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Kalevala Project: Kalevala - A Finnish Progressive Rock Epic

This has to be the Most Ambitious Progressive Rock Project Ever (capitalized to show respect). And if you think that's a brash claim, consider the following numbers:

  • It is a 3 CD box set.
  • The 30 tracks are played by 30 bands, and describe 50 classic poems.
  • The musicians are from 8 different countries.
  • It runs to almost 4 hours of music.
  • The music describes a story that has been published in 51 languages.
  • And it is 1 concept album.

Kalevala is Finnish folklore comprising old ballads and songs and a complex series of legends. You see the Greeks have their mythology, and the Finns have their Kalevala with its full complement of magical god-like characters who create the earth and get into feuds and fall in and out of love. The Kalevala is Finland's most-exported text and like the mythical Greek characters it is a constant source of inspiration in art, writing, design, architecture, product names, company names, street names, building names, newspaper names, and so on. Sibelius and Tolkein took inspiration from the Kalevala, and it has been the basis of countless modern musical works.

Now skip forward in time.

Colossus is the magazine of the Finnish Progressive Music Association. Their aim is to spread knowledge of the progressive scene in Finland, and to promote Finnish prog-rock abroad. Colossus editor Marco Bernard split the 50 poems of the Kalevala into 30 chunks and recruited 30 progressive rock groups mostly Italian and Scandinavian to write music around them.

There were a few stipulations: They were to use vintage 1970s progressive rock instruments to get the dated feeling Bernard needed for the story, so they rolled out their Hammonds and Mellotrons and Minimoogs and Clavinets and Fender Rhoades. And there would be no programmed drums (bless him for that!) .

The bands were invited to sing in their native tongues and provide English translations, and the liner notes include background on the Kalevala, a synopsis of the storyline described in each section, English lyrics, and full details on each of the groups involved.

Which explains the concept behind this progressive rock epic, how it came to have 30 separate artists, and what sounds you can expect to hear. You would expect reprisals of the symphonic sounds of the '70s and you would be right. The music is generally very good, and there are some exceptional vocals. But there is also some mediocre music and some terrible vocals! None of the bands are particularly big names, but you'll recognize most, and a few may be among your favorites.

Thonk's purely instrumental piece is a symphonic classic, and the Clearlight piece (featuring the late lamented Shaun Guerin on drums & voice) is excellent. Elegant Simplicity's piece starts nicely, then seems to turn into elevator music. Groovector's piece may be the best track on the album a bit funky, a little old fashioned, but elegant and beautifully melodic. The track by Magenta starts and ends very well with Christina Murphy's wonderful vocals, and the middle section is a 1970s keyboards fest with Hammond, piano, 'Tron, Moog, and nice wailing guitars. Submarine Silence is almost pure jazz, and Overhead's vocals sound tentative and off pitch. Quadesh is an extended Gilbert-And-Sullivan meets Broadway piece, not the strongest track on the album, but admirably adventurous and to their credit they sing the whole of poem 38 verbatim. Moongarden and Grand Stand were pleasant discoveries.

The bold Kalevala Project must surely be rated as Finnish prog's magnum opus. It is an excellent piece of music, though not perfect: There is no common musical theme. In a perfect world there would be one musician managing the project musically, and providing a few themes that could tie it all together. (Okay, so that's really getting ambitious!) It would have been easier to follow had there been one singer per character. Some of the bands did not come through, and their music could frankly have been excluded or replaced.

Each band did its own recording and submitted it as a completed piece, resulting in a musically loose concept album. So expect to be really confused during the first listen. The vocals are sung in many languages, the music styles change constantly, and the piece seems to meander for 4 solid hours. But if you work at it you will come to appreciate the differences between each track, and the extended story line will pull the whole suite together for you.

And that is the central point: This is a very grand epic, but it's all too much to absorb in one sitting and you really have to work to appreciate it. Fortunately, as prog-rock fans, we're up to that challenge!

Click here to view the full text of the Kalevala, translated into English

The artists contributing to the album include:

Disc 1
Simon Says
Il Castello Di Atlante
Submarine Silence

Disc 2
Scarlet Thread
Mad Crayon
Museo Rosenbach
Sofia Baccini
Elegant Simplicity

Disc 3
Cantina Sociale
Grand Stand
Nicola Randone & Tempore

Added: October 18th 2003
Reviewer: Duncan Glenday
Related Link: Colosus Magazine's Kalevala Web page
Hits: 7090
Language: english

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