1. Tulevien Aikojen Luurangot (3:56)
2. Parahin Nikola (5:02)
3. – (3:05)
4. Pimeys On Ystävä (12:59)
5. Tulvien Jälkeen (4:24)
6. Fantasmagoria (10:18)
7. Valkoinen Sumu Nousee (5:24)
8. Pakenevan Veden Voima (8:32)
Annina Antinranta – vocals
Antti Harmainen – guitars
Jussi Oskari – bass, bass pedals
Jussi Matikainen – drums
Though at least nominally part of the celebrated Scandinavian scene, Finland has always been somewhat of a mysterious object in the European context, especially as regards progressive rock. In comparison with neighbouring Sweden, Finland seems to be better known for its wealth of metal bands – both of the extreme and the symphonic persuasion (names like Amorphis or Nightwish come to mind). On the other hand, the country’s contribution to the progressive movement should not be discounted – with Seventies bands such as Tasavallan Presidentti, Wigwam and Finnforest, as well as its later contribution to the RIO/Avant scene with iconic acts such as Höyry-Kone and their offshoot Alamaailman Vasarat. Thanks to Finland’s thriving cultural milieu, the level of musicianship of Finnish bands and artists is also quite high, and homegrown acts are likely to receive quite a lot of attention, in spite of the pervasive presence of mass-produced music from the English-speaking world.
Between the mid-Nineties and the beginning of the 21st century, I spent almost six years in Finland, which will always hold a special place in my heart. It has therefore been a pleasure for me to review the two CDs that, at the end of last year, were brought to my attention by my friend Eetu Pellonpää. Although both of these bands might be easily defined as obscure, their albums offer as much interesting material as those released by higher-profile acts. In spite of their obvious musical differences (which will clearly emerge from my reviews), they have something in common besides their geographical provenience: they both have female vocalists, and they both sing in their native language – a language that, like Italian, is vowel-rich and adapts very well to being put to music.
A quartet currently based in the Helsinki area, Tuvalu (called after German director Veit Helmer’s 1999 movie of the same name) have been around since 2003, and released three albums In spite of that, they seem to have flown almost completely under the radar of the numerous online publications dedicated to progressive rock. Though released in the early months of 2010, their eponymous third album has been reviewed mainly on Finnish websites, and a Google search turned out only a couple of comments on English-language sites. Tuvalu’s music, however, holds quite a few elements of interest for open-minded prog fans – the kind who do not balk at interpretations of the prog ‘language’ that differ from the traditional symphonic one. Indeed, from what can be heard on this album, Tuvalu’s sound owes much more to The Mars Volta than to Yes or Genesis, though the influence of Rush and King Crimson can also be clearly detected. The presence of a female vocalist with a strong personality like Annina Antinranta is an added bonus. Annina (who is also responsible for the lyrics) is not an over-the-top soprano in the mould of her celebrated fellow Finn Tarja Turunen, but her commanding, confident voice can handle a variety of moods and styles.
All of the tracks on Tuvalu feature vocals, with the exception of the untitled ‘ghost track’ occupying the third slot, which is also the album’s only instrumental. With two tracks clocking in at over 10 minutes, and another at 8, there is plenty of ‘epic’ material to please those who are not satisfied by shorter, snappier offerings. At 58 minutes, the overall running time is quite restrained for these times, and allows listeners to take in the music without weariness setting in halfway through the album. Though the music as a whole tends to be somewhat on the aggressive side, with a powerful rhythm structure and supercharged riffing, the overall effect is nicely balanced by moments when the instruments create haunting, rarefied atmospheres with a definite psychedelic bent.
As previously suggested, the blueprint is The Mars Volta’s blend of hardcore aggression, wistful, Latin-tinged melodies and trippy electronic moods, with more than a hint of the steely, streamlined approach of King Crimson from the ‘80s onwards, as well as Rush’s marriage of accessibility and complexity. Opener “Tulevien Aikojen Luurangot” (Skeletons of the Future) combines a simmering sense of tension with rhythmic explosions that push the drums at the forefront; Annina Antinranta delivers her own dark, somewhat skewed lyrics with remarkable clarity and self-assurance. In the following number, “Parahin Nikola”, the intensity is tempered by more sedate instrumental breaks punctuated by spacey sound effects. The latter are the undisputed protagonists of the ‘ghost track’, which distinctly brings to mind the ‘noise’ sections of The Mars Volta’s 2005 album Frances the Mute.
In typical rollercoaster-ride style, the epic “Pimeys on Ystävä” (Darkness Is a Friend) – a tad patchy, yet fascinating – alternates bursts of manic energy with slower, more subdued passages that showcase Annina’s vocal versatility; the insistent, interlocking guitar lines conjure strong echoes of King Crimson circa Discipline. The second epic, “Fantasmagoria”, throws some doomy, Sabbath-like moments into its frantic, riff-driven, Rush-meets-TMV fabric. “Valkoinen Sumu Nousee” (White Fog Rises) features shouting, punk-like vocals before calming down a bit, while “Tulvien Jälkeen” (After the Floods) reveals the melodic, atmospheric side of the band, with muted vocals and measured, bell-like guitar sounds.
From the above description, it should be clear enough that fans of the more melodic incarnations of prog might find Tuvalu not exactly to their taste. Anything sporting a strong Mars Volta influence is bound to come across as an acquired taste – with the added drawback of vocals in a language that, for most people, is nothing short of impenetrable, and distinctive, grey-hued artwork that seems to reflect the brooding quality of the music. On the other hand, open-minded lovers of progressive music might do worse than to give this album a listen, and possibly more than one. Tuvalu can definitely hold their own on the ‘modern prog’ scene, and deserve far more exposure than they have got so far.