Music Finland's 10-year-anniversary article series honours and celebrates the PIONEERS of Finnish music export. These are the bands, artists and musicians who went out to the world with little help and knowledge of how the international music business works – and still managed to find audiences for their magnificent art. In the 6th chapter of the series, we put the spotlight on the metal band Amorphis.
When Amorphis started in 1990, its members saw anything besides death metal as garbage. However, the band soon expanded their vision – and their popularity, becoming one of the first Finnish metal bands to tour the world.
In 1994, five long-haired guys, barely aged 20, recorded the metal album Tales from the Thousand Lakes, which became Finland's most internationally successful album at the time.
The popularity was surprising and baffling. Suddenly, there was demand for Amorphis abroad, but no one in the Finnish music business knew how to organise foreign tours.
It would still take about five years before the concept of Finnish export metal was born, and bands like Children of Bodom and Nightwish set out to conquer the world, taking advantage of the lessons Amorphis learned the hard way.
We kept our effects in plastic bags. We weren’t very pro in those days – Tomi Koivusaari
However, some groundwork had already been done. In a way, Finland’s path onto the world metal map began in 1989, when Abhorrence, a rough-edged death metal band that’s seen as the forerunner of Amorphis, took a plastic bag from a grocery store in Vantaa to their gig in Oslo. The bag can be seen in the acclaimed Norwegian black metal documentary Helvete – historien om norsk black metal (2020).
“We kept our effects in those plastic bags. We weren’t very pro in those days,” says Tomi Koivusaari, guitarist for Abhorrence and Amorphis, with a laugh.
Abhorrence went to Norway to play as support act for Darkthrone, which was just getting started, but later became a major black metal band. The gig was organised by local death metal group Cadaver. They owed a favour to Abhorrence, who’d arranged a show for them in Helsinki.
The journey from Helsinki to Stockholm by ship and then by train through the forest to Oslo was quite an experience for the guys in Abhorrence, who were only around 16 – after all, they were on their way to the hometown of the notorious black metal sensation Mayhem.
The gig went well, attended by about 50 avid fans of extreme metal. Soon they’d take an interest in another band from Finland.
Countdown to speed metal's extinction
In 1990, Abhorrence broke up, and Koivusaari was asked to join Amorphis, which was founded that year. The new group played death metal inspired by Carcass and Morbid Angel, a subgenre only played by a handful of Finnish bands in the early ‘90s.
“Death metal was completely invisible in the mainstream at the time, and Finnish record companies weren’t interested in releasing it. They didn't even know what death metal was,” recalls Koivusaari.
At the time, record companies were interested in thrash and speed metal, whose popularity exploded in the late ‘80s in Finland with the success of Stone. However, those on the fringes realised that a new, more extreme subculture was already building.
Death metal was completely invisible in the mainstream at the time, and Finnish record companies weren’t interested in releasing it – Tomi Koivusaari
“I realised at some point that the speed/thrash train had already left. It was clear where things were going,” says Koivusaari.
Koivusaari had been introduced to the new subculture through tape trading. Every day after school, he sent and ordered demo cassettes and flyers via the international underground network. Tape trading also gave him a good reason to go to school – as he could make photocopies of demo covers there.
US label meets Finnish death metal
Since Finnish record companies didn’t want to release death metal, Amorphis's only option was to find a foreign label. Demos and seven-inch EPs were popular at the time, so the members of Amorphis hoped to make a seven-inch EP.
“We weren’t actually looking for a record deal,” Koivusaari says.
"In fact, we didn't even imagine we could do an entire album."
In 1991 Amorphis made a three-track demo called Disment of Soul. Luxi Lahtinen, a well-connected Finnish tape trader, sent it to Relapse Records, an American label that focused on extreme metal.
After a while, Relapse responded, saying that they would’ve wanted to sign Abhorrence, whose demo Lahtinen had also sent them. But, since Abhorrence had broken up, the label signed Amorphis.
We thought the deal was illegal. It really pissed us off then, but we wouldn't be here now if we hadn't signed that deal – Tomi Koivusaari
The deal turned out to be a disaster for Amorphis, an experience faced by many other bands at the time. Relapse did put money into promoting the album, but took virtually all of the band’s expenses out of its royalties. No one explained this to Amorphis when the thick contract in English arrived in the mail to be signed by the band members, who were still minors. And how could anyone have explained it to them? International recording contracts were a completely new phenomenon in Finland in the 1990s, following the brief early-80s success of Hanoi Rocks.
“We didn’t understand the language in the contract, and we had no idea who to turn to for legal help. [Hanoi Rocks manager] Seppo Vesterinen might’ve been able to help, but no one knew where he was,” says Koivusaari.
Amorphis did their best to understand the deal. They took the thick sheaf of documents to a translation agency and showed it to music business pros like Atte Blom and Kari Hynninen.
“Later, we hired lots of lawyers to look into it, because we thought the deal was illegal. It really pissed us off then, but we wouldn't be here now if we hadn't signed that deal. We weren’t in any position to say no. Listening to that demo now, it's not that good anyway,” he says with a chuckle.
After the record deal was confirmed, Relapse told Amorphis they were free to choose where to record their debut album.
The choice was easy. For death metal enthusiasts, there were really only two studios in the early ‘90s: Florida’s Morrisound, where groups like Morbid Angel, Death and Deicide had recorded, and Stockholm’s Sunlight, favoured by the likes of Entombed and Dismember.
Amorphis chose the nearby Sunlight. Getting there felt like a dream come true. Until then, the band had mainly recorded demos at jazz-oriented studios, where snooty sound engineers couldn’t understand why they wanted as raspy a sound as possible for their songs.
Sunlight’s founder, Tomas Skogsberg, understood. He produced the album Karelian Isthmus, which was released in 1992. The record is classified as death metal, but something inside Amorphis was already changing. The band members had begun listening to Pink Floyd, Camel, Jethro Tull, King Crimson and other ‘70s prog-rock bands.
“Until we were 16, we thought everything except death metal was crap. In those days we used to throw good records off the balcony, or drill holes in them. Then it just suddenly changed. One day when I was playing a record by [UK grindcore band] Sore Throat, I started thinking that I might need something beyond this,” says Koivusaari.
Esa Holopainen suggested that we could use some ideas from the Kalevala. It fit well with the folk music theme, and was easy since we could take words straight from there – Tomi Koivusaari
Amorphis wasn’t the only Finnish metal band to experience a prog enlightenment. The same thing happened with Xysma, for example, and to some extent with Stone. The final impetus came from hearing the 1992 debut album by Helsinki psychedelic/prog rock band Kingston Wall.
“That blew up everything. Heading back on the ferry from the studio in Stockholm, we were talking excitedly about Kingston Wall and what kind of music we wanted to make for the next record,” he remembers.
Kingston Wall opened a gateway toward a point of no return. Through them, Amorphis discovered the multi-genre band Piirpauke, then folk music and the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. The latter discovery made their lives easier, as none of the band members were enthusiastic about writing lyrics.
“As I remember, (lead guitarist) Esa Holopainen suggested that we could use some ideas from the Kalevala. It fit well with the folk music theme, and was easy since we could take words straight from there. The Kalevala became kind of a trademark for us, and attracted interest outside Finland as well.”
Doors open abroad
In 1994, Amorphis released its second album, Tales from the Thousand Lakes. It was a critical and commercial success, and made Amorphis the most successful Finnish band to date.
It might not necessarily have gone that way. Amorphis knew they were taking a risk by adding keyboards, ‘70s sounds, and Ville Tuomi’s clean vocals. Even producer Skogsberg was baffled by their new sound, which he called “Russian disco”.
“At that point, just the fact that a death metal record had clean male vocals was disorienting. So were keyboards. Morbid Angel’s ex-drummer's band, Nocturnus, had a keyboard player, and I remember that we wondered how you could have keyboards in a metal band,” Koivusaari recalls with a laugh.
A couple of months after Tales from the Thousand Lakes was released, Amorphis toured overseas for the first time.
At that point, just the fact that a death metal record had clean male vocals was disorienting. So were keyboards – Tomi Koivusaari
Relapse arranged a two-week European tour with two support acts, the Swedish band Desultory and Germany’s Haggard. Touring in a mobile home was quite an experience, but eventually led to keyboardist Kasper Mårtenson quitting the group.
“Kasper was glad when the tour ended. Then the record company called to say that we’d would be touring again in a couple of weeks. Kasper threw in the towel and said no to any more of that.”
The other members of Amorphis, however, were ecstatic when the label offered them a seven-week US tour warming up for Entombed. The Swedish death metal giant had just released their third album, Wolverine Blues, which is seen as a Scandinavian death metal classic.
“It was an important tour, and good promo for us,” says Koivusaari.
“I noticed that people had come to see us too, even though Entombed was the headliner.”
Get in the van
Alongside excellent gigs, Amorphis learned the hard way that a van is not the most humane means of transportation in the US, with its vast distances.
“It was just hell: you had to drive 1,000 miles from somewhere like LA to Denver in two days. You couldn’t sleep anywhere in the van besides the footwell, so we had to schedule who could sleep on the floor at any given time. Sometimes we’d get a room at a motel, and everyone would squeeze in there. We’d throw the mattresses on the floor, sleep for four hours and then hit the road again.”
It didn’t make Amorphis feel any better to know that Entombed was travelling in a flashy Nightliner tour bus that had been used on a Michael Jackson tour and had berths for each band member. But Entombed was already experienced international travelling band, with its own tour staff. Amorphis’s crew only included soundman Roope Palomäki and tour manager Kari Hynninen, who took turns as drivers. This sometimes led to tricky situations.
Sometimes we’d get a room at a motel, and everyone would squeeze in there. We’d throw the mattresses on the floor, sleep for four hours and then hit the road again – Tomi Koivusaari
As Koivusaari puts it, “We ended up in weird or ‘wrong’ places because we didn’t have a local driver.”
In Lubbock, Texas, one of the most dangerous cities in the US, the guys wanted to stop at a bar. With Hynninen at the wheel, they ended up at a strip joint in the middle of nowhere – with shotgun racks outside. That should have set off alarm bells, but the long-haired Finns marched into the bar.
“People stared at us and started yelling at us right away. We sat down and got some drinks, and some of the strippers came to chat. They tried to bum money off us, but we didn’t have any. So they started screaming that we didn’t know how to treat ladies. Eventually the bouncer came and told us that if he were us, he’d leave now.”
Amorphis did as he suggested, and continued on to the nearest burger spot. The mood there was the same, with local cops joining rednecks in yelling at the band members.
“It was like something out of Easy Rider, so we got the hell out of there, too. But it was exciting. I've never seen America the way I did on that first tour,” says Koivusaari.
A new start
After the US tour, Amorphis kept recording and touring. Still, something didn’t seem right: even though their popularity was growing steadily, the band members still had to take back empty bottles for deposit money and frequent the employment office to pay their bills.
“When we talked to Relapse’s partner Nuclear Blast, who were our distributor in Europe, they were astonished when we said we hadn’t made any money. They said that if their bands sold that many records, they would have bought houses by then.”
Amorphis had no way out of the situation, as they’d signed a five-album deal with Relapse. The band gritted their teeth, and made the albums Elegy (1996), Tuonela (1999) and Am Universum (2001) for the label.
“At the end we were just waiting to escape from that deal. Mentally, it was a tough time, and we even thought about changing our name. But we decided to just hang in there, because eventually we’d be free. If we hadn't, we’d probably be sitting in some bar now, cussing bitterly and saying we should’ve taken off then, but we didn't.”
The turning point in Amorphis' career came in the early 2000s, when they were finally freed from their contract with Relapse. The band started with a clean slate, with a new label, manager and booking agent. They also got a new singer, with Tomi Joutsen replacing Pasi Koskinen, who’d handled vocals since 1995.
“We’d learned from our mistakes, and since then have done everything right, or at least well. We were still having a lot of fun doing music, so we saw no reason to stop,” says Koivusaari.
We screwed up a lot on the first tours, because then the most important thing was pretending to be rock stars. Nowadays, the shows are what’s important – Tomi Koivusaari
Amorphis has put out 14 albums, and still regularly tours internationally. Tour life has changed a lot from that ‘94 US tour, though.
“We screwed up a lot on the first tours, because then the most important thing was pretending to be rock stars. Nowadays, the shows are what’s important. We haven’t had any catastrophic gigs since the turn of the millennium,” says Koivusaari.
The more professional Amorphis now has its own crew who take care of load-in, soundchecks and other technical stuff on behalf of the band. And now travel between cities in Nightliners, stay in hotels rather than motels, and have at least one day off each week.
“We also try to do more sensible things, like going hiking and working out. A lot of places are now familiar to us, so we know where to go. And when you can get online, you can plan ahead rather than just popping up without a clue in some new place.”
Koivusaari still can't imagine doing anything other than music.
“Yeah, playing and doing gigs are still the coolest thing. Likewise making records,” he says.
“Some bands just make new albums so that they can go on the road to play their old songs. We’re still trying to make that best record.”