Finland. A lot of people probably don’t give a lot of thought to this particular Nordic country, except for the fact that it’s probably pretty cold. Let’s have a look at a couple of interesting facts, however, to see where we go. Firstly, the ubiquitous Angry Birds game originated from Finland, which may or may not be what you’d consider a tick in the tourist guide box. However, the news is better for the fan of inland lagoons, as Finland contains an astonishing 188,000 lakes, give or take a dozen or so. That equates to one lake per 29 people, which would make having a lakeside property somewhat less of a status symbol, one would imagine. For any of these reasons, or indeed others which I will spare you, Finland is at time of writing ranked as the happiest country in the world, according to the people whose job it is to construct these ratings.
All of which is leading up to, as you may have guessed, that the band in question here, Naryan, are Finnish, which is less than common, since prog rock bands are not exactly like lakes up there. They are also quite excellent, though on the evidence of this, their third album, they certainly haven’t boarded the Happy Train with all of their lake-loving friends. Indeed, the mood of this album, from the stark black cover design to the elegant but very much minor-key music found within, is very much a sombre, reflective one. This impression is hammered home by the opening track, a two-minute instrumental called, cheerily, The End. Cast your mind to imagine the music which you might hear as accompaniment to a film of a black-clad poor Russian widow, trekking through a blizzard carrying a basket of bread. That’s it, you’ve heard the piece in your head, played essentially on piano and cello. And ending – of course – with the tolling of a bell. As album intros go, it’s a particularly striking one!
However, while the album is of a distinctly dark tone in terms of its mood, it isn’t anything like that extreme throughout. Song titles such as Now You’re Gone, Black Swan, Until We Meet Again and The World Is Filled With Silence certainly alert you to the fact that we’re not likely to be in the mood for dancing here, but this is far from a deliberate Leonard Cohen gloom-fest. Rather, the mood is one of solemnity and loss, with the music sumptuous and full of dynamics. If this album were a composer it would probably sit between Mahler and Sibelius, which isn’t a bad place to be. There is a very orchestral tone to proceedings, with the sextet including a violinist in its ranks, as well as having guest musicians providing cello and various wind instruments. It’s a little like the proliferation of dark, gothic prog-metal bands out there, although in this case the metal riffery is almost entirely absent. Dark and gothic this may be, but it is unashamedly and melodically ‘prog’.
In truth, there are no poor tracks among the ten here (though Room Of Angel and Black Swan could be said to be the least strong), but clear highlights reveal themselves after a couple of listens. On the first play through, this album is all about the overall mood and less about individual pieces, but as the clouds part on further listening the individual songs become much more distinct in their own right. The longest track, the six-minute The World Is Filled With Silence, ebbs and flows brilliantly from delicate valleys to dramatic peaks, and lives up to its evocative title. It’s the best thing here for my money, but Until We Meet Again, with its searing guitar solo, is very close behind, as is Now You’re Gone. Female choral backing vocals join the fray occasionally – most notably on The World Is Filled With Silence – and this gives another layer of symphonic elegance to the mix. It’s also not overlong, being close to the length of a traditional vinyl album, which is the perfect duration for absorbing something of this emotional heft.
Mention must go to the booklet which comes with the album, as it is beautifully designed. Sepia-coloured images of various things, from old Victorian photos to angels to a crowd of people seemingly attending the graveside at a country church after a funeral, accompany overlaid hand-written lyrics as if penned in some old dusty journal. Again, not full of laughs exactly, but perfectly complementing the mood. The only complaint about this design would be that the lyrics thus written are extremely difficult to decipher without the aid of powerful magnification, but this is an unavoidable thing with the drop in size from vinyl to CD, and it still looks wonderfully evocative.
If I were to criticise one thing about the album it would be that, with the band’s superb grasp of dynamics and musical mood, there is a palpable lack of a real ‘epic’ which would allow them free rein to ‘let go’ as it were. It is no coincidence that the outstanding track here is the longest, and while the others are perfectly fine at between four or five minutes on average, a real ten-minute-plus extravaganza would seem tailor-made for their undoubted strengths. Nevertheless, a fine album, and a band I’ll certainly be keeping a further eye on!