Is Tampere The New Home Of The Underground?
How Finland's Second City has become a portal to the cosmos
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.”