It is very difficult to describe the astonishing music of Finnish band Alamaailman Vasarat ("The Hammers of the Underworld") that was on display last Saturday, 2 November, at Kings Place. It references a huge range of musical genres – from rock to blues to heavy metal to klezmer to cabaret to folk to classical to avant-garde – and yet, in the end, it is practically a genre unto itself. By this I mean that everything in it feels completely organic and coherent. It's not a pastiche and nothing is in quotation marks; it's all part of the same stew that collectively forms their utterly unique, completely convincing sound. When they leap suddenly and without warning from heavy metal riffs to distorted Jewish wedding music, it always, somehow, feels like exactly the right thing.
Even the instrumental line-up defies any easy genre categorization. The keyboard/piano (Miikka Huttune) and drums (Santeri Saksala) point in a rock direction, but rather than a guitar or bass, two amplified cellos (Marko Manninen and Tuukka Helminen) fill out the rhythm section. When they play driving riffs in parallel fifths with distortion, the cellos sound uncannily like a heavy metal electric guitar; but then a minute later they may be playing Bach-like arpeggios, or soaring through achingly beautiful romantic melodies. Riding on top of all of this are trumpeter Jarkko Niemelä and saxophonist and band-leader Jarno "Stakula" Sarkula. Stakula spends much of his time on soprano saxophone, often doubling the trumpet on wildly careening blues or klezmer or demented circus melodies. But every now and again he switches to the monstrous contrabass saxophone, playing dark, deep lines that out-bass and out-metal even the distorted cellos.
It's a sound at once raw and tight, terrifying and ecstatic. The band plays with an impressive mixture of wild abandon and pinpoint precision, flawlessly executing the complicated arrangements and sudden tempo and character shifts. I've heard plenty of ensembles that are that tight, fewer that are that wild and impassioned, but rarely if ever have I heard the combination of both at such a high level.
Formally, you never know where a tune is going to go. Sometimes, the same material will repeat again and again, building inexorably to a blistering climax; sometimes, just when you think you're getting the hang of it, it takes a left turn in a direction you never would have anticipated. After over an hour of their tunes, nothing had become remotely predictable or stale.
At some point, attempts at verbal description of this band become pointless. Explaining why and how this music works so well is as elusive as attempting to assign it a genre. Suffice it to say that ever since the concert, I have been obsessively watching their YouTube videos and sending links to everyone I know who I think might possibly be interested – not typical post-review behavior, mind you. Those videos don't do justice to the electric intensity of hearing them live, but certainly they do more than my feeble attempts at prose description.
Opening for Alamaailman Vasarat was a trio led by singer, composer, and jouhikko player Pekko Käppi. The jouhikko is a type of bowed lyre, traditionally used in Finnish folk music. Käppi plugged it in, and, accompanied by two other seemingly modified and electrified folk string instruments, sang a short set of blues and rock-inflected songs rooted in the Finnish folk tradition. It was a compelling and cohesive blend, and a fitting prelude to the larger, wilder band that followed.
My only real criticism of the evening was that the volume was just a bit too high. Not so much because it was painful or dangerous, but because some of the intricacy and detail of Alamaailman Vasarat's brilliant arrangements was inevitably lost in the mass of sound. This is of course a criticism I would extend to just about every amplified performance I've ever been to, so it's certainly not unique to this band or this venue. For a straight-ahead rock and roll act, where sheer visceral impact is the primary concern, perhaps it is appropriate. For more nuanced, rich, and complex music, though, I wish they would just back off a bit and create more space for all the exquisite detail to shine through.
The small nation of Finland – less than two-thirds the population of London alone – has long boasted an impressively large number of internationally renowned classical musicians; in particular, highly original contemporary composers like Kaija Saariaho, Magnus Lindberg and Esa-Pekka Salonen. If Alamaailman Vasarat is any indication, it is clear that in the folk and popular music realms as well, there is at least as much creativity, innovation, and breathtaking originality.