in From the Archives

Finnish rock’s move out to the world

by Ilkka Mattila

Finland can do nothing about its geographical location and its short summers and long winters. But can it still be a fun and exciting country, full of dancing and singing?
In the summer of 2001, Finnish popular music fans were thrilled. There had been major headlines in the Finnish media about two Finnish pieces simultaneously making it into the top 10 of the UK Singles Chart: the electro-house hit Freestyler by Bomfunk MC’s and the trance-techno favourite Sandstorm by Darude.

Making it onto the UK chart is one of the greatest achievements in the world of popular music, and it seemed to be especially significant for Finns. They were used to being underdogs in the field of entertainment, shivering away in the cold northeastern corner of Europe.

Prosperous but cold country

Finns had been successful in many things. The country was prosperous and technologically developed, delegations from all over came to admire its educational system, and equal rights for women and men throughout society had been better achieved than in many other countries. The rest of the world was only a couple of hours away by plane, but in the eyes of the rest of the world, Finland seemed hopelessly remote, dark, and cold.

Finland was not considered the kind of fun and exciting country where people dance and sing, and there was no demand for Finnish popular music abroad. Instead, Finns were famous for achievements in car racing, skiing, javelin throwing, and other activities for loners.

Everything changed in summer 2001

Neither Bomfunk MC’s nor Darude have so far been able to surpass the success they achieved in the summer of 2001. Bomfimk’s Freestyler was the most sold single in all of Europe in 2001. Since that summer, Finnish popular music has not been the same anymore. Before then, popular music in Finland was made mainly for Finnish audiences. Today, four years after the first great Finnish hits, Finns finally believe that the world of international popular music does not end at the Swedish border.

Now, in autumn 2005, Finnish papers present only small stories on inside pages about the chart ratings of Finnish artists. The country’s most famous rock bands — HIM, The Rasmus, Nightwish, and Children of Bodom — have sold several million records worldwide. The interest of Finnish tabloid readers is now at most kept up by the question of whether Madonna’s or HIM’s new album will rate higher on the US album chart. The phenomenon also illustrates a less superficial aspect. Due to the international success of Finnish popular music, its distinctive characteristics have become more evident to Finns too.

Already before the international success of Finnish musicians, it was known that Finns like to listen to Finnish music and to hard rock. In 2004, Finnish music represented 56% of all record sales in Finland, and many of the favourite artists sing in Finnish.

Because Finnish is in practice completely incomprehensible to people in all other countries, except perhaps Estonians, it is understandable that all the Finnish artists that have reaped success abroad sing in English.

Heavy metal background

The most successful Finnish rock bands of the current decade sing in English, and all of their music has a clear connection with the history of heavy metal. HIM’s modern Gothic rock has a ring of Black Sabbath; Nightwish’s romantic fantasy metal is in a long line of descent from British hard psychedelic rock; nu metal of the 90s can be heard in the current style of The Rasmus; and the roots of Children of Bodom include the American bands Metallica, Anthrax, and Slayer.

Finns have always liked hard rock. They did not desert heavy metal due to the punk wave in the 70s, the stadium rock boom in the 80s, or the great popularity of electronic dance music in the 90s. There was an economic depression in Finland in the 90s like in many other countries, and this affected the number of gigs, but there were long lines to get into concerts by the giants of hard rock. Arena and huge outdoor concerts by bands like Metallica and Iron Maiden were sold out.

Advent of formatted radio stations

The popularity of hard rock was also boosted by changes in Finnish radio broadcasting in the 90s. New radio stations concentrated on popular music according to international radio formats, playing dance hits successful on European singles charts and Finnish pieces representing the same style.

At the same time, new heavy metal bands formed in Finland, and their wild gigs quickly attracted fans. Their concert success began to slowly show in record sales too, with more and more heavy metal bands climbing surprisingly high on the Finnish top 40 chart.

Like hit music stations elsewhere in the world, Finnish radio stations did not play heavy metal in their prime time shows — despite the fact that heavy metal was hit music in Finland.

For a while, heavy metal became protest music. In newspaper and magazine interviews, the successful heavy metal bands caustically criticised the radio stations. Even people who were not avowed heavy metal fans bought records by Children of Bodom, Nightwish, Sentenced, or Stratovarius just because they were tired of the narrow-minded radio programmes.

During the current decade, heavy metal has slowly merged with the mainstream. Radio stations also gradually began to play international HIM and Nightwish hits. And at the big rock festivals in Finland’s short summers, Finnish heavy metal giants became the main acts, not the foreign rock newcomers praised in the British media.

Heavy metal was even allowed into the heart of the capital. Specialised in heavy metal, the midsummer Tuska Festival has been held for a few years already in a park close to Helsinki’s main train station and the National Theatre. The three-day event attracts more than 10,000 heavy metal fans. Each year, the crowd of stereotypical pierced, face-painted heavy metal fans in black leather is joined by an increasing number of normal Finnish rock listeners.

Finnish rock in Finnish

The rise of heavy metal was accompanied in the 90s by that of a new rock generation that sings Finnish lyrics. Before, rock sung in Finnish had been personified by the singer-songwriters that began in the 70s and the bands that emerged during the punk wave. Of these, Eppu Normaali is still a Finnish rock giant in 2005. Their first record appeared in 1978, and they are a kind of Finnish version of the Rolling Stones or the Who, with sales of more than one million records and performances in soldout stadiums.

Modern rock sung in Finnish has a lot in common with any kind of European rock. Finnish artists born in the 70s and 80s have been influenced by U2, Radiohead, Nirvana, and other big names of contemporary rock — and of course by heavy metal. A special national flavour is provided by the Finnish language, which differs strongly from the main European languages in terms of rhythm and sounds. Many successful Finnish artists are able to use their mother tongue as both a literary and musical instrument.

The band CMX has been active for 20 years already, making music in which poetic and carefully polished Finnish is combined with an instrumental sound descended from hardcore punk and psychedelic metal. Zen Café is successful with a nearly opposite kind of concept; its pieces are short-story-like and photographically precise glimpses into Finnish everyday life. The groups singer Samuli Putro uses the Finnish languages percussive and dry rhythms as effects in depicting his songs’ characters either with brutal sarcasm or unaffected sympathy.

Strong women

Maija Vilkkumaa has become one of the most popular Finnish rock artists of the current decade. She writes straightforward rock songs in which one can hear both the musical and lyrical influence of Finnish rock stars of previous generations. Vilkkumaa has many fans, and these are often young girls that have discovered in her songs the frustrated rage of a “good little girl”.

Other women can also be found among the Finnish rock elite. The most Finnish aspect of Jonna Tervomaa’s music is the language, whereas her musical influences are mostly from the American songwriter tradition. On the other hand, Paula Vesala’s and Mira Luoti’s duo PMMP combines punk-like energy and pop ploys with frank and touching lyrics.

Cultural integration

Many successful Finnish artists have been able to integrate Finnish lyrics describing Finnish life into an Anglo-American musical setting. Anssi Kela’s first album Nummela was a triple platinum seller in Finland at the beginning of the current decade. Kela’s musical relatives are Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and Johnny Cash, and his lyrics describe how small-town people are confronted with reality in matters of love, work, and family life — a bit reminiscent of Springsteen.

Combining the harmonies and college rock power sounds of the Beach Boys and the Byrds, the band Egotrippi sang carefree guitar pop songs on its first recording. The band did not however achieve greater popularity until many years later when darker and less refined tones crept into its music and lyrics. Talk about Scandinavian melancholy may sound like a cliche, but Finnish audiences have for decades most appreciated those singers and songwriters whose music is best able to express melancholy, disappointment, and anxiety in beautiful and captivating ways.

And to not forget heavy metal, Finnish is also suited to the heaviest kind of rock. The current decade’s first big name in heavy metal with Finnish lyrics was Timo Rautiainen & Trio Niskalaukaus, which had actually already retired from the concert stage. Its distinctive characteristics are the slow beat of 70s hard rock, a sullen and unaffected image, and sharply critical texts often dealing with greed and selfishness.

A brand new Finnish heavy metal star is Teräsbetoni. They make purposely exaggerated fantasy rock and play the role of “metal warriors”. Teräsbetoni is a Finnish counterpart to the most famous representative of the genre, the American Manowar.

In between rock with Finnish lyrics and heavy metal, other makers of popular music are indeed also flourishing. Despite Finland’s small recording market, the country also has a long tradition of alternative rock sung in English. This includes British-style indie rock, American-style punk, electronic rock, psychedelic folk rock, and much more.

Typical Finnish alternative rock musicians break genre boundaries without any concern for what kinds of terms and labels marketing and the media might assign to their musical creations.

Marginals that made it onto the world map

Before 2000 and the commercial success of Finnish artists, it was believed that an international career was possible only with independent pop and rock that deviated from the mainstream. And some have been successful this way. 22-Pistepirkko began its career in the middle of the 80s already, and it has become a European cult favourite with a stable audience. In terms of record sales, it remains far behind the hit artists, but its sound is recognisable aud unique. 22-Pistepirkko has been influenced by everything from old blues to garage rock from the 60s to modem electronic rock.

The Flaming Sideburns is one of the most energetic Finnish touring bands. It also represents the same generation that cherishes the spirit of 70s rock as, for example, the Swedish bands the Hellacopters and the Soundtrack of Our Lives.

Such groups as Lemonator and The Crash have also had careers comprising many records. Lemonator is more an heir of American alternative rock, whereas The Crash is influenced by British rock, glam, and hits from the 80s.


Translation: Ekhart Georgi

Featured picture: HIM at Wiltern, Los Angeles, in 2010.


This article was first published in FMQ 4/2005, and is republished online with the kind permission of the author.