The people at Finland's Fonal records have carved out a decent niche, releasing album after album of vintage-sounding psych and freak-folk, with an emphasis on the latter. The label's geographically concentrated pocket of artists has gained buzz in the American underground, due in part to the musicians' shared aesthetic. It's too easy, though, simply to label and file away Fonal acts like Islaja, Paavoharju, and Kemialliset Ystävät, and easier still to brand and market them as a "collective" of artists. As always, there's a lot more under the surface than internet bios and one-sheets might lead you to believe.
For instance, Kemialliset Ystävät (Finnish for "Chemical Friends") are particularly adept at updating a '70s DIY, experimental vibe to fit a modern context, and their self-titled album sets their genre's bar pretty high. Granted, they've been honing their style for awhile, but only now have they begun achieving the quality that their earlier records promised. On their latest, untitled record, their sound is inviting like never before: rich, warm, and layered, it eases you into a comfortable bed of blown-out noises that obscures how fractured the music actually is. Sound after found-sound is thrown at you from all sides, creating an ever-present mishmash of bubbling rhythms.
It's a lot to take in, but repeated listens are rewarding. You start hearing analog synths, weird samples, horns, a variety of stringed instruments, trash cans, whistles, and whatever the hell else is being played -- you can't pinpoint some of the instruments, but being able to do so isn't the point. The combination of these many random sounds takes a shape of its own. And when you couple this transformation with a lack of consistent melody, the music's contours begin to feel faintly familiar and foreign at the same time. In the '60s, I believe, they called this stuff "trippy as shit," or just psychedelic. Whatever you want to call it, this album is full of stimulating noises, and it's worthy on that platform alone.
That the band's collection of sounds entertains and engages while existing almost completely outside the realm of traditional songwriting is also a great achievement. About halfway through the record, we do hear what some folks would call a "song": "Superhimmeli" consists of a repeated melody and some head-nodding drum work. But the track serves simply as an oasis, a respite of convention in the middle of all the heady experimentation. From there, the tracks become a bit more coherent, but the album is, on the whole, a tuneless affair.
If any fault is to be found in the album, it's an overarching sameness. A sample from any track is representative of the whole album, and the sustained level of dense sound-piles leaves you a bit exhausted by the end. Still, many people will look to this record as an accessible foray into noise-folk -- a fact that's telling of our underground's acceptance of Dadaist, anything-goes musical aesthetics. As future generations grow even more accustomed to completely "songless" records, Kemialliset Ystävät will feel more like the rule instead of the exception.