“I need to get clean”
– Frank Sobotka, The Wire
I have been covered in filth lately. Dragged through a mire of pestilence, I have sampled fruit irrigated by the grotesque and profane. Blast-beats that scorch the earth, inchoate riffs fat with torment and wretched vocals fit only for withering a pleasant disposition. Black metal, death metal, doom, grind and thrash. I’m a mess and I need to divest myself of the depravity that’s accumulated over the months. A panacea is in order, something that can wash away the silt and leave me lighter, fresher. To that end I have chosen to bathe in the antiseptic waters of Suuliekki, the new album by Finland’s Sammal. You won’t find brutality or ear-splitting anger here, just an easy-going throwback to 70’s prog and folk. But to be clean is to be exposed and I may find this new-found sobriety enough to make me lapse into recidivism.
For the release of Suuliekki, Sammal have continued their association with Svart Records. This makes sense, Svart hail from Finland and have made a name for themselves peddling odd blossoms plucked from weird soil. Despite this, the name that rose unbidden to my lips was Rise Above Records as listening to Suuliekki emphasized that this was the sort of thing typical of Lee Dorrian’s milieu. In fact, the melding of psychedelic prog and folk quirkiness on title-track, “Suuliekki,” was reminiscent of the short-lived Rise Above outfit, Circulus. Synth heavy, fuzzed-out and happy-go-lucky, it’s impossible not to be washed back to an earlier time of bell-bottom jeans and chemical-assisted enlightenment.
It would be natural to assume that reverence to musty prog brings with it the genre’s hedonistic excess of vacuous solos, obfuscated chord progression and bloated running times. Worry not as Sammal elide such trappings with their clean folk influences and a Swedish-like approach to catchy pop songwriting. “Ylistys Ja Kummarrus” and “Pinnalle Kaltevalle” are prime examples, thrumming along with verve and a sharpened sense of purpose, drawing from the likes of Isolation years and even Chick Corea. Composition is handled well on Suuliekki, and while some tracks linger overlong (“Vitutuksen Valtameri” could be excised entirely), Sammal introduce enough variety to keep the listener rapt. For example, “Lukitut Päivät, Kiitävät yöt” starts with a slow, cosmic epistle that then sluices into a Witchcraft-esque doom introspection.
Tying everything together are the clean vocals sung in Finland’s native tongue. They are earnest, vibrant and specked with impressive nuance. While the music is familiar and well-trodden, hearing it accompanied by a foreign minstrel elevates the experience in such a way that the mind is deceived into interpreting the mélange as something novel. The totality coalesces into a sunset of nourishing warmth, a rich glow that permeates every facet of the music. This isn’t because of the production’s execution, although it is rich and dynamic, but from the safe, measured performance of a band confident in their skill. There are no sharp edges or furrowed brows, just a pleasantness that ebbs along a languid tide.
Despite the restrained, innocuous nature of the music running counter to the fare I tend to devour, every spin of Suuliekki intrigued me in ways I was not expecting. And when I asked myself if I want to listen to the album again, not because of any professional duty but because I want to, the answer was always “yes.” The whimsical nature of the songs border on twee at times but their core harbors genuine emotion, never raucous but alive with intent. The closest parallel would be the cinematic work of Wes Anderson, whose films at first seem neutered of consequence but later reveal themselves to carry real weight, staying with you long after the credits have scrolled. Sammal have provided the first instance of unexpected joy this year, and while the desire to remove myself from the violent coterie of music that takes up most of my time will not surface often, when it does I know that Suuliekki will be my first choice. Sometimes exposure brings with it unexpected rewards.