It is impossible to talk about anything in 2020 without mentioning the ongoing impact of the global Coronavirus pandemic. While a virus that has changed the face of the world might sound like the stuff of heavy metal dreams (whether that’s Cannibal Corpse’s ‘Evisceration Plague’ or Slayer’s ‘Epidemic’), for the music and gigging community at large it has been the stuff of nightmares.
While the pandemic has been challenging for all of us, for many the only major impact it has had on our lives (thankfully) has been changes to the way we exercise, socialise or buy overpriced children’s cereal. For UK-based post-metal collective Wren (and for musicians and artists great and small), it’s been a little bit more of a challenge as they’ve found themselves confronting what until several months ago would have seemed a bizarre hypothetical; how do you release a new album during a pandemic?
“We had planned to release our new record in February, but we held fire once we saw what was happening with the pandemic,” says Owen Jones [not that one], guitarist/vocalist and founding member. “After a few months, we realised the seriousness of the situation and how long we might be waiting, so we decided the best approach would be to still get the album out. It worked out pretty well in the end, it seemed like more people were stuck inside and probably in need of new music.”
It wasn’t just the planned release of the new record, the crushing and cathartic Groundswells, that the pandemic affected. As with many bands, Wren’s touring schedule was nixed early on. “We also had a UK tour booked in March that we had to cancel, which was disappointing but luckily we didn’t lose any money on it or anything,” Owen explains. “[The pandemic has] disrupted a lot of things for us as a band as well as personally, leaving us all over the map geographically.”
While other industries saw instant support from the government in the form of stimulus packages and the furlough scheme, the events and arts sectors had to wait a shamefully long time before dedicated support came their way. While it did eventually come, the future for smaller venues and those working in the industry is still uncertain. Owen is cautiously positive about the potential recovery timeline, however. “We’re definitely optimistic that the heavy music scene will recover. It’s more a matter of how badly affected the music industry as a whole will be as a result of venue closures and local promotions no longer having the means to facilitate shows,” he says. “However, we certainly believe that there will come a time in the not-too-distant future when shows as we know and love them will be back and thriving.”
For most bands (one-person bedroom black metal projects aside), the backbone of the album launch cycle is touring and playing live. This has thrown up a unique issue for a band whose powerful live show is a huge part of their identity. “We would definitely consider ourselves a live-focused band as we view performances as an essential facet of the creative output of Wren,” Owen explains. “That being said, we have always endeavoured to capture the best recordings of the band possible and consider the studio as equally important. Experimentation and pushing our music into more abstract realms has become a more prevalent goal within Wren over the last few years and we actively look to evolve tonally from release to release.”
Groundswells, the bands’ second full-length release, is a darker, sludgier and more cathartic affair than its predecessor, the blooming and expansive Auburn Rule. It is seemingly a conscious decision to focus on more subterranean, barren depths with their latest effort. “Groundswells seems to us to be the next natural step forward after Auburn Rule,” reveals Own. “A refinement of what we felt we developed stylistically on that album, whilst allowing room for exploration into new musical terrain. There is definitely a conscious effort to go further sonically and conceptually with every new offering we bring forward as a band. With Groundswells we felt like we had finally found an equilibrium in direction and focus as a band that we hadn’t ever had before, which I think translates on the record.”
Conceptually, the record continues the band’s asking of existential and introspective questions. “Thematically there has always been a continuation of underlying and largely unspoken concepts which connect all Wren releases. Human beings continued search for equilibrium with the natural world, both inwardly and outwardly,” says Owen, though he points out that any continuations or changes for the band and their style are organic and internal and not the result of external pressures or fan expectation. “There has always been a subconscious need to go further tonally and compositionally when writing new material, but it’s rarely anything specific we say to ourselves going in. It’s more a case of being aware of the natural shift in our sound as we become more attuned to each other as a collective. Fan expectation has never come into it for us.”
Part of the undeniable heft and presence of Groundswells is the production, courtesy of Scott Evans of transcendent post-metal/sludge poster boys Kowloon Walled City. Wren had previously opened for the band in London, impressing the producer enough to earn his praises. “He [Evans] said he liked what we were doing and half-jokingly said we should go record with him in Oakland,” Owen explains. “Kowloon Walled City have actually been an influence since Wren started and we loved how Scott’s recordings sounded in general, so when we began thinking about where to record our next album it was clear that we should try our utmost to make that idea a reality. Scott did an amazing job on the album and we would love to keep working with him in future for sure.”
A hallmark of Wren’s sound is the near-unstoppable, slowly evolving driving riff that builds seemingly endless momentum before breaking like a tide. While many bands are currently lying dormant and being forced to wait for the pandemic to pass, or taking time to reflect, Wren are channelling the spirit of their sound and looking to keep moving inexorably in whatever way they can. “We are looking into doing a livestreamed and socially-distanced show in London in the near future. That will hopefully end up being our album release show, which isn’t ideal but we have to take what we can get currently!” says Owen. “We have just announced a six-date run in April 2021 with [Brighton-based wobbly noisenicks] Wallowing. Fingers crossed it can go ahead. We will be looking to do as much touring in support of Groundswells next year as possible. Let’s see how things play out. Lastly, we will be releasing something new for December’s Bandcamp Friday so keep an eye out.”
Groundswells is out now on Gizeh Records. Order here.
Words: Jay Hampshire