The Von Hertzen Brothers are often described as “hard to pigeonhole”. By turns this has been a feather in their caps and an albatross around their necks – sometimes both at once. Too weird for the mainstream but far more accessible than that implies, they’re a band who revel in musical idiosyncrasies and king-sized pop melodies. Purveyors of music that’s both clever and hummable. The black sheep of modern rock, who also grew up with ABBA and choral singing (their parents met in a choir and, if the brothers’ knack for immaculate, gauzy harmonies is anything to go by, the experience resonated in the family long after).
Back in 2015 they threw all their resources at the snappier, stadium-reaching New Day Rising. It didn’t blow up as they probably hoped, and 2017 follow-up War Is Over marked a return to their progressive roots. Now, with Red Alert In The Blue Forest, they’ve remained in that space, using it to explore the “imbalance threatening our peaceful existence everyday” – including the loss of harmony between people and nature. Naturally they do this on their own enigmatic terms. A deeply personal record and a love letter to their motherland, with sentiments that translate universally, Red Alert…’s empowered battle cries come with a veil of ethereal serenity.
Such big themes demand a majestic, ambitious backdrop and the Von Hertzens don’t disappoint, embracing a wealth of instrumentation alongside the Finnish folklore and icy, beautiful countryside of their childhood. There are also flavours of frontman Mikko’s years in India, a serving of Anathema-style electronics, and the grandeur of the Pink Floyd records in the brothers’ bloodstream. There are heavy moments, tender moments, haunting moments – often all within quick succession. And it’s stunning.
Opener Day Of Reckoning sets a pensive tone, referencing ‘ancient prophecies’ and asking ‘is it all for something meaningful?’, as it builds into an urgent chorus; the kind of smart but more-ish singalong that they do so well. The baltic chill of Blue Forest calls to mind Norwegian art rockers Gazpacho, steadily morphing into nine minutes of electronic beats, expansive synths and ominous undertones. After that The Promise feels comparatively slender; five minutes of folky Led Zeppelin vibes and celtic-sounding fiddles that crescendo into Mikko’s ardent ‘remember what you promised me’.
From here, the longer songs continue. All Of A Sudden You’re Gone is a seven-minute mini epic with a stick-in-your-head chorus, evoking images of forests in dark fairy tales with its violin, gentle folk harmonies and blissed-out brass. The 10-minute Peace Patrol starts out a bit like White Wedding if Billy Idol had taken a detour via Kerala before revealing another huge refrain – complete with King Crimson saxophone and a devastating, David Gilmour-esque solo. It’s followed by ‘light relief’ of sorts with the electronic shanty shuffle Pirates Of The Raseborgian, ending with the creaking of what might be said pirates’ ship.
Above all this is an album that thrums with the influence of nature (guitarist Kie’s godfather was one of the early Finnish environmentalist pioneers, while youngest brother Jonne is a keen birdwatcher by day). The soaring Northern Lights even includes sounds of the natural phenomenon it’s named after, as captured by acoustics researcher Professor Unto K Laine. The touching, delicately layered Anil takes its name from a West Indian shrub, while Söderskär – think The Wall via a deeper, more emotive Jose Gonzalez – shares its own with an isolated lighthouse on a remote Finnish islet (said to have inspired Moomins creator Tove Jansson).
Arguably language has had a greater bearing on the Von Hertzens’ sound (and, perhaps, their fortunes) than one might imagine – one suggestion as to why so many more of their peers in Sweden make waves internationally. “The roots of Swedish are the same as English,” Kie has said. “Finnish is in another bracket. And there’s a deeper cultural difference, because we’re more tied into Russian and Eastern European heritage.”
But really, that element of foreignness acts in their favour. The brothers’ inimitable Nordic tones are part of their appeal, helping to make Red Alert… as transportive as it is. It’s the shot of je ne sais quoi that binds their collection of prog, rock, folk and electronic sensibilities. No one sounds like them.
It’s left to the sweetly melancholic Disappear There to conclude proceedings, meditating on the unknowable nature of mortality, drawing a line under what history might show to be the Von Hertzens’ masterpiece. A fitting end to a record that goes on a wild adventure, but ultimately ends staring into the campfire as darkness thickens.