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The Unnamable

Oak's metal maelstrom defies easy categorization

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Oak brings it down--way down.

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Oak plays the Talking Head Aug. 20.
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By Michael Byrne | Posted 8/19/2009

Take a Black Sabbath song--a slowly churning, howling, riffing Black Sabbath song--and stuff your thumb down on it like a bug. Spread it thin and try to squish it right out of the third dimension--this is the essence of an Oak song, according to the Baltimore doom outfit's drummer, Derrick Hans, a young fellow who looks, awesomely, cropped from the '70s. He and his bandmates are sitting on the front porch of his bandmate Aaron Kirkpatrick's Hampden house, and much of the conversation is spent trying to figure out exactly just what it is that the four-piece does.

The one thing that can be said for sure about Oak is that it's on to something radically different, not just in doom, but metal itself. In many reviews, including from this paper, the band gets compared to Burning Witch, a doom-metal band that's slow, but not down to glacial speed--its Sabbath leanings are somewhat recognizable. Oak, rather, is making music in a kind of slow-motion time warp. It's not necessarily hitting on ambiance like black metal band Wolves in the Throne Room or fellow doom outfit Bloody Panda, but taking the intensity of brutalist black metal and dragging it out until it becomes, well, uncomfortable.

We're "holding notes until it's unbearable," says Danny McDonald, the band's guitarist and principle songwriter. Recorded in a converted barn in rural Pennsylvania over a few mostly sleepless and very bleary days, Oak's self-titled debut (not including a pair of very black- and death-metal previous demos) is four songs long, with the shortest being about eight minutes and the longest about 14. It opens with a long, piercing spear of feedback that shifts back and forth between a single very eerie and strangely pretty guitar note. Jo Gonzalez, the band's "throat," is making growling sounds that sound all the more inhuman because they're moving at roughly the speed of continental drift. Drums hit not in blast beats or even heavy-metal rhythms, but instead in giant, singular crashes that announce new notes or new ideas.

"As a drummer it's kind of fun," Hans says. "Like, everyone relies on when I hit."

"The hardest part is really making it all tight," McDonald adds. "Anybody can make [music] really slow, but to get everybody to play slow together . . ."

"If you're playing fast, there's room for sloppiness," Hans adds. "Every little bit counts that much more if there's less of it."

The band doesn't sound too certain about how Oak got to be quite so slow. After playing in a range of heavy bands from crust-punk to sludge to hardcore to metal, Gonzales and McDonald came together in 2005 with two other, since-departed members and made relatively uptempo black and death metal.

Eventually, Oak just got more confident and bold in songwriting, hunting through strange places for a proper stylistic outlet. "It's really easy to play music that's sad and depressing," McDonald says. "Or people think it's a really easy thing. It's hard to really get it in motion. A lot of people have the idea that it's an easy emotion to express through music."

Indeed, the tones of Oak's music betray less menace and horror-film homage (signatures of black metal) than oppressive, all-consuming bleakness. There's an anxiety created by so much space--black cavities seem to form around the notes, like this slowly beating vein of song is the only thing keeping you from falling forever through something very cold and dark.

McDonald explains that most everything Oak does is written on a beat-up acoustic guitar. "I have a really shitty guitar at [my] house--it's what I write everything on," he says. "Strings haven't been changed in maybe a year and a half. It's, like, if you play this [note or passage] and it's amplified, it's going to be so crushing."

From there, Gonzales writes lyrics, mostly about "the occult, black magic, the black arts--things to do with the earth" and, naturally, mostly unintelligible.

Metal and heavy music in general is a world of very tight genres--hardcore, grindcore, death metal, black metal, and the list goes on--and fans don't especially like their formulas fucked with. This puts a band like Oak that doesn't fit in any genre in an uneasy position. To hear the band tell it, Oak is one of the most room-clearingest metal bands in Baltimore. "We're always the odd band out," bassist Aaron Kirkpatrick says. "Hardcore shows, punk shows, death metal shows. . . I don't really think any bands do what we do."

Oddly enough, the one show Oak can recall playing where the crowd was uniformly into it was at the old Talking Head on Davis Street with the since-defunct electronic ambient-improv band Wzt Hearts. "Our new stuff is really weird," Kirkpatrick says of the material Oak is writing for its follow-up record. "Some is even slower, and occasionally some more straight-forward death metal."

"The new one would be like Yes if you took Rick Wakeman out of it," Hans adds--as if that explains just what in the hell kind of music they're making.

E-mail Michael Byrne

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