Sammal – Aika laulaa Review

Maybe it’s just me but, if I were looking to quote ‘rave reviews’ of a band, I wouldn’t necessarily single out the phrase “Earnest, vibrant music specked with impressive nuance.” Nevertheless, this is the phrase that a promo blurb writer selected from our review of Sammal’s last effort, Suuliekki. Treble Yell, who penned that review in March 2018, had gone on an entirely non-suspicious but very sudden and permanent sabbatical by the time I was press ganged into service later that year. But he clearly enjoyed, without loving, Suuliekki. Since then, Sammal has shed both its keyboard player and bassist. Perhaps you, like me, think that for a band like Sammal, which trades in progressive 70s-inspired neo-folk, both of those positions are fairly critical. Well, these three Finns laugh in your face. According to guitarist and songwriter Jura Salmi, they decided they did not need a bassist and would perform as a “power trio” (notwithstanding the fact there are clearly four people in the band pic provided), with the keyboards simulated through a new guitar pedal. To what effect?

The changes in personnel have not wrought a dramatic change in Sammal’s style for fourth full-length, Aika laulaa (which I am led to believe translates as ‘Time to Sing’). We are still firmly in the territory of 70s progressive psychedelia fused with Fenno Ugrian neofolk. We’re talking about the likes of Wishbone Ash, Camel and Aqualung-era Jethro Tull, blended with the folksier end of Witchcraft or Green Lung. But, compared to Suuliekki, there is also an upbeat note to some of the material on Aika laulaa (the main, pulsing riff on “Returning Rivers,” one of several English-language tracks—the album also features songs in Finnish and Swedish). I don’t know whether, as a function of becoming a three-piece, the band felt it needed to up the energy levels and, in places, dial back the whimsy but that is what has happened.

Although this seam was present to a degree on some tracks on Suuliekki (like “Ylistys ja kumarrus” or “Lukitut Päivät, Kiitävät Yöt”), it feels less progressive and free-form on Aika laulaa, which at times has an almost raucous edge to it (“Katse vuotaa”). Without abandoning the feel or ethos of their earlier work, Sammal has gone for a much more linear and straightforward composition here. Present still are the massive amounts of reverb on the guitar and the quirky synths, albeit generated by a guitar pedal rather than a keyboard now (“λ”), but there’s a feel to the album that reminds me of Hexvessel (particularly on “Grym maskin”). That’s not necessarily a bad thing but where some bands will, with each successive release, descend deeper and deeper into a prog hole, on Aika laulaa Sammal is going in the opposite direction.

There is plenty to like about Aika laulaa. It has a propulsive energy that bounces along through much of the album’s prim 43-minute run and there are some nice little guitar lines (like the prog noodling at the back end of “Grym maskin”) that brought a little smile to my face. Similarly, while it may seem a small thing, the vocals have a breathy edge, where the word at the end of a phrase rises slightly with an exhalation, which I really liked and gives a natural, relaxed feel to the record. It does feel, however, as though Sammal, whether as a function of becoming a three-piece or not, is playing things a bit safe. The production does not help this, with way too much rough fuzz on the guitars, which at times melds perfectly with the cymbals to create an annoying background static hiss. The master is also very loud, which makes this too ‘in your face’ for my preferences when it comes to this style.

All this is a shame because, when Sammal is at its best (which they bookend the album with, on opener “På knivan” and closer “Katse vuotaa”), you hear what the band can do when it lets go and you realize this could have been so much more than a Good album. That said, Aika laulaa is definitely a good album, which I enjoyed. It just didn’t quite reach the levels of Sammal’s earlier work.


Rating: 3.0/5.0
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 192 kbps mp3
Label: Svart Records
Websites: sammal.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/sammalofficial
Releases Worldwide: November 18th, 2022

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