"Islaja is Merja Kokkonen, a visual artist and musician from Helsinki, Finland. Shes been releasing records on Finnish label Fonal since 2004. The first one, Meritie, introduced her lovely sense of musical wonder to the world and garnered excited praise from the more astute ears at The Wire (UK) and Dusted Magazine (USA). The 2nd release Palaa Aurinkoon was equally boss and brought Islaja to North America with compatriot Finnish folk experimentalists Lau Nau and Kuupuu where she mesmerized audiences with a captivating minimalism of sweet singing and small toy and hand-made instruments played by herself and companion Jukka Raisanen. In 2007, she released her third album Ulual Yyy which expanded her sound into further psychedelic paths. Since then Islaja has played numerous large festivals including Eurosonic, Sonar and the 2006 All Tomorrows Parties/Nightmare Before Christmas curated by Thurston Moore. Animal Collective invited Islaja to play a two week support tour with them in Europe. Blaze Mountain Recordings is a live document, all music and words by Merja and played by Merja and Jukka. Its the perfect portal to enter the living world of Islajas music/art spirit with a unity of traditional Finnish forest mystery and a radical song universe." -Ecstatic Peace
Islaja: Blaze Mountain Recordings
Islaja’s Blaze Mountain Recordings, released earlier this year on Ecstatic Peace!, sort of went under the radar, it seems. When it first came out I tried to find a copy at several local record shops, but none of them had it in stock. I don’t think Amazon even had it listed until several months after its release. It all surprised me quite a bit, because I consider Ecstatic Peace! to be a fairly well-known label, but I guess only some of their albums get widely distributed by Universal, and maybe the shops just don’t care to look beyond those more well-known titles.
Blaze Mountain Recordings
I must admit that I don’t exactly know the backstory on Blaze Mountain Recordings, and I couldn’t find any other source online that knew much about it either. It’s a live album, and Islaja is joined by Jukka Raisanen, also known as Sala-Arhimo, who happened to put out an excellent self-titled album on Last Visible Dog in 2006. I assume it was recorded at a venue or festival called Blaze Mountain, but I have no idea where that is. My biggest source of confusion stems from the fact that in 2006 Islaja released a CD-R entitled Live at Blaze Mountain Road 18. I’m unsure if it’s the same as this album; Discogs says the two are identical in terms of musical content, but we all know how reliable that site can be.
Anyway, Blaze Mountain Recordings was the first Islaja release in my collection, although I have since acquired two of her three studio albums (Ulual yyy and Meritie; reviews to come eventually). All but one of the eight tracks — it’s a short album, just over half an hour — are present on her studio albums, so there’s not a lot of truly new material here for those already familiar with the artist’s work. As far as sound quality goes, it’s fine, but not exactly great. I really didn’t think anything of it until I got the studio albums and was able to make comparisons. Nobody listens to this kind of music for the pristine clarity, though, so I don’t expect it to bother anyone.
In terms of the actual music, I was very impressed. I had heard a few of the artist’s tracks here and there before, and the album certainly met my high expectations. Islaja’s brand of psych-folk is a bit more accessible than her far-out labelmates Kemialliset Ystavat, but no less rewarding. The primary attraction is her haunting, distant voice. A lot of people compare it to Bjork; I’m not familiar enough with the Icelandic singer to confirm or deny, but it definitely is strange, almost otherworldly. Most of the instrumentation is sparse and minimal, even more so than on her studio albums, rarely more than two or three instruments, usually led by a heavily effects-laden guitar. The mood is dark and mysterious, even spooky, for the most part — which I understand to be quite typical for the artist. In fact, I think the album only starts to lose its focus when it deviates from this mood, starting with the still spacy but somewhat more “neutral”-sounding “Silma-amlis” (the one new track here) and continuing with the almost upbeat “Kristallipallosilmat”.
For the most part Blaze Mountain Recordings is a great live album, though. I don’t know if I would have loved it as much if I had heard Islaja’s studio works first, but it’s an excellent introduction for new listeners, especially since if you buy it for €6.89 ($9) from the Ecstatic Peace! site, which is a lot cheaper than dropping something like €15 ($20) or more for one of the Fonal albums. Existing fans will probably enjoy hearing the alternate versions of some older tunes, too.
by Alex on 11 November 2008.