Scandinavian metal – new musical export
Papa Emeritus III, vocalist and front man of the Swedish heavy metal band Ghost, is on stage at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. With a statuette in his hand, he leans in to the microphone and says, “Thank you so much for this! This is a big thing for us, obviously. You know, a nightmare has just turned into a dream.”
Ghost had just won last year’s Grammy for Best Metal Performance, a testament to just how far heavy metal music from Scandinavia has come. What started out as an underground phenomenon thirty years ago is today a multimillion-dollar industry.
Scandinavian (and Finnish) metal implies quality, skill and commercial success. And throughout the year, there are always lots of metal acts from the region, such as Volbeat, In Flames, HIM, Satyricon and many more, playing gigs at sold-out venues all over the world.They often come together at Sweden Rock in Blekinge, one of Scandinavia’s most successful annual festivals, where tens of thousands of metal fans of all ages, from toddlers to seniors, spend a few summer days enjoying hard rock. But this once-peripheral cultural expression has even found its way into people’s living rooms. Veterans such as Dimmu Borgir, Satyricon and Entombed have all played with classical orchestras.Today, Scandinavian metal is, more than anything else, a broad popular movement. So how did this happen?
One explanation can be seen on a world map that shows the number of metal bands per capita. Three countries stand out in bright red, indicating up to 50 bands per 100,000 inhabitants: Sweden, Norway and Finland. Quite simply, there are lots of people playing metal in the Nordics.Torgrim Øyre was one of those inspired to pick up an instrument in his early teenage years thanks to metal. In the 1990s, he released records with his own band, Malignant Eternal. He also played with groups such as Gorgoroth, Aeternus and Obtained Enslavement.
“I came from a little place where people tinkered with mopeds and hung around fast food joints,” Øyre says. “Music became my escape. I was attracted very early on to things that were outside the establishment.
“It was the forceful expression of metal that caught me. Everything was turned up to ten, lyrically, visually and musically. Metal was something you either dedicated yourself to 100%, or not at all. I knew right away that this was a way of life.”
No longer an active musician, Øyre is still involved in the metal scene in Norway as a music journalist at Dagbladet, the director of Bergen-based Beyond the Gates festival and the management company Revelations Music.
“It’s conceivable that the climate, the stark nature and the long, dark winters play a role,” Øyre says. “Most venues and communities have sprung up outside the big cities. Bands and artists have been able to cultivate a personal expression without significant external influence. Very often, these communities also counter-react to things that have become too established and conformist.”
Like the so-called “Swedish music miracle,” Scandinavian metal’s success can also be put down to the provision of municipal music courses and access to rehearsal rooms.
Max Martin from Sweden is one of the world’s most successful pop producers today. He has repeatedly praised the municipal music courses. Both Martin and his producer, colleague Shellback (who has created hits for names such as Taylor Swift and Maroon 5), are also both former hard rockers.
“I believe the success of metal comes from a combination of many things,” says Edward Janson, a band booker and concert organizer with extensive experience in Scandinavia. “For example, there have long been great opportunities to join your first band at youth centers and there are lots of music associations all over the country that are doing an important job.
“Then there’s been a ‘Björn Borg effect,’ where seeing bands doing well has shown younger musicians that it is actually possible to be successful.”
In Sweden, this Björn Borg effect started with Europe, a band that topped the charts all over the world in the mid-80s with the song “The Final Countdown.”
“Many fans of heavy music around the world probably first took notice of Sweden because of the band Europe, although their music wasn’t particularly hard,” says Ika Johannesson, author of Blod Eld Död [Blood Fire Death] about Swedish metal, which will be published in the US later this year.
“When heavy metal became commercially successful in the mid-80s, many felt their genre was being taken away from them and sanitized. So a lot of people started searching for an increasingly how far they could go with both the tempo and the lyrics. Entombed became incredibly important in this development.”
Just like many other successful cultural expressions, Scandinavian metal started out small. The movement that later became known all over the world as “The Gothenburg Sound,” with melodic death metal bands such as At the Gates, In Flames and Dark Tranquillity, originated from a group of friends in Gothenburg. The Norwegian black metal scene from the early 90s, which today has reached almost mythological proportions, initially revolved around maybe twenty people.
“Scandinavia is made up of small countries with small circles,” Johannesson says. “If someone pops up as a trailblazer who can bring people together, things can happen quickly. In Sweden, it was Nicke Andersson in Entombed. In Norway, it was Øystein ‘Euronymous’ Aarseth in Mayhem.”
This spring, Mayhem are playing their debut album De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas in its entirety during a world tour. When the album was first released in 1994, Norwegian metal in general and Mayhem in particular were associated with the burning of churches and the murder of guitarist Euronymous.
But Mayhem set the course for the development of extreme metal on several levels, not least thanks to their Swedish vocalist Per “Dead” Ohlin who committed suicide in 1991.
“‘Dead’ laid the foundation for a significant element of black metal aesthetics,” Johannesson says. “He popularized the use of corpse paint and cut himself on stage. In interviews, he and Euronymous said that they worshipped death. The interviews spread the rumors, and the rumors were vital for mythologizing black metal.”
Øyre also highlights the first albums by Emperor and Darkthrone as seminal for black metal.
“The scene as a whole today is perhaps not a marker in the same way as it was when black metal was a phenomenon,” Øyre says. “But it’s a natural consequence as things grow big and become widely accepted.”
Another aspect of the success of metal in Scandinavia is the fan base. The Scandinavian audience is well informed and knowledgeable, something that is appreciated by the foreign metal bands that come here.
On top of that, the logistics generally work very well in Scandinavia and the facilities are, according to Edward Janson, better here than in other places such as Britain.
“There is a very large group of metal fans who grew up in the 1980s with bands such as Iron Maiden and Accept at a time when hard rock began to appear in the Swedish media,” Janson says. “This generation is now in its early forties and is still just as enthusiastic. In many cases, they’ve also passed on their interest to their children.”
Text: Anders Dahlbom
Published: February 13, 2017