From the creative cauldron of Western New York’s fertile underground metal culture comes the triumphant cacophony of Ferus Din, a ferocious folk-black metal band that is the brainchild of Andrew McGirr and Allana Sturm. The debut album The Great Dying is out now on Tridroid Records. I’m kind of old school (well, maybe just old), so when I hear “blackened folk metal,” I expect something that sounds like it was recorded under a gibbous moon in the middle of the woods with a boombox and a hand-held microphone. Joe Leising (Rotten Metal Recording), besides contributing guitars and bass for the album, did a fantastic job on the recording, mixing and mastering. The mix on The Great Dying has great separation: Allana’s flute and vocals, Andrew’s vocals and crushing guitar work, clearly audible bass, and the pulverizing drums of CW Dunbar. I never thought I’d be conducting an interview in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic, but given the lyrical content of the songs on The Great Dying, it feels somehow wholly appropriate.
First and foremost, how’s it going? Allana, you said you were in Germany… how is it over there?
Allana Sturm: Yes, I’m here for a bit longer. Festival season in Germany was of course completely sabotaged by the virus but the country has been so regulated and cooperative with the quarantine and infection precautions that things are beginning to normalize.
Are you allowed to travel back to the US?
AS: Because I’m a US citizen, I am permitted to fly back into the country, and fortunately New York state has been doing a great job so far controlling it.
Since playing live is banned at the moment in the US, how are you guys holding up?
Andrew McGirr: The challenge for me is sanity, since every day seems to reveal unprecedented and yet unsurprising levels of stupidity from White House “leadership” and the throngs that suck down those conspiracies as through a straw. You say live shows are banned in the States, and indeed they should be, and yet they happen. It’s that kind of behavior that’s going to keep us from actually enjoying shows again in any short order. The key to surviving that dissonance right now is to turn it off and count your blessings: got a job? Unemployment money? A supportive significant other? Adorable pets? Recognize them and be thankful. That’s what I do, at least.
From what I can tell, you’ve both been involved in other metal projects (Throne of Wilderness, Hubris and many others) in the Buffalo, New York area prior to Ferus Din. What was the impetus behind putting together Ferus Din?
AS: One morning I woke up and Andy was sitting at his laptop with a crazed look, not having slept yet, and said “I wrote a thing…”
That song was?
AM: Haha, “As Yet Untitled.” Expect that song on the second full-length. It represented a way I thought we could connect as a couple, which still brings us together as good friends. Neither Throne of Wilderness nor Hubris provided the outlet for a specific kind of creativity I felt brewing for us: a hybrid black-folk metal rather like Enslaved, Taake, Moonsorrow. However, as we developed melody-building, counterpoint, and song structure, it was clear that this was more classical than folk, and as such, the impetus became striving for excellence so to let Ferus Din be what it would be and to discover how our different members express themselves in it. That’s why the songwriting varies so greatly and yet is cohesive.
Allana, you are such a dynamo on stage! How hard is it to control your breath when switching back and forth from extreme vocals to playing the flute?
AS: First of all, thank you for asking. Nobody ever thinks of the woodwind player’s struggle. It’s definitely a test in breath control and takes some strategizing for each song. Where I’m going to be able to breathe, when I can take the mic and walk around… because I don’t like to just stand there. So, as lame as it sounds I have to choreograph a bit!
One of the very first things I noticed about The Great Dying was how good it sounds. Was it a conscious decision to lean away from the lo-fi/primitive sound quality that some people might associate with black metal?
AM: Since we built this group in a classical writing style, the parts contain intricate counterpointing melodies that need clarity; if the mix was too lo-fi and fuzzy, the depth of those layered relationships and therefore the big picture would be lost. We were lucky to have a guitarist who was also our recording engineer. Joe Leising (Pig Rectum/Enthauptung) came at this difficult task from his recording tech expertise and also from his techdeath/slam background, and I’m glad we were open to this approach. At one point during our extensive mixing process, I remember him saying, “I finally will achieve my goal of making a record sound like a Decapitated album.” It was an odd approach for a black metal project, but it’s crushing, and everyone notices. So yes, that was a conscious decision, and every move was chosen slowly and thoughtfully.
Was there anything done in the studio that you guys found worked particularly well for getting your sound?
AM: Guitar tone (and tone in general) building was a strenuous process, taking the better part of a recording day. I remember playing that chuggy line at the beginning of “Armus” a thousand times while Joe tried everything he could before settling on guitar tone. CW Dunbar’s (Hubris/Pig Rectum) drum tone building also took most of a recording day.
The vocals are super intense, especially on the epic “Armus, Exile.” Was it a pretty straightforward process to achieve that level of passion?
AM: The passion is already embedded in the music, and the lyrical content reflects that energy. Your example “Armus, Exile” is about the psychological despair of parts in our mind that have been damaged and abandoned, told through the narrative of Armus, the being who kills Tasha Yar in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The passion generates itself, and performing that passion was rehearsed thoroughly before recording. The same applies to the whole album, and really everything we do musically.
Buffalo has historically been such a great breeding ground for extreme metal. What is it about the area that makes it so fertile?
AM: Western New York is a region of hardship. For half the year, the sky brings neither warmth nor light, so many residents suffer from seasonal affectiveness disorder. Buffalo’s shambling economy is clearly symbolized by its monuments: a wasted waterfront populated by dilapidated monoliths of failed industrial past. The poverty is pervasive, but it also takes sides; Buffalo remains one of the most racially segregated cities in the nation. So to live in WNY takes grit and solidarity. We came together in our different groups to form a scene that allowed us to express some of this immense darkness and weight, to transform it into something cathartic, uplifting, even positive. If you want more insight on the history, I recommend Brian Pattison’s Glorious Times.
I really enjoyed reading the lyrics on The Great Dying, especially the references to mythology and science. What influences, literary or otherwise, do you bring to the table when you’re working on an idea for a song?
AS: Many of the more scientific aspects were coming from me. I’ve had a longtime obsession with earth sciences and astronomy. I’ve always reflected on the power of natural processes and events of catastrophe in awe. This, coupled with a hearty love for fantasy and sci-fi has given me an imaginative plane on which I visualize these themes.
AM: As a literature scholar, I was inspired by the challenge of writing about these natural processes that inspired Allana, so together we tried to find ways to write about science poetically, to show that the universe is figurative and narrativistic in itself. Often it is downright epic, as in the title track. “The Great Dying” is about the cataclysmic end of an entire era of life on Earth; it is a staggering tragedy worthy of epic style; the real challenge was to write an epic so brief, with no human characters, only personified celestial bodies, flora, and fauna from the Permian era. So the inspirations here ranged from natural science to Star Trek to epic poetry of ancient civilizations.
Allana, what drew you to the flute? I’m no expert, but I hear something more orchestral in your playing than the somewhat odd/unique way Ian Anderson plays (sorry for the Tull reference, I know that’s a bit obvious, it’s just that I’m a lifelong fan).
AS: I started out messing around with Irish whistles and folky stuff a while back then eventually picked up classical flute because it has a larger chromatic range, and it’s just a lovely instrument. Ian Anderson’s style is so unique; it’s kind of a blues/folk/classical blend, whereas I’m definitely more folk/classical. I believe my style is very much developing still on the instrument and in its application in Ferus Din, so I think we can expect some evolution in the wind parts of future work.
Andrew, I absolutely love the guitar work on “The Great Dying”. There seems to be a little bit of everything there: buzzsaw style tremolo picking, of course, but also very tasty melodic riffs, atonal passages, even some bits that wouldn’t have been out of place in power metal. How did you develop such a wide range of techniques?
AM: I appreciate that praise and the question very much. I am a classically-trained violinist with a music theory education; I know how to build melodies and develop them, and I know how to find voices that support those melodies without overshadowing them, but that are still good melodies themselves. I’ve found that black metal is an open template as long as you’re not a gatekeeper neckbeard, so I’ve tried to incorporate multiple influences across genres and to continue learning along the way. I took guitar lessons from Mike Willard (Weapon-Ex), a really good prog player in Buffalo around the time I wrote this album with Allana, and I tried to apply what I learned from him in real time in the writing process. Keep in mind, too, that many of the most technically-demanding passages were performed by Joe Leising, who grew up learning Necrophagist solos for fun and who can play anything you put in front of him.
Black metal (or extreme metal in general) never did break into the mainstream, though it has sometimes flirted with notoriety for all the wrong reasons. As a band that plays such uncompromising music, how hard is it to keep momentum going when faced with mainstream indifference? Or is that, in a strange way, an asset… underground music should thrive in the underground?
AS: As far as mainstream recognition goes, I don’t personally know many musicians that actually care about that. It’s about making art and channeling energy, in whatever sense that might be. It’s more important to me that the art has the opportunity to be appreciated by the undoubtedly obscure cross-section of minds that might. Of course being deemed both black metal and blackened folk has been a bit of a struggle because people have their genre definitions, and I don’t think we really actually fit anyone’s.
AM: I agree with Allana that it’s not the point here, and in the first place, the social media age makes mainstream relevance irrelevant. Interconnected audiences form circles of influence, and getting to know people is the best way to start playing for those circles. Hubris played a couple shows with Mary Spiro, so when we started Ferus Din, she already knew my name, and Allana’s. Keeping in touch and sharing our music with people who actually care got us a spot on Shadow Woods Metal Fest when we were still a fairly new band. So now, instead of the goal being marketing the music to millions by a commercial mogul, the whole mission is to find people for whom this music is meaningful, special, important, and to build artistic communities that feel that way.
How can our readers get their hands on The Great Dying?
AS: Our Bandcamp has digipaks available and Tridroid has these awesome new cassettes!
That last word here is yours… let us know what you’re up to and what might be coming next from Ferus Din.
AS: I’d personally love to see us get another full length recorded and celebrate it with a tour next year. We are sitting on tons of material and we’ve all been writing in quarantine, so there’s no excuse!
AM: Hubris is still active as well, and each member of this band has other projects for readers to explore. There are some solo projects brewing as we speak, and readers can expect announcements soon. Much music to come.