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Viola Music Club 2011 roundtable

14/12/2011
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Time for another roundtable of the Viola Music Club releases for the past year; changed opinions, evolved thoughts and such alike. Which also seems to be like the last roundtable for a while, after the duo’s recent announcement about going on an indefinite hiatus. Which is a bummer. Viola‘s been one of those names I’ve followed since their debut album and it’s always been rather nice to have some new release of theirs coming around the corner, especially with the monthly treats on VMC. Still, they’ve left us with loads of fantastic songs with a lot of great memories involved, and the faint optimistic glimmer of some more music coming up someday is still there.

Each VMC year so far has had its own distinct personality in terms of the general style and nature of the songs. For the third year, there’s a sense of adventure and exploration in the music. The whimsical freedom of expression that VMC2010 was filled with has been retained, but is now being used in a more cohesive sense to serve an overall vision rather than going off on random sidepaths. While you have the token giddy summer songs and other occasional sidepaths, VMC2011 is mostly about atmosphere and mood: taking the moodiness that Viola have often been good at and stretching that into grand, evocative soundscapes. A lot of songs break new ground in terms of sound, but most of them emphasise the same aspects. There’s a cohesiveness to VMC2012 – whether planned or simply my delusions, it’s hard to say.

Without further ado, Viola 2012 according to moi.

JANUARY: NEWEST HOTTEST WHATEVER

In a nutshell: Opening the year with a dancefloor smash

More elaborately: One hell of a start for a new VMC year. I was grabbed by “Newest Hottest Whatever” from the very first time I heard it and it’s still firmly one of my favourite moments of this year’s Viola cuts. It’s so cool it’s almost overwhelming – it’s the guy who wears sunglasses even at night just to keep up the stylishly nonchalant image. Riku’s deadpan vocal delivery and the tongue-in-cheek cynicism of the lyrical matter meet a relentless dance beat, and it’s decorated with deliciously hard-knocking loud-rocking guitar rev ups to really make it hit hard; in particular the quick guitar stabs that begin appearing in the choruses on the second half of the song are one of those musical details which, despite being incredibly small, really make the song stand up.

Verdict: The only reason I’d stop grooving along to it would be if I had to ask the DJ what it was called.

FEBRUARY: THE LONERS

In a nutshell: Acoustic romantic beauty from the dusts of history.

More elaborately: “The Loners” harks from Viola’s past: it’s an early song that, despite prominence in live sets, never got recorded. Until this year, that is. It bears the trademarks of early Viola and shares a lot in common with the group’s earliest releases, most notably the more stripped-down and down-to-earth sound more closer to the traditional bedroom musician sound than the adventurous hi-fi escapades of today. Prominent acoustic guitar, some hazy organ work and a simple drum beat to end the song with: The Loners doesn’t brag with a multitude of elements but it gives space and weight to what it does use. It’s been one of the slow-burners of the year for me: the more pieces of the moody puzzle of the VMC2012 year that have joined its company, the stronger its presence has become. Back in February I didn’t think much of it, but it’s grown on me throughout the year and now in the dark December winter it sounds at home. And in the VMC2011 playlist, it’s the prelude for what’s coming ahead after the explosive start.

Verdict: An enjoying nod with eyes closed and head firmly focused on the headphones.

MARCH: SUDDENNESS

In a nutshell: Peacefully sinking into moodiness.

More elaborately: When you find a lovely mood you can easily sink into, you want to stay in it for a long time. A lot of amazing atmospheric moments are amazing because of their extended lengths, allowing the listener to flow with them for ages. But, almost in an irrational way, sometimes that doesn’t work. Sometimes the length simply feels like padding. “Suddenness” is one of those cases. It’s a good song – I find it easily enjoyable and its minimal and moody groove, largely based on a deep bass wobbling together with a simple rhythm, works quite well. It never, however, quite justifies its five-minute span and by the end it seems like it’s somewhat stuck in a loop, unsure if it’s time for it to go or not. It’s not a big wonk, and it’s only one of the very few audible wonks in the entire VMC year, but overstaying its welcome somewhat makes the song’s otherwise highly pleasant feel and flow feel a little less excellent by the final minute or so.  Suddenness is a good tune, and I’m always up for some delicious atmosphere, but it’s one of the few songs this year where I can actually find some minor niggle to pick at.

Verdict: Our hero escapes the buzz of the world into it and enjoys what he hears, but cannot help but check the duration on his portable music player after a while.

APRIL: ELÄMÄN ISKELMÄ

In a nutshell: Viola embrace their Finnish roots with some schlager.

More elaborately: Another April, another April Fools style-switch. I’m still in the firm opinion that last year’s April attempt at death metal was a poor song largely because such music isn’t my kind of thing at all, and that opinion seemed to get a a tiny bit of criticism about it after my little blog post got noticed by others. Fear not, other people – I do so adore Viola’s attempts at schlager! I can’t say I’m a fan of the genre itself but in the recent years I’ve grown a weird fondness towards it – largely because the cringy, cheesy and cornily wistful pop tunes of the Finnish schlager scene resonate with a strangely heartwarmingly homely feel these days as I live outside Finland. There’s something nostalgic to it. Viola nail the genre excellently: those particular guitar tones, the cheap default preset keyboard sounds, the overly melodramatic lyrics, the nonchalant backing harmonies, the overall feel… it’s exactly the sort of fluff that Finland’s #1 schlager radio is crammed with. And it’s adorable. It’s lovely. There is an element of everything being a bit tongue and cheek in the sound but at the same time the song’s being treated with exactly the sort of seriousness you’d expect any schlager writer to treat their latest masterpiece. Who knows, perhaps Viola have secretly been ghostwriting schlager for other artists all this time…

Verdict: I would state my satisfaction if I wasn’t too busy to sing along to the la-la-las.

MAY: BREAK THE NEWS GENTLY

In a nutshell: Viola go to the 80s.

More elaborately: From that ever-familiar compressed snare drums to the saxophone solo, “Break the News Gently” breathes the 80s spirit. It does a pretty good job at it and it’s ultimately the retroisms that are the song’s strongest point. As a song in itself it’s a bit of a throwaway pop song, memorable but far from essential and something someone else would call b-sidey. The fact that it’s an 80s pastiche gives it a large helping of charisma and personality, turning it into a more interesting blip in the catalogue. It’s not enough to mask that the actual tune isn’t one of Viola’s strongest and when it comes to the list of songs where Viola attempt to express a specific classic sound, it’s one where the concept comes before the actual song. Enjoyable, still, but arguably this year’s weakling.

Verdict: “Yeah I do like that, was a nice b-side. Could see why they left it off the album, mind you”

JUNE: HEARTSTRING THEORY

In a nutshell: Viola with violas.

More elaborately: It’s such an obvious idea it’s weird how it never came to fruition before this year, but the hypothetical wait was worth it. A Viola ballad where the sole music backing is a sextet of viola players. Drama and melancholy expressed by a group of heartbreakingly beautiful string instruments lamenting with grace. “Heartstring Theory” is a stunning piece of work. Sometimes simple and stripped-down is incredibly powerful. And I still say this greatly reminds me of the fantastic score for Arcanum – a strong plus in my books.

Verdict: On my next Valentine’s Day card list.

JULY: SUMMER SHENANIGANS

In a nutshell: This year’s token summer song. Upbeat pop-bounciness ahead.

More elaborately: Speaking of game soundtracks, this is essentially a theme tune from a jungle level out of a 2D platformer that decided it had dreams beyond being in the background of sprite trees and colourful death traps, moved to the big city and turned itself into a fully-fleshed out pop song. Strip away the vocals and do some creative Tubedubbing over Palmtree Panic / Angel Island Zone / et al and you’d have a perfect fit. In terms of straight-up hooks and strength of the structure “Summer Shenanigans” pales slightly in comparison to the two previous Viola summer smashes, but it has everything it needs in its sheer feel. It has the sound of having carefree fun in the summertime and it works that sound all over its composition, choruses and verses and instrumental breaks all flowing into one unified stream like a water slide. It’s a surprisingly subtle track and somewhat underwhelming at first, but it’s got a strong ace up its sleeve that works wonders. Before you know it, it nicely takes its place alongside its two brothers. It’s the token summery upbeat pop moment, but it sounds completely different to the other two.

Verdict: Good enough to withstand constantly playing it on loop while you shuffle through video walkthroughs of platformer levels just to prove your hypothesis.

AUGUST: I LIKE SAD SATELLITES

In a nutshell: Ambient drama.

More elaborately: For the year’s covers month, Viola took Sissy Spacek‘s “I Like Sad Satellites” and replaced its deliciously 90s rock balladeerisms with understated ambient waves. It’s a song to float in the night with, looking at the stars and thinking about all the wonders of the space around them. The string swoons that appear throughout the song give the song an additional dramatic kick, filling all that ambient space in the song with beautiful sound for a brief, elusive moment. Viola’s cover months have always produced some of the VMC year’s best moments and this is no exception: in fact, I’d say this is probably the greatest one so far and easily one of VMC2011’s highest moments in general. It’s a dream filled with bittersweet, wistful beauty: hopeful melancholy that rings gorgeously in one’s ears. Marvellous.

Verdict: One of those covers that are so great you actually check out the original band beyond the covered song, while secretly wishing it was an original track.

SEPTEMBER: INFORMAGEDDON

In a nutshell: Viola + dubstep. Vubstep.

More elaborately: And not the breakdown-fetishising “brostep” thing, mind you. The wob is there, pulsating in the background, but it’s only one element of a surprisingly hard-stomping yet still calm little moodpiece. In a way it reminds me of a dubstep remix of March’s “Suddenness”. The best part comes with the small details: that bright, simple guitar melody that appears in the choruses is a great contrast in its lightness to the otherwise dense, fully crammed sound of the song and adds a touch of delicate prettiness to the wob and the woom. It’s a good song overall, if a bit underwhelming after the last three month’s massive offers.

Verdict: A mixture of an enjoying mmmm and a relieved sigh that it’s not bloody WOBWOBWOBWOBWOB.

OCTOBER: MAYBE YOU’RE DREAMING

In a nutshell: Toning down the experimentation and going for the traditional route.

More elaborately: after a year mostly filled with all sorts of sonic explorations and aural discoveries, “Maybe You’re Dreaming” tones it down a notch and goes back to the basics. This is a Viola track through and through: the sort of energetic, yet slightly bittersweet, mixture of classy guitar pop and some fancy synth and electronics work that we’ve come to associate with Viola for quite some years now. I’m not holding it against them. While it’s not a song that’s going to be raised on pedestal much, it’s a standard-good Viola ditty with plenty to enjoy. Amusingly, listening to it in a VMC2011 playlist actually gives it a stronger punch than when giving it a play outside any context. Alone, it’s a Viola song among many. But put together with the moody, atmospheric and rather atypical (positively!) class of ’11 it’s the anchor point that acts as a reference to their past lives: not only does it feel good from the thematic bullshit kind of view, but it also makes the traditional Viola style feel nicely fresh and different.

Verdict: a recommendable thumbs up

NOVEMBER: SADDENED YET HOPEFUL

In a nutshell: The violas return.

More elaborately: Viola recorded two tracks with the viola player ensemble and this is the second one. The great difference is that rather than the violas getting the star billing for the second time, in “Saddened Yet Hopeful” they share the space with other instruments: while they’re still by far the most prominent element in display, the classy piano and some stylish live drums that accompany it are very much in the spotlight with them. As a result the song comes closer to Viola’s usual material than “Heartstring Theory” did, with the exception that the usage of only live instruments separates it from the more synthetic paths Viola have taken. The result is another great song, and it’s indeed because of the more fleshed-out sound: the violas play their elegiac melodies in the background and provide the backdrop and texture for the melody of the piano and the backbeat of the drum kit, mixing into a very effective last song of the night. It has effortless elegance and beauty to it.

Verdict: A gentlemanly hat tip followed by a hearty recommendation.

DECEMBER: GOODBYE VIOLA

In a nutshell: The final bow and the bittersweet wave, though not without its surprises.

More elaborately: The final Viola moment, for now. It’s, of course, a ballad – this is after all a group who started their career with a release stating that pop music will break your heart, and thus a little tearjerker slow moment is the most fitting ending there is. It’s not a funeral march, far from it. Moreso it’s the credit roll after a great game or a film, where you feel somewhat sad that the adventure is over but at the same you remember all those amazing moments you had with it. It’s the goodbye, not a farewell, of watching the plane of your loved one taking off into the air. The instrumentation is stylish and filled with lovely details and some great sounds, the lyrics are self-referential in the sort of way that makes them all the sadder and… and then the song bursts into a superhappy, caleidoscopically colourful dance party. The melancholy blue of the song’s bulk is switched into rainbow colours, the mirror ball is brought out and the song decides to ride into the sunset while having fun. It works perfectly: the duo’s upbeatness and sense of humour became one of their big defining things especially during the VMC years and celebrating their life with a dance-off to the end is the perfect send-off. It still feels a bit wistful and in fact the insanely happy groove only enhances the feeling, but it does the trick of switching the mood from “oh god this is the end” to “well, if this is a goodbye to Viola then long live Viola!”. From an emotional goodbye to a celebration of everything that came before. It’s the VMC year’s best song, hands down. It’s sad that the inspiration for it was due to the duo going on an indefinite hiatus, but they did a great job at what was arguably the most important song they’ve had to write. Absolutely amazing.

Verdict: Gives the exact same amazing feeling I got recently when going through the credits of a couple of personally important games that proved out to be just as special as I hoped for them to be.

————

I’d lie if I said that Viola were one of the most important bands of my life. They were great, but not that great – I loved the music but it never had the sort of huge personal impact that shapes a man. But what’s special in the relationship between me and Viola is that they’ve always been there. Tearcandy, the debut, came out in 2004 – roughly the year when my hunger for music grew further from the few bands I surrounded myself with, resulting in an insanely exponential growth of my once-meager CD collection. Tearcandy was one of the albums I snagged around that time; partly because of the sample songs offered online, partly because one of the members happened to be on the same forum I was and as a result there was a lot of buzz and pseudo-hype there that piqued my interest, resulting in a recently music nerdified teenager guy picking up the album on a whim. The years passed, my tastes went through a lot of expanding and experimentation and I grew as a music fan, and Viola continued to always be there. Albums were bought on release day, old EPs were tracked down, and eventually each month was met with a brand new song. As such, it’s going to be somewhat weird to not have Viola around for now. No, they might not have been a duo that I’d count among as my all-time faves, but they’re someone who were always going to leave a hole when they decided to pack it in. That hole is there now.

Kiitoksia musiikista ja kaikesta.

“Goodbye Viola. They weren’t that bad”.

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