The Epic Saga of Finnish Metal
Finland, the small and remote country in the Northeastern corner of Europe, is highly regarded by the global metalhead community. Its capital Helsinki contends for the title of metal world’s top spot. A look at the gig listings of the numerous venues and clubs in Helsinki, and elsewhere, confirms that heavy metal and hard rock bands take to the stage daily. Finnish album sales and down- load charts feast on the heavy stuff.
Finland is still a marginal player in the global music industry. Music exports are twenty times smaller in value than they are in neighboring Sweden, and Finland’s main music markets are in Europe and the US –which accounts for one-tenth of the total. Nevertheless, Music Export Finland (Musex) claims that exports have risen ten times in value since the millennium and were worth 32 million euros in 2009. A significant proportion of this is likely to have been in heavy metal sales.
A Finnish Brand
To have a unique product proposition is important for a small country like Finland, proud of its distinctive character. As the Finnish Music Information Center suggests: “In our sparsely populated country there is room for music to grow and blossom. There is space for the most diverse of phenomena, with the new and the eccentric rubbing shoulders with the traditional and conventional.” Indeed, the Finnish metal apparatus has brought forth many pioneering musical concepts that combine eccentricity with tradition and this has fuelled a crossover appeal to the metal genre.
For example, Amorphis has created a progressive symbiosis of melody and growl rooted in Finnish folklore, particularly on the “Kalevala”, the nation’s epic work of poetry. Turisas, Finntroll and other acts, have made their mark with “folk/pagan” metal. Nightwish, the prime metal group of the country, has paved the way for throngs of followers that have embraced the domain of operatic landscapes and screaming female soundalikes. While Children of Bodom is known for death metal, HIM has preached its “Love Metal” to fans abroad. If there is someone who comes up with the idea of playing metal with four cellos, like Apocalyptica did, it likely is a Finn.
Heavy metal is fractured into dozens of style categories and subcategories, many of which have a relatively small yet devoted fan base dispersed across the world. In the wake of the best-known acts, others are re- sorting to promotion using social media and touring abroad. Swallow The Sun, Insomnium, and Moonsorrow have reached individual fans and earned respect beyond the Finnish border.
Thus, metal music exports have changed perceptions about Finland. Metal has recently become a major ingredient of Finland’s branding and is perhaps as influential as its classical music, with composer Jean Sibelius, ever was. Following the unexpected victory of the monster group Lordi in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2006, it was not unusual to hear the Finnish president or foreign minister mention the importance of metal in media, or to witness the prime minister publicly showing the sign of the horns for the press. The ‘Finnish Metal’ motto, often used both by media, and music practitioners, and internalized by audiences, has propelled a number of smaller and novel bands with notoriety. Through metal, many fans of Finnish bands have also become interested in the history and geography of the country.
Nightwish, a band from Kitee, a small city in the Finnish countryside, is the biggest export article and has sold millions of records. “Imaginaerum”, their latest, sold triple platinum in Finland just a couple of days after its release. Total sales have now exceeded 100,000 copies in a country of only 5.4 million inhabitants. The band has truly managed to tack their grandiose atmospheric metal sound into the mainstream. To date, it has gathered over 2.7 million likes on its Facebook site, an impressive number for a Finnish group. Of course, Nightwish has work to do to become a top player in the world stage. Industry giant Metallica has 24.3 million likes and even Evanescence, stylistically the distant American kin of Nightwish, has gathered some 13.6 million hits. But the progressive metal kings Dream Theater are behind with just 2.4 million.
Traditionally, the American music market has been difficult for Finns. Gaining recognition crossing the Atlantic requires intensive touring in geographically dispersed locations. Nightwish has gained most of its international success in mainland Europe and in some South American countries, playing at venues of a capacity of 4,000 to 10,000 and sometimes reaching gold record status. Recent tours covered the whole Globe, yet the challenge is still to win a stronger foothold in the US market.
The current Imaginaerum World Tour kicked off in Los Angeles, unofficially and undercover. The band played at the Key Club in January 2012 and continued its tradition of playing a secret small-scale show with a pseudonym, and used “Rubberband Of Wolves”. It was followed by the official tour start in front of some 4,000 people at the Gibson Amphitheater. Imaginaerum also debuted on the Billboard 200 chart at #27 in its first week of release.
Imaginaerum is a concept that is taking Nightwish to a new narrative, a hybrid of an album and a full-length feature film (to be released later in 2012). Novel ideas are also brought forward to add to the visual experience. The concept is praised as a rather unique endeavor not only by the band and fans alike, but also by the metal press. Marketing can be unorthodox with a mix of conventional campaigns, contests, and other means of fan engagement. The first single of the album, the song Storytime, was released through the website of ‘Aku Ankka’, the Finnish Donald Duck comic. Tuomas Holopainen, the band’s keyboard player who is a serious Disney fan, suggested the move. Nightwish also collaborated with Battery Energy Drink, owned and produced by Sinebrychoff (a Finnish company that belongs to the Carlsberg Breweries Group from Denmark). Battery was named as “the official energy drink of Nightwish”, and the joint business is being marketed in various ways including the launch of a “Battery Limited Edition by Nightwish” with Nightwish graphics on the can.
Nightwish represents Nordic eccentricity in terms of its concept, but the band is not characteristically Finnish in its appearance. Traits of Finnish culture and mindset are surely present, but the Nightwish narrative, manifested through the lyrical, musical, and visual landscape of the band’s albums and concerts, is more universal. The Nightwish universe and mythology is Holopainen’s personal vision entangled with many external references to well-known messengers of fan- tasy fairylands. It contains reminiscences of J.R. Tolkien and Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Disney and Tim Burton, Ennio Morricone, Neil Gaiman and Salvador Dali. All are personal favorites of Holopainen and great inspirations for his song writing.
This confluence of Finnish and foreign interests may explain the band’s appeal. It may be proof too that music will always embody the values of a particular culture at a given time, but that such values are much more universal now than they have ever been. In the meantime, Finnish metal music may well be said to be coming a full circle, seemingly returning value to the world that inspired it.
By Toni-Matti Karjalainen