Gothic Tales – Esa Holopainen of Amorphis (Part II)

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Amorphis, photo credit by Ville Juurikkala

The mid-to-late 90’s bore witness to a phenomenon in underground metal. If the UK with Napalm Death et al had been the birth place of death metal, a sound that travelled the big blue to the States to be forged into the beast we know today, then the British Isles was once again the location for the conception of one of the most influential albums for a new sub-genre that, while it didn’t infect the American sound, instead traversed east rather than west and took Europe by storm, giving birth to the eponymous “Gothic” Metal.

Paradise Lost’s Gothic (Peaceville) wasn’t just a landmark, it was an album that tolled a massive bell with eager, willing and creative minds and created the landscape for the mid-to-late 90’s in underground metal. Last year saw the twentieth anniversary of AmorphisTales From The Thousand Lakes, an album that was to develop that blueprint and take it in a different direction, the Finns being one of the first to fuse death and doom with folk-inspired melodies, clean vocals and progressive 70’s influenced music. But without Gothic, and it’s ground-breaking innovation, bringing in female vocals, orchestral manoeuvres (most probably in the dark, yes) and haunting melodic leads over doomier death metal, …Thousand Lakes may not have turned out the way it did.

“It was probably one the most influential albums for Amorphis in the early days, yes” agrees Amorphis lifer, Esa Holopainen, the six-stringer responsible for creating the Finns classic early release. “Paradise Lost started the way of combining melody lines into death metal music, with a doom ensemble. That then started to influence a lot of bands.

“It’s funny, because, you see in the longer term bands, there’s a lot of bands, like Moonspell – I just heard their new album – bands start to look back at where they came from and their past”. Even Paradise Lost themselves… “Yes. Everyone is starting to walk the circle around and taking more and more influences from their roots, which is a really good thing.”
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When Holopainen was taking inspiration from Gothic and crafting the two albums that really put Amorphis on the map …Thousand Lakes and the follow up, Elegy (both Relapse), it was in the midst of an explosion of creative excellence that flooded through Europe.

“The period of time was when little underground labels started to grow up with their bands, and bands were releasing their classic albums. In the 90’s a lot of classic albums and a lot of albums that became milestones to those bands were made, and that influenced other bands. It’s pretty amazing, but look back at how many great metal albums there were (at that time)!

“There hasn’t been another era after that since then that’s matched it for so many good albums. I don’t know why.

“A lot of bands at that time, when we did those albums, proved to be a platform for the metal scene to be able to explore what we were doing, but much wider. Since then there’s been more and more new bands (influenced by the European metal albums of the 90s); heavy metal became almost trendy over here in Finland when Lordi won the Eurovision and even grandmothers were listening to metal, and those albums of the 90’s were the platform for the next wave of bands.

“You see Nuclear Blast who weren’t so big then are now probably the biggest label out there, selling as much as some major (labels); it’s pretty amazing how it’s all grown.”

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Amorphis, photo credit by Ville Juurikkala

While Paradise Lost may have opened Pandora’s Box, Holopainen’s Amorphis were one of the first bands to stick their heads deep into its recesses and really find freedom in the possibilities. Their debut The Karellian Isthmus (also Relapse) had been a decent, Scandinavian death metal album, but they then took the bold step to incorporate doomier riffs, clean vocals, folk music, keyboards and take influence from Deep Purple, Rainbow and other more retrospective elements.

“At that time we were huge fans of 70’s rock bands. In Finland there were a lot of progressive rock bands who were incorporating traditional and folk music, and we were listening to things like Jethro Tull and Hawkwind, lots of hippy music we liked!

“The big thing was, we felt there were no limits when we were writing the music for …Thousand Lakes – there were some really strange arrangements in there! We had a keyboard player, Kasper, who came into the band and he’d never played in a metal band, he was totally into The Doors and playing those types of songs. He was so excited when he realized there was a mini-moog in Sunlight Studios and, naturally, he wanted to use that a lot.

“All that mixture of things, all that soup, became the Amorphis sound.”

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Happy to talk about their prestigious history, and their first landmark album, Holopainen continues. “We didn’t have a big plan, we were just doing the album how we wanted, until Tomas the producer asked “Does your record company know what you’re doing?” He was afraid they weren’t going to like it because it was so different! We just thought “OH SHIT!” but carried on.

“Then we started to get praise and good critics for it, and it was a success. It was kind of, but not by accident, but it came by following our instincts and being ambitious with what we wanted to do.”

Did you realize at time how ground-breaking it was? When did it sink in that it was a “classic”?

“It came as surprise how popular that album became. It took many many years before we realized how important an album it actually was. Even just a couple of years ago, we were only just realizing it must have been a really influential album because you read interviews from other bands that they say …Thousand Lakes was influential for them.

“At the time there was no black metal scene, it was just bubbling under, and no folk metal at all; that was many years later with bands like Ensiferum, and they say our albums were very influential for them.

“That is the greatest feedback you can get as a musician that you actually influenced other musicians to make their bands”

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The second Amorphis classic was to follow two years later, as the sound evolved and deathly chugs were replaced with a much more progressive and folk-tinged rock bent, power chords replaced with open strings, and the timeless Elegy was created, an album most definitely not better unborn.

2016 sees Paradise Lost bringing Gothic back to life on stage at Roadburn, and following the success of both 2014’s tour and Amorphis’ spot at Maryland Deathfest playing …Thousand Lakes’ shows, could we see a twentieth anniversary celebration for Elegy?

“It’s not an impossible idea. We had a good time doing the Tales… shows, and the good thing about production now is we know how to get these sounds and make these things work. One of the great things of Amorphis is we can do different products – we did an acoustic tour – and we like to challenge ourselves and do something different.

“Elegy, for me, is my favourite album of the earlier Amorphis times and it’s not an impossible idea that we can do an Elegy tour.”

Under The Red Cloud is out on September 4th via Nuclear Blast. Order here.

STEVE TOVEY