ALBUM REVIEW
Words: Dominic Valvona


Monolith Cocktail - tasavallan-presidentti-pop-liisa-1-lp

Tasavallan Presidentti   ‘Pop Liisa: Live In The Studio 01’   (1973)
Wigwam   ‘Pop Liisa: Live In The Studio 02’   (1973)
Unisono Quartet   ‘Jazz Liisa: Live in The Studio 01’   (1973)
KOM Quartet   ‘Jazz Liisa: Live in The Studio 04’   (1975)

All  released  via  Svart Records,  June  3rd  2016.



Does your record collection hunger for a fresh haul of previously unreleased live Scandinavian progressive rock, jazz-fusion and psychedelic folk recordings? Could you perhaps do with filling in some missing gaps from Norway’s freakbeat, Afro beat and funk scenes? Well you’re in luck. Bridging the development of the untapped and mostly obscure Norwegian and Finnish music scenes from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, Svart Records and Round 2 Records are releasing, in two waves, a number of both live sessions and recordings from some of the most important and influential bands of the era.

 

Remasterd and pressed onto 180g vinyl, each album in the series features customary extensive sleeve notes and the most stylish artwork. The first round of which is in the hands of the Svart, with eight albums in total from Finnish acts, sorted into ‘pop’ and ‘jazz’ categories. Following a week later, the recently set-up Round 2 Round label will release a number of re-licensed Norwegian rarities, starting with some heavy psych-funk from the Undertakers Circus. Their mix of radical protestations and Norse mythology set to a musical score of funk, rock and even Afro beat is encapsulated on the Ragnarock LP, released originally in the 1970s, and regarded as a cult classic. Following in its wake will be the purveyors of Norwegian Freakbeat, Firebeats Inc. with their previously limited run of 500 copies obscure eponymous debut, and a Round 2 Round compilation of the group’s singles and outtakes, Let Me Tell You.

 

The final album in this quartet of releases is from the pastoral psych folk inspired Folque, who crafted their own idiosyncratic version of the UK’s Steeleye Span, Pentangle and Fairport Convention. Produced by ledendary Norwegian guitarist, Øystein Sunde, Folque’s self-titled debut will receive a much-needed appraisal this June.

Before that though, Svart will set out their Liisankatu collection of Finnish live recordings. Merely dipping our toe into the ‘treasure trove’, we will look at just four of these albums: Tasavallan Presidentti Pop Liisa: Live In The Studio 01Wigwam Pop Liisa: Live In The Studio 02, Unisono Quartet Jazz Liisa: Live in The Studio 01, KOM Quartet Jazz Liisa: Live in The Studio 04.


Monolith Cocktail - wigwam-pop-liisa-3-lp


Originally recorded as broadcasts by the Finnish broadcaster Yleisradio (a humbler version of what is often cited as “the Finnish BBC”, we are told in the press sheet), there are 34 Liisankatu sessions in total, chronicling a veritable “who’s who” of the country’s head scene. Some names will be vaguely familiar, whilst others are off the radar.

 

Described in the notes as ‘an institutional progressive rock band in Finland’, the Helsinki-based Tasavallan Presidentti were founded in 1969 by Jukka Tolonen (guitar) and Vesa Aaltonen (drums). In a close-knit, small scene such as this, band members were borrowed and shared, with the Presidentti being no exception, though they would keep both founders as a constant foundation. Line-ups changed intermittently however, and for the Popstudio show of September 12, 1973, the band was in their second transformation with a new vocalist Eero Raittinen replacing a fired Frank Robson. Swelling the ranks, Pekka Pöyry (alto & soprano saxophone, flute, electric piano) and Heikki “HäkäVirtanen (electric bass) had both joined in after Juhani Aaltonen and Måns Grundstroem left the band. Building a reputation internationally, especially in the UK with shows at Reading Festival and The Marquee, the band was relatively successful, and pushing to break through on the commercial scene.

Recorded in anticipation of their 1974 LP Milky Way Moses, the captured moments of their performance that made it – twenty minutes of their near hour-long session ruined by an incessant irritating squeaking sound on the tape – are pretty awesome. Riffing on an Eero Koivistoinen – a fellow compatriot and one of the country’s most famous jazz musicians – composition, the group take his ‘Lennosta kii’ tune out on expletory trip along the acid-rock and freeform West Coast of America, before returning to European soil and mixing up the soft Machine, Focus and Embryo into one lengthy noodling jam. It certainly rises and soars, especially when accentuated in the birdlike tenor saxophone performance. The original based upon lyricism from Finland’s poetic greats, is certainly handled with reverence and proved a highlight for the band.

The second track to have made the cut is an improvisational version of Tolonen’s tribal fusion, free-jazz number, ‘Dance’. Really set free on a ritualistic pathway of discovery, the group run through quivered esoteric stirrings, hints of Krautrock, pastoral Tudor folk and wild, heavy rock. It’s a great set, if only two songs long, and bodes well for the rest of the series.


Monolith Cocktail - unisono-quartet-jazz-liisa-1-lp


Leaping forward to the third volume with a band that is often mentioned in the same breath as Tasavallan Presidentti, Wigwam is billed in the series notes as Finland’s most well known and influential progressive rock bands. They’re certainly a consummate, polished and adroit one. Pioneers even. Recorded in the same year as their peers live performance, following on from a rich career arc that had begun two-years earlier in 1971 with critically beloved Fairyport album, and just before the release of their 1974 Being album the latest line-up of Gustavson, Pekka Pohjola (bass), Jim Pembroke (vocals, keyboards) and Ronnie Österberg (drums) performed a quartet of harmonious, venerated songs. Captured before both Gustavson and Pohjola left in the summer of 1974, the session was marred with ill tempers from the offset, even though it would prove to be one of the band’s best live recordings. In the very first minutes of the performance, Österberg’s bass drum broke – this coming after the drummer had already decided he didn’t want to play his band mates more progressive songs. He threatened to quit there and then, throwing the recording into utter chaos as the show’s presenter was caught on the hop trying to fill time as the bass drum was fixed. However, you don’t hear any of these tensions or problems in the music. In fact the first song of their set was a Porcol Harum choral like organ suffused cover of Lennon’s ‘Imagine’; a song that was a standard at the group’s concerts, used in this case more as a rehearsal warm up, minutes before they were due to go on air.

With an air of ecclesiastical progressive rock, and a mellotron like bed of alter worship, the group run through an early Nice like version of ‘Nipistys’, a Genesis shaded ‘Marvelry Skimmer’, and radiantly harmonious alternative ‘Fairyport’ –played whilst the bass drum was being fixed. The vocals are what set the band apart from many of their peers, the pop-folk harmonies lilting dreamily.

They finish with a fan favourite, the chamber-pop ‘Grass For Blades’, written by the group’s bass player Pembroke. Articulating differently to a live setting, the Wicked Ivory album version goes off on many congruous pathways, from low organ parlour recital to freeform rock, with everyone getting their spotlight on stage.

 

Moving from ‘pop’ into ‘jazz’, there’s the richly led baritone timbral saxophone heavy Unisono Quartet; originally a sextet pared down by the time of this recording to a quartet with Baron Paakkunainen on reeds, Make Lievonen on bass, Olli Ahvenlahti on keyboards, and Reino Laine on drums. Highly regarded in the country’s jazz scene, respected as highly accomplished and renowned for being pioneers in the jazz fusion scene the group were also known for their experiments as soloists too: Seppo “Baron” Paakkunainen had a penchant for Lappish music; producing popular versions of the old Finnish folk tunes and composing a suite based on the Lappish singing style of ‘joiku’ called Nunnu.

Meanwhile bassist Markku “Make” Lievonen recorded gypsy music with Hortto Kaalo, Finnish folk music with Vesa-Matti Loiri, and sensitive, poetic songs with a touch of progressive rock with Pekka Streng.

Deftly attuned to American jazz, the phrasing hints at the classics, with Thelonious Monk ‘twists’ and nuances on Ahvenlahti’s flighty and monotonous modal-like ‘Long Tandem’. The repetitive piano riff keeps the piece together as the Baron’s bird pecked and hawking squeaks punctuate throughout to evoke a mysterious air of the east.

In a more romantic gesture, ‘Specially For’, again a modal composition, is all swaddling poetic and at times slinky alto, lightly dusted drum brushes and deft liaison piano caressed loveliness. A 12/8 feeling we are told, this swooning and charming number is said to have been inspired by Gato Barbieri’s theme song for the Last Tango In Paris. Well it certainly has some of that essential sexy sass, and does suggest the promise of illicit carnal hookups in a 1970s Paris.

The second half of their set moves into more noodling concentration mode. ‘Totuuden Aarreaitta’ is a gentle sweeping minimalist composition, drifting along, untethered to any particular time signature: it merely “…travels in tempo’. Translated as ‘Treasures of Truth’ this amorphous free-range jazz piece, led if you can call it that, by a bright but somnolent organ, plays host to a number of fragmented fleeting solos. Following in its unconscious ebb, Ahvenlahti’s diaphanous flowing and romantic tumbling piano leads in the 7/4 time signature ‘Incarnation’. The song picks up as a tumbling drum adds some heft and the baritone saxophone reels and recoils in a reedy speech.

 

 

Perhaps the most overtly political group of the four in this review, the KOM Quartet was originally part of the KOM theater group, founded in 1971. Seeking to reach stages and platforms outside the established hegemony of performance they reached out to audiences all over Finland. Emerging from this free-spirited enterprise of pianist Eero Ojanen, bassist Tapani Tamminen and drummer Ari Valtonen formed a trio in 1973, later joined by guitarist Jukka Hauru to become a quartet.

Imbued and riffing off the lyrics of writer, psychiatrist and jazz pianist Claes Andersson, the KOM perform a magnificent classical inspired set of progressive rock, jazz and folk songs. Andersson would later go on to be the chairman of the Finnish Left Alliance in the 90s and eventually the minister for Culture between 1995-1998, his 70s writing were spread across poetry, novels and nonfiction.

In the mode of groups such as Nucleus and Solar Plexus, but with a more overt political leaning, KOM’s performance launches into a minor jazzy odyssey. Brightly and breezily grooving along to a light funky rhythm and sparkled warm electric piano, the band are joined by the fluctuating aria vocals of Eija Orpana on the opening gambit ‘Varo Niitä: one minute reaching the quivered higher octaves of opera the next back on earth with a more relaxed Sandy Denny like vocal. Putting that trained classical voice to work, Orpana sings a most serene and soaring soprano on the next song ‘Lapsi Kalevi’, and coos in almost reverent wantonness on the searching progressive Älä Tuhlaa Aikaa’. The most beautiful composition, and closet to a classical rendering, ‘Mitä sinä sanoitkaan’ translates as ‘What Did You Say’, and is a diaphanously flourishing question put to the most articulate of jazz guitar, bowed double bass and cascading piano accompaniments that just keeps building in the final stages towards, what sounds like, Pentangle jamming with Focus.

Taking just a cursory glance at this abundant trove of riches, there’s plenty of bands I’ve never heard of or been introduced to until now that I feel compelled to search out; especially the KOM Quartet.

It’s a fantastic series that sheds a much welcome light on the Finnish music scene of the 1970s and fills in a sketchy linear in the development of progressive and jazz-fusion music outside the UK and US. Usually, and for good reason – such is the scale of great music it produced -, Sweden gets all the attention. This will play some part in redressing that balance and fire up a new interest. The second wave, this time trained on Norway and released by Round 2 Records, will do likewise. Again, a great series, and deserves a place in anyone’s collection.



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