in Reviews

Virtuoso weirdness facing a sacred experience

by Amanda Kauranne

"The album makes the point that the need of the human animal to experience the sacred is tied up with the history of sexuality, gender and power."

When a performer can do just about anything with her voice, one need only sit back and marvel at the possibilities. Petra Poutanen is a singer, composer, kantele and guzheng virtuoso and choir conductor. Her vocal folk music toolkit includes Scandinavian ornaments, Finno-Ugric singing styles and throat singing techniques. Her solo album Pelkkä Poutanen [Just Poutanen] gives the impression of herself conducting a choir of her own multiple voices.

Subtitled Pyhä veri vuotaa [Holy blood spilled], the disc is layered like a Russian nesting doll. Once one gets past the acrobatic vocals, one is amazed by the rich sound world. It is never quite clear whether the sounds are emanating from a human being, a virtuoso instrumental performance on kantele and guzheng, the innovative instruments of Juhana Nyrhinen’s MÄSÄ Universe or electronics – or all of the above. Then, the attention is grabbed by the groove and grind of the beats. Jumalan morsian [Bride of God] entices the listener to dance along to its energetic rhythm but ends up looping on a phrase from a hymn, ‘ylkä verinen’ [blooded bridegroom], at which point listener is brought up short: what exactly are the lyrics that I am dancing to here? This is the core of the album – the weird, wonderful and horrifying manifestations of experiences of the sacred as embodied in the texts incorporated on the album, including folk tales, old hymns and even texts praising Mao Zedong.

The album makes the point that the need of the human animal to experience the sacred is tied up with the history of sexuality, gender and power. The piece Paimenen sydän ja Mao Tse-tungin ajatukset ovat yhtä [The shepherd’s heart and the thoughts of Mao Zedong are as one] prompts the question of why the void left by the removal of organised religion is easily filled by a personality cult. The lovely Babels dotter [Daughter of Babel] comes across as a refutation of the book of Ecclesiastes, which declares woman to be a snare more bitter than death – and quotes from the book itself to make the point.  The brevity of life and the stink of death appear in the runo song Sinne velka viimeinenkin [The last debt]. The wordless Marian virsi [Mary’s hymn] provides a brief respite. For all this, the overall mood of the album is a positive one, and its weird stories are so compelling as to prompt repeated listening. Perhaps it is itself thus akin to a sacred experience? 

Pelkkä Poutanen: Pyhä veri vuotaa
Eclipse Music, 2022

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi