Throw Me a Frickin' Label Hack: Boston's Barren Oak

Because every day another band records another song.  Because 83% of those songs are unlistenable and you can’t be bothered to sift through the dreck.  Because metal is about not giving a shit and waking your own personal storm.  Because music is universal, expression is boundless, and even indie labels (whatever that means these days) don’t know everything, Decibel brings you Throw Me a Frickin’ Label Hack.

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Taking time off from real work in the service of metal is undeniably satisfying, and when it's Maryland Deathfest I'm... um, servicing... it can feel like there's no greater calling.  Perks include shredding ears with top-shelf bands from around the globe, supplying the Decibel and Bazillion Points crews with bottled water and meeting musicians and music-lovers who are (mostly) beside themselves with the excitement of dozens of merch tables and the gritty-grimy euphoria of heavy music camaraderie.

This year, I happened to be skulking around the Decibel table when Alx from Barren Oak dropped by with his band's recent EP, Dead to All Sensory Perception.  I'm always happy to give new music a spin, and was especially intrigued when he described the band as "some post-metal and black metal with two basses and no guitar."  Turns out, the EP delivers just that - an interesting blend of playing styles that suffers not at all for its strange instrumentation.

In a subsequent email, I asked Alx to talk a bit about his experience with Barren Oak, which he was certainly happy to do.  His initial response included some of the band's stage quirks ("Our live performances used to have baskets of sour candy and razorblades on stage") and Alx's file sharing background.  Check out Barren Oak's sound and find out more about the adventurous trio by reading below.

Black metal featuring bass is already a new-school concept, but two basses?  How did the members of Barren Oak get together and decide to record this material as a guitar-less trio?

Aside from the Greek black metal band Necromantia, which focused on an extended range bass guitar as the primary sound catalyst, there haven't been many other bands I've heard of that use that arrangement. With extended range basses that have 6 or more strings, bass guitars can do more than carry the rhythm and bust out the odd solo, and can be used as a melodic lead device. I was writing some solo project material in 2010 on a 7-string bass and decided to try playing it with a drummer. “Blissful Self Violence” (track #1) was the first track written, and the melodic tapped part in the first half of the song naturally flowed into the darker second half as we jammed it out. Over the following months, we wrote some more songs and tried out 3 different guitar players, but it wasn't until Andrew played bass with us that we felt that the right sound had been achieved.

How and when did you start playing augmented basses?

I played piano for many years, then guitar and bass around 2000.  Four strings felt too limited to me, I kept coming up with ideas that led to me running out of frets and strings. The 6 string bass was nearly enough, but with an extra higher string I was able to produce chords and get the sound I wanted out of my guitar. Paired with some rack effects, I have a large range of freedom in sounds. Jean Baudin (Nuclear Rabbit) and Chaoth (Unexpect) are hugely inspiring to me in showing what is possible in the world of extended range bass playing. I bought a Conklin 7 string bass in 2009 and I'm still very pleased with it.

Alongside the more obvious black metal sections, you include occasionally jazzy runs and post-metal bits… what musical avenues are you interested in pursuing within the context of Barren Oak?

Our philosophy is to never place limits on what can be done in the context of songwriting or performance. We find inspiration through many different kinds of music, and it sometimes feels like we're boiling the ocean when trying to put it all together. Dead To All Sensory Perception is a prelude on what's to come. We are open to testing out new ideas as they come up, but will always return to the introspective solace of black metal.

What inspires you vocally?  I’m especially interested in the clean vocals and what turned you on to singing that way.

Bands like Empyrium and Agalloch inspire me in how I shape the few clean vocal sections we have. I enjoy singing clean vocals as much as harsh vocals, and try to give equal attention to the intensity of both. I shape my harsh vocals to be cutting and visceral, not monotonous like an Inquisition sound. It works well for them, but not for what we're going for. I write some lyrics in Russian because I think it is a beautiful language that at times, fits the music better than English.

Can you reflect on the ideas and writing process that drove each of the three main songs on Dead to All Sensory Perception?

The overarching theme in all the songs is expanding upon the imagery that goes through one's head while they are contemplating suicide. Most of the lyrics were written either late at night when my mind won't stop, or while riding public transportation. There's a common link of depression and hatred inherent in both of those, I guess. My writing process usually starts with getting a rough version of the lyrics down, then the riffs pretty much seep out of the words. It's a bit autistic like when someone sees sounds and hears colors. I hear music when I read what I've written.

Why the candy and razorblades at your live show?  What gave you the idea to do that, and what do you like about continuing the tradition?

We did it as a joke for about a year, in response to the "most evil fuck off band" pissing contest that many black metal bands play into. Two straw baskets on stage filled with razorblades and sour candies (warheads, fireballs, and sour patch kids). Eventually the baskets got destroyed and all the contents ran out, but not before a few people cut themselves. Metal is about freedom and self-expression to us, whether that be realization of suicidal thoughts or trivial whimsy.

Do you have a particular philosophy about music sharing, based on your history with the digital file sharing scene?

The "buy it if you like it" sentiment is the only thing that makes sense in the age of digital file sharing. I have always made the releases of any band I played in available on the internet for free download. Better to properly encode and name the tracks than have some dickhead re-encode from a low bitrate source. File sharing is what exposed me to musical concepts I otherwise would have never come across, so even if I made a career out of music, I would be a hypocrite to speak ill of it. Some say that file sharing has oversaturated the online music world with a lot of mediocrity, but I would argue that it's a good thing. It turns people off to recklessly downloading any random release they see, but instead they're prone to read up or ask a friend who knows before choosing to download. If you'd like to download instead of just stream, head over to http://psychocydd.co.uk/ and find our EP. If you like it, buy it on Bandcamp or get the physical CD through our webstore.

For more Barren Oak, check out their Facebook page here.

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