The virtus of Tervahäät

TERVAHÄÄT: Virtus

Release year: 2022
Label: Anima Arctica

Virtus is a Roman word signifying – and I quote Wikipedia here for the sake of simplicity – “valor, manliness, excellence, courage, character, and worth, perceived as masculine strengths”. In other words, a specific set of characteristics for example Roman Emperors were expected to have.

Virtus is also the newest album by Finnish Tervahäät. For the sake of brevity, we can call Tervahäät a neofolk group – in the context of this album, it’s more or less applicable. Beyond it… well, I suppose it depends a lot on how rigidly you define neofolk as a musical expression. The more you immerse yourself in the genre, the less you will be able to do so; neofolk starts to come across more as a (sub)cultural context transcending mere stylistic trappings. As such, I don’t feel too uncomfortable applying the term to Tervahäät, even if it is with some reservations.

Behind Tervahäät you find people involved in projects such as Kaarna and Pyhä Kuolema (both of whose most recent albums we’ve reviewed: see here and here), but also, for example, extreme death metal act Devilry. And although some similarities are to be found to the two first mentioned acts on Virtus, from the start it is clear this this is its own entity, not any kind of “Kaarna meets Pyhä Kuolema” kind of collaboration.

Some of the similarities to Kaarna and Pyhä Kuolema are quite prominent. The occasionally quite odd, slightly off-beat synth sounds are a shared element with Kaarna. On the other hand, the powerful vocals of Mikko “Riimu” Pöyhönen, especially when combined with acoustic instrumentation, are an almost inevitable nod toward his Pyhä Kuolema. But, ultimately, just as these similarities seem prominent at first, are they also superficial. As you make your way deeper into the complex whole that is Virtus, its own unique nature becomes increasingly apparrent.

According to the label’s description, Virtus is the second part of Tervahäät’s “neofolk trilogy”. Now, as alluded above, in broad terms Virtus can be labelled neofolk – but it’s definitely not your stereotypical neofolk of strumming guitars and windchimes.

For sure, there are moments aplenty of acoustic guitar and dominating male vocals which fit neatly into the neofolk category. But from the very first seconds with opener Virta, Tervahäät veer into wildly different territory with electric guitars, synthesizers and electric bass. Hell, until the vocals start, it reminds me a bit of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds!

And then there’s Terästie, a track which certainly is not neofolk. In its centre is an electric guitar than sounds like a high-tension wire, and gruff, shouted vocals. There’s an industrialized post-punk vibe to this track, the inhuman coldness of gray concrete slabs and massive metal structures. Fitting for a track which takes inspiration from the railroad networks, which once upon a time were so vital in connecting the ends of the sparsely populated Finnish nation!

In contrast, some of the more acoustic tracks lean towards more typical national romantic atmospheres. Olympiadi, with lyrics lifted from Finnish poet Juhani Siljo’s 1910 poem Excelsior, follows Terästie with an almost diametrically opposite form. With its noble atmosphere, idealistic lyrics, and soft audial expression it does not even try to be in harmony with Terästie.

And it is in these contrasts, these moments where the industrialized, even archeo-futuristic sound conflicts with the tender and/or noble national romantic sound, that I glimpse the quintessence of Virtus. Already the design of the digipak points in this direction: mixing futurist design with national symbolism, it hints at an amalgamation of modernism and traditionalism.

On one hand, Virtus paints a picture of a future – or future past – of machines; of steel beasts thundering from south to north on roads of steel; the revelation of being and un-being found in storms of steel; of the holiness of electricity. But on the other hand, Virtus finds the eternal hidden behind facades of concrete and steel: wilderness behind highways; the blood and bone that turns the machine; and above – or beyond – all, a Finland to be found behind the paradoxes and contradictions of temporal and eternal.

Drawing deep from both archaic, national romantic poetry as well as more modernistic modes of expression, the lyrical world of Virtus is just as multifaceted as the musical. Themes of war, nation, nature, idealism and progress are explored in evocative verses. But it should surprise no one that the lyrics do not lend themselves to easy, simple interpretations. However, returning to the concept of “virtus”, in many ways the album seems to reflect these virtues upon aforementioned themes: what is the role of man, when machines wage war? What is the virtus of a steel beast thundering across broken landscapes?

Virtus is one of those albums that can be constantly rediscovered. Each successive playthrough will reveal some new element, some new interpretation, some new layer or level hitherto hidden. In the finest tradition of neofolk – neofolk in the broadest possible meaning of the term, one that can include the diverse discography of Ain Soph as well as the most archetypal forms – it is musically a diverse, experimental album drawing from a vast variety of sources.

Virtus is another example of why Anima Arctica are a label any neofolk (etc.) fan needs to keep tabs on. They don’t release a lot of stuff, but whenever they do, it’s something worth paying attention to. Last year, Pyhä Kuolema’s Uusi panssaroitu Suomi was not only the best neofolk album of the year, but the album of the year. After more than a dozen spins, I’m not quite as ready to declare Virtus the album of the year – but it will be a contender.

(Sorry, looks like there are no streams of this online. You’ll just have to visit Anima Arctica or one of their distributors and buy the damn album!)

Visit Tervahäät on Bandcamp

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