The Truth About Finland's Unique Relationship To Metal Music

In 2006, the world's biggest international music competition, Eurovision, got flipped upside-down. Lordi, a Finnish metal band, strode on stage in zombie monster costumes and rocked "Hard Rock Hallelujah" with all the stage pageantry, fire effects, and anthemic glee of '70s arena rock. In a now-65-plus-year competition saturated with saccharine pop and previously won by the likes of ABBA (1974) and Celine Dion (1988), the land of Nightwish, Moomin, long drinks, reindeer, and about 10 quadrillion lakes won out.  

Finland has a special relationship with metal music. In fact, it's got more metal offerings per person than any other country in the world — 53.5 whole bands per 100,000 people in a country of 5.5 million, per The Atlantic. All the Nordic countries love metal, actually (Denmark slightly less). Sweden's got death metal, Norway's got black metal, and Finland's got, well ... jump on Music Finland to peruse some recent offerings: dark wave-infused Mercury Circle, groovaliscious all-girl dance-metal group Barbe-Q-Barbies, the ponderous, low-tempo dirge of Skepticism, and much more. 

So what's going on here? Is it the "200 days of a bone-crushing winter" and "perpetual darkness," as President Obama joked in 2016 (per NPR)? Does it have something to do with "good governance" and Finland being the happiest country on Earth yet again, as the World Happiness Report says? Is metal a mental health balm? Or is the old bardic wizard Väinämöinen from the Finnish epic poem "Kalevala" crooning metal growls into the souls of modern Finns? 

Musical counterculture, minus the counter

Back in the early 1970s, "heavy metal" was basically a genre of one: its Birmingham, UK-based creators, Black Sabbath – a jazz drummer, an abattoir worker (dude who works in a slaughterhouse), a guitarist missing some fingertips, and a "trainee accountant." That isn't just some clever anecdote, as Loudersound explains — it tells us loads about metal's place in our global culture as a waystation for the disaffected, composed of outsiders looking in. This tells us about how metal took hold in various countries, spread and fused with punk, jazz, other forms of non-mainstream music, and metamorphosed into everything from KISS and Queens of the Stone Age to Behemoth and Finland's previously mentioned Eurovision winners, Lordi.

Metal started to take hold in Finland in the 1980s, as Professor Esa Lijla of Helsinki University says on Blabbermouth. In the '90s, contrary to the Seattle scene-led swing towards hard music in the U.S., Finland's mainstream scene swung towards Europop. Within that syrupy bed, the countercultural inclinations of Finland's took firm root, and almost every single major Finnish musical metal export came from that period, crafting the foundation of Finland's modern musical identity: Children of Bodom with "Something Wild" (1997), HIM with "Greatest Love Songs Vol. 666" (1997), Nightwish with "Angels Fall First" (1997), and later Insomnium with "In the Halls of Awaiting" (2002). Heck, even world-renowned metal cello quartet Apocalyptica started in 1996 with a bunch of Metallica covers. And now? In Finland, metal is the norm.

Dark, frozen weather turned emotionally healthy

At this point, metal has spread around the world and amalgamated with every musical form under the sun. Why is it that metal stuck so firmly in Finland, though? Whether death, doom, black, symphonic, prog, alt, or anything in between, is there something unique in the DNA of Finland, its land, people, heritage, and so forth? 

Well, it turns out that President Obama might have hit the nail on the proverbial head back in 2016 — lots of folks seem to agree that the weather plays a big role. As Blabbermouth perfectly states, "When someone is surrounded by cold and dark for long periods of time, it is only natural that some form of depression will start to set in. And how do many Finns combat this depression, release the negative energy, and make themselves feel more positive? Well, I can't think of one form of music more tailored to the release of the negative more than metal." And as a widely-cited study in Frontiers in Neuroscience states, listening to metal is associated — somewhat counterintuitively to non-listeners — with better emotional regulation, reduced anxiety, depression, stress, etc.   

Great-grandson of renowned Finnish composer Jean Sibelius on CNN similarly states, "The sun goes down very early, and the winters are bleak. And then in the summer we fall in love, and the sun never sets. And I guess everybody knows a little bit about this Nordic melancholy and sort of the way Finnish people express emotions." 

Musical education and musical complexity hand-in-hand

As This is Finland says, metal's "complexity and rich emotional content" plays a role, as well. Metal is akin to classical music in terms of its structure, complexity, layering, melodic/harmonic interplay, virtuosity of playing, and so forth, as The Guardian relates. "Rich emotional content" is more than technical expertise, though. As one fan tells This is Finland, "There is a striking diversity in the styles of metal that hail from Finland ... Finnish bands have a seemingly endless capacity to cater for fans who like to listen to a variety of metal." And in a small country with stiff musical competition amongst professionals, musicians avidly display not only their technical prowess but "a burning desire to express a multitude of emotions."

But where does such widespread technical prowess come from? Musical education is the final, ultimately key component. Finland has one of the most robust musical education systems in the world, which translates into better songwriters and better listeners. Educator David J. Elliot on France Musique says of childhood musical education, "We encourage them to play and sing in order to understand music not as an abstraction, but rather through the practice and the sensations it awakens ... We believe that music education and, more generally, artistic education from primary school is essential to make our children adults open to the world."

Such a lesson, coming from the happiest country on Earth, bears paying attention to. Horns up, everyone.