The first time I interviewed Jarkko Aaltonen, the bass player from Korpiklaani, he told me that this tour is definitely one that fans shouldn't miss. The lineup of bands, he suggested, guarantees an evening of great music. He was absolutely right. I've seen lots of shows over the years and I always worry that those with several acts on the ticket will be ultimately boring. With this tour, though, every band brought a different approach to the growing folk metal scene. To my ears, the variety was quite welcome and helped me realize that folk metal should not be seen as a passing fad or as an easy gimmick. I suppose it's possible that any band can add a violin player or a flute player, but after tonight, they're going to have to prove that they have the chops these guys have. Even though these bands play with a similar approach to folk melodies and traditions, they don't sound the same; instead, they bring out new sides to this emerging genre and give it welcome new life.
The evening began with a performance by a local Salt Lake City band called Visigoth. I only caught the tail-end of their set, but I was really impressed not only with their sound, but also with the number of fans who came out to see them. They obviously have a loyal following. I noticed, too, that they hung around their merchandise table and talked to fans, something I always like to see. Nobody likes the remote, distant rock star. Their guitarist told me after the show that Visigoth is working on a full-length album and that they currently have a Bandspace page with an EP's amount of music available for download.
After a bold opening, the evening just got stronger and stronger. For readers who aren't familiar with Metsatoll, they are a folk metal band from Estonia. More precisely, they are currently the biggest metal act in Estonia and have a large and loyal family of fans outside of the United States. What fans can expect from them is folk metal with a hard edge. They reminded me a little of traditional metal bands from the 80s (I don't mean the lame hair band stuff, but the heavy back end of bands like Judas Priest). Their bagpipe / flute / and other folk instrument player brings a great deal of life to the stage as he moves around, at times flinging his bagpipes around like a frenzied lead guitarist. These guys play a great set and keep the audience involved. At times, their sound wavered a little with certain instruments not getting enough sound, but the set came off strong. Keep your eye on these guys.
With Tyr, Moonsorrow, and Korpiklaani, the fans became a lot more vocal. They sang along with the words or chanted along with melodies. Korpiklaani got them all dancing in a more polka-oriented style. Even the mosh pit turned into an odd, eclectic, blend of pushing, shoving, and dancing. I wish I had some video clips of these tough-guy metal fans trying to kick up their heels to the rhythm. Tyr's set was mostly made of material from their latest album. Fans shouted out requests, but they were usually deflected. It didn't matter. These guys play with incredible energy, particularly the two guitarists who played some of the most intense and aggressive solos I've seen lately. Things slowed down a little too much during "Evening Star," a good song, but one that thinned out the audience a bit and cut down on the energy of the crowd. "Hold the Heathen Hammer High," on the other hand, was welcomed with loud cheers.
I've never seen Moonsorrow before and haven't followed their career all that closely. I loved the fact that they play a much darker style of heavy metal. It provided a nice contrast to the more upbeat folk-infused music of the earlier bands. Like the others, their songs draw on national mythology, mostly of the fighting between Christian soldiers and natives, but their presentation is darker, more threatening. The band performs with red paint smeared on their heads, face, and chests, a symbol, I am guessing, of not only a warrior past but also a nod to the corpse-paint of other Black Metal bands. Their set was strong, especially the last number "The Land of the Dead," a haunting work that clocks in at well over ten minutes. As their set ended, the band left the stage one member at a time, the drums steadily pounding out the song's general rhythm. Moonsorrow's music has a shocking quality to it, particularly in its presentation of music that reflects some of the tensions between Christianity and folk / pagan cultures of generations past.
Korpiklaani took the stage with the highest level of energy of the night. Their lead singer, Jonne, never stops moving. He dances around with the microphone stand almost exactly the way Axl Rose did. The rest of the band followed suit, particularly the violin player who jumped around so much that I honestly couldn't keep my eyes on him for very long. They played a strong set, mostly made up of new stuff at first, but then they quickly moved into their alcohol-inspired songs like "Happy Little Boozer," "Vodka," and others. These songs are crowd pleasers and got fans dancing, singing, and shouting. There's more to these guys than their drinking songs, but, for better or worse, the fans go craziest for the party songs. In another interview, Jarkko Aaltonen told me that he'd like to see the band explore some slightly different musical directions, perhaps ease off a little from the boozy stuff. I'd agree--these guys are too talented to be thought of only as the band that asks fans "is everybody ready to polka?"
Prior to the show, I once again caught up with Jarkko for a few minutes to talk about the tour and the new album:
SoT: So how are fans receiving the new album?
JA: I don't know. For some reason I felt like the previous album [Ukon Wacka] fell into complete silence almost like this one [Manala] has so far. Only a handful of reviews are out, but you are asking about the fans, which is a different thing anyway. I mostly only follow the reactions from our Facebook page to find out what people are saying. It's always the same thing; some people are saying that we're only repeating the same thing from the previous albums and then other people are saying that it is too far away from the previous albums. There are always those who complain, but for the first time we are on the Finnish charts for more than one week, so I guess it's been doing a bit better that way.
SoT: What do you think is different about this album? You said some people say it's too similar to other work, but what do you think?
JA: You always compare. If you buy an album from an old favorite, then of course you compare it to the old stuff and it's really difficult to take albums as they are and not as a continuation of what's gone before. The album is a good album in my opinion. I like it more than the previous ones. One of the biggest reasons why I like it is that it's far more serious. We have always had some songs that have a funny or fun attitude and for some people those are the only songs that they know or remember and I do not particularly like to be labeled as a band that only plays songs like "Happy Little Boozer" or whatever. We've always had way more serious stuff than those songs and I know that there are people who appreciate the more serious stuff and not always the drinking songs. The songs about drinking are always the loudest [in concert, with the fans screaming, singing along, etc.] for obvious reasons!
SoT: How's the North American tour coming along?
JA: It's been really good so far. We started in Canada with three shows and in Canada we always have big audiences. The USA hasn't been any worse. But now we have to travel longer distances between shows and so we have to play an occasional show in the middle of nowhere. Yesterday we were in Billings, Montana. The crowd wasn't very big, but it was a nice show. Seeing new people and seeing new territory is nice.
SoT: You wrote two tracks on the current album. You want to talk about your songwriting a little more? Do you like to write songs?
JA: We've never written songs together as a band. On one of my songs Jonne [Jarvela--lead singer] changed a few chords and some of the verse. We bounce ideas over email, but we've never really written music together. It's something that would probably be worth trying, but I know that with me if I'm forced to write I cannot come up with anything. I write when I have to. Usually when I get up in the morning, I think that I should get up and play the guitar a little.
SoT: Do you play guitar as well as bass, then?
JA: I never play bass and home. I'm not a very good guitarist, but I write music with the guitar.
SoT: Have you always been a bass player?
JA: I started with bass, yes. I have been playing guitar for pretty much the same amount of time.
SoT: Are there other bands coming out of Finland that American audiences ought to look for in the future? Who are American fans missing out on?
JA: I don't know who you are missing, that is a difficult question. I don't necessarily follow Finnish music broadly. I follow the bands that we tour with, and I know what they are doing. I have no idea about the up-and-coming bands.
SoT: Is the metal scene strong there?
JA: I think so. There are acts everywhere. But Grandmothers are buying heavy metal albums for their grandchildren. Maybe that's the death kiss for heavy metal in Finland.
SoT: It's not seen as rebellious anymore?
JA: Finland is such a liberal country in many ways. It's really difficult to shock people.
SoT: That's a big part of metal--shocking people.
JA: It used to be kind of rebellious. But just like with rock and roll itself, it's becoming more and more accepted. The people who started things in the beginning--they are grandfathers now, so things change.
SoT: I heard that Ozzy Osborne once said that since everybody has a tattoo, it's more rebellious to not have a tattoo. But he's also gone more mainstream with things like his MTV reality show.
JA: I would never call Ozzy metal. I am a huge Black Sabbath fan and have endured some of his solo material, but to me it's always someone else--like Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath. He was metal. Ozzy was a little more like a singing clown; no offense to Ozzy with that. He did a good job.
SoT: People have gone so much further than he did. Tony Iommi is my guitar hero--he's amazing. You're a big Black Sabbath Fan, then?
JA: I'm a big Tony Iommi fan.
SoT: Last time we talked, we discussed the Kalevala and the Finnish mythology and how it influenced the new album. I meant to ask you about Jean Sibelius and his classical music based on the Kalevala.
JA: Of course, I'm familiar with some of his works, but I'm no expert. It was different at that time because when he wrote his most well-known material, his work from the Kalevala, it was a time when national romanticism was growing. It started from the release of Kalevala somewhere around 1836 and for nearly the next 100 years, there was a strong rise of nationalism in Finland which was part of the Russian empire at the time. There were lots of artists, painters, poets, composers who worked with the Kalevala for inspiration. There was strong sense of nationalism, but not in the sense that you sometimes use it today when people confuse it with things like the Nazis, but that isn't the case with these artists. It was a time of awakening of the Finnish nation and it was quite clear that these artists were drawing on Finnish mythology to establish a national past.
SoT: Do bands like Korpiklaani keep the awareness of the Finnish past alive?
JA: It is dangerous for a band to say that they are nationalistic these days because it has a bad vibe or echo because the word has many connotations. You aren't supposed to be proud of where you are from; you're supposed to be a European with no national identity. We clearly are very Finnish and promote whatever that means.