When looking back on the blossoming death metal scene of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, and indeed its global impact, the regional distinctions are rather clear. Be it the brain-warping Floridian heat blessing us with Morbid Angel and Obituary‘s swamp-dwelling spirit, the tough hardcore clout informing NYC’s finest Suffocation or the gleaming melodic strain borne out of Sweden’s legendary Gothenburg sound, it’s fair to say that the territorial essence of the genre has spawned a rich and diverse metallic underworld. Less celebrated perhaps is the heady death metal goldmine of Finland’s early ‘90s scene, whose nascent individualism sat rather at odds with the singular sonic vision of their Scandinavian neighbours. Here, we take a look at how the Suomi scene has proven itself to be a subtly enduring part of the metallic furniture.
The roots of Finnish death metal are not too dissimilar to that of their peers next door and overseas; rabid punk kids and fanatical thrash-heads seeking out faster, nastier sounds – that next uncharted step up the ladder of extremity. Indeed, whilst it is worth noting that Finland perhaps suffered more from a distinct lack of promoters and venues when compared to their Scandinavian cousins – the importance of international tape-trading has been well established – what many cite as the single most influential medium on the country’s burgeoning death metal scene was Klaus Flaming’s weekly radio show Metallilitto (The Metal Union). Introducing eager young metallers nationwide to the likes of Death, Obituary and Sepultura in the late ‘80s, Flamings also featured local demos and band interviews. Although there were certainly a few burgeoning acts in Finland before the show hit the airwaves, Metallilitto was without question a vital proponent of extreme metal’s fledgling early years, feeding a regular dose of the global underground’s freshly brewed elixir to a generation of riff-hungry Finns.
The question of who was the first Finndeath band is one that, not unlike many similar disputes among the metal fraternity, is open to endless debate and more than likely unanswerable. 1989 saw an unrelenting stream of now legendary death metal demo tapes which, although all as vicious, untamed and primitive as one another, already began to shape the somewhat indefinable nature of the scene’s evolution. Some may point to the swivel-eyed thrash intensity of Phlegethon‘s debut EP Visio Dei Beatifica, others to Necropsy and their snotty, punchdrunk Mental Disturbance or the animalistic clatter of Disgrace‘s Beyond the Immortalized Existence demos, yet it was the emergence of Funebre which genuinely put the frighteners on the Finnish underground for the first time. Unleashing their five-track horror show Cranial Torment in late ‘89, the Turku-based quartet’s sound was a gruesome blend of d-beat brutality, groove-laden doom and depraved speed, all delivered with the kind of mutant lurch and bestial frothing ‘n’ snorting that earmarks them as definitive exponents of Finland’s death metal movement. Just as many, however, bestow that honour on Helsinki’s Abhorrence.
Coming a fraction later than Funebre with 1990’s brief yet productive spell of activity, Abhorrence dropped their first and last releases with the Vulgar Necrolatry demo and a self-titled EP within five months of each other. However, the band’s regrettably short-lived existence (they would go on to splinter and dissolve later that year) is at odds with the obvious significance of their macabre assault, at times recalling the unhinged tempos of Carcass in full flight before devolving into a Bolt Thrower-saluting thunder-crawl, all the while somehow conjuring the sort of echo chamber atmosphere which would go on to define the otherworldly power of their fresh-faced peers.
Indeed, the demise of Abhorrence came just as the underground was truly beginning to morph into its golden age of creativity. ‘91 saw not only inaugural releases from forthcoming heavyweights Demilich and Amorphis (more on these later), but a number of landmark LPs began to establish the many disparate avenues Finndeath would very shortly be thrust down. There is unquestionably a case to be made that, given the continued wrangling over who were the legitimate founders of ‘Finnish death metal’ and the overt differences in style/approach between these formative bands, the idea of an identifiable Finnish sound is somewhat redundant, and a little dismissive of the visionary outpouring that was spewed from Finland’s teeming underbelly. Nowhere is this more evident than as we begin to enter a magical period of (anti)god-tier Suomi death metal albums, exploding from ‘91 onwards in a shower of cross-pollinating ambition and revealing a rich tapestry of unerringly unique delights.
Convulse‘s debut masterpiece World Without God is often, like so many others, hailed as a pinnacle of the early ‘90s scene, scabrous death metal spilling over with grotesque theatricality via a miasma of keyboard flourishes and bursts of hyper-goth symphonics. Rivalled in that year only by the brute muscularity of Sentenced‘s Shadows Of The Past, Funebre’s crushing swansong Children Of The Scorn and the warped death ‘n’ roll groundwork laid down by Xysma’s ramshackle full-length Yeah (a record genuinely ahead of its time), the following couple of years would be something of a sequence of annus mirabilis for death metal devotees.
Between the bile-drenched churn of the newly emerging Adramelech and the marauding savagery of Purtenance‘s pummeling Member of Immortal Damnation, Finland may still have been contributing some of the most joyously revolting death metal yet conceived, although ‘92 would introduce degrees of songwriting sophistication and know-how rarely seen the world over. Amorphis, a band typified nowadays by their stridently folk-tinged sound, were something of a revelation in underground circles, with their early work cheerfully echoing the straightforward brutality of their country’s fellow sonic barbarians whilst simultaneously introducing a stately melodic edge and some gruelling snail’s pace doom speeds. Another Helsinki based foursome, the band’s debut The Karelian Isthmus was initially described as a brave collision between Entombed‘s Left Hand Path and Gothic by Paradise Lost, completely disregarding the pioneering attributes of guitar duo Tomi Koivusaari and Esa Holopainen whose forlorn harmonies and mournful lead breaks defined melodic death before Sweden took the sound into an epoch-shattering new age.
The same year also saw the release of Demigod’s Slumber Of Sullen Eyes, a record which resembled more the pitch black spirit of early Immolation, Incantation et al and the USA’s east coast scene than any of their Nordic peers. Indeed, as the albums pristine, guttural onslaught plays out we quickly realize that beyond a few brief curveballs, there are more comparisons to draw between Sweden’s buzzsaw guitars or Florida’s blasphemous brutality than any death metal produced by their native Finland. Still, with its undeniable hooks and interdimensional evil, Slumber Of Sullen Eyes bulldozed straight to death metal’s grisly core and is considered an immortal, armour-plated classic by legions of metallers worldwide.
And then came ’93, and with it, Demilich. Infamous for their freakish, swamp monster vocal spew, mutant complexity and absurd song titles (‘The Planet That Once Used To Absorb Flesh In Order To Achieve Divinity And Immortality (Suffocated To The Flesh That It Desired…)’ anyone?), the band’s debut record Nespithe represented far more than mere novelty or technical showboating. As demented as anything before or since (Finnish or otherwise) its cascading layers of infernal wrongness, rhythmic deformity and structural misdirection proved to inoculate any notions of a Finnish sound. Even so, as the album propelled us into a portal of the dissonant, disorientating and otherworldly, its sound is still mother’s milk to the primal headbanger in all of us and represents to this day a deliciously deviant mix of abyss-conjuring nastiness and sheer steamrollering purity of intent.
As the ‘90s wore on it became clearer and clearer that many of Finland’s visionary first-wave were largely gone in a flash. Demilich swiftly disbanded after the release of Nespithe, which, like most of the records discussed here, hit shelves to little fanfare, the country’s geographical limitations and minimal label interest being a somewhat fatal disadvantage at the time. And so as Rippikoulu produced some of the world’s most excruciatingly heavy death-doom with Musta Seremonia and Thergothon helped pioneer funeral doom with their sole, and woozily terrifying, Stream From The Heavens LP, bands continued to make a fleeting impact before swiftly vanishing. As the years passed, the stream of quality releases slowed to a trickle, and Finnish death metal succumbed to the law of diminishing returns.
Perhaps the ingenuity and ambition of the Finndeath movement was simply an early example of the metal underground’s freewheeling spirit, constantly plotting new ways to both preserve and pervert. However, the non-careerist nature of it all certainly had a huge part to play. Having to compete with the likes of Cannibal Corpse, Deicide and Death at the peak of their creative (and commercial) powers was a thankless task, their label backing and international notoriety simply beyond the reach of Scandinavia’s remote highlands and resulting in a host of death metal bands that, without any concerns of breaking out or longevity, could afford to be as musically adventurous as their imaginations would allow. That said, it is also due to this that the heyday of Finnish death metal enjoyed an all-too-brief existence, many of its biggest hitters taking drastic steps away from their extreme roots and embracing a wider sonic palette. The aforementioned Amorphis may be the most obvious example of this, increasingly tuneful records and radiant prog detours epitomising their steady evolution (not to mention their traditional folk elements helping to conceive another genre entirely), although the likes of Sentenced similarly shifted focus with some Heartwork-esque melody before moving into more classic heavy metal stylings.
Ironically, the scene is more popular now than it ever has been, with many of the most notable bands from the early ‘90s having returned to festival stages and sweatbox venues more than two decades after their untimely demise. 2015’s ‘Finnish Death Metal Maniacs Fest’ was a veritable feast of old-school delights and underground nostalgia, featuring a quite frankly ridiculous line-up spilling over with timeless Suomi bands (Purtenance, Convulse, Necropsy, Demilich, Rippikoulu and Depravity all appeared amongst others) which did much to highlight the ravenous modern appetite for Finland-flavoured extremity. And of course, we need only look to the harrowing slo-mo destruction of Innumerable Forms, Krypts and Hooded Menace, Tomb Mold’s subterranean vision or the high minded Demilich-isms of Chthe’ilist to know that, despite its somewhat obscure history, Finndeath continues to have a subtle yet sizeable bearing on the extreme metal world as we know it.
Perhaps the Finnish death metal scene’s lasting appeal is because it never grasped the sort of international reputation most of the other death metal scenes of the ‘90s enjoyed. The nature of extreme purists and their constant pursuit for unknown, underground discoveries is perfectly suited to the untapped death metal treasure trove that Finland has to offer. In the immortal words of Dr. Alan Grant, “T-Rex doesn’t want to be fed; he wants to hunt”, and if we scratch the surface of the Finnish scene of the ‘90s, there are more than a few tasty morsels to unearth. We just have to look for them.
Words: Tony Bliss