What is it about Finland that makes it such an efficient breeding ground for heavy metal and rock music?

MAYBE it’s the darkness, the depression, the alcohol or the straight-talking nature of the natives, but whatever the reason heavy metal is big business in Finland. From slightly more, shall we say, commercial acts like HIM to the hardest of the hard groups like Torture Killer there is nary a part of the genre that is neglected in the Finnish scene’s repertoire.

Indeed, hard rock is so popular that an unashamedly metal singer, Ari Koivunen, actually won the Finnish version of Pop Idol in 2007; going on to enjoy a successful career as a solo vocalist and member of the band Amoral – a far cry from the blander winners in other countries. Oh, and let’s not forget Lordi, who tasted Eurovision song contest success back in 2006 with their mixture of pyrotechnics and ridiculous latex costumes. Finland, it is argued, is the only country in the world where heavy metal is mainstream.

Hard rock breeding

So what is it about Finland that makes it such an efficient breeding ground for rock music? One man who’s had his fair share of eardrum-splitting volumes is Jone Nikula, erstwhile judge on television’s Idols, heavy metal radio host and author of a book on Finnish metal music history. “As far as the domestic scene is concerned we had heavy bands in the late 70s and early 80s similar to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, which was comprised of bands like Iron Maiden and Saxon, but we had no media outlets,” he told SixDegrees at the Sonisphere metal festival in Pori this year.

“Back then the scene was totally undeveloped and was more like a hobby for the guys involved. There were only a couple of festivals and they were very unprofessional – they’d make money one year, then try to increase the size of the event and go bankrupt, then try again the next year.”

Overseas appeal

One of the most influential Finnish bands of that time was Hanoi Rocks, who formed in 1979 and whose frontman, Michael Monroe, is still revered amongst Finnish music-lovers. However, while the Hanoi Rocks school of big hair glam rock can be seen as a precursor to later acts, there’s no doubt that the musical style pumped out by many domestic acts has become more brutal as time has gone on. “Death metal in Finland really exploded in the mid-90s,” Nikula fondly remembers.

“Bands realised that there was no point in limiting themselves to finding a niche in a country of only five million when they could go abroad and reach five million fans of their music, so the international market grew as well.” Many Finnish groups have since forged substantial overseas followings. Indeed, without the success of domestic metal in the 90s it is arguable that there would be no infrastructure today in the Finnish music scene, which allows for the occasional presence of major pop acts like U2 and Madonna in the country.

One thing that is impressive about Finnish metal is the sheer variety of sub-genres represented. Finland’s reputation as a depressing country to live in may have contributed to a large number of grind and black metal bands hailing from above the 60th parallel north, but there’s more to the scene than those variants. The aforementioned HIM invented their own style called “Love Metal” involving heavy riffs with melodic vocals and keyboards, while one of our biggest exports, Children of Bodom, can perhaps best be described as melodic progressive death metal and boasts one of the world’s best and most technically gifted guitarists in Alexi Laiho.

Righteous music

But is it simply a matter of claiming the Finnish psyche is mainly responsible for the unprecedented success of loud guitars here? Nikula laughs, “You know, we drink too much, we commit suicides, we’re prone to violence. If you’re a Finnish man all you need is a chainsaw and you go out to the forest to cut trees – and if you’re a woman you fucking do that as well! Minor notes are present in all our music, and when you have a band that plays aggressive music it’s easier for kids to find it alluring. But Finland is also a traditionally puritan country. The hyperbole of the ‘bling culture’ is looked down on. So there’s no-one at this festival who is here to show off their tattoos, they’re all here to enjoy the music. Metal music is seen as down-to-earth and not superficial.”

Bass guitar virtuoso Lauri Porra shares Nikula’s sentiments. “That’s one of the reasons it’s so popular in Finland,” he has said in an interview. “Because metal music is honest music, and the Finnish man is a righteous man.” It’s noticeable how peaceful metal crowds are. The open-air Tuska festival has been held since 2001 in the centre of Helsinki (although next year they’re moving to Suvilahti) alongside a minimal police presence. This summer the festival was sold out and 33,000 fans gathered in the capital.

“The police always thank the Tuska audience for being extremely peaceful – rather intoxicated but peaceful,” says Niklas Nuppola, one of the festival’s organisers. “The main reason for the peaceful atmosphere is that everyone coming to Tuska is there for the same type of music. Similar-minded people gather, who tend to get along. I’m not saying that people who go to more ‘general’ festivals don’t go there for the music, but mainstream festivals gather all kinds of crowds who are more likely to rub each other up the wrong way.” Heavy metal fans may be some of the most open-minded people you are likely to meet.

Metal (for the) masses

Despite its popularity, metal has had its fair share of detractors. The Orthodox Church has typically viewed the scene in a negative light and has levelled accusations of Satanism at acts including, bizarrely, Lordi. On the other hand, the Lutheran Church has in recent years become rather more metal-friendly. For some time metal masses have been held in Helsinki under the watchful eye of Pastor Haka Kekäläinen where the congregation dresses in black, wears band t-shirts and worship while listening to electric guitar solos. And despite the occasional violent crime committed by youths with vaguely Satanistic tendencies, Finnish authorities have remained unwilling to draw much of a connection between rock music and the devil.

“Just like you can misuse a kitchen knife, so you can misuse heavy metal,” Kari Pylkkänen, former Chief Psychiatrist for the Helsinki Student Health Services told the makers of a metal documentary in 2008. “I don’t think you can blame the music if people choose to use it for obscure purposes. In fact, I think that metal music is good for many situations in life, and, after all, you can commit a murder in opera, too.”

Education produces excellence

Interestingly, research studying correlations between music tastes and personality types conducted at Edinburgh University concluded that followers of classical and heavy metal music are, despite the predictable age difference, basically the same type of people. The fact that many of Finland’s best rock musicians have been trained at Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy simply reinforces the connection.

“I think one common thing among Finnish bands is that they really know how to play,” argues Hannu Lehtonen from Finland’s famous Spinefarm Records, “The Finnish education system, where music is studied in school and even earlier, gives a good base for people to get interested in playing music.”

Lehtonen is himself going to music classes with his one-and-a-half year old daughter. It’s also the case that the relatively small population makes it easier for bands to break through. “Because the country is small, bands know each other and can help by taking smaller groups as support on tour and so on,” he says.

So it appears that a mixture of the national psyche, a love of minor keys, good education and our reputation for honesty have all come together to create the phenomenon of Finnish Heavy Metal; but whatever the reason, long may it reign!

Text Nick Barlow, Photos Nick Barlow & Håkan Hagström