Värttinä, Miero (RealWorld, 2006)

In the summer of 1995, as I was relaxing at Central Park Summerstage in between sets of a show, some music came over the loudspeakers that was unlike anything I had ever heard before. A group of women were singing tight, strange harmonies in a seemingly alien language while the musicians played their own brand of folk music, bringing in elements of rock, jazz, Balkan, and even African into a style, which, at its base, was not something I recognized. I wasn't sure what it was, but I knew I had to have it. The album being played was Aitara, from the Finnish band Värttinä. This began an obsession with modern Scandinavian folk music that has now lasted over 10 years and continues unabated. Over that time Värttinä has undergone many changes, both in terms of their personnel and their constantly evolving style. I used to get upset when a member of the band that I had gotten attached to left, but like fans of Fairport Convention I learned to take the arrivals and departures in stride. The regular addition of new blood has kept Värttinä's sound from going stale, and the band prides itself not only in not re-hashing previous albums, but in challenging themselves to continually expand the boundaries of what fits into Finnish folk music and challenging their older fans to stick with them.

Since late 2003, when they were asked to contribute music to the theatrical adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Värttinä have been particularly busy. Even their time off from Lord of the Rings was active, as they wrote, arranged, and recorded their tenth studio album, Miero. 2006 shapes up not only to be another busy year for the band, but perhaps their biggest year in terms of attention and publicity. The stage production finally premieres in Toronto on March 23, and Miero came out in January to strong sales (top 10 in the pop charts) in Finland and favorable press elsewhere. The very first Värttinä album to feature the same line-up as its predecessor, Miero broadens some musical pathways Värttinä first explored on 2000's Ilmatar and 2003's iki. These include a greater emphasis on lead vocals, more sparse arrangements instead of all six instruments playing and all three singers singing all the way through every song, and an increased willingness to sound creepy, dissonant, and perhaps even a bit mysterious at points. The band also exhibits its trademark high energy and rapid-fire alliterative vocals often enough to please most of its old fans, while adding new depth -- literally and figuratively -- to its vocal harmonies.

Miero opens energetically with "Riena (Anathema)," an angry vocal attack against a betrayer. This song is propelled by Jaska Lukkarinen's drumming and Hannu Rantanen's dark, sinister bass line, with a couple of flourishes involving the rest of the band. The vocals begin with a shrill squeal and end with some frenzied, dissonant harmonies. The band slows things down with "Valhe (The Lie)." The singers exploit the alliterative nature of the Finnish language in the chorus, rolling the Rs in "Enää en oo narri narrattava (I won't be a fool anymore, I'm not to be cheated)" to great effect as the band effortlessly plays in 11/4 meter. "Mataleena" starts out with some vocal percussion involving the singers and Lukkarinen, but the song is also distinguished by an unusually dissonant and deep harmony part in the final verse.

Markku Lepistö opens "Synti (The Sin)" by rapidly repeating a very low, slightly distorted note on his accordion. The staccato theme re-emerges throughout the song, sometimes with different notes or with other instruments joining in. Singer Mari Kaasinen gets very witch-like towards the end of this song, as she screeches out a curse against the men who gossip against her. The next song "Maaria" is one of the srongest tracks on Miero thanks to an exquisite Gypsy-inspired lead vocal from Susan Aho. The band then ties together two songs, "Miero (Outcast)" and "Mierontie (The Path of the Outcast)." The first part, an a capella song, features a prominent male vocal -- a very rare event in Värttinä's music -- from fiddler Lassi Logrén.

The most melodic song on the album is "Mustat Kengät (The Black Shoes)." Johanna Virtanen made a big impact in her debut with the band on iki, especially due to her great lead vocals on "Tuulen Tunto (To Feel the Wind)," and she delivers yet another strong performance here. The subdued "Lupaus (The Promise)" describes being far from home, in a way that could be interpreted both in the sense of a great voyage from a traditional poem and in the context of a band that is constantly on the road. Most Värttinä albums feature at least one lively Balkan-influenced song, and "Lumotar (The Enchantress)" on the new album is one of the band's strongest Balkan songs to date. The style is nothing new for the band, but Värttinä sings and performs these songs with such spirit that it never gets old.

The instrumental "9 Lukkoa (9 Locks)" is the album's weakest link; it doesn't really do anything to distinguish itself from better tunes the band has done in the past. By contrast, the singers follow this with a fun a capella song "Eerama." A fairly deep (for a female singer), almost droning vocal part bounces the song along while the other two voices handle melody and harmony. Miero closes with the sad ballad "Vaiten Valvoin," another song featuring the lead vocals of Johanna Virtanen. This song also briefly features a kantele, the traditional Karelian harp that dominated Värttinä's very early sound. I was very sorry not to hear more of it.

Miero continues a long line of quality albums from a band that refuses to rest on its laurels and may, over 20 years after its inception, still be approaching its peak in popularity. The musicianship in Värttinä remains superb, and the vocals on Miero reach a new height for the band. Most of the songs are solid, with "Riena," "Maaria," "Mustat Kengät," and "Lumotar" ranking in the upper echelon of Värttinä's work. Long-time followers of Värttinä who know what to expect in terms of quality should be quite pleased, if not necessarily overwhelmed. And, like every album Värttinä has released before, Miero will lure in new converts wondering what exactly it was that they just heard.

For an interview with Värttinä's bouzouki and sax player Janne Lappalainen concerning both Miero and Lord of the Rings, please click here.

[Scott Gianelli]