August 20, 2021

The honeyed voice of Johanna Kurkela glides over the lush empyrean chords of Kiss The Mountain, the remarkably beautiful halfway point of Auri’s sophomore release Those We Don’t Speak Of. It’s an unusual placement in the running order; other bands might have chosen such a piece to close their album, drifting off like a lullaby. But the genre-defying Auri have fearlessly dismissed convention and marched merrily down the same path they forged a few years ago with their debut album (although the trio played together on Tuomas Holopainen’s 2014 album Music Inspired by the Life and Times of Scrooge, it wasn’t until 2018 that the collaborative Auri arrived in all its shimmering elegance).

A confident sophomore release from the genre-defying trio…

Sonically untethered from the heavier and more metallic spectacle of Holopainen and Troy Donockley’s flagship band Nightwish, the acclaimed Auri was a refreshing shift in mood and atmosphere. But the trio exhibited many of the hallmarks of a ‘side’ project; something to be kept on the back burner while focusing on keeping their main band afloat. Three years on, Those We Don’t Speak Of arrives as an even greater step forward, a confident follow-up from a band who now feel like a permanent entity. Not to discount the dreamy excellence of that first platter… but wait until you hear this one.

Photo: Mikko Linnavuori

The ghostly title track opens the album like a horror film jump-scare. Kurkela’s spectral and hypnotic vocals swirl around the ominous music like creeping mist, becoming increasingly eerie as her violin underscores an otherworldly climax. Her deceptively childlike singing grows ever more sinister towards the song’s chilling conclusion. It’s a brilliantly unorthodox way to open an album, and the first of many effective moods woven throughout. The sunny Pearl Diving, for instance, or the moving, graceful The Valley – both advance singles already familiar to listeners – ultimately carry uplifting vibes and are about as far from the style of the title track as you can get.

A new enhancement is the percussive touch of Kai Hahto – occupier of the Nightwish drum stool – who peppers some of these new tracks with his usual tasteful rhythms. The dynamic seven-minute instrumental Light And Flood traverses aural peaks and valleys, accented by Kurkela’s expressive violin. Wordless vocals float above the classical-infused mini-epic as Holopainen’s joyous, fluttering piano notes dance with Donockley’s acoustic guitar and tuneful whistles. I was taken aback at how moved I was by this spectacular and blissful track. It’s like that first time you ever got caught in the pouring rain, but loved every second of it. A glimpse of beauty in its purest form.

A glimpse of beauty in its purest form…

Another early favourite is the exquisite It Takes Me Places, with its evocative lyrics and compelling instrumental break. Holopainen has long excelled at crafting impactful works quilted with rich melodies amid the heavy verse/chorus arrangements of Nightwish, and in recent years has developed an affinity for cinematic compositions that rival some of the finer Hollywood film scores. But stepping outside of that zone and fusing his ideas with those of Kurkela and Donockley produces an altogether different result while showcasing their merits equally. There’s no leader here, and no star either; just three great musicians feeding off each other’s energy. The chemistry they have is magical, and the resulting music inimitable. Lyrically, too, they all contribute, and some of the more profound lines on the album really hit home. ‘It is The Duty Of Dust‘, sings Kurkela wistfully in the stirring song of the same name, ‘… to remind us of that which must never, ever be forgotten…’

Photo: Mikko Linnavuori

Kurkela’s vocals adopt a strong Anneke van Giersbergen flavour in the haunting The Long Walk, another major highlight with a striking atmosphere. And although several of these tracks will raise hairs, the plaintive and majestic Scattered To The Four Winds caused me lingering full-body goosebumps. There’s an enigmatic power to music that can do that, and this song stuck with me for a long time afterwards. I’m tempted to say it’s my absolute favourite track here (and I do think it is), but it’s best not to jump the gun with this many strong pieces.

Photo: Mikko Linnavuori

Donockley employs the deepest part of his vocal range in closing track Fireside Bard, with the sweetness of Kurkela’s voice entering like splashes of vibrant colours on a grey canvas. One lyric sums up the essence of the album for me: ‘This music is a naked man marking the world’s milestones with stories, with kisses from the earth herself…’ – a quirky but arresting lyric in an unusual song. As the instruments fade, the band’s voices converge in an acapella chorus, until the sound of a crackling fire is all that remains, leaving us to ponder the previous 50 minutes of resplendence. My word… what an album!

Although conflict can produce powerful results, I don’t sense such difficulties or frustration inherent in the creation of this music. It seems to come from a more divine and harmonious place, flowing naturally from these three musicians (or is it through them?) and taking firm root in the hearts and minds of its listeners just as surely as it did in its creators. And I doubt that tap can or will be turned off; with music so naturally imbued with passion, it’s hard to imagine just deciding not to make more. With two albums of such sterling calibre now under their belt, it’s safe to say there will be more – hopefully much more – to come in the rosy, starlit future of Auri. And for those of us who deeply connect with this music, that’s a hope we can all use right about now.

Those We Don’t Speak Of is released 3 September.