Songs from the valleys of Nangijala

ABSOLUTE KEY: Lauluja laaksoista

Release year: 2023
Label: Tampereen levyt

My issue with music and artists labelled as “experimental” is that if the artist has an established sound, is it experimental anymore? Take for example various artists within post-industrial music: from album to album, they seem to employ largely the same methods to create a sound which is identifiable, has continuity from one release to the next and, in essence, have an inner convention even if the music sounds unconventional when viewed from the mainstream. In other words, if the experimental nature of the artist isn’t ongoing, ever changing and evolving in essential ways, when does “experimental” become something else?

The reason of me musing this here is that Absolute Key have thus far succeeded in being truly experimental. This is the third review by the Finnish one-man act we’ve reviewed (see the others here and here), and all of them have greatly differing sound from each other. Lauluja laaksoista (Songs from the Valleys or Songs about the Valleys) is, in terms of Absolute Key’s own context, by far the most left-field and the most experimental of them.

Where both Sundust and The Third Level Of Decay explored an esoteric, occult combination of black metal and industrial noise – with quite different approaches – Lauluja laaksoista takes on a far more abstract, less abrasive and distinctly un-metallic sound. It’d be wrong to call it ambient or calm, but there are leanings in that direction.

But it’s not only that. Thematically, too, Lauluja laaksoista is definitely left-field. Gone are the apocalyptic, eschatological visions – replaced by lyrics adapted from and inspired by The Brothers Lionheart, a classic children’s book from 1973 by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren (most known for her iconic Pippi Longstocking books). Well, I certainly never thought I’d be talking about Astrid Lindgren on this website! Anyhow, globally The Brothers Lionheart may not be all that known, at least not anymore, but just about everyone my age from the Nordic countries will be familiar with the book and/or the movie adaptation from 1977. For a children’s book, it’s a rather somber tale of two brothers, who heroically rise up to resist a tyrannic despot in the magical land of Nangijala. You can surmise something of the rather unconventional approach of the book from the fact that it starts with both main characters dying – Nangijala is the afterlife.

Anyhow, the fantastic story tackles rather complex concepts for a children’s book. Heroism, brotherly love, camaraderie and resisting evil without resorting to violence are contrasted by stark depictions of evil, death and darkness – and even suicide, with considerable ambiguity. Absolute Key manage to capture this dualism well on Lauluja laaksoista, channeling both the almost naïve belief in good and the sinister evil of Tengil, incarnated in the terrifying dragon Katla, and of the determined resistance which ultimately leads to victory, requiring the ultimate sacrifice from the namesake brothers.

Absolute Key creates abstract post-industrial audioscapes over which mainly spoken-word vocals recite scenes and lines adapted from the book. Simple melodies played by guitar, bass and synths are accompanied by various industrial drones, rumbles and effects. Percussive elements vary from the almost tribal to oppressively dominant. What results from this are not so much songs and compositions, as audial counterparts and complementaries to the story fragments in the lyrics.

A track like Sininen retki (Blue Trip) captures the mystery, wonder and beauty of first experiencing a wondrous new land through echoing synths and plodding effects; a bass melody keeps it from becoming too ambient. The next track, Kaksi laaksoa (Two Valleys), echoes the earthen mystery of wooded, isolated valleys and uncharted lands; the overlaid jazzy saxophone is almost like a nod towards the soundtracks of Swedish movies from The Brothers Lionhearts’ era – trippy jazz was quite commonly heard even in children’s movies of the time. On the other hand, Hänen katseensa oli kuolemanvarjo (His Gaze was a Shadow of Death) is decidedly oppressive with harsh metallic clanging and electric guitar – probably the closest to more “traditional” Absolute Key.

The album alternates between these shades of light and peaceful shade, and on the other hand darkness and the cruel, naked light revealing evil – the distorted chugga-chugga on Läpäisimme pimeyden (We Pierced the Darkness) is like thunder and lightning, and the rumble of a dragon. The resulting album is at first a demanding listen, which most likely will take a few tries to open itself. And, I’d say, understanding the lyrics is pretty crucial, as they set the important context for the tracks. Knowing the source story helps, too.

Lauluja laaksoista is not quite without precedent in Absolute Key’s discography. In 2020, the project released the album Puut kantavat valoa, which too was almost entirely free of any blackened shades and metal elements. The kinship between it and Lauluja laaksoista is amplified and underlined by the similar artwork on the albums, both courtesy of Finnish artist Katri Siippainen. However, Puut kantavat valoa did not have a similar unifying concept or theme to it, and as such, Lauluja laaksoista comes across as a more tightly-knit whole. And, in this case, comes off the stronger for it.

Lauluja laaksoista is an album that stands in strong contrast to the more typical, blackened expression of Absolute Key (I use “typical” quite loosely here). But it’s not of an entirely different world; here and there, similar elements can be heard and the attentive listener can notice that, yes, a little something from that other Absolute Key is present here as well, albeit in quite a different form. At the same time, I feel that Lauluja laaksoista may well have a much larger appeal than the blackened material; not because it’s necessarily any more easily accessible, but because it’s less abrasive and esoteric.

And to the occult darkness of the other albums, this provides an interesting counterweight. Especially as qualitywise it keeps up the level I’ve come to expect from Absolute Key.

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