Monday, September 13, 2010

Music Review: Kemialliset Ystävät - Ullakkopalo

One of the strangest byproducts of truly psychedelic music over the years has been the simultaneous elimination and perpetuation of the need for mind-altering substances to facilitate the experience. That’s not to say that a certain contingent need any further excuse to use, but for less inclined folks such as myself, there continue to be specific strains of avant-garde music that can presumably produce a similar if not equally hallucinatory effect on the senses. Which is a long way of saying that while I’ve never dropped acid, my continued pursuit of new and disorienting sounds has led me to believe that the work of Finland’s Jan Anderzén is something of an aural equivalent. I’m hoping, then, that what follows reads more as objective opinion than as the endorsement of a blind addict, because once any strand of Anderzén’s shape-shifting avant-folk crew Kemialliset Ystävät (telling translation: Chemical Friends) enters the bloodstream, it can be hard to differentiate between concerns of reality and pleasures of the flesh. As with most things of this nature, however, it’s not the comedown that initially worries, but the potential the trip has to extend the mind into regions uncharted. I don’t know about you, but on evidence of Kemialliset Ystävät’s synapse-popping new album, Ullakkopalo, that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Similar to most artists who’ve attempted to re-work the base elements of tangled electronics, highly intuitive free improv, acoustic séance hymnals and rural ambiance, Kemialliset Ystävät inevitably fell in with the mid-aughts New Weird America movement. It’s important to note, however, how little this music has in common with, say, Devendra Banhart, and how it’s restless sense of experimentation has helped sustain a very unique sound as many contemporaries never managed to make it out of the decade. It’s almost as if Anderzén (who also records solo under the Tomutonttu moniker, a couple of albums of which were reissued last year, casting the KY sound into stark relief) emerged out of the same freak-bent assemblage that birthed the Animal Collective, while his subsequent attempts to contain these magic-eye hallucinations have resulted in what sounds like the denser portions of Here Comes the Indian as interpreted by a merry band of chipmunks armed with an array of toy box makeshift-truments, laptops, and a trusty line of glockenspiels. Which, of course, is totally revisionist, as Anderzén pre-dates his contemporaries by a number of years, not to mention the fact that by the sound of things this guy has little use for associate inspiration or genre signposts.

That’s not to imply, however, that you can’t trace a lineage through each winding tendril of this music. The more abstract, collagist approach of early Mothers of Invention and Cromagnon certainly offer parallels, as does the fractured proto-prog of Don Van Vilet and Faust Tapes-era Faust. A more modern comparison could even be made with Black Dice—that is, if Black Dice had retained the services of Hisham Bharoocha and decided to explore the more organic paths hinted at on Beaches & Canyons. Attempting to draw any kind of contextual map for this music saps a lot of the inherent fun here though, and to be sure, Ullakkopalo is fun, at least in that creepy, grade school macabre inner-visions kind of way. Perhaps it’s just my mind projecting by dint of contrasting album art, then, but Ullakkopalo feels a few degrees lighter (though certainly not slighter) than 2007s phenomenal self-titled KY effort. To that end, if Kemialliset Ystävät felt like an uneasily accurate representation of its cover art—all desolate, dusk falling landscapes and amber-hued ambiance— then Ullakkopalo (translation: Attic Fire) accomplishes a similar task via Anderzén’s pictorial assemblage of primary colored synthetics and everyday bric-a-brac (the very things we lost in the fire perhaps?).

Individual song description, as you may well have noticed by this point, can prove problematic, as the KY experience is more a series of individual moments laced together into a mosaic of fleeting melodies and sonic ephemera. So while I can tell you that the sharp tone synth melody of “Kajastusmuseo” is bold opening fanfare, the circular acoustic figure of “Maksaruohoja” an instant psychedelic earworm, the carnival-esque stew of “Ystävälliset Miekat” the stuff of Terry Gilliam’s daydreams, the industrial shrieks of “Mestari Ei Väsy” and “Muutujat/Saattajat” worthy of B-horror FX editing, and a series of brief aquatic ambient interstitials emotional counterweights to the surrounding bits of levity, it actually does the individuated pieces a disservice, as each detail is stacked, re-arranged and juxtaposed for maximum impact over the course of 45 carefully sequenced minutes. As chaotic and complex as Ullakkopalo can get, however, I get the feeling that if one element were removed (or simply repositioned), the whole endeavor would collapse in a crayon-colored melt of micro-fashioned loops, samples and busted acoustics. In other words, it’s a trip, but it’s also some of the most inspiring and mind-expanding music I’ve heard all year. No drugs required. [86/100] [Published: 10.18.10]

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