Barren (Belgium) - I (2022)

 I Against I

    I was never expecting much when starting this blog. I didn't even know enough to know what to expect, honestly. Return to the House of Grindcore is a labor of love that is way more trouble than it's worth. In the despondent words of Norman Bates, "A hobby's supposed to pass the time, not fill it." The blog was intended to fill the void of grindcore review blogs that had cease to be and to review releases in an obnoxiously specific way that only interested me. Hopefully someone would find it useful or, at the very least, just read it. However, an unanticipated consequence of writing reviews on my favorite bands ended up being that I would unintentionally be put in contact with the bands themselves. And then in return, be put into contact with bands that knew those bands. Over the recent few years of writing I have been lucky enough to make several connections and friends within the global grindcore community. Although I will more than likely never meet these people, I am humbly grateful for the digital chats that I have had with band members and label founders that have reached out. Likewise, I have had the fortuitous pleasure of reviewing a few of these bands repeatedly. One of which being the mighty Barren from Belgium. Our history goes back all the way to the band's 2021 self produced demo. Even prior to the demo, if I'm not mistaken. It seems so long ago now, but I think it might just seem that way since we are now on the band's sixth release since that initial 2021 digital demo. I enjoy the chronic intertwining of our paths. I feel a very interposed sense of pride when seeing the band's accomplishments and each future addition to their swelling discography. Barren, like so many other House of Grindcore alumnus, are almost like work friends at this point. But how do my blast beat buddies measure up in their first full-length record?

    Barren's I starts where their Chainsaw Deth Cvlt split with Berated left off—dark, distorted pestilence churning atmosphere by way of guitar veneration and pedal board alchemy. The sound and the songwriting here being similar, yet shadowed in more of a vacuum tube haze. And, if you can believe it, the production has leveled up once again. But the biggest difference with is that we are seeing the band in the form of a complete vision for the first time and not fragmented into shorter EP's. Barren has already proven themselves with their strength in the studio, both behind the mixing board and in front of it. The band's debut full-length is tasked with applying these strengths to a linear, provocative output that is a testament to the band's talent and growth.
    My immediate reaction to I was that the band has doubled down on their metal influences. I don't recall if I have ever previously categorized Barren as specifically a death-grind band before, yet now it seems like it might be a little more apt. Barren is in a really impressive form here compared to their demo work. Whatever inky blackness of grindcore that makes up Barren as a band, they have dipped themselves into it head first and emerged as an aggressive, unrelenting goliath. The album opens with "Hearth," a feeding-back, plodding, punishing, Plainview-laden track dripping with misanthropy and malevolence that sets the tone for this sixteen track LP. There is a thick atmosphere that conjures visions of some technologically developed industrial complex that has been left to go to pot. Something that is as old and rusted as it is highly contemporary. A bevy of dark manmade corridors striated with dripping pipes, flickering fluorescents and rusted, sticking doors. And like the Minotaur in the labyrinth, there is also a ceaseless sense of feverish pursuit throughout the album. A stalking ferociousness that is refreshing and exciting. 

    As previously discussed in prior reviews, Barren's elevated production value both highlights the band's searing tone of HM-2 humming distortion while flaunting a balanced mix of each instrument and performer. On I, this attribute is expanded tenfold. The mix could have easily been overshadowed by the guitar given the band's HM-2 cult practices, their association in custom designer pedals and general overall chainsaw allegiances. Instead, the guitar is generously balanced in the mix and deals in crunchy riffs and catchy licks flourished of course with metal squeals, dive bombs and pinch harmonics. The riffs guide the songs in a real dynamic yet organic way that really sells I as an entertaining album. 
    Likewise, the bass is equally present and can be heard throughout the record—the cliché white whale of grindcore. The bass on Chainsaw Deth Cvlt was there, but was arguably fuzzed out towards the background. But with songs such as "Arbiter" and "Piss Stain" the bass is highlighted as a quaking dark and slinky recoil with a crisp growl. 
    The drums are the bang to the bass's boom. Combined, the two give me that familiar and beloved chest tightening tingle of the sound system of a live show. The kit is a perpetual pendulum of speedy D-beats, chomping blast beats, double bass pedal purée and thunderous tom work. And just like the guitar, the drums are energetic and fully entertaining. Together they layer a dense and rich slab of death-grind brutality. Gone are the melodic swoonings of earlier released tracks like the demo song, "Rain." Now Barren are serving up some gritty, earth shaking sludge and neck breaking metal breakdowns like B-side dirge, "Chosen," among others. 
    Just as in all of Barren's prior releases, has the band's patented dual vocal attack of the oxidized high shrieks and the lower muffed growls. And just like the rest of the album, they are also heightened. At times it seems like the vocals are essentially literal vocalizations. Screeches and roars played more as instrumentations instead of the the lyrics of doom and gloom as they are written on paper. Vocalizations akin to a grindcore version of throat singing. Some songs have what could only be described as a form of harsh vocal harmonization. The singing on tracks like "I Am Not Your Kind" brings to mind a slaughterhouse floor drain and the viscera that is being hosed off and flushed down it. 

    Now, I know that I have gushed about Barren's production ad nauseam by this point, but this album is truly one of the best sounding records that I have heard in recent memory. I have no notes on where or who had a hand in the mixing and mastering. I know the band has previously been very hands-on as far as production on other recordings. But either way, this is the band's best sounding release to date. A critique that the band has probably always received on each subsequent release since they have continued to grow and strive in both songwriting and sound quality. The songs on are all well crafted and compelling. Again, there is a sense of being hunted and pursued that drives the composition forward. I was pleasantly surprised by how engaging the record was as a whole. Just the sheer weight is impressive on its own. The album's bottom end is so absolutely devastatingly heavy that it puts you in the middle of the songs and makes for a legitimately intense listening experience. is peak Barren. And it is pretty fucking imposing. 

FFO: Mumakil, Nasum, Rotten Sound, Wake

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[Originally posted on December 20, 2022, Return to the House of Grindcore]

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