The Promised Land of Heavy Metal [DVD] (Double Vision)

Finland's reputation as a nation that produces a disproportionate amount of metal bands is something that isn't news to the readers of this site. Names like Nightwish or Children of Bodom need no introduction, even if we aren't all fans of bands like Beherit or Trollheim's Grott. So with metal documentaries being big at the moment, following the success of Headbanger's Journey and Global Metal, it was a matter of time before someone decided to look at a country where metal is mainstream.

First impressions, sadly, aren't good. The intro of short spliced-together clips, many of which involve director Kimmo Kuusniemi posing for photos with bands, give the impression that this is a fan film, and the amateur presentation isn't helped by a cheesy CGI title scene with an even cheesier voiceover announcing the title - we're talking high school drama production cheesy here.

Much has been made - even by publications which I largely respect and agree with, such as Terrorizer - of Kuuseniemi's status as a sort of 'ultimate insider' as the guitarist and founder of Finland's first ever metal band, Sarcofagus. But he quit that band, moving into filmmaking, because metal wasn't particularly successful at the time (hardly what one would call a dedicated metal attitude). But the reality is that his directorial skills aren't that good.

Probably a good ten minutes of the film's hour-and-a-half running time is made up of nothing but him posing for more photos, and another five is made up of metal fans at concerts doing the same thing. The camera work is also very sloppy: they don't care if other cameras are in the side of the shot, or the angle and light makes it a pain in the arse to see what's being filmed, even when it's in a rehearsed situation where it would have been easy to fix.

Even Kuuseniemi's status as a sort of scene insider is something I would question, as he seems quite unfamiliar with the goings-on of the metal scene both in Finland and worldwide (it may have been for the benefit of the audience - something I doubt given his tone and how much assumed knowledge there is about certain other things - but asking Finnish BM band Enochian Crescent what black metal is stands out particularly to me). It indicates that he's probably been quite apathetic about metal since his band broke up and, cruel an assumption as it may be (but reasonable given the reason for him disbanding them in the first place), Sarcofagus only really got back together to capitalise on the current high profile of metal in Finland.

Most of the film is spent trying to answer the question of why metal is so big in Finland. The film completely fails to come to any sort of conclusion, but it seems like the consensus (given the amount of time spent on it) seems to be that metal fits well into some sort of Finnish mindset - which, to be frank, is about the stupidest answer you could give. Even setting aside the question of what Finland's national mindset might be (according to the film, a very natural but very gloomy one, which doesn't really lend itself to anything but gothic doom, a genre Finland is hardly famous for), why should a relatively happy, poverty-free and historically unoppressed (it belonged to the empires of both Sweden and Russia at various points, but its inhabitants were hardly mistreated compared to the inhabitants of its conquerors) country be responsible for so much metal - particularly considering nations with far more reason to have an aggressive, angry or indeed gloomy 'national mindset' have few or no famous metal bands?  It's a foolish answer which sounds more like a statement of patriotism ("our country is more inherently metal than yours!") than a legitimate reason.

No, an issue touched on but never solidly addressed by the film - only ever seen out of the corner of those unreliably handled cameras' lenses - or even put together in one point despite everything being mentioned at at least one point, is that Finland is a nation with a very small population (making for an easy spread of trends), with a couple of bands who have achieved worldwide popularity by playing either metal (Children of Bodom, Nighwish) or something that resembles it closely enough for apathetic mainstream media to not be able to tell the difference even if the band themselves point it out (Lordi, HIM). Such success not only prompts but forces mainstream media to recognise the success of Finnish metal, instead of apathetically ignoring the genre the way the media in most countries do. Simply recognising the existence of metal on a mainstream stage gives a huge boost to the popularity of metal, as it would in any country with a comparable population (probably even Australia, a country with four times the population of Finland but still not even in the top fifty most populous countries worldwide). Thus metal music, and by extension things seen as metal - such as 'metal fashion' - are seen as quite acceptable for young Finns, which opens the door for more bands to do well at home, and later abroad. Incidentally, I think that if there's a solid reason, this is it.

This brings me neatly to a point I notived while watching the film, but Kuusniemi fails to even mention - despite the question being straight-out put on the table for him by the brilliant and typically insightful Jeff Walker of Carcass. In Australia, the US, the UK, Singapore, Canada, Germany and all manner of other countries, "metal fashion" is largely limited to long hair and a black t-shirt, perhaps supplemented with combat boots, a leather jacket or denim vest, or beards, depending on gender. Furthermore, many people will listen to metal and give no indication that they do so in their outward appearance (myself included, being a clean-shaven short-haired bloke who only pulls out an old Sabbath or Darkthrone shirt when I go to a concert). Yet in Finland, literally thousands of people will go the whole hog. Gigantic boots, leather pants, hair past the waist, studded wristbands and even corpse-paint being worn in public are not uncommon. Parts of it almost seem to be a fashion trend among people who don't even listen to metal because of how big it is in Finland.

Perhaps listening to the more publicly acceptable metal bands is Finland's equivelant of Australian youngsters who download songs by folk/roots artists like John Butler or Xavier Rudd here - it's not straight-out pop, but it's big and, more importantly, it's the easiest face of alternative, and thus is inherently appealing to teens who want to listen to something considered to be outside the mainstream but can't comprehend something really underground. It's probably simply a symptom of the mainstream acceptance of metal and things associated with it, but the question of why the Finnish metal scene is so image-based and what that means for the scene in general is one which probably should have been addressed, especially when Kuusniemi has no excuse for not having thought of it.

The remainder of the film is more of a collection of dot points rather than anything with an overlying theme. The film wastes a lot of time talking about the satanic aspect of metal - something which doesn't really matter one iota to the majority of Finnish bands, including all of the big-name ones (unlike some big-name bands from other countries, most Finnish bands with satanic themes in their music such as Impaled Nazarene use it for a combination of shock factor and cool subject matter rather than because they're thick enough to actually believe in it).

There's also a lot of time spent on the original bands of the 80s, which, while certainly worth mention, is something I see as very much independent of the current metal scene. The Finnish Metal Expo gets a well-deserved segment, but it's viewed as a symptom of metal's status in Finland - Kuusniemi doesn't think to question whether its long-standing existence could actually have been part of the cause for the richness of the Finnish metal scene.

Speaking of the Finnish 'scene', I think Kuusniemi has taken the wrong approach by talking to bands like Lordi and HIM about it. Neither of these bands are metal (and Mr. Lordi points out that Lordi are indeed hard rock rather than metal in his interview) and only someone with no knowledge of how a metal scene - not only in Finland but in any area - works would think that these bands have acted as anything other than gateways to metal for curious souls. The evolution of the Finnish black metal scene since Beherit's disturbingly warped challenge to Norwegian supremacy in the early 90s has as much to do with dressed-up hard rock as the currently booming folk metal scene, at the forefront of what's currently metal's biggest trend with both the epic, mournful strains of Moonsorrow and the high-energy romps of Finntroll and Korpiklaani (the latter of which, at least, was actually mentioned at one point in the film), has to do with the inspiration behind the ubiquitous heartogram tattoos of a million eyelinered teenage girls - that is to say, Sweet Fuck All.

As for the metal mass, it was certainly worth featuring and interesting to watch part of, but considering it was intended as a 'rejection of the traditional', it bore a remarkable similarity to every catholic mass I was dragged along to as a kid, and the music being played sounded very much like your typical epic doom, which as a subgenre has always had a glorification of the traditional - particularly the catholic variety of the traditional - about it, from Black Sabbath and Trouble's crosses through to epic doom subgenre founders' Candlemass using heavy christian imagery, covering epistles, having an ex-vocalist who wore a monk's cassock on stage and, lest we forget, their name itself.

And as for the emphasis on the high level of musical skill within the Finnish scene, I think that's less a product of the Finnish scene itself and more a general representation of modern metal in general, where everywhere from Brazilian power metal and Tasmanian death metal, to the currently booming British thrash scene, is full of bands who demonstrate a far greater degree of technical ability on average than their counterparts twenty or thirty years ago.

Overall, while this was an interesting subject to do a documentary on and I'm glad someone tried. The currently booming state of the Finnish metal scene was far better summed up in a simple three-page segment in Terrorizer magazine's decade special, and the most useful part of the DVD was the bonus booklet with a tourist's guide to Finland and the Finnish language, which I suppose I may have to thank Kimmo Kuusniemi for, but perkele, tama on huono DVD.