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CMX retrospective part 1 – hardcore punk, shaman drums and hit ballads

21/08/2010
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September 29th sees the release of the 13th album of the Finnish legends CMX, titled Iäti. In all likelihood, it’ll get a fair few mentions here eventually because this blog’s all about what I dig and oh I do so love me some CMX. But there is the issue that most likely hardly any of you lot who oogle this little bulletin board have any idea who or what I’m talking about – after all, CMX is a strictly Finnish phenomenon, much thanks to their decision to stick with their mother tongue.

So here’s the thing: spread across two updates, I’m going to go through the two-decade history of one of Finland’s biggest bands and nutshell what they are all about.

And what they are all about is actually rather tough to do. While many bands go through an evolution during their careers, only some go through such a massive gradual change as CMX have done: they started as a hardcore punk band, eventually turning into an alt rock band with a fairly anarchistic view on music, after which at one point they decided to go all prog rock on the unsuspecting nation. And then melting everything together. Safe to say, early CMX is quite different from the later periods. Hence why I’d like to stress the following: if none of the music here grabs your fancy, give the second part a go as well. I personally fell in love with the band through their later period works and appreciating the earlier days only happened with time, and even then I find them to be far away from the band’s peak. But a retrospective that ignores almost an entire decade of a band is a pretty terrible one, so this must be explored too.

Brief nutshell of who they are: whilst the very early days were a bit of a member switcharound time, the quartet eventually solidified as A.W. Yrjänä (vocals, bass), Janne Halmkrona (guitars), Timo Rasio (guitars) and Pekka Kanniainen (drums). Kanniainen eventually left and was replaced with another member, but the switch there nicely marks the border between early and late CMX and thus that switch and its significance are more discussed on part 2. A few of the band’s trademarks over the years have become Yrjänä himself due to his love-it-or-hate-it deep guttural baritone and his poetic lyrical imagery, as well as the group’s decision to approach each album differently from the writing or recording point of view.

The wild punk years: Kolmikärki (1990) and Veljeskunta (1991)

The band’s debut Kolmikärki (Trident) was actually recorded with an entirely different lineup: Rasio and Halmkrona were both nowhere to be found and instead the guitars were operated by one Kimmo Suomalainen. After exploding into the scene with a couple of HC punk EPs in which the band used both Finnish and English, the band found a home on the small Bad Vugum label and began recording their debut album. Kolmikärki already saw the band ‘mellow out’ slightly – instead of directly hitting the listener in the face with constant slaps of high-energy punk, more room was given to slightly more comprehensible rockers that occasionally even veer towards metal, and the band’s early obsession with folk music was equally present: not many punk albums opens and closes with shaman drums and wailing. Or feature a three-minute bright little acoustic ditty in-between.

Which, while a nice little factoid, doesn’t really change the fact that it’s not a particularly good album. Well, that’s a half-truth; my truth, to be clear. If you’re into stuff like this I wouldn’t be surprised if you were willing to announce your love for Kolmikärki – from what I’ve gathered, it certainly seems to be fairly liked among punkheads and alike. For me, it just sounds like a bit of a mess. It has its alright moments but at the time of recording CMX’s innate insanity was very much at the top and the band’s awkward, quirky compositional decisions tend to be a bit too chaotic.

After Kolmikärki the band hired Pasi Isometsä to be a second guitarist and began recording their second album; titled Veljeskunta (Brotherhood), it was released on Bad Vugum the following year. I’ve got nothing to say about it but that’s nothing to do with the album’s quality. You see, Bad Vugum folded a fair few years ago which effectively turned the band’s first two albums into small collector’s items. To make matters worse, the rights management is so tangled and screwed up for the two albums that no one really knows who really owns them, what the hell to do with them and how the problem could be solved. Kolmikärki can occasionally be found around the net in music blogs, most likely because of its reputation as the debut of a now-massive band. Veljeskunta seems to have found its way into some sort of limbo of being forgotten by everyone. The band’s official bio calls it a “dark, even slightly gothic rock-album” where the band’s stopped playing constant high-tempo punk and has a wider stylistical scale. Which certainly sounds very intriguing but the bastard’s nowhere to be heard so what can you do.

At this time the band members lived all over Finland and seeing as their career had started off rather nicely, it was felt like they should move closer together in order to focus on the music better. Both Isometsä and Suomalainen didn’t feel like doing so, which eventually resulted in them being replaced by the now-classic Rasio/Halmkrona duo. Soon after the band was offered a major label deal and after negotiating with Bad Vugum (who felt like the band was drifting too far away from the material that they signed up with), CMX moved labels and began recording their third album.

Switch to major label…: Aurinko (1992)

Sometimes you get debut albums where the artist goes all over the place in a youthful spree of trying everything and seeing what sticks. Aurinko (Sun) may not be a debut proper but it fills that particular niche. You’ve got the aggressive punk, you’ve got the shaman drums, you’ve got the bizarre pseudo-music collages, you’ve got the honest alt rock hit songs. Aurinko is CMX at crossroads and at growing pains – ambition and innovation bursting through the seams but not yet having the musicianship to really pull the vision together.

Aurinko is a bit of a typical early recording mess. It sprawls here and there but it’s all a bit samey in the sense that very little of it feels actually believably good. There’s a lot of energy and a lot of boldness but it doesn’t translate to much that’s worth one’s time, with the occasional exception here and there. The big one of those exceptions is “Ainomieli”, the aforementioned hit song which was never released as a single (effectively killing that, then). It swings like crazy and the chorus is plain fun.

Suffice to say, CMX’s glory days were still ahead at this time of their lives.


Pyhiinvaeltaja

Also: Ainomieli ’97

… And the inevitable mainstream hit occurs: Aura (1994)

When CMX went to the studio to go on with their music, it was going to be just another album. They had tinkered with their sound, experimented with things and created an album that was definitely something different to what they had done before, but at the end of the day it was still just the next CMX album. To show off that they could branch out to new things, the lead single was “Ruoste”, a gentle and beautiful ballad unlike anything the band had done before.

And it became a hit. A massive hit. The album followed the same suit. All of a sudden the band had taken a leap from relative obscurity to full-on spotlight. The follow-up singles similarly became huge hits, the album claimed acclaims wherever it went… CMX could do no wrong.

If the first two albums were historical quirks and Aurinko was practice, Aura (either “aura” or “plow”, depending on how you want to look at it) could be held as CMX’s first ever finished creation. There’s a significant amount of maturement audible in the sound: the sound of a band who are past the practice stage and are now fully in command of what they’re doing. And it’s clear why it became a hit album: the underlying massive hooks have finally been let to frolic openly. It became a hit because it sounds like a hit, and there’s no sacrifice to integrity or the band’s true self. In my humble opinion it’s not a perfect album, but this time the flaws are more because of some over-stretched ambition and the band’s trademark quirks rather than slight amateurishness: the tango-punk of “Nainen tanssii tangoa” was just never going to work…

Regardless of those flaws though, it’s easy to see why it’s held as one of the band’s classics. It’s the first essential CMX album in regards of their history and definitely the best album to get first when it comes to early period CMX.


Elokuun kruunu

Also: Ruoste

The big-hit follow up: Rautakantele (1995)

The budding desire to do something gentler was the starting point of Rautakantele (iron kantele). Something with more acoustic guitars and slower tempos, even if not going to a downright ballad route. However, the band who were known more from being fiercely energetic than calm troubadours began to doubt themselves slightly during the recording and eventually recorded a fair few harder tracks to balance things out. For the second time time in a row the album’s softest, most beautiful moment was released as a single – like “Ruoste”, the new “Pelasta maailma” became a huge hit and a classic CMX song for years to come (if I’m not entirely wrong, there’s most recorded covers of it than any other CMX song).

Rautakantele is a victim of the band’s own little self-sabotage. It’s a good album and fair enough, some of its rockers are rather very good, but the bulk of its greatest moments lie down in the acoustic-driven softer rockers and the bulk of its weaker moments lie in the more then-traditional CMX material. With that said, it doesn’t feature any downright clunkers which puts it ahead most CMX albums of this period. And it gives us “Hiljaisuuteen” – a choral church hymn that doesn’t bear any similarity to anything they’ve ever done but which is haunting enough to make a non-religious man feel some sort of tinge of spirituality.

CMX has always been great with their more melodic, gentler moments and Rautakantele is a bit of a genesis for all those songs that would come to bear many emotional hearts of their albums in the future. It’s the other essential early CMX album – in my opinion even better than Aura.


Pelasta maailma

Also: G

Finland’s first full pro-tools recording: Discopolis (1996)

After Rautakantele, the band who has always approached each album with a new twist decided to take one of the biggest twists yet. Having a bit of a hangover from the constant work over the past few years, the effect of which had especially hit Kanniainen, and with the rise of the new recording technology, the band decided that it was time to try it out. Playing as a band was pushed away: parts were recorded seperately after which they would be chopped, glued together, looped and tinkered around in any way necessary. The album was deliberately given a highly mechanic, automated feel. Most likely to take the mick out of its fashionable-sounding drum loops and effects, the finished album was christened Discopolis.

Discopolis tends to be viewed as the band’s weakest album by many and it’s pretty clear why. Discopolis is hilarious. The now-hopelessly dated dance drum beats meet metal riffage and it’s daft to the point that you can never tell if it’s serious or tongue in cheeck, and almost as if to take the piss out of themselves the whole thing is seemingly deliberately over-the-top. The booty-shaking verses, driven by a more feminine guest singer, of “Antroposentrifugi” have to be heard to be believed. And then it goes on, and on, and on, and on… Sometimes Discopolis sounds like a joke on the listener’s behalf

The thing is, there’s still good material there. For one, the occasional experiment on mechanically danceable punk actually works: “Antroposentrifugi” is absolutely hilarious but all for the better of it, “Diskoinferno” has a mean sense of self-aware humour to it and “Nimetön” is wonderfully delightful in its painfully dated 90’s-ness. For two, there’s “Aamutähti” and “Vallat ja väet”, two genuinely great songs. The former is a horn-driven ballad that offers a brief moment of tender humanity in the mechanical chaos of Discopolis, while the latter is pretty much the formula for what the band would become on the following decade: you can hear the basis of countless future CMX tracks in it, not like a formula but more like a prototype. And what a fantastic prototype it is.

As a whole though… well, it’s comedic. That’s one thing to say about it. Parts of it are genuinely great but there are the rather questionable sidetracts…


Nimetön

Also: Vallat ja väet

***********************

After Discopolis it was felt like the band needed a small breather and rather than a new studio recording, the next release was Cloaca Maxima, a 3-CD compilation that gathered together all the singles, a whole bunch of album tracks and all the b-sides. However, eventually Kanniainen had had enough and his creeping fatigue over making music as a career began to creep out and take over. The rest of the band felt ambitious and had the drive to go on and eventually decided that if one of them wasn’t up for it, it was best for him to leave than to be unhappily dragged around. Kanniainen left the band and a fellow named Tuomas Peippo was found as a replacement. And what that meant for the band and how their adventure continued… well, that’s a topic for part #2.

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