There is no shortage of bold and bodacious original instrumental albums emanating from the cold climes of the Nordic nations of northern Europe, the latest of which include In Strange Lands / Vierailla Mailla, the sophomore effort of Finland’s Sampo Lassila Narinkka, and Opus, the sixth release from Denmark’s Afenginn. Both albums are boundary breaking in their own way.


Vierailla Mailla, to quote the local title, follows other outstanding recent Finnish releases from the likes of Esko Järvelä’s fiddle-driven Epic Male Band and Frigg and the keyboard virtuosos Kimmo Pohjonen and Iiro Rantala. It also showcases some exquisite accordion and violin playing — a 5-stringed viola pomposa, in fact. Underpinning is provided by the adroit double bass/viola da gamba work, resourceful percussion playing (egg-slicer, milk churn, rake and proverbial kitchen sink) and evocative compositions of the trio’s founder Sampo Lassila, whose thematic creations have been inspired by specific stories of Finns abroad and of foreigners in Finland, all of which are related with droll Finnish humour in the CD’s inner sleeve notes.


The style is known generically as suomiklezmer, which is basically a Finnish variant of eastern European Jewish music, with Balkan (Serbian and Bosnian, in particular) overtones, melded with local folk influences and other imported rhythms, notably Argentinian tango, which enjoys a surprisingly strong following in Finland. Most of the nine tracks go through multi-phases. Some, such as ‘Koli’ and ‘Colonia Finlandesa’, are predominantly melancholic. Others, like ‘Contabile’, are meditative. The others skip along, while changing shape at regular intervals. The outstanding 8:21 closing piece ‘Palkano’ alternates between Balkan swagger and the stiffer style of Finnish folk. Jazz and chamber music, as well as global colouring, also pervade.


Sampo Lassila Narinkka perform a selection from their album In Strange Lands:


Afenginn’s Opus is not only aptly named but it also matches the excellence in musicianship set by some of Denmark’s most eclectic and exciting combos, most notably the long-established New Jungle Orchestra. An ambitious double album in four parts, in which all tracks in each movement are tied together, it draws on Scandinavian folk, world music, classical and rock influences without adhering to conventional structure.


As on In Strange Lands, the latest original music produced by Afenginn’s composer, frontman and mandolinist/pianist, Kim Rafael Nyberg, utilises Balkan melody and rhythm to a fair degree — most noticeably in the suites’ dashing third movement. Technically speaking, Opus is not an instrumental album since there is a vocal component, one based on a hybrid tongue that blends elements of Finnish, Latin, Spanish and German into associative lines. Nyberg’s rationale for this unique language is that it promotes curiosity while dovetailing with Afenginn’s musical universe.


A short teaser from Afenginn’s Opus album


With the 7-piece core band augmented by some half-dozen special guests, including the Nordic String Quartet and a Bulgarian female choir, there’s myriad twists and turns in a kaleidoscopic work that covers a gamut of emotions and feels, from stripped back to multidimensional layers, from doleful to dynamic, from hymnal reverence to operatic grandiosity. Cool clarinet, mellow brass and fiddles occupy the lead lines, with malleted drums and percussion doing the heavy lifting.


Afenginn’s leader explains that his magnum opus —reportedly hatched in Tasmania during an Australian tour with the band — in some way mirrors how life often evolves: “uncontrollable, unforeseeable, yet still somehow navigable”. It’s an apt way to describe Opus.