On ‘White Sea,’ Agebjörn and Ögren Create a Beautiful Ode to an Ancient Land

Europe’s an ancient place, and so the national borders you see on a map don’t always mesh with the cultures and communities they cut through and contain. There are regions in which the people share a long history of collective culture — often including a language, multi-generational family ties, food, music, and more — separated by boundaries much younger than that history.

Karelia is somewhat like that. It is currently composed of a Finnish region that borders Russia’s Karelias, which are the Republic of Karelia and areas within the Leningrad Oblast. This forested escape — the Russian side of which fronts the White Sea — is the subject of We Never Came to the White Sea, a gorgeous, masterfully crafted new concept album by Johan Agebjörn (one-half of the late Swedish Italo disco duo Sally Shapiro) and Mikael Ögren. It’s out now on Spotted Peccary Music.

The storied Kivach waterfall in the Republic of Karelia, Russia. Photo used with permission.

A Particular Karelian Struggle

Karelians have a language in common, or at least speak Finnic dialects that are in the same family, although they’re more likely to speak Russian or some form of Finnish, depending on which side of the border they’re on.  (The number of remaining speakers of Karelian are in the low thousands.) They have common traditional foods, such as karjalanpiirakat, a meat stew. Their music is rooted in an energetic folk expression.

But what all Karelians seem to have the most in common is the struggle of being at the tense center between the cultures of the East and West. See, Finland was a part of Sweden for hundreds of years and so the dominant religion was Lutheranism and the ruling culture of the Swedes pervaded. That dynamic encompassed western Karelia. Meanwhile, East Karelia was Russian Orthodox and influenced by Russian culture. Even when Finland became a Russian duchy in 1808, a general divide persisted — the Finns weren’t about to be Russified, despite the Empire’s attempts.

But Finland’s, and Karelia’s, troubles were far from over. Once Lenin and crew took over Russia in 1917, Finland declared independence, which the Bolsheviks initially rejected. By 1918, though, Communist Russia recognized Finnish independence. Finland eventually had to cede to Russia parts of its territory, including portions of Karelia, during a war in the early 1940s. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, there’s been talk of some type of closer union — even a symbolic one — between the various parts. However, one thing hasn’t changed since the Middle Ages: Karelia is a majestic expanse stretched between two different ways of regarding Europe.

(I haven’t done much justice to the intricacies of the lives of Karelians over the past several hundred years, especially their struggle in the face of violent struggle, so you’re better off reading more about it from an entity like the Museums of South Karelia or even Lonely Planet.)

An Exquisite LP Worth Many Repeat Listens

Cover art. Provided by Johan Agebjörn.
Cover art. Provided by Johan Agebjörn.

The White Sea record is the product of a trip Agebjörn and Ögren took to the Russian side of Karelia.

The electronic soundscapes feature synths that sit in idle meditation, pulsate, go on arpeggiated escapades, and flutter with resonance as if peeling atoms off molecules one or two at a time in a bid to more fully understand the nature of things. Drums splash and voices carry great weight without using words. Organic colors and tones permeate. It’s an enriching experience to travel around Karelia this way.

What we’re hearing is the soundtrack to an unreleased and unedited road movie the two men made on that journey to a land from where one of Agebjörn’s grandpas hails — he was born in one of the areas Russia absorbed from Finland.

The record follows what is a still-formulating story about traversing the sparsely populated country with its old culture. The cuts’ titles name-check geographical markers and reference conditional and emotional aspects of the journey: Examples include “Relentless Rain Over Ladoga” and “Four Hours to Karhumäki.” The all-encompassing nature of the album’s concept ensures that the listener is able to more wholly understand a region not many people know about.

Along for the ride — at least on the record — are the wordless vocals of Anneli Andersson, a friend of Mikael. Another thing: Sally Shapiro fans who’ve been mourning the 2016 retirement of the duo are in for a treat. She does her own wordless vocals on one song, “Aurora Over Odega,” a rework of “Aurora” by French retrosynther (and Blood Music artist) Tommy ‘86.

With some washed out noise, the record kicks off with “As I Passed the Vyartsilya Border Crossing,” a beautiful and kinetic piece with glassy synth pads, deliberate percussive sounds, and a buttery (and catchy) synth lead melody that forms the theme of the adventure on which we’re poised to embark. As with Agebjörn’s previous ambient work, such as 2015’s Notes, White Sea manages to feature arrangements that despite their electronic provenance are inherently organic in feeling. “Vyartsilya” does an excellent job of building up our expectations in this regard.

From there, we’re committed to experiencing all Karelia has to offer — stunning wintry landscapes; Lake Ladoga, one of the largest lakes in Europe; Vodlozersky National Park; majestic forests; animals such as wolves; and its people, with one cut featuring a child speaking Karelian.

One standout is the piano-driven “Four Hours to Karhumäki.” The rapid runs of the keys find common ground with equally kinetic vocal-sample arrangements, icy synths, and rounds of splashes of synthetic wind. As the name suggests, this piece is about movement from one point to another, underscored by a frantic but pronounced rhythm section.

“The Lights of Lakhkolampi Pass By” achieves a similar sense of kinesis, although at first the spectral, glassy synth pads haunt us with their reticence. It’s only about two minutes in — after the synth trills come in and after the Karelian boy speaks — that the slightly buzzed-out, bit-crushed drum machine makes its mark. It bounces steadily, sometimes failing in its own distortion, as the pretty synths rev up the wobbly melody. It’s a gem of a track.

But Agebjörn and Ögren also know how to capture the serene moments — those spaces and seconds when we are able to be contemplative and feel some kind of connection with everything, or at least something. On “Sunset in Vodlozerski,” Andersson’s wordless chants weave in and out, helping the Badalamenti-esque dreamy jazz-pop-inspired composition relay the tranquility people must feel when they surrender to the massive glory of a Karelian sunset.

“The Rajakarjala Forests” is a fascinating and ruminative cut. Its base is pulsating dance formation with seared and acidy bass-synth machinations. Overriding that is a tempered array of meditative pads, punctuative washes of white noise, and distant voices that fade into the icy cold reverb of the afterlife.

Nature takes the front seat on “Relentless Rain Over Ladoga,” a magical number bathed in the sound of, well, relentless rain. Amid the constancy of the precipitation, crystalline synth-runs fly up and down the scale paving the way for a massive, Alesis-powered synth-bass showcase. A pulsating kick drum and busy hi-hats soon join the arrangement, providing a light disco vibe to this mind-altering cut. Once the rain gives away, we get a fantastic analog-sounding synth solo with sky-high ambitions. A vocoded voice and occasional distorted guitar sentiments (although probably not actually guitar), when combined with everything else, give this piece a Cretu-meets-Moroder vibe.

By the time the story reaches its end with the rail announcement in “Sleepless on the Kostomuksha-Petrozavodsk Night Train,” we’re left with a powerful, and somewhat mournful, violin lead whose interplay with a cascade of synths showcases how even in ancient lands — perhaps especially in ancient lands — no matter how much we try to understand them experientially, we’re always left with more questions. 

Maybe we learn a thing or two about our family lines or cultures or politics, or humanity as a species, and perhaps we even learn some new things about ourselves, but it’s never enough. If reaching the White Sea means we’ll feel complete in our knowledge, then if we don’t make it to its shores we’ll be left feeling less than whole. We’ll have to come back and try again. 

CDs and downloads of various resolution are available from the label. Those with Spotify can listen below.