July 8, 2023

If you’re not familiar with neofolk or dark folk but enjoy lengthy acoustic, prog or post-rock music, then this is a great introduction to the genre.

Sam Goldwyn once famously said about a book: ‘I read part of it all the way through’. That quote would also sum up my own attention span when listening to neofolk music. Yes, it’s all nice and atmospheric for a track or two, and then inevitably my mind starts to wander because of the lack of dynamics and variety. But occasionally something comes along that keeps me engaged and this excellent album by Tenhi – all seventy minutes of it – is one of those.

Tenhi are a Finnish group, and the name apparently translates to shaman. That might mislead you to think they are at the tribal/pagan end of the neofolk spectrum but that couldn’t be further from the truth.  They favour lengthy pieces of music and to these ears they seem closer to an acoustic post-rock style with prog overtones.  Being Finnish and neofolk, one might also suspect that they might favour gloomy music, and the omens aren’t good in terms of the original concept behind the album.  The initial intention of the band had been to build a concept around a traditional fairytale where the protagonist makes a journey to an island called Verisurma where according to folklore those who have faced a violent death bleed forever. Cheerful stuff, eh? Luckily, the band changed course during the composition process and created a more abstract and peaceful album. The lyrics are in Finnish so it’s impossible to decipher the new meaning exactly but musically it is serene, even if a little on the melancholic side.

Neofolk albums can’t really open with a bang but the epic eleven minutes of Saattue is definitely a great way to get things underway. It begins with distant strings, out of which emerges a vocalised theme that then reveals itself as the gentle rocking melody that is the centrepiece of the track. The accompaniment is slow and sparse (and rigorously acoustic as per neofolk tradition) – just acoustic guitar and ethereal keys. It gently meanders along, almost like a lullaby willing a child to sleep (if you have an infant, try it out!). At the halfway mark the textures become a little denser, and a couple of minutes further on we even get drums, but there’s no great climax, just lovely variations on the theme by piano and a return of the vocalising to conclude the song as it began. It’s a hypnotic piece of music, aided by brilliant and understated instrumentation. At the core of Tenhi’s sound are two gifted multi-instrumentalists, Tyko Saarikko and Ilmari Issakainen. There are also important contributions from Janina Lehto on flute and Inka Eerola on violin. Saarikko is the lead singer too and has a rasping low voice, at times sounding a bit like late Leonard Cohen.

In addition to Saattue, the standout track to these ears is Ulapoi. It has a gorgeously warm violin theme and again very delicate and sparse backing from acoustic guitar and occasional percussion beats. The music of Tenhi is not all totally laid back though. The title track has an unusually expansive piano theme, bringing almost a mainstream pop sound, reminiscent of say Tears For Fears, but here Saarikko’s dirge-like vocal does take the energy out of the song. Saarikko improves on Hele, another song with an expansive theme but this time the momentum is fully maintained throughout the song. Piano is also central to Elokuun Linnut, this time with more strident chord-based theme that reminded me of some of Ken Hensley’s work with Uriah Heep.  The variety continues with the upbeat Sydämes On Tiel, characterised by some good flute work, and Veden Elein with its pizzicato string picking that adds a curious texture. 

Most of the tracks are around the six- or seven-minute mark, but there’s also an excellent run of three short songs (strangely sequenced together): Rintamaan has more of the pagan neofolk element to it with tribal drumming and chanting; Rannankukka with its disturbingly discordant guitars; and the more peaceful acoustic-guitar driven Laineinen.

There are inevitably one or two more mundane tracks but overall, the quality is consistently high. No, it’s not something to play to get into a party mood, but it steers away from any wallowing in misery, and is a good hour of relaxing music, maybe perfect to relax to after a hard day at work. If you’re not familiar with neofolk or dark folk but enjoy lengthy acoustic, prog or post-rock music, then this is a great introduction to the genre.