While the world shut down in 2020, the Von Hertzen Brothers dispersed. Bassist and keyboard player Jonne, the youngest, remained in Helsinki, frontman/middle brother Mikko went to India (his second home for many years), and guitarist Kie disappeared into the Finnish archipelago with his canoe. Locked away with webs of rock, prog, folk, electronic and pop DNA between them, they wrote music.
Fast forward some months, and Mikko found himself alone at the family cabin in Raseborg, on the southern tip of Finland. As children the Von Hertzens spent long summers here playing in untamed pine and evergreen forests, spotting elk, birds and butterflies, picking mushrooms and berries and swimming in lakes, all with the chill of the Baltic sea in the background.
What he found was a wake-up call. The sort that so many of us, all over the world, are finding harder to ignore. Lyrics started coming to him, which would ultimately tie up the strands the three siblings had worked on separately.
“Forests were cut down,” he recalls. “Completely, completely cut down. I was walking around these places that used to be very familiar, and suddenly I come into a place and everything is gone. And it was such a moment for me; like, why do we have to do this? Is this the way we treat all the other species?”
Since the dawn of the noughties, the Von Hertzen Brothers have been described as ‘hard to categorise’; pop stars in prog star clothing; arena rockers wrapped in clever sounds. It hasn’t turned them into superstars, but it has afforded them freedom. Freedom to sound like themselves. Freedom to convey their dark, mysterious homeland in thoughtful layers of instrumentation – and, crucially, great songs.
Their latest album, Red Alert In The Blue Forest, is their biggest demonstration of all this. It came together in stages, from late 2020 into 2021: recording-studio stints in Sipoo, Helsinki, sessions on the island of Suomenlinna for gauzy, otherworldly standouts Sodeskar and Anil. At one point the brothers went back to the family cabin to record vocal harmonies, setting up a vocal booth in Jonne’s bedroom.
The resulting album is a multi-layered love letter to their motherland that taps into global concerns. But it’s a thoughtful take on a subject that can be so fraught with conflict and feeling. It’s honest without being depressing, sad yet uplifting.
“My feeling is that it’s not too late yet to start treating nature as it should be treated,” Mikko says. “There are things we can do. The idea that nature is only there for humans to take from, for our own gain or whatever, it’s very unfamiliar to us.”
The brothers’ close relationship with nature gleams through the album’s elegiac textures and ethereal haze. It’s there in the Zeppelin-esque folk of The Promise, the blissed-out orchestration of Anil, the starlit beats and electronics of Northern Lights and the acoustic cool of Sodeskar (named after the islet said to have inspired Moomins writer Tove Jansson).
The title Blue Forest comes from the phenomenon of ‘the blue hour’, the colour generated as the Nordic sun sets on the trees: “It’s kind of like the green of the trees is turning to blue, before it dies out, before the colour dies off,” Mikko explains.
In a moment of light relief, the trio’s youthful adventures are captured in the chipper, sea shanty-esque Pirates Of The Raseborgian.
“There’s the Pirates Of The Caribbean, so we have the Raseborgian,” Mikko says, grinning. “It’s not even a word. We just made it up because we felt like, in some way, we want to remain as kids. We are getting older, we are getting cynical, but we are trying to keep that childlike enthusiasm and attitude towards music.”
Heroes in Finland (where their albums routinely top the chart), the brothers have been able to take these sounds and images to a huge cross-section of listeners. On their most recent national tour they played in cosmopolitan cities and small seashore towns, large seated concert halls and noisy punk clubs, combining styles, sounds and even audiences in a way that very few rock bands manage.
“We can really tailor stuff according to the venue and the time of the day we are playing,” Mikko says. “The concert halls are usually at seven o’clock in the evening, and the last club gig we played was at midnight. It’s so different – the vibe, what they want to hear at that hour.”
On some level it’s all readying them for their dream gig, giving audiences the sort of soaring, lush performance they’d offer there – whether or not that gig actually happens.
“I always felt like the brothers should play the Royal Albert Hall, at some point in our career,” Mikko says, not arrogantly but not apologetically either. “So we’re kind of preparing ourselves for a really cool concert.”
For now the Von Hertzens enjoy a different kind of success. Operating on their own terms. As 2022 closes they’re playing their final shows of the year and starting to write new music for the next record. Christmas family time at the cabin beckons, complete with gingerbread, cider, saunas and gazing up at the stars from the deck by the water.
“You can see the Milky Way,” Mikko enthuses. “It is really beautiful.”
Since its release in March, Red Alert In The Blue Forest has inspired the Blue Forest campaign by the Finnish Natural Heritage Foundation (with whom the band already had loose ties), raising funds to buy and protect a huge forest in southern Finland. It’s a beam of light in the icy melancholia of this music. A call to rethink our position in the world: as part of nature, not separate from it.
“I think we should think about death every day,” Mikko concludes brightly. “But not in a way that it’s like: ‘Oh my god, I’m so depressed.’ We should understand what it means, and what it means for Earth to have a tree cut down, for example. It’s not like we have answers to everything. But we definitely have concerns, and we’ve tried to think of ways that we could do stuff differently. It’s small, but it’s worth doing.”