Lithe in Lilac: A Conversation With Tyko Saarikko of Tenhi (Interview)
Putting my thoughts about Finnish dark folk band Tenhi into words is difficult. Not because of the amount of time I've spent with the band, which is a lot, but because of the complex emotions their music elicits with each new listen. When I first discovered Tenhi in 2005 or so, just before the duo of Maaäet and Airut:Aamujen were released (the latter initially released under the Harmaa moniker before eventually being reissued under the Tenhi banner), their first two albums Kauan and Väre came at a perfect moment. I was starting to figure out how much I enjoyed darker forms of folk music (see: post-industrial, neofolk, dark folk, et cetera), but I wasn't really ready to make the plunge into its more esoteric forms. Tenhi's complex, layered music quickly left an impression due to how familiar it sounded, like a nostalgic trip through some forgotten landscape of my youth.
The trio of Tyko Saarikko, Ilkka Salminen (Ilkka has since left the band, but was present on the majority of Tenhi's recordings), and Ilmari Issakainen craft sound paintings of these abstract visions of nature. Simple ideas become grandiose, chords become larger and more vast, and atmosphere is tantamount. Throughout their four albums (and various odds and ends), Tenhi creates their own audio mythos, something complicated and ethereal, but rooted in real life. Devoted to a Romantic view of history and folk tales, but notably modern in execution, Tenhi's music is ultimately timeless without a home in any specific era. It simply is. Read an interview with multi-instrumentalist Saarikko, his first in many years, below. And, yes, there will be a new Tenhi album (their first in nine years).
I'm going to ask a really obvious question: when are we going to hear new Tenhi material?
I've expected this. I think you're the first to hear: I think the album is pretty much done now. Just yesterday we did some final touches on the mix, but I don't know when the release is as you know I usually make the cover art and all the art for the album. I have really high expectations for that. I had the idea of making a graphic novel with many images, but I think I have to calm it down and [laughs] make normal album art just to get it out, finally. But I think I will be working on the album art for at least a month. That means it will be released hopefully by the summer. It's been a long time!
It has! It's been… nine years since Saivo?
Yeah! I don't know… I don't want to think about it. [laughs]
Working within that amount of time, what can we expect from new Tenhi material?.
If you compare it to Saivo or the older ones, I think it's nearer to the older albums because now when we listen to Saivo, it's really… the most landscape or mystical, movie-soundtrack… the songs aren't that structured. The new album is more compact, the songs are more traditional songs, but I think it's really obvious that this record is a Tenhi album as there are a few songs which date to the 1990s, like one main riff in a song is from 1993 or so.
Yeah, from our teenage years!
That's really cool!
That's the way we always work. There's always these long arcs going on, we take riffs from back in the day and sometimes they don't evolve into a new song, but after a while they might come up. It's a long process.
Is there a point of comparison within the discography you can make? Obviously every Tenhi album is very different.
I suppose the first album, the Kauan material, but also Maaäet, our third album. I would describe it as a mixture of those two.
That's exactly what I wanted to hear! That's great news. Speaking of each album being different I recall when Saivo had been released, what led to that difference in sound following Maaäet?
It's hard to explain, I guess it was just our minds were in that state back then. Now, if I look back at the album as we just listened to our discography, Saivo came out as a really landscapey album, but it was very far away from the listener. It looked inward -- not so catchy. Maybe our state of mind resulted in that kind of album, but we had a lot of difficulty mixing it as the place we recorded wasn't suitable for us. I don't know if you know, but we do everything on our albums ourselves which is a good and bad thing. Sometimes it backfires in a sense that we are not professional recording engineers, so we have a lot of difficulties with the sounds in the beginning of the process. But then we changed the location of the studio and I think it's better now. I have to say, if you compare to other albums, we have gotten a hold of analog equipment-really old stuff, I don't know if you know about old reverbs, but we have a plate reverb from the 1960s or 1970s: the EMT-140 which was used on the Doors' albums. It's nice to have nice reverbs and effects from back in the day, so I really enjoy the new sounds of this new album. Hopefully everyone else does, too.
It makes sense that you would use something old with Tenhi, as the music always has a very aged kind of feel to it, like it's from before its time.
Yeah, I would like to call it somehow "timeless" music. It's not obvious to any time state. It's in its own space.
And it definitely works to its benefit in that space. I think about showing my dad, who is an old progressive rock fan, Kauan, and he mentioned hearing Gentle Giant in it, and suddenly I was able to hear something like that in the music, but it was also very current. Time doesn't really have an effect on it.
Sure! It's always been hard to label our music style because it varies from folk to metal music, and our fans are from those genres, and ourselves… we have this metal background and we had metal bands before Tenhi. Doom metal bands. I think you can hear the influences of the metal music, but it isn't all about guitar anymore. The melodies and the chords I think you can relate to metal music, but we have this heavy folk influence going on.
It's great that you brought up your metal background, because I did want to talk about Mother Depth some.
Sure, but that was Ilmari and Tuukka's band!
I'm still curious—how do you feel as an outsider to that band, how has it maintained such an underground status?
I always wondered, because when we started Tenhi, it was me and Ilkka in Tenhi and Ilmari and Jakko and Tuukka in Mother Depth at the same time, but I don't know… I think at the time it was the best doom metal band in Finland, at least. The songwriting was high quality, and they might have even sent the demos to some labels, but they just wanted to put it to the next level.
It's peculiar how bands maintain that very underground status, no matter how good they are. I've spent years trying to find their material and maybe I'd find one or two songs which used to be on the UTU Studio website, but it's very difficult!
I've told them to make a compilation of their demos! I think people would be interested in that. The song I actually talked about which has the main riff from the early 1990s, I think that was composed for Mother Depth, but now it's a Tenhi song.
That's really cool! It's kind of cyclical in a way. It breathes new life into it in a different fashion.
How do you hear music? When I listen to Tenhi, there are the various ideas which feed into it, but it feels more like the idea was the complete orchestration.
Well, for me it's always been a very visual thing. I see this landscape or something visual that I want to achieve through my music, and if the music doesn't fit the image Im seeing then I just change it and try to evolve it. Mixing and everything is about the visualization of the music. I don't know if it's because I only started playing in my teenage years and the other guys have more musical background before that. As long as I remember, I've been drawing and painting. Even now it's as important to me as making music. Maybe it's because of that that the visual thing is so important for me.
In seeing music, is this synesthesia?
I don't fully know the word exactly, but it's pretty much that.
The one moment I think about when I think about Tenhi would be the chorus of "Vähäinen Violetissa": the very lush, orchestrated, full sound. When it comes to composing, what comes first? Obviously there's the visual element, but what musical roots do you build atop of?
Basically the guitars are written on guitar or piano, maybe it's just how we work -- it's just me and Ilmari who do the songwriting, so we have to think of the stuff in a more layered style. We can't always rehearse the songs as a full band, so we try out what stuff works and maybe that is the one reason it takes so long. We want to try stuff out, it's always been like that. Like most of the acoustic songs on the albums might have drums the first time we recorded them, but then we changed the whole song and re-recorded something. It then evolves into this whole new thing. I think also when you said we have some progressive influences, the song might have a really simple riff—some songs might have the same acoustic guitar riff going for the whole seven minutes or so, but we always, and I don't know if its good or bad, but when we hear something is too obvious, we want to break it down. We will make chords which are not your basic chords to make simple stuff more varied to have layers which take you to another place. It also backfires sometimes, because I think there should be this leading role in the song which makes it whole. Like in Saivo, we might have gone too far.
It does work to its benefit. I must admit that when Saivo came out I was hesitant since the change in sound was so vast, but it does work once you spend time with it, I feel. It's a much more subtle, as you said "landscape" of an album.
It doesn't grab you right away like some older songs like on Maaäet like "Tuulenkaato" which grabs you from the first chord. With Saivo, it's more laid back and you really have to concentrate. It's more layered, so you might find something new with each listen.
You had mentioned the change from demos to completed songs, and I think about listening to something like Hallavedet where the songs there are presented differently later on. You had mentioned "trial and error" being the main process, I was curious as to what makes it so that an idea works for Tenhi?
Hard to say, something feels right right away, but sometimes it takes time to grow on you. I think that because we have basically... me and Ilmari have known each other for a long time, so sometimes we don't even have to speak the stuff that we know about how it works or not, but… hard to say. I can't say anything more than that!
It's ok—sometimes when it works it works, especially when you've been at it for such a long time that the sound for you is Tenhi as opposed to something else.
As I talked about the chords: we wanted to break them down so they aren't obvious. Always, it's a balance of these things, really breaking it down and making our songwriting more unorthodox. Usually it's that way—the first time we hear it it's too basic and we really want to make a new angle for it.
When composing for guitar and piano, do you find that you use the fully fleshed out chords at the beginning of the process that you then break down into orchestration, or is the orchestration something you build atop these chords.
Usually the orchestration comes later when the violin and flute player come in, we try a lot of different stuff because they are really professional musicians. Sometimes we have the idea and they play like we've composed, but then we tell them to improvise and describe where we want to go ahead with those ideas. The orchestration usually comes in the latter part.
I think about this, there are two different kinds of composing heavily orchestrated music: there are people who hear the full chord immediately, and it could be some extended, crazy chord and then turn it into something by breaking down the chord, or it could be the other way. It's interesting to hear there is this jam element to creating Tenhi music.
As much as possible, but usually the basic structure is composed by me or Ilmari and then we improvise atop that. Most improvisation is with the violin and flautist.
Tenhi live in a performance setting is a special thing, you don't really do it that often. What goes into performing as Tenhi? I see there are six people on stage? People change instruments during the set, et cetera. How does it happen?
It's true, it's really a whol;e new element in the band, playing live. It's really different from what we usually do since it's usually two of us or maye Tukka in the studio or hanging out. And then live, we have the most… seven people. It's really hard for us, I guess,because it's something we really have in high value, but maybe it's because we basically do everything ourselves from composing to recording to mixing to even mastering and doing the cover art. Basically everything is done by us, even the band photos we take ourselves, but when we go live there's this whole new element that we aren't in control of anymore. We've had really great gigs but a few where the sound wasn't right at all onstage or in the audience. It's really frustrating and for bands that play live often, it's a big issue, but for us when we try to create these images and when we hear it totally different than we would like to, it's really frustrating. I guess the main reason we don't play live is the situation as we have so many players and the others, especially the flute and violin players, are professional musicians and have other bands. Time is always an issue, and we have, even now, the recording has taken so long that we have lots of new songs so when the album comes out, we just want to start recording. I think that's basically more suitable for us.
You brought up the difficulty of bringing in other people, and the core of the band is you and Ilmari, so what difficulties do you find when you bring these other people into the mix?
So, basically, we've had this stable core for Tenhi, even now the violin player is the same who was on Väre and Maaaet. There was this five year gap where she was doing other stuff and also the flute player was from back in the day. I think we have been this core crew and have always been the same for more than twenty years, so it's really kind of natural, but, of course, for us, we want to be in control of everything, so the magic is in the details. It's hard when other people come and they are not so into what we are trying to achieve at a detailed level. I think it's no problem in recording, but playing live it's more rigorous, I guess.
You had brought up the difficulty in classifying Tenhi. It's progressive in some elements, it's folk in some elements, but what people boil it down to is the "neofolk" tag. I was curious as to what you think about that and how you would classify Tenhi.
Good question. When we play live the audience has always been metalheads and some neofolk fans, and even hippies. All sorts of people are there and it's really nice, but when you speak of neofolk, we kind of… I don't see us in that alley since there is some aestheticism that we don't relate to, but we do relate to this old, nostalgic, and Romantic past view of history and folk tales, which I think are also present in neofolk music. I like some neofolk bands really much, but I don't… maybe I feel more home in the metal scene because of my background, but, obviously, the music isn't metal. I guess in neofolk... We have songs which could be up neofolk's alleys, but then we also have more metal songs. I don't know how to describe the music.
It is very singular, in the sense that Tenhi is the only band who sounds like Tenhi. There are other bands which might approach it, but it isn't the same. How does it feel being so singular?
It's never been a goal for us, but we always wanted to do stuff our own way and if we hear something done already, we want to take it in another direction. You said our albums sound different, and I think it's true, but the core element is always the same. I guess, even from the first demo I think the same element has always been there.
It's interesting, I actually found a copy of the demo on Discogs very recently and I'd never seen it online before. It's cool seeing that, to have these types of legendary releases, and as the internet starts to grow, you see more of these things. In the age of the Internet, how do you feel Tenhi exists as opposed to back in the age of mail order magazines?
It's true. You brought up when Saivo was released, the situation was totally different, even back then it was changing. I already talked with the label about how we're going to release the album. I think CD is… there's no point in releasing CDs anymore, but it will be released on CD and vinyl LP. It's hard for me since I always enjoy the cover art and it's a big deal for me doing the cover art for the albums, so if there isn't any album… I don't know where we're going to take it. I don't know if this answers your question, but it is very different! Sometimes we listen to our demo stuff on cassettes, like the Mother Depth stuff. We always have a nice time listening to those.
You brought up the "no point in releasing CDs" - I have a giant rack of CDs next to me which you can't see, so I don't know if I agree with that. Especially with Prophecy, their book editions are really nice.
I think something like that would make for a proper Tenhi release. Why do you think CDs aren't the ideal format?
Well, I guess regarding the cover art since they are a bit small. We have released these big formats, artbook (which is almost LP sized). The book format I enjoy, but the basic jewel case with plastic covers… I made the album art so when it was reduced to that size it didn't really work because I thought of a bigger format. I don't know if people buy CDs and so it's fine for me. I think it's better than just releasing on the Internet.
Releasing on the internet is definitely a big thing right now. Tenhi has a Bandcamp page through Prophecy with all releases, including the Folk Aesthetic compilation. How do you feel about being released on the Internet?
It's ok for me. I also listen to a lot of stuff straight from the Internet and there's no harm in that. For me it's all about the album art, it's important. I don't know if releasing it on the Internet is ideal, maybe more music videos would be nice.
What do you see going into a Tenhi music video?
Yeah… hmm… have you seen the only one we have made, which we also made ourselves, like everything? I had a really nice time doing it, and it was the first thing I'd ever done like this and it was really okay. Something like that.
So nature, landscapes…
Sure, sure. Yeah, maybe some images… I have this summer cottage which is this old school building from a hundred years ago. It's made of these huge logs. We did some recording there in the summertime and it's a really nice place to take photos and stuff. We have actually taken the new album's promo stuff there, and we have a lot of old instruments there. I just bought this old church organ. It's really huge, like, I don't know if you know the meters, but it's three and a half meters high and one thousand kilos. We also have these harmoniums, I think I have eight of those there. I've been collecting them. I like to collect old stuff.
You had mentioned the new album's progress had changed when you moved studios, and that you had recorded in this secondary location in your cottage. What effect does location have on recording and composing Tenhi's music?
The recordings we made in the cottage made it the best place for us. When you go there, it's kind of in the countryside and there's no place to go, so it's really intense when you go there since you're working all the time. We go to the studio and go to our homes and go there again. I think it's not that easy to be in the zone otherwise.
What elements do you need to "be in the zone"?
What other elements do we need?
I'm curious as to what elements you might need or want or what makes it more ideal.
It takes time and when you grow older it takes even more time just to get rid of everything else and just dwell in the music. I think the one reason the new album's taken so long is because in the beginning we had so many songs to work with and we didn't have this long period, maybe a weekend where we were working with the songs. Then we had songs we didn't touch for like a month or two months or even three months. We listened to them and had forgotten where we were going with those, so we questioned why we did things that way or another. When you have these longer sessions, you become so in the zone that you know what you're doing and hope to finish it. When you don't finish it, revisiting could be hard. It's hard to explain, but maybe you got it.
I totally get it, the time that you put into it makes it so it's more rewarding.
With the element of time, and I've brought up the nine years which have passed since Saivo, so I'm sure you've spent even more time with these ideas. What was it like to let these ideas ferment and become something else over this period of time?
I don't know if you got the question right, but when we started, it was the same time we were working with Saivo, two songs which were supposed to be on Saivo but we re recorded them. This is the first time we thought through a concept for an album, like a red thread going through the whole album. It was this story idea that I referred to that I would make this graphic novel. There's this long story arc going on, but it's not that obvious that everything is connected. You can recognize maybe, especially if you see the cover art, if I make it the way I'm planning. There is this long story arc that the songs will be a part of. This is the first time we did this, and it might not be that obvious when we finish the album, but it has been in our minds the whole time. It's not obvious, but it has made some decisions easier, but some decisions harder since we wanted to always refer to the concept. I think Väre is the album that's most rich in the composition. Ilmari, Ilkka, and I, all three, composed like three songs for that album, so they are not that related to each other, but the overall feeling connects them. With this new album, there is an idea in the background, but in the end it won't be that obvious and that's ok.
I think about ideas that have been made over the course of Tenhi's existence that might not have been super obvious for fans, but made sense for the band, like taking the Harmaa album and turning it into a Tenhi album. What led to that decision?
I think I and Ilmari, the way we compose, it's always from the same groove, and they fit into each other. The main reason we did it was because Ilkka was already stepping aside from the band, he wasn't so much in the band anymore, so when we were working on Maaäet, we had these new songs without Ilkka, so we started to record them and it evolved into its own album. The beginning it might have been a Tenhi album, but we decided to call it Harmaa because Ilkka wasn't a part of it. He was still in Tenhi back then. We thought that since it would be under this new name that we would be more experimental with just drums, piano, bass, and voice. The idea was to continue that with the new album, being different, but it is never realized because Ilkka left the band fully and everything was dedicated to Tenhi after.
Will there ever be more material in the lines of Harmaa in the future? The stripped down, three-piece band approach.
There might be, never say never, but basically we want to make Tenhi the main goal -- it always has been. Since this recording has taken so long and we have so many songs. The plan is to make a bit more shorter albus just to get them out sooner, like six or seven songs, and that concept might make it okay to release four or five songs which are really different under the Harmaa title.
I was curious since you've brought it up a few times that you have a lot of songs to work with. It's interesting to hear you want to go with shorter albums instead of something more grandiose. Is this just to release things sooner?
The plan is that, yes. We have so many songs, maybe twenty, and then we dropped them one by one. It takes too much time. So we wanted to make songs in a shorter period of time to get them out sooner, but also, as I spoke of "the zone," it's easier to have these five songs to work with so you keep them in your head. When you have twenty, your thoughts stray away. This is the plan, we always talk about making shorter albums but they always end up 75 minutes.
What's interesting is, you talk about having all these songs, and you brought up the red thread that pulls them all together into this concept. What made it so you picked the right songs to fit the concept?
I think we always want to have this mixture of acoustic songs and drums, and we try to find the balance in these different kinds of songs. I think we dropped some acoustic songs because there were too many of them, but also they didn't work right away, so we thought we'd drop them, but also there are a few song son the album that have been really difficult to work with or have some stuff going on in the recording phase that didn't really go well, but we really wanted to have them on the album. We just pushed and pushed and pushed until we got there. It's basically intuition.
What made you want to start a band like this, something so different than your backgrounds and so unusual for the time? Obviously there were folk bands, but this had different elements. What led to Tenhi?
I believe it was 1996 when I started the band and asked Ilkka to play bass and drums because I couldn't play drums for the demo. I had made the songs already. Ilmari joined later because we were friends. I don't know, maybe it was the influences back then. We were really into the heavy music and Ilkka and I were more into black metal. Ulver and the bands in the early 1990s had this folk music influence. It wasn't direct influence from that, but there were other bands. Hard to say.
It just kind of… happened.
Yeah, sure. It was straight away, the idea was to have all kinds of songs with a connecting feel. The overall feeling is the connecting factor, there could be any kinds of songs: more metal, more acoustic, more piano. The overall feeling binds them together, but the idea, at least on the demo, was that we wanted to use heavier guitar. I think we will try something out on the next album like that.
I keep bringing up time because I think about when the demo was released in 1996, and then we had this period of time where there was a lot of activity, which is summed up in the Folk Aesthetic compilation. You had revisited those songs ten years later, and now we're ten years past Saivo. Was revisiting those older songs in 2006 and 2005 any different than revisiting ideas that you had ten years ago for this new album?
Back in those times, we were releasing more stuff, so there was this process that we had time to stop and look back in that sense, but now that the album has taken so much time, that we've created a different era. Ilkka left the band, so in the first album, Kauan, he wrote I think two songs and co-wrote some others, but it was really gradual, him leaving. There wasn't this dramatic change in the lineup, but Ilkka just wasn't composing anymore. In Maaäet he didn't do as much on Väre or Kauan. Wait, what was the question?
We have these two ten-year periods. The 1996-2006 period, but also 2010-2020, with different periods of activity. When you were looking back in 2005 and 2006 to put together Folk Aesthetic, it was one way. What is it like now, looking back ten years?
An outsider might be able to point out what is different, but we still have the same process. We work with the music every week, be it band stuff or just playing. The songs we do have this really long arc, and that has also been going on always, that we take some ideas from ten years before. I think on Väre some riff was from ten years before, and every album has songs that have elements from a long time ago, especially now. We have songs from the 1990s that we have started to work with, so it's really… everything is in our heads, and the time period is irrelevant. Maybe of course to the listener, they could see it since their experience is through album releases, but for us it's just continuous stuff going on.
As Tenhi has progressed, there's been a maturation in sound. As it becomes older, it becomes more lush and more elements come into it. I think about the progression from Maaäet to Saivo and how there's more going on in a different sense. How do you feel Tenhi has matured in the last ten years for this new material?
I think we want to relate to the first albums more in the sense that Maaäet was this inverted, really looking-inwards album, but now we just want to make it with stronger elements that are in control of the song and really leading. Then there's this landscape in the background. In Saivo it was… everything was in the background, in a sense. This huge landscape. But Kauan had leading instruments. We want to have a mixture of those two, so the album would have this grip which would take a hold of you, but then there would be these elements which would make it more lush or landscape, as you said.
What makes Tenhi Tenhi?
Visual arts. We met each other at this art high school we went to: Ilmari, Ilkka, and I. We all have this visual background. I think that's a key factor in Tenhi's music, the visual side of things we want to paint before the listener's eyes.
I think about your cover art that you've made over the years and how it is inseparable from the music, and how they fit together like puzzle pieces. Do you find the cover art comes to you as part of the music, or is it something you curate after the album has been prepared?
Both ways. Inspiration might come from an image or otherwise, or the other way around. I think we don't want to pinpoint a single image for a song, rather an overall feeling. Like you get from a film.
I think about the progression of the artwork for each album and how from Kauan to Maaäet, it became more like an abstract vision of nature. And then with Saivo, we had something completely different with the boat. What comes next?
I think it's a continuation into the Saivo world. I've already started working with the images a few years ago. Saivo was this overwhelming blackness, the black lake and this nether world in many mythologies. The upside down world and the full blackness, as well as this comforting void. Now we want to make a continuation of that, but a bit more inverted. The images we have taken and made have this light, and the lightness overwhelms. Too bright, this world, the invert of the full blackness.
With that being an opposite of the overwhelming blackness, would you say the album itself is an inversion of Saivo?
It's not intentional that we want to make the opposite, but I think there are a lot of elements because of the art we took and the music we made. We want some elements to be forward and more proud with our instruments which grab you. Saivo was turning our back to the listener. It's different, the music, too, in a way. I hope.
Are there any stories about Tenhi you would like to share?
Nothing special, but one story. When we sing in Finnish, it really connects people worldwide. I even remember the first years, I think we had only released the demo, and we had received letters by mail from Mexico and everywhere in the world. Nothing from Finland. It's strange that we have so many fans from outside Europe. I've heard a lot of people say that they've even moved to Finland and started learning the language because of our music. It's beautiful that we have such influence.
I think my first connection with the Finnish language was definitely with Tenhi, especially when I picked up Maaäet on CD. There were the translations in the book and I was able to somehow follow everything.
I've heard it really exudes this exotic vibes in our enunciation. The vocals have always been one instrument, usually in music you want to take the vocals forward, but ours, it's more like in the background with the others. In the new album, the vocals are more in the front. I hope if you studied Finnish, don't learn our lyrics. When we write English translations, we don't translate word by word. They aren't real translations. Some sentences might not have anything in common, but they talk about the same thing. As we use these Finnish words that sound phonetically great and the meaning is multi-leveled, it's hard to translate exactly to English. When you read the Finnish and English lyrics, the overall feeling is the same, but they aren't exact translations.
I am reminded of another Prophecy artist who does something very similar: Jochen "Eviga" Stock from Dornenreich. There's a lot of wordplay. It's interesting to hear there's that multi level linguistic element to Tenhi, which I wasn't aware of before.
Jochen is a great guy, we've played a tour with Dornenreich and a few other occasions when we bumped into each other. Last time we played, they joined us onstage.
Is there anything about Tenhi that you want to share that people have missed over the years or you have obfuscated beforehand?
Not really, we just want to share the new album as soon as possible. People have been waiting a long time and wonder if we even exist anymore.
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