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Traditional, extreme and pop

by Esa Lilja

Heavy metal is nowadays divided into an endlessly growing number of subgenres. But how do they relate to the musical features of heavy metal music? And is there anything originally Finnish?

The number of heavy metal subgenres today is staggering. During the past decade or so it has become more and more common even for individual bands to try and establish a subgenre of their own (e.g. HIM’s ‘love metal’).  

Genre labels are useful for marketing purposes and for the fans to identify themselves with a particular group and subculture. Genre typology, however, usually relies on extramusical factors such as lyrics or dress code and musicians’ general appearance. Often the genre labels are more or less uninformative about the music itself.  

According to musical features (melody, harmony, rhythm, song structure, instrumental roles, timbre etc.) heavy metal genres can be divided roughly into three categories: traditional metal, pop metal and extreme metal. This distinction has been evident in the international heavy metal scene since the mid-1980s. The distinction still seems apt with contemporary Finnish heavy metal groups.  

The origins  

From the start Finnish heavy metal bands, as any Finnish pop/rock artists, have followed their European and American peers and role models. Despite active local scenes, the Finnish heavy metal scene of the mid-tolate 1980s was dominated by three bands, Zero Nine, Peer Gunt [sic] and a few years later Tarot – all of them still active.  

Although all of these could roughly be filed under the traditional strain of metal, there are some clear distinctions. Of the three, Tarot is the clearest descendant of the new wave of British heavy metal (NWOBHM), relying on both strong guitar riffs and vocal melodies. Zero Nine lean a bit more towards pop metal, with an emphasis on vocal melodies instead of riffs much in the style of, for example, the German band Scorpions. With its heavy guitar riffs and rough vocal style, Peer Gunt is often compared to the British band Motorhead, which was largely based on blues rock with more speed and distortion.  

Traditional metal  

Traditional heavy metal codified the musical features of the genre: heavy drums and bass, distorted electric guitar riffs, virtuoso guitar soloing and howling vocals. Compared to earlier styles such as blues rock, song structures were relatively complex; simpler and traditional cover songs were performed with a great deal of live improvisation. Towards the 1980s, arrangements became more fixed and performances less flexible. Also the organ that was frequently used in early heavy metal was often replaced by a second guitar. The interplay of dual guitars, or a guitar and an organ, is still a distinctive feature of traditional metal.  

In traditional metal, guitar riffs and vocal melodies are frequently organised around the old church modes rather than major or minor keys, the most frequent being Mixolydian, Dorian and Aeolian – the modes with a flattened seventh degree. Example 1 shows an excerpt from an Aeolian/Dorian chorus of Tarot’s Rose on the grave. Typical of traditional heavy metal, rhythmic/melodic counterpoint is shown between guitar, vocal and bass parts.  

While reading the musical examples it has to be remembered that the distorted guitar has a lot of sounding overtones; subsequently, the overall sound is much more complex than standard notation can show.

Example 1. Tarot: Rose on the grave [1:22–1:32]
© Marco & Zachary Hietala

Baroque and other classical influences were incorporated into traditional heavy metal from the start, especially in guitar and organ soloing. Stratovarius was probably the first to do this extensively in Finland, much in the spirit of Swedish guitar hero Yngwie Malmsteen.  

In the 1990s Nightwish brought a new twist to the genre: even if the high-pitched vocals had always been an essential part of traditional metal, this time the job was done by a classically trained female singer. Furthermore, a strong link to Finnish traditional metal has recently been made by Marco Hietala from Tarot, who has been the bass player and second singer in Nightwish for the past decade.  

Pop metal  

The genre fragmentation took place in the mid-1980s, with the rise of heavy metal into the popular mainstream. Musical differences from the traditional strain were notable. Although technical skills especially of guitar players had developed considerably, pop metal in general relied more on vocal melodies than guitar riffs. Although in traditional metal vocal melodies are important, a song is still much characterised by a guitar riff, whereas in pop metal a song is as strong as its vocal melody. Guitar chords mainly have an accompanying role, much in the fashion of American country rock, although with heavier timbre. In this regard a fair comparison would be pop, folk or campfire song.  

In Finland the fusing with mainstream pop was eventually realised in the international success of HIM. HIM’s Join me (in death) serves as an example, in which the heavily down-tuned guitar has an accompanying role, while vocal melody and the piano dominate the melodic structure. In this strain keyboards are often used to soften the otherwise metallic sound. The bass doubles the guitar chord root with no independent role – another characteristic of pop metal.  

Example 2. HIM: Join me (in death) [1:04-1:12]
© Ville Valo

Song structures are generally simpler in pop metal than in the traditional strain. Historically, to be more suitable for the MTV music video format, the songs usually followed the simple three-minute verse/chorus pop structure as opposed to the much longer song durations and complex structures of traditional heavy metal. Virtuoso guitar soloing is less important than in the traditional strain. In contrast to traditional and extreme metal, technical skills are not exploited to their maximum. In other words, although the musicians are generally very skilful, the song takes precedence over the individual technical performance. Regarding guitar technique, Mikko Lindstrom of HIM is a good example – although despite being a virtuoso guitar player since an early age, he does not play guitar solos on the albums.  

Another notable and internationally recognised pop metal group is Lordi, whose recent success at the Eurovision Song Contest forced even the most conservative Finnish politicians to acknowledge heavy metal as a legitimate style of music.  

Musically speaking, pop metal has also influenced other styles of recent Finnish popular music. Distorted guitar sounds and riffs that used to be a trademark of heavy metal have become more and more a part of the vocabulary of mainstream pop. This can be heard in the music of, for example, Anna Eriksson and PMMP, which was a pop/rock band originally formed around two female singers.  

Extreme metal  

Extreme strains of metal spawned as a counteraction to the growing commerciality of pop metal. Speed and thrash metal bands such as Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax made use of the aggressiveness and speed of hardcore punk but still maintained the complex song forms and guitar virtuosity of early metal and NWOBHM.  

Guitar distortion increased and vocal melodies became almost insignificant. While traditional and pop metal vocals always had recognisable pitch, extreme metal vocals relied on growling and screaming sounds, melodic vocal lines being of little or no importance. Although heavy metal in general was much appreciated by Finnish fans, and the country was already awash with excellent players (thanks to the Finnish music education system) it was very hard for a new heavy metal band to get decent gigs, and virtually impossible to get a recording contract with a major label. Also national radio and television neglected heavy metal, which might be due to the moral panic originated by certain religious groups at the time.  

However, in 1988 a rare television performance by the speed/thrash metal band Stone launched a new era for Finnish heavy metal. Largely due to this particular performance and their excellent instrumental skills, and in the wake of Metallica, Stone became pioneers of Finnish extreme metal.  

Extreme metal usually relies on dual guitars, whereas originally the organ was rarely used. Virtuoso soloing and instrumental control owe much to traditional metal, especially NWOBHM, only with more speed and guitar distortion. Also the use of ‘dark’ modes is characteristic, especially those including the tritone/diminished fifth against the tonic. The guitar riff to Stone’s Get stoned is illustrative, with its Locrian mode.

Example 3. Guitar riff to Get stoned [0:14–]
© Janne Joutsenniemi

The success of Stone was followed by a number of thrash metal bands, and moreover death and black metal groups, which in the early 1990s were less technically oriented but which quickly built up to the technical standards set by Stone. Examples include the black/doom band Barathrum and a black metal band Enochian Crescent, whose live performances have literally been bloody.  

Turisas and Finntroll incorporate folk instruments and influences in their music but ultimately still rely on the characteristics of extreme metal. The most direct link between early and recent Finnish extreme metal is probably Roope Latvala, guitar player of Stone. He was a prime influence upon Alexi Laiho, who eventually hired him for his band Children of Bodom as a second guitarist.  

Although most Finnish metal bands have remained more or less faithful to their original genre, some have changed their style during their history. For example, during the 1990s the black metal band Sentenced turned little by little towards NWOBHM, whereas Amorphis, which started out as a death metal band, moved towards even more traditional metal. Amorphis was much influenced by the late Kingston Wall – a Finnish progressive/psychedelic heavy rock band which in the early 1990s had a short but intense career that has influenced a number of bands of the traditional strain. Also there are some that are really hard to put under any of these genre labels, the best example being perhaps Apocalyptica, which started out as a distorted cello quartet (nowadays trio) playing Metallica covers. Later on they started writing their own music and added drums and vocals to the ensemble.  

Original Finnish features?  

It is a characteristic of a small country to have only one popular music style at a time. Both the 1980s and the 1990s were a rather difficult time for this genre, although these decades produced quite a number of songs and bands that are nowadays considered classics. For the past 10 years heavy metal has been an extremely popular music genre in Finland. Furthermore, Finnish metal has finally risen to the international mainstream and has also been exported with success. So are there any special Finnish characteristics in heavy metal? From the musical paradigm, Finnish heavy metal has always been an indistinguishable part of the international metal scene. Central musical features mainly follow the international change of tides. This can be heard by comparing the aforementioned bands with their international peers.  

Finnishness is usually expressed in extramusical characteristics such as national imagery and lyrics. Examples include the use of the Kalevala by Amorphis, the music of which much relies on traditional heavy metal, and Timo Rautiainen & Trio Niskalaukaus, who use the Finnish language with riffs and a singing style that owe much to Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne. Furthermore, whether the lyrics are in Finnish (or in Swedish as in the case of Finntroll), they have little to do with a musical experience, as the words can hardly be recognised due to the vocal output typical of extreme metal – you need to familiarise yourself with the lyrics beforehand.  

HIM’s use of minor keys is common to Finnish schlager, which is often melancholic, but rather unusual in pop metal in general. On the other hand, minor keys and darker modes are a central building block of traditional heavy metal. It seems that they have combined some central features of traditional metal and pop song, much in the spirit of, say, Depeche Mode, to create a style of their own.  

It is not so much the musical features themselves that make Finnish metal sound Finnish, but rather a combination of various influences and an innovative exploitation of genre-defining features that make Finnish metal sound unique.