Jón Aldará is the unique voice of the progressive Death Metal band, Barren Earth who will release their fourth studio album “A Complex of Cages” by the end of this month. The new album differs strongly from earlier releases as we all could already learn from the three singles released by now: “Further Down” is a rather dark and Opeth-like song. “Withdrawal” is a kind of a ballad with only clean vocals, somehow bright and in the same moment of nearly choking emotional weight. The just released “The Ruby” comes with a video taken by the former Sentenced drummer and incredible photographer, Vesa Ranta and is the first Barren-Earth song composed by Sami Yli-Sirniö.
Jón was touring with Hamferð when I met him after show. “The campaign is starting. Already doing our first interviews”, he says and I frown on the imagination he is not really considering our conversation an interview. “Oh, this is also”, Jón notices only then. Smiling I wonder how he is coping with the situation of promoting two albums of two bands in the same time. “Yeah, it’s … well the shows – that is not that much. It’s only two shows. And we’re probably not gonna do a tour until autumn. Or at least that is what we try to do. The guys are so busy, you know.” – “Yeah, indeed.” – “Now Oppu (Olli-Pekka Laine) joined Amorphis and Marko (Tarvonen) is … he basically … he has a child now and he is totally slowing …” We speak a bit of Moonsorrow touring soon and some other bands and their shows.
The A-ha Effect
Finally, we make it back to Barren Earth and “A Complex of Cages”. “Congratulations to this amazing album and what the hell have you done with your voice”, I ask entirely excited. “Oh with the new Barren Earth?”, Jón asks smiling. “Yeah!” – “Ah, I don’t know, just trying different things I guess. Yes. I love to try different things and just experiment a bit. Just, we’ve been a bit crazy about it. It’s Sami’s first song actually being on an album; on a Barren Earth album.” – “Yeah.” – “’Course he worked on the others for arrangements and so on.” – “Of course.” – “The Ruby is his first song. And Marko had one song and Janne (Pertillä) had one song as well. We kind of all chipped in. I think “On Lonely Towers” it was only Kasper (Mårtenson) and Oppu – so now we’ve been able to spread out a bit.” His voice fades a bit thinking how to go on: “It’s a bit all-over-the-place album, I think” he continues excitedly.
“It is. And actually when I heard it for the first time and there the first passages you sung in “The Living Fortress” I thought like ‘Did they really get another singer in???’ Hell, your voice in these first passages sounds so much like Morten Harket’s (a-ha) voice!” – “Oh really”, Jón asks laughing. “Oh that’s really cool”, he replies as I confirm again: “You do and actually your voice otherwise differs strongly.” – “Yeah, I know I am doing it a little bit differently at least in the first verse which is maybe more accidental than anything else. It was just the vibe right then. When I listen to it now it almost seems a bit theatrical.” His voices fades into his thoughts time and again. “… in a strange way like a little bit … like it has a bit of an operatic vibe. …” – “It has!” and add:
“But then it really works.” I explain the sharp contrast I find especially between the very technical, synthizer-based intro, which was composed and arranged only after the album was otherwise finished Jón’s opera-like first verse in “The Living Fortress” and most of all that both blend together to make a neatly working whole: “I know it might sound awkward if you don’t know the song but I really think it works just fine.” Jón answers: “Oh nice. Of course, if it didn’t we probably wouldn’t have used”, Jón explains with a somewhat cunning smile on his features drifting into laughing when I laugh out loudly.
“How do you make up your minds anyway which song to choose?” – “I think this time actually, we ended up using all. It’s quite a long album. And we were really struggling with finding a song to cut because usually having albums shorter is always the better solution usually, unless you have a really good reason to make them 60 minutes or a little bit more. I don’t remember the exact length. But it is around sixty something. And that’s quite long. Last one was maybe fifty. 45/50 is a very good album length in general. ‘Cause it always depends on what you’re doing. But for this kind of music with all this crazy and doing lots of different things it’s best not to drag it on for too long. But when we start listening to it and we got input also from Viktor (Santura, producer), and from the label and they were all ‘this makes sense.’ ‘This is not too long.’ It doesn’t get draggy and too much for too long. And we start listening to it and ‘yeah, let’s deviate from the rule and stick with all the songs. I think that was a good idea.”
Of Coherence and Darkness
“I think it is the most coherent album so far”, I begin. I see a red line in “Curse on the Red River” and “The Devil’s Resolve” but their strength to me is their diversity. “On Lonely Towers” is way more coherent already and still “A Complex of Cages” is remarkably more coherent to me. “I find totally new elements on this album which however supporting its coherence.” – “Ok, that’s interesting. I have a really difficult time because we’ve been playing these songs and listening to them a lot and have different views on them. In the end, you kind of get so used to them. So you don’t really think about how the listener will experience it. If it’s too much or not coherent enough as you say. So that’s really cool that you think that. And all songs do have a feeling of … maybe except the last song. It’s probably, to my mind, it’s the song that probably deviates the most from Barren-Earth sound in general. The “Withdrawal”. It’s at least quite different from anything we have done before. But then again maybe your opinion differs.” (It does a bit. It might slightly outstand from the current album but fits all the more the diversity that in general can be found in Barren Earth’s music.) “I found it very cool to end with that song because it is kind of a … it has a feeling of transition in a way. And it might give us an opportunity in the future to move in different ways somehow. It’s not something that is decided or anything. But I think it’s an interesting way to end the album”, Jón explains and I entirely agree.
“When you entered the band, the “On Lonely Towers” album it sounds a lot like you, gives evidence of your doing and shows your style already. It sounded pretty much darker. A bit doomier. A bit emotionally heavier. And now there are even passages, comparing “Támsins likam” (Hamferð’s current album) with “A Complex of Cages”, I find it hard to tell on which album they belong – taken out of their context, of course. So how would you describe your influence on the all-over style of Barren Earth?” Jón replies:
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If it’s not you then how do you explain that the style is getting ever heavier and darker and gloomier?” – “Well, Kasper Mårtenson is out of the band anymore. And he is not a super dark and gloomy guy. He can be very melancholic as most Finns are in some way. They have this approach to music. But his songs are usually very inspired by old 70s progressive rock. Well, we are as well. But he is very much more in the traditional sense. He writes very much … hm, he is very consistent in his writing.” – I nod humming. “Whereas, we try much more out, experiment a little bit more with things, we are not too sure of, you know”, he says and begins to laugh. I join him. “But also his style of writing songs is lighter. He is not a super-heavy-metal guy at all. So that and the fact that he left just shifted the burden of song writing on the rest of us and we are all very metal guys. So everything comes much more heavier and darker. And little more Death Metal here and there.”
Oppu mentioned back in summer that Antti (Myylynen), the new keyboarder wrote a couple of songs for Barren Earth already. But circumstantially those have not made it on the album. Antti has – in my opinion – the heaviest musical background as we can hear from his former band, Creinium. So I wonder if Jón could compare Antti’s songs with those that finally made it on “A Complex of Cages” and if they continue the development towards even heavier shores. “No, well, he is a bit different. He is younger than most of us, well younger than all of us and has a little bit different approach. He really loves the music. It’s not like this is very strange to him or unfamiliar to him. But he does have a more modern approach, and he loves a symphonic type of Black Metal, maybe a bit technical stuff. So it’s gonna be interesting. I am not sure actually, I can’t really answer that right now. But hopefully he’ll just write some stuff, and we can”, his frowning moves into a smile, “cast our judgement on it. It’s gonna be interesting. If he writes some stuff and it fits the Barren-Earth sound then that’s gonna be awesome.”
The Weight of the Producer
“How important was it to have this external input from Viktor Santura? How much was his influence?” – “It was quite significant. Not necessarily on the song writing; we didn’t change that much. But just having a person suggesting what we can do with this, and what we can do with that, is extremely important. It brings out the best of our abilities, when we record. So it means a lot. We didn’t have a producer on “On Lonely Towers”. It can work. But it often can be also a little unfocused. It is very difficult to keep focused and deliver your perfect thing when you’re just recording. It’s like you don’t know yourself if this was a great take. Or not. Sometimes you do. But …” I see the point. We all easily loose the focus on something we have read or repeated otherwise too often. “So it’s very important actually. He would say ‘Oh wow, that was great but let’s try this or let’s try that.’ ‘Let’s try …’ I don’t know. ‘…little more power?’ Feel. It’s a lot of ‘feel’ work. Not field work, of course”, he says with a frown relating to this relation with Ecology and Biology.
I’m leaving it and stick to the production and go into the personality of Viktor Santura. “Is he pushy or more the encouraging one?” – “Yeah, well no. He is not pushing at all. He is very relaxed which is the way I like it. It’s better to have a relaxed atmosphere. And just discuss these things than the other way because you can relax much more in your body and you can focus on actually giving the performance. But I don’t know he could have done probably more pushing though” comes laughing from his mind.
“Did you all know him before?” – “No, no.”
“So it is kind of accidental that the chemistry seemed to work?” – “Yeah, yeah. We just think he was a really interesting and talented producer and he produced some really good sounding albums.” – “Yah, he did”, slips my tongue. “ – “Yah! So we thought we just will take this guy and try to figure out how to make it work because we want him. And also he is involved in the Finnish scene. He has done really good work with Kuolemanlaakso and he just happens to be a really nice guy. That’s always easy.”
Being Finnish and Far Away
“Well, we were speaking of it earlier today”, I begin my new topic. “I wonder what it is like to be the only one who is not from Finland in the band because there are some traits that tell the Finns really from other, even Northern people.” Jón replies:
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I have always wondered how band members collaborate if they live spread all over which is quite common by now. So how do Barren Earth work in detail? How do they discuss and decide? “Usually it’s by email. That’s how we do everything. But that’s not always the best form of communication.” – “Yeah, it’s limited to a couple of letters. No more. You see no face, hear no voice.” – “Exact. It’s very quick that you can lose the thread and I don’t know. Yeah, it’s not super easy, I would say. It’s a challenge. And definitely, we still need to learn some proper communication”, Jón says laughing perhaps distracting. “Yeah it’s not always easy. They’re still Finnish on email. Sometimes it’s just like a sentence or something. And ‘oh yeah, that’s not constructive at all’, Jón says once more laughing. I have to laugh, too, because I have my own Finnish email conversations which often is contrary to the same person being very talkative in a real conversation. “Oh yes, they can be”, Jón agrees with me.
“Are final decisions on a song subject to email discussions as well”, I wonder and ask for some insights here. “Well, I think mostly it’s writing at home and they all have good recording equipment so they try to do demos all the time. And they do rehearsal demos as well because I am on the Faroese but they all try together at the rehearsal space, and play the songs and record them so I can hear what’s going on. And then we discuss the songs. ‘Does this work?’ ‘Does that work?’ So that part works really well. We don’t need to be at the same place to make decisions. We can do that over email. It’s frustrating sometimes not to be able to be there and go into the rehearsal room with them, and work them and talk about things. What I usually do when we have been doing these two albums, I take at least one or two flights to be able to rehearse with them. Because we’re a very live oriented band, very band-oriented band. So we wanna be able to play songs together and feel them before making a decision about them.”
The Lizard Meets the Dinosaurs
Time to go for some more odd questions. “Could you match the single band members with superheroes or alike according to their personality?” Jón replies:
I have one and final odd question for Jón. It is about the giant bird Roc from the “Arabian Nights” fairy tales or respectively the giant eagles from “The Lord of the Rings” saga. “Imagine one of them could take you wherever you want. Time and space have no meaning here. Where would you go?” He inhales deeply and begins: “It’s a good question. It has to be on Earth somehow. I don’t think there might be something really interesting out there. But there is probably a lot interesting things out there but …. But I love Earth”, he says drifting into his thoughts for a moment. “Definitely not the future”, Jón points out after approximately half a minute. “I really love not knowing what’s going on in the future.” Silence once more. “So I am not a big history guy either”, he states laughing, “so maybe prehistoric times will have to be somehow if I have to move in time.” –
“You can, you don’t need to.” – “Yeah exactly, right but at this moment … yeah, I don’t know, I could probably go everywhere on Earth if I want, really want”, he repeats frowning. “So but that is a good option to travel back. I have always loved dinosaurs. So I’s be going back to the dinosaurs. I know it is unlikely that I will be attacked by 500 dinosaurs as soon as I hit the Earth like in the movies. But that would be incredible to see the largest animals that have ever walked the Earth. Yeah, that would be crazy.” –
“But there were flying dinosaurs as well”, I remind. “That’s true. I trust that the Rocs are good fliers.” – “They will be!” — “So it should be ok. I can still clear off the nesting cliffs and alike. Yeah that will be it. Let’s go back to where Jurassic Park refers to, 65 million years back a little bit more.” — “Yeah a little bit more because it could end very suddenly then.” — “Yeah”, he says laughing, “maybe some hundred thousand years more.” — “So at the peak of it?” — “Yes.” — “So that you can see the maximum variety.” — “Yeah or at least those that were existing then.”
“How about the submarine living species?” – “Ahhh, yeah, it’s possible. The Roc could probably fly under water if all options are in.” — “All options are given” — “Yes, I would probably fly over the entire Earth for as long as that took, scanning every piece of land”, Jón says looking at me: “Is that a super exciting answer? Well, it’s still something that I wanna do.”
I thank you, Jón! For you time, your thoughts and, naturally, the show earlier. And on my way home I think of my own Finnish moments with the Finnish Barren Earth members – moments exactly the way Jón describes them. Once you meet them and their welcome is so flattering and emotional you can hardly cope with it. And the next time you drop a simple compliment (“The new album is so amazing”) on their performance overwhelming them completely. I learned “quite ok” or “not too bad” is considered more appropriate. Well … no!
Anyway the new album is waiting patiently to be unleashed only to enthral its listeners. Hushhhhhhh. A whisper, it runs from one corner to another of your mind, grows stronger, louder and embodies: “A Complex of Cages”. Then “The Living Fortress” begins with a massively progressive, very much Barren-Earth-like, energetic passage climbing all the way up to operatic heights only to fall abruptly into the endless depths of Jón’s growls. Like a rollercoaster the song takes us from passages sweet as lullabies into the heaviest hells of darkness never missing to celebrate their typical progressive momentum and the incredible bass lines.
(Photos by Ms Cesar Little)