Islaja Ulual YYY

[Fonal; 2007]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: new weird Finland; psych-folk, singer-songwriter, free improv
Others: Avarus, Björk, Circle, Nico

It may or may not be a good thing that Islaja’s lyrics are sung entirely in Finnish. On the one hand, they add an element of mystique to Ulual YYY, the artist’s third full-length effort. On the other, they beg the inevitable question: just what fresh hell is she singing about, exactly? If the content of Islaja’s lyrics is anywhere near analogous to the sound worlds she creates with her music alone (which alternates between disquieting and downright creepy), one may not even wish to ascertain its meaning.

Islaja (or Merja Kokkonen, as she is known to her friends) sings in a richly nuanced vocal style that carries with it a hint of seduction and stands out in stark contrast to her music, which is dark, borderline claustrophobic, and teeming with boreal intensity. Her tracks feature spartan arrangements and generally employ a minimal amount of instrumentation, whether it be guitar, harmonium, or the ubiquitous glockenspiel, which finds its way into much of the contemporary Scandinavian folk and pop music of the post-Sugarcubes era. The melodies on Ulual YYY vary from the minimal to the patently dissonant, allowing the haunting (or perhaps haunted), melancholic attributes of Islaja’s vocals to assume a position of prominence. The album’s closing track, “Suru Ei,” which boasts the most sparse of drum patterns against a backdrop of understated and iterative harmonium melody, culminates in a kind of plaintive folk-drone raga that is all the more effective, structured as it is around Kokkonen’s mournfully yearning vocals.

Uniformly brooding and minor-key, the album unfurls like a fever dream set to music. Though Islaja’s songwriting and composition are loosely aligned with the Finnish free-folk scene (Kokkonen is also a member of Finnish psych-folk acts Kemialliset Ystävät and Avarus), Ulual YYY has more in common with Nico’s The Marble Index than it does “New Weird Finland.” And beneath the record’s superficial folk-drone trappings resides a psychedelic rock sensibility that manifests itself in a series of romantic, post-punk-influenced (read: proto-Goth) affectations, particularly on the album’s first half. The opening track on Ulual YYY, “Kutsukaa Sydäntä,” commences on an ominous note with a martial piano figure that ultimately gives way to a gloomy, gray-hued synth melody right out of Factory Records-era Manchester. The saxophone on “Sydänten Ahmija,” courtesy of Jukka Rãisãnen, is reminiscent of Daniel Ash’s eerie alto sax contributions as a member of both Bauhaus and Tones on Tail. The mellotron- and guitar-driven “Pete P” recalls some of the dubbier textures of Bauhaus’ early material as well.

Ulual YYY's second half sheds many of its pop signifiers and ventures into more abstract and unstructured territory. The loping, two-chord melody of “Pysähtyneet Planeetat” showcases Islaja’s penchant for low-key arrangements, while the Jandekian dissonance of “Muusimaa” finds Kokkonen assuming a defiantly anti-pop stance. One track in particular, the harmonium-driven “Muukalais-Silmä,” stands out as the most exploratory and experimental piece on Ulual YYY. Halfway through, the track begins to unravel, descending into a lo-fi hippie jam replete with sleigh bells and other assorted junkyard percussion which join the fray, as Islaja’s vocals transmogrify from a chant to a wail. The piece, like the vast majority of the album’s material, is the fruit of a personality that seems as much in debt to the supernatural as it is the artist’s musical forebears.

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