If a moment of piercing, potentially overwhelming heartbreak could be somehow captured in sound, the result would no doubt be something like Off Black, the richly nuanced yet emotionally demolishing new album from Bare Wire Son. Broadly, Bare Wire Son — and Off Black — could be characterized as entrancingly intense slowcore, but there’s really quite a lot going on here. The project is masterminded by multi-instrumentalist Olin Janusz, who collaborated with an international array of fellow musicians for this album’s creation.
Read on for a Q and A with Janusz about the album! First, check out a review:
Because of the stark solemnity defining much of the music, there’s an element of solitude in what transpires here — the poignancy is direct, and the feelings seem inescapable. The record expands emotional ache to a simply staggering degree, and Janusz has orchestrated the journey with just enough restraint to allow for gripping immersion within the teeming musical tides. While the music consistently proves formidable, the pace is contemplative, and while the mixes across the record are lush, the sonic shine of each element seems relatively unimpeded. No component outweighs or overwhelms another.
Off Black gets rather compellingly dramatic at times. Organ tones that appear on the record amid a rolling storm of other, similarly powerful elements amplify the billowing drama, suggesting something like a funeral dirge, and the general shimmer of other tones across Off Black adds to that sense. The environment of the record’s world sounds broken enough, though, that rather than a stately procession, that dirge sounds like a solitary performance, to no onlookers, in the shell of a bombed, rotting church.
Janusz explores traumas associated with World War I on the record, utilizing journals from mothers of soldiers who fought during that war as sources for lyrics and overall thematic inspirations. The musically expressed ache seems immediate, yet timeless, depicting gnawing anguish. The devastating destruction that the album reflects feels palpable — the scope of the soundscapes presented is grand — but the emotional expression contained on the record proves personal, even while affected by the formidable psychic weight that looms over Off Black.
Besides organs, Off Black also contains familiar elements like a guitar and bass alongside a mandolin, synths, cello, piano, and more. The songs feel somewhat free-form, following along with the disheveled psychological states that they’re representing, with crescendos that appear across Off Black on “Cenotaph” and elsewhere adding to the overall emotional intensity. Ominous unease largely defines the album’s journey, moving from the slower, mournful instrumentation that opens “Saved Alone” to the majestically devastating blasts of sound that close “Ends Below.”
As the meditatively trodding record approaches its conclusion, the mix gets subtly lighter, but remains overcast. “Fingernest” contains the slowly sung line, “I have seen enough,” and that sentiment aptly reflects the direction that Off Black heads. Sonicaly, the gentler presentation suggests something like storm clouds spreading across an abandoned, destroyed city block. It’s the expansive, forced quietude of loss.
Listen to Off Black below!
Read the full Q and A with Janusz below!
Exploring the Themes
Captured Howls: Thanks for your time! The album is very compelling. In terms of the theme, would you say that you related some of the broader ideas reflected by those journals to your personal experiences, or was the process more about telling the others’ stories in this unique way? Some of both?
Olin Janusz: Thank you for yours! It was quite conscious to not put any of myself into the music for anyone else to hear. There’s no song that’s about me, and I’m not an essential part of any of it. I made sure not to mention any names (of places or people) so that nothing could be identified uniquely, only in a general and more universal way. Certainly while working on it there were things that felt personal, but I worked against reflecting that and tried to just focus on the point over the person. I suppose it was a way to take highly personal stories and render them into something absolute and widely applicable so that it wouldn’t exclude anyone in a particular way, but it’s really not an album about war. It’s an album about depression that uses war as a vehicle to convey that.
CH: Connected to that, would you say that it was, in a way, difficult to inhabit the thematic space of this album while making it? I noticed that the album begins and ends with “Involuntary” and “Voluntary,” which seemed to suggest — to me — something like a gradual acceptance on par with what’s been said to be the final stage of grief, and the tones of the music itself also evoked this idea for me. So, relatedly, would you say that there is any level of catharsis in the music?
Janusz: I wouldn’t say it was particularly difficult, no. It’s kind of a mindset and mentality that I’m always in (Dowland has a good song about that) so it’s almost like a comfort zone or a habitat at this point. The detachment required a much more conscious thought process.
The Involuntary/Voluntary thing is really just a pun I think. There are a few ways it can be received; you could choose the religious, musical type of Voluntary played before and after every church service, and accept the first song as an inverted version of that. You could take the martial approach of conscription and going to war and returning or not returning from it, or it could be the emotional response of that Kübler Ross model you mentioned. There’s no canonically correct answer for that though; it’s up to you.
There is definitely a dynamic that I intended, where things would start very dark, stay there for a while, then lighten up towards the end. I cut back on the low-end and density towards the end, brightened things in terms of tone to try and reflect all that, let vocals be more intelligible etc. to simulate that kind of catharsis and clarity that comes at the end of something big. I’m very glad that you mentioned that dynamic because I was worried I didn’t do a good enough job conveying it; it’s quite relieving.
Constructing the Journey
CH: I read in press material that some of the journal entries were passed along by your family members and those of collaborators with whom you’ve worked. In a general sense, what sort of paired you to the thematic concept underpinning this album to begin with? In those first moments of inspiration that culminated in the album, is there something particular that you were after in heading down this thematic path?
Janusz: So when the album started it didn’t really have anything to do with war; that only made itself apparent a few years down the line. Initially I was just trying to figure out the best way to get out this re-evaluation of depression, addressing the idea that it shouldn’t always be seen as this antagonistic environmental obstacle that needs to be cured. That for some people it’s just a natural state that doesn’t need reconciliation, that it can be a perfectly natural way “to be,” that only has harmful effects when those people are repeatedly told that they need to change.
A way I wanted to highlight that was through the durability of the art made from states of particularly deep depression; there’s something about songs or paintings borne from it which tend to last longer emotionally, that carry their weight through time more effortlessly. It’s a natural thing that resonates with a lot of us, especially in these circles of music/lifestyle, and the end goal was to encourage a utilisation of depression as a creative tool for a very small niche of people. As it all progressed, the war stuff emerged as a conduit for that idea. I lost some of the specificity of what I set out to do but really don’t mind because I think what it ended up as is a lot broader and more universally valuable. It just takes the utilisation aspect without any of the re-evaluation, which I think would have just been too much.
CH: As for the sound of the record, some of the elements — like the organs — seem like a particularly natural fit, considering the stately and mournful vibe. Overall, would you say that you tended to shape the sound around the emotional themes? With the sounds of the instrumentals, were you after particular feelings?
Janusz: I would say I did shape the sound around emotional themes, yes, and organs were certainly the most important instrument for that. They’ve been used for mourning songs for thousands of years now and that doesn’t look like it’ll change for a while.
The average BPM for songs on the album is 45, which coincidentally has the Latin tempo marking of “Grave,” which I found quite apt. The tempo I think is useful for giving all of the instruments involved room to breathe a little and leave time between for the next note; depression is a languid thing and that played as much a part as the timbres.
I was actually quite conflicted with this though, because I wanted to be deliberate about what emotions I would summon and how I’d do that, but was reminded constantly that culture prevents that from being realistic. The English people I know would feel the same kind of melancholy with organ music (especially with any religious connotation) that I did, because of a cultural familiarity embedded in them. The Russians I knew, on the other hand, largely felt very little with the same music, or at least markedly different emotions, because those cultural roots just don’t extend there.
Going back to this theme of a universally applicable album (even if to a niche) and not wanting it to be too personal, I tried to keep things varied instrumentally so that I could increase the chances of resonating with more people. I admit however, that there is some Eurocentrism in that, with everything being in 12-TET and with 100% of the source material (and myself/the overwhelming majority of contributors) being European. I apologise if anyone feels that I’ve prioritised anything in an ugly way: we write what we know I think, anything else easily becomes disingenuous, which I believe to be a worse alternative.
CH: As for some of the broader surroundings of the album, was working with such a comparatively long list of collaborators difficult? Smooth? Some of both?
Janusz: This time, mostly very smooth. In the past I’ve not found it easy to work with people at all for a slew of reasons and was quite apprehensive and anxious about opening up to other musicians, but there was just too much I couldn’t do by myself. I’m pretty strict about not being strict with music. No deadlines, no rush, no sense of urgency at all, no pressure in general from me as much as possible; obligation destroys passion, and I know I absolutely loathe people giving me deadlines for anything artistic. It’s so rooted in emotion and empathy; I think if you’re patient with someone and wait for them to record when they want to rather than pushing it, the result is more passionate and sincere with no dead weight.
Daria and Nikita (cello, vocals) were especially easy to work with. They’re both so relentlessly active with music that they would always be quick to send files back and forth and try things out. I did learn with Daria in particular, though, that I should really leave parts up to the musician. I can write for cello serviceably at best, but nowhere near as good as someone who primarily only plays cello, which built a lot of trust for me I think. For new songs I just leave myself notes on the sheet music or tabs or whatever to say “Let Daria do whatever she wants” with some very vague notes attached. It’s quite scary to trust people with music, but it’s also a big weight lifted when you know that someone else is tuned similarly to you and can be left alone to do something leagues better than what you’d do on your own. It makes me wonder how much I’ve held myself back by trying to do too much myself.
Lasting Impacts and Sonic Reference Points
CH: Ultimately, is there something particular that you would hope comes across in the listening experience?
Janusz: Sincerity and intent are the most important I think. It’s small music that not many people will really ever hear. You kind of have to seek it out, but chances are the type of person seeking it out is going to be much more likely to resonate with it emotionally, which is really valuable and the end-goal. I’d like it to be mature and slow and quiet rather than feel like some noisy hour of angst and annoyance about something transient. I’d just like it to reach the right people and mean something for them, be something valuable that they listen to when they need to. I know I’ve had plenty of albums like that for myself; I’d love for this to be one of those albums for someone else.
CH: Bare Wire Son carries a quite unique sonic imprint. Are there particular sonic inspirations that you take for the project, whether inside or outside of the slowcore/ ambient realms? More broadly, whether or not you take particular inspiration from the projects, what do you tend to listen to a lot?
Janusz: Five years is a long time to spend on one album; most of the early songs I started with had more obvious influences (Matt Elliott, Angels of Light, etc.) but as time went on I got worse at listening to other music so the songs I wrote began feeding back into themselves. I don’t think it’s a good thing and I wouldn’t try to do it again, but it did make assigning influences blurrier.
As time went on, a cadence and timbre arose from the songs that cast a shadow over themselves and helped it stay in a self-contained bubble. When I was listening to music though, it was mostly 16th century counterpoint and country, lots of Thomas Tallis and Townes Van Zandt. Counterpoint is really interesting from a theory perspective and very meditative and deliberate to listen to, which I’m quite fond of; it gets better the more you pay attention and recognise exactly what they were doing. That era of country music was about the opposite. Simple musically but with a big focus on emotionality and lyricism.
These days I’m really enjoying old Lambchop records; How I Quit Smoking especially is a really gorgeous album. I’ve found a lot of Araucanian folk music for some research I am doing which I increasingly enjoy, along with some Venezuelan folk like Simón Diaz and Antonio Carrillo. Barry Manilow somehow keeps finding himself slipping into playlists too, which I have no good reason for.
Regarding the influence of music though, I try to avoid it. Imposter syndrome is difficult on its own, so I’m trying to be increasingly cautious of what I will and won’t use as an influence when working on music. It is helpful to be building up a discography of my own though where I can reference myself more often.