Back in the early to mid-aughts, the genre known unfortunately as “freak folk” appeared seemingly out of nowhere, with any mope who owned an acoustic guitar and a strange set of pipes riding the critical zeitgeist into their allotted 15 minutes. Perhaps it was the increased visibility that critics were happy to package and sell to that generation’s nascent hipsters that brought these artists into the light, or perhaps small pockets of bands aligned in national and international scenes to achieve it. Whatever it was, critics were all too happy to throw Finnish psych bands in with the New Weird Americans to form “freak folk,” whatever it meant, and those tags are still stuck on a multitude of music sites even now. On Kemialliset Ystävät’s Alas Rattoisaa Virtaa, folk is one of the least relevant genre tags. Against the rush to identify musical patterns, artists rush in the opposite direction; while the hype-well of “freak folk” has long run dry, Kemialliset Ystävät continues to pour out an original sound.
Beyond mere historicizing, genre is swiftly petrifying into a new form of musical language. This is perhaps why critics are so keen to point out influences, progressions, hybrids, and reference points, even if they never take the next step: genres are becoming a unit of musical style. Scenes still exist, and in their narrowing of the field, new idioms can still form. But one major effect that the all-access pass to the entirety of recorded music grants us is the ability to abstract from genre and assume it into the creative lexicon, using the critical lexicon as a guide. But the major issue with this sharing of the lexicon is that the language sometimes feels stone-bound, as if the only utterance that makes sense is one that follows solid rules and fits within certain boundaries. But like many of the most original musicians, bands like Kemialliset Ystävät, in shaping many genre-forms to their style, inject a personal idiosyncrasy that stands outside of mere recombination. It’s their unique ear for melody and their strange songwriting logic that renders them inimitable.
If you can’t tell, I’ve been putting off any description of Alas Rattoisaa Virtaa’s sound. It leaves me grasping for woefully inadequate retro-historicist touchstones and genre-words: Tropicalia (Polaria?), Krautrock, video game music, minimalism, “plunderphonics,” baroque pop. It’s what you might call psychedelic — the approach more than the genre. Each of these conglomerates play out in various layers of the mix, with no part featuring any one of them too heavily. But most importantly, melody, from whatever source — whether synthesizer, sample, or vocal — takes the front of the mix, often with captivating results. Genre-bending and sampling often bury the melodies, but Alas Rattoisaa Virtaa hits genuine grooves.
The something extra beyond the sum of Alas Rattoisaa Virtaa’s parts is inexplicable, except as pure style. Words like original and unique are empty, but they’re precisely what makes this release so captivating. Someone’s grandfather (or an imitation thereof) is mumbling at the end of “Vettä Yarahille.” I’m pretty sure there is a Jock Jams sample on “Arkistorotat / Risuilla Täyteyssä Salissa.” They may actually be using a theremin and a marimba. “Ei Millään Kielellä” makes a beat partially out of a cat meowing and a pig oinking. But it all seems to fit together, because they guide this menagerie of sources and genres into a coherent style, one that is unarguably their own. Alas Rattoisaa Virtaa feels new.
Kemialliset Ystävät has managed to channel their idiosyncrasies into something novel. And I mean this as praise. It’s a small victory, but in a world where every new microgenre lives and dies within a year or two, it’s a revelation. Few acts will (or could) follow Kemialliset Ystävät. Alas Rattoisaa Virtaa will not spark a revolution of recognition for Finnish psychedelia (though that wouldn’t hurt). No critical points will be scored on the back of branding it with a genre name — some have tried, all have failed. But its inexplicable beyond-ness may give it an opportunity to live on past the fads and the critical hype-genres. If not, it should become a hidden oddity, its ineffable weirdness lying in wait for a few dedicated seekers of novelty to discover.