A holy death and an armoured Finland

PYHÄ KUOLEMA: Uusi panssaroitu Suomi

Release year: 2021
Label: Anima Arctica

Whilst there is neofolk from elsewhere too, in many ways the genre is a very European phenomenon. As a genre, it has always been tied to tradition, history and the past – and more often than not, in a very European fashion. That’s not to say one can’t make neofolk with other inflections, but for some reason that doesn’t seem to happen very frequently.

But, despite as a genre always having dealt in themes of nation, its past, its history, its people, its heritage and the currents and tides of time, often neofolk acts do not in any particularly large capacity represent a more local sound or spirit than a vague Europeanism. That is to say, I don’t think Rome sounds particularly Luxembourgian or Of The Wand And The Moon distinctly Danish. (Which, as should be needless to say, is not a point of criticism – both have created wonderful music.)

In fact, apart from the English pioneers of the genre – Death In June, Current 93, Sol Invictus, Fire + Ice etc., who do have a strong, abstract englishness to them – only German and Italian neofolk has a strong local sound to me. Not of course all neofolk acts from those countries, but there’s certainly a strong German spirit to, say, Forseti, Leger Des Heils and Darkwood; some intangible shared German essence in their sound. The same goes for, for example, Argine, Calle Della Morte and Egida Aurea from Italy: each has something in them which gives them a shared, uniquely Italian spirit. To be sure, the fact that each of these sing (primarily) in their native tongue has something to do with it, but it’s not only that. It’s far more abstract; even Spiritual Front, who do sing exclusively in English, have something Italian about them that I can’t quite describe.

Finnish neofolk can scarcely be called a subgenre, scene or style – it’s a fragment of one at best. It’s no exaggeration to say that Finnish neofolk has consisted of a mere handful of artists throughout the decades. In latter years, a not insignificant part of contemporary purveyors of the style have been in one way or another linked to the label Anima Arctica. Therefore it is not surprising that an album that could be lauded as the first truly Finnish neofolk album, one that truly embodies on a profound level something uniquely Finnish, is released on the label. At any rate, if there has been an album that has achieved the same before, I haven’t heard it.

Pyhä Kuolema have prior to this released two albums and a few smaller releases. The previous albums have explored the pretty standard form of singer-songwriter neofolk with emphasis on acoustic guitar and vocals. There has always been an undeniable Finnish spirit in the music – pretty much a given, considering Pyhä Kuolema’s lyrics are in Finnish – but on third album Uusi panssaroitu Suomi the band ascends to an entirely new level, creating a shining example for what can become a form of neofolk with a strongly Finnish character and identity.

In part, this is due to the expanded instrumentation and the wider emotional range provided by the augmented arrangements. At the core, Pyhä Kuolema’s expression retains the stark, stripped-down and even minimalistic foundation, but on Uusi panssaroitu Suomi it is fleshed out with bass, piano, synths and electric guitar. These are used with good taste, not self-servingly, and as such serve to emphasize and empower the quintessence of Pyhä Kuolema rather than altering or subverting it. This isn’t the first time Pyhä Kuolema use this wider arsenal of instruments, but never before has it been used to this effect.

With this increased arsenal of instruments, Pyhä Kuolema have crafted an album that is a significant step forward. There was a period of eight years between Uusi panssaroitu Suomi and its predecessor Kevättuulisormi, and in that time, Pyhä Kuolema have matured to an entirely new level.

And the end result is an album that echoes something quintessentially and uniquely Finnish. Musically, a significant element of this is certainly the addition of elements borrowed from Finnish rautalanka- and iskelmä-music, which could perhaps be characterized as neotraditional popular music forms that from the mid-twentieth century onwards have combined traditional Finnish musical sensibilities with imported popular music. Uusi panssaroitu Suomi utilizes the same weeping guitars and melancholy melodies, resonating instantly manifold familiar emotions and mental images with anyone from Finland.

There are overt references to Finnish national romanticism and the wider Finnish artistic tradition, to be sure: to name one obvious example, Metsämies paraphrases the classic poem by Aleksis Kivi. But the album is also far more subtle than that. Imbued not only in the music but also the lyrics, which contain many a highly beautiful and powerful turn of phrase, is an intangible sense of a Finnish spirit, wherein echo the beauty of Finnish nature and the trials, tribulations, triumphs and failures of the Finnish people. It’s one of those albums which just feels familiar on a deep, primordial level, in a way that cannot be defined or accurately described. For a Finn, this album echoes something that can only be described as home, a connection to that continuity of spirit and tradition that being Finnish is really about.

For those who understand the language, Uusi panssaroitu Suomi offers a complex, ambiguous and esoteric lyrical world. Though dealing in complex, controversial and potentially problematic themes such as nation, people and heritage, Pyhä Kuolema avoids simplifications, political mongering or sloganeering. The lyrics leave themselves open to a multitude of interpretations and readings, without offering obvious keys and ciphers to glean some singular truth. As is the tradition in neofolk, Pyhä Kuolema will at times confront the listener with controversial and thought-provoking esoteric imagery, but leaves the task of interpretation to the listener. Some of the lyrics may be troubling, but is it not the role of art to challenge?

Between albums, sole recording member Riimu Pöyhönen has found an entirely new level of charisma, vigour and vitality to his vocals. I suppose one still can’t call them exactly flawless purely technically, but there’s depth and strength to his singing that delivers the beautiful lyrics with suitable emotional breadth.

I fear that the bottom line of what Uusi panssaroitu Suomi is will come across as pompous and, especially considering it is a newly released album, rash. But here it is: Uusi panssaroitu Suomi is a monumental album. Though it contends in a small field, within the confines of Finnish neofolk it can most certainly already be hailed as milestone and, hopefully, in years to come as a landmark album in the task to forge truly Finnish neofolk, as opposed to “just” neofolk from Finland.

After well over 20 listens, I am still as enamored with this album as when I first heard it. In many ways, as I have become more familiar with the album, I have only grown to appreciate it more. Above all, it is a whole: the vocals complement the lyrics, the instrumentation and arrangements enhance the compositions, and the compositions bolster the lyrics. It would not be unreasonable to speculate that in years to come, this will be hailed as at least a small-scale classic of neofolk.

Summary: One of the first genuinely Finnish neofolk albums – if not the very first. Monumental.

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