Still, 30 years after their international breakthrough, the crown jewel outfit of Finnish folk music, VÄRTTINÄ, keeps making waves. While the mixture of ethnic music styles and metal is not exactly a groundbreaking novelty anymore in the 2020s, I have not yet come across a metal band that has in any way forcefully implemented the Karelian folk singing style of this pioneering 1990s bunch in the melodic metal context. Yes, we did have the crossover anarchists, WALTARI, collaborating with the joik group, ANGELIT, back in 1994 to a somewhat similar effect on the album “So Fine” – but even in the framework of WALTARI‘s no-holds-barred, avant-garde mayhem, it was a curiosity of sorts, spawning only one further collaborative effort in 2000 under the title, “Channel Nordica.” Enter the up-and-coming Finnish metal brethren ERÄMAA, founded in 2018 and we have a pretty nice approximation of what a metal version of VÄRTTINÄ would sound like. The rebellious flamboyance of traditional Karelian folk pairs quite nicely with the tradition-savvy metal conduct of this trickster bunch on their independently released debut full-length, “Pohjan Nainen,” released on January 28th, 2022, for streaming on Spotify. Along with their “Breathe” EP, released in 2019, the new outing showcases the band’s prominent skill for story-telling and conjuring up intriguing, exciting sonic atmospheres by combining folk elements, thrashy metal riffs, and multi-layered vocals in nothing short of a unique and cheerfully iconoclastic way. The album traverses through dark waters when it comes to its lyrical themes, what with the stories about betrayal, hatred, and whatnot – just like you would expect from a metal album – but it does so with the somewhat free-and-easy, rakish approach of those traditional folk songs, characterized by a distinct devil-may-care attitude. It creates a stark, nice contrast to the Slavic melancholy conveyed by the lyrics and melodies.
Straight off the bat, from the album’s opening track, “One Hell,” onward, ERÄMAA wear their heart on their sleeve; the riffs are constructed in accordance with the tenets of 1980s and 1990s vintage thrash and groove metal. The folksy piano motifs and the powerful delivery of the vocal trio, Laura Lehto, Satu Warto, and Sanna West, in particular, lift the music to a whole new realm of sonic witchcraft. You can detect subtle traces of ENSIFERUM, SABATON, and even IRON MAIDEN here and there, as well as cinematic touches like that of, say, HANS ZIMMER – but the overall feel is still rather unique, shattering quite nicely all the pre-conceived assumptions associated with the term “folk metal.” Is this folk metal? Yes, but also: no – not in the most stereotypical sense of the term, anyway. “Pohjan Nainen” is one of those rare debuts that genuinely justify using the Monty Pythonian phrase, “And now for something completely different!” Surely, there is something for the fans of, say, FINNTROLL, KORPIKLAANI, and TURISAS, no doubt. I would dare say, however, that the ERÄMAA debut might hit a tad closer to home with the fans of VÄRTTINÄ – especially those with the old-school metal being their long-revered and safely guarded guilty pleasure.
Coherent selection as the 8-track offering is, two tracks stand out rather definitely. First of all, the video single, “Cradle of Waves,” which premiered on YouTube in October 2021, is a chilling tale of betrayal driven by a set of chugging thrash riffs and spectral piano ornaments hovering atop the powerful performance of the vocal trio, singing by turns in Finnish and English. Probably due to the fact that the Finnish language is characterized by a royal amount of hard consonants, the passages sung in Finnish sound somewhat more commanding. ERÄMAA is one of those bands that make using bilingual lyrics actually work. I’m sure you don’t really need to understand the Finnish lyrics to get a feeling that something poignant is being said. Secondly, the closing track, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Dead,” brings an epic closure to the album by layering the frantic Karelian folk rhythms with thrash-metal dressing and cinematic, brassy soundscapes. The effect is not that far from SYSTEM OF A DOWN with female vocals hooking up with Hans Zimmer. The lyrics play with the famous children’s rhyme, “Tinker, Tailor,” referring to the kiddie method of choosing between two or more options. It resonates with the air of an ironic grin, almost as though the last soundbites of the album were fading into the distance like the incessant clatter of a Cruella De Vil-esque laughter echoing in your headphones.
While this album is, by no means, a tongue-in-cheek take on folk metal, it doesn’t exactly play along to the conventions of the genre too much. ERÄMAA is a strong proponent of that certain type of devil-may-care attitude that we, if truth be said, could use a lot more in the world of music. Listening to the outing might just offer a good number of “Aha!” moments: why haven’t I ever thought that you could pull off something like this before, because – damn it! – this works!
Written by Jani Lehtinen
- One Hell
- Saffron’s Hush
- Cradle of Waves
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Dead
Laura Lehto – vocals
Satu Aava – vocals
Sanna West – vocals
Mikko Oinonen – guitars
Jani Seppänen – bass
Aki Lehtimäki – drums