Veljo and the wolf
Archived Articles 14 Mar 2008 Otepää SlimEWR
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Metsatöll/Eesti Rahvusmeeskoor. Raua needmine. Veljo Tormis. Elwood 041CD 2006, 72:50.

Try as he might, the slimster could not resist making the obvious classical connection to what is an attempt at cross-generational encouragement. This recording features a heavy metal band, of whom the slender feller had heard, but had not actually heard before listening to this CD. This effort ‘covers’ an Estonian classic that is impossible to categorize. The result is also difficult to put into words.

Composer Veljo Tormis and the Estonian National Male Choir are, on the other hand, legendary. Tormis’ “Raua needmine” (raud = iron; choose your English word to translate the needmine part: execrating, cursing, damning, anathematizing - the translation equates to some form of railing) is without a doubt a benchmark in our formidable musical treasure-trove, combining as it does an age-old resistance against imposed systems of thought and expression which are in conflict with fundamental – yet emphatically not primitive Estonian cultural values.

Hence whence first introduced to this recording, featuring the union of a modern form of music – heavy metal – with an ancient cultural value system, as expressed by Tormis in a way that is approachable while remaining true to our ethnos, skepticism rose to the fore. Simply because the two dissonant solitudes, first the volume and superficial costuming emphasizing pretense as exemplified by heavy metal culture, and second the ability to discern, find nuance as stressed in the repetitive Estonian regilaulu culture, a major inspirational source for Tormis, seemed unlikely partners for a happy marriage.

That initial concern still holds after repeated exposure to the CD. Especially so after comparisons to the “pure” versions of Tormis’ classic cycle. That said, this recording does merit a listen: a discerning audience, not necessarily made up of Estonians that understands this project might well be able to carry its message further.

A key part of that message is found in cultural self-expression and independence, voiced freely without fear of censorship.

Metsatöll’s name is taken from an ancient Estonian word for wolf, and the group, claiming to be more folk metal than the avoirdupois version of the genre, does their fair share of howling on this recording. So be it, as they are very much in tune with the runo- and regi-singing traditions that are at the heart of Tormis’ not-so-simple compositions.

Their efforts, according to their own website, are directed toward fighting against the negative effects of the English language on Estonians and working for a rebirth of folklore through contemporary means. The fact that Metsatöll’s music features traditional instruments has brought them acclaim from both metal and non-metal fans from all over Estonia.

However, a caveat nevertheless. This recording could disappoint diehard Tormis fans. Metsatöll’s howling legions of supporters may say otherwise. The Estonian National Male Choir, on the other hand, is in very fine voice here in the unusual position of being backup singers.

And for the curious, the Prokofiev comparison chosen tongue-in-cheek in the title here, because of that composer’s ability to bring classical music to youngsters, reflects Metstatöll’s goal of playing and singing heavy metal influenced by Estonian folklore. A mixed success here. Wonder, what Tormis himself thinks of this effort?

[i](The above CD comes packaged with a DVD, for those interested in a visual component to the music, as seems to be de rigueur for the MTV generation.)
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