I wish I could speak Finnish, or at the very least understand it when I hear it spoken. I had noble ambitions of learning the language once, but after two "lessons," I just gave up; it's one of the most difficult languages to tackle. However, some things transcend language barriers, and music is often in that category. Islaja is another in a long, long line of great, outsider folk projects to come out of Finland in the past few years. Revolving around a female named Merja, Islaja brings to mind Finnish stalwarts Kemialliset Yst?v?t. This should be no surprise as Islaja plays not only in KY, but also with Avarus and The Anaksimandros. But this is not KY or Avarus or The Anaksimandros; this is something entirely different.
When I think of Finland, many things come to mind. First, it is very dissimilar to its Nordic counterparts, Sweden and Norway. While connections obviously exist (for instance, a great deal of Finns are also fluent in Swedish), there is something more mystical about Finland, and it is centered in the forests of Tampere. It should be no surprise, then, that Islaja is also based in Tampere. Her music resembles a rustic, run-down wooden home. It's walls are still standing strong, and the roof shows no signs of caving in, but the yard is overgrown with tall trees and weeds while most of the trees are being strangled by vines. It's a beautiful mess, much like the archaic arrangements that make up "Meritie."
Since everything on "Meritie" is in Finnish, I can only guess at what each song is about. The actual meanings seem less important than the feeling conveyed, and Merja's voice is full of emotion. In fact, it is her voice that is the most striking aspect of this record. It seems lazy at times, but it there is power in her lackadaisical approach. Her voice is infectious and powerful. "Kenen maa" is like a tired mother trying to console her constantly-crying baby. Each scream and squeal seems to bring the mother to her knees, weakening her further attempts. For a song that starts out so sweet and innocent, the demise is that much more painful. Islaja's voice is ghostly over a sea of melodica and acoustic guitar, and the overall effect is fantastic.
If "Kenen maa" is a mother comforting a child, then the eerie "Haikea, kirkas" is like a Victorian-era Finnish ghost story. As one of the few instrumental pieces on the record, it does a great job of conveying an overall feeling with simple instrumentation. Piano and bass tiptoe along like they're being chased by a friendly spirit. The high-pitched whirring (that sounds like someone playing a saw) is the ethereal being's silly attempts at scaring you. Instead of frightening, it comes off as cute. It's a short but excellent track that melts perfectly into "Sata naakkaa sitten." Whereas "Haikea, kirkas" is innocent, "Sata naakkaa sitten" plays out like its being told by a witch. There is definitely malice in her motives. It is especially haunting when she starts harmonizing with a very deep and ominous voice. It works almost too well. It's songs like these that show the dark underbelly of Finland's mystique.
"Valo vedest?" feels like a s?ance with Islaja's voice echoing and humming its away toward the dark night sky. Plink-plonking glockenspiel lights the way while a melodica and acoustic guitar (again) act like chains holding the participants to the ground. It's at the same time chilling and cathartic; this dichotomy plays out all over "Meritie" and is one reason it?s so impressive. "Emoa ik?v?" has a similar s?ance-feel to it, but instead of being grounded, it's like those performing the ritual break through and rise toward the murky heavens. Islaja's voice is the guide the entire way through. It's a fragile, beautiful journey.
Victorian splashes return on "Harhojen perho." This piece sounds like something a group of minstrels would play as they walked the streets of a plague-ridden town. I love the bowed acoustic guitars on here. "Aalot ja ??net" is sad and hopeless. Melancholy piano and melodica weave in and out of one another, creating a desolate landscape where the last flickers of hope are slowly extinguished. I have no clue what Islaja is singing about on the first half of this piece, but it's unimportant. This is watching the love of your life take their last breath. It's a moment prolonged forever. "Aalot ja ??net" is the perfect end to this magnificent record.
Finland may not be the center of the musical map for most people outside of the frozen country. But with each passing month, I cannot deny that my musical tastes are increasingly centered around the land of the Suomi. Islaja's debut is nothing short of stunning. If music were haunted by all the past spirits of the town in which it was created, it would sound something like "Meritie." Few artists have made such a strong first impression on me in recent years, and I can't express how excited I am to see where Islaja takes me next. Highly recommended. 9/10 -- Brad Rose (25 May, 2005)