The resultant document functions as an alternative to the fragmented, disjointed song-worlds mapped out by the Finn's published output to date, making sense of the non-linear lo-fi lunacy that's become her signature sound. While 'Blaze Mountain Recordings' is by no means a crystal clear, transparent body of work (it still sounds righteously filthy), you can hear Kokkonen's music laid bare in an organically structured whole - something that only serves to highlight the fact that this is the work of one of the least conventional songwriters out there. That shouldn't be taken as some sort of euphemistic statement for "can't hold down a tune".
Far from it, Islaja carves out beautiful synth and vocal lines above a world-weary guitar chord sequence on 'Sateen Tullessa', with a harmonic range that's suggestive of Eastern scales and other such exotica. The closest run-in with pop music of any conventional variety arrives in the shape of 'Pete P', a melancholic synthesizer ditty lifted from Ulual Yyy, which under these conditions sounds uncharacteristically focused and coherent - but in a good way. The closing track 'Kristallipallosilmat' is another psych pop miniature masterpiece, making precious little sense, but retaining some sort of internal logic underlined by Islaja's harmonised vocal (which suggests she isn't just making this stuff up on the spot afterall). You can also hear what sounds like electronic tweeting, perhaps attributable to the same toy bird that perches atop Kokkonen's shoulder on the album sleeve. Even when set into the realtime constraints of live performance Islaja's music is restlessly obscure and devoid of the genealogy of influence you could assign to virtually all (other) songwriters. It's nigh on impossible to determine where this music came from, and frankly it's probably best not to know, but rather just enjoy it for the unearthly mess that it is. Highly Recommended.
Islaja’s Merja Kokkonen seems intent on blowing away her cultivated forest-child mystique, like throwing open the windows the morning after a heavy night. Is she being commendably honest when she states of her mythology that “It doesn’t really exist, of course…to sell a product, you have to have an image, you have to have that package. For us, it’s this mystical, mysterious forest thing” – as though her entire image was developed entirely independent of her own desires and wishes for her music? Even though her previous album, last year’s Ulual YYY, pictured her staring doe-eyed into the distance of what can only be described as, er, a forest? You know, with wood and trees and stuff. “And the whole forest folk thing is so passé, I think, I mean, it was four years ago that it was the big topic.” Easy for you to say, Merja. In the arboreal wilderness, no one can read your marketing plan.
Cynicism aside, this live effort from Ms K does represent a departure of sorts. There’s the cover art, for a start: in place of chilly bucolic whimsy is an irritatingly in-your-face collage of puke-bright sky, naked bloke, pencilled doodles – encroaching amusingly across said exhibitionist’s nose to give him a fetching Mickey Mouse-esque demeanour – and Islaja herself, giving the unavoidably outraged viewer the finger. I, for one, will be writing to Ecstatic Peace! about that particular step on the road to cultural Armageddon.
Fortunately, the musical realignment seeks to make a more substantial statement. Although the production retains a layer of lo-fi murk, as might be expected from a live album from an outsider artist such as this, Blaze Mountain Recordings could almost be described as straightforward compared with Islaja’s previous albums. Rather than a backing of acoustic guitars, flutes and the like built up into meandering contraptions, here her often beguiling vocals are anchored by percussion both organic and electronic. They are also brought more to the fore. Kokkonen’s voice on ‘Kammen Kynsi Kieli’ hangs in space prettily while wooden owls (presumably from the same family as the mechanical bird on her shoulder on the album cover) flit and hoot over buried drums; ‘Uni Pollona Olemisesta’ – not, unfortunately, an ironic Finnish version of ‘Una Paloma Blanca’, although hopefully that’ll turn up on the next Islaja album – is almost soulful; and ‘Sateen Tullessa’ has, for a change, an instantly recognisable internal logic that could make it a minor hit in some parallel universe. It’s more linear than even ‘Pete P’, the closest Islaja has ever come to a pop song, here rendered woozy and haunted, albeit slightly flat.
It’s a fact of life that live albums are usually slight affairs, little more than a way for established artists to contractually tread water and plug a gap between genuine offerings. Blaze Mountain Recordings is something different, ostensibly at least: even if somewhat slight overall, it’s an opening gambit that seemingly points the way toward a more accessible and earthbound future for Islaja. Indeed, her new album will, in her own words, be “wider, louder and bigger, and more clear” – and will be sung in English. Here’s hoping she can translate the genuine mystique (whatever she thinks of it) of her previous recordings into a brave new soundworld. With a minimum of crap artwork, please.
1 Kämmen, Kynsi, Kieli (3:58)
2 Sateen Tullessa (4:18)
3 Uni Pöllönä Olemisesta (3:50)
4 Emoa Ikävä (4:08)
5 Palaa Aurinkoon (5:12)
6 Pete P (3:11)
7 Silmä-Ämlis (2:12)
8 Kristallipallosilmät (3:44)