Agitated Atmosphere: Islaja - SUU

Agitated Atmosphere, Album Reviews
03/07/2014
Justin Spicer

As major labels continue to exist behind the times, artists and labels with little capital and lesser reputations are producing some of the most innovative, interesting, and inspiring music. Whether it’s creating a new niche in digital technology or looking to once obsolete formats, Agitated Atmosphere hopes to pull back the curtain on a wealth of sights and sound from luminaries such as Islaja.

Four years have passed since 2010’s Keraaminen Pää, an image of Islaja as ethereal folk pixie strength. The events of the prolonged silence, summed up by the change-of-direction of SUU, has diminished the old image of Merja Kokkonen. In its place, the rise of an avant electro-clash diva confident in voice and vision.“I am so vain/Only making my music/I am so vain that I guess it keeps me sane/Talking to myself like a friend”

SUU will have its detractors who preferred the foggy temperament of past Islaja releases. But change drives artistry and in the four years between releases, Kokkonen has found a new voice (never mind much of it being English) within her adopted Berlin. SUU beacons to the days of the divided monolith, where musicians played the songs of emancipation against the backdrop of an imprisoning wall.

The starkness of a scarred Berlin façade dots SUU. The thinning melody of opener “Skeleton Walk” introduces a bony character scrounging for a meal amid a desolate city. The throbbing beat and distant growls of follow-up “See No Sun,” brings heat to a cold city. It’s a theme present through much of SUU; a trope Kokkonen has not abandoned.

As Islaja, minimalism has long been the foundation for Kokkonen’s work. But with SUU, she’s editing down thoughts and sound further until they grab raw nerves. Even the most flawed moments (the clumsy itinerary of “Travel Light,” and overtly lengthy “Sandals of Alice”) become part of the arching narrative, sprouting into anthems rather than failures.

“I let the shit hit the fan”

Though her mouth ceremoniously agape (SUU being Finnish for mouth), the real Islaja emerges in the silences, speaking volumes to what is heard when we close our mouths. Though she claims a fear of slightly overdoing it during “Shit Hit the Fan,” truth is by allowing herself to follow course, she’s found a new, confident voice without betraying her previous iteration. One last reflection of SUU brings to mind Laurie Anderson’s “From the Air,” and its sage observation: “This is the record of the time/This is the time/And this is the record of the time.”

Justin Spicer is a freelance journalist whose work can be viewed at his website. You can also find him on Twitter.

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