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Exclusive interview: Finland’s Kuolemanlaakso revitalizes classic doom metal

Finnish music label Svart Records has made a name for itself by exposing the world to esoteric, genre-bending, and even genre-breaking music. In a relatively short span of time, Svart has done everything from reissuing classic albums to creating some of its own earthshakers for refined palate.

Kuolemanlaakso - "Tulijoutsen"
Svart Records

Kuolemanlaakso is one such a band. Originally formed as a supergroup of extreme metallists, the band grew beyond the confines of simple genre and embraces a stoic, almost shamanistic worldview, while beholden to a classic doom metal crunch. With two albums and an EP to its credit, Kuolemanlaakso has made it clear that it is here to stay. Read on as we spend a little time with guitarist Markus Laakso and explore the realm of “Tulijouten” (The Fire Swan)!

Was “Tulijoutsen” easier or more difficult to create than “Uljas uusi maailma”?

Coming up with the basic riffs and song structures was as natural and pleasant as before, but writing the lyrics and polishing up all the details is always very demanding. This time around there were more songwriters than just me, which made my personal task easier. Of course there was a bit more pressure this time around, since our debut got so much praise and sold relatively well, but we didn't let that bother too much.

Doom metal is a tricky genre in that there is a fine line between feeling the groove and becoming boring. How do you know when a riff is a) the right tempo, and b) explored just enough to remain interesting?

We always record demos from each of our songs, and try to find the right tempo while doing them. Our producer V. Santura pays a lot of attention to the tempos, and we hardly ever change them from the original ones while recording the albums. So, we are quite good with tempos, I guess.

“Tulijoutsen” isn't as riff-orientated as “Uljas uusi maailma.” It's more based on melodies and guitar harmonies than actual riffs. We pay a lot of attention to keeping everything interesting. Like a movie, a song has to have plot. It has to start from somewhere, tell the tale, have twists and turns along the way, and finally come to an ending. Kuolemanlaakso is not about exploiting the "rock song formula," we like to experiment with stranger and original song structures and chord combinations. That makes our music interesting and worth listening to. We challenge the listener as well as ourselves.

When writing for Kuolemanlaakso, do you ever run into the issue of bringing a riff/passage/sound to the table that inadvertently is a hallmark of one of your other bands?

So far: never. I always know, which band I'm writing for. I've got tons of non-publicized projects in the works, and they all sound different. Some will never see the light of day, but a couple of them might. At least I hope so.

Tell me a bit about the spiritual/supernatural quality of the band’s songs. Is that an intentional result, or is it something that just happens when the five of you get together?

As far as the music is concerned, it is an extension of spiritual selves. The songs that I've written are a reflection of my personal dark side. They well up from deep within myself. I don't know why feels unnatural for me to write happy tunes, but that's just the way it is. I'm not a depressed and über-gloomy guy like someone who listens to our albums might think. I enjoy melancholic, dark and dramatic music, but I also listen to a lot of other stuff. Kuolemanlaakso is a group of like-minded people, and the magic is definitely there, when we get together. I might be the head, but the body needs limbs to fully operate.

Several moments on the new album sound like they were not originally intended for metal, or they were inspired by non-metal music, yet played in the metal format. Was that intentional, or simply the result of your individual inspirations?

As I said earlier, I listen to a lot of different kinds of music. I personally don't care if some part is not considered as metal or not, I just write, what I feel. It would be boring to stick with some unwritten rules. It would make the music boring as well. If all the parts on all the songs were ultra-heavy and metal to the max, it wouldn't make anything stand out. We pay a lot of attention to the arch of drama on both songs and the album as a whole.

Would singing the band’s songs in English diminish the natural quality of the band’s music?

I find Kuolemanlaakso to be extremely Finnish in every meaning of the word. The melodies sound Finnish, the lyrics are inspired by early 1900s Finnish poetry, I draw a lot of inspiration from the mystique of the Finnish woods and the beauty of the lakes and so on. It would make no sense to sing in another language. However, the translations of the lyrics can be found on the booklets of our CDs and vinyl, so everyone can check out what the hell we are blabbering about.

Both albums have been released on vinyl. Do you record Kuolemanlaakso music with vinyl in mind, or are those releases simply sales gimmicks?

I'm a vinyl lover, and Svart Records releases all of their albums on vinyl. That was one of the most important reasons I wanted Kuolemanlaakso to sign with them, and not a bigger CD-orientated one. Does that answer your question? Heh!

Although doom metal has been around for nearly 30 years (Black Sabbath notwithstanding), why do you think it is still a severely underground phenomenon? What is it going to take for someone to mention “doom metal” and elicit a response other than Candlemass, Trouble, Pentagram, and Saint Vitus?

It is too dark, gloomy and perhaps scary for the masses. One of the best things about doom listeners is that they are very enthusiastic about the music and loyal to the genre. As I mentioned, I don't care for classifications and strict genre barriers, I just enjoy good music. In my opinion, metal - including doom - has always been an underground phenomena, even though some metal bands have become larger than life commercially.

It's about absolute freedom of expressing yourself, as a listener, too. It's about revolting against the mainstream and caressing the primordial half of yourself. Some extreme metal bands sell hundreds of thousands of albums with each release, and you still don't hear their music on the radio. The mainstream is f***ed. The underground is where the most worthy shit happens and comes from, and doom is supposed to remain hidden in the shadows for the pleasure of those, who truly appreciate its power.

Tell me about the EP, “Musta aurinko nousee”. Did it comprise leftover material from the first album, or was it designed as a teaser for the new one?

We recorded the EP at the “Tulijoutsen” session. We knew that we have more than plenty of kickass material for an album, so we decided to record a full-length as well as an EP. We could actually have recorded a double album if we wanted to, but we chose to drop out a few tunes, and make these two releases as tight and top-quality as possible.

We didn't know, which songs would be on which release at the time of recording them. The more straight forward songs ended up on the EP and more epic ones on the full-length. In my opinion, we made the right choices on every single call.

How important is it to find a “groove” in Kuolemanlaakso’s songs?

It's crucial. However it's not a question of "finding" the groove, you either have it or you don't. Thanks to Tiera and Usva, our extremely skillful drummer and bassist, the groove is always there. As Deee-Lite sang: "Groove is in the heart." Free your mind, and your ass will follow.

The band’s cover art is consistently stunning. Are you ever surprised by how well it turns out?

Yes, always! I provide the artists ideas and wish lists for the artwork, and Maahy Abdul Muhsin (“Uljas uusi maailma” and “Tulijoutsen” artist) and Markus Räisänen (“Musta aurinko nousee” artist) just blow my mind every time. It is an honor and a humbling experience to be working with such talented people. I have the uttermost respect for them both. They are great guys, easy to work with and gifted beyond belief.

How important is cover art to branding an artist and selling an album in the 21st century? I ask, because from my experience, Kuolemanlaakso cover art makes me WANT to buy the t-shirt and the vinyl just to have a “big” representation of the artwork.

I think it's very important. We consciously try to make our products as top-quality as possible, and the label spares no expense in the packaging. The gatefold vinyl is very expensive to manufacture, as are digi-books and 6-page digipacks. However, it's not only a matter of trying to sell as many copies as possible to make enough money for the label, so we can make more albums in the future. The point is to make each release a high class piece of art. An album is NOT just about music. It is an entity, which consists also of the front cover artwork, booklet graphics, lyrics, liner notes, thanks lists, photos, back cover, inlay and so on. MP3s are killing the concept of an album. They are for the radio-friendly bubblegum stuff, that rely on easy to chew on three minute hit singles.

Why is Kuolemanlaakso music so earthy and minimalist? Is it opposition to the flash and pomp of technology that envelops modern music? Or is it something else?

Kuolemanlaakso's music is the way it's supposed to be. We're doing our thing, and the more technically flashy bands theirs. It's not an opposition to anyone or anything, it is our way of doing things. We want to make our albums breathe freely, and be as honest as possible. My other band Chaosweaver represents the opposite way of doing things. Kuolemanlaakso is about down to earth and rootsy approach, Chaosweaver is over the top on all counts.

Keep up with Kuolemanlaakso on Facebook.

“Tulijoutsen” is currently available at iTunes, Amazon and Amazon Digital.

“Musta aurinko nousee” is currently available at Amazon.

“Uljas uusi maailma” is currently available at Amazon.

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