Over three albums under the Islaja moniker, Merja Kokkonen has established herself as a mainstay in Finnish psych-folk, a strain of dark atmospherics that entered our vernacular in the mid-’00s as we were all freaking out about Devendra Banhart and Sung Tongs. Though she regularly contributes to the groups Kemialliset Ystävät and Avarus, Keraaminen Pää is Kokkonen’s work alone, full of rich and complicated layers of sound. She wrote and recorded this album across three continents, combining the subtle beauty of her native land with a sense of foreign longing. While her earlier albums were more focused on organic guitars and organs, this, her fourth LP, feels much more like a cyborg: All the elements are digital, but it still radiates life.
Opener “Joku Toi Radion,” for example, has as much in common with Kanye West’s “Power,” aesthetically speaking, as it does with many of her Finnish peers. The song starts with a simple horn note but is soon swallowed by crashing bass, drums and synth at about a minute in. Though her voice is ghostly and haunting, it is backed by an exquisite sonic arrangement that gives it a sense of strength. On many tracks her voice is cloaked in deep reverb and accompanied by ominous twinkling keys, chimes and an unyielding bass. And while some of the darker, middle-of-the-album tracks drag slightly, it’s almost as if they were weighed down by their own grief. When she hits her mark, as she does often on Keraaminen Pää, the result is something akin to Kath Bloom’s collaboration with Loren Connors: soulful, heartfelt music in the midst of mechanic confusion.
This is the first of Islaja’s albums to feature English translations, and for those of us who don’t speak Finnish it’s a major help. Without the lyrics, songs like “Suzy Sudenkita” — an ode to a woman searching for a nonexistent ideal love — is still a pretty track, but it’s just a pretty track. This simplest of packaging decisions adds so much to Keraaminen Pää and proves that Kokkonen is as beautiful a poet as she is a sonic engineer and composer.
The songs are certainly derived from Finnish folk traditions, but Kokkonen is too mature and talented an artist to be constrained by those boundaries. The theorist Donna Haraway used the rhetoric of cyborgs to describe the lack of barriers separating categories like “natural” and “man-made,” choosing instead to blur these concepts into a unified whole. To some extent, Keraaminen Pää works along those lines. The album combines dense atmospherics with exquisite production and wistful romanticism, turning it into a sort of cyborg folk (psychborg folk, if I’m being especially cheeky and obnoxious) that melds organic and digital into a seamless aesthetic. Keraaminen Pää translates to “Ceramic Head,” and the image is best contextualized by the refrain to “Joku Toi Radion” (“Someone Brought the Radio”): “I was a ceramic hear on wooden shoulders.” That tension of cold porcelain and warm wood serves as a central theme of this consistently enjoyable album that is both strong and delicate.