In the land of snow, saunas, modernist design, love metal and Romantic composer Jean Sibelius – Finland – a slew of new bands is finally getting the attention they deserve.
Words by Shirine Saad
Finland is a dark, stormy, icy land squeezed between Sweden and Russia, which both colonized it back when they were powerful empires. The Finns are a sinisterly humorous, introverted people with a patriotic fondness for their lakes and tundra, vodka and saunas. For a long time, metal music, soft or heavy, perfectly suited their gloomy sensibility, and it became a massive phenomenon across the country. It’s very common while traveling across the country to stumble upon hordes of bony, ghostly goths with black dyed hair, heavy liner, blue lipstick and all-black leather outfits.
But in the past decade as Finland has continued to open up to the world. The music scene has boomed, reflecting new trends worldwide while keeping its intrinsic Finnish melancholy and introvertedness. Robust hip-hop, indie rock, art rock, folk and reggae scenes have emerged, some appealing to audiences internationally, such as dream pop act Regina, shoegazers Rubik, prog-rockers Siinai and pop-rockers Burning Hearts. “I think in the last five years or so there has been a massive change in Finland culturally — Finland has opened up somewhat,” says Nick Triani, who moved to Helsinki from England 14 years ago to launch the influential Soliti indie rock label, which represents folk band Cats on Fire and noisy rockers Black Twig. “This change has been most visible in Helsinki, which I think has transformed itself into one of the most vibrant and cosmopolitan European capitals. I think the new talent coming from Finland is ahead of the rest of Scandinavia right now and Finland is becoming one of the hottest territories for new talent worldwide. ”
The excellent Music and Media trade fair, which takes place in Tampere – the Manchester of Finland, has been particularly influential in the region. Festivals like Flow, to which hipsters from across the world flock in the second week of August, and major international concerts organized by the very influential Fullsteam records (home of Rubik and Disco Ensemble) have brought a greater variety of music to the country and helped open up the scene to the world. Fullsteam is just one of a dozen new labels that have helped launch new genres and bands — and end the reign of metal music that had started in the eighties. Other labels include Fonal, the country’s most important export indie label, Soliti and GAEA, the celebrated new indie rock/pop labels, Monsp, which produces hip-hop, Ektro, which represents the weird art rock scene in Pori and Sähkö, a pioneer electronic music label.
Finland’s rock scene is rooted in the 70s musical revolutions. “The rise of progressive rock in the early 70s and the punk rock explosion in the late 70s were the most influential things to the whole Finnish rock scene for a good three or four decades,” says Teemu Fiilin, the editor-in-chief of indie music magazine Ramba. “Basically the whole Finnish alternative music scene and indie record label culture is based on those genres and early, innovative record labels such as Love Records in the 70s.” Love Records was the country’s first jazz and alternative label, home of prog-rock legends Wigwam and Tasavallan Presidenti. Later in the 80s punk glam rock band Hanoi Rocks became hugely successful worldwide, even influencing the Guns and Roses. The prominent heavy metal scene emerged at that time, when young and technically advanced thrash and speed metal bands such as Stone became active. They paved the way to a diverse and vivid underground metal scene, with many influential hardcore, death metal and black metal bands.
During the late 1990′s, with bands like Children of Bodom, Sentenced, Nightwish, love metal phenomenon HIM and Amorphis, the Finnish metal became a huge commercial hit, inside and outside the country, as many of them sang in English.
While metal mostly caught on in working class and rural areas, recently in hipster neighborhoods of Helsinki and university cities such as Turku and Tampere, a new rock alternative scene has emerged, replacing the darkness of metal with a lighter mood. Riding the wave of blogs, social media, digital promotion and global exchanges, the country’s best bands are mostly focusing on making exportable sounds, managing to compete with the established Swedish pop rock industry. “I think the Finnish sound has always been unique,” says Triani, “as it always has this strange strand of Finnish melancholia about it which I can hear in most genres of Finnish music. It relates to the remoteness, the surroundings, the environment. On the other hand Swedish popular music tends to be a more processed version of what’s happening around the world at any given time. This makes it more clinical in many ways. Finnish music is more original than it’s Swedish counterpart. It has its own kind of soul.”
One of the country’s most distinctive bands is Regina, which released their fourth album, Soita Mulla, last year to critical acclaim. The three-member ensemble creates dense, fuzzy atmospheres with layers of heavy guitar and bass riffs, rhythmic percussions and crystalline ballads sang in Finnish – and a fair share of cooing and whispering. The music is light, playful, and singer Iisa Pikari’s innocent voice is dreamy and sweet – the kind of pop ballads you would whistle to on a crisp summer day, laying by the lake. “The main themes of the songs are slowness, free time, light and love,” Iisa Pykäri told local magazine We Are Helsinki. “They are introduced in the form of sleeping or for example hanging out by the pool, both of which are elements that are related to youth. The idea was to capture a certain moment or feeling instead of telling thorough and detailed stories.” The album has been compared to Ride, Cocteau Twins and 4AD legends such as Lush and Belly. While the Finnish lyrics seem inaccessible to some non-Finns, critics and listeners are charmed. “I guess some of the appeal is because they are so exotic,” says Fiilin, “yet really catchy and pleasant sounding with their warm synths and wall-of-sound-guitars.”
One of the many bands that have chosen to sing in English is Rubik, an artsy four-member rock band that is internationally renowned. Rubik’s music is a strangely alluring jumble of prog rock, no wave, catchy choruses, gypsy violins, gongs and energetic beats – their concerts often feature 10 band members on stage. They’re known as Finland’s Radiohead for their emotional lyrics and sounds – but they’re much artsier and messier. Their third release, Solar, is by far their most commercial to date, and was conceived as a solid album that one listens to from beginning to end. “We locked ourselves into the studio for way too many months,” says singer Artturi Taira, “and decided to make a real album, 45 minutes of pure music.” The LP was mixed by Ben Allen of M.I.A. and Animal Collective and is filled with anthemic songs that, as the singer suggests, make you want to run naked in the woods or scream into an empty space.
Regina and Rubik, two of Finland’s most successful indie bands, are reflections of the pulsing creativity of this country once isolated from the world. “I think the Finnish scene has leapfrogged a lot during the past 10 years from the backwoods of Europe to one of the most internationally interesting hotspots culturally,” says Ville Kilpelaïnen, an agent from Fullsteam records, which represents Rubik. “The thing that makes the Finnish scene interesting is that some of the music that’s influenced current bands would be deemed pretty weird in some parts of the world.” He also notes that Finland has always been on the border where east meets west — the arts are influenced not only by western culture but by also Russian and Baltic traditions. “This gives people a broader perspective on the world,” he says. “We’ve managed to hold on to our trademark, weirdness, which is a very good thing for the arts.”
Hear “World Around You” off Rubik’s album Solar