Playing an acoustic guitar is the ultimate zen exercise in precision and songwriting. When you strip away the distortion, by-pass the effects, and swap the Fender Stratocaster for a Martin D-28, the whole art of songwriting narrows down to the six strings on the acoustic guitar and a killer melody. Going unplugged is the ultimate litmus test for a song, the make-it-or-break-it stage with no in-betweens. It is the naked moment of truth that can breathe new life to an old song or simply showcase a piece of songwriting perfection. On 3 July 2020, the Finnish acoustic duo with a name reminiscent of a vintage Tarot deck, THE BURNING SERPENT, took on this challenge and released their eponymous debut EP filled with occult-themed dark folk.
The duo, formed in 2019, is comprised of vocalist T. Paasio, who delivers the occult sermons with a Nick Cave-ish gravitas, and guitarist J. Koskela, who mostly strums away in a style not that far from vintage protest songs channeling the spirit of Bob Dylan. The EP tiptoes on the fine line between making and breaking it. The dynamic range on is not very wide and the overall feel is that of campfire singalongs laced with mythological symbolism. Still, some of the budding ideas buried beneath all the hippy-folksy strumming marathons deserve a closer look.
The opening track, ”Incarnation in Light,” begins with a sample of filtered bells chiming in the distance against a dark, atmospheric synth drone, promising something more haunting than the folksy crooning that the song and the whole EP settle for. It’s a bit of a shame, really. The sampled intro loop could have played in the background on a few choice spots to put a little extra emphasis on the dark mood. Dark electronica elements could have blurred the straightforward folk feel of the EP to a spectral effect. With an appropriately low baritone, vocalist Paasio sounds pretty convincing as the dark folk hierophant chanting strangely alluring snake-charming songs for the golden dawn. A few additional vocal harmonies here and there would have lifted the song, let alone the whole EP, to a whole new level.
The pinnacle track on the EP is the song titled ”Falling Yet Higher,” in which the multi-tracked acoustic guitars weave the most intricate harmonies on the EP. In its current state, however, the song feels a bit like a pre-production demo bursting with potential. Unless the duo has a specific dogma against the use of assorted studio gimmicks, they could adorn their acoustic chops with a few tricks. This song in particular wouldn’t require much tampering to reach the haunting and driving feel of ”Adore, Adore” by YOAV on his critically acclaimed acoustic debut album ”Charmed and Strange” (2008), for example.
”Golden Flame” is another track that begins with an ominous synth sequence as if foreshadowing an exciting sonic journey into dark folk-infested electronica similar to ULVER. Instead, the song bursts into yet another strumming frenzy – one that makes it hard to avoid the impression of Jyrki 69 pulling off a casual Johnny Cash impersonation. Melodically, the song could easily be an acoustic rendition of a typical piece of vampire rock by THE 69 EYES and when Paasio switches the gear up to ”one louder,” his vocal delivery does not fall far from the paradigm of 1980s Gothic pop. In order to become fully radio-friendly, the vocal melodies could use a little bit of sharpening. Somehow, I get the feeling that THE BURNING SERPENT might not be that fond of correcting their course to fit the radio format. As far as I know, there doesn’t yet exist a radio show that airs acoustic serenades for Baphomet upon request.
The title track closing the EP is the most ballad of them all. To be honest, it sounds a bit like a lazy reading of Lee Hazlewood‘s vintage classic ”Summerwine” – notwithstanding the little blemish that the song lacks an equally catchy melody. Given the occult concept, the duo’s acoustic ramblings could, would, and should have been plotted with a tad more carefully thought-out execution. As the lyrics are infested with occult symbols such as burning reptiles that flare with a golden flame within, the music could have been crafted to fit the tone of the lyrics a little better. Music breathes in the narrow space between the notes. To really breathe, these four songs could have used the poignant effect of a carefully placed silence on a few occasions. Essentially, a haunting, dark ambience does not require the use of vintage outboard gear or boutique reverbs that costs a fortune. The acoustic project, PROMISE AND THE MONSTER, of Swedish multi-instrumentalist Billie Lindahl, kind of set the standard for haunting, acoustic minimalism with the 2008 album, “Transparent Knives.” It was achieved without a million-dollar recording budget and it represents exactly the dark, minimal but dynamic acoustic style that would suit THE BURNING SERPENT perfectly.
The eponymous debut of this occult duo is not without its merits, but it could have been something much more too. Paasio has a charismatic baritone and Koskela has a way with acoustic voice-leading, that’s a fact. Instead of a hippy-folksy rendition of an occult “Kumbaya,” THE BURNING SERPENT could easily go a few extra miles and take the unsuspecting world by storm with a few stunning schlagers of haunting, acoustic beauty of the occult kind. It wouldn’t take much – just the unleashing of the golden flame of illumination within that has the potential to distort the very fabric of time and space.
Written by Jani Lehtinen
- Incarnation In Light
- Falling Yet Higher
- Golden Flame
- Burning Serpent
T. Paasio – Vocals
J. Koskela – Acoustic Guitars