Islaja: Ulual YYY

[21 June 2007]

By Deanne Sole

The first time I listened to this album, I thought, “This is interesting, but I don’t know what’s going on. It sounds like a massive tangle of different sounds.” The second time, I thought, “Oh, I get it. This is a cross between shamanic noise-making (whistles, bells, warbling voices) and freeform jazz.” The third time, I thought, “No, it’s more tightly crafted than that. These aren’t freeform fields of noise, they’re songs.” Since then the different tracks have come to seem more distinct. It no longer feels like a jungle that I have to wander through, admiring but mute, eyes wide, dumbfounded by crackles and squeaks. At times it seems like a kind of genius, and at other times I think I’m applying the word genius too loosely. At the very least it’s good—unusually good.

Islaja is the stage name of a Finnish visual artist and musician named Merja Kokkonen. She’s already released two albums on Fonal; on another site I saw her referred to as the label’s “secret weapon.” Ulual YYY is the first of her albums to have shown her on the cover with her eyes open. The drawing on the front of her debut album, Meritie, had white birds obscuring her face from her ears to the bridge of her nose. On the second album, Palaa Aurinkoon, her eyes were shut, and a comet-like symbol made up of a red circle and sunshine-flares of yellow was hovering above her.

This time she’s crouching in a winter forest, staring ahead at some unknown thing off the side of the photograph. There’s a scattering of snow trailing away through the trees behind her and a branch leaning across the top of her head. The camera has that branch so sharply in focus that every flake of olive-grey lichen attached to the bark has its own fringe of shadow. Islaja herself is slightly less crisp, and the snow far behind her is starting to blur. There is no border on the photograph. By implication the landscape stretches beyond the edges of the cardboard cover, pressing outwards, asking to be touched.

This photograph, with its different planes of focus, works as a useful illustration of the music inside the album. Islaja makes much of foregrounds and backgrounds, of sharpness and fuzz. This is a music of layers. She establishes that from the beginning, contrasting the deep, swollen notes of a piano with a higher, more precise, bee-like twang and the sound of her own voice, which wobbles along between the two extremes and veers periodically off-microphone. In “Muusima”, notes of different pitches rise over one another almost chaotically. “Suru Ei” combines horns and jingle bells, as if she is trying to summon elusive reindeer (do the shamanic elements of her work, I wonder, owe anything to the Sami of northern Finland, the indigenous people who herd reindeer and used to be known as the Lapps?), but the horns are in the background and the bells in the foreground, as if we, the listeners, are the ones being summoned. Listening to this music can be like trying to sort out a Peter Greenaway film. The denseness takes a while to unwind.

The great thing about this is that it turns the album into a musical perpetual motion machine, renewing itself every time I put it on. Different parts of each song come into focus on successive plays. The tangle that I thought I was hearing the first time I listened to Ulual YYY has been transformed (and it does seem like a transformation, like an act of magic). As I listen to it now, I realise that “Sydänten Ahmija” must have been the song that made me think that the album was a piece of freeform jazz, because it brings in a jazz saxophone that starts strongly and later begins to stagger and blurt while scratchy female voices scream. In “Laulu Jo Menneestä”, the voices hum and sigh. In “Pysähtyneet Planeetat “, they whistle while squeaking baby toys make whiskery noises.

Looking around the Internet I notice that “Varjokuvastin” seems to be the audience favourite. I’m not completely sure why. I’m going to guess that it’s because the languid tone, mated with voluptuous little sighs, suggests sex.

Ulual YYY is a beautiful album. It must be easy to think of this kind of music (freakfolk, Finnish psyche, call it what you will) as self-indulgent, the work of self-appointed mystics who don’t have the discipline necessary for a lucid three-minute pop song, but Islaja’s work here is shapely and concise. Unlike some of her contemporaries, she doesn’t throw in surprising noises just to make you jump. I wanted to give this album a 9 out of 10, but at only 40 minutes it seems slightly too short for that, but it’s definitely a solid 8.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/islaja-ulual-yyy/