July 2, 2012

Review: Valta by Alamaailman Vasarat


Slumber takes you, and as time passes, you slip into a vivid dream. You are at a heavy metal concert, and thrill to the first deep and doom-laden, viscerally crunching chords. Then you realize that what you thought were guitarists have morphed into cellists, and as the tempo shifts into double time a saxophone adds a frenetic melody. As you look around you find that you are actually sitting outside a cafe in Eastern Europe, and what started as a metal band is now playing klezmer. Some villagers are dancing – somehow it doesn’t strike you as odd that they are dancing the tango, or that evocative middle eastern melodies drop in and out of the tune. You glimpse palm trees, and then hear a jazz ensemble playing somewhere behind you as a marching brass band passes in front, with heavy metal riffs returning to punctuate their melody. But as you turn to watch, you are sitting in the corner of a deserted café in which the pianist is playing his way plaintively towards closing time. In your dream all of this makes sense; the transitions are not jarring but part of an oddly continuous dream logic in which you are in constant movement toward a destination that is ever on the tip of your tongue, yet each passing location is oddly right and vivid.

Such is the experience of listening to an album by Finnish band Alamaailman Vasarat (which translates as “Hammers of the Underworld”). Alamaailman Vasarat create hugely entertaining instrumental music that draws from a bewildering variety of world music genres and fuses them within a progressive-rock-like inclination towards ever-shifting rhythms and bombastic flourishes. You can see a sample of their work in this live performance of the marvelous track “Tujuhuju” from their last album, Huuro Kolkko:

Their latest studio album, Valta (“Power”), is newly released. It marks their fifteenth anniversary as a band and offers a worthy continuation of their unusual catalog. Like the band’s previous albums, this one is a riotous journey through the unlikely, founded in a gleeful disregard of genre boundaries and carried by an unfailing sense of musicality.

Valta opens insistently and closes pensively. The opening track, “Riistomaasiirtäjä” (listen here) immediately sets things in churning motion, setting out in a style that founding band member Stakula refers to as “Nu Orleans Street Baroque”. It plunges the listener into a relentlessly looping brass march that seems destined to repeat endlessly. The effect reminds me a little of the sorcerer’s apprentice scene in Fantasia – it shares that sense of something at once triumphant and fateful, gleeful and ominous, an initially confident rhythm that carries within itself the dawning realization that once in motion it may never be possible to escape into rest. A grinding of the gears about a minute and a half into the track offers brief respite, after which a jollier version of the march takes over. This, however, yields with a sense of inevitability to the original relentless drum and brass loop. In the end the only way out is for the tune to lurch lumberingly to a descending halt, like machinery winding down.

The album’s closing track, “Hirmuhallinto” (“Tyranny”), opens with the deceptive promise of a plaintive pump organ meditation before shifting into a gutsy metal chug grounded in the cellos and tubax (Stakula’s trademark specially modified contrabass saxophone; if you don’t think metal can be done with cellos and sax, take a listen.) As the rhythm lurches into a ponderously propulsive plod, the same plaintive melody repeats in shifting timbres, before things kick up a gear for a more driving middle section. Then we work back through the melody and the metal and are left with a tentative trumpet and a quietly slowing rhythm that gradually peters out to the sound of dripping liquid, ending the album on a rather philosophic note.

Between these bookends, the remainder of the album is a characteristically delightful musical journey, full of unexpected twists and turns. (Listen to “Hajakas” here). We wander from frantic double-time to sepulchral groans, from jazzy rhythms to sentimentally lyrical tunes, from snatches of sinuous eastern melody to sudden brass flourishes. Throughout, there is a perpetual sense of motion, with constantly shifting rhythm, timbre, and mood. At times a brief glimpse of one kind of music will momentarily surface in the midst of another, as if there are multiple musical personalities each itching to burst through into the foreground, none willing to be suppressed for very long. One never quite knows what direction things might take next.

All of this might suggest something chaotically thrown together for the sake of parody or novelty value, but that is not the case. True, Alamaailman Vasarat always sound as if they are having great fun, and I find the protean surprises of their carnivalesque compositions repeatedly bringing a smile to my face. It’s the kind of music that makes one want to keep turning to a companion and saying “did you hear what they just did?” It’s also the kind of music that compels visiting friends to ask what is playing. And yet the music is always tight and coherent, not just a random throwing together of disparate elements. Everything is superbly played, and the sheer pleasure of a good tune carries the listener across many a transition. Amid all the twists and turns, great hooks, infectious rhythms, strong composition and good musicianship carry the day.

If you have enjoyed any of Alamaailman Vasarat’s previous releases, you will find find fresh reasons to smile in Valta. If you are new to the band, I recommend you take a listen and find out what you’ve been missing.

Filed under Folk, Jazz, Reviews, Rock, World