[15 May 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Despite being very disparate musical styles, folk music and heavy metal music have collided now and then over the years, with many bands putting down the electric guitars in favor of acoustics, and while such “unplugged” forays into gentler, more introspective fare have yielded nice results from metal bands over the years (Green Carnation’s The Acoustic Verses being the most recent), rarely have the two musical forms actually coexisted well. While many bands have successfully brought in subtle elements of folk music into their own aggressive music (such as Amorphis, Primordial, and Skyclad), when it comes to evenly marrying the two styles into one distinct sound, it rarely pays off consistently. Ritchie Blackmore’s project Blackmore’s Night lays the Renaissance Faire shtick so thick it’s almost unbearable. Elvenking’s combination of power metal pomposity and acoustic fiddle is as graceful a mix as oil and water. Battlelore play some great music at times, but their Tolkien fandom is almost disturbing. And any time a band drags out the mandolins, we can’t help but crack “Stonehenge” jokes.
Trust those industrious Finns to get it right by incorporating the last musical style you’d expect a metal band to play: polka. More specifically, humppa, a Finnish variation of German polka. Taking the cue from Skyclad’s “Spinning Jenny” and going completely overboard with the idea, Finntroll broke new ground with the sound, performing hard-driving metal tunes with that distinctive 2/4 tempo (and oddly enough, singing their songs in Swedish), but as loved as Finntroll is, it’s their countrymen in Korpiklaani who are threatening to steal their thunder. And for good reason: not only are they good at what they do, but these guys obviously know how to have fun as well. After all, no band would record songs called “Wooden Pints” and “Beer Beer” without thoroughly enjoying the ale in the process, and on their third album, Tales Along This Road, that element of fun, combined with accordion, fiddle, and plenty of ridiculously fast-paced humppa, is enough to win over even the most jaded cynic.
Half sung in English, half in Finnish, the album’s a riot. The raucous “Happy Little Boozer” begins with a rather stately intro of accordion, fiddle, and mouth harp, only to explode out of the gate at an insane pace, like The Pogues with power chords, vocalist/guitarist Jonne Järvelä singing about, you guessed it, a happy little boozer, who lives for “peeing where he likes,” culminating in a shout-along chorus that is impossible to resist. Unless you know Finnish, you won’t have a clue what Järvelä is carrying on about in “Vakirauta”, but that chorus, backed by Dropkick Murphys-like bagpipes, will have listeners wishing they knew the language just so they could sing along. “Spring Dance” has an unmistakable Celtic feel to it, shifting into energetic reels, as Jaako Lemmetty saws away madly on fiddle. “Korpiklaani” is carried by accordionist Juho Kauppinen, and upholds the time-honored metal tradition of bands singing songs named after themselves, while “Rise” is the most outwardly metal-oriented song of the bunch, blending the heaviest guitar riffs on the record with nimbly-picked mandolin melodies.
As boisterous as the album is, the music of Korpiklaani is still faithfully rooted in the sounds of their Scandinavian past, and a song like “Tuli Kokko” gives us a brief respite from the drunken craziness, a more sober tune employing flute, bagpipes, and Järvelä‘s traditional Finnish “yoiking”, chanted notes that bear a strong similarity to Native American singing. Still, like The Pogues, Korpiklaani is at its best when combining their impressive musical chops, their love of the music of their homeland, and their deep love of alcohol, and as songs like “Kirki”, “Vakirauta”, and the brilliant “Happy Little Boozer” prove, as idiosyncratic as it may seem at first, humppa metal will leave you smiling, a very rare feat in a genre that tends to take itself too seriously.