It was recently my birthday – and of course I was 21, or kaksikymmentäyksi, for the nth year running. How fateful and great it is when one of your three or four favourite bands of all time releases an album in the preceding months and you know you’re gonna ask for it as a present. For one magical moment, two paths of bliss, one musical and one celebratory, intersect.
Actually, whenever Finnish folk legends Värttinä release an album, I’m not as much 21 again as a little boy on Christmas Day. And come to think of it, one doesn’t need a birthday to celebrate a Värttinä album, as every new Värttinä album is a celebration. They may not produce new material at the same heady rate as in the past – this latest offering, Utu, is the first studio album of totally new material for six years – but that makes each new recording even more priceless and worth waiting for.
The Värttinä story itself is like some kind of multi-layered epic narrative, almost akin to Finland’s national poem Kalevala (an appropriate point of comparison given that it’s impossible to believe that Värttinä’s songs and music, both crunching and ethereal in turn, don’t owe something to that emotional roller-coaster piece of folk literature).
How extraordinary that a band formed in childhood by sisters Sari and Mari Kaasinen still occupies a critical place in the modern world and folk music canon over thirty years later. How extraordinary that amid innumerable band changes, with Mari the only surviving original member, there is such a thing as the distinctive Värttinä sound.
Indeed, musos with a taste for UK post-punk might want to draw comparisons with The Fall – coincidentally one of my other three or four favourite bands ever. The practised music genre and the tonal textures of both bands are rather different. But the sheer defiance and longevity of both bands amid personnel upheaval, the determination and vision of one pivotal individual (in The Fall’s case, Mark E Smith), and the continued freshness and mesmerising ruggedness of the music (for want of a better phrase) invite a remarkable, if improbable, parallel.
Yet the various Värttinä narratives and sub-narratives are indicative of the group being very much a collective, and one in a rude state of health. Modern Värttinä, or at least its public face, is very much contingent on the trio of female vocalists – Kaasinen, Susan Aho and Johanna Virtanen. It’s Kaasinen who provides the lyrics, but how the trio bring them to life.
Scorchingly sweet and sweetly scorching in their vocal delivery, and easily tripping through a characteristic minefield of time signature changes and verbal density without pausing for breath, Kaasinen, Aho and Virtanen use the Finnish folk tale idiom to tell us stories of feminine motherliness, feminine loneliness, feminine assertiveness, feminine rebelliousness, feminine love, feminine solidarity and feminine magic (thanks to our friends at Värttinä Fan Club for providing the Utu lyrics as a reference point on this occasion). It’s Girl Power in the most high-brow and enthralling dimension possible (so much so I wonder if the Spice Girls evocation is rather fatuous even as I invite it).
And yet other classic songs such as this hair-raising account of the meeting of an old man and a snake highlight both the diversity of Värttinä’s material and of their musical approach. The soul-shuddering male vocals on the original studio version of Äijö (on the 2000 album Ilmatar) produce a delirious sound I am inclined to call folk horror – but for the fact this music is so communal and life-affirming.
At the same time, every member of Värttinä can and does engage in their own separate musical projects. It’s not so long ago that Aho and Virtanen intriguingly represented Finland in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2010. Elsewhere, Matti Kallio has arrived in Värttinä as the chief music composer and instrumentalist via numerous other musical endeavours and after getting a master’s degree in music (actually, musical teaching and academic prowess appear to be the norm for this band – check out their biographies. Something to do with Finns taking education – and vocations – very seriously, I feel).
My wishes all came true in the summer of 2007 and I got to see Värttinä in Exeter, south-west England. It wasn’t the most auspicious venue on the day (the ceiling started leaking water rather copiously beforehand), but the band played a brilliant set and could not have been more approachable afterwards. Somewhere, on an ancient mobile phone I need to resurrect, are two photos – one of Värttinä signing autographs, one of them again signing autographs but with me in the ultimate daydream reverie in the background.
Part of the reason I ended up in that reverie was the sublime bass playing of Hannu Rantanen. He’s only been a key staple of Värttinä since the new millennium unfolded, but the new album showcases his prowess in no uncertain fashion. Värttinä are not quite at the heady heights of what I consider their magnum opus, Ilmatar, but they’re really not far off them (and try saying that about any material by an ex-Beatle twelve years after Sergeant Pepper). Like an oak-encased wine, they bring with them maturity (if oak-encased wines bring modulation as well, there’s some of that in the equation too).
Indeed, Rantanen’s playing is both virtuous and crucial whilst blessed with a calm authority. The vintage Värttinä sound, blistering and riotous, is at large on a track such as Kaihon Kantaja, but Rantanen keeps the whole thing formidably anchored. It’s not just about playing anchor person either – on tracks such as Utuneito and Manattu, one registers a heightened awareness of the rise and fall, light and shade, high bass and low bass of his playing. Aurally, it resembles nothing less than a rippling river – and it’s often very prominent in the final album mix.
Even so, at other times Rantanen shows perfect restraint. The girls, Kallio, and the various musical guests often appear to be in healthy musical competition on these tracks, but Rantanen always gets his interjections in at the right time. Funnily enough, this rather reminded me of the late British tennis commentator Dan Maskell at his best – ie being aware of what not to say rather than what to say. A perfectly-constructed and richly detailed point or rally at Wimbledon would often be welcomed by a mere Maskell ‘mmm’. Nothing else needed saying. The Rantanen bass ‘mmmm’ is a happy and plausible equivalent in another craft.
If Rantanen, like Maskell, gets his ‘mmmms’ timed to perfection, I suspect this stems from the very convincing hypothesis that both men love (or loved) what they do (or did) for a living. The icing on the cake upon meeting Värttinä five years ago was getting to talk to Hannu Rantanen himself and realising that he was bubbling with joy at the fact that I was bubbling with joy at actually seeing Värttinä! Rather like my two-year-old godson at the time, he appeared full of curiosity about how the world operates and delighted at each new discovery. ‘You really like Värttinä?! And you came all the way for this gig?!?! That’s fantastic!!!’
Yes it is all fantastic. Hannu Rantanen, genius bassist, lover of life, unsung hero whom we would make hero sung – this article is for you and the Good Ship Värttinä. Long may it sail.