By Nikita Alekseyevich Khrenov
With the prevalence and of American folk metal becoming more established and recognized, Rochester-based band Wandering Oak seeks to make their mark with their debut full-length album Passage Elemental, released on November 1. In the four years since their first release, the Advent EP, the group has experienced an almost complete lineup change and relocation but now are gunning full speed ahead with their own brand of proggy, folky goodness.
We caught up with the band while on tour with Wilderun at The Cellar on Treadwell to discuss the album, the new lineup, and plans going forward.
Alright, so you just dropped your debut full-length album, Passage Elemental, congrats. Let’s go a little bit more in depth with the lyrical and musical themes in the album.
Robert Pollard [guitar, vocals]: *big deep breath* Well…
If you wanna try to narrow it down and keep it succinct that’s fine.
RP: Well it is a story that spans several years, so I feel that trying to do something succinct wouldn’t do it justice. It was a very long process due to many reasons, one of which being I went through multiple lineup changes in the past 2 years. The first lineup that recorded the Advent EP was the same lineup that was supposed to record this album, but we lost 2 members to various reasons, so I decided to move the band to Western New York but unfortunately I lost the bassist Shane in the process. By that point we had already demoed all the songs and though they were embryonic, they were pretty close to what you hear on the final product.
In terms of themes…I just try to go for something a little safe with the four elements. I think it was kind of born out of the fact that all of these songs were very much in their own pocket stylistically. The concept starts with this sort of raw, untapped potential, Riastrad feels like a supercharged version of something from Advent. It has a folky element to it but much more aggressive and sophisticated, and as the album goes on it goes through these variations of form and touches on these different points, almost like directions of a compass, and at the end of the album with “The Iron Horde,” I feel everything meshes back into this singular form but far more sophisticated and focused.
Lyrically it represents a lot of my own spiritual struggles and ponderings and what have you. A lot of it kind of reflects the last 2 years of trying to put the band back together as it were and the struggle therein. I have all kinds of influences, I could spend an entire interview talking about my influences and to me, the concept of the album was a good way to sort of illustrated those influences in a very, on the sleeve kind of way, and then blend them all together in a way that sounds like more than the sum of its parts.
So you had to reform the lineup and I have to say, from what I’ve heard you have a killer live band right now.
All: Thank you.
So how was it jumping into the material that Rob had already written for you two, in terms of acclimating to the style and being able to add your own spin on some of the parts? [Deidre House: Bass, Monica Finger: Drums].
MF: Well I’ve been a member of the band for two years now, so I’ve been able to take my time with learning and rewriting. I think the original demos were a good starting point, but I have added to them stylistically. My first real metal band was Elfspell, it was like a folk doom metal band that I was in with John Gallo from Orodruin, and I think that that positioned me to be successful with a band with folk elements. With my previous black metal band Mavradoxa I learned more of the double bass blasting and other more technical skills necessary to pull off an album of this caliber, so I think it was through working and drilling each part of the song that we were able to come up with a really polished final product.
Working with Rob has been really incredible, I feel we’ve had a great collaborative relationship through the whole process of practicing, demoing, recording, mixing, mastering the album in addition to all the other things needed to keep the band running so I think that partnership keeps us successful and I’m grateful for the opportunity.
RP: She hasn’t killed me yet.
MF: Don’t plan on it either.
With those blast beat skills I would be worried, not gonna lie.
DH: Well I’ve known Rob for like 14 or 15 years now, so we go way back, and we’ve always been into a lot of the same types of music. A lot of prog and prog metal and things like that so I feel like we sort of musically came of age at a similar point in our development, so we have a similar viewpoint on things.
RP: We played in a band together for a long time.
DH: Yeah, we played in bands when we were teenagers.
RP: And then we were in Goblin Hovel together.
DH: Yeah, I was just about to say we were in Goblin Hovel together, which is an acoustic heavy folk band, so I feel like…. I forgot what I was gonna say.
MF: Dee’s participation in this band isn’t something that started from scratch. It’s not like she came on to perform on the album as a stranger to the style or the process, so it’s more like this lineup is the best of all possible worlds in terms of the relationships that were already being built.
DH: Yeah, having known Rob for so long I knew Wandering Oak as soon as it existed, and I was a fan of it as soon as he had anything recorded. So, I was very familiar with all the material for a long time and had a really good idea of what sort of music he wanted to make and the direction he wanted to go in.
RP: Yeah, she’s been very adjacent to the material for a long time. Wandering Oak played with both of Monica’s former bands on multiple occasions so she was already familiar with what we were going for so it wasn’t a big surprised for her to come into it, so she knew what she was getting into.
MF: I took it as a personal challenge because in terms of difficulty and it runs the gambit of styles, so I just wanted to perfect my performance and my skills as a drummer to make the album as good as it could be.
I’ll definitely say it all came together really well, the puzzle pieces fit. Now what would you say are the biggest differences between the Advent EP and Passage Elemental, outside of the lineup change?
RP: I feel the biggest one is that I feel like I became a lot more confident as a writer and I challenged myself a lot more because I felt ready to incorporate more extreme metal influences. I was always huge into thrash metal, especially the progressive ones like Coroner and Voivod, and I’ve always been really into early Gothenburg death metal and black metal, and one self-criticism of the EP is that I feel like it doesn’t go hard.
RP: It has this folky, blackened, pseudo-progressive feel to it but I feel like it doesn’t have enough high-octane parts to it and a lot of the parts on Passage Elemental were kind of written as a response to that. I felt like when the old lineup played those old EP songs, we were playing with bands that were kind of blowing us out of the water in the extremity of it, and then I realized: “I can write that shit, I can play that shit.” In a way the EP songs were written explicitly so that the old lineup could play them, but I realized that going forward I shouldn’t hold myself back and I should just write what I want to write and not compromise. Honestly even the old members were taking to it so I just did what I wanted to do and just tried to make everything as good as it could possibly be and challenge myself. Performing those parts live, and the singing and screaming over it is not easy and I feel like tonight and our show last night was when I really started feel comfortable doing that and yet I still feel like it still kicks my ass, it still really kicks my ass, but I’m never gonna stop challenging myself.
You two were always aware of the Advent EP, how do you feel Passage Elemental compares?
DH: It’s way way better.
RP: I agree, it is leaps and bounds better.
MF: It’s something I would listen to as a consumer of music, more than Advent. Even though I can appreciate moments of Advent where it’s nostalgic in some ways for the kind of emotions that I produces in the listener, I would say, as something that you’d want to jam out to I’m not sure it would be it.
RP: It’s more fun [Passage Elemental], it doesn’t take itself quite as seriously but at the same it’s serious.
DH: Yeah, I really love “The Nektarkin’s Plight.” I always saw Wandering Oak with the older lineup and they always played that and it’s a super iconic song for the band and I was a little sad we weren’t playing it on this tour, but not that sad since we’re playing newer songs. Though I would like to revisit that as a band…
I was about to say, do you see yourself possibly revisiting some of the material on Advent, reworked with the current mindset?
RP: Yeah there are plans to at least re-record “The Nektarkin’s Plight.” The EP itself is out of print and we will not be pressing more, because there is a member of the old lineup that we want nothing to do with, so their parts will be replaced.
DH: So it’s now an extreme collectors’ item and you should grab your copies now on eBay.
MF: Although revisiting Advent could be fun in a lot of ways, I think once we’re done with the tour, we’re gonna focus on moving forward. Songs that are already being written for the next album are like Passage Elemental on coke so yeah, it’s gonna take awhile to work them out in their entirety but I can say this is not the pinnacle of what Wandering Oak is capable of.
RP: I have a lot of material backlogged that I’ve been waiting to work on until this album was done and I can kind of echo what Monica said — as much of a great leap forward Passage Elemental is, the next album is probably gonna be another great leap forward. Maybe not as stark but things will be a lot more refined and I think that the emotional content will be much deeper. Not to say that Passage Elemental is frivolous or anything but I definitely feel that there’s some heavy emotion on this next few songs that dig a little deeper and as we actually work all of the songs out, I feel like compared to Passage, the next album will be a much more homogenous distillation of everything where each of these songs will probably be longer in general with more movements within the songs that flow through different styles as opposed to different songs of that style.
That’s exciting to hear, I can tell you’re all stoked on it. So we touched on a few influences of yours, what other bands inspire you all? Just to be able to give a picture of what is going into every part of the music as a collective,
RP: I feel an obvious one is Opeth, and I’ve based a lot of Advent off Opeth, which I think still exists in Passage like in “The Iron Horde.” Progressive metal bands like Enslaved, and a huge one is The Lord Weird Slough Feg.
MF: Oh yeah.
RP: A big influence, the way they incorporate folky melodies and aesthetic into more traditional heavy metal format as well as their sister band: Hammers of Misfortune. One of the most original metal bands ever, just the way their early albums meld all different sub-genres into something original. 70’s prog like Jethro Tull and Rush are a big influence, bands like those are a huge part of my musical pedigree. Early 70’s rock bands like Thin Lizzy and Judas Priest during that time, Metallica, Megadeth. More sophisticated black metal bands like Emperor and Celtic Frost. I tend to go for darker modern folk bands like Primordial, Moonsorrow, Myrkgrav, that’s a great one-
MF: You got this, I wanna watch the last band. I’d say what my drum influences are but there’s like 3 of them so I’d say listen to the album and find out, thank you.
RP: Umm, yeah, epic doom metal bands like Solstice, their second album New Dark Age changed my life. In high school I was exposed to early blues music, jazz, classical. Anything I listen to is an influence, if only to appreciate the fact that no matter how you’re trying to do it and keep an open mind, you can do something cool. I think I’ve covered just about everything, I could sit here and-
DH: Yeah, he could go on and sit here for ever and ever and ever and talk about every single artist he likes, he hasn’t even started.
RP: I feel like I’ve covered the big ones.
Fair enough, would it be sort of a similar situation for you?
DH: I mean I don’t really know how to answer this question because I don’t know how to separate what I like from what influences my playing.
RP: Like the formative stuff, like when you were picking things up. Like Geddy Lee is a big one-
DH: Yeah, I guess the first band I got into like that was Rush yeah. Actually, when I was even younger it was like Rancid.
It’s a great dichotomy because you get straightforward, no nonsense punk with the sophistication of Rush.
DH: Yeah, well Rancid has a really good bass player, and that always inspired me to be good, I guess. I sort outgrew punk so I don’t really listen to it, though I can still appreciate some of it. But yeah, I eventually developed a taste for jazz and prog and that’s more of what I think of what I think of my formative musical tastes, I don’t know. You know like the classics like Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, stuff like that. Rob actually helped me get into metal because I didn’t really listen to a lot of metal before that.
RP: Yeah, she kind of did the same for me when it came to progressive music. I had a burgeoning interest in it and when we started playing together, she showed me some weird ass bands and I showed her some heavy metal.
DH: Yeah, very give and take and complimentary.
RP: We’re still showing each other stuff still to this day.
DH: Yeah, I feel like I have a really good handle on what Rob likes and what I like and how we’re different. My musical tastes are very eclectic, I don’t really listen to that much metal because I just listen to so much stuff. Like all kinds of jazz fusion, and prog, and chiptune stuff, though that’s not really a genre since you can make chiptune versions of anything.
RP: Show me more 8-bit-core please.
DH: Yeah, I like weird minimalist and avant-garde stuff —
So, you guys really cover a lot of ground.
RP: I will kind of speak for Monica, because I don’t think she’ll mind that I say this: but she definitely comes from a black metal background. Taake is a big one for her, and one of our mutual favourites is Nevermore. I don’t wanna step on her toes too much.
DH: She likes some prog too, like she really loves Porcupine Tree, like we all love Porcupine Tree.
RP: She loves Opeth.
DH: Yeah, we all do.
RP: We’ve been sharing music with each other, like I played Below the Lights by Enslaved for her and she loved that. Joe, our lead guitarist, comes from more of a death metal background; specifically, a technical and progressive death metal background. He plays in Ferus Din which is a sort of a neoclassical black metal band and like, all the good solos on the album are him. All the really shreddy solos are him, and you can tell. You can tell the difference between my solos and him, his playing is so flawless, and I think we compliment each other well because I spent a lot of time developing my rhythm playing and riffing and he’s just a very advanced lead guitarist.
DH: He’s a shredder.
RP: Yeah, but he’s very tasteful and he comes from a technical death metal standpoint. We were just listening to Gorod on the way here and they’re just fuckin’ nuuuuuuuts.
Awesome man. So final question; you have Passage Elemental out now but you have this new material in the works, some songs fully done yeah?
RP: Well, there are a couple songs that have pretty solid skeletons to them, like one song is 13 minutes and another is 10. There probably won’t be as many songs since they are longer but time will tell how long it takes because now that we have an album out there that we can say “Let’s go do another tour next year” because doing this whole Northeast run with these babes [Wilderun] has been great, but there’s still more to be done.
So what can people expect to hear from Wandering Oak going forward?
RP: More sadness.
Awesome, thanks everyone.