Wednesday, September 17, 2008

MAENTSAELAE, Finland — Most teens may not get excited about church, but in Finland, they go out of their way to attend the latest testimony to the country’s infatuation with heavy-metal music: Metal Mass.

“It’s nice that there are slightly different church services compared to the usual ones,” says 15-year-old Teea Pallaskari, who skipped geography class to make the service in the plain red-brick Lutheran Church in this small town about 40 miles north of Helsinki. Lutheranism is the state religion.

Inside the church, Teea and her classmates squash together on packed pews, belting out hymns as a lead singer moshes wildly onstage to his band’s earsplitting tones.

When the music stops, the students burst into ecstatic applause and whistles - to smiling approval from the Rev. Haka Kekalainen. It’s Metallimessu (Metal Mass ) and it’s OK to be loud.

“It was really good,” says Akseli Inkinen, a 17-year-old high school student with long, messy hair and big headphones, after the service.

It is hardly surprising that masses with metal hymns have surfaced in Finland, which won the Eurovision Song Contest for the first time in 2006 with Lordi’s monster heavy-metal song “Hard Rock Hallelujah.”

Heavy metal may have a niche audience elsewhere, but it’s mainstream in Finland. Helsinki alone abounds with heavy-metal karaoke bars, dedicated metal clubs and regular gigs in addition to dozens of summertime heavy-metal festivals held around the country.

Some say the reason lies in the Finnish character.

“Finns are known to be reserved, serious and very honest … Somehow heavy metal fits into this, as it is no-nonsense, honest, straightforward and quite gloomy,” says Mikko Saari, a co-founder of Metallimessu.

“When you switch on the radio in Finland, you hear heavy-metal music. The Finnish Eurovision Song Contest and even ‘Idols’ (the Finnish equivalent of “American Idol”) were won with metal songs,” says Kimmo Kuusniemi, one of Finland’s metal-music pioneers.

The first Metal Mass in Finland was held in 2006 at the Tuska (Pain) metal-music festival in Helsinki. Since then, a Metal Mass tour bus has been zigzagging across the country.

“This is not the church’s plan. Bishops did not plan this. It was started by five metal fans, three of whom worked at a church,” Mr. Saari says.

Not everyone is happy with the mix. Some churchgoers say loud rock music has no place in a house of God, and some pure-metal fans accuse the Lutheran Church of co-opting their music to lure young people.

“Of course, some Christian circles were scared, and some true metal people were irate. But many said that the idea was great and that they had been waiting for it,” Mr. Saari says.

Mr. Kuusniemi, 50, who is producing a documentary about Finnish metal music, says he also was skeptical at first. “For me, Metal Mass was a surprise. Metal music and church did not fit in the same room.”

The Finnish music scene, he says, has changed dramatically since he started his own band, Sarcofagus, in the late 1970s, when the genre was widely considered “devil music.” Heavy metal “is truly a mainstream phenomenon; metal is everywhere, and people have a positive attitude toward it,” he says.

Finland’s top 10 album sellers this year include records by three heavy-metal acts: Children of Bodom, Terasbetoni and Finnish “Idols” winner Ari Koivunen.

Heavy metal gained a foothold in Finland by independent record labels that gave little-known metal bands a chance to record, according to Jouni Markkanen, a promoter and agent with Finnish Metal Events (FME).

Now the large and small record companies are investing heavily. “There are many bands with export potential in Finland; it has been proven,” Mr. Markkanen says, explaining that Nightwish, HIM and Children of Bodom have sold well abroad. “We are still waiting for a megaclass success.”

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