Certainly, let the snickers begin, given this byline over a posting that may seem designed to find the most obscure international communication niche and exploit it. However, if one of our favorite blogs, Passport from Foreign Policy, can weigh in on Finnish heavy metal why not us? Rightly, the tip of the hat belongs to The Atlantic Wire, which first wrote about a marvelous mapping information graphic designed to show the countries with the deepest per capita concentration of heavy metal bands. Not only did Scandinavia glow red on that map, but Finland won the prize for having more heavy metal bands per capita than any country in the world.
This author has listened to this genre of rock from its beginnings, and as a journalist who has written about music (and interviewed musicians) during high school, college, and professionally the bona fides may be moss covered (our apologies to Muddy Waters, Don McClean, Publius Syrus, and others who have used this metaphor) but occasionally the old itch must be answered.
Neither Passport or The Atlantic Wire waded in too deeply on this subject beyond pointing out the cool information graphic. So for those daring enough to take a Fodor’s-style quick tour into Finnish heavy metal, please follow along.
First, some acknowledgement that Scandinavia emerged in the past decade as one of the world regions where rock music was not only going strong, but also an area where various bands bent on reinvigorating the musical form originated. And this is not the first time Finland has been singled out as a “cradle of heavy metal” innovation. As usual, a region, a genre, or an artist is rarely a true overnight success, and the roots of Finland’s success begin in the early 1990s with two of its best and most notable acts H.I.M. (His Infernal Majesty) and Apocalyptica.
As the informational map notes, there are literally hundreds of bands playing across various metal sub-genres in Finland and dozens of those bands are touring Europe and other world locations and making a mark. Unlike Norway (which is training its diplomats about the soft power advantages of promoting “true Norwegian black metal”) Finland hasn’t seemed as interested as some countries in the soft power sweepstakes surrounding music culture. (Soft power almost seems like an oxymoron, anyway, when considering heavy metal.)
With so many bands to choose from it may seem daunting to choose, but here’s a sampler of the best:
- Apocalyptica: Formed as an all-cello tribute band to Metallica, this group has added a percussionist and often features guest guitarists and vocalists. Those who see heavy metal as a moribund, screeching art form haven’t listened to Apocalyptica, which expertly adds influences from a wide range of musical forms. Their latest work on the album 7th Symphony shows the band flirting with symphonic metal and nu metal especially its collaboration with Lacey Sturm of the American metal band Flyleaf. Apocalyptica teamed with its heroes Metallica for a three-song set last year as part of Metallica’s 30th anniversary concert series.
- H.I.M.: This band often bills itself as “love metal” which derives from the title of its 2004 release of that name and from the band’s symbol of a heart merged with a pentagram. Given the band’s initials, the usual criticisms about links between metal and Satan-worship surfaced early in the band’s career but band members disavowed this connection. H.I.M. is the only Finnish metal act to chart at the gold-level in the United States, although its latest, Screamworks: Love in Theory and Practice, has not charted as well. Some of the band’s best work is actually from the late-1990s before it fully emerged on the U.S. scene, such as “Your Sweet Six Six Six.”
- Stratovarius: Ironic names aside, this band owes quite a bit to Deep Purple, the British act that expertly straddled heavy metal and progressive rock. Stratovarius trods the same musical turf, and arguably is the progenitor of Finnish metal, as the band traces its origins to the 1980s. In 2009, their release Polaris, which included “Deep Unknown,” produced some of the band’s best work to date.
- Waltari: A band that began as a punk act in the 1980s, Waltari is known as a group that constantly adds musical influences. The band is credited as one of the pioneers of symphonic metal in the 1990s along with fellow Finns Nightwish and the Swedish band Therion. (Although from outside Scandinavia, the Dutch group The Gathering was also highly influential in the formative years of symphonic metal in the 1990s.) Waltari’s sound from 2004’s Rare Species (on songs like “One Day”) seems like a modern updating of British metal pioneers Black Sabbath.
The challenge here is to see if these Finns can move the casual listener beyond the heavy metal stereotypes to try some of this music and actually appreciate it. If this line-up can’t, nothing will.
(The photo is by Metal Chris of Washington, D.C. via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. To see Apocalyptica’s video for “Broken Pieces” featuring Lacey Sturm, please check below.)