I’ve said and written plenty about the Finnish musical ensemble Värttinä over the past two decades. I still haven’t heard any artist or band from the 90s whose music I would rank ahead of theirs, and the band continued strongly into the 00s as well. The story of Värttinä is one of constant change, though, as members have joined and exited the group at a fairly steady clip. The band took a very long hiatus after their 2006 release Miero and the subsequent tour, and for a while it did not appear certain that they would return. But singers Mari Kaasinen, Susan Aho, and Johanna Virtanen have recently regrouped with a mostly reconstituted supporting cast. Their new album Utu lacks some of the ferocity of previous Värttinä albums, but it is still a fine effort.
The most significant new addition to the band’s lineup is accordionist/keyboardist Matti Kallio, who who has become the band’s primary music composer almost by default. (As with the previous two Värttinä albums, Mari Kaasinen has written most of the lyrics.) Otherwise, bassist Hannu Rantanen is the only returning member from the previous Värttinä lineup. Drummer Jaska Lukkarinen returns to the group after leaving before the tour for Miero; he is credited as a guest musician here, so I’m not certain if he is back in the fold on more than a temporary basis. The rest of the Utu lineup consists of Matti Laitinen (guitar, bouzouki, mandolin, mandocello) and Kukka Lehto (fiddle), with Sakari Kukko playing wind instruments on a handful of songs.
The first song “Ruhverikko (Dark Girl)” is the strongest connection with the band’s musical past. Värttinä have made a habit of including one or two fast-paced, complexly-rhythmed Balkan flavored tunes on each album, and by opening with one here they make the statement that the new lineup can take a style that previous versions of the band have excelled at and do it just as well. From that point, though, the band shy away from repeating their past. This is mostly a good thing, but they sound like they held back a little too much on the second song and leadoff single “Tuuterin Tyttäret (The Girls from Tuuteri).” “Kaihon Kantaja (The Bearer of Yearning),” the third track, is the jazziest recording the band have ever done. In particular, Kukko’s sax part sounds more like John Coltrane than anything Finnish. Then Värttinä move on to Middle Eastern percussion and Indian strings with the song “Vietaviä ( For the Taking).” This song is a bit ironic; the lyrics tell of a group of women who are too busy singing to make themselves presentable to prospective suitors, but they’re sung with a sunny spirit which hearkens back to Värttinä’s classic earlier material. The vocals hold the odd mixture of styles together and make this the strongest song on the album. On “Utuneito (The Mist Maiden),” the band aim for a smoother jazz sound than on “Kaihon Kantaja.” The band seems to be at ease with the style, though, and Virtanen’s solid lead vocal is an added bonus.
The subtle jazzy feel continues on the waltz “Iloni (My Joy).” The lyrics tell of a romance that needs to be kept in the dark, and the music reflects this by alternating between romantic and more ominous undertones. The more lively “Helleleo” starts out like a simple 4:4 folk rock song, but the verses have a little hitch in them, the rhythm shifts to 7:4 on the chorus, and the instrumental break at the end gets even more complex. The older lineups of Värttinä were masters at making rhythm shifts sound completely natural, and the new lineup happily follows suit. “Vaeltaja (The Wanderer)” starts as something of a chant, featuring Susan Aho’s voice and just a drum initially, and evolves into a sorrowful minor-key lament with a gypsy flavor. The brief a cappella song “Suruni Suuri (My Great Sorrow)” leads into “Manattu (Conjured By a Seer),” featuring the Sami joiker Wimme. Wimme’s contribution is not as dramatic here as the ones he made on some of the classic Hedningarna albums back in the 90s, but his simple chanting is intended to evoke the casting of a spell and works in that context.
From there, the band perform a four-song suite titled “Haltija-Suite (Elf Suite).” Since the song “Äijö” off their 2000 CD Ilmatar, Värttinä have frequently explored the darker side of Finnish folklore. In this suite (assuming I’m interpreting the translated lyrics correctly), an elf lures the sun into coming away with him, only to imprison it. The sun then has to implore the Creator to set it free. The suite begins with the ominous, mysterious “Kutsu (The Call),” in which the singers whisper a handful of words that translate to “Come to my elfin dwelling, come into the light.” “Haltjia (The Elf)” features more rhythm shifting, but for all the complexity, the best part of the song has a straightforward waltz arrangement. This is followed by an instrumental, simply called “Tantsu (Dance).” Again, the band shifts rhythms as easily as shifting gears on a car. The style also varies, moving from Baroque to Balkan to jazz. The elf suite climaxes with “Haltijan Hallussa (Under the Elf’s Spell).” This song begins with a steady driving guitar and a mournful minor key, but the dramatic second half of the song shows that the Värttinä singers have lost none of their power.
“Uinu (Sleep),” the final song on the album, is a pretty lullaby featuring the voice and lyrics of Johanna Virtanen. This song is particularly noteworthy for the choice of instruments that accompany Virtanen. The kantele was a major part of Värttinä’s sound back in the 80s when the band members were young, but it has not figured prominently on a Värttinä song in a very long time. And I’m fairly certain that the piano, played here by Matti Kallio, is a first on any Värttinä recording.
Värttinä have a long history of periodically reinventing themselves by bringing in new members, and they certainly continue that pattern with Utu. They also continue to expertly blend the ancient with the modern. Most importantly, they can still mix and match styles and rhythms from their homeland and elsewhere with a degree of fluidity unmatched by any other band on the planet that I know of. The energy is scaled back slightly in favor of a bit more sophistication, which will naturally please some people more than others, but on the whole Utu is a worthy addition to a remarkable body of work.
(Rockadillo Records, 2012)