Aalto are a Finnish “ethnic folk” five piece, whose instrumental repertoire includes a doshpuluur, a didgeridoo, a sitar, a clarinet, and throat singing, as well as the more predictable percussion and guitar. This self-titled CDR consists firstly of five tracks recorded with this present day line-up, followed by four solo recordings by Sampo Salonen, recorded under the Aalto name before the present line-up had formed. The tracks from the first batch of recordings unsurprisingly have a much fuller, more dynamic and energetic quality. By and large though this is to Aalto’s detriment. These first five tracks find Aalto sounding excessively confident and playing with various styles of ethnic music. “Päivän poika” begins with a sitar lazily playing scales and a didgeridoo warbling in the background before the rhythm section kicks in and the sitar begins playing a melody and soloing in a manner about as authentic as in the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”. It is difficult to shake the feeling here that Aalto are subsisting entirely on borrowed tricks, pilfering ethnic music motifs freely and without regard for consistency. Perhaps it is just my personal preference, but it is the tracks on “Aalto” with a particularly strong ‘oriental’ flavour – i.e. with heavy use of sitar and warbling female vocals – such as “Rajastan Pimp” that come off as the most hackneyed. It might be a bit rich to accuse Aalto of rootless cosmopolitanism but these tracks certainly seem to be an instance of cross-cultural exchange (as many of them are based on Finnish traditional songs) that is almost distressingly superfluous.
Luckily however the four solo recordings are completely different story. While obviously being influenced by similar ethnic folk traditions to the full band tracks, without the authentic instrumentation of those pieces, this influence seems a lot less superficial. These tracks are much more low key, intimate affairs, sounding more like the kind of Finnish experimental folk that has been trendy in underground circles for some time. Even the track that seems the most similar to the recordings with the full band, “Lintu”, is made markedly better by this change in setting. It retains much more of free folk feeling, being largely based around an acoustic guitar motif that recalls Animal Collective in their “Sung Tongs” era. Likewise Hanna Uotinen’s vocals in this context are hauntingly beautiful, rather than sounding like someone playing a part, as Johanna Rossi’s vocals so frequently did in the full band recordings. Aalto are clearly a collection of very talented musicians, and it is very likely that they are far more knowledgeable about the musical traditions they draw from than I am. It is unfortunate then that this was largely unable to translate to the interesting cross-pollination of Finnish, Tuvan and Middle Eastern folk music traditions that the disc promises. 5/10 -- Tim Gentles (12 August, 2009)