Review: Korpiklaani – Noita

Korpiklaani have been pretty heavily criticized over the years for what has been perceived as a highly “gimmicky” sound. That view has a faint shred of legitimacy, but it gets blown way out of proportion. With bands like Alestorm and Nekrogoblikon managing to pump out really impressive albums without the slightest hint that they take any of their music seriously, it is easy to falsely impose on the genre a spectrum ranging from hoax to serious. You’re either writing brutal pagan metal homages to Odin or you’re dressing up as a mutant snork and dancing a jig, right?

It doesn’t really work like that. Bands like Kalevala (Калевала) and Troll Bends Fir (Тролль Гнёт Ель) can come off as fun-loving boozers, but you can’t escape the impression that they have a deep respect for their cultural heritage. Finntroll sing about dim-witted fantasy monsters eating people, and they’re heavy as hell. Being light-hearted and fun certainly does not make a folk metal band “gimmicky”, as if all folk traditions are inherently morbid. Doing it for nine albums without showing much inclination towards anything but fun and relegating your only English language songs to tantrums about not having enough beer–well, that can tarnish an image. I do understand why people might see Korpiklaani as a having a one-track mind.

But it really shouldn’t, and they really don’t. Not if sounding the same means maintaining the quality that turned people to them in the first place while honing their musical talents along the way. Not when for every track devoid of lyrical content the listener writes off eight others as the same because they don’t speak Finnish. Korpiklaani were very well received when they first appeared with Spirit of the Forest back in 2003. Folk metal was still fairly new then, and Jonne Järvelä was a frontrunner, not a bandwagoner. He had contributed to Finntroll’s Jaktens Tid in 2001, and prior to changing his band’s name to Korpiklaani he had released folk metal under the monicker “Shaman” beginning in 1999. He was recording non-metal Finnish folk music earlier than that. As folk metal picked up steam, Korpiklaani’s pop-centric, lighter brand–characterized by very simplistic metal riffs underscoring catchy yolk vocals, accordion, violin, and an occasional whistle–came under fire. Why?

That’s an open question. I really don’t get it. My best guess is that people experienced Spirit of the Forest and Voice of Wilderness when folk metal was still a novelty. They didn’t really love the band; they just loved the direction that metal was heading in, and Korpiklaani were a prominent example of that. As the scene broadened and more variety became available, some people were quick to throw Korpiklaani under the bus because the band’s pop tendencies made them feel a little insecure in their metal manliness. Korven Kuningas (2008), Karkelo (2009), and Ukon Wacka (2011) got a lot of negative reviews. But to me, the band just kept getting better. Spirit of the Forest gave us “Pellonpeikko”, and “Wooden Pints” is certainly nostalgic, but the album had a lot of half-formed filler tracks too. It has all the feel of an early, less developed work in a band’s discography. They really started to nail the folk on Voice of Wilderness in 2005, and Jonne Järvelä’s distinctive yolk-style vocals–the band’s most unique traditional feature–really didn’t fully mature until Tales Along This Road (2006) and Tervaskanto (2007). Their next three albums took all the heat, but they were only guilty of not offering further development. They didn’t really need to. The band was in their prime.

Manala (2012) was the first and only Korpiklaani album that I had misgivings about. It was distinctly heavier, with folk instrumentation feeling subservient to metal guitar riffs rather than the other way around. For that, it actually got some positive feedback. Korpiklaani were abandoning that “folk gimmick” and getting back to their “metal roots”, or some nonsense like that, as if the band even had metal roots. My speculation was, I think, a bit more realistic: Long-tenured violinist Jaakko “Hittavainen” Lemmetty retired after Ukon Wacka. Short of digging the jewel case out from my basement, I can’t even find a clear answer as to who played violin when Manala was recorded in 2011. Teemu Eerola replaced Hittavainen on tour that year, and Tuomas Rounakari stepped in as the band’s permanent violinist shortly after. I have to believe that there is a direct correlation between Manala‘s lack of a strong folk component and the transitional state of the band’s lineup at the time.

Korpiklaani did not record another album for three years. That’s a long stretch by their standards, and in the meantime Juho Kauppinen, their accordionist since Tales Along This Road, left as well. Was the band doomed to drift ever further from their unique poppy folk sound into the cesspool of generic derivative heavy metal?

Not at all, as it turns out. Noita sounds strikingly successive, but in a way that works wonderfully. It takes Manala and drives it back into where the folk left off on Ukon Wacka. The first track, “Viinamäen Mies”, opens powerfully with a driving violin and a nice accordion accompaniment. Where the folk drifts out, the passages are brief enough to feel like a showcase of Jonne Järvelä’s vocals rather than a void in the content. The song is a total return to Korpiklaani’s poppy folk roots, and that feeling persists through the first two tracks.

Track: Lempo

The third song, “Lempo”, slows down the pace and stretches things out in a turn that is, for them at least, a bit on the heavy side. Unlike Manala though, the guitar is hardly alone in giving it an edge. The vocals are great, as always, and the folk instrumentation blends in and out of playing harmony to the plodding verses and busting out solos in really fluid form.

The rest of the album is a mix of these two approaches, and it is surprisingly the latter that comes out strongest. “Sahti” and “Luontoni” give us two more upbeat, fun songs that don’t feel remotely contrived, and then the album slows back down for the long haul. The violin on “Minä Näin Vedessä Neidon” is about as heavy metal as that instrument gets, and I was especially impressed on the closing track–“Sen Verran Minäkin Noita”–by how Tuomas Rounakari and Sami Perttula seem to have mastered improvisation over long, drawn out metal chords. Moreover, the rhythms on that song are way more diverse than we’re used to from Korpiklaani, tipping a hat to prog and viking metal. It’s one of the few songs in their catalog that don’t follow a standard verse-chorus-verse pattern. I can’t help but think “this is way too awesome to be Korpiklaani” when I listen to it. And I’m one of the people that never lost faith in the band.

It’s hard to imagine, listening to Noita, that Sami Perttula and Tuomas Rounakari were new to this band. Perttula totally gets their sound, and he brings a fiery spirit that wants to imbue anything and everything with rambling accordion harmonies. Rounakari offers much the same on violin, and also a great deal of thoughtfulness. In an English-language interview released by Nuclear Blast to promote the album, he explains each song quite articulately. He even points out cultural relevance in “Sahti”, a song that turns out to be about (surprise!) drinking. (It’s kind of funny, because Järvelä and Perttula’s bad English cater to every negative stereotype surrounding them. I write this song because I like get drunk!) If you didn’t know any better, you would think Korpiklaani had been Rounakari’s baby all along. Hittavainen was a hard man to replace, but I’m not complaining about who they found.

The album does have one very unfortunate, glaring flaw, and it’s called “Jouni Jouni”. “Jouni Jouni” is a cover of Billy Idol’s cover of Tommy James and the Shondells’ mind-numbingly stupid hit classic “Mony Mony”, and it appears right smack in the middle of the damn album. You know what makes even less sense? Noita has a “hidden” bonus track, “Antaja”, and that song sounds totally normal. Instead of putting “Antaja” in the main mix and relegating “Jouni Jouni” to the end of the line after a few minutes silence (or better yet, deleting all record of its existence), they cram it smack in the middle between “Minä Näin Vedessä Neidon” and “Kylästä Keväinen Kehto”. Bad Korpiklaani! Bad!

But this album is great. In fact, I think it’s their best. Yep. Noita: my new favorite Korpiklaani album. Pick up your copy via Nuclear Blast.

(Nuclear Blast is being a bit douchey about youtube samples, but if you want to check out some of the better tracks before you buy and can find them, I recommend “Kylästä Keväinen Kehto” and “Sen Verran Minäkin Noita”.)