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Road Reports

Who: Finntroll, Moonsorrow, Swallow the Sun
Where: The Bottom Lounge, Chicago, IL
When: 04.16.10

Some months ago, I was thrilled to read an announcement for the ‘Finnish Metal Tour’ of the States in 2010. In itself, this concept is unremarkable—the past few years have seen a number of tours trying to capitalize on America’s growing fascination with all things folksy/pagan/forest-dwelling. However, there was a name on the bill that caught my eye: Moonsorrow, a genre-defining act that had long been a favorite of mine, and that I’d never seen in concert. I’d missed opportunities before—they’d played Paganfest and headlined the Heathen Crusade in Minnesota’s Twin Cities—so I resolved not to miss them again. The actual headliners were Finntroll, always a good time and sure to bring out a crowd, and second support coming from Swallow the Sun, a new-millennium doom act that has a knack for achieving instant pathos. Altogether, quality over quantity package that’s one of the best Chicago has seen in months.

Now that The Pearl Room in Mokena has closed, Chicagoland metal tours are sprinkling out across the city proper. This would be the first show I attended at The Bottom Lounge on Lake Street, a venue I’d always associated more with karaoke and hipster indie than European heavy metal. Fortunately, it turns out the Lounge has a respectable venue tucked away behind its front room bar. It seems a little like an afterthought, being a bare room with little accommodations to speak of, but it had a legitimate stage, decent lighting and sound, and capacity for a handful of hundreds. It is a little smaller than Logan Square Auditorium, but the general vibe is much more welcoming.

The show was scheduled to start around eight, with Something Beautiful warming up the crowd. I missed their entire set in interview with Moonsorrow’s Ville Sorvali—a soft-spoken and affable chap who entertained my questions for a good forty minutes. I found him in a dressing room with Swallow the Sun, where I was greeted by a few hand waves. One band member wore a mask made of what appeared to be a paper plate, and he looked at me without speaking, impassively. It’s an experience that only seems bizarre in retrospect.

Following the interview, I headed back out to the main room and caught a spot in the third row. The room was fairly filled, but not too densely packed, and the friendly audience allowed a relatively free flow from front to back. After catching up with some familiar faces, the lights went down and it was time for Swallow the Sun’s set to begin.

They emerged to welcoming, if not crazed, cheers, and set into a forty minute set with gusto. They played a good spread of material, ranging from ‘Out of this Gloomy Light’ to ‘The Giant’, ‘New Moon’, and a few cuts from ‘Hope’, which seemed to be crowd favorites. ‘These Hours of Despair’ in particular had the moshpit roiling. Helming the band at the microphone, Mikko seemed in a trance, belting out low growls, high shrieks, and soft clean singing with equal ease. He maintains a very mellow attitude as a frontman, his eyes often either closed or covered by the brim of a hat. Occasionally he’d join other members in headbanging slowly, both hands grasping the mic stand as if it were a quarterstaff. The first of three keyboardists that night, Aleksi Munter was by far the most animated, and not just because he had a place in the band’s front row. He headbanged vigorously, glared at the audience with jaw set, and attacked his keyboard from two paces away at times to slam into a chord at just the right moment. I still haven’t gotten used to keyboardists rocking out with the rest of their band, but it certainly makes for a better show than a deadpanned specter hiding in the back corner.

I was also struck by how the band’s rhythm section is more virtuosic than any doom music could ever call for, boasting the underrated Matti Honkonen on bass and Kai Hahto on drums. I’d quite forgotten that Kai was still playing with Swallow the Sun, but after his performance that night I doubt I’ll forget again. (He actually was a session live member during their previous US tour, but has since become a full time member.) His entire performance looked effortless, but not dispassionate. From slow grooves to mid-tempo cymbal syncopation and a flawless blastbeat to cap the band’s final song, he was in total control. Although it would take more demanding material to show his full repertoire, he has done a fine job of adapting his style Swallow the Sun’s material without oversimplifying.

For his part on bass, Matti was the unexpected surprise of the night. I’d seen this band before (with Katatonia and Scar Symmetry in ’07), but hadn’t recalled how involved some of his parts were. Showing a great command over his Jazz-style ESP (ESP/LTD dominated the night), he deftly ranged up and down the neck, playing finger-style and occasionally thrumming chords with a thumb. After Aleksi, he was the most animated member—the two of them held mirrored positions on stage and helped balance out the two looming, somber guitarists.

After settling into a steady groove, Swallow the Sun was disrupted for a time by Juha Raivo’s amp, which cut out on him about two-thirds of the way through their set. Greatly to their credit, the rest of the band mostly held their cool and played through the mishap. The crowd’s mood was a bit broken by the distraction, and we undoubtedly missed a few of Juha’s tapping lead sections, but Markus’ rhythm held things down well enough. Between songs, Juha got some tech help and plugged into another rig, and while we waited, vocalist Mikko remarked with some annoyance, “That’s not the first time that amp’s been fucked. Never buy a Mesa Boogie.” Mesas were all that were on hand, however, so a few minutes later Juha was back in the game, running through yet another Dual Rectifier. This wouldn’t be the last run-in we’d have with these Mesas, however.

Altogether, the audience seemed very pleased to see the band, and no one (except maybe the members themselves) was especially miffed by the technical stutter. The mix could have been better—keys were intermittently audible and Mikko was too quiet across the board—but was at least consistent for all bands throughout the night.

The next layover was scheduled to be 15 minutes, but they could have pulled it off in less than 10. The small running crew seemed capable enough, but this quick pace was primarily due to shared equipment. One well-equipped Pearl kit served all the drummers—only the cymbals were swapped out that I could see—and the same Mesa guitar rigs were in place the whole night: oversized slant cabinets and two Dual Rectifier heads for each guitarist. The lone exception was Mitja of Moonsorrow, who looked like he was running into a Fractal Audio rack mount, though I’ve found no evidence to support that in research since. More often, he reports using a VHT power unit with an Engl preamp.

Whatever the case, the stage was primed for Moonsorrow in short order, and around 9:15 the band took the stage to the first strains of ‘Tuhatvuotinen Perintö’. Once they kicked into its counterpart, ‘Jumalten Kaupunki’, the crowd’s mood switched suddenly from eager anticipation to enthused rocking, and for the next 50 minutes Moonsorrow held us in thrall. They only played five songs, but managed to cover a good spread of material, also including (if memory serves) ‘Köyliönjärven Jäällä’, the epochal ‘Pimeä’, a 15-minute edit of ‘Tulimyrsky’, and ‘Aurinko Ja Kuu’ to close. Considering the breadth of their catalogue they were bound to disappoint a few fans on this tour, but each song was well chosen and went over well with the crowd.

During one short break in their set, Ville pointed out to a member in the audience—a bespectacled, slightly scrawny teen with red war paint that was beginning to run in his sweat. Looking rather grave, Ville says that the band would play another song, but only if this fan will give us his best metal scream. The crowd, initially taken aback, began to cheer. Ville interrupted: “No, no, everyone be quiet. I want to hear him scream as loud as he can.” The kid, suddenly standing alone in a spotlight, gamely struck a pose and emitted a noise somewhere between a whisper, gargle, and a shriek. Ville replied, “All right, that was pretty morbid,” and the set resumed.

After listening to Moonsorrow on record for so many years and wondering how they could ever hope to reproduce that majesty, I must commend them all on a job well done. Expansive instrumentation was efficiently arranged for five—two guitars, bass, drums, and keyboard—and no critical overtures were missed. Clean harmonies were split three ways, between Mitja, the band’s live guitarist Janne Perttilä, and (a pleasant surprise) drummer Marko Tarvonen. Though they couldn’t equal the righteous heathen choir of Moonsorrow’s recordings, they were reasonably in step with one another and effectively conveyed the soul of each theme.

Indeed, the band managed to hit that sweet spot of live metal performance that equally recognizes the seriousness and spectacle of their music. Ville delivered his wrenching vocal lines—his matured voice improving significantly on some of the old material—but still would smile at the audience and occasionally pal it up with Mitje. Ville and keyboardist Markus were shirtless, but didn’t look costumed, like many of their peers (Finntroll, Ensiferum, Turisas, etc.). Janne played a cream white ESP Explorer with gold hardware and star inlays, but didn’t parade it around like an 80s rocker (who could have blamed him if he did).

That rocker role was left to Mitja, who has accurately described his stage moves as Pete Townsend-inspired. He brought an almost punk rock sense of abandon to Moonsorrow's set, stamping about with his long legs, letting his guitar lead him from the waist, and windmilling his arm in true Who fashion. (Speaking of guitar, that in itself was a thing to behold—his custom Amfisound flying V, made in Finland—and he was happy to show it off.) As such, his performance wasn't completely perfect from a technical standpoint, but I wouldn't have wanted him to sacrifice his showmanship in favor of a slight empirical improvement. Music as epic as Moonsorrow’s deserves some animation, after all. In fact, Mitja was practically the band’s frontman, commanding at least the same attention from the crowd as Ville. As the band’s bassist and vocalist, Ville didn’t have as much opportunity to play to the crowd, but he did a fine job handing both his duties and was the essential contemplative counterpart to Mitja’s raucous spirit.

Altogether, their performance is one that appreciates in retrospect: great fun without being irreverent, theatrical without being melodramatic, and invigorating. As they left the stage to chants of “Moonsorrow!” one fan in the front row commented, “How’s that for some direct support?”

Most everyone seemed to agree, and we gladly took the next twenty minutes to recover. The moshpit had been friendly but brisk, as it was much of the night, and the beer had really begun to flow. Once Finntroll’s tour manager brought a tub of Coronas on stage, we knew the time was once again drawing near; it was not long after that Finntroll took the stage, offering their 90-minute rebuttal to Moonsorrow’s challenge.

As a live band, Finntroll are largely set in their ways. They don’t move around too much (who can blame them, with six members on a smallish stage), and each member has his little quirks that distinguish him to fans. My favorite has always been the inexplicable little leg raise that bassist Tundra constantly does. His legs will lock straight, and he’ll lean forward while lifting the right leg out at an angle, almost like he’s trying to clear a cable from around his foot. The two guitarists are neat counterparts—the alarmingly tall, lanky, and blonde Skrymer on one side, the stocky and darker Routa on the other, his slightly grey-streaked hair spilling down to his waist. In fact, all of these three tend to play with their hair dangling in their faces, leaving it to Vreth to be the band’s face in fact and figure.

Fortunately, to this task he is well suited. Aside from looking the part—tall, painted with the band’s black root design that runs down the face and onto the torso, and appropriately menacing—he exudes a confidence as a frontman that belies his relatively short tenure with the band. His lung capacity is also impressive, and he put it on display a number of times by carrying out screams several bars longer than seemed possible.
On drums, Beast Dominator was a force to be reckoned with, as usual, but where Kai’s performance had looked serene, BD’s practically hypnotic. He barely seemed to blink throughout the entire set, hardly looked at where he was drumming, and waved at the audience almost dismissively. He spent most of his time staring at his cymbals—sometimes the crash, sometimes the splash or hi-hat—with a faint knit in his brow, as if they had just posed to him a very good question that he couldn’t quite fathom. Stage mannerisms aside, his performance was steady as usual—the man seems born to deliver Finntroll’s trademark one-two pattern of snare and bass kick, and handled tempo changes with sneaky ease.

They also had the second keyboardist on the tour with the name Aleksi, but he couldn’t have been much different from his predecessor; he, like Markus of Moonsorrow before him, played his parts well but without much visible emotion. In fact, aside from the similar keyboardists, the stage presences of Finntroll and Moonsorrow were swapped from what one would have predicted: the contemplative, epic Moonsorrow were more cheery and boisterous, while the humppa-grooving Finntroll seemed alternately grim and impassive. There was one moment of dark humor when an audience member called out to Vreth that it was his friend’s birthday. Vreth broke for a moment to follow up with the fan, shake his hand, and then segued into the next song by say, “Oh, happy birthday…. But we’re not going to be eating birthday cake. We’re going to be eating Christians!”

This, of course, served to introduce ‘Kittledags’. Otherwise, the band’s set read, minus encores: ‘Nedgång’, ‘Dråp’, ‘Skogens Hämnd’, ‘Slaget Vid Blodsälv’, ‘Boingo’ (which is ‘Den Frusna Munnen’), ‘Nattfödd’, ‘Korpens Saga’, ‘Aldhissla’, ‘Svartberg’, ‘Blodnatt’, ‘Trollhammaren’, ‘Kummitus’ (which was ‘Under Bergets Rot’), ‘Arabi’ (probably ‘Ett Norrskensdåd’), ‘Eliytres’, ‘Maktens Spira’, and ‘Solsagan’. ‘Trollhammaren’ was by far the fan favorite, and had adult males in the front audience hopping and giggling like schoolgirls, quite literally.

Their set seemed primed to carry on without issue, but those Mesas just would not behave. Routa, playing on the same side as Juha earlier in the night, had a run-in with his head, and had to swap it out for another. Fortunately, it was a brief issue and did not derail the band’s set or even significantly affect their momentum. If anything threatened the crowd’s mood, it was the crowd surfing. Again, this venue had no photo pit and no security, so the dozen or more crowd surfers that filtered towards the front had a good chance of getting up on stage. At least five did, some a couple times, and eventually Vreth began to simply shove them off once they arrived. He did so in good spirits, though, and even put the microphone to one fan’s face to shout out ‘Trollhammaren!’ The issue was more with the fans in the front row, who understandably became annoyed after the same sweaty, shirtless drunk came crashing down on their heads for the fourth time. But towards the end of the set the surfing abated, the band’s energy picked up, and the audience turned once more to the front to cheer them to their conclusion and the inevitable encore.

The proceedings wrapped up at 1 AM, leaving the audience weary and happy. A few stayed behind to drink and chat with some of the band members that had come out to the main floor (including Ville and Kai). In this respect and others, it was an intimate show—the proximity of the audience to the stage, the closeness of the audience members to each other, and even the interactions between band members. It was also a night of close misses, where at least one guitarist in each band ended up with strands of someone else’s hair hanging from his headstock; where amps, but not sets, went bad; where Mitja nearly capsized after slipping on some water spilled on stage; where crowd surfers almost knocked vocalists’ monitors to the ground; and where Vreth’s hair literally did become entangled in Skrymer’s guitar and had to be extricated mid-song. This Finnish Metal Tour may have lacked the marketing grandeur of Paganfest, but was more pure in a way, and captured a country’s spirit without turning it into a commodity. Longer set lengths were also crucial, allowing the bands to make their statements without rushing. They each had a unique voice, but the shared message was clear: To the rest of Scandinavia, it’s your move.


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