Saturday, 6 December 2008

Finnish Punks on Dope

Every now and then – I don’t mean to be disrespectful, just an observation – something quite wonderful and brilliant emerges from the Finnish milieu.

Sibelius, Jorma Kaukonen, Hanoi Rocks [!], Sielun Veljet [?].
Yeah, that’s right: Sielun Veljet.
And their album, Softwood Music: Under Slow Pillars, is one of my favourite records of all time.
Formed in the early eighties, Sielun Veljet began their career as a hard-nosed, post punk noise band singing only in Finnish and known for their quite spectacular live shows, some of which were reported to go on for more than four hours.
This album was the only album they made in English; and it was a radical departure from anything they had previously released.
It wasn’t just the change in language that made Softwood Music so different, Veljet’s sound had dramatically changed as well, adopting a more psychedelic, twisted folk flavour which worked incredibly well with Ismo Alanko’s remarkable and unique voice (think David Sylvian with bronchitis, after a heavy night of smoking cigars with Fidel Castro – although that doesn’t really do Alanko’s voice justice; as I said he’s unique, so it’s difficult to find a vocal simile).
I really don’t know what Poko Records’ strategy was when dealing with Sielun Veljet.The albums they released in Finnish were available in and out of Finland, and their album L’amourha (1985) sold reasonably well throughout Europe.
However, when the band came to release Softwood Music, Poko limited its distribution to within the confines of Finland; pretty odd for an album that was sung in the English language!
As a consequence of its commercial failure [!] the band split, making Softwood Music their last original release.
A real shame, as it was by far their best.
But I guess its best to go out with a bang; not a whimper.
I’m not sure why the band decided to change to the English language for this recording, except they do sing about very universal subject matter; and are perhaps singing in English for the same reason such bands as Can and Amon Düül sang in English.
I have no idea either as to why they radically changed their sound from a fairly generic hard, arty, post punk sound to this wonderful blend of full-on psychedelia and twisted folk, mixed up with some ragga beats and East European, Romany sounding strings, but I’m really glad they did.
And as for the instruments they use to achieve some of the sounds that accompany the songs, well I’m not sure, but some of them sound as if they could well be alive.
Something that did obviously happen to the band, which quite possibly had an effect on their sound, is they turned-on.
And they encouraged all their listeners to do the same:
‘Now’s the time for all the honest citizens to turn to
Now’s the time for all the honest citizens to turn to crime.’
The lyric then informs the listener as to how a bucket-bong is assembled and used, recommending its value, as ‘You’ll never have a better smoke’.
Overall, this has to be one of the most THC saturated albums ever made; way beyond the conventions of ‘Stoner’.
The stoned sounds heard here seem to drift and meander, wafting through space like clouds of pollen and kief.
The fact the album sounds like it was recorded in a mediaeval castle in the middle of a Finnish birch forest adds to its extremely twisted flavour; and the fact that it was actually recorded in a sound studio in Helsinki only goes to show that this is a masterful recording, and the arrangement and production of the album is quite superb.
Sielun Veljet - Softwood Music: Under Slow Pillars (1989)
Mushroom Moon
I Wanna be a Frog
Life is a Cobra
Woe! The Maiden of my Heart
Immortal Bliss
Evil Kübl
Vicious Waltz
Hey-Ho Red Banana!
The Beast has Taken Over in my Mind Again
Old Masterpiece
Living in a Twisted World
Immaculate vinyl rip @320kbs

I highly recommend this album.
Nearly everyone I have played this album to asks for a copy of it.
As I said, it is unique.
And hey, there’s just not enough nice surprises in life; so download yourself a right nice surprise here


michaelDUSTdevil said...

after reading that, i'm just going to have to try me some... Mxxx

roy rocket said...

So what do you think of our Finnish friends?
Quite beautiful, isn't it?
Shanti, roy

michaelDUSTdevil said...

absolutely bleedin' great!!!... cheers for the turn on, i owe you one... Mxxx

Peter said...

Unique is right! Regarding the voice, I can hear Guy Keyser (Thin White Rope) and Captain Beefheart in there as well, although as you mention Ismo Alanko really sounds like nobody so much as himself...

roy rocket said...

Yeah, unique.
I'm not sure as to the American comparisons; he's got a distinctly European voice, I feel; and I think it's the lack of Americanization of Alanko's voice that makes it sound so different.
Cheers for the thought, Pete.
Kiitos, roy

The Best Cuts of Music said...

This is absolutely one of the best things I've heard all year!

roy rocket said...

Really glad you enjoy it.
It's one of my beyond Zappa favourite albums.
Shanti, roy

Anonymous said...

Surely you're joking? Their best work? Sielun Veljet and Ismo is best heard in their native tongue. KJ from Sweden

roy rocket said...

They sound great in their native tongue; but that post punk sound they exemplified sounds rather dated to me, and doesn't have a distinct identity (remember I am an English speaker, so am viewing their work very much as an outsider).
This album transcends time and place, and if heard for the first time sounds bloody amazing.
I don't think their Finnish albums, although very good, would have such an impact, especially on monoglots like myself.
Thanks for your comment.
Kiitos, roy

Anonymous said...

Well, Finnish is almost equally foreign to me (except the usual profanities). You don't have to understand the language to appreciate the music.I just like the sound of Ismo's voice in the Finnish albums. That particular quality, Finnish is an aggressive sounding language, is lost in "Softwood". And "dated", I don't know about that. At least I'm not bored.
KJ in Sweden.

roy rocket said...

Maybe Ismo was not as angry as he used to be.
Maybe he had matured.
He directs his polemic differently here: 'Living in a Twisted World' is a great example of that.
And I guess with all the interest now in the twisted folk and psyche-folk scenes this recording sounds incredibly pertinent.

You don't have to dislike something because it's dated.
Baroque chamber music and surf punk are two very dated genres; but I still listen to both and find them very enjoyable.

Hej, roy

Sage said...

Can't believe I have only just stumbled upon this little gem - another winner.


Spiring said...

I just want to add that they did indeed release one more album in English, "Shit-hot" under the name L'Amourder. It's mainly Sielun Veljet songs that had been translated to English, but I believe at least several (maybe all) of the backing tracks were re-recorded. Well worth looking for, even if I agree with KJ above that the Finnish vocals sound better.

(L'Amourder also released a mini-LP and a 12" before the LP.)