The Tradition of Drinking to Death in Finnish Metal Lyrics

Atte Oksanen
Atte Oksanen

Rock music has been widely associated with excessive consumption of alcohol and drugs. Metal music especially has been seen as the most extreme form of rock n’ roll excess and machismo (Walser 1993).

Even the concept “heavy metal” has been taken from ‘Nova Express’ by William S. Burroughs (1964/1992), who used the term in reference to addictive drugs. Metal music, born with Black Sabbath and Deep Purple in the last years of the 1960s, has for years been considered the hardest sounding bastardised version of rock music.

Metal fans are famous for their taste for beer and alcohol in general, and many bands keep up the image of excessive habits. For example, the Finnish band Children of Bodom, considered one of the most technical bands in melodic death metal have become notorious for their drinking (see, e.g. Children of Bodom 2004).

Metal bands have often used themes that have been too controversial for other popular music genres, for example, depression, suicide and violence. Themes dealt with by metal bands include ecological catastrophe, the dangers of substance abuse, corruption in government, a critique of corporate business, televangelism and the corruption of organised religion (Epstein & Pratto 1990, 74; Harrell 1994, 96–97).

The research on metal music has often concentrated solely on classic heavy metal and its pop metal variations of the 1980s — namely on the heavy metal stereotype of metal music (e.g. Walser 1993; Weinstein 1991). Recent studies on extreme metal, for example, have shown a more diversified image of metal music (Kahn-Harris 2007).

Rock music is often said to glorify the use of alcohol although there is a long tradition in rock and metal music to acknowledge the problems of excessive alcohol and drug use. However, research on such issues is almost non-existent.

In cultural studies, much attention has been paid to the study of media, literature and films, but relatively little to popular music. In the field of alcohol and drug research, popular music is an even more understudied area. We need more studies on popular music since it has a role in people’s everyday lives. Music carries meanings related to the use of alcohol and drugs. Earlier studies have shown, for example, that addicts use cultural images evoked by rock music (Duterte et al. 2003).

Most of the recent research on popular music and alcohol and drugs has concentrated on rave and techno clubs, and especially on the use of MDMA (e.g. Hunt et al. 2010; Redhead et al. 1997; Salasuo 2004; Thornton 1996). Some studies have addressed the question of musical preferences and substance abuse (Chen et al. 2006; Lewis 1980; Mulder et al. 2009).

Studies on lyrics have been marginal, but there are some articles on alcohol and drugs in rock and rap lyrics as well as straight-edge punk lyrics opposing drugs, alcohol and promiscuous sexual activity (Herd 2005; Markert 2001; Wood 1999).

This article will concentrate on the role of alcohol in Finnish metal music. The article will analyse songs by Timo Rautiainen ja Trio Niskalaukaus, Kotiteollisuus and Viikate from the perspective of cultural studies. These bands are part of a subgenre of Finnish metal music that became popular in Finland in the early 2000s.

Kotiteollisuus and Viikate are still active and among the most popular bands in Finland. The article will concentrate especially on the theme of shame and drinking that is important in the lyrics. The relevance of shame has also been noted in studies on Finnish men: humiliated men want to desperately escape the shame, sometimes even through self-destructive acts (Siltala 1994).

The article starts with a section describing the method and data. After this, the role of alcohol in Finnish metal music is introduced. The purpose of this section is to give a short introduction to a theme that is perhaps not familiar to all the readers in the field of alcohol and drug research.

The analysis starts with the thematic analysis of shame, which pervades the lyrics. The next analytical section concentrates on the in-depth analysis of the Elegia (2002, Elegy) by Timo Rautiainen and Trio Niskalaukaus. The song portrays the shame related to alcoholism and the destructive effect of alcoholism on other people. The last analysis section puts the lyrics by Finnish metal bands into the context of Finnish culture.

Metal music is immensely popular in Finland, which is one of the few countries in the world where metal music is considered mainstream popular music. Based on a nationally representative study on consumer styles, liking metal music is not only popular in Finland, but also relates to the higher income bracket, even when other variables such as gender are controlled for (Purhonen et al. 2009).

The popularity of Finnish metal music came after the international success of various metal bands in the 1990s (Oksanen 2003). Finnish metal bands, such as Stratovarius, Waltari, Amorphis, Sentenced, Impaled Nazarene and Apocalyptica gained international success in the mid-1990s. Later acts such as Nightwish, HIM and Children of Bodom reached international fame. The Finnish metal scene has produced dozens of less well-known groups that regularly perform around Europe.

Traditional heavy metal was internationally saturated with the idea of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll (e.g. Walser 1993). Early Finnish hard rock/heavy metal followed this 1970s and 1980s trend. In Finland, for example, Peer Günt was singing about drinking and reckless partying during the 1980s.

They use the typical themes of rock lyrics (women, sex, drugs, alcohol and partying) and write their songs from the masculine perspective. Peer Günt’s classic song ‘Bartender’ (1987) summarises some aspects of the excess attitude. The ”I” of the song has lost his girlfriend because of excessive drinking.

At the beginning of the 1990s metal music changed. New sub-genres were formed and some of them took a critical stance towards the traditional heavy metal and hard rock bands. The relationship of the 1990s and 2000s metal music to alcohol is a complex issue: some people might promote the old clichés of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, but some are critical towards them (Kahn-Harris 2007, 43).

The content of the lyrics changed as well. Especially during the 1990s metal bands were involved in portraying human misery in all its forms, and the references to alcohol and drugs were not used as much as before. This was the period when darker genres of metal music (e.g. black, death and gothic metal) dominated the scene. (Oksanen 2008, 133–134)

One of the few 1990s classic Finnish metal songs written about alcohol is ‘Nepenthe’ by Sentenced from Oulu in northern Finland. Sentenced was one of the most important Finnish metal bands of the 1990s and early 2000s. The lyrics of Sentenced share some similarities with Finnish singing bands such as Niskalaukaus, Kotiteollisuus and Viikate.

All these bands concentrated on describing depression and suicide. In ‘Nepenthe’ Sentenced portrays a suicidal and depressed masculinity involving drinking to forget the miseries of life. Sentenced has called ‘Nepenthe’ their ode to alcohol. During their live performances, the band usually asked the audience whether they had enough alcohol to drink (see, e.g. Sentenced 2006).

‘Nepenthe’ describes the cosmic loneliness of drinking with the feeling of impending death. In this sense, the song can be compared with the portrayals of drinking in older Finnish films analysed by Pasi Falk and Pekka Sulkunen (1983).

Films portray the cosmic loneliness of drunken males and relate drunkenness to death and dying. A drunken male is always alone — even when he is with other people. ‘Nepenthe’, like so many of the lyrics of Sentenced, usually describes anguished life falling apart.

Most of their hits are about suicide (‘Noose’ [1996], ‘Bleed’ [1996], ‘Suicider’ [1998]. ‘Noose’ includes the scenario of depressive drinking: ”I’ll drink the booze to depress myself / then I take the rope and express myself.” ‘Nepenthe’ also represents a melancholic version of drunkenness. Alcohol is a way to escape the sorrows of the world. It is a lonely way of purifying the mind. There is only drinking left in the world.

Since the 1990s, few new things have emerged in metal music. One of the recent trends is Finnish folk and pagan metal that has gained popularity in central Europe.

Folk and pagan metal acts use the images of carnevalism that celebrates drinking. The folk metal group Korpiklaani, for example, has song titles such as ‘Beer Beer’ (2005), ‘Vodka’ (2009), ‘Let’s Drink’ (2006) and ‘Happy Little Boozer’ (2006). However, the merry drinking songs of Korpiklaani have not gained as much success in Finland as in central Europe.

Compared with Sentenced and Finnish singing metal bands, folk metal bands portray alcohol and drinking in a totally positive way.

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