Being a label head has its advantages. You can, say, re-release your vinyl-only fourth album, expanded with recreations of the original watercolour artwork, in a way that still feels personal, and quite special. Not to gripe: for Sami Sänpäkkilä, head of Fonal Records, the objective has never seemed commercial. Part of the label’s continued high praise comes from its wilful asceticism—it is the one label that’s perhaps most consistently embodied “wandering off into the woods to find Truth”. The label of Paavoharju and Shogun Kunitoki (and now Eleanoora Rosenholm).
Sänpäkkilä, in addition to his eight-year recording history as Es, released a DVD in 2006 of short films made to accompany his compositions. Something more than music videos, they illustrate the extremely visual nature of his music. Sänpäkkilä’s currently got a sound installation accompanying fellow Finn Tea Mäkipää’s photographic exhibit at P.S.1, which might give you a clue if you’re still unsure where this guy’s music fits into the modern music scene. Though Es has been labeled psychedelia and folk, it’s neither, really. It’s new classical music, influenced by those genres only as much as it is by minimalism and program music and the larger traditions of 20th century music. If there’s a common theme, it’s the open-eyed awe of nature, something Es continues to dedicate itself to with every bowed string or plucked guitar.
We’re really lucky to have the chance to discover Sateenkaarisuudelma, an album that through its medium was pretty limited when it was first released back in 2004. Furthermore, this new double-CD includes Maailmankaari/Pianokaari, an album with the two-part “Maailmankaari” suite and two other pieces that are, if it’s possible, even more rewarding than “Sateenkaarisuudelma” itself. We’ll get to those, but first things first.
“Saatenkarrisuudelma”, an eighteen-minute-long suite in three parts, is the sort of limpid minimal music that, quintessentially, rewards the engaged listener. Apart from the opening hymn, a minute and a half of foreign chant over shards of cracking light, vocals are non-existent or unobtrusive, wordless vowels. Rather than static atmosphere, regard these compositions as a journey—they’re full of subtle changes that guide you forwards, towards a compelling conclusion. The elements are simple chamber ensemble, with violin, acoustic guitar, cello, and Casio keyboard, but together, Sänpäkkilä weaves bewitching sound. Electronics are also a key element of Es’s sound, and are used to treat and alter the instruments’ natural timbres and to stop-and-start noise and silence for dramatic effect.
This is patient, expansive music, so don’t expect seismic shifts or even big crescendos. “Harmonia, Rakkautta” hardly outlines a tonal centre, let alone actual chords, for most of its 22 minutes. Occasionally, Sänpäkkilä seems to revel in his lush sonic landscape a little too indulgently: we could have done without quite so many minutes of wave-wash, or this odd, garbled birdsong which—almost—begins to sound like one of those relaxation CDs of rainforest ambience you can get at the meditation store. But for the great majority of the time, Sänpäkkilä proves a steady and skilful guide to the sonic landscape he creates.
Oh, it can be beautiful. “Maailmankaari II” and “Pianokaari”, in particular, prove quietly devastating. “Maailmankaari II” uses a tinkling, tripping bell, evoking images of pastoral simplicity. It becomes, gradually, a nightmare of echoing guitars, stinging effects, and swathes of atonal noise; the sunny countryside twisted with the existential desolation of I’m Not Scared. “Pianokaari”, in contrast, is all of the beauty, none of the danger. At its opening, it reminds of a Sigur Rós track, though it’s more complex, and resists the easy payoff of maximal melodic arcs.
The two paper sleeves that Sateenkaarisuudelma is packaged in are printed with titles in opposite relief, as if one had been pressed into the other to create the title image. This careful symmetry may not be easily recognised in the music split across these two discs, but within each captivating work, Sänpäkkilä creates his own widescreen order. If you’re a fan of other Fonal artists, or you heard and liked the Efterklang albums of the past couple of years, you won’t want to miss this.