In the hands of Hannu Saha, the kantele–a five-stringed lap harp from Finland with a history that may span millennia–is as contemporary an instrument as it is traditional, whether in one of his solo compositions or collaboration with other artists. Electronic duo Pakasteet, meanwhile, does work that spans both genres and media. Made up of musician and producer Jussi Lehtisalo and film director and visual artist Mika Taanila, Pakasteet make avant-garde sound art with synths, tapes, and the odd zither, among other things. On Taas kerran, äkkiä, Saha and Pakasteet bring their complementary styles of innovation together in making five electrifying tracks, each one a unique permutation of elements old and new. The results are dazzling.
Naturally, Saha’s kantele stands out from the electronic experiments at the foundation of each song. An especially resonant instrument given the right acoustic environment, the kantele’s natural sonic clarity suits it well to eerie and ecstatic alike. Saha plays to both ends of that spectrum over the course of Taas kerran, äkkiä, as well as going beyond, strumming with paper clips and metal chains to expand the kantele’s textural range in unexpected directions. For every metallic echo, there are half a dozen crunches, buzzes, and twangs from either Saha or Lehtisalo. Taanila deploys vivid vocal samples over this intricately sculpted foundation, hisses, and heavy breathing piercing moments of uneasy calm, dramatic dialogue, or answering machine messages lending the project a cinematic air.
These broad strokes make for an intriguing picture, but the details are where the record becomes exhilarating. Taas kerran, äkkiä opens with “Terveisiä Laajasalosta”, a haunting seven minutes of crackles, zaps, distortion, and dissonance that wavers mellifluously between meditation and peril. “Irkon ellot” follows, a sparse interpretation of church bells too cosmic to be funereal but far too spacious to mark any celebration. At the midpoint, “Vähän suolaa” changes gears entirely. It’s a driving, space-bound synthpop tune with kantele zinging back and forth, barely recognizable over the keys and drum machine: the album’s most retro moment and its most fun.
Each of the album’s final two tracks passes the nine-minute mark. “Syysruhjeita” and “Taas kerran, äkkiä” both give Saha space for more elaborate melodic motifs to different ends; on the former, his straightforward strings balance out ominous electronics, while the latter sees Pakasteet following him as he leads a quick and airy waltz that soon turns explosive as the trio lets loose with final plugged-in bursts of sound over the final reverberations of Saha’s kantele.
The kantele’s unique cultural capital as a national instrument often finds it relegated to folk and concert repertoires. While it fits well in such bodies of work, other possibilities are equally compelling. Hannu Saha and Pakasteet are not the first to make that discovery (folk metal group Ensiferum, for example, have brought in kantele on several albums), but the paths they tread here as an ensemble demonstrate how exciting the kantele can be within a futurist framework. Pakasteet’s considerable joint skill for building atmosphere through the abstract and the fragmented, in combination with Saha’s musicianship, makes for a gripping and unpredictable album. A thoughtful and tremendous combination of old and new, Taas kerran, äkkiä should inspire artists looking to take long-held tradition into new spaces.