ith a couple of Alaskan winters under my belt, I realize what a lack of sun can do to the human brain. When darkness fills the eyes for 17+ hours, the body wants desperately to hibernate. Perceptions are muted and muddled, the passions cool, and thoughts drift to the dreary. The frightful cold permeates every layer—no matter how many layers you may be wearing—and hangs off the nose in snotty icicle drips. Eventually the brief day begins to feel unreal, an illusory comfort for those who cannot take the unrelenting darkness. So you begin to search the darkness for something, for the key to the power it has over your mind and your body. But the darkness doesn’t answer, and the more you search, the more you fall into it.
With a couple of Alaskan summers under my belt, I realize what an excess of sun can do to the human brain. Days often don’t end: you’ll fall asleep before the sun and you’ll only awake after it’s risen again. The sun feels powerful, unbeatable—the way the darkness did in the winter. So you push yourself to keep up with the sun, to stay awake as long as it stays awake, to see if it can set at all. You sacrifice yourself to the sun’s unrelenting rays; you turn into its follower. And the effort bakes your brain, propelling you towards mania. But the sun doesn’t care; it keeps bathing you in more light, ever more, until you feel as if the world will be engulfed by the fiery ball breathing behind your shoulder.
Finnish free-folk collective Avarus has clearly experienced more of these extreme seasons than me. Ruskeatimantti gathers their many early recordings (previously released in microscopic editions on the luminary labels of the Finnish free-folk revival—267 lattajjaa, Lal Lal Lal, and Boing Being) into a sprawling, double disc collection bizarre and dark enough to be right at home on San Francisco’s Tumult Records. The sheer volume of music on the disc is overwhelming, but the individual tracks are overwhelming as well. Avarus’ music pulses with the arcane, elemental power of the darkness and the sun.
Much of Ruskeatimantti reflects the eerie murk of an Arctic winter. Drones peppered with tinkling triangles and thudding, accidental drums recall the monumental presence of the freezing, frosty-tongued darkness licking the windows at 4 in the afternoon. Echoing, moaning vocals disappear into a flurry of raga-tinged electric guitar, recalling lost souls crying out futilely for home against a blizzard’s howl. And rusty horns screech feebly like the poor birds unable to fly south for the winter.
Then again, much of Ruskeatimantti shines with the intensity of the summer sun. Vocalists yelp like a sizzling, parched madman arguing with invisible enemies. Drums lock into fiery, Neu!-like grooves, propelling some tracks to hot, orange climaxes. And sometimes, gorgeous acoustic melodies float out of the dank musical morass like wayward rays of sun penetrating a forest’s dense foliage to warm the pungent earth.
Indeed, the palpable tension that fills this release hinges on the balance between sunlight and darkness. Each forces conflicts with and reinforces the other. On this release—more than any other I’ve heard from Avarus—the group strikes the perfect balance between the two.
With more than two hours of music, Ruskeatimantti indulges in a huge array of instruments and approaches. Most anyone with an ear for the more deranged side of folk music will find something to like. And most will find an awful lot to like. But just to make sure you’re in the right demographic for this sort of thing, answer the following questions:
1) Do you like music that worships the drone, that centers all else around it?If you’re tempted to answer yes to any of these questions, you should hunt down Ruskeatimantti. By the end of the album, you’ll affirm all three emphatically.
2) Are lyrics unimportant to you? Could you like an album that could have been sung by crazed animals (if properly recorded)?
3) Do you like music that hangs on the edge of madness?