Record: Off Black (Self-Released, 2021)
World War I, “The Great War” (1914-1918), remains many things today, continuously unfolding with new perspectives, narratives, discoveries, and interpretations for its 1,566 days of brutal fighting spanning 30 nations, and costing millions of lives. More than 100 years after its official end (for the United States, official involvement didn’t end on paper until 1921), even the numbers of dead, both military and civilian, are still being excavated, counted, and interpreted. It’s a war without a proper ending in the imagination because of its scale and ongoing impact. The identity of humanity itself changed — the contrast between who we thought we were before 1914, and who we are today — can be directly mapped from this war. It remains the subject of historiography, geography, nationality, technology, and politics. In art, it easily overwhelms modern sensibilities through its weight of suffering and loss. It’s both a void and a monument to trauma. It’s an enigma.
For the new post-rock/experimental record by Bare Wire Son, “Off Black” (Self-Released, 2021), London-born recording artist Olin Janusz turned to some of the journals kept by mothers of the soldiers fighting and dying in the muddy battlefield trenches, to compose a moving suite of 14 tracks that, in their own way, form a kind of cenotaph for some of the invisible traumas of this cataclysm. These curated and adapted “lyrics” speak directly to wounds that will never heal. There’s an overwhelming emotional quality to this record, as if the earth opens song by song and thousands of lives vanish hourly in the span of their story — the end of desire, hope, and liberation — reduced to bone mixing with bone, picked over by crows, all set against a backdrop of unfeeling rain and a quagmire of mud. Janusz uses the power of his spectral voice, as well as walls of sound from guitars, drums, organs, and many other tools to build his elegy. His is a difficult journey.
All 14 tracks flow together, with the sounds of falling rain and boots walking out their eternal echoes. The Great War began as a mobile war on horseback, but quickly turned into trench warfare driven by new machines. It’s in this space that the earth rises in Janusz’s compositions and choice of “lyrics.” The earth itself becomes the monument in “Cenotaph,” with wailing guitars and organ forming a kind of funereal dirge for the thousands of lives lost day after day, becoming shadows of the “unfound.” “Ends Below” speaks to the earth opening — his song becoming an exhausted witness to the charnel harvest of war. “The Gore” calls the struggle by its right name: a sacrifice of children, with mothers falling metaphorically as their sons fall literally, daily dying — “Side by side we’re all bound by chains / Side, inside we’re all found by graves…” Janusz doesn’t concern himself with the motives or aims of the war. His compositions pass over those complexities to explore the human heart, with memory and pain as his keepsakes. In doing so, “Off Black” becomes an internal mausoleum of living consciousness, its contribution being the timeless burden of all war: misery.
As the record begins to draw to a close with his song “Fingernest,” the crushing weight of sacrifice shifts toward the finality of resignation. “Our souls shiver as the bell tolls…” Here, this record becomes song-cycle as liturgy to its end, with this song’s emphasis on aftermath. The harvest now is for the crows, the trenches homes for the imaginations and nightmares of mothers and widows, robbed of even the opportunity to bury their own. “All the soldiers sing their songs of weeping widows…” “Red Glass” haunts the survivor’s sleep and displaces any sense of safety, for a home on this earth. The pitiless rain; the inadequacy of ritual. The record passes through storm and ends as quietly as it begins, bracketed between the opening track, “Involuntary,” and the closing track, “Voluntary” — bookends of war itself, a reminder of how these calamities start beyond the control of age, reason, and wisdom, and end in a kind of willful, senseless sacrifice of youthful passion and obedient potential.
“Off Black” feels, from start to finish, like the soundscape of celestial bodies falling to earth, to be ground into a brotherhood of bones mourned over by countless families searching like phantoms for a meaning beyond all human love and understanding. The result is a dark, sacred music, taking its place as one more part of an enormous story that continues to reveal itself as much as it hides from us. The “modern” world was, ironically, born in the mechanized firestorm of The Great War — and it remains bound to this beginning as something we’ve yet to fully document, understand, or forgive.
Because of the unique nature of this record, The Palace sent a few email questions to Olin Janusz, by way of creating an abbreviated interview. His responses follow.
[Short Interview Below]
Off Black (2021)
Track 1: Involuntary
Track 2: Cenotaph
Track 3: Saved Alone
Track 4: CSD
Track 5: Interlude
Track 6: Ends Below
Track 7: The Gore
Track 8: Antiphon
Track 9: The Bellows
Track 10: Кампус
Track 11: Fingernest
Track 12: Heavy Grey
Track 13: Red Glass
Track 14: Voluntary
Bare Wire Son
It means a tremendous amount to me whenever someone tells me that something I’ve done has resonated with them — it really vindicates the time put into it all. I’d like to briefly mention that when I say ‘we,’ in the following interview, I’ll generally be referring to Europeans, not out of any Eurocentrism or preference, just because it’s what I know well enough to feel comfortable speaking about without feeling out of place. There’s absolutely no desire or intention to diminish or dismiss any other people. I just thought it would be better to focus on an area I could understand properly and that I had the most access to in terms of resources, contacts, and language.Olin Janusz
There’s a strong feeling here, that this project is a kind of family history revealed, of an intimate trauma. I had no idea that such journals as you’ve used existed (even in libraries), some coming to you from your family? Can you tell me how you and this project met one another?
Olin Janusz (Bare Wire Son):
I was very conscious throughout this project to not inject any aspect of myself into it — whether it was in terms of heritage, character, or whatever. There’s a recent film called “The Painted Bird,” [based on the novel by Jerzy Kosinski, directed by Václav Marhoul, 2020], which used “Interslavic language” exclusively so that nothing could be attributed to any specific group of people. I took a similar attitude in how I approached “Off Black.” I didn’t want to single out any particular people. I wanted it to be easier to absorb into the music and lyrics without getting distracted by nationalities or borders.
Initially, the album started as a way to restructure depression as a concept around the premise of it being a natural state for some people — that with re-evaluation, we’ll be able to more easily tap into using depression as a creative tool, alleviating some of the shame and stigma attached to it. The original plan was to write about this as a “sister book” to the album, and create the music as a portal into a mindset. This led to a lot of research and resource gathering to back up the idea.
However, that plan ended up being swallowed by the material I gathered and became much less appealing as something to do directly — it started to feel convoluted. The flow between the music and the writing just wasn’t fluent enough. This could absolutely just have been a fault of mine. A gravity developed — the idea evolved into combining everything into an album, while letting the content mutate to match.
As the years went on it felt quite natural to allow the First World War to become the focus — as a war, it was the first of its kind and was something unlike the world had ever seen before — tragedy spread as a plague that infected millions upon millions of homes. Suddenly, all these people were experiencing something tragic and new. It gave birth to a mutual thread that passed through the hands of everyone, regardless of language or culture or experience. Everyone was connected emotionally, which I thought was quite a good reflection of the initial concept. That, along with the slew of extremely potent, durable, and harrowing art that was born from that time period [1914 to 1918]. That stuff can’t be made any other way — it mandates the deepest kind of sorrow. The resolve of so many to transliterate their suffering into something tactile is astonishing.
There’s plenty of media around the soldiers and the men of the First World War. We’re all familiar with the battles, of the imagery, but the women are almost entirely obfuscated and forgotten when talking about it. Maybe because they weren’t statistical casualties with quantifiable losses in the same way, maybe because of other things. Their suffering was tremendous and has been carried quietly for so long — it was very touching to delve into that and try to come to terms with that kind of experienced loss.
Certainly, it was very daunting and incredibly inspiring, largely because in a lot of ways none of this has changed for women. So much is still unspoken. At least for the women I know, much remains a struggle. It certainly inspired me to be more conscious of that.
Given the intimacy of these “lyrics” (from journals), there’s a kind of implicit “witnessing” aspect of these songs, the union of hidden history, words, and music. Some of your lyrics feel almost too personal to reveal, with so much pain and heartbreak, and yet here they are. Journals are written without their author’s thinking they’ll ever be seen by others. How did you evaluate what to share and what to keep private?
Käthe Kollwitz’s diaries [used in part for this project] are published in many languages and are no secret, similarly to anything else that I found within a library, I suppose. If it had already been published, then it means the family or author wanted people to see it, and that it was out there to be found. For direct sources, it was just a case of asking for permission. No one gave me anything they weren’t comfortable having shared, and were generally of the opinion that it’s important that these things are out in the open.
The traumas of that time are built-in to the culture of Europe — it’s everywhere you look and has touched so many people that shying away or hiding from it simply isn’t an option. It doesn’t really feel like a choice of what to keep private, more of what to shine a light on.
I suppose because of that I didn’t feel any tension from the angle of privacy, though there was certainly plenty of tension in maintaining credence in it all, in making sure that everything was handled respectfully and diligently. I think that pressure was a good thing because it helped me to maintain a specific mindset that was beneficial for working with themes like this. It wasn’t playful at all, and it forced a quietness which felt quite appropriate. The intimacy of it made the whole thing feel remarkably gentle, all things considered.
The “lyrics” for “Off Black” read as modern poetry, certainly as modern as some of the poems from the First World War by poets we revere today. Your “lyrics” read as if they could have been written for a recent conflict, and yet your source is over 100 years old! For me, this speaks to how trauma is both timeless and universal (for individuals, for regions, for countries). As you created this project, guided by these “voices,” did these words feel a century old?
Just to clarify, everything isn’t letter-for-letter lifted from a journal. Plenty of things got warped through translation, and plenty of others needed a bit of bending to better fit into a song. I think it would have been a bit lazy of me to just take things and force them into a song. I hope that I’ve done a sufficient job of blending everything together, keeping the core material and enveloping it in some alterations — to avoid being plain old plagiarism.
No, it didn’t feel a century old, but didn’t feel modern either. There’s still definitely a barrier, I think, that prevents us from truly empathizing with what people from that time went through. An enormous percentage of us haven’t experienced anything close to the First World War — it’s difficult, if not impossible, to really wear those same shoes.
We don’t communicate the same way now, either. I think because of this, we don’t feel emotion the same way. Everything is instantaneous now — an email or a message or what have you — we have options for our news sources, and there’s a lot of choice involved in everything. We have a lot of informational freedom — which doesn’t seem to do much good, does it?
The delays they experienced in communicating during the First World War played a big part in what was felt, I think. People had to be more careful about their words and choose them more sagaciously because there was no “undo” or “edit” — once a letter was sent that’s what would be read a week or two later, along with the overhanging worry of it potentially being a final letter. Every word counted. It was more personal, urgent, and intimate than how we communicate today. For me, this highlighted the age of these words and created the contrast.
The language, however, is all pretty much the same give or take a bit of slang. People still talk to one another this way. None of us today would have any issues communicating [in 1914], barring any language barrier, which is definitely quite a strange sensation. It creates an immediacy and passion strewn throughout the writing.
With my limited understanding of the full breadth of the story of The First World War, Poland didn’t exist in the modern sense (even as it suffered so enormously). The people of this part of Central Europe found themselves caught between many nations and shifting alliances. Your choice of “lyrics,” however, make it clear that this war ground remains sacred. What does this mean to you, as an artist and composer?
I’ll be super pedantic and say that it did exist, just not as an independent state. There were still Poles, they still spoke Polish, their millennia of history was still present, and the pain they experienced still lingers in the same place. I was much more interested in Europe when approaching my work, partially because it’s where I’m from, it’s what I’m most familiar with, and partly because it’s where my sources were from.
I also put a lot of thought into whether I should touch on Africa and Asia for this work as well, as they, too, saw an incredible amount of destruction, but wasn’t able to source much and knew that I wouldn’t be able to truly empathize enough to transliterate accurately. I’d also feel guilty about taking the voice away from someone more appropriate who would be better able to do it.
I was fixated on Europe and a specific time period. I don’t have any particular romanticism for where we’re at now. We’re not in a good place wherever you look. The proletariat still struggles to a disproportionate level, authoritarianism is aggressively on the rise in countries that should know better, complacency and apathy run rampant, and the plague of consumer capitalism continues to destroy every single bit of the environment it can touch for the shortest of short-term gains.
Not much seems to have been learned from anything we’ve been through. At the end of the day, we’re all still subject to the avarice of the few, with a facade of choice buried under consumerism and vanity. We’re divided and hostile and being pushed apart — it’s all very sad to see when so little can be done. I’ve seen enough of the world now to feel quite bitter about the way things are going — it does a very efficient job of pushing you towards apathy, which is a dangerous place to be for anyone.
Put your sorrows in the bellows / Bet your sorrows against your pillow / Put your sorrows in the gallows / Bet your sorrows against the meadows…From the song, “The Bellows,” on “Off Black,” by Bare Wire Son
Finally, I see that the text for Track 10 — “Кампус” — remains in what I believe to be a Macedonian adaptation of the Cyrillic script. All the rest of your song “lyrics” appear in English (in translation), except this one song. Can you share the story about this song?
The lyrics for this song were written, performed, and recorded by Nikita Moiseenko [piano, percussion, and vocals], a friend of mine in Saint Petersburg who makes really wonderful music as Голландский Штурвал. Very poetic, very dark, good music that I’ve been a fan of for a long time now. The first people to pay attention to any of my music were Russians. They listen to what I do more than anyone else does and I thought this would be a very good way to work with an artist I respect, and also to thank the Russians for their early encouragement (for which I’m still very grateful).
With Nikita though, this song was one of the first to be finished. I really didn’t want to give him a bunch of instructions and restrictions — he’s good at what he does and knows what he’s doing, so I just left it to him to do, and accepted what he did. I don’t want to talk too much about interpreting things like this, but it’s a poem that he wrote that he felt fit the song. Part of me kind of likes keeping that song almost exclusive to those who can understand it — it feels like quite a personal “thank you,” and I’m very grateful that Nikita wanted to help.
Sorry if that’s a disappointing answer. I think it might be.
It’s not disappointing at all. Private things should stay private.
(where not otherwise credited)
“Hole in the sky” / photograph by Valentin Lacoste on Unsplash.com
“Frozen ground” (footer) / photo & design done by GP using Canva