Continental Sounds: Europe (Part 2)

The Nordic countries (comprising mainly of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland) is undoubtedly renowned for its vibrant folklore and culture and its diverse array of musical genres.  Many Nordic artistes have successfully penetrated the international music industry. Names like ABBA, Swedish House Mafia, Björk and Michael Learns to Rock are certainly no strangers to music fans over the world. Also, the Nordic countries are known as one of the biggest exporters of quality metal bands, making it a hotspot for heavy metal aficionados.

Those who look forward to taking a trip down memory lane will be in for a treat. Who can forget that a Swedish pop group – ABBA –  had once graced the world with its repertoire of evergreen songs such as Dancing Queen, Mamma Mia, and Money Money Money? Although they have long since disbanded, their tuneful hits will always be remembered for generations to come. Another oldie but a goldie would definitely be Paula Koivuniemi, a Finnish singer who rose to fame in the 60s with her hit single Perhonen.

Compared to other parts of Europe, the Nordic countries are not far behind when it comes to composing epic classical pieces. Edvard Grieg from Norway (best known for composing In the Hall of the Mountain King) and Carl Nielsen from Denmark are just some of the renowned musicians to originate in the North. In Finland, the most famous classical composer is Jean Sibelius, whose magnum opus is the 9-and-a-half-minute long, deeply nationalistic Finlandia.

Sweden, Norway and Finland, in particular, are mainly dominated by an infinite number of metal bands and musicians. Swedish metal, or better known as Gothenburg metal, emerged in the 90s in the form of high-octane melodic death metal. Melodic death metal, like its name suggests, is a subgenre of metal that blends traditional, growl-infused metal with complex riffs, harmonic keyboard solos, and the occasional clean singing. Notable bands in this genre include Dark Tranquillity, Arch Enemy, Amon Amarth, Soilwork and In Flames. Likewise, in Finland, melodic death metal is a staple in the music industry, putting bands like Insomnium, Children of Bodom, Kalmah, Swallow The Sun and Noumena in the limelight, along with other subgenres such as symphonic metal (Nightwish, Apocalyptica, Amberian Dawn) and power metal (Sonata Arctica, Stratovarius).

By the way, did you know that in Finland, metal is not only targeted towards teenagers and adults but towards children as well? Apparently, there exists a band called Hevisaurus, where the band members don wacky dinosaur costumes and play heavy metal with kid-friendly lyrics for children. This just proves how metal music is so deeply ingrained in the lives of the Finns.

Norway, on the other hand, is more well-known for its black metal and gothic metal scene. Black metal music is an intense subgenre of metal, which often features severely distorted riffs, high-speed drumming, and raw, evil shrieks, creating a generally grim and desolate ambience. Even though this genre did not actually originate from Norway, this country is still regarded as the main exporter of famous black metal bands, as proven by acts including Gorgoroth, Emperor, Immortal, Darkthrone and Burzum. Most black metal musicians wear corpse paint, a type of makeup utilizing mainly black and white face paint. This trend among Norwegian black metal bands was popularized by former Mayhem vocalist Per ‘Dead’ Ohlin, who wore this sort of makeup in order to resemble a corpse, thus leading other black metal musicians to follow suit.

Unfortunately, black metal is also a genre shrouded in pandemonium and violence due to its deep-rooted connection with crime. The genre gained a bad rep which is caused by certain musicians’ involvement in church burnings and murder in the early 90s. Varg Vikernes, one of black metal’s most notorious musicians, has been convicted of arson and the murder of fellow black metaller Øystein ‘Euronymous’ Aarseth.

Meanwhile, gothic metal is a subgenre that normally combines metal with atmospheric and sometimes melancholic compositions. Tristania is hailed as the pioneer of this genre, with its remarkable mixture of poetic beauty and sorrowful melodies. Besides, Theatre of Tragedy, Sirenia, Trail of Tears and The Sins of Thy Beloved are also some of the bands that make up the essence of Norwegian gothic metal with their lyrical themes about love and loss and life and death.

However, it is not always doom and gloom in the Nordic countries, as the country is home to a huge selection of non-metal bands and artists too. Gamers would probably have heard of Swedish pop singer Lisa Miskovsky who performed the song Still Alive for 2008 video game Mirror’s Edge. Fellow Swede Lykke Li has brought a soulful and melancholic twist to pop with a unique retro vibe. Lots of Swedish electronica artistes like Avicii and Icona Pop have also gained mainstream attention for their catchy songs. Finnish singers Jenni Vartiainen and Johanna Kurkela are noteworthy individuals in the country’s pop industry, whereas rock singers and bands include Antti Railio, Jarkko Ahola, Happoradio and Poets of the Fall. Norwegian band Gåte, meanwhile, has charmed listeners with their folk-infused rock music and vocalist Gunnhild Sundli’s angelic yet resounding voice.

Unlike their heavy metal brethren, Denmark and Iceland are significantly less “metal”, having a large number of pop and jazz acts in their place instead. Denmark’s vibrant jazz community is the center of attraction for music lovers all over the world, with the annual Copenhagen Jazz Festival taking the spotlight as one of the biggest music events in Europe. The Alex Riel Trio, formed by the influential jazz drummer Alex Riel with bassist Jesper Lundgaard and pianist Heine Hansen is a famous jazz group in Denmark. On the other hand, Danish electropop group Aqua is best remembered for their single Barbie Girl. Electropop singer Medina is also one of Denmark’s most successful artists, with her album Velkommen til Medina selling more than 100, 000 copies.

Björk, undeniably Iceland’s national treasure, has garnered worldwide attention for her eclectic and unconventional musical compositions and eccentric visual flair. She is known for combining light electronic, jazz and orchestral elements in her songs with her distinct voice, hence, it is impossible to shoehorn her music into one particular genre. Atmospheric rock band Sigur Ros has also received attention for their ambient charm and enigmatic music. In addition, Solstafir is an up-and-coming band in the country’s metal scene, mixing melodic riffs with smooth yet powerful vocals, creating a generally psychedelic flavour.

If you would rather opt for some folkish and relaxing tunes, do check out some soothing Sami music. The Sami people are an indigenous tribe that can be found in Northern Europe, mainly inhabiting countries such as Norway, Sweden, and Finland. Despite being a minority in Scandinavia, the Sami community has successfully penetrated the local and international music industry with its unparalleled form of artistic expression – “joiking”. By adopting this unique vocal style, Sami singers sing in an evocative manner with little to no lyrics. The essential Sami singers to look out for are Mari Boine, Sofia Jannok, and Jon Henrik Fjallgren.

In a nutshell, the Nordic countries have managed to secure a spot in the international music scene with their authentic and substantial brand of musical offerings.  Whether you are a long-time fan of ABBA, a metal head or just on the lookout for some beautiful foreign music to relax to, the Nordic countries are sure to satisfy and surprise you with their infinite choices of artists and bands.

By Chen May

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I live for 90s alternative rock and Robyn's "Dancing on My Own".

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