Cosmic or Drunk? 

Avarus sure can piss folks off, but the group's space rock warps minds.

Arttu Partinen is the wacky dude inside the bag.
  • Arttu Partinen is the wacky dude inside the bag.
It's the summer of 2005, and hip tastemakers are drooling over Avarus' modern psychedelia. Like Sasquatch, however, few have seen these mysterious Finns in the flesh.

The group flies from Helsinki to the U.K., where it's scheduled to perform Subcurrent, a renowned music fest featuring avant-garde and left-field artists from around the world. This is Avarus' coming-out party, an opportunity to impress an international coterie of like-minded artists.

Experimental music is like a vacation to a foreign land not called Canada; it feeds the senses new sounds, ideas, and experiences, a valuable if abstruse activity in itself. Unfortunately, it attracts more effete snobs than a free box of wine and a cheese platter -- especially in the U.K.

Avarus' Arttu Partinen is a bohemian with a beard and flowing mane. But he's also the kind of guy who can ramble into your neighborhood dive and slap backs with the regulars. His bullshit radar detects Subcurrent's snobbery immediately. "There was this superstar routine, and a lot of people were really uptight," he says via phone from Helsinki, where Partinen is bathing in sunlight 24/7 this time of year.

According to a festival diary written by program curator and Wire contributor David Keenan, Partinen gets "drunk as hell and in everybody's face." He claims Avarus will blow the über-cool Wolf Eyes off the stage (a significant faux pas in the noise-rock scene). Several pints later, this golden beast spends "long, uncomfortable minutes" stroking a balloon like he would his own Nordic cock during Avarus' performance.

If heaven exists, Andy Kaufman and Hunter S. are cheering on Arttu Partinen.

"Everyone was talking about this Finnish dude who goes around insulting everyone," explains Partinen, laughing his ass off. "But you have to know the Finnish drinking culture and our humor. It's doesn't always go over well in other places."

In fact, few attending Subcurrent could've anticipated Partinen's antics. Fans who speak not a lick of Finnish account for 80 percent of Avarus' record sales. Furthermore, the band rarely tours beyond Scandinavia; members can't afford the time off from work. These factors have created a distant fan base that knows zilch about the group outside the music -- a lysergic synthesis of space rock, minimal electronica, and rustic sounds indigenous to Finland. This last quality in particular has inspired notions that are as realistic as presuming all Californians surf.

To fans, Avarus is a collective of bearded shamans and hippie nomads roaming mother earth's mossy bosom: Finland's 50,000,000 acres of lakes, mountains, and woods. There, among mischievous nymphs and bloodthirsty wolverines, the group bangs pots and strums ancient instruments, birthing tribal cacophonies commonly tagged "forest folk."

Scoffing at the "Yankee critics" who perpetuate this Garden of Eden rubbish, the Finnish blogger pHinnWeb (a.k.a. Erkki Rautio) recently posted a jpg of Tampere, the city where Avarus came together in 2001. The photograph captures an industrial river cutting through aging factories and black smokestacks. It's the Flats.

pHinn believes indie types from the United States and the U.K. need a haven -- even if it exists solely in their minds -- where they can hide from the ugly, post-9/11 world their countries have created. That place is exotic Finland, and you can get there by listening to hip bands with wondrously unpronounceable names like Kemialliset Ystävät, the Anaksimandros, and Avarus.

But for those who already call Finland home, they don't need the magic carpet that is Avarus. In fact, they would probably torch it, if given the opportunity. "We are not popular here," says Partinen, who savors the irony. "People at the shows are usually heckling, 'Who do you think you are? You can't even play your instruments.' We have yet to receive a positive review in Finland. Most are one out of five stars."

Dissing Avarus' records is puzzling, but the heckling makes sense. For years, the group's performances -- if that's the right word for them -- resembled a Romper Room full of wasted juveniles, mangling traditional instruments and an assortment of plastic toys. It was communal all right -- but primitive, atonal, and confrontational as well.

"We had, like, 15 people onstage, and the music was getting really out of hand," admits Partinen. "No one could steer what anyone was doing. So we consciously narrowed it down to a core."

Partinen advocating self-control sounds like more of that misunderstood Finnish humor, but the albums prove him right. Ruskeatimantti, a compilation of early recordings few outside Finland heard when they were made, flails about like acid punks at an all-night warehouse party. Although a handful of heady jams emerge from the insanity, formless clatter dominates the two-disc set.

Around the time of 2005's Jättilaisrotta, however, Partinen and company attained the secret to producing great records, which is best explained by the late Papa Jerry. "Working in the studio is like building a ship in a bottle. Playing live is like having a rowboat on the ocean," he says in the documentary Anthem to Beauty.

Instead of pressing record and bashing each other's brains in like Neanderthals, Avarus sculpted itself into a "streamlined, rock-based lineup," as Partinen puts it. Of course, we're not dealing with an ensemble of virtuosos; these cats don't even consider themselves musicians. But they have created a musical language unique to their talents. Just a few years ago, Avarus induced trance, employing but a single krautrock rhythm. Nowadays, the group busts several, as well as a handful of simple but clever rearrangements -- kind of like Boredoms lite.

"We actually have a band that knows what it's doing," says Partinen. "We are mixing free elements with some groove."

The Finn's pride shoots through the telephone receiver. But he also sounds incredulous. Progress is good, but somewhere in the rear of his skull, the dude knows he's just a pint away from stroking that balloon.

More by Justin F. Farrar


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