for a band like us to do an animated video, or something (laughs). Hopefully this time though, things will work out better. It’s not easy making a music video, especially if you have a smaller budget for it, but I’m looking forward to doing it. We’ll see how it goes. There’s also a lyrical video – which is kind of a teaser for the album – for a song called ‘A Shapeless Derelict’. It turned out great.”
Various visual media has been published in conjunction with On Lonely Towers’ release. “The title track is on YouTube, but that’s not a real video – it just has a picture of the band,” Sami lists. “Now, there’s a lyric video, which is coming out for ‘A Shapeless Derelict’. Then we’re gonna do ‘Set Alight’, which is the song for the video. Century Media were asking us what would be the right covermount song, if people wanna release a song on these CDs that come along with magazines. That song would probably be ‘Frozen Processions’, because it’s the only song which is under five minutes (laughs). It all depends on the record company with that one.”
Whether a second music video to accompany On Lonely Towers’ issue will transpire is uncertain. “I hope so, but record companies tend to think of how to raise awareness of the songs, so they have different songs that fulfil a different kind of purpose,” the performer considers. “For a covermount track, you need a shorter one. To introduce the album, we picked out the title track. It’s a kind of weird one to pick for that because it’s 12 minutes long, but we just thought that it gave a good idea of what the album was gonna be like. That’s why we put it there.”
In addition to occupying the guitar position for Barren Earth, Sami undertakes the same duties for German thrash veterans Kreator. “We’re taking a songwriting break and doing some festivals in the summer, but with the next album, we’ve given ourselves a deadline that it should come out May 2016 at the latest,” he reveals. “That’s the plan.”
At the time of writing, little has been penned. “Just a couple of raw skeletons of songs,” the axe-slinger imparts. “It’ll take awhile. With Kreator, music isn’t written in the traditional sense of writing. It’s more like testing out riffs and trying them out, and then sending them back and forth. Also, I’m also going to Germany to work on them with the guys. It’s started, but basically we are on a songwriting break.”
Balancing commitments to both Kreator and Barren Earth isn’t a problem for Sami. “The good thing about Kreator shows is they are booked way, way in advance,” he cites. “For example, there are shows that are booked for Kreator in September, so I know the plans well beforehand. It’s not a problem at all – it’s basically pretty easy. These things tend to go in cycles, like one band becomes active when they bring out an album and the other band is usually more quiet when there is no new album out. It’s just a question of getting the calendars straight, that’s all.”
On Lonely Towers was released on March 24th, 2015 in North America and subsequently on the 30th in Europe, all via Century Media Records.
Interview published in March 2015. All promotional photographs by Edo Landwehr.
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