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In the abstract, the idea of the supergroup brims with promise. Every semi-obsessive music nerd contemplates his or her fantasy band at least once, and with fair reason: Consider the possibilities of Danzig and Rob Zombie trading vocals; Tom Waits, Merzbow and Tim Kinsella creating weirdo collages; pre-2008 Guns N' Roses and Dr. Dre collaborating on Chinese Detox (release date: 2371).
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Actual supergroups? Well, few are out-and-out bad, but most never rise to the heights—creatively or reputation-wise—of their players' original bands (with the exception of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and a couple of others). Whether it's the congregation of egos or writers reserving the choicest material for their main gigs, at the brass-tacks level, supergroups almost never deliver.
This is where Barren Earth, a Helsinki-based metal band, stray from the pack. Unless you maintain a deep affinity for Finnish and German metal, the names of Barren Earth's members might not evoke the "super" label. But for the sake of this exercise, let's pretend everyone is familiar with Amorphis' death/prog metal, Kreator's thrash, Moonsorrow's folk metal and Swallow the Sun's doomy death metal. (There are other, even-more-obscure predecessors swimming in Barren Earth's gene pool, too, such as Rytmihäiriö, Emyprean Bane, Venho and Mannhai.) Last year's Curse of the Red River, Barren Earth's debut, actually sounds like the product of a reputable supergroup—a band stretching their arms out, raking in aesthetic ideas from previous projects and making sense of the mix. Just knowing this outfit make good on the supergroup idea is satisfying in itself.
The brainchild of ex-Amorphis bassist Olli-Pekka Laine, Barren Earth was at first his solo project, but after reeling in members in 2007, four-fifths of the act now serve as writers. That change in authorship has dramatically affected the group's sonic direction; under Laine's watch, it was vicious and seething, but now, it's broadly colored.
"We have managed to create [what is] probably a more diverse album than any of the other bands," says keyboardist Kasper Mårtenson. "There's a huge variety of song material on the album. I'm not just talking about differences between individual songs, but also differences within songs. We have some dramatic shifts in style. We might have extremely brutal and fast metal riffs with hyper-fast double bass pedal drumming. Then, all of a sudden, it goes into this acoustic, pastoral, folky feel."
He isn't joking. Curse of the Red River feels massive, roping in all of the metal subgenres noted above—plus Gothic metal, power metal and pretty much whatever sort of metal they feel like evoking on short notice. At around seven-and-a-half minutes, the record's title track involves drawn-out, doom-metal brooding; light riffs soaring heavenward; Cookie Monster vocals mutating into clean singing; Middle Eastern-style guitar; pedals being stabbed and mutilated; and tender, folk-style strumming. And "Flicker" bookends a slow piano and classical-guitar-heavy segment with impenetrable roars and wild music. While not every song moves in unusual patterns, the most memorable ones do. Curse isn't exactly easy listening, as its volumes and tones skitter, but it's always provocative and lively.
However, Mårtenson emphasizes that the band don't employ such shifts just to be clever. "It has to serve a purpose. If it's a bad song, it doesn't matter how many shifts there are—that won't make it good," he says. "I like dynamics—something that isn't necessarily always around in metal. To me, there is a danger of [metal] becoming monotonous. Having the contrast keeps it interesting."
Those big-picture shifts are what make the "super" in evaluating Barren Earth as a supergroup feel justified. This approach comes from their interest in bands such as Yes and Genesis—'70s prog-rock players who treated themselves like supergroups and were enamored with wide-screen theatrics. "You could have a 20-minute piece with four individual sections, and the song will travel through all these musical landscapes. We enjoy these kind of musical journeys," says Mårtenson, probably dreaming up his contribution to another gigantic Barren Earth song as he speaks. "Maybe some day we can create our own 20-minute track, but we're not there yet."
This article appeared in print as "Finnish Steel: Barren Earth are the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young of Baltic heavy metal."
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