How to collect Nordic pop music, part six: the Finnish course

Last week Finland marked a hundred years since it declared independence from Russia. “What timing,” I thought. But digging around for Finnish pop music for our seven-week dive into Nordic pop hasn’t been easy. Unlike its neighbors, Finland has kept a much lower profile (at least for the most part) and so it was a bit more difficult looking for easy entry points to the country’s music. And then it all clicked into place, somewhat. Like its neighbors, they have had a presence in our collective musical consciousness – we’re just not aware of it.

 

It’s safe to say, however, that we are at least familiar with the Rasmus. Back in the mid-2000s, when alternative rock was big and top 40 stations scrambled to fill the airwaves with more guitars, the band scored an international hit with “In The Shadows”. And then tastes changes and they went back, er, in the shadows. But they’re no one-hit wonder: the band continued to see success in their home country, where they began as a funk band – yep – in the late 1990s before shifting towards heavier rock with their third album, Hell of a Taster.

Chances are musically you’d know Finland more for its guitar-driven music. The Finnish embraced rock and roll early on, with record label Love Records releasing some of the most important records in the 60s and 70s. (One example is Blues Section, one of Finland’s best known psychedelic acts.) While most of their acts performed in Finnish, some attempted to cross over to the rest of Europe with English tracks, although they saw limited success. They would push with that template for decades to come, embracing punk, electronica and other genres to varying degrees – and that’s the path we will take, at least for now.

 

Like its neighbors, Finland also made a name for itself with metal, with several Finnish bands making a name in the genre, and pushing boundaries to boot, too. Children of Bodom, for one, merged power metal and death metal with surprisingly irresistible results. Then there’s Apocalyptica, which went one step further by basing itself almost entirely on the cello. Stratovarius has established itself as one of the world’s biggest power metal acts (and arguably Finland’s most seminal metal act), while Nightwish is one of the country’s best-selling acts in any genre, and Sonata Arctica (again with those names evocative of the sky) is following in their trail after shifting from hard rock.

Two bands come to mind more easily, however, at least for me. There’s HIM, whose gothic-flavored rock has truly earned them an international audience: their 2005 record Dark Light charted in fifteen countries and was particularly successful in the United States – the romantic undertones of their music must have resonated. And then there’s Lordi, who defied expectations by being the first (and, so far, the only) hard rock act to win Eurovision in 2006. Perhaps it’s their costumes, particularly their masks, which you’ll never see off their faces; perhaps it’s their music’s anthemic nature, a bit reminiscent of AC/DC, which does click with the whole shtick of Eurovision, if you think of it.

 

Finland also got an early head start with electronic music. It also goes back to the 1960s, and to Renaissance man Erkki Kurenniemi, who designed electronic instruments and studio tools while volunteering for the University of Helsinki’s musicology department, and later composed tracks of his own, decidedly experimental. One of modern Finnish electronica’s modern pushers is Jori Hulkkonen, who has released music under several names and also produced for others, and helped push the country’s electronica movement internationally. And then there are his poppier songs, like his work with Juho Paalosmaa, under the name Sin Cos Tan.

The country has a notable trance scene: it’s so prevalent they put the country’s name on it – “suomisaundi” literally means “Finnish sound”. Taking off from the psy trance offshoot, it has allowed its proponents more freedom to explore different sounds, lending it a more progressive (if not anarchic) sound than most trance. One of the movement’s pioneers is Texas Faggott, whose music saw some success outside of Finland; they later inspired other acts like Mullet Mohawk and Squaremeat. Just outside the movement is yet another popular producer, although one I know from seeing his name on completely unrelated YouTube videos: Darude, whose 1999 single “Sandstorm” pretty much took over.

 

This is when things get tricky. This is the point when I’m supposed to pivot towards the more indie side of Finnish music, but then there aren’t really a lot of examples, at least for acts who are making waves outside of their home country. I only have a couple of obvious examples. One is Satellite Stories, who have gained an audience across Europe with their jumpy, comfortably throwback-y indie pop. Another is Alma, who you perhaps know for her outrageous image, but whose “Chasing Highs” found a spot on many pop stations within the continent, if not outside it. (All right, it’s not exactly indie, but there’s some hipster cred in this track, particularly in the United States.)

But then it all boils down, again, to Finnish acts choosing to perform in their native language, limiting their crossover appeal. It makes for some “hidden gem”-like finds, that feeling I get when I stumble upon, say, French-singing acts I really like. One example is Pariisin Kevät – literally “Paris spring” – founded in 2007 as a solo project for Arto Tuunela, and later evolved into a full-fledged band. On the slightly heavier (but more melodic than the metal bands) side is Happoradio, who have seen success across Scandinavia. But then you realize that there’s Finnish representation in other indie pop acts, like in The Dø, whose vocalist, Olivia Merlihati, traces her lineage back to Finland, and considers the language her “secret language” with her mother.

 

The cross-pollinating past of Finnish music meant it’s really hard to pin down outright pop from the country, at least apart from Alma and the country’s traditional iskelmä (think German schlager) scene. (One of the country’s biggest acts is a folk duo in their 70s, Matti ja Teppo.) Thanks to all those influences, Finland actually has a diverse chart: you get folk acts mingling with rock acts like Eppu Normaali and the occasional English-singing artist. Finland does have some pop acts, but you can easily categorize them into the singer-songwriter category. Take Maija Vilkkumaa, who pursued a solo career after the break-up of her band, or Anna Eriksson, who is one of the country’s best-selling female acts, crossing over many genres.

The pervasiveness of iskelmä meant there are a lot of sing-along-able pop acts in Finland – and good live acts, too. PMMP has a name slightly reminiscent of ABBA, and remain beloved years after their split, thanks to songs that, in their words, “live within the space between childhood and adulthood” – simple, optimistic, yet also complex. Moving towards the more poppier end is Nylon Beat, another duo brought together by reality TV who saw their heyday in the late 1990s. (K-pop followers, yes, S.E.S, more or less, covered one of their songs.) We end our look with Jenni Vartiainen, who started as a figure skater before winning a singing competition on television, which led to her forming a band and, later, going solo. Common trajectory, that. But there is a warm familiarity in her songs, if you just dig in. [NB]

 

[Next week: we wrap up our series with the music of Iceland.]

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