A Small Miracle Has Happened on the Wigwam Front

I'm talking, of course, of the new vinyl releases on Svart Records meant to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the group's formation.

By Claes Johansen (alias the Tanskalainen)

Wigwam 1973

Actually, the first record we will look at here came out already in 2016 as part of Svart's Pop Liisa series, featuring live recording by classic Finnish jazz and rock (and jazz-rock) names, predominantly from the 1970s. Simply titled Wigwam 1973, this album is no 3 in said series and features a legendary studio session made that year at YLE, the Finnish state radio.

This recording is from the time when the group was a four piece with no less than three incredible songwriters, Jukka Justavson, Pekka Pohjola and Jim Pembroke, each demanding (and deserving) copious amounts of creative space. While some fans feel this made for a pleasant degree of variation in the material, others have complained of inconsistency. Also, a lot of time was spent on working in the studio, causing worry that live performances, particularly of Gustavson's and Pohjola's material, would present a problem.

This was partly solved by playing cover songs and, in the final stages of this line-up, by augmenting the group with guitarist Rekku Rechardt. However, on Wigwam 1973 there is no guitarist, just two keyboards, bass, drums and vocals. Nevertheless, the Pohjola composition "Nipistys" and Gustavson's "Faryport" are outstanding performances, as are the two songs by Pembroke, and a cover of John Lennon's "Imagine" featuring fine vocal harmonies by Jim and Jukka.

Most of this YLE session has previously been released on the 2CD Fresh Garbage (2000), yet this is its debut on vinyl and also a chance for us to hear Jim Pembroke's song "Grass for Blades", which rounded off the performance. I believe that due to a problem with Pohjola's phaser pedal (or so it sounds to me) this track wasn't even featured in the original broadcast save a short, faded-out snippet featuring the first few bars of the track.

Nuclear Nightclub

We now move on to the current 2LP version of the old familiar Nuclear Nightclub album from 1975, a time when the group had become more consistent in style.

There is hardly any need to go into details about the material and the history behind this record, since it is well covered elsewhere on this website. Unless you have already bought this release you will be probably be more interested in topics such as sound, the quality of the vinyl, the bonus tracks and other extra material.

Luckily, there's nothing but good news to report in all these departments. The sound is clear yet at the same time warm, the vinyl heavy (but not too heavy), and we finally get the original lyrics which the original never had. There is also a four page insert of new interview material and details about each song. Everything is packed very nicely in a solid gatefold sleeve featuring the original artwork with relevant additions.

The most interesting feature for me has to be the extra tracks, which take up both sides of the bonus LP. Recorded live in Studio 4 at the Swedish State Radio in Stockholm, I believe this is the only example I have ever heard of Wigwam playing live as a true four-piece band, i.e. with no extra keyboardist. Hence Pembroke's piano is given more space than usual and the group on the whole comes across more than ever like a 1960s "beat combo". I'm not saying it's better than the recordings featuring Gustavson, Kotilainen or Hietanen – I'm just saying it's different in a quite a fascinating manner.

Lucky Golden Stripes and Starpose

According to the liner notes that accompany the next album in this review, Wigwam became a victim of Murphy's Law ("Anything that can go wrong will go wrong") during the recording of Lucky Golden Stripes and Starpose.

However, it certainly didn't feel that way to me when I bought the album on its release in 1976, and it still doesn't feel that way. In fact, I probably like it even more than Nuclear Nightclub due to the group's further developed ability to bridge the snappy pop song tradition of the 1960s with the progressive rock of the following decade. Arguably, the same could be said of other contemporary bands such as Traffic, Procol Harum, Argent et.al., but in my opinion these groups had largely run their course by the mid-Seventies, while to my ears Wigwam was carrying on as strong as ever.

Perhaps a lot of this had to do with Pembroke's lyrics, about which the British reviewer Angus MacKinnon once so pertinently noted: "Pembroke's songwriting was capricious, a pestle that ground quintessential pop and rock (as in Beatles, Traffic and Band) against mordant, often flippant, lyrical ironies."

Yet it goes further than that. Jim's weird and wonderful lyrics proved the perfect platform for the equally evocative songwriting of Rekku Rechardt, who furthermore developed a highly original and emotional soloist style to suit the group's predominantly mid-tempo songs, using occasional bursts of triplets to both drive the instrumental breaks along and at the same time endow them with a lilting feel akin to that of an Irish jig. Add to that Ronnie Österberg's gentle but authoritative jazzy drumming, reminiscent of the then-contemporary British Canterbury scene, paired with Måns Groundstroem's melodic bass playing. Understated yet imaginative and innovative in their approach, both these players were far more important to the group's overall style and feel than they are normally given credit for.

On this 2LP release, we find Svart Records in their usual generous mood, meaning there's a nice soundscape for the listener to escape into, good quality vinyl, a set of informative liner notes with interviews, historic background, photographs and in-depth song-by-song analysis. And again there are bonus recordings, carefully separated from the original album so the conceptual design remains intact. The extra album this time features rehearsal sessions, embryonic versions of the final material to provide an exciting insight into the group's working processes.

Dark Album

If the recording of Lucky Golden Stripes had been laborious, work on the group's next LP was downright inundated by bad luck. Most readers of this website will know the story of how one album initially was finished off, only to be turned down by Virgin and then put on ice by Love Records. New mixes and new material were recorded but the resulting LP, titled Dark Album, was only released in Finland and Scandinavia (on Love and Sonet, respectively). Virgin instead put out Rumours On The Rebound, a 2LP compilation album featuring only parts of Dark Album, or rather some alternative mixes taken from the early (shelved) master tapes plus the otherwise unavailable Pembroke masterpiece "Daemon Duncetan's Request", which had been planned as the title track of the rejected album. To add to the confusion some 200 copies of the early album version were released in Finland by mistake in 1985, wearing covers that claimed they were the official 1977 Dark Album. Of course these mispressings were quickly withdrawn, the few surviving copies making for some highly priced collector's items ever since.

Svart manage to sort out most of this tangle with their current 2LP version of Dark Album. Quite simply, Record 1 features the official Love/Sonet version, while Record 2 comprises the original shelved edition erroneously released in 1985. Differences between the two albums are revealingly explained by Suonna Kononen in the sleeve notes, borrowing from his essay featured on this very website. Bonus material and overall quality are kept in line with the two previously mentioned releases, underlining that this re-release series is very much a labour of love aimed at serious collectors (note also that pressing volumes are small, with some copies made on coloured vinyl).

Dark Album is indeed exactly what the title suggests. I saw the band perform live in Copenhagen at the time of its release and it was not a cheerful experience. Musically, however, they were brilliant and so is this entire record. Wholesome in all its bleakness, full of dreamy lyrics from somewhere in the borderland between Lewis Carol and Franz Kafka, it exudes its own kind of supreme beauty and features, on the track "The Silver Jubilee", a truly magical appearance by former group member Jukka Gustavson on organ.

Unfortunately, sales were disappointing and not long after the group disbanded.

Light Ages

When Wigwam released their first reunion album, Light Ages, in 1993, it was with a somewhat new sound. Jim Pembroke, Rekku Rechardt and Måns Groundstroem were once again in the line-up, but the open space left by Ronnie Österberg, who had passed away in 1980, was taken over by Jan Noponen, whose drumming style was more solid and punchy than that of his predecessor. Perhaps even more noteworthy was the other new member, Mikko Rintanen, an amazing organ player and a very wise choice in so far as there was a resurging interest in Hammond organs at the time.

However, problems would soon arise. During the 1980s, the World had entered the era of compact discs and various new electronic gadget for studio use. Though there was in fact a 2LP vinyl version of this album which sounded better than the contemporary CD edition, it was still a strange and not very satisfying album to listen to.

It's hard to say exactly what the problem was. In the accompanying liner notes the group members complain that their producer at the time, T.T. Oksala, simply used his many new-fangled studio gadgets too much. That may well be true, but to my ears there is primarily something wrong with the overall EQ. All in all the record sounds overtly lush, impressive perhaps for the first five or ten minutes, but then a feeling sets in akin to eating too much chocolate or birthday cake.

Without actually remixing the album, Svart has somehow managed to rectify most of these issues with this brand new vinyl 2LP version of the record. I believe they use Finnvox Studios for these jobs and to me this new edition really does sound better than both the old CD and vinyl versions; more down to earth for want of a better description.

Another objection I had against the album the first time around was in relation to the inclusion of some re-recorded older Jim Pembroke songs, which in my opinion did not stand up to the standard of the originals. Twenty-five years on, however, that feels like less of an issue and these tracks now come across more like a kind of "unintended bonus tracks"; and quite appropriately so, since this time around there is no actual recorded extra material, due to the copious length of the original material. Yet all the other usual treats are there in the form of an insert with interviews, history, song analysis and pictures. Likewise the packing and the sound quality are top notch. All in all, it pretty much appears to me as if Svart have managed to salvage this record a quarter of a century after its initial release.

Titan's Wheel

Ten years down the line a new Wigwam reunion album sees the light of day. Unfortunately, we are now in the middle of the so-called Loudness War, a phenomenon which hit this CD badly. I bought it at the time but never really listened to it. I could hear there was some fine music going on, of course, but due to digital over-compression it was so badly reproduced that I simply couldn't listen to it seriously. In my dreams I fantasised that perhaps someday there would be a much less compressed analogue version of this release, but in 2002 it was hard to imagine how such a thing could ever happen.

Now my dream has come true and finally this album is given a chance to really shine. It is a heavier version of the group than ever before, mainly thanks to the new drummer Jari "Kepa" Kettunen and a change in sound and style from Rekku Rechardt. Also, Pembroke's voice has grown rougher with age. These factors might take some getting used to for the long-standing fan, but it actually works very well and makes for some interesting variations on an old familiar concept. Again, the length of the CD format means there is no room for extra recorded material, but the usual bonuses are present of course in the shape of information sheet, lyrics and quality packing.

Some Several Moons

Two years after Titan's Wheel came the release of Some Several Moons, another CD album with excellent songs material albeit marred by digital over-compression. Furthermore, there was no printed lyrics included, a virtual a sin of omission when the author in question is simply one of the finest lyricists since the mid-Sixties, period. I recall writing to this very website complaining about these matters and, along with other Wigheads, I managed to work out at least some of the words to these new songs. Others have done the same, and on this new 2LP release we get a perhaps slightly more believable version noted down by long-standing Pembroke admirer and personal friend Rick Chafen.

You may wonder how the last few records dealt with in this review can possibly sound so much better on vinyl than they do on compact disc, since several of them were in fact digitally recorded in the studio. Surely, they must sound better in the format they were made for.

Well, in my opinion they don't and here are some of the reasons why:

1) The above-mentioned Loudness War never hit vinyl as hard as it did CDs, partly for purely technical reasons, and partly because many record labels today know that vinyl releases must be targeted directly at collectors and audiophiles, two customer groups who are often highly aware of the loss of dynamics etc. cased by exaggerated use of digital compression. Hence when a vinyl record is cut from a digital master, the labels tend to go back to the original digital master version as it was when it initially left the studio, i.e. before it was compressed in order to meet imagined customer demands.

2) Digital masters are often recorded with a very high sampling rate, which must subsequently be reduced in order for the recording to be transferred to CD. However, an analogue LP made from the same superior master will not be similarly reduced in information.

3) Before a digital master can be transferred to vinyl it must pass through a D-A (digital-to-analogue) converter. Such converters used in good recording studios are of a considerable higher quality than those most people have built into the domestic Hi-Fi systems. Hence it is preferable that the digital-to-analogue process takes place on high-spec studio equipment rather than letting the process occur in consumers' homes though inferior equipment.

4) There is even the argument that vinyl sounds warmer and more listenable because it adds something called "second harmonic distortion" to a recording, a kind of distortion that is quite pleasant to the human ear.

For more information on the Loudness War in its different stages up through the decades, read here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loudness_war