Is Tampere The New Home Of The Underground?

Tampere lads
Is Tampere the new home of heavy? (Image credit: Tekla Valy)

If there’s one ideal that takes full root across the extreme music threshold, it’s that art and life be inextricably bound, in dedication to each other, if not The Other. Think Watain’s outlaw code, Neurosis’s Oakland retreat or even Electric Wizard’s omnipresent weed-fug – all the very fibres from which their music is made and each a close-knit community to themselves that bridges earthy existence and spiritual, extra-sensory outlook. Even across these borders such bands are a rarity, but in recent years a new locus had started to form: Tampere, Finland, a city of 223,000 people, long winters and, from the nearby woodland, clear skies, out of which has emerged a number of closely aligned if sonically divergent bands – Hexvessel, Oranssi Pazuzu, Dark Buddha Rising and Atomikylä – sharing some members, the magnetic pull of the vast cosmos beyond and a path that leads from the depths of the underground to orthodoxy-annihilating enlightenment.

“I think there’s a huge amount of respect amongst the musicians in the way that you kind of felt in Norway in the early days of black metal,” says Hexvessel founder Mat Kvohst’ McNerney. “There was this shared idea that you were doing something special, not in an ‘Oh, aren’t we great?’ kind of way, more what I thought of as real black metal. When you tapped it properly and you made a record and you were black metal, you were within it and part of a fundament, like the Force in Star Wars. It’s resonating within you, and that’s the way I’m feeling in Tampere, meeting with other people in other bands who are doing something that’s on that level. It’s a feeling that you’re all sharing this kind of dream.”

Mat, a former black metal vocalist himself, relocated from London after meeting his soulmate and musical collaborator Marja Konttinen and Hexvessel’s music, over the course of three albums, has undergone a similar level of evolution. Following on from the bucolic, folk and psych-spun rites of 2012’s No Holier Temple, latest album, When We Are Death, has firmed up its contours, become more song-based, but in the process explores a yet richer tapestry of emotions, musings and spiritual yearning. “That’s something I always think is important,” says Mat, “that an album becomes an experience. It’s something that you build up to, it should be reflective of a place that you’re at in your life.”

If the folk element on When We Are Death feels less pronounced this time around, it’s a perspective that still runs deeply through the band. “There was this Dead Can Dance album, Spiritchaser,” says Mat, “and they had this text at the beginning of the record about how instruments were first made, and they were bones and sinew, and you take these things and you make dead things sing again and come to life. And folk music, at its heart, is like that, it’s making stories live again and again. You’re retelling these things about nature, the surroundings and people, and it helps people understand their place in the world. In a pagan way, it’s making darkness into a friendly place.

“I started to think about that a lot on this record,” he continues, “that idea of making the dead sing again, giving a song to things that didn’t have a song.” The gorgeous ballad Mirror Boy, borne on a string-laden funeral-barge current worthy of Nick Cave, is a case in point, a true tale of a boy from his wife’s home town, whose mirror could supposedly tell people their futures.

Mat picks up the story: “When he got older, he said it was a terrible thing that all the things people wanted to know were so sad, that it was such a burden. It’s a great symbol of what it’s like to be a human being, to carry this burden your whole life, to be the person you are , and I thought it was a cool topic for a song. So I tried to keep the folk principle of stick to what you know and don’t try to be cool in any way. Make it real, and that becomes the fantastic.”

As much as Hexvessel is a personal, spiritual journey, it’s also a means to connect: to the land, to the spirit and then to the people close at hand. “This is a way of life,” states Mat, “and how we feel about life, and we put it into the band and into the songs. I can imagine with the guys that I play with, if I said with them tomorrow, ‘Look, we’re not going to tour any more, and I don’t want to make any records’, they would say: ‘OK, when are we rehearsing next?’ It’s much more important that we meet up regularly and we do our rituals together and get together and play this music. It is more like a commune. I think from the outside, when we do go on tour together, people are like, ‘This is really different!’ This isn’t like most bands sittingon their laptop backstage, it’s just a different kind of vibe.”

Hexvessel's Mat McNerney

Hexvessel's Mat McNerney (Image credit: Tekla Valy)

From their outset, Tampere’s Oranssi Pazuzu have sought to inject some colour into black metal. “I love thinking about colours when it comes to music,” explains vocalist/guitarist Jun-His. “There’s a lot ofhypnosis in our music; you find that in Burzum and a lot of other black metal, but we want to take it further, to add psychedelic elements and make black metal dissolve into different moods and vibes, even to the point where it can be happy, before swirling back to theblack and white.”

The clue’s in the name. Oranssi, the Finnish word for orange, in combination with the name of demonic deity Pazuzu, contrasts light and darkness in much the same manner as their music, acosmic cornucopia of psychedelia and progressively minded extremity. On their first two albums, 2009’s Muukalainen Puhuuand 2011’s Kosmonument, the intention was to impress upon the listener the insignificance of man.

“We want to think that something out there is interested in us,” Jun-His explains. “What makes me feel small, but free, is that the cosmos doesn’t give a shit. People would do well to realise this, then maybe we wouldn’t fight so much amongst ourselves.”

The universe may not care, but human beings have the capacity for compassion, alongside many positive traits associated with human evolutionary progress, rather than the atavistic urges we regularly beat ourselves with. Jun-His lights up at this conversational turn.

“This is one of the only things that matters to me,” he says, “thinking about our future. I wonder if I’m the only one thinking about it, caring about what life will be like in 1,000 years. One of the only things that comforts me is the thought thatmaybe as a species we’ll go from this point to that point without killing each other.” It’s a frustrating mindset to live with.

“It is,” he ponders. “Then again, humans are a bit like rodents, there’s so many of us that if there is no cosmic annihilation of the whole planet we’ll probably survive in some form, and maybe things will begin again. We’ll end up in the same scenario where we can’t get along with each other!” 2013’s Valonielu saw Oranssi Pazuzu shift focus, returning to Earth to delve deep within the labyrinthine workings of the human psyche. Its successor, the forthcoming Värähtelijä, sees them push the boundaries ofsonic entrancement to their furthest extremes yet.

“We wanted it to be very black and hypnotic, so we took some steps back into the black metal darkness you can hear in Kosmonument,” he clarifies. An altogether looser, jazzier affair than its predecessor, Värähtelijä sees them delve deeper into the human microcosm. “It’s a trip,” offers Jun-His darkly, “a journey into dark territories of your mind. Hopefully something clicks in your head while listening, allowing you to see things differently. You’re not sure if it was pleasant, but you’ll feel compelled to re-listen.” For a band that sounds so magical, it’s odd to hear the repeated assertion from their frontman that their surreal music is in fact about accepting reality for what it is.

“There’s no need for magic,” he quips, “life is pretty fucking surreal as it is!” For a movement so orthodox in aesthetic, black metal doesn’t half lend itself well to experimentation. It’s a duality that intrigues Jun-His. “The orthodox scenes of black metal, the Satanists, want to push that philosophy. Isn’t one of Satanism’s philosophies to follow your own path? I’m no Satanist, but I think that’s wise. In music I take influence from that and other philosophies and try to make my own – something that creates new music and new thoughts.”

It’s a mindset that allies him with his brethren in the Tampere music scene. Even though Dark Buddha Rising, Hexvessel and Oranssi Pazuzu sound dissimilar, they share a kindred spirit. “Ultimately it’s about bands that put music before anything else!” He laughs, “But I didn’t know any of those guys when I moved to Tampere, so it’s also about Tampere as a city. There aren’t strict scenes here like in Helsinki. Here, you can jam with whoever you want. There’s something going on, it’s an oven that melts everything together, at least in some way, beyond genre borders. There’s a sense of freedom.” Another common thread linking the bands is the environment itself. Finland, and surrounding Nordic territories, have a habit of infusing the music that comes from there with a sense of hyperborean isolation.

“Many people have said that, actually,” agrees Jun-His. “Winter creates catharsis; it’s dark for four months, and that’s
something that pushes your head down. I’m at my most creative during that period, because there’s nothing else to do other than sink into your own mind.”

Finland has its own characteristics regarding nature, and it feels isolated from the rest of Europe, which I think really has an effect on us. There aren’t any big cities here except Helsinki, so there is a lot of nature around us.” Dark Buddha Rising guitarist, vocalist and founder member Vesa Ajomo is attempting to account for the disproportionately magickal musical activity that flows out of his sparsely populated rural homeland. Just in the area around Tampere – fondly described by Vesa as“the hippie town of Finland” – DBR’s affinities are intimately intertwined with two other unique, world-class local bands.

“Of course we have very close relationships between us, Hexvessel and Oranssi Pazuzu,” explains Vesa, who served as one of the troubadours in Mat McNerney’s acid folk crew. “We’re in touch often, more so with Pazuzu because we share a rehearsal place and a band.” That band is Atomikylä, described by Vesa as “a celebration of the sonic brotherhood between Oranssi Pazuzu and Dark Buddha Rising”, as well as “really fun, totally crazy stuff”.

“There is a lot of stuff happening in Finland right now,” he observes. “I dunno what the hell is happening here. Maybe our guys are having good access to weed or something!” These Tampere musicians also appear to share an urge to unlock the mysteries of the universe through their highly individual approaches to dark psychedelic influences.

“I believe in the energy that flows through us,” says Vesa, “that we are part of this cycle that goes on and on, that matter and energy are combined to create something conscious, and that’s us. When we die does our consciousness fade away, or maybe we can serve a current of energy towards the very end of things? Maybe it doesn’t ever end. Dark Buddha Rising is travelling towards the light. The Dark Buddha is Rising towards and beyond the light of enlightenment. Because that light is blinding.” Vesa falls silent, then starts to laugh. “I don’t know if this is goofy sounding, but I’ll say it anyway: Dark Buddha Rising is like looking at the sunlight with sunglasses on!”

Goofy or not, it’s clearly a process that works exceptionally well. Formed in 2007, DBR are working on their seventh studio album, and 2015’s Inversum set new standards for the immersive power of their fractal head music. With a European tour and a Roadburn show approaching, and new material being pieced together as they hone their live set, are there any discussions about what kind of terrain DBR will be exploring next?

“I think we’re going to go deeper, more earthly,” Vesa reveals. “We want to dig ourselves into the soil and think about decay. Inversum was more or less our space rock record, but when space isdone, we’ll go deep into the ground and start to rot. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I hope something really grim. Grim and powerful!”