On paper, a psych-rock act might seem an odd choice of support for a prog-metal band. But if those death metal all-dayers have taught us anything, it is that there’s nothing quite as boring as listening to slight variations on the same style of music for hour after hour. As our reviewer noted of their headlining show at the Thekla, glitter-encrusted Goldray have certainly put the work in when it comes to raiding the dressing-up box. Former Reef guitarist Kenwyn House appears to have acquired Jimmy Page’s old wardrobe at a car boot sale, while singer Leah Rasmussen is clearly an alumnus of the Stevie Nicks school of floaty dancing, wafting about in black chiffon. Hell, the flower budget alone must have swallowed much of their fee, making the Fleece’s stage come over all 1967.
The music? Well, after a slow and rather meandering start, they get it together, man, once House’s riffage kicks in. Rasmussen is a commanding presence with a voice to match, ranging from Gilli Smyth-style space whisper all the way to full-throttle roar.
How come Finland produces so many great metal and prog bands for such a tiny nation? The secret lies in the country’s enviable free music education system, in which ability and creativity are nurtured and celebrated rather than being viewed with suspicion. The ferociously talented Von Hertzen siblings are clear beneficiaries of this approach (see our interview with them here), but it’s only now, 17 years into their career, that they’re finally beginning to make inroads into the UK market. If the trio are frustrated at their slow progress here, there’s absolutely no sign of it tonight as they unleash those powerful compositions with extraordinary soaring vocal harmonies upon an audience who can barely believe their good fortune in experiencing such a world-class band at close quarters.
If there’s been a criticism of VHB in recent years, it is that their restless inventiveness and no-boundaries approach leads them to cover too much ground musically, robbing the band of a clear identity. Perhaps as a statement of intent, they kick off tonight’s show with the epic, 12-minute, three-part opening title track of new album War is Over, which sees them firmly back in prog-metal territory. It’s an astonishing piece – at once bristling with ideas and wholly accessible, all that great musicianship being placed wholly in service of the song.
As usual, the bro’s are ranged across the front of the stage – Jonne (top-knot, bass and keyboards), Mikko (guitar, lead vocals) and Kie (beard, hat, specs, lead guitar) – with the Other Blokes at the back. These are completely different Other Blokes from the ones who appeared here 18 months ago, but the importance of drummer Sami Kuoppamäki and keyboard player Robert Engstrand should not be underestimated. Like his burly predecessor Mikko Kaakkuriniemi, Kuoppamäki is a dextrous player who keeps these songs bouncing along, while Engstrand pitches in impressively with the harmony vocals, making them sound even bigger than before.
Refugee song Jerusalem, also from War is Over, has plenty of those, but then VHB take a left turn with the urgent, driving, atypical Coming Home – Jonne bashing out a disco beat on his keyboard while Kie takes the baritone lead vocal. Crowd favourite Insomniac follows, with its grungy vibe and big dirty keyboard sound. Who Are You? showcases their experimental side, The Arsonist is a rare full-on rocker and the power-pop-tinged Frozen Butterflies even has the potential to win over those who convince themselves that they Don’t Like This Sort of Stuff.
They delve into the catalogue for probably their best-known song Flowers and Rust, along with the anthemic Gloria, which whisks the siblings back to those early experiences in their musical family. Still, it’s comforting to find that they’re not completely infallible. Mikko abandons delicate first encore Wanderlust, performed with just keyboard and guitar accompaniment, when he forgets the words. So it’s straight in to former set-opener New Day Rising, now repurposed as a suitably euphoric final encore that underlines their status as one of the best-kept secrets in rock.
Read more: Metal & Prog Picks: November 2017