Värttinä, iki (NorthSide, 2003)
The twenty-year history of the Finnish band Värttinä has been one of perpetual flux and evolution. From the group of 21(!) teenagers from the village of Rääkkylä that promoted Karelian traditional music during the 80's, to the nine-piece outfit which just released the band's tenth album iki, Värttinä has had numerous singers and players come and go from its ranks. Only singer Mari Kaasinen, one of the band's co-founders, and bouzouki/saxophone player Janne Lappalainen have remained with Värttinä; in fact, they're the only two members left from the band which topped the Finnish charts with the 1990 album Oi Dai and became a major player in the world music scene with 1992's Seleniko. While no two of Värttinä's studio albums have been recorded by the same line-up, the personnel changes between their 2000 album Ilmatar and iki were particularly significant. Half the performers on Ilmatar are now gone, including their fiddler and chief composer, their rhythm section, and two of the four female singers, one of whom was an original member.
Not surprisingly, iki differs from previous Värttinä albums in some significant ways, most noticeably with the vocals. By opting to go with three singers instead of the usual four, Värttinä clearly give the group vocals and harmonies which previously defined the band's sound a lower priority this time, focusing instead on dominant solo vocals with relatively light support on harmonies. The band defines the term "iki" as "the primal, eternal breath," and as Mari Kaasinen describes in her e-mail interview for Green Man Review, the word effectively captures the nakedness of the vocals on this album. In addition, the primary songwriting responsibilities within the band necessarily had to change, and guitarist Antto Varilo has emerged as the main composer in the band, with Kaasinen writing the lion's share of the lyrics. The very audible changes might take some getting used to for long-time fans of the band, but Värttinä has always managed to create albums full of exceptional music, and iki is no exception.
The album is introduced with the first part of "Syylinen Syli (Faithless Arms)," a sad lament over a lover's infidelity. Originally, this song had been written by Varilo and Kaasinen for a thirty-piece vocal ensemble called the Philomela choir. Here, Värttinä gives it an a capella arrangement, and the first part is dominated by Kaasinen's solo vocals. "Tuulen Tunto (To Feel the Wind)" follows. Featuring a melody composed by Lappalainen which evokes both Swedish and Celtic waltzes, plus a gorgeous lead vocal from the unfamiliar voice of new singer Johanna Virtanen, "Tuulen Tunto" stands out as the album's strongest track. "Sepän Poika" is one of three songs of the album with lyrics written by Finnish singer Timo Kiiskinen, the husband of Värttinä singer Susan Aho. It marks the first time that Värttinä has used non-traditional lyrics written by somebody outside the band. "Tauti (Disease)," another Varilo/Kaasinen composition, is an energetic, Balkan-influenced piece primarily in 13:8 rhythm. Another of the strong tracks on iki, "Tauti" shows that the new version of Värttinä can surge into high gear as well as any of the previous incarnations did.
"Morsian (The Bride)" is a fairly straightforward wedding ballad. It comes across as being somewhat syrupy, and definitely quiets the tone of the album down a little too much. Curiously enough, the wedding song leads into the very tongue-in-cheek "Nahkarouska (Leather Whip)," a song about a disgruntled wife who's mad as hell at her husband's fooling around, and she's not going to take it anymore. The line "vivi vivi vivi vivi vinguttaa" -- "whack, whack, whack, whack goes the cane" -- pretty much speaks for itself. Musically, the song evokes the hyper, rapid-fire singing present on all of Värttinä's previous albums, although it doesn't quite match the band's best examples of this approach, such as the classics "Katariina" and "Yötulet" off the 1994 album Aitara.
"Nahkarouska" is then followed by two collaborations between Timo Kiiskinen and Susan Aho. "Maahinen Neito (Earth-maiden)" is a minor-key song from the perspective of a mythical human-like creature which dwells underground, and receives only scorn from humanity. Musically inspired by gypsy tradition, "Maahinen Neito" boasts some very strong percussion from Jaska Lukkarinen, coupled with a potent vocal performance from Aho. The fun a cappela love song "Potran Korean (A Sturdy, Handsome Lad)" is uncommon for Värttinä due to the presence of a male voice in the chorus, where new fiddler Lassi Logren, who played in the original band back in the 80's, quite ably supports the women's harmonies. This is followed by the album's lone instrumental "Vihi," composed by Varilo. "Hopeat (Silver)" is a relatively quiet number, in which the singers declare that their love cannot be bought. The pensive mood continues with "Tumma (Dark)," a contemplation on the uncertain future. "Tumma" features some subtly effective guitar work, especially in the fade-out. The album then finishes with the second part of "Syylinen Syli," with Virtanen and Aho joining Kaasinen for the louder, more dramatic portions of the song, but concluding with Kaasinen singing alone, and barely above a whisper.
Despite twenty years of music, Värttinä has kept from growing stale by constantly embracing change. The band members have never wanted to make the same album twice, and given the number of changes in the band's line-up over the years, resting on prior laurels would probably not have been possible. Much like Fairport Convention, Värttinä as an entity has become far greater than the sum of whatever individual parts comprise it at any given moment. No part seems to be irreplaceable. For the most part, the strongest tracks on iki are those which sound the least like previous incarnations of the band. This will naturally please some people more than others, and iki will likely win the band new fans while alienating a portion of the older ones. However, that has been true, if to a somewhat lesser degree, of all of Värttinä's previous albums as well. And like Värttinä's previous albums, iki succeeds perfectly well on its own terms. Värttinä remains a very potent and vital presence in the world of Nordic folk music, and that is one aspect of the band which is not likely to change any time soon.