Savonlinna is synonymous with opera, but the eastern Finnish town also has an underground music scene that’s produced folk-jazz explorers such as Ville Leinonen, Otto Eskelinen and Joose Keskitalo. They have played with experimental groups such as Mopo and the Mystic Revelation of Teppo Repo.
Behind it all lies Paavoharju, a mysterious, loose collective led by composer and electronic necromancer Lauri Ainala. After growing up in a Lutheran revivalist movement, he started Paavoharju while living with other bohemian squatters in an abandoned dairy factory in Savonlinna nearly 20 years ago. Some of Paavoharju’s lo-fi, densely layered 2005 debut was recorded there, featuring found objects, nature sounds, ambient drones and startling, ethereal vocals by Jenni Koivistoinen (now Yaber).
The band – if it could be called that – rarely played live, but did appear at Denmark’s Roskilde festival. They gained a small international cult following with four tantalisingly murky albums through 2014, then collaborated with Keskitalo for last year’s quirky Happiness following two compilations and a book.
Yön mustia kukkia (“The Black Flowers of Night”) is the first proper Paavoharju album in nearly a decade. It’s also inspired by a decaying Savonlinna building, this time a 1914 building that housed a photography studio for decades.
Under it Ainala discovered hundreds of discarded glass negatives: ghostly, faded portraits – some of them taken posthumously – that inspired Paavoharju’s “comeback album.” Ainala converted some of the images into buzzing, unsettling audio clips that underpin these songs. The pictures are also featured in videos for ‘Haihtuu’ and ‘Jää’ as well as an exhibition at the Savonlinna Museum until January, co-curated by Ainala.
Along with the title track, those two songs are the most radio-ready and might be called dream pop, art-rock or folktronica, while the other 10 tracks focus more on textures and atmospheres than melodies. Throughout there is morbid darkness, flirtations with the dark side and distorted vocals beloved by Finnish metal bands – but without the crunching electric guitars.
Keskitalo does play guitar, clarinet and flute on this fifth – and apparently final – Paavoharju album, while Yaber recites poetry. There are seven vocalists, but taking over most of singing is Anniina Saksa, a more trained vocalist with a wide range of expression who also wrote most of the lyrics, giving voices to long-dead people from the decayed images.
Teemu Eerola’s violin simultaneously adds warmth, peace and tension, while Ainala’s electronic ambiences and sound collages are richer and clearer than ever – which might be a downside for fans of the rougher earlier sound. But for anyone seeking an utterly unusual, otherworldly, even spiritual auditory experience, this album is one of 2023’s most enthralling.
Paavoharju: Yön mustia kukkia
(Fonal Records, 2023)