[1 December 2010]
“I want to trap the fear into a corridor and fill it up with gas or concrete …”
This is, says the publicity sheet, the first Islaja album to include translated lyrics in the booklet. Born and raised in Helsinki, and associated with the Finnish psyche-folk Fonal label, collaborator with several other experimental folk groups, a woman who has toured with Lau Nau, Thurston Moore, and Animal Collective, she sings with a feeling for space and weight, leaning slowly into the first few lines of the opening track, “Joku Toi Radion”, as if the album is a boulder that needs to be pushed before it can start rolling. Nothing she says sounds trivial or whimsical, even when the translations come across that way, such as when she sings “Say what? A dance? Okay! Okay! Yeah! … What? Alright!”, or “A big tree helped find the spot on this beach/You had marked the map with an anchor and star”.
The anchor-and-star song opens with a press of waxy fog, then a piano rising up a string of notes, and something else that might be a French horn. This is that sense of weight and space coming into play again. The fuzzy, muddled noise and the defined, ascending noise come apart from one another, air appears between them, and there is a feeling of something lifting off. “Gas or concrete” is not a bad way of describing the way she seems to regard her instruments and sound effects. One sound will represent dissolution, wandering or fumbling, or tip-toeing in confusion, while another will strike down, stomping along, completely decisive. Sometimes, the stomping role is played by a sound effect that really does sound like stomping—it’s as if someone in hard boots is making their way along a gravel path—and sometimes, the stomp-motif is picked up by the piano, and then we hear chords.
The instruments change character. At times, the piano tinkles itself out of the role of concrete and into the role of gas. Ideas appear and are reworked. The hesitant note, the fear, meets its decisive oppressor again and again in different circumstances. Another voice comes in, male, husky, and not like hers. The two voices hold a debate. It’s difficult to explain, without sounding hyperbolic, how sculptural this album seems, how this combination of solid stomps and “gas”, joined by her singing, with its slight Scandinavian lisp, forms itself into an impression of an actual voluminous object. The object is a landscape, perhaps, and the album travels through it, beginning slowly with the boulder-push, becoming rowdier, then dissolving into confusion, reassembling itself with “Ajanlaskun Aatto” and finishing on an uncertain note with “Yövalo”. “Yövalo” clangs, there is a drunk trumpet, and a noise like a stack of cardboard boxes falling over at the other end of a corridor. Alternatively, the cardboard boxes might be thunder. Most of her sound effects exist in an uneasy borderland between one thing and another.
The folk-forest atmosphere of her last studio album has been superseded, and the forest has been replaced by a cold beach, or large room, something spacious, where noises echo. Keraaminen Pää is dominated by the melancholy threat or yearning that hangs between the tentative noises and the stamping. It finishes without a climax, and we’re left to wonder whether this fear will ever come to an end, if the stamping-thing will catch its misty victim, and then what?