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Flint’s one-album wonders: Zen Café – Helvetisti järkeä (2001)

18/04/2013

zencafe_2001

In the fourth part of our grand tour among albums that have served as the only remarkable part of their respective artists’ output, we stop in Finland where a band that’s reliable to a fault releases their only album that goes forth the extra mile.

Most of the albums featured in these articles are ones where the artist experiment with their boundaries or go through something that has a noticeable impact on their music. Albums that differ from the artists’ usual style and therefore have a higher chance to appeal to someone who wasn’t a fan of theirs to begin with, in other words. Zen Café‘s Helvetisti järkeä is not one of those albums. Zen Café chugged along through the late 90s and the 00s with the exact same mannerisms, thematics and sounds in each of their albums, creating a trademark sound that they never saw fit to move away from and reliably releasing fairly enjoyable songs. What separates Helvetisti järkeä, their fourth album, from its fellow discography members is one simple thing: it does the exact same thing as its siblings, but better.

zen_hlZen Café made their appearance in the Finnish music world in the late 90s and went on an indeterminedly long hiatus in the late 00s, giving us roughly a decade of incredibly reliable releases. Each album featured fairly well arranged rock songs with a strong, often sneakily groovy rhythm section forming the backbone to light guitar flourishes and frontman Samuli Putro rarely strayed away from his trademark speak-singing style and everyday realism lyrics. Each album got a more or less positive critical welcome, they all contained at least one hit that kept them in the radio. Their new releases were never actual events: they were Zen Café doing what Zen Café typically do, albums and singles reliably appearing like they were scheduled. This was both a blessing and a curse – on one hand, they were always reliably good so fans were never disappointed, but it also made them notably monotonous even just within one album and ensured that their flaws always stayed alongside the good parts. They’re not a bad band, they’re just not exciting at all and after a point listening to them feels like being force-fed the same bog-standard meat-and-potatoes over and over and over again.

Helvetisti järkeä is the moment where things simply clicked into place in the best possible way. It’s a Zen Café album through and through and doesn’t set itself apart from the rest in any grand way, but it takes the band’s formula and irons out the flaws to a point that it’s a genuinely great album. Here Putro makes a good case for being one of the most positively recognisable frontmen in Finnish rock and his lyrics hit their peak moment. The interplay between the band members is in its tightest and results in some downright great moments of band interaction. And finally, simply enough, their best and more importantly most consistent set of hit singles and great album tracks are found here. Where most Zen Café albums, reliable as they are, feature a fairly distinguishable gap between the best moments (often the ones that ended up on the radio), Helvetisti järkeä stays strong throughout.


Mies jonka ympäriltä tuolit viedään

In fact, it’s the album tracks that really shine here. The groove of “Kannattaako tunnustaa jos pettää” and “Omituista” are brilliant examples of the band’s ridiculously well-oiled rhythm section and how Putro’s stiff vocals work bafflingly well with it while “Tuulensuoja” has a chilled-out, decidedly optimistic charm to it with a looseness that separates it from the rest of the album.  The best moment is perhaps surprisingly the title track that opens the album: it’s a strong slow-burner with a very unassumingly quiet nature that eventually reveals itself to be one of the album’s key emotional moments, thick with atmosphere and subtly melancholy beauty. Not to discount the strength of the singles though. “Mies jonka ympäriltä tuolit viedään” is a perfect example of a simple but brilliant rock song which uses very few elements to create something hypnotic, the aggressive push of “Eipä tiennyt tyttö” and its quickly unraveling frustration and fury is always a fierce listen that once made the ground quake as I experienced a festival crowd fiercely jump up and down to it, and the third single “Älä tee”, while an underdog compared to the other two in terms of hit status, feels like a natural extention of the first two songs.

Most importantly, it all feels inspired. One of the main reasons that Zen Café have always felt underwhelming is that their highly predictable sound has felt too routine-like, too much on autopilot most of the time. There’s only so much of this you can take before it starts sounding monotonous. But you’d never believe that from Helvetisti järkeä. It has a clear sound but it never feels like it overdoes it and it takes a fresh turn whenever things are in the risk of sounding a bit too like one another: each song carries something special to them. But perhaps most at odds with the rest of their catalogue, it’s an album where Zen Café sound like they genuinely give a damn about their profession. Their never-changing sound, their routine-like releases and the general vague beigeness around them and their music (not helped by Putro’s often nigh-emotionless vocal delivery) made it easy to deride and pass them because it felt like they’re simply clocking in to their dayjobs, and the occasional admittedly great single here and there was never enough to convince otherwise. The real big thing about Helvetisti järkeä is that for the eleven songs it’s on, you believe in Zen Café and their music; that they’re a group of musicians in love with their craft and set out to write a masterpiece. It’s not quite that good an album, but it shows that there’s a certain strength to the band’s formula. While the other albums in their discography are largely carved from the same piece of wood, none of them are as effectively crafted as Helvetisti järkeä. As stated before, this isn’t a case of a band re-inventing the wheel or finding a new source of inspiration: this is an album where a band take their usual crafting pieces and realise that there is a way to use them in a far better fashion than they usually do.


Helvetisti järkeä

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