By Rebecca Bulnes
By Lee Zimmerman
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The strongest, strangest folk-based music out of Western Europe sounds closer to medieval Bulgarian grain-threshing songs than anything from modern Scandinavia. But don't tell that to the members of Finland's "girl group" Värttinä, who have invented a delirium-inducing flavor of pop anchored to a seventeenth-century Finnish Karelian musical genre called reki and a far older form called runosong. Bassist Pekka Lehti and drummer Marko Timonen throw down hard dance rhythms over traditional-based melodies while Antto Varilo nurtures choppy Nile Rodgers-style guitar patterns freaky as Chic. Sax and bouzouki player Janne Lappalainen, together with violinist Kari Reiman and accordionist Markku Leppistö, often favor gritty Balkan gypsy flings over homegrown motifs.
If these wired-up folkies comprise the engine, Värttinä's four female vocalists provide the renewable energy source shooting out sparks of ferocious intensity on Live in Helsinki. Imagine 1970s Swedish pop group Abba at full ecstatic tilt in the middle of a climactic chorus. Establish that as the baseline from which Susan Aho, Mari Kaasinen, Riikka Timonen, and umlaut-blessed Kirsi Kähkönen begin, add dissonant harmonies, Eastern modalities, then dose the quartet with angel dust -- fallout from real angels, not the drug -- for an inkling of the women's ilk.
Songs on Live catch Värttinä producing the most elementally pagan sound you'll encounter anywhere in pop, a snarling, guttural, estrogen-charged aesthetic arching back to archaic precataclysmic days before the earth's poles flip-flopped, when the matriarchy ruled. On disc opener "Äijö" a quartet of she-devils emerges hissing from a cave as Kähkönen spits out an ancient snake incantation from medieval terrain so dark even the brothers Grimm wouldn't dare tell the tale. It's standard Finnish, but Kähkönen chose the most tortured phonemes she could find to give the poetry extra invective. "Käppee," which chronicles a cute but irritatingly dumb male, gets a rapid-fire a cappella vocal treatment packed with churning syllables and unfathomable vocables that fall on foreign ears like a cabalistic language. But it's not all ravens, thorns, and fly agaric mushrooms. Sweeter songs abound, though even traditional Karelian wedding ditty "Kyla vuotti uutta kuuta" is astringent despite the swelling harmonies, and stately "Meri" is the not-so-merry story of fathers and sons who perish at sea or die in wars.
The first eight Live cuts showcase a varied repertoire drawn from the band's last several albums, while the final six songs harness a whirlwind that's dubbed the "dance music section" of the disc. However you regard these feverish neovillage stomps -- as the product of a heavenly choir or the massed whine of dental drills -- the result is identical. You'll be worn down to a nubbin, barely able to lug the CD to your PC to watch the excellent if unsettling concert video of "Äijö" included on the disc. But whatever you do, don't set your CD player on repeat, or it will take a team of exorcists reciting something humdrum like the tax code to bring you back anywhere close to normal consciousness.
Värttinä's "Laulutyttö" takes its melody from an Arctic Circle song form so old it makes the runosong seem as contemporary as rap in comparison. It's based on the joik, a singing-chanting style belonging to the Sámi people, popularly known as Laps, who inhabit the ice-encrusted northern tip of Finland, Norway, and Sweden. Joiking resembles the vocal music of Native Americans and may have an origin in shamanistic rituals. You might think that modern culture would have marginalized the genre into obscurity, but Finland's Wimme Saari jolts the joik by yoking it to modern music trappings via three collaborations with Finnish techno jazzsters RinneRadio. OnGierran, the most accessible of his discs, the beautiful oscillations of Wimme's voice clamber up electronic soundscapes evoking natural sounds with a few honking saxophones tossed in as tribute to the reindeer population. If opening track "Iras" with reed and synthesizer power riffs doesn't rearrange your neural net, "Samil" (The Importance of Moss) will scare the genomes from your gonads when a joik re-emerges after a full six minutes of absolute dead-ass silence at the presumed end of the track.
Even more extravagant is his most recent entry, Cugu, which stretches the elasticity of the joik as close to the breaking point with its roots as possible. Title cut "Cugu" (Puppy) impressively balances Wimme's free-form yipping joy with robotic computer beats softened by the interplay between a quacking treated clarinet and unvarnished acoustic woodwinds. The tail wags the dog on the riskiest cut, "Texas." Imagine the main theme from the old TV western Bonanza rendered as a clamoring electronic rhythm that nearly bucks Wimme off its back as he whoops and bawls out "Texas, Texas, Texas, Texas." Wild it may be, but it reduces the channeling of the anima to mere animation. If the busy backing tracks increase their profile another notch, next time around Wimme may find himself as dispensable as an extra umlaut.