It wouldn’t be a Finnish Metal week without digging out a few Finnish Metal albums and reviewing them. The album choice I’ve made here is based on grabbing the first six Finnish metal albums off the top of one of my CD stacks. It’s quite a mainstream selection, but I need to go to bed like, ten minutes ago, so it will have to do. I’ll try and throw some more underground stuff into the mixtape this week.
Amorphis – Elegy
You know when you’re talking to people who say they don’t think they’ll ever like death metal or dirty vocals? You smile and nod and think “I bet I could change your mind” and you rattle off a list of bands you’re positive they’ll like? Well, one of those bands should always be Amorphis.
They’ve changed sounds now, doing a melodic doomy death with charismatic grace, but it was two albums in particular that surprised the metal world – Tales of a Thousand Lakes, and Elegy. Of the pair, Elegy is the most “accessible”, and deals with tales from the Kanteletar, a collection of poetry and prose about the myths and legends of Finland.
The first track, “Better Unborn”, seamlessly combines guitar, bass, and random instruments (electric sitar, moog synth, accordion, classical piano), into a cohesive, enthralling whole. Amorphis experimented with subtle clean vocals on their previous album, but here, new permanent “clean” vocalist Pasi lets fucking rip. Clean and dirty share the stage, each playing off each other. Again, everything works together – instruments, clean and rough vocals, structure, lyrics – and the overarching melodies tie the songs together, so you don’t feel as though you’re listening to some prog metal album, even though you kinda sorta are. If this is death metal, it’s death metal like you’ve never heard before.
Some people find the prominence of the additional melodic instruments too overpowering, and many prefer Amorphis when they stick to growling, but as far as I’m concerned, if it works as well as this, you should go with it. Practically every album these guys release is golden – so if you’ve never heard of Amorphis before, I recommend you get cracking.
Nightwish – Dark Passion Play
The finnish metal band with the most commercial success, Nightwish remain one of the stalworts of the symphonic/gothic/power metal sound. If you’ve never heard of Nightwish, they were one of the first bands to mix metal music with operatic female vocals, and one of the best when it comes to pulling it off. Their iconic singer Tarja Turanan had been classically trained as an opera singer, and she had power and range few could equal. When she left/was kicked out of the band and replaced with Annette Olzen, a rock-style singer, everyone wondered how their sound would evolve.
It may surprise you to know that I’ve never been that much of a Nightwish fan – I adore a few songs but have found most of their albums to be quite meh. I think they had things perfect on Oceanborn and it’s never been quite as good since. Despite the fact that I prefer Tarja’s voice to Annettes, I think Dark Passion Play is their best album in terms of song-writing.
Just listen to the opener – “the Poet and the Pendulam” – a sweep of violin, a galloping riff and haunting violin throughout, it’s the perfect opener to the album that everyone doubted could be good. It is one of those songs that deserves the descriptor of “epic”. After this stunning opener, the album settles into it’s rhythm – track after track of catchy, well executed poppy gothic rock/metal songs – some on aspects of Finnish mythology, others on the departure of Tarja (I wonder how she felt about “Bye Bye Beautiful”) and the stunning folk interlude of “the Islander” (I play this again and again).
Some argue that Annette’s voice is ill-suited to this album, and I would perhaps agree for the first track, although I think she does a fine job despite this. She’s very definitely a pop/rock singer, and Nighwish’s new direction certainly supports this. On the more radio-friendly tracks she’s in her element, and you can hear the band sweeping in to surround her.
It’s not the same Nightwish, but I don’t think this is a bad thing.
Korpiklaani – Karkelo
The thing I love the most about Korpiklaani is that every time you listen to them play, or see them live, you know they are having the best time. They haven’t got a soapbox to wave around, a cause to fight for … unless it is the cause of “why is my drinking horn empty?” They demonstrate what I believe is one of the best aspects of being a metalhead – good old-fashioned, beer-swilling, tavern-whoring, and generally going a bit Dark Ages on your ass …
The opening track, “Vodka”, let’s you know what you’re in for. With lyrics as awesome as “Drinking is good for you – you will feel awesome!” (can’t argue with that), Korpiklaani launch into a no hold-barred hummpa metal assault.
What is hummpa? It’s the traditional folk music of Finland, played on accordian, fiddle, and various flutes, whistles and other instruments. It sounds like polka music. Polka metal? It shouldn’t work, and yet, it does.
While not taking themselves too seriously, Korpiklaani manage to affect a rather polished, professional and utterly enjoyable album. When you listen to this stuff, you feel as though you tap into to something innate about the Finnish psyche. Sisu. Strength. Perhaps it is the sense of history, of folk gatherings, evoked by the traditional instruments, or perhaps it’s just that you’re drunk and making this shit up to impress some chick, but there you are.
Many people find the continuous hummpa onslaught a tad too much – your ears can feel a bit butchered after listening to an entire album, but I do urge you to give Karkelo a try. You won’t find anything drastically different to any of their other releases, and every other album they release will sound very similar. But fuck it, sometimes we all just need to chill out a bit, stop taking this music so seriously (I know, me too) and have a beer.
FinnTroll – Jakten’s Tid
Whenever I try to describe Finntroll to somebody, I say “imagine a group of trolls having a party.” If such a party occurred, I image Finntroll would be the starring act.
Much like Korpiklaani, Finntroll employ hummpa tunes to create their songs. But unlike their hummpa buddies, Finntroll’s sound is fully entrenched in black metal. This is dark stuff, even with the polka, and the vocals an.
The lyrics – sung in swedish – deal largely with pagans fighting the good fight against Christian usurpers, typical of many black metal bands.
Jakten’s Tid was the first “folk metal” album I ever brought, recommended to me by some dude on Metal Archives forum after the ten-thousandth time everyone started talking about folk metal and I had NO IDEA what they were talking about. In a sense, this is a good introductory album, because it’s quite listenable, with each track designed around the humppa melodies to make you want to do a trollish jig. It was an album I raved about as soon as I heard it and I lent it to all my friends and it got played at every party, and then …
… after a few months of listening to it, I lost interest. Completely. I don’t know what it is, exactly, but I think this album’s major appeal lies in it’s superficial “cool” factor – the fact you listen to it and your feet start tapping and you think “I can totally dig this!” But if you start listening past that layer, you don’t find much. Or at least, I didn’t.
I don’t dislike Finntroll – far from it. I’d love to see them live one day. I just think they paved the way for other bands who do this humppa thing a lot better. With Korpiklaani … they sound more honest. I think it’s that they use real folk instruments and Finntroll use keyboards. I think it’s that you get a sense that Korpiklaani really LOVE what they do, and you don’t get that with Finntroll, and you should, because it’s meant to be “fun” music. I don’t dislike this album, but I can’t see myself giving it to my grandchildren, you know?
Ensiferum – Iron
While Finland has it’s share of “drink and be merry” bands, Ensiferum are one of the more well-known attempts at power/viking/folk metal with more serious themes. Released in 2004, Iron, my favorite album to date, incorporates everything that make Ensiferum great – fast songs, clean male and female vocals, classical structures, pared-back “folkish elements”, strong keyboard presence. They’re a band who really do have a unique, instantly recognizable sound. In most songs, the drums – which aren’t anything fancy – dominate, driving the riffs, giving the music a galloping feel. I adore the female vocals on Iron, which sound more homely and <> than the operatic style usually affected by women in metal.
The opening track on this album – an instrumental intro that remains one of my favorite album intros ever (it was one of my choices for walking down the aisle at my wedding, but I chose “Bittersweet” by Apocalyptica instead – sets the scene for a melodic adventure. The only real complaint I have about this album is the structure – there are two noticebly-weak songs – “Sword Chant”, and “Tears”, which falls right at the end of the album, where I think they should have put “Iron”.
Skepticism – Stormcrowsfleet
At uni, I used to listen to this album before I went to sleep. I’d curl up with a book in my little hostel room, and chuch Stormcrowsfleet on, and I’d drift away somewhere completely different … this album has that effect on me. To many people, doom and funeral doom sound like static. But with the lights off, with your attention drawn to the music, the bass, that slow, dirge-like melody, the true beauty and majesty of this music starts to emerge.
Skepticism are “funeral doom” a term coined to describe doom metal – a slow genre by definition – so unbelievably slow and sad that you feel as though your funeral will come and go before the song actually ends. Riffs stretch on for hours it seems, yet, because of the consumate skill with which this album is put together, you become lost in it. You can’t just turn it off. You have to know how it ends.
The organs that appear in most tracks clamber through the harsh guitar like icy fingers, and the vocals … there’s no sense of lyrics here, just another layer of music performed with the voice. The words don’t matter, but the feelings, the sorrow, that’s everything.
The term “atmospheric” gets thrown around a lot in metal reviews (similar to “epic” in that sense), but I feel it’s warrented here. This is not an album from which you choose favorite “tracks” and load them onto your ipod shuffle. You need to hear it from beginning to end, at night, when you’re tired or stoned and are drifting off to sleep. It’s best if you’re not clinically depressed when you do this. There’s another reason they call this stuff “Funeral Doom”. It’s bleak as fuck.