Karina are a duo from Finland, who have genuinely (and pleasantly) surprised me with their second album. Their eponymous debut was quite beautiful, but notable for its minimalist and acoustic nature, largely just the two voices of Karin Mäkiranta and Helmi Tikkanen accompanying themselves on guitar and double bass. Karina, the album, was full of delightful and ethereal indie-folk-pop songs. Nothing wrong with that, and indeed, it’s an album I very much enjoyed, but not one you’d expect to see reviewed on The Progressive Aspect. Much has been made by the duo in the promotion of their new album that it was less stripped back than its forebear, with greater and richer instrumentation and a more powerful and intense style. Before listening, I was dubious – wondering if such additions might be to the detriment of what had been so attractive about the duo’s music initially. In a sense, one could argue that Karin and Helmi already made powerful and intense music, and additional volume or depth of instrumentation might not necessarily add so much as detract. My fears could not have been any more unfounded.
From the opening track, Tunnustus, Karin and Helmi had me in thrall, and when most recent single Auta began, I knew the duo had made the right decision. There may be more added elements to the music, but they are applied, if not sparingly, judiciously, and the main focus remains the vocals. I’m still not convinced that, for the most part, there is any more power or intensity – but there is definitely greater depth, and that lends a real cinematic feel to the music, and also pushes the indie-folk-pop of Karina far closer to post-rock territory. You could definitely make some comparisons with Sigur Rós, for example. This sense is somewhat heightened for foreign ears such as mine. As the lyrics are sung entirely in Finnish, the vocals of Karin and Helmi become two more instruments, just as Sigur Rós use Hopelandic when Jónsi wishes to express music vocally, but not linguistically. So, while I expect the same effect is not heard by those who understand the language, I can lose myself in the incredible harmonies.
The lead single for 2 was En Oo Tän Enempää, and it is very pretty, though perhaps not entirely representative of the sound of this album, so much as the debut. The vocals are lushly layered over a cute and bouncy rhythm, and attractive instrumentation. Listening to this song, like listening to the debut, feels a little like being wrapped up in a cosy blanket by a crackling fire, clutching a mug of steaming hot chocolate. Its warming tones and timbres match the colours of the cover art for the debut, rather than the stark black and white of the cover art for 2. What it does, though, in terms of the album, is give some real payoff with the following Claus. Although the vocals are more subdued, the music has a much darker tone, which is immediately noticeable. There’s a sense that something wicked this way comes.
Claus is just one example where 2 shows it is possible to be ethereal without necessarily being quiet, and the extra dynamics of this album, compared to the debut, give every song so much more impact. Everything can be bigger, more lavish, more grandiose – yet still contained, and still given space. It’s still intimate, and yet it’s expansive, like a choir in empty cathedral, filling the space with sound and echo. It’s intimate with added ‘ooooh’, and that added oomph definitely shows itself in Claus, which is an amazing exercise in showing both the old and new sounds of Karina. It begins, albeit more darkly as aforementioned, in the style of the debut, before exploding into a crescendo of reverb, and one of the heaviest moments of the album.
Yet, throughout, as already stated, from its softest beginnings, the music of Claus was always ominous. The dichotomy between the malevolent music and delicate vocals at the outset is both beautiful and unsettling. The momentum builds, the guitars become more frenzied, until the song climaxes and then disintegrates into electronic noise. The following Juuret provides some relief after the loud sonic wave of guitars and reverb that crashed over listeners’ ears, but it is fleeting, as a keening guitar takes hold two minutes in. Again, there’s a sense of both beauty and ugliness colliding, of anger and affection meeting. These two tracks are definitely quite dark, yet strangely attractive. Juuret is possibly my favourite song on the album, in fact. It reminds me a little of Musteni Mieli from the first album, which is possibly my favourite song on that.
2 is simply chock-full of songs that defy expectation like this, surprising and delighting with their twists and turns and changes. The melodies are always beautiful, sometimes at odds to the music underneath, and yet never sounding forced or unnatural. The lightness of their previous album remains, but is augmented by much greater shifts in dynamics. It’s bolder, yet remains nuanced. Its a glorious mix of Kate Bush, Cocteau Twins and Sigur Rós. I’m reminded often also of New Zealand’s Purple Pilgrims, though they are unlikely to be an influence, so much as another duo who share the same influences. Karina’s debut was looked upon as a pop album (though I’d be inclined to wonder just how pop is defined), but 2 is assuredly a rock album. While it can still purr like it’s predecessor, it’s never shy about roaring when it needs to. It’s an album that feels like it’s letting go of history and expectations. And I’m more than happy to be taken along for the ride.
01. Tunnustus (3:53)
02. Auta (4:12)
03. En Oo Tän Enempää (4:50)
04. Claus (5:59)
05. Juuret (5:05)
06. Aila (3:19)
07. Teko (7:07)
08. 2000 (3:54)
09. Ariel (6:49)
Total Time – 45:08
Karin Mäkiranta – All Instruments
Helmi Tikkanen – All Instruments
Jonas Verwijnen – Additional Synth
Janne Lounatvuori – Drums (tracks 2 & 6)
Jeremy Black – Drums (tracks 3,4,7 & 8)
Record Label: GEMS
Country of Origin: Finland
Date of Release: 8th May 2020 (Internationally)