Valkama by TenhiRelease date: June 9, 2023
Label: Prophecy Productions
Nominative determinism is a psychological hypothesis whereby the name of a person, place or thing fundamentally influences their or its character. Nordic nomads Tenhi exemplify this phenomenon, with their old Finnish name signifying an ‘elder’ or ‘shaman’. Little wonder that their latest record Valkama feels like a relic from the past, a parcel of ancient wisdom delivered through the medium of melancholic neofolk.
Led by vocalists and multi-instrumentalists Tyko Saarikko and Ilmari Issakainen, Tenhi has occupied a unique space in the Finnish folk scene since their formation in 1996. Over the span of their previous seven albums, the Finns have combined acoustic and traditional instrumentation with contemporary song structures. Variously dallying with ambient music, folk rock, and occasionally metal, all underpinned by a notably gloomy and dour tone, the project’s musical output could be broadly described as ‘dark neofolk’.
Valkama occupies an interesting space within the band’s wider discography. Whereas their previous full-length Saivo blended beautiful sonic palettes and textures into a cinematic soundscape, Valkama takes a more ‘back to basics’ approach. Although a variety of sounds and styles are explored, the tracks are generally more straightforward and digestible than those of Tenhi’s previous effort. Saarikko’s lead vocals accompany the acoustic guitars and gentle piano as a trio of regular companions throughout the album’s runtime, linking the various tracks together with a characteristically folk-centric base.
Despite these modest foundations, the record adopts a meandering, exploratory and distinctly introspective approach to the band’s archetypal melancholy. Beginning with the brooding ‘Saattue’, the listener is instantly transported to the roaring hearth of a fireplace, finally reaching sanctuary in a hostile world. There is a distinct sense of closeness (or ‘cosiness’ in today’s lingo) to the traditional instrumentation, with the second track ‘Kesävihanta’’s acoustic guitars and beautifully harmonised vocals warming the soul.
Saarikko’s guttural baritone is at once familiar and foreboding, like a voice from a distant past imparting forgotten wisdom or chanting an ancient spell. His vocals sit prominently in the mix, dominating like a totem in the subdued folky songs and avoiding getting lost in the orchestration of the more ambitious, grandiose tracks. He leads the tracks like a nordic David Tibet, with a twist of Nick Cave’s characteristic brooding thrown in.
Unlike previous releases, there is hardly a trace of obvious metal influence on this album, although Tenhi’s earlier forays into doom metal are reflected in the album’s consistently melancholic tone. Instead, the band flirts with post-rock conventions on some of the more exploratory tracks, with humble beginnings gradually blossoming into satisfying crescendos. In many ways, Valkama could be considered a progressive rock album: the title track’s sweeping strings and piano flourishes call to mind Anathema’s more recent output.
As their third full-length for German record label, Tenhi’s latest perfectly fits the Prophecy Productions mould by offering a rewarding, complex album for listeners to sink their teeth into. The interweaving of dark folk, prog and post-rock elements is tastefully accomplished and never feels jarring or perfunctory, and there is as much beauty to be found in the quiet in-between of songs. Valkama represents an excellent return to form for this Finnish band, and long may they continue.