(RockAdillo, 1997;
NorthSide, 1999)

OK, this is weird.

For those of you who don't know me personally, please understand that, in my world, "weird" is quite often a good thing. That's certainly the case with Gierran ... this album is weird.

Wimme Saari, or just Wimme on the album cover, is a man with a vision. I can't tell you what that vision is, precisely, since the words on this album are pretty much all chanted in Finnish. But Wimme's vision must have something to do with bringing new life to ancient shamanistic vocalizations from his Finnish heritage, and in that he succeeds quite nicely.

With a gravelly voice, he chants the mystical words in a style which, if I didn't know better, I'd have taken for something from the Plains Indian traditions. But no, these are all drawn from his own Northern European culture, and he presents them in what seems to be a fairly straightforward, traditional manner.

And then his band, RinneRadio, joins in. And things get funky.

Wimme, according to a press release from his distributors at NorthSide Records, is a Finnish Sami yoik master. (The Sami are the aboriginal culture of Scandinavia and Finland) Yoik, it goes on to explain, is a traditional chant style which, indeed, has similarities to Native American music. For more information, I went to the Internet, and learned that yoik is an "archaic mode of unaccompanied solo singing." OK, I could have figured that much out on my own.

I also learned that Wimme says his particular sound has been "inspired by the sound of an aeroplane's propeller as well as the noise of an outboard motor" -- and, if you listen to the album a few times in a row, you know exactly what he means. Gierran is definitely meant to be digested in smaller doses.

Wimme chants, and you get the impression usually that he's telling some kind of story. Other times, he seems to be imitating animals, and occasionally he sounds like a kid who's playing with one of those Mr. Microphone toys. But, for the most part, this is certainly worth a listen if for no other reason that to hear and experience an aural tradition of Finland.

But add in the electric landscapes of Wimme's cohorts and you've got a pretty unique fusion of old and new sounds. You might be able to hazard a guess what it sounds like if you know that four of the five instrumentalists are credited with keyboards and/or programming -- and, yes, it's a very synth-heavy production. (Besides the electronics, the album also benefits from some woodwinds, a ukulele and mandolin, and percussion.) But I still defy anyone unfamiliar with Wimme's work to truly predict what they'll hear 'til the laser hits that first track and your speakers start to pulsate.

Wimme tells the story of a reindeer's life ("Arvedávgi"), sings of the predators feeding on snow grouse ("Rievssat"), chants through a real and magical journey to the north ("Oainnáhus"). I can't understand a word of it, of course, but that doesn't seem to matter. I'm pulled in by the unusual sounds, the strange repetitions, the juxtaposition of an ancient vocal style and a modern electric bump-and-grind. Some tracks are slow and soft ("Havana"), others are fast and loud ("Iras/Skittish") -- there's a nice variety in presentation.

There aren't many faults with this recording. The biggest is the skimpy liner notes, which tell listeners next to nothing about what they're listening to. Translations would be great; some explanation of the music's history at least should be mandatory. A listener shouldn't have to turn to the Internet to find out what's playing on the stereo.

Another fault is an interminably long gap of dead space in the last track which, if you sit through it without turning the stereo off in frustration, gifts you with a rain storm and a few seconds of additional a cappella chanting. It's not worth the annoyance, and really breaks things up if you've set your stereo to repeat the album.

And, quite frankly, some of Wimme's "free yoik" spirallings go on too long ("Boska"). He needs someone behind him to give an occasional nudge and say, "OK, it's time to do something else."

Still, I find myself giving Gierran a very favorable rating. Anyone with an interest in the Finnish culture, in shamanism and shamanistic chants, or in hearing unusual music traditions from an often-ignored part of the world should give Wimme a listen. Just don't leave it in the stereo for too long at one sitting.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

Buy Gierran from Amazon.com.