Dusted Features

Jussi's Juice

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Features

Jordan N. Mamone reviews the latest albums orbiting around Finnish underground icon Jussi Lehtisalo.

Jussi's Juice

Jussi Lehtisalo, founder of Ektro Records and leader of the long-running Nordic hypno-drone band Circle, is equal parts respected scene elder, genre-defying provocateur, and insufferable prankster. As the millennium dawned and his work began attracting major international huzzahs—articles in The Wire, tours with Acid Mothers Temple, American licensing deals, etc.—he responded by forming a staggering number of side projects and becoming nearly too prolific for his own good (but not to the embarrassing extent of say, AMT or Wooden Wand). For every proper Circle CD of exceptional merit he unveiled four or five discs of left-field experiments and/or sheer self-indulgence. Some of them were brilliant footnotes (the parched electronic barrens of Eturivi or the limber jamming of Ektroverde’s Ukkossalama) while others came across as half-assed, masturbatory in-jokes (the condescending synthpop of Rättö ja Lehtisalo or the silly irony-metal of Pharaoh Overlord’s #4). When asked to explain his motives Lehtisalo has stated that he seeks to deconstruct the idea of subjectively uncool “bad music.” Unfortunately, deliberate, intellectualized camp by people who probably know better isn’t a very novel concept.

Thank Satan that Pharaoh Overlord’s Live in Suomi Finland (Vivo) has nothing to do with any of that. In fact, it’s easily the group’s most substantial, approachable effort yet. Taped in Helsinki in spring 2006, the set catches the core personnel of Lehtisalo, guitarist Janne Westerlund, and drummer Tomi Leppänen (all of whom double as members of Circle) on a scorching date, augmented by extra guitarists Pekka Jääskeläinen and Julius Jääskeläinen plus Hans Joachim Irmler of Faust on creaking, whooshing organ. The expanded lineup and crisp but cavernous production brighten Pharaoh Overlord’s minimalist formula of simple, endlessly repeated, stoner-cum-Kraut riffs. The instrumental ensemble wisely omits material from the aforementioned #4 and instead revisits the choicest selections from its earliest studio albums. A pair of previously unreleased tracks are included, as is the definitive version of “Black Horse,” a swaggering behemoth that initially appeared on Overlord’s first concert document, 2004’s enjoyable but lo-fi Battle of the Axehammer. On par with the best of Circle’s canon, Live in Suomi Finland is the perfect elixir for discriminating palates who prefer to consume their stout, psychedelic sludge without frivolous cock-rock cream.

Despite its faux-evil song titles and doom-spoofing cover art, Rakhim’s murky, enigmatic U.S. debut, Crimson Umbrella (20 Buck Spin), is another winner. Lehtisalo (credited as Krypt) fiendishly grumbles, shrieks, and whispers through a plethora of echo and loop effects; his comrade, free-jazz drummer and Circle associate Janne Tuomi (aka Rudimentor), listens carefully, then gleefully dispatches rhythmic firecrackers that ricochet, crest, and explode at just the right moments. This voice-and-percussion duo thrives in a dank, distortion-caked environment that binds vintage ’80s industrial noise (think Z’ev) to the aesthetic lessons taught by Han Bennink, Milford Graves, and Luigi Russolo. Each section of Rakhim’s extended, suite-like improvisations mimics a tactile aural sensation (e.g. choruses of sleigh bells, dinging alarm clocks, the incessant whirr of machinery, the hollow clack of bones and teeth) from the natural or technological world.

The Mechanical Witch EP (Ektro), however, is a ludicrous excursion into ego-stroking fantasia. Masquerading as a reissue by a headbanging Euro superstar from 1983 (it’s actually recent doodles by Lehtisalo and Circle/Kuusumun Profeetta’s Mika Rättö), Krypt Axeripper’s maiden voyage strives to present the ultimate in flaccid, profoundly unheavy metal. Alas, the shtick—accented falsetto vocals, dinky lounge-swing cymbal patter, sub-Spinal Tap lyrics (“oh, no/ the riders of death/ coming from the paradise (sic)” punctuated by cries of “Lucifer!”)—is peculiar but hardly entertaining. Too pointless and awkward to inspire laughter though too smug and affected to take seriously, this absurd kitsch might as well be Frank Zappa’s corpse parodying a sluggish Helloween or Grim Reaper demo. The tired cynicism (or is it misplaced enthusiasm?) even manages to swamp Lehtisalo’s delectably coarse, modal guitars. It’s obvious that Mr. Axeripper got a kick out of devising this facade, but that barely justifies unleashing it on an unsuspecting public. Lasting a mere 11 minutes, Mechanical Witch’s merciful brevity is its only saving grace.

Signed to Lehtisalo’s label, Janne Westerlund, backed by the Jääskeläinens and drummer Juho Viljanen, emerges from the shadows to front Plain Ride. The emotional, impeccably arranged Strange Trial (Ektro) swiftly surpasses the quartet’s lukewarm 2005 offering, Oh the Flow. The antithesis of both Rakhim’s avant-garde obliqueness and Krypt’s batty tomfoolery, this sophomore affair splits the difference between roots-conscious, acoustic-based melodies and an accessible, less monotonous variation on Circular trance-punk. The opening “Exposed to the Light” flounders in sentimental Dylan impressions (complete with copycat harmonica), but the excellent, galvanizing “Dying Sun” and “Guiding Light” quickly rectify the situation. Deploying Led Zep beats, memorable words (“where’s the life in your lifestyle?”), and Westerlund’s distinctively wheezy, nasal singing, Plain Ride’s indie twang-und-drang skillfully avoids folky clichés. These men have certainly matured since the 1990s, when three of them played in the brooding, Birthday Party-ish Sweetheart, but they haven’t lost their edge.

Krypt Axeripper excluded, neither has Lehtisalo: Rakhim has proven its worth, and Pharaoh Overlord has atoned for its satirical sins with the unimpeachable Live in Suomi Finland. Introducing Plain Ride to a wider audience is one more proud feather in his cap. Should he choose to suppress his goofier impulses and exercise a little quality control, Lehtisalo will continue to churn out casual digressions that top many performers' meticulously finessed, so-called masterpieces.

By Jordan N. Mamone

Read More

View all articles by Jordan N. Mamone

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.