Hailing from Finland The Von Hertzen Brothers is another band from the exceedingly long production line of Scandinavian Prog (in all its various sub-genres). ‘Nine Lives’ is their fifth album. Very popular in their home country, their last album, the critically acclaimed ‘Stars Aligned’, was released in 2011 and provided them with far more European, if not International, exposure.
My familiarity with the band before reviewing ‘Nine Lives’ was restricted to listening once to ‘Stars Aligned’. I remember being slightly ‘underwhelmed’ and placed it in my increasingly large ‘pile’ of CDs to be dug out and re-evaluated at a later date. And, of course I never got around to it.
Following favourable reports of their live act at HRH Prog earlier this year and the release of Nine Lives leading to two nominations in this year’s (UK) Prog Awards, one as ‘Breakthrough Artist’ and the other for their ‘single’ ‘Flowers and Rust’, which won the ‘Anthem of the Year’, I took a chance and purchased the ‘deluxe’ CD (with three extra bonus tracks). I also purchased a ticket to see them headline at the Garage in London in late October.
I decided not to re-listen to ‘Stars Aligned’ beforehand as I always prefer to judge music on its own merits and, as we all know, this can be difficult when confronted with knowledge of a band’s back-catalogue. So I felt I had few, if any, pre-conceived ideas about the band and considered my objectivity level high!
The band consists of the three Von Hertzen brothers, front-man Mikko on vocals and guitars, Kie on guitars and backing vocals and Jonne on bass and backing vocals. They are supported by Juha Kuoppala on (various) keyboards and Mikko Kaakkuriniemi on drums.
Before delving more deeply into the album tracks its worth pointing out that this is an unusual album. On Nine Lives VHB are following a tradition that appears particularly popular in Scandinavia amongst bands such as Motorpsycho and Beardfish. These bands are not afraid to experiment and mix different styles and genres. Nine Lives is certainly not a pure ‘Prog’ album in the classic sense of the word. Two of the first three tracks on the album (and one of the bonus tracks) could easily sit in any indie rock album AND a very good one at that. The rest of the album is far more Prog in terms of song structure, lyrical content, melodies etc.
However, the contrast between, let’s call them Parts 1 and 2, is huge, so much so that Part 1 may knock some self-respecting Prog fan sideways or send them screaming from the room.
It will be pretty apparent from my comments above that those listeners who like continuity and coherence within one album will struggle with this. But my first piece of advice is to persevere. Do not give up half way through the third track and new single ‘Coming Home’ and disregard the rest, thinking that this album is veering towards a Franz Ferdinand or Kaiser Chiefs indie rock-fest because you will miss out on some beautiful moments.
What makes the album stand out for me is the vocal delivery which adds an incredible amount of depth to the music. Mikko has a great vocal range, a powerful and clear singing voice and shows great versatility in delivering both the out and out, hard-edged, aggressive indie rock songs as well as powerfully conveying the emotional intensity of the more reflective and introspective progressive lyrics. The accompanying backing vocals and harmonies are equally as impressive. Vocal delivery seems to be ‘in vogue’ at the moment as I have noticed some stunning vocals on a number of albums this year, particularly on ‘Himlabacken vol 1’ by Moon Safari and ‘The Mountain’ by Haken.
So to the album itself. The first three tracks are delivered at a fast tempo with heavy bass lines. Both ‘Insomniac’ (track 1) and ‘Coming Home’ (track 3) are typical indie rock songs executed with aplomb. ‘Coming Home’ opens with a heavy drum beat and continues with Billy Idol type vocals (think White Wedding!) and morphs into a Franz Ferdinand/Kaiser Chiefs staccato riff and vocal delivery. It’s a classic, catchy as hell with an ‘ear-worm’ chorus. It could have been a Top 20 hit in the good ole’ days when there were music charts worth attention. ‘Flowers and Rust’ (track 2) is less indie and more pop-prog to my ears and it is indeed a fine sing-a-long anthemic track deservedly achieving recognition.
The abrupt change in tempo and mood that follows is arresting. ‘Lost In Time’ is the heaviest track on the album and switches between a heavy, grinding, almost demonic guitar sound and quieter, contemplative passages building up to symphonic keyboard atmospherics.
‘Separate Forevers’ is a slow, ethereal and haunting track with an exquisite mandolin sounding guitar a highlight. My favourite on the album, it’s a stunning piece. The emotionally powerful, ill-fated lyrics tinged with helplessness and yearning tug at the heart-strings and are of a rare poetic beauty, with Mikko’s vocals capturing the mood perfectly:
I thought we had a way out
I fought to rearrange
The pieces of my heart
The more we gathered angels
The more you got estranged
Years tearing us apart
Who am I to hold ?
Who am I to love now ?
For our better or worse
In our separate forevers
‘One May Never Know’ follows and contains a beautiful melody with the piano acting as a perfect counterpoint to the rolling guitar. More outstanding multi-part vocals.
‘World Without’ opens with a delightful a cappella harmony followed by delicate piano lines and guitar melodies. The song is sung completely in harmony. The introduction of a knifonium produces an absorbing complementary sound. The track builds up gradually to a big vocal harmony finish. With the following thought-provoking lyrics:
‘Cause a world without your heart
Is a world without your love
And a world without your love
Is a world without a soul
And a world without your soul
Is a world without a home
And a world without a home
Is a world without hope
We shift again with ‘Black Hearts Cry’, an up tempo folky track, almost shanty-like at times. To me it’s slightly out of place with the mood of the tracks that surround it but it’s nonetheless a pleasant diversion.
‘Prospect for Escape’ finishes the album where we return, once again, to a slower tempo resplendent with swathes of mellow, echo-laden guitar and vocals. The vocal harmonies are marvellous and the guitar melody delightful. An uplifting song with a soaring guitar solo, the vocal intensity to finish the track is striking. A perfect finish to the album.
So let me be clear. The album begins with 14 minutes of strong indie rock and pop-prog and this is followed by 33 minutes of what some may describe as ‘crossover-prog’. Certainly the album eschews extended compositions and unrestrained complexity. Overall it’s an ambitious mix.
A quick note on the bonus tracks. ‘Do What You Want With Me’ is a return to indie rock but the standout is the last track ‘Between The Lines’ with a slightly Eastern vibe and soft vocals. It could easily have closed the album or, in my view, replaced ‘Black Hearts Cry’.
Oh and before I forget, although work prevented me from seeing them live last week, I have it on good authority that they are superb live, showing fantastic energy and enthusiasm and great musical skill.
So what’s my overall conclusion ?
In my opinion bands are more successful when they introduce different genres/styles into their music between albums not within them. Take Motorpsycho as a classic example. The stark contrast between the beginning and the rest of the album will, I think, make it difficult for many to connect with this offering. Perhaps VHB felt like testing their audience to get a reaction or just had an explosion of good ideas that they just wanted to get down musically in one place and at one time. A statement so to speak. What VHB have proven to me is that they are an extremely accomplished band with the ability to write excellent indie rock songs as well as deliver high-quality, lyrically rich, thoughtful crossover-prog. I’m really looking forward to seeing them live and await their next album with anticipation. Please spare some time and give the album a few spins.