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Insomnium: Stunning scenery, horrible history lessons and burnt bums

(Image credit: Derek Bremner)

Hammer is relaxing in a hot tub on the balcony of a luxurious spa, drinking champagne with a view of the lush pine forests and lakes that lead to the Russian border, a mere 40 miles away. 

We’re in Finland and in fine company, part of a group of fans and journalists here at the invite of Insomnium to hear their forthcoming eighth album, Heart Like A Grave, in the beautiful environs that inspired it.

Conversation veers from the serious (tales of people who’ve tried to sneak across the Russian border, never to be seen again) to the ridiculous (guitarist Markus Vanhala sticking a champagne bottle between his legs and offering people refills of his “penis wine”). Then the band retreat to the sauna, where in Finland, as we would soon learn, most ideas begin and end.

After a long day, we drive to SF Sound Studio, a forest-hidden jewel where the band have recorded the drums for their last two records. We hear Heart Like A Grave, and finally get a chance to speak with good-natured vocalist/bassist Niilo Sevänen and softly spoken guitarist Ville Friman, holing up away from the party in a control booth. 

“We got the idea in the sauna,” remembers Niilo of the band’s decision to bring us all to visit their hometown of Joensuu, east Finland. “It’s the only place we discuss our feelings,” laughs Ville. “Heart Like A Grave is a very Finnish-themed album, so we figured the logical thing to do would be to bring you here.”

Insomnium’s past, present and future are solidly rooted in the pine forests of their homeland, the sweet smell of which hits you as soon as you step off the plane. The band formed here in Joensuu in 1997; three of its five members went to the same school. 

Today, we’ve spent several laughter-filled hours trekking through the Koli National Park – a place Christians once chased shamans and witches out of in the 1700s before they were brave enough to attempt colonisation. Its rocky summit, where we shoot the band, overlooks the vast, island-studded lake Pielinen. They’ve shot two of Heart Like A Grave’s music videos here.

(Image credit: Derek Bremner)

“We have a sense of pride in where we come from – why not?” continues Ville. “It’s in our blood. Joensuu is small – if you’re young and want to start a band, there’s only a handful of people to choose from. You stick with what you have and make it bigger. It hasn’t been a rapid rise, it’s been steady work, but it’s been fun.”

Galvanised by the success of fellow countrymen Amorphis and inspired by the classic melodeath sound popularised by the likes of At The Gates and In Flames in the 90s, Insomnium have remained steadfastly devoted to their original inspirations, even as some of their early influencers have changed or faded away with the times. “We don’t give a rat’s ass about current trends,” says Niilo. “We do our own thing.”

Their last album, 2016’s celebrated Winter’s Gate, was a single song divided into seven movements – the band’s highest concept to date, and a more cinematic take on their melancholy. Heart Like A Grave has grown from these roots, standing taller than the trees that dominate their surroundings, with a backbone of rock-solid riffing, soaring harmonies and killer solos. 

The 10-track, 60-minute album sounds all the more towering during the playback session, thanks to the studio’s professional sound system. After a toast, everyone sits back to absorb it, the journos taking notes, others headbanging and some sitting with eyes closed, taking in the wall of sound.

“It’s more epic,” reckons Ville. “This soundtrack style has crept into our music,” agrees Niilo. “Winter’s Gate gave us confidence to do whatever we want. Some might say it’s too long; I say fuck off, we will do what we want!” There’s a pause. “Sorry, I’m a bit drunk,” he laughs.

(Image credit: Derek Bremner)

This is what happens when you hook up with a Finnish death metal band carrying a case of beer, and let them wander through the forest drinking.

The record’s vigour is also due to the promotion of touring guitarist Jani Liimatainen to a permanent member. A founding guitarist of Finland’s prestigious power metal band, Sonata Arctica, he’s a metalhead through and through. 

He spends the day merrily drinking and joking with everyone, his Converse high-tops adorned with the red/white/black stripes of Eddie Van Halen’s legendary ‘Frankenstrat’ guitar. 

“There’s four composers in the band now,” explains Niilo. “Jani is a great guy, a great songwriter – it’s a no-brainer,” adds Ville. “There were a couple of songs on the new album that were hard to finish. Jani solved the problems.”

Jani’s addition bolsters an already solid line-up, completed by guitarist Markus Vanhala and earnest drummer Markus Hirvonen, forced to remove his flat cap for the photoshoot by Ville. “He has tried to sneak that fucking hat into the last three album shoots!” he laughs.

There’s also a practical reason for Jani’s addition – Ville’s commitments as Dr Ville Friman, lecturer in evolutionary biology at York University. He’s the only one with a PhD in the band, “even though our drummer Markus thinks he has a PhD in everything,” Ville laughs. 

He still plans to write and tour when his hectic schedule allows, but why not just leave? “I could,” he considers, “but Insomnium is a part of me.” “I’m happy with the situation,” Niilo says, “and of course we miss him… nah, fuck that motherfucker! He’s part of the gang.”

(Image credit: Derek Bremner)

It’s hard to see during a day of merriment, but Heart Like A Grave delves deep into Finland’s culture of melancholy. Perhaps it’s the afore- mentioned spectre of the Russian border, Finland’s struggle against them in World War II still a part of the national memory, or the fact that the country was also once under control of Sweden, historically caught in the middle of Swedish and Russian territorial wars and disputes.

Or maybe it’s the fact that each winter the country is buried under more than a metre of snow – the skeletons of fallen trees peppering Koli a stark reminder amid lush undergrowth.

“If you take an ordinary Finn, the glass is probably half empty however good things are,” Ville observes. “We’re stuck between Russia and Sweden,” Niilo explains. “We were part of Sweden, then part of Russia; it’s a little brother thing."

It goes some way to explaining why metal is so big in Finland. Dragonforce are playing in Helsinki airport when we arrive, and Metallica on the radio in the taxi to our hotel – alien to English people and their pop-saturated airwaves.

“If there wasn’t Finnish bands like Amorphis when we started picking up guitars, we wouldn’t be here,” Ville says. “The first bands that were recognised outside of Finland were metal,” explains Niilo. “We thought, ‘We Finns are good at something!’ It became a national thing. Metal’s darkness fits the Finnish mentality.”

Heart Like a Grave’s central themes are based upon ancient folklore of Troll-stalked forests and tales of love and loss inspired by a traditional folk song once voted as Finland’s saddest, Peltoniemen Hintriikka.

(Image credit: Derek Bremner)

“It is the name of a person – our song [and Heart Like A Grave centrepiece] And Bells They Toll is an adaptation of that traditional 19th-century song about an old woman who lives alone in a swamp; she’s really poor,” says Niilo. 

“Once in her youth there was a short time of happiness, she married, but her husband died and after it was nothing but long misery towards the grave – it’s a good song!” 

It’s an unquestionable fact that Finns – Scandinavians in general – are bloody good at metal. In November, Insomnium will tour Europe with countrymen Stam1na and US blast fiends The Black Dahlia Murder, but there is as yet no UK date. 

“It’s because of Brexit,” laments Ville, a topic still being hotly debated at the time of our interview. “This is the first tour we haven’t booked a UK date – it’s purely a practical thing. After October 31 will we need visas, work permits?” 

“Write that Brexit’s really sad,” Niilo insists. “Fuck Boris Johnson. Let’s hope we can play in the UK soon.”

Now past 11pm, with darkness permeating the recording booth, conversation begins to wind down. There’s a barbecue to be had and, you guessed it, an early-hours trip to the studio’s sauna – because of course the studio has a sauna. Everything in Finland begins and ends in the sauna. 

An exhausted Hammer says its goodbyes, the band starkers and steamy. “Shake hands?” they laugh, covering their manhood as we retreat merrily into the night, safe in the knowledge that in the heartlands of the Finnish forests, metal is in safe, sweaty hands.

Insomnium’s ultimate guide to sauna etiquette

1. GET NAKED, BUT NOT SEXY

Niilo: “You’re supposed to be naked.”

Ville: “You go with your parents from an early age. It’s just normal – but please no sexual references.”

Niilo: “If you go alone with your girlfriend, that’s different. But otherwise a sauna isn’t  a sexual place.”

2. DON’T COMPETE

Niilo: “They stopped sauna competitions  – someone died. The competition was to  see who could take the most heat; it became an inferno.”

Ville: “The guy basically boiled…”

3. KEEP YOUR GAS TO YOURSELF

Ville: “Don’t fart in the sauna.”

Niilo: “That’s true. We will kick your ass.”

4. WATCH YOUR BUM

Ville: “When you sit down, watch for nails.”

Niilo: “Or any other kind of metallic object. They’re fucking hot!”

Ville: “You will get your ass burnt.”

5. EMBRACE MASOCHISM

Ville: “A post-sauna ice bath feels nice – it’s a form of masochism.”

Niilo: “My father’s really into it. Every day in winter, he runs out of the sauna and jumps into the lake through a hole in the ice. Finland – it’s a country of contrasts!”

Insomnium's latest album Heart Like A Grave is out now via Century Media