For many a metal fan, Northern Europe and the so-called Nordic countries mean a huge amount of bands that make metal music that is heavy, unique, and of very high quality. While good metal music is made pretty much everywhere in the world, hailing from Northern Europe has long had a special kind of sparkle in a metalhead’s mind.
Indeed, Sweden, Norway and Finland have been some of the leading countries in the world as far as metal music goes. The list of successful, often ground-breaking metal bands from these countries reads like a who’s who of modern metal.
Sweden has been known for their pioneering metal bands since the 1980s. It’s fair to say that global metal music would look completely different without the Swedish contributions. Bathory, Candlemass, Entombed, Opeth, Ghost and a plethora of others represent various different kinds of Swedish metal, and Sweden keeps producing new quality bands all the time.
When thinking of Norway and metal music, pictures of grim, corpse-painted black metal bands comes to mind immediately, and for a reason. Norway was pivotal in making black metal what it is today. However, the Norwegian metal scene is much more than just that. Be it traditional heavy metal, punky extreme metal or epic Viking metal, Norwegians really got what it takes to make great music.
A statistic that even Barack Obama quoted showed that Finland has the most metal bands per capita in the whole world. It’s not really surprising, considering metal music is hugely popular in the land of the thousand lakes. Even extreme metal bands can show up on mainstream festivals and charts. On top of that, it’s only fitting that Finland’s sole Eurovision song contest winner, Lordi (who won in 2006), play heavy metal.
Iceland has a small, but extremely virile and unique metal scene and Denmark has also produced its share of awesome metal bands, all the way from the days of occult metal pioneers Mercyful Fate. It seems like a metal fan simply can’t go wrong by picking a band from the northernmost parts of Europe.
It’s difficult to say what makes Nordic countries such a fertile breeding ground for metal. “A lot of people seem to think that it has something to do with our long, cold and dark winters,” says Markus Laakso, a music journalist, musician (Kuolemanlaakso) and the author of the biography of Finnish metal legends Amorphis. “A stereotypical Finn is also said to be quiet, introverted and reclusive, and our traditional melodies are founded firmly in the minor scale, so perhaps we’re drawn to heavy and melancholic music by blood. But that’s just a theory.”
New metal bands from the Nordic countries seem to appear every day. Many of them have their own, strong personality and a will to take their sound into directions yet unexplored They try to find their own personality and aren’t afraid to show where they come from. They understand that instead of trying to sound like, for example, popular American metal bands, they’re better off playing music that has that unique Nordic flavour.
The word “trend”, of course, has a slightly unpleasant ring to it, especially among metal fans, who prefer to stay out of superficial things such as fashion and are happy to go against the grain. However, Nordic metal, just like any sort of music, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. What’s happening in the rest of the world, when speaking of both metal and music in general, influences what Nordic metal bands do. Still, as mentioned beforehand, it seems that Nordic metal bands seem to create movements, rather than just blindly follow them.
As far as Nordic metal music today goes, one term to describe it would be versatility. In general, there’s no conformity to be found in the scene. There’s something for everyone, for fans of traditional melodic metal and feinds for the harshest black metal alike. There are movements, smaller movements inside of them, and those who disregard conventional musical boundaries altogether and do something that simply cannot be compared to other bands – which, of course, often creates a movement in itself.
It looks like these days, many bands from the area, like many bands pretty much everywhere, are happy to focus on a sort of retro sound – recycling 1970s proto-metal, 1980s thrash metal, 1990s old school death metal and what have you. Some of them do it really well and even manage to add their own ingredients to the mixture, there’s no doubt about that. However, perhaps the most interesting metal music from the Nordic countries often comes from acts that are trying to do something genuinely new and unusual. And luckily, there are plenty of bands like that.
One thing that really affects the sound of modern metal is the ever-widening scope of influences. In the early stages of the development of metal music, it seemed like it was its own, very distinct area in music. Metal didn’t seem to influence other genres, and metal bands certainly didn’t seem to find inspiration from other kinds of music, except maybe metal’s closest “neighbouring” genres, such as hard rock, progressive rock and punk/hardcore.
That’s not the case anymore. These days, it’s common for metal bands to draw on all types of influences. You can hear traces of styles such as ambient, shoegaze and post-rock, to name but a few, in the sound of many modern Nordic metal bands. Especially many so-called post-metal bands, to use an admittedly ambiguous genre description, have risen from Nordic countries. Bands like Cult of Luna from Sweden or Sólstafir from Iceland are prime examples of unique Scandinavian post-metal bands, but it actually feels a little odd lumping these two bands together in the same genre, as they sound nothing like each other, though that just goes to show how varied the genre is.
Mixing metal with folk music has also been very popular lately among metal bands basically all over the world, especially in the Nordic countries, where there’s a rich cultural heritage and musical tradition to draw on – it’s only natural to add elements from one’s own traditional music to the picture.
The phenomenon is definitely not new: folk melodies and instruments have been widely used in metal music at least since the early 1990s. Classic Nordic metal bands, from Sweden’s Bathory to Amorphis from Finland, have been instrumental in creating what is today known as folk metal, although nobody used that genre name back then. Folk metal is these days associated especially with Finland, but every Nordic country has great bands from that genre.
Also, it seems that these days, many Nordic metal bands feel comfortable flirting even with elements of pop music. A prime example of such a band are Swedish occult rockers Ghost, who have climbed to the top of the charts around the world.
“I think that as a songwriter, [Ghost frontman] Papa Emeritus really is on the same level as Abba and the Beatles,” says Laakso. “That’s what I think of Ghost’s music: it’s pop with metal imagery and occasional metal riffing. A great band, nonetheless.”
Bringing in new influences often means widening the scope of what a genre of music means, and that’s what every genre need to stay vital. “Bands such as Oranssi Pazuzu from Finland are stretching the boundaries of metal and introducing a lot of new spices into old recipes,” Laakso adds.
Whatever turns Nordic metal will take in the future, it’s quite a safe bet that these five northern countries will keep producing new bands that are unique and classy. And maybe their very uniqueness is the common thread that runs through the best metal bands from the area.