19 October 2014
The return to Melodic Rock from the awesome singer of Vanilla Ninja, says the sticker on the CD case. Or should it say the return of the awesome singer of Vanilla Ninja to Melodic Rock? For Lenna Kuurmaa fans at heart, it’s the return to the powerful and soaring vocals of Lenna’s VN days that really sets the pulse racing.
For Alessandro Del Vecchio of Frontiers Records in Italy, it seems the legacy of Lenna was felt by him too. When a female vocalist was required for his new project, out went the requests to Kuurmaa, and the result is Moonland featuring Lenna Kuurmaa. The name Moonland is derived from the Finnish translation of “kuu” and “maa” from “Kuurmaa” (what about the poor “r”?). Estonian and Finnish are from the same language tree and closely related.
Lenna represented Switzerland at Eurovision in 2005 with her band, Vanilla Ninja, finishing a respectable eighth. Since then, she’s tried four times for Estonia: a fourth place with VN and “Birds Of Peace” in 2007, and three times under her own name, finishing second in 2010 and 2012 and fourth in 2014. She was very unlucky in 2012 with the outstanding “Mina Jään”, losing to Ott Lepland’s “Kuula” that would ultimately finish fifth at Eurovision. There was also an attempt in 2003 in the formative stages of Vanilla Ninja’s career with the infectious “Club Kung Fu”. While the public loved it, Estonia was bizarrely using an international jury at the time, and they hated it. Even with Lenna in a background role on this song, it remains today as one of the marquee Vanilla Ninja songs.
In the time since Vanilla Ninja, Lenna has not been quiet, notably producing two solo albums. The first was more indie-rock in nature and failed to really stretch Lenna’s voice as might have been hoped. It still proved an enjoyable album, with a mellow ambience that felt like something perfect to hear while travelling along a coastal road in late afternoon. Of course, just to hear her voice again was the reassurance required that the most important part of Vanilla Ninja was salvaged into a solo career. Lenna’s second solo album was superb. While still on the mellow side, songs were diverse and of high quality, and there were some well appreciated nuances in her vocal presentation too.
“heaven is to be close to you”
To say there’s a fascination and excitement that Lenna is back lead a project like Moonland would be an understatement to her fans. There’s an awesome presence and rich character in her vocals, something that personally feels part of the fabric of my soul. It especially developed with Vanilla Ninja’s third album “Blue Tattoo” when she developed a particular strain in her voice to emphasis vowels. It can be heard in their Eurovision song “Cool Vibes” and was even more prominent on the album’s title song. Because it’s a vocal effect, not a real strain, it is so perfectly pitched and rounded. Add that to her newly found soaring capabilities, which she can use through various parts of her range, the really captivating soulful rock persona in her voice developed. In “Love Is War”, Vanilla Ninja’s final album, she would add a certain sweetness to her middle range. Eight years later, she’s brought all of this forward to Moonland, and then some.
The album launches like a Saturn V rocket with “Heaven Is To Be Close To You”, sweeping you into space with a killer guitar riff and Lenna announcing her presence with a mighty roar. It then cuddles you with its highly engaging mix of infectious melody, driving beat and Lenna’s softer side. Immediately there seems a subtle evolution in the texture of her voice – with it being more punchier mid-range and a stronger intonation. Her pronunciation is exquisite – which could just be a visceral response from this Australian suffering from the daily de-evolution of the English language thanks to our ever worsening drawling accent. The sweeping choruses lead into a small guitar solo bridge before gently splashing you back to Earth. It’s a glorious introduction to both the album and Lenna herself.
“Open Your Heart” repeats the hallmarks of the opening song, except it’s a sea of tranquility in comparison. It’s a more subtle effort, delivered in a delightful softer tone, with the bridge adding a vocal section to the guitar solo. With “Crime Of Love”, another Del Vecchio song, the pattern is confirmed. Moonland relies on a torrent of emotion from the start with big intros, powerful verses and kickass key changes for its hooks. Guitar solos feature through the bridges to bind it all together. The overall sound is on the slightly heavier, more mature side than Vanilla Ninja – as you’d expect for the targeted adult orientated rock audience. Lenna then infuses each song with the natural soulful rock persona in her voice, adding character to each with her many and exquisite subtle inflections. Here, after an intro that lasts 45 seconds, Lenna grooves through the early sections of each verse, before the inevitable key-change ramps up the power. It’s an incredibly vibrant song, full of drama and passion, that took its time to emerge from the album and is now a real favourite. Listen also for Lenna’s pronunciation of “shadow” on 54 seconds. It’s these little nuggets that add the extra bit of appreciation and longevity to her recordings.
Del Vecchio is not the lead writer on “Poison Angel”, and it shows. It’s a more generic, derivative style of pop-rock song. It seems it’s trying to recall an older VN style in the vein of “Hell Racer” and doesn’t quite reach it thanks to the lacklustre, cliched chorus. A big guitar solo and short vocal section through the bridge saves it. It’s back to the Del Vecchio pattern with “When Love Is Gone” and it’s Lenna grooving it out again in those early verses. The song is on the mellower side overall and, on initial listens, seemed to go too long with Lenna wailing away to artificially lengthen it. “Poison Angel” seemed to have some of this effect too. Or maybe it’s just the hint of sameness that seems to be materialising at this point?
“then you bring me to my knees”
If there is a hint of lack of variety, that’s destroyed by the sixth and seventh songs. These two are the absolute personal album highlights. If there is a song to recall some classic Vanilla Ninja, then “Out Of Reach” is it. Closest in style to “Dangerzone”, it starts with a blazing guitar riff before Lenna eases in with a short electronic effect on her voice. The real Lenna soon engages and the song unleashes itself with rampaging guitar riffs and associated squeals, and a big key change leading into the chorus. Vocally, Lenna matches the energy with her punchier mid-range really resonating here and especially well used as she lashes the tails of the longer notes. Del Vecchio is a secondary writer here, and unlike his pure songs that seem to transition into their choruses, “Out Of Reach” kicks down a gear before the first, rises to a crescendo before the second, and then lets it rip. I dare anyone not to be singing aloud “where are you now” before the song’s end. A glorious guitar solo through the bridge is a prelude to the big finale and Lenna’s biggest note on the album.
“Live And Let Go” might just be the quintessential Lenna song ever. It’s the slowest song on the album and exposes fully the rich character and delicate texture of Lenna’s voice. There’s so many little strains and vocal inflections that each syllable becomes a distinct captivating morsel of aural bliss, and that’s all matched by an enchanting use of her vibrato throughout. Some of these sounds could be the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard from anyone, or anything. Great examples are the “our” in “our romance” after 37 seconds and “darkened soul” in the chorus. Subtle piano accompanies Lenna through much of the song before, in classic 80s power ballad formula, it bursts into life for the final two choruses ahead of a graceful finale. To top it off, there’s a soft, classic look to the song’s video with Lenna out front and Del Vecchio in background on piano. There’s none of that heavy make-up that detracted from the video for “Heaven Is To Be Close To You”. It’s just Lenna in her more natural state, singing the song in her inimitable way, and looking as beautiful as she sounds.
Snapping you out of any trance that you might be in from the previous song is “Cold As Ice”. It’s that delightful lower key groove in Lenna’s voice at the start before the inevitable switch up. While not straying far from the Del Vecchio formula, it has its own charm with quirky pre-choruses and, unusually for a Del Vecchio song, it finishes in a more climatic fashion rather than fading out. “Over Me” is a personal favourite and could be described as a placid version of “Out Of Reach”. The steady pulse throughout is almost hypnotic, and that’s reinforced by one of the most interesting vocal presentations on the album. Immediately noticeable from Lenna is a “restrained strain” that seems to have developed in her repertoire. It’s really prevalent in the opening few lines; more subtle elsewhere. That delightful strain that she’s long had, it emerges from lower in her range, providing more character and volume than usually heard. In fact, she barely deviates from this one key for the entire relentless drive of the song. The song’s emotion and power is finessed by Lenna especially working her intonations, making the song second only to “Live And Let Go” for pure vocal appreciation. Both would be amazing to hear live. Selecting a favourite snippet, try “from above” at 1:57, as well as note the seamless merge of vocals and guitar solo to form the bridge. Old style 80s and 90s rock harmonies, backing vocals and guitar interludes further enhance the song’s prominence, making it a true classic.
As the album draws to a close, “Heart Made Of Steel” provides one last manic ride and Lenna at her soaring best during the chorus. It’s the fastest song of the album and does a much better job of emulating that “Hell Racer” style. “Look At Us Now” scales back to mid-tempo, with a more emotional side to it and perfect to listen to while reflecting on the journey just experienced. If only it were the final song. Next pops “Another Day In Paradise” to end the album on a disappointing note. It’s by far the weakest of all Del Vecchio’s songs, being bland and messy – and the least melodic. In Lenna’s vocals, there’s nothing new to grab interest either. It’s all a bit ho-hum. Another ballad would have suited or end the album on the penultimate track.
“I cannot live and let you go”
The answer to the opening question is confirmed. This album’s strengths are more about the return of Lenna Kuurmaa to melodic rock than the return of melodic rock in itself. Would I like this album with another vocalist? Yes. Would I love it? No. With the several truly outstanding efforts, it’s a solid selection of songs without inspiring. Compared to Vanilla Ninja’s classic songs, they do lack the ferocity, drama and diversity to keep you really engaged. So it does depend on that vocalist to extract more out of them. That would actually be true for most albums – that there’s an evolution of becoming intimate with the nuances of the vocalist, or any other component. While I was addicted to Vanilla Ninja’s style on first listen, it wasn’t until their fourth album – the one in which Lenna assumed full lead vocal duties – to really hear her. So the producers were wise to recruit a recognised singer rather than risk a fresh voice and try build a profile. With Moonland, they managed to make the best choice possible to showcase their songs and provide to Lenna and Vanilla Ninja fans of old a vocal extravaganza not heard for eight years. For that, Moonland featuring Lenna Kuurmaa is an outstanding success.
01 Heaven Is To Be Close To You
02 Open Your Heart
04 Crime Of Love
04 Poison Angel
05 When Love Is Gone
06 Out Of Reach
07 Live And Let Go
08 Cold As Ice
09 Over Me
10 Heart Made Of Steel
11 Look At Us Know
12 Another Day In Paradise
Moonland CD is available at most Amazon outlets. The best price is Amazon USA.
My journey with Vanilla Ninja and Lenna – A Brief History
I first heard Vanilla Ninja on the Eurovision 2005 CD. This was the time before youtube and internet streaming were prolific and I’d order the CD from overseas to be familiar with the songs before the contest. “Cool Vibes” was an instant favourite and remained so. First impression of the name “Vanilla Ninja” was of a producer or DJ with a hired vocalist. Ironically, Moonland is exactly this today. Come Eurovision itself, it was such a surprise to see four girls.
At Eurovision, a technical problem on the sound during the performance of Norway’s Wig-Wam meant all of the following artists, including VN, sounded flat. The Ninjas still made the final. The guitarist and the drummer extras changed to black outfits for the final so the four girls would be more prominent in their white, the drummer then dropped a stick during the performance, as VN rocked the house. I never sensed the song was ever a chance to win. Twelve points from Estonia (thank you!) and then 10 from Estonia’s neighbours Finland saw Switzerland lead the early stages to make it a little exciting. Latvia gave 12 towards towards the end once Greece was already the mathematical winner. Ultimately, eighth was a reasonable result.
Not long after Eurovision, four songs were posted on a music forum I once frequented. “Don’t Go Too Fast”, “Tough Enough”, “Liar” and “When The Indians Cry” were probably it. While not as instantly engaging as “Cool Vibes”, soon enough I was at Amazon Germany to buy the two albums available – “Traces Of Sadness” and “Blue Tattoo” – and the “Traces Of Sadness – Live In Estonia” DVD of the big concert in Tallinn.
During these early stages of my growth with VN, I liked Piret the most. She had a really sweet, clear sound to her voice, was drop-dead gorgeous, and just seemed to be the main talent and leader of the band. Then there was always Lenna – the quieter, more intriguing one. Deep down, I think there always was a fascination about her potential.
Seeing some of their videos, I had no idea the bassist had changed. When Maarja became pregnant, in came Triinu. Her selection was partly because of similar appearance. It worked!
“Corner Of My Mind” (off Blue Tattoo) quickly became my favourite VN song – and it still is. I sensed something was strange with the vocals as the smoky, alluring tone heard here was not heard anywhere on the Traces Of Sadness. It was Triinu. So now I had three favourite members – depending on my mood. Each one had something interesting about them. The fourth member, keyboardist Katrin, was almost invisible. She didn’t sing, and I wasn’t at the point that I cared enough to read about the Ninjas’ lives or watch interviews.
In 2006, while perusing Amazon Germany, much to my surprise, another Vanilla Ninja album was soon out. “Love Is War” was the landmark moment in my life with VN. Other than for a verse here or there, it was 100% Lenna. My interest in her as a vocalist transformed instantly. I didn’t care that VN were now a threesome after Triinu’s short stay had ended. All I heard was song after song after song of perfect vocal delight. To add to that, all the songs were (mostly) amazing (never a big fan of Rockstarz), and had so much range and scope. I would be listening to it, and its Japanese version, constantly for about 5 years. Even after that, it was the CD I kept in the car, still to this day. A solid calculation is that I’ve heard “Love Is War” at least 3000 times. Wow.
Fully addicted to VN now, it was an odyssey to get all their stuff. Japan often include bonus tracks on albums to entice buyers, and often release special versions of albums. In Europe, special versions were also out. Of course, to complete the discography, the very first album need to be acquired. It was a mix of English and Estonian songs when the group was more “girl band” than “rock band”. It was only ever widely released in the Baltics and difficult to find by this stage. I found a store (cdmarket.eu) and bought two. By this time, I began to get doubles of everything. I didn’t want to be without a spare in case anything was lost, stolen or broken.
The toughest find was for the single “Club Kung Fu”. While sporadic internet searches would see it listed on various sites for exorbitant prices, I was not that desperate. It was only about a year ago that I did find it at a reasonable price – courtesy of a reseller in Spain via Amazon.
It’s now 2008 and Vanilla Ninja are having trouble with their old management and had to fight to keep their name. More sombre was that it seemed VN’s days were well over. The silence about any new material was deafening. If not for Triinu’s surprisingly good solo album of that year, it would have been really depressing. Mid-year VN headlined a small tour in Estonia called the “Restart Tour”. Sensing this could be the final time they ever perform, and since I’d never been to Europe before, this was a chance to go. I’d never been to any concert of my own volition before either, so what better honour than for my very first concerts to be for my ultra favourite band ever and in an unknown country like Estonia? I had less than five weeks to organise the month away. Not knowing anything about Estonia, it was just three days there for the 3 concerts, with the rest travelling around Europe on a rail pass.
The first big surprise was Estonia itself. Tallinn was so amazing that I didn’t mind being lost for an hour in the Old Town as I searched for the bus station (I confused the “bus platform” for the “bus station” so switched to my back-up plan of the nearby train to reach Tartu for the first concert). About the only historical icon Australia has is the Sydney Opera House, and that’s only 40 years old. Tallinn was like something out of a fairytale, with so much history everywhere. The city is also modern, clean and efficient. The Estonian people are nice, always well presented and spoken, and have a great mentality. There’s a tremendous pride, without being obnoxious about it – unlike a certain island continent country that will go unnamed.
The second big surprise was to meet the band, especially Lenna. It came at the second concert, in Rapla. The first in Tartu I just politely watched and absorbed the music. I was so nervous to even approach Lenna that the small koala I brought over, I considered placing on the stage front during a concert. After Rapla finished, I noticed kids congregating around the side of the stage, so I went there. Lenna was talking to a friend just a few metres away and as she walked past towards backstage, I said “Lenna”. Much to my surprise, she promptly stopped and came over. I introduced myself from Australia, she let out the biggest smile that I’ll never forget. She promptly hugged the koala and was happy to sign my CD and take a photo with me. Some minor chitchat and it was all over. I was buzzing from this short encounter as I drove all the way back to Tartu. The next day in Tallinn I said hi again, and also had Piret and Katrin sign the CD. Lenna said the koala was in her bedroom. I was so pleased she liked it; you never know with these things.
On the way back from Europe I had a few days in Tokyo and picked up an extra copy of Silent Emotions. It’s full of classical and unplugged versions of their class songs from Traces Of Sadness and Blue Tattoo and one of my favourite special albums.
With the concerts, I had little time to see as much as Tallinn and Estonia as I ultimately wanted. So I’ve been back twice since – in 2011 and late May earlier this year.
One goal remains: to one day experience Eurovision in person. I’m hoping it will be a year that Estonia hosts it or Lenna finally qualifies for one. With Moonland released quite late in the year, it’s possible a song was already submitted to Estonia. It also depends on their rules about nationality for songwriters. “Live And Let Go” seems the obvious choice as a song, and it could be cut to three minutes without a massive sacrifice. Lenna’s apparently working on a third solo album, so more likely her next attempt will be 2016. Either way, 2016 seems the earliest. We’ll wait and see.
It’s amazing the impact one anonymous person can have on your life. While I’d never say Lenna or Vanilla Ninja “changed my life” in the emotional sense that fanatics often say, there’s certainly been an influence. The travelling, and interest in other Estonian artists, the bigger interest in Eurovision, to writing this blog at all. It’s the passion of these other interests and greater global awareness and perspective, acknowledging that my own country has serious flaws, and that to never underestimate or ignore the potential to find enrichment in any pocket of the globe or, indeed, in any other person.
Lenna Kuurmaa Discography
2003 Vanilla Ninja – Vanilla Ninja
2004 Vanilla Ninja – Traces Of Sadness
2005 Vanilla Ninja – Blue Tattoo
2006 Vanilla Ninja – Love Is War
2010 Lenna – Lenna
2013 Lenna – Teine
2014 Moonland – Moonland featuring Lenna Kuurmaa