Alamaailman Vasarat is, according to their website, “a Finnish group playing horny and punky secret agent brass music.” While I don’t think that description does the band sufficient justice, coming up with a better one isn’t necessarily easy. Jarno Sarkula (saxes and clarinet), Tuuka Helminen (cello), Teemu Hänninen (drums), Miika Huutunen (keyboards), Erno Haukkala (horns), and Markko Manninen (cello) have created a unique, challenging, and usually fun sound, combining influences ranging from Balkan brass band music to jazz to heavy metal. The Helsinki-based sextet loves to experiment with unusual sonic combinations, most specifically when they plug their cellos into amplifiers and crank up the distortion. If you’re the kind of person who likes the idea of cellos crunching out killer riffs while the drummer attacks his kit with reckless abandon, then you will find plenty to like in Alamaailman Vasarat’s second album, Käärmelautakunta. Entirely self-composed and self-arranged, Käärmelautakunta generally rocks loud and hard, and while the album runs out of steam a bit towards the end, the effort mostly satisfies.
The album begins with a heavily distorted intro leading into the ominous “Kivitetty Saatana.” Despite no guitars, or any conventional rock instruments other than drums, Alamaailman Vasarat successfully creates a mood which lives up to the tune’s devilish name. The melody, played here primarily on saxophone, will remind Nordic folk listeners a little bit of Hoven Droven, but very little of the music on this disc would fit into the New Nordic Folk category. “Vasaraasilainen” opens with carousel music played on the pipe organ in 3/4 rhythm. One of the cellists then adds an insistent, repetitive bass line. The initial theme, again featuring Sarkula’s sax, clearly reflects the band’s Balkan influence. Halfway through the tune, though, the music slows down abruptly, leaving only an organ and cello for a brief, sad interlude before the full band returns. “Pelko Antaa Siivet,” the disc’s most emotional track, begins quietly with a lonely sax, then leads into a bridge with a piano and some soft drums accompanying one of the cellos. Then the A part returns, with deep, rapid bowing on the cellos combing with more emphatic drums and a trombone responding to the melody.
The band then gets jazzy with “Hamarapuoella,” another piece in triple time. Huttunen plays a slightly dissonant riff on the organ, the cellos play a catchy bass line, and the horns take the melody. The tune becomes slower and more dramatic in the middle part, which climaxes when the cellists hit their amplifier pedals. The blazing strings remain in overdrive for the rest of the tune, and when the band returns to the original melody, the mood has completely changed from bouncy and sprightly to fiendishly aggressive. “Hamarapuoella” is followed by a classic piece of mayhem called “Astiatehdas,” the standout track on the album. Boasting a Balkan melody, frenetic thrash polka drumming, and furious cellos turned up to eleven, this tune simply roars out of the speakers. It may be the shortest and simplest tune on the disc, but all of the band’s crazy sonic experiments blend together in perfect accord here. Alamaailman Vasarat then, almost necessarily, change the mood with something slow and somber. Huutunen’s minor-key piano anchors “Vanha Lapsuudenystävä” while the cellos and horns alternate on the melody, but their performances are overshadowed here by Hänninen’s cleverly off-kilter, almost drunken drumming.
Unfortunately, the remainder of Käärmelautakunta tends to repeat ideas that the band executed better at earlier points on the disc. “Olisimme Uineet Vieläkin Pidemälle,” another piece in triple time, does feature a nice enough piano part, but the band doesn’t really do anything interesting with it besides get louder until the very end, when the two horns and a very deep cello bring it to a staggering halt. “Lentävä Mato” begins with a chaotic piano intro, which then leads into another Balkan influenced polka played at supersonic speed. The energy in this track is undeniable, but the tempo is so fast that any musicality or subtlety inherent in the tune will be lost on the listener. The album’s closing tune, “Jää, Hyvä Mieli,” begins with a nasty scraping sound emanating from a distorted cello. The cellos remain fuzzy while churning out the rhythm, but the tune just plods along. The melody, played mostly on organ this time, remains slow and uninteresting throughout. Likewise, the drums pound and pound, but in a lethargically repetitive way.
Despite its inconsistency, Käärmelautakunta warrants a high recommendation. Most of the music is at least intriguing, if not solid, and the brilliant “Astiatehdas” alone more than justifies the effort and cost to obtain the CD. Anybody who doubts that other stringed instruments can be fed through an amplifier as effectively as guitars can will not need further convincing after hearing this disc. Alamaailman Vasarat break a number of musical barriers with Käärmelautakunta, and certainly sound like they’re having fun doing it. Likewise, most adventurous listeners will enjoy listening to the results.
(Silence/Wolfgang Records, 2003)