Finland-born, Brooklyn-based guitarist Olli Hirvonen named his new album Kielo for the national flower of his homeland, the intricately beautiful and dangerously poisonous lily of the valley. It’s a fitting choice. The music Hirvonen makes here (along with longtime collaborators Marty Kenney on bass and Nathan Ellman-Bell on drums) is a masterwork of pastoral subtleties laced with deadly hits of melancholy. It is frequently wistful and always potent, straddling the borders of ether and earth with commanding resolve: instrumental post-rock at its most gripping.
The jazz and noise elements of Hirvonen’s previous work are deeply embedded somewhere at the core of Kielo, though this new work never falls squarely into either category. Still, the trio embraces constant experimentation, meandering from moment to moment with an easy, improvisational spirit. Shades of Americana in the form of wavering strings and analog recording paint a country-fried warm front that thaws the group’s otherwise wintry palette of cool, open space.
That manifests in different moods across the album. Opener “Kielo” starts out gossamer-light, guitar line drifting like a midsummer breeze. As drums and bass slide into the mix for syncopation, the track widens and deepens, never heavy but undeniably potent. “Erode” sees the group playing with levels, melody rising and falling, Hirvonen’s guitar on the verge of wailing as bass and drums carry him forward into a midtempo explosion. This is one of the album’s most captivating pieces, sounds unfolding unpredictably and yet organically, the promised erosion a true force of nature.
“Outline” takes Kielo in a more sprightly direction, staccato from start to finish; in sharp contrast, “Current” resounds, rippling through the night sky like a particularly ferocious aurora. “Placeholder” and “Unceasing”, both near the album’s finish, gallop across a sonic frontier with total abandon, the latter a particularly animated ride. Between them, meditative “Lento” bridges the gap between somber northern Schlager and country rock ballad, an endeavor culminating in a gripping solo on Hirvonen’s part. Closing the album is a cover of Big Thief‘s “Vegas”. In the hands of the trio, it becomes the album’s most upbeat piece and makes for a rousing finish.
Ultimately, the stripped-down nature of Hirvonen’s ensemble allows Kielo to be great even as such a departure from previous releases. Hirvonen, Kenney, and Ellman-Bell have creative chemistry transcending specific musical categories. They build on one another without hesitation, comfortable as they soar to new echelons of intensity. Kielo brings to mind a lot of things: the dramatic aura of Mogwai, the free-spirited flair of Link Wray, the compositional craft of Tigran Hamasyan, and just a hint of Marty Robbins lingering somewhere in the atmosphere.
Of course, it’s something else entirely, an immersive study in genre-bending that adds new textures to Hirvonen’s repertoire. Like its titular flower, it is utterly lovely in full bloom, often understated but never to be underestimated. Kielo elevates Olli Hirvonen and his compatriots even further above the confines of genre conventions. Though it’s not the first time they’ve hopped into a new stylistic space, it’s certainly a standout chapter in their shared career.