Review by Diana Oakes, May 18th, 2020, /KEiiNO Fangroup Official
Leeds, UK – 17 May 2020
I was meant to write this review yesterday, as soon as the album was released. But I wasn’t ready. In my many years as a journalist, writer and Internal Communications professional, I’ve written many articles, reviews, editorials and blogs. It comes easy to me. I sit down, and I write.
Not this time. I was excited about KEiiNO’s debut album, and I knew I’d love it. I knew I would feel a sense of accomplishment on their behalf and the joy of any fan who has stuck with a band since their very beginning and then sees that band release their first album. But nothing prepared me for the level of emotion I felt as the album appeared on my Spotify list, and then as Keiino played their online pre-release concert.
It took me until now, at 00:54 on 17 May – coincidentally Norway’s National Day – to temper my emotions and gather my thoughts. Because you see, OKTA not only exceeded my expectations but was also the culmination of a year of following KEiiNO very closely, working on the concept of a high-level biography book about these guys, and being deputy admin of the KEiiNO Official Facebook Fan Group. While I’m a really big fan, and I have probably read or seen or listened to every single interview, podcast, article about them, I am also what you’d call a very objective judge. So if the new songs were not up to scratch, I wasn’t going to say they were fantastic just because I’m a big fan.
OKTA was going to be a big gamble from the start. Ever since their summer 2019 concerts all over Europe, they had alluded to a ‘concept album’ including collaborations with a lot of indigenous artists from around the world. It was a risky play for a debut album from a band who wants to become more ‘mainstream’ rather than be typecast as a former ‘Eurovision act’. Then there’s the title – Okta means ‘one’ in the North Sámi language. Another gutsy move that earned them my respect again. Indigenous vibe – indigenous title. Most bands would take the easy way out and look for a catchy title that potential new fans don’t need to wonder how to pronounce or what it means.
But they were capitalising on 2019 being the UN Year of Indigenous Languages and they had full support from the Chief of the Secretariat of the United Nations’ Permanent Forum of Indigenous Issues, Chandra Kalindi Roy Henriksen. So while I expected the usual KEiiNO sound – happy, dancey tunes with a delicious icing of Sami joik or rap, OKTA deftly pulled the rug from under my feet.
The new songs are on another level. When combined with the previously-released singles, the new songs – and OKTA, in its entirety – feel like a graduation ceremony for KEiiNO. These four new songs sound every bit as professional and huge as their Eurovision anthem Spirit in the Sky (SitS), and blew me out of the water.
TAKE ME HOME
The album opens with my absolute favourite, the addictive TAKE ME HOME (TMH). This song had me at the first few sounds and played deliciously with my expectations. Tom’s warm and inviting voice lures me in gently, and my heart is captured immediately, only to unexpectedly be jolted by the change of tempo introduced by Alexandra’s next lines. As the chorus hits, I’m already on my feet. This screams ‘chart topper’ and summer holidays anthem. The lyrics resonate with me and I find myself wondering if Alex Olsson, Tom’s husband and the band’s lyricist, was perhaps psychic and delved into my head for those lyrics. I am enjoying this hugely when suddenly the pop tune makes way for Fred’s cool Sámi rap. I’m perhaps at an advantage compared to other fans because I’m taking a Sámi language course at the moment, and after listening for what feels like a thousand times to the song, I am starting to get a sense of what Fred is rapping about, putting a few words together here and there and then where I’m not sure, I give in and ask my Sámi teacher. Wow – here’s another surprise: the words are incredibly… poetic. ‘Take me home and warm up my soul’ the Sámi boy raps and it makes you want to do just that. A fab track that remains my favourite from the new songs and deserves to open the album.
The second song on the album is perhaps the one that caused the most controversy at the launch amongst the more conservative audiences and I guess simply because until then, KEiiNO had used us to a sweet, innocent and child-friendly array of songs. Also, coming as it did, straight after Colours (see below) and being accompanied by quite a raunchy video and fetish-inspired outfits, Black Leather signaled the reach to a more adult audience and showed us KEiiNO could be also… sexy! The song itself is a belter, with a great beat, and empowering vibe, and another huge message of inclusion and equality. Black Leather is my new ‘Dirty Diana’ song. When I sing along to it, the other Diana comes out to play – the business suit makes way for the leather trousers and jacket, the low-cut KEiiNO tank top, and the impossibly high leopard stilettos. For a few minutes, I revel in bringing that side out. I am the girl in black leather.
WOULD I LIE
This was the song I had to listen to the most to ‘get into it’ when it first came out, just weeks before the album. I do like it, but not the strongest for me. Just personal taste, I guess. The lyrics also don’t quite make sense for me in places, and they feel forced in sometimes. The more I listened to it, though, the more it got stuck in my head and I found myself singing it in my head nonetheless, out of the blue. Catchy tune.
SPIRIT IN THE SKY
What can I say more about the famous Spirit in the Sky – the song that gave birth to KEiiNO, and propelled them on the international music scene? It currently has 27.7 million streams on Spotify and still retains the title of Second Most Viral Song of 2019. This song remains extremely special to me. I recall dancing to it and feeling an elation I hadn’t in a long time. Alex Olsson’s lyrics hit straight into my heart (that Alex again, eh?), while Tom’s velvety voice and Alexandra’s powerful, convincing lead filled me with unexplained joy. Then everything went quiet, and Fred’s joik started almost traditionally, a deep, almost sorrowful story that unfurled into a passionate waterfall of feelings culminating into what Fred himself explained as ‘almost singing’, portraying the evolution of joik through time and generations. In those 20 seconds or so, flashes of images, feelings so intense I didn’t even have time to identify them, completely overtook my whole being. I stared at the screen, at the image of this beautiful young man, in his Sami gákti-inspired stage outfit, tears running down my cheeks. As I stood there – and this happens every time I listen to it – tears spilled down my cheeks. Fred’s joik spun magic and the story I started to write 12 years before and which I infused with Sámi culture after a visit to the South Sami Museum in Snåsa in 2015, was suddenly reborn in my head. Fred’s joik fired up millions of neurons and synapses connecting characters, scenes, plot and literally in those 20 seconds the novel I am writing took its final shape. So yes, SitS remains ‘the special one’.
DANCING IN THE SMOKE
Another favourite from the older songs. With a somewhat oriental vibe to its chorus, it reminded me little of Xandria’s ‘Sisters of the Light’. I played it a lot – very catchy, addictive tune that gets stuck in your head, not to mention timely as it came right around the time of the huge Amazon Forest fires and the tragic Australian bush fires. Another great Alexandra-Tom duet, their voices complementing each other to great effect.
ROAR LIKE A LION
One of the four new songs on OKTA, Roar Like a Lion took me a couple of listens to fully ‘get’ the beauty of the song. The more I listened to it, the more I fell in love with its intricate layers of melody, lyrics, and the ancient Māori haka – a fierce display of a tribe’s pride, strength and unity. This is another superb melding of cultures, a marriage of the Māori singing traditions and the Sámi joik, and if you pay attention in the ‘behind the scenes’ video, you will actually see that moment, of Fred surrounded by the members of Te Hau Tawhiti, responding to their call. An empowering song, with a nod to Dancing in the Smoke (“we’re not running from the storm” vs. “we’re not running when the world’s on fire”), and a surprisingly strong anthemic quality. There’s so much to be said about this song: have you felt the power of Tom’s voice in the chorus? Have you noticed the haunting beauty of the Māori backing vocals behind Alexandra’s undulating voice in the verses? And what about Alexandra semi-rapping on the record? J Every time listen I discover new layers!
KEiiNO’s first single post-Eurovision, is a happy tune about death, by the trio’s own admission. It experimented with a deeper joik from Fred and, like Dancing in Smoke, to me it has something oriental about it. While I know fans for whom this song means a lot in a serious, even sad way, for me it will always be a reminder of the fun personalities these three have. I can never listen to this song anymore without inserting Fred’s ‘Oh, yeah?’ after Alexandra’s ‘”Whatever I’ve known, wherever I’ve been / Whomever I loved, you wanna take it from me”… To understand this reference, you would have had to be at the Leith Depot in July, during KEiiNO’s gig there, or seen the video of the moment I am talking about. Try from 01:28 – you’re welcome! J
My big-time fave after SitS before I heard the new songs and still one of my feel-good, pick-me-up songs I play when I need cheering up, Colours was the first single of 2020 and features the fantastic 7 year-old Nils-Rasan Utsi joiking throughout this poptastic, joyous anthem about unity in diversity. See Nils-Rasan performing live in Tromsø with KEiiNO here. A beautiful family song, and even more touching knowing that Fred had been Nils-Rasan’s kindergarten teacher and it was Fred who taught the young boy to joik. This song has another reason to be close to my heart and that is the line in the bridge: “Show me where your heart is singing…” Only a month or so earlier, I had finished writing a pivotal scene in my novel, which ends with the words “But now the words took a new meaning. He knew what she was telling him and his heart was singing…” This is actually intended to be the last line in the book. So when I heard Alexandra singing that line, Colours cemented its place in my heart as another one of those signs from the ‘spirits in the sky’ that KEiiNO had been giving me.
The most understated gem of the whole album, Louder is… quiet for such a rousing anthem. I love the club feel to it, the layering of Alexandra’s trendy vocals, and the way the two distinctively different voices of the rappers complement each other (Native American artist Drezus and our Fred). Speaking of Fred – there is joik again in this song, and maybe one of the best after SitS in the way it affected me. It starts almost like a Native American chant only to melt seamlessly into a echo-y joik and the first time I heard it – and every time afterwards – I felt like someone had just walked over my grave. It touched again – like the SitS joik did, something in my very soul – or perhaps my brain – and planted images of majestic eagles flying over snow-capped peaks, of ancient powerful spirits, and I suddenly Ionged for something I couldn’t name. But the joik ended all to soon – definitely would have liked to hear more of that!
BED WITH THE WOLF
Another more adult-themed song, yet deliciously ‘tongue-in-cheek’ sexy. Reminiscent of similar wolves we have all been in bed with, I wager, it made me smile at the positively sarcastic ‘my body didn’t come here by mistake’, and reminded me a lot of a very different yet also wolf-themed song –“You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth”. Check it out if you’re under 40 LOL! I myself didn’t hear it until the late 90s, although it was Meat Loaf’s first ever single, released in 1977!!! So, yes, Bed with the Wolf is definitely one of those songs you ask the DJ to play in the club when you want to send that not-so-subtle hint to your crush…
To conclude this way too long review, OKTA signals KEiiNO’s ‘coming of age’, their serious intentions – and their huge potential to become extremely successful with a much wider audience than their core fans from the Eurovision scene. Their song-writing goes from strength to strength, and their combined vocal qualities are a match made in heaven. I am very proud to have known them and followed them from their first single and I will continue to support them as much as I can. OKTA most certainly took me home! 😉