Step Inside Kimi Karki's Anti-Fascist, Psychosexual World
Stream the Finnish doom icon's new orchestrated folk album, 'Eye for an Eye,' and delve into the personal and political philosophies behind its slippery strings.
Photo by Rikhard Larvanto
Known as Peter Vicar in international doom circles, Finnish multi-instrumentalist Kimi Kärki's discography has been expanding far beyond his crushing early output for years. As the guitarist for renowned psychedelic doom outfit Reverend Bizarre, his riffing provided their tectonic foundation. After the band's dissolution in 2007, he went on to play in Lord Vicar, Orne, E-Musikgruppe Lux Ohr, and Uhrijuhla. It was in his primary project, Lord Vicar, that he shed his moniker (which by then had morphed into Peter Inverted), no longer feeling that a pseudonym was necessary. Stripped of this mask, Kärki's music has grown increasingly bold in unexpected ways, both in group projects and on his own.
In his solo recordings, he tends towards for highly personal lyrics, keeping an acoustic guitar and his gravelly croon as focal points. Now that he is on his second album under his own namesake, the orchestrated neofolk offering Eye for an Eye, all pretensions are stripped away. The album (which is out via Svart Records on August 18) is Kärki's most revealing music to date, and perpetuates his lineage of intellectualism (he is a professor of Popular Culture at the University of Turku, after all). It's deeply steeped in a poetic and personal tradition, infused with a marked disdain for puritanism, and musically highly reminiscent of the psychosexual, stark world of Canadian icon Leonard Cohen.
"I was originally thinking of stripping it down quite a bit, so it was really a man, voice, and guitar kind of record," he explains. "But I can't help myself; I love orchestrating so it just grew from that. The heart is indeed the acoustic strings and nylon strings. I wanted that extreme intimacy. Nylon strings [have] a much more warm and homemade sound, to an extent it almost sounds like a bonfire guitar…. [Like] gathering around a warm place and then doing something very small and intimate."
"Ancient storytelling is what this kind of music is," he adds. "Originally I was drawn into it because of this idea that there is nowhere to hide," he says. "It took a lot of nerve for me to open myself like that, even if everything is in metaphor and so on. But it's me. It's not a wall of sound or guitars or massive drums, it's very personal, little private world."
The musical approach differs slightly from Kärki's debut solo record, 2014's The Bone Of My Bones. While that album was made in conjunction with Kärki's colleague John Richardson, and featured the stunning dual vocal interplay courtesy of both Anna-Elena Pääkkölä and Pirita Känkänen, its focus on 12-string guitar gave it a robustness that Eye for an Eye is somewhat removed from. This go around, Kärki utilized the same musicians, instead altering his recording approach and string usage, heightened by the recording tactics of repeat engineer Joona Lukala.
"We wanted to work really close to the mics all the time, and I had to be careful not to move a lot when I was playing, because you have these huge contact mikes, quite a few close to me, so you can build that intimate sound scape," he recalls. "If you move a little bit you can hear this krrrrrrrrsh so that part of the record was quite exciting because I had to express something fundamental and be motionless like a fucking statue. Talk about paradoxes."
Paradoxes could easily be dubbed Kärki's fascination: political, religious, and psychosexual commentary is deeply embedded in Reverend Bizarre, Lord Vicar, and his solo music. For religious evidence, take the title and focus of Bone of My Bones, which alludes to the creation of woman from the rib of man in the Book of Genesis. Reverend Bizarre frequently sang of the evil that men and gods do, such as in the Kärki penned tracks "Sodoma Sunrise" and the ode to crucifixion "The Tree of Suffering."
Puritanism and its proto-fascistic ideologies have also been a career-long target, the subject of songs like "Cromwell" (a rollicking ode to the brutal English military leader from 2005's Crush the Insects) and "Caesar Forever," a tribal hymn to the totalitarian Roman leader. To drive the horrors of his ideology home, the song features a line directly lifted from the infamous Social Darwinism pamphlet Might is Right in the form of the chanted chorus "Christs may come and Christs may go but Caesar is forever." In Lord Vicar, the same topic rears its head, becoming the centerfold of both "Between the Blue Temple and the North Tower" and "The Spartan."
"A lot of what I do has a double edge concealed within it," acknowledges Kärki. "When I write a lot of these warrior lyrics, it's about the evil that men do, and the cruelty of people. I'm fascinated by the extreme things in our culture."
The lyrical shift towards obvious personal, relatable experience is his solo material is marked, but deliberate. There is a more "general theme of being aware of what's happening in terms of human conduct and the choices we make," as he says, adding "I have always been interested in this drama of choices." Case in point: songs from the album include "Beyond Distance," a gorgeous collaboration with Patrick Walker of Warning an 40 Watt Sun, and the sweet innocence of "Good Things in My Life." The opening line of the latter is startlingly simple: "I sit in silence, and waiting for my son to get sleep."
"I was having a conversation with [published occult writer] Tommy Eriksson from Saturnalia Temple; I think we were messaging to each other, and I put a line there," he says. "[Erickson] said, 'Oh that would make a great line in a song' and I said 'What the hell, I would use it' and [I] included the line about feeling how I felt in my own home and the happiness I was surrounded by in that particular moment "It's probably the happiest song that I ever wrote, when I think about it. Hell, most of them are pretty miserable really!"
Here, the personal is political, and it directly refutes the prevailing cultural zeitgeist of fanatical religiosity and the increasing march towards far right ideologies and conformity in the Western World. Even the title of the album is a double entendre illuminating this duality. "It's to do with justice," says Kärki, explaining that it harkens to the ancient king Hammurabi, and the code of law he enacted in Mesopotamia circa 1700 BC. "The idea that what we do is returned in equal measure, so if you poke the eye of a stranger, your eye will be taken. It's not about revenge, but about justice and restoring the balance of things. [My album titles are] intertextual references to very ancient things, so I wanted to have these cyclical names that have a long history of existence."
Of course, this all begs the question: why now? It seems relevant that it took Kärki decades of song writing to eventually shed his pseudonym alongside his metaphors, to be comfortable singing about tucking his son in while simultaneously providing an overarching critique of fascism and totalitarianism. Does this album indicate a shift in positioning to comfort with the self and all its complexities?
"I think it's getting older, and being more secure. I wanted to take this chance because there is nowhere I feel that I can take it, and I feel this is where I can connect with people," he acknowledges. "Where I'm not wearing any masks."
"It's a big tradition and you walk in the footsteps of giants, the biggest giant being Black Sabbath of course," Kärki adds. "And they of course [they were] a blues band; it's a tradition that goes back to acoustic music, this kind of sadness. So I think in a way everything I do goes back to the same roots, this branch."
Sarah Kitteringham lives in a messy world where music and intellectualism converge in a glorious and inconsistent way (and is on Instagram, too).