I could quickly tell solo project Virta's debut full-length Elon Syvä Lempi (2011), was going to become a fast favorite. Hailing from the isolated market village of Kristiinankaupunki, multi-instrumentalist Santtu Forsström's mesmerizing, guitar-based harmonies with lively bass and percussion work is a beautiful, organic tribute to his home. Forsström's expert fusion of progressive rock structuring and what can now be known as the "Finnish school of neofolk" has garnered comparisons to countrymen Tenhi, who follow a similar approach in songwriting. Carefully crafted and artfully arranged, Virta's dark, touching folk music is both rich in nuances and subtleties, whether it be the shifting, progressive nature of Forsström's songwriting or the sublime heights it achieves even in its quietest moments. Multiple listens will suit this best, though I suspect many of you will not be able to stop after the first few minutes.
Heralding a new age in stripped down, conservative neofolk is modern day bard Mikko Pöyhönen's excellent Pyhä Kuolema. Focusing on the nakedness of unaccompanied voice and strummed acoustic guitar, Pyhä Kuolema's debut album Saavun Vaikken Kulkisi (2011) hearkens back to a time before extended instrumentation and atmospheric indulgence, when songwriting was the main aspect of neofolk. Think more Douglas P than Matt Howden and you begin to get the idea. Pöyhönen's succinct and powerful songwriting is no doubt the result of countless sleepless nights researching poetic structure and rhythmic nuance, resulting in this short-ish collection of catchy, memorable songs. The centerpiece and focal point of this album, I find, is Pöyhönen's masterful vocal arrangements, at times going as far as layering four or five layers of harmony above and below the main melody track. Normally such indulgent harmonizing can lead to the eventual masking of the original melody, yet Pöyhönen is able to keep the melody clear among his many voices. Glorious simplicity. Expect new material on Brave Mysteries and Pesanta Urfolk next year.
I've kept Tervahäät last because, well, it is hard to find the right words to perfectly encapsulate this odd Finnish duo's haunting music. Tervahäät's self-titled debut, released three years ago, was a formless meditation in darkness, taking neofolk to the furthest realms of abstraction. Strange washes of banjo, deep chanting voice, and drones led the listener through bleak landscapes of lifeless, snow-covered forests and vast, empty plains. It was as beautiful as it was unsettling. This past October, Tervahäät returned with Kalmonsäie, a beautifully packaged six-panel digipak, which also came with a new face for the project. Shedding their previous hyperabstraction, the duo of Antero Kaarna and Ilmari Akkanen have added a new layer of structure to their previously amorphous project which, though taking away from the group's initial mystique, gives them more space to grow. Utilizing primitive tribal percussion and rhythmic bass lines, Kalmonsäie manifests itself as a completely different beast, highlighting this duo's songwriting talent. Tonally, we find a distinction between the often harsh, distorted instrumentation and rich, crystal clear vocal recordings (save the black metal inspired "Lumelleluvattu"). The already tinny nature of the oft-used banjo is suddenly dragged through the most glorious bed of glass dust and counteracts the "perfect" feel of the voice. This duality is a constant throughout this album, perhaps representing the life hidden beneath the dense blankets of snow, waiting to be born again the next Spring. Tervahäät is one of those hidden gems in neofolk which will, without a doubt in my mind, pose as an immediate challenge to the casual listener, but closer listening unveils infinite depth, perfectionism, and reverence.
Support excellent music made by excellent people. Streaming tracks from each of these releases available at the Anima Arctica website.