In 2014, from a wild and desolate town in Finland, emerged Rantama. Then, a trio, they began making sweet instrumental jazz fusion. 6 years later, we are here to review their 2019 self-titled album as a fine example of Finnish prog rock. “What changed?” you might ask. While on the surface, they seem to have been joined by a singer, we see a complete shift in band personality and sound that can not be explained by the band losing their trio status. No, the sudden shift into a darker sound, chorus progressions similar to hard classic rock pieces, overdriven shreds, and a tight sense of groove can not be the side effects of no longer being an instrumental band. It seems that over the years, Rantama took inspiration from a wide range of musical giants – the likes of King Crimson, Opeth, Radiohead as well as Journey and Weather Report, in their own statement – and matured into progressive rock. Yet, I could still hear their 2016 heritage “Catching the Mystery Train” that gained them national recognition in their newest form. The chorus filled clean guitars that outpace the listener’s energy with its frantic runs still paint the landscape in between verses. The drummer still manages to fit in his 64th note embellishments in the soothing grooves of “Splendid Sun.” The new Rantama feels the same, but different, more powerful than ever.
Timo Rantama: guitars, keys
Taavi Kiiskinen: vocals
Tatu Back: bass
Iiro Laitinen: drums
1. Bird Nest (3:10)
The opener of the album, “Bird Nest” starts with a 9/8 guitar groove. This catchy guitar riff creates an interesting contrast with its distorted lows and electronic sounding high notes. After it loops for some time, it connects to a series of descending chord progression. While this long and powerful, distorted chords continue in 4/4, the beginning riff starts to create the background riff. Even though this is a great idea, the 9/8 riff is so quiet that the listener can’t enjoy the creativity. The riff just turns into background noise. However, when this background riff starts to become more audible, it works as a great transition and background structure for the next part.
This energetic section of the song works well with low and high points of the background. It adds dynamics to the low end with its fast strumming and doesn’t shadow the high part, unlike the previous section. With exciting drumming and the addition of more high-end notes, this hype leads to the lyrics. This complex structure created by the combination of the framework and the topping really melts into each other when vocals enter. Talking about feeling invincible and being untouchable like a bird’s nest that is placed way up than any human can ever reach. However, it is not just an egoistic song. Even though it seems that he is confident, the idea of being untouchable turns into just a hope for him. Even though he says he feels invincible, truth is he wants to feel invincible. He just wants inner peace in a far place, for example, in a bird’s nest.
The verse connects to a grooving interlude, showing similarities to the style of Leprous. The background riff stops to give the syncopated groove its edge. Taavi Kiiskinen continues about his desire to be untouchable while some jazz chords add the spice. After turning back to the verse, this energetic song goes to half-time and relax. Chill chords take the place of high tempo riffs. Singer hums a soft melody, resembling of Thom Yorke’s, and gives this song a soft ending while connecting it to the next song.
2. Roaring Rapids (5:38)
With the previous song lingering on at the beginning, “Roaring Rapids” starts off with an oddly divided 4/4 guitar riff (stressed by the crash cymbals of the drums). The jazzy feel here reminds the listener of the band’s previous jazz/rock reincarnation. It’s nice to see that the band hasn’t fully left behind their past, but instead built upon it. From the very start, we can see the subtle yet artistic finesse of Iiro Laitinen with his drum fills; and combined with the tone of Timo Rantama’s guitar, proves to be a delightful introduction to the song.
It’s only after the drums start to play a steady 4/4 rhythm that the band truly locks in with the guitar riff. Though the band could’ve refrained from introducing most of the instrumentation from the beginning (creating rather an explosive effect) and add them with the steady rhythm to further enhance the feeling of “locking in”.
The song has an upbeat nature that continues on with more prominent and groovy bass action from Tatu Back. Although it is still the first minute of the song, the listener is made familiar with all the instruments and the personalities behind them. The band doesn’t have a keyboard player, but they still added a flavor of synths just the right amount not the distract us from the main event. Thus, when the vocals enter, we are already drawn into the song; and judging from the first words Taavi Kiiskinen sings (the title of the track), the song will probably continue this upbeat feel. One thing to notice was that the chorus also contains the title of the track (laziness or creative decision?). Though it is calmer compared to the verses, the chorus provides some catchy melodies that you can sing along to while listening.
Near the ending, the main riff of the song plays beneath Kiiskinen’s long and dragging notes which to any prog fan should remind of Yes with the multiple sections playing over each other to both carry the song forward while reminding the listener of what he has already heard. The song, worthy of its name, ends with the same riff accompanied by a drum madness and some guitar ornaments.
3. Dying Star (9:15)
“Dying Star” opens with a riff similar to a chill and relaxed version of “Schism” by Tool. With its eerie atmosphere and set back drumming, the track welcomes the listener to an uncanny scene. A guitar loops in the background while the bass creates harmony. Then suddenly, just with two quick chords, drumming gets more fast-paced, and the riff gains energy. Still preserving its earlier vibe, the riff gains small pieces from other prog bands such as King Crimson and Opeth with its energetic and explosive songwriting. It continues to groove and after a simple passage consisting of a few chords, it leads to the vocals. The band uses few and simple chords very effectively to create bridges in this song.
Vocal fits greatly to this grooving riff. His kinda funky and bluesy style and well written vocal melody enrich to the song by tons. This kind of singing and vocal melodies is not common in prog; they can be seen more in pop or classic rock etc, but it really fits in this song. Funkiness also appears in strumming techniques of the guitar in some places. Even though bass doesn’t reach the complexity of normal funk basses, it still helps to increase the funk. Implementing some funk, a little bit of blues, and a bit of pop helps this song to reach a more reachable position.
For the second verse, the groove continues with syncopated chords while funkiness turns more into jazz. Rapid chord changes and smooth voicings create a loose vibe. Vocal adds to the groove while drumming increases in loudness. Then it quiets down, drumming plays fast hi-hats, then turning into toms, while the guitar solos for a little and explodes amidst drums. Drums manage to create hype with simple rhythms alongside with complex fills he uses to make the song more exciting.
After a verse over distorted arpeggios, Laitinen gives out one of his simple but effective builds up and leads to solo. Yes, the guitar solo is the audible one, but before it, bass spits some incredibly good lines. However, because it was mixed so low and shadowed by the drums, it can be possible to miss it. Rantama’s pop influences on vocals work but the ideas of the pop industry about bass shouldn’t be on this record. Even though it is kind of audible, bass lines were generally not exciting, and seeing the only exciting part comparably low was sad.
The guitar begins its solo by creating a simple motif that he loops over for some time. It continues to play some licks that follow each other smoothly. Small blues influences can be seen in the licks he uses and his high notes sound incredibly good. The phrasing of licks gets faster and faster, then gets heavier and more distorted. The whisper can be heard while the guitar lets the distorted notes breathe in the air. It slows down, whisper quiets down, and gives its one long distorted note which fades into the next song.
4. Ground Frost Forger (6:37)
Combining neo-soul chord voicings with Opeth-ish feels, Rantama creates a melancholic yet dimmed atmosphere with their 4th track of the album. The guitar playing style shows the authenticity of the guitarist Timo Rantama – an original guitar playing that sounds full and satiated. The whole track has a natural vibe to it, which is achieved by the melodic approach to the playing and the atmospheric synthesis of the instruments in general.
At the beginning of the song, Iiro Laitinen plays a brass band groove on the drums, creating a foreshadow towards a more powerful middle section. Being one of the jazziest tracks that they have, the simple and structured writing of the track instantly reminds of another modern artist that has been constantly releasing critically acclaimed albums over the last few years, which is no other than the marvelous Alfa Mist. The first section of the song has two parts – which can mostly be differentiated as the progression gets more eclectic in the second part and drums stop playing the band groove and play a classic ride rhythm.
As we hear a few bars of sole drum action, the song begins a new section-a section that is heavier and reminds of the combination of instrumental jams of 80s prog band with modern prog-rock jam bands – such as Rush and Aristocrats respectively. The guitar tone in this track is especially the fundamental thing that gives the natural and majestic feeling to the song, The way the guitarist blends scales to create certain voicings and play melodies is also laudable. Personally, I would rather use the track as a riff bank to come back and use these riffs in a song that is more structured and storified – which has vocals and more melodic phrasings and dynamic relaxation points. The flow of the parts and the connection between the parts are flawless, however, it is not impossible for one to lose himself on the whole run – since the whole song feels as if it is in a dynamic equilibrium.
Overall, the song Ground Forest Forger shows the band’s ability to craft material that is connecting wildly and smoothly with one another, however, it also shows that there is still a place for them to improve with their high potential and musicality.
5. Splendid Sun (1:58)
As a drummer, I can’t help but marvel at the beauty of the constant groove in “Splendid Sun.” The way Iiro Laitinen fills in the 9/8 beat with the ghost notes, the way he hits the bell to accent starting sub beats, the way he uses the off-beat hi-hat and crashes hits to build-up to the 2-minute song’s end is incredibly satisfying. The song, starting off with a solo drum groove evolves into an ambient guitar ballad with dissonant jazz chords and arpeggios. Interestingly, the backing returns to the start every 7 loops, creating an uneasy feeling. Chords progress in a somber, minor scale, yet end on the 7th loop with a hopeful, major note. I don’t know enough theory to analyze how the modal interchange in this song works, but I’m guessing that Timo took a few extra classes about it. What’s left to us is to be carried away in the sea of notes that he proficiently provided.
6. We Are (7:41)
After the energetic and highly layered instrumental “Splendid Sun”, “We Are” comes across as a softer contrast. It certainly has a very different atmosphere compared to what came before it, and thanks to the track’s versatility, proves that Rantama can play at both sides of the rock spectrum.
The song starts off rather jazzy, a characteristic of Rantama’s sound by this point. Kiiskinen’s vocals sound more sincere and clear this time, it’s clear that this was intentional. The band wanted us to listen to the lyrics carefully, and that’s exactly what we are going to do. There is a constant reference to nature (forests, clouds, wind, etc.) combined with a sense of youthfulness. From the very first line, the intimacy is created, much like the intimate moments shared around a bonfire. This intimacy is further enforced with the repetition of “We are”, the unity can also be attributed to nature.
The chorus amplifies the youthful side of the lyrics, although kind of a cliche at this point. The fire imagery, which is repeated throughout the album, can be found in the song’s chorus too. Even in the album’s booklet, the references to fire is literally everywhere. In the next verse, the theme of being part of nature continues. Although it is clear that English is not their first language (it really doesn’t need to), the lyrics contain some interesting imageries; but with songs like “We Are” where lyrics carry much more of the song’s message, the band should spend more time making the words as unique to them as possible.
The interlude section between the chorus offers new melodies that elevate the song more into the upbeat territory of some previous tracks. It’s also here that we experience Timo Rantama’s raw guitar skills combined with Kiiskinen’s mastery over his voice. Panning the vocals right and left seems like it came from the ’70-’80s. The band has done this kind of layering before in the album, and in the long run, can be a part of the band’s sound.
The guitar solo is another showcase of Rantama’s gift. Though the muffled tone of the guitar can be argued to work against him this time, taking the punch out of some of the climactic moments in the solo. But it’s long and thoughtful, which makes it a great solo on its own in our eyes. The slow ending is a reference to the beginning, with the guitar playing the vocal melody. It’s relieving and reminding, of the song itself and of who “we were”.
7. A Small Blink of Light (6:11)
It is certainly a talent to create “happy” prog that wouldn’t sound cheesy. Back in the day, the Italian prog’s main issue was this – all in all, it caused them to be forgotten with a smaller fan base than they deserved. And rather a small category of these proggers was able to succeed and create high-quality music- such as Yes and Genesis. Furthermore, this particular song has a direct connection to the style, replicating the warm feelings of Rush’s “Limelight”. Probably because of the mode that they wrote the intro and verse, listener shivers with the same feeling of the song; even though the whole approach of riff writing is different.
The whole funky approach with the strumming and drum groove was disrupted with the arpeggio guitar pattern – the bridge section of the song. The whole drumming of the song is a highlight from the self-titled LP, a product of a well-played, produced, and mixed drum sound. The after-chorus section that comes before the verse shows the math-rock influences of the band – since the section shows their time signature fetish combined with fresh chord progressions sound sloppy yet structured.
The fresh chorus melody that has been layered with double and backing vocals with lots of background sounds-such as atmospheric and minimal synth sounds and reverbed guitar voices- just keeps running over and over your head and you just start swaying and singing “Don’t know where I’m goin’. ” With the addition of drum and guitar fills, the song feels whole and achieves its full potential – making it probably the most accessible and audience-friendly song of the album.
Feeling-wise, it sounds like a summer anthem of the 70s and 80s. And also lyrically, the song matches the similar themes from these campfire melodies of the past – but still could be interpreted in a completely different way. Yet, it is impossible to shut our eyes to the obvious keywords (such as fire, summer, light) and the hipster mindset of the narrator.
8. The Pond of No Return (10:13)
The laid-back atmosphere, the high notes in the vocal line, and the chorus in the guitars reminded me of the art-rock band Roxy Music. The verse is unconventionally structured. While the first two parts of it are each conventionally 8 bars long, the theme starting on the line “It looks like” lasts 3 bars. It easily goes under the radar of the uninitiated listener because the drummer uses this opportunity to throw in a basic fill. The drummer and guitarist exchange musical glances as the song bridges into the chorus. The bridge, in the drummer’s eye, is a very basic kick and snare tom groove. This signals the more developed upcoming tom groove a minute later.
Now might be a good time to try to understand “The Pond of No Return.” As you may guess, ” pond” is an intentional bastardization of “point,” just like in “The Sound of Muzak,” in which “music” is bastardized in order to allude to corporate greed in the music industry (Muzak is an “elevator jazz” company, they commercially produced jazz as background music to be played in stores and other public venues). The verse talks about only the thoughts before this point is passed, but the chorus, the peak point talks about the point and after it. The word pond is most probably used in order to make a blanket theme for symbolic words such as “water” and “dam”. The song is cleverly written to create this simple and easy to imagine the setting, exploring a very complex feeling. Coming up in a natural Finnish town, Rantama must have been staring at the water at 4 am in the morning, thinking that the water kinda looked like those wavy clocks in the Dali painting when he decided to write this song. So, to me, the pond represented the passage of time. There is no going back through time, it only moves forward, and the past is forever gone. In a melancholic mood, it tells the listener to “live and let go of your mind’s eye.” The mind’s eye is remembering. Only your mind can see what happened in the past. This line means that you should always be living in the moment without getting stuck in the past. The mention of the “golden keys… [he] once held” is a mention to the beauties of the past. Yet “let go of all your crimes,” tells us a whole different story, of a mistake-filled past. Isn’t that the most human thing? That time is full of good and bad, happy and sad?
As the song evolves into a sing-along theme in the 6-minute mark, I get an irresistible hopeful feeling. I don’t know why they didn’t layer a few more backing vocals behind the lead singer, because it would sound absolutely angelic. The last verse confirms my doubts about the direction of the song. As a very high pitched note and a following upbeat 5/4 closing section is awaited, Kiiskinen sings these lines:
This moment is a mystery And we are a part of it You and I Only have one try To see those stars align
Even though we screw up, time, like a pond that bathes all the wild creatures in our world, clears up our past mistakes and gives us another chance. We never know what the future may bring. Yet it’s worth to try to seize it.
Or is it? No, creepy glitches in the recording, don’t ruin this moment for me!