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The sophomore release from the Finnish quartet Hohka is just eight tracks long, but that’s because of deliberate pacing, not an attempt to shortchange listeners. The English adjectives ‘enigmatic’ and ‘eclectic’ best describe this band. The album title translates Countries/Nowhere to Be Seen and the cover sports a giant longhaired rabbit looming above a miniaturized band member. What do these infer? (I am unaware of Scandinavian legends involving ominous rabbits!) Nor does a Finnish-to-English translator return meaning for five of the track listings, so one is left with impressions for most of the titles. Hohka is Finnish for pumice, that porous remain of a volcanic flow and that’s a good starting point for evaluating this release.
Like many artists who trained at Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy, Hohka treat musical boundaries as pervious. You will hear original tunes, but ones inspired by a variety of sources: Celtic music, classical, grunge, Finnish tradition, and folk dances. If I infer correctly from what I could translate, Hohka has worked with three dancers and (at least some of) the pieces accompanied their footwork. One could easily imagine the opening track, “October Flowers,” as a set piece for a lively Riverdance-like production. The tune is drenched in Irish and Scottish influences strung together with a jazzy interludes. Dance is most obviously invoked in “Loumalan Joonaksen,” a ¾ polska common in Finland. It is dynamic in construction–one that uses guest percussion to suggest clogging feet. It slows to a kantele (a Finnish zither) bridge from Valtteri Lehto before gathering to a fast pace driven by Meriheini Louto’s nyckelharpa (a keyed fiddle akin to a hurdy-gurdy). Those two instruments are also on display on “Suurin Pudottaja,” which translates “The Biggest Loser,” but evokes images of a steam train gathering speed. Enne Purovaara lays down double time bass, and other instruments punch through a quirky frenetic tune reminiscent of a back catalog offering from the Penguin Café Orchestra. Also on the accelerated side of things is “Kertalaaki,” an industrial strength piece featuring muscular accordion from Veikko Muikko, forays into dissonance, and a wild ending featuring Lehto’s electric guitar. Yet the rest of the album is as subdued as the aforementioned tunes are energetic. “Laavikkovalssi” begins Zen-like and even its anthemic finish evokes mid-winter melancholy. “Le Secret de La Licorne” uses several French horn blasts to signal a hunt, but its contemplative ambience and measured aspect feels more like stalking than hunting–as if the pursuer finds the unicorn’s lair and the “secret” is that it has fled. The album’s final two pieces are a 9:16 composition in several movements that is orchestral and classical in temperament, and a 3:12 kantele solo, of which the last 20 seconds are nearly silent. It is possible (likely?) that I lost some of Hohka’s intent in (non) translation, so let’s just say that this an album that takes its time to get at what the musicians wish to do and that like the giant rabbit on the cover, it’s intriguing to muse over the intent. But there’s one thing over which there is no misunderstanding: the four young musicians in Hohka are thoughtful and skillful.