Hometown: Seinäjoki, Finland.
The lineup: Johannes Kohal (drums), Lasse Luhta (guitar, bass, synthesiser), Dmitry Melet (bass, vocals), Niko Lehdontie (guitar).
The background: If you like prog rock, you’ll love Kairon; IRSE!, who hail from western Finland. Expect from them elements of postrock, kosmische and shoegazing, too – their acclaimed 2014 debut Bandcamp-only release Ujubasajuba is more My Bloody Valentine than Magma – but mainly you should anticipate, from their new album Ruination, all the great things you associate with prog: intricate playing both quiet and loud, crazed instrumental extrapolations, manically darting rhythms and abrupt shifts from one section of a song to another. Oh, and a sense of the visionary and sublime – especially the literal definition of the latter, meaning an aspiration towards something exalted, noble, even divine.
There are four of them, with assistance in the studio from Andreas Heino (saxophone, clarinet), and make no mistake, Ruination comes from intense, meticulous performing and assembling in the studio. Whereas Ujubasajuba was largely born out of improvisation and jam sessions, Ruination is the result of two years of careful composing, arranging and honing the chaos at Tonehaven Studios, with producer Juho Vanhanen at the helm and Tom Brooke recording and mixing.
“Our debut album had looser song structures,” explains guitarist Niko Lehdontie. “We did lots of gigs before we recorded it so the songs progressed through live jamming. For Ruination we didn’t do any gigs before we went into the studio – we were arranging and creating from the start, which is why the song structures are really strict.”
We knew we were going to like Ruination because one of the pieces of advanced press described it variously as “progressive shoegazing” and “music of the outer spheres” and in one particular standout line compared it to: “an irrevocably mentally unstable Gentle Giant and a severely alcoholic Todd Rundgren having a love child which, after being adopted to Russia, finds himself performing a rock opera in the Ural Mountains.” Todd Rundgren, you say? Ah, but which Todd? It’s like bands who say they’re influenced by David Bowie. Which one? The flip character behind The Laughing Gnome, or the one who contrived Station to Station? It doesn’t take long to realise that, in the run-up to recording Ruination, Kairon; IRSE! spent longer listening to the multipartite epics of Todd Rundgren’s Utopia than they did the pop Runt of I Saw the Light – the swirling, spiralling keyboard arpeggios of the 13-minute Sinister Waters II evoke blissful memories of passages from The Ikon.
Never fear: there are snatches of melody throughout Ruination’s six tracks. It’s just that you have to plough your way through a lot of dense playing to find them.
“Yeah,” agrees Lehdontie, who regards his band’s music as “an accumulation of the ideas and overall mentality of 60s and 70s experimental pop, with a modern approach”. He adds of the numerous twists and tempo twitches, “We try to keep our songs interesting. To us and the world. Are they hard to play? I guess. It’s certainly difficult to re-create that recorded sound in the live environment, but now we can do that, even if there are a lot of instruments and we only have a limited amount of hands.”
If you’re into skilled musicianship, and you miss the days when music magazines had readers’ poll categories for individual performers, you’ll love what drummer Johannes Kohal, guitar/bass/synth whiz Lasse Luhta, and bassist Dmitry Melet, as well as Lehdontie and Andreas Heino (their very own built-in Ornette Coleman) do here. There are parts that bring to mind Yes at their most thrillingly intricate, King Crimson at their heaviest, and Gentle Giant at their most complex. There are also folkier moments, when it’s like listening to a metallic Fairport Convention. Sinister Waters I is sort of pastoral prog, or MBV go madrigal, with a choral/quasi-religious feel. Sinister Waters II goes from bowel-deep fuzz bass to cosmic shimmering treble in the blink of a (third) eye. Starik starts like a robot rampaging around a gleaming future urbanscape, but then, it depends where you drop the metaphorical needle, because other parts of the song sound variously like Jon Anderson having an acid vision and a prog band attempting to play avant-garde jazz, or vice versa. The track Porphyrogennetos begs the question: what does it all mean? Is Llullaillaco (another title) Finnish for Loveless? Does singer Melet really sing at one point, “I’m the Jesus Christ of despair”? And when he declares, “We gaze into the abyss”, is it an oblique comment on Trump’s America?
Lehdontie is disarmingly honest on the matter of meaning. “I don’t know, actually,” he says. “The other guitarist and bassist did the lyrics – I’m not so on the map. Even they are not knowing what they are trying to say. It’s more about the music, and the mood. And the mood is: otherworldly and melancholic.” How about Kairon; IRSE!? Surely that’s a profound statement about the nature of Finnish consciousness? “No,” he says. “It means nothing. It’s just meant to look as annoying as possible. It’s a really old, bad joke from the time we were at school. In Finnish those words have no meaning at all. It’s our own language. It’s nonsense.” You have to admit: their attitude is refreshing. As is the music, which is as invigorating as a dip in a Finnish lake. What’s their plan? To bring prog to a new generation? “Maybe,” Lehdontie replies. “That’s quite ambitious. We just want to create music that we might like to listen to if we weren’t in the band.”
The buzz: “Prog that sounds like early King Crimson mixed with Ornette Coleman-style sax freakouts” – Brooklyn Vegan.
The truth: They couldn’t be more prog if they fell into infinity through a topographic ocean.
Most likely to: Acquire the taste.
Least likely to: Ruin you.
What to buy: Svart Records will release both Ruination and the group’s first album Ujubasajuba on 3 February, on CD/2LP/digital.
File next to: King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Utopia, Dream Theater.
Ones to watch: My Native Tongue, Analog Candle, Halehan, Smith & Thell, Overcoats.