Finnish doom / death metallers Kuolemanlaakso have completed their sophomore album, Tulijoutsen, which is slated to be released on February 28, 2014 through Svart Records. The Metal Observer was given the opportunity to question the band on their recent accomplishments as well as what fans can expect in the future, among other topcis. Usva (bass) and Laakso (guitars and keyboards) were kind enough to provide some insight into their world.
When asked about the band’s concept behind Tulijoutsen both Usva and Laakso comment that it is an album of opposites. Usva comments, “The lyrics on our debut were inspired by a Finnish poet, Eino Leino, and this time Mr. Laakso got inspired by another Finnish poet, a friend of Leino’s called Aarni Kouta. The title Tulijoutsen (“Fire Swan”) was borrowed from a book of his called, surprisingly, Tulijoutsen.” Laakso continues on with “The lyrics of each song are strongly tied to fire or water, the opposite elements. The fire swan is connected to both. These two elements dominate the front cover artwork and the theme of the booklet, too. We wanted to make the entity as tight as possible, even though Tulijoutsen is not a concept album.” Further tying in the connections opposites, Usva states that, “It’s a title that suits the music on the album perfectly, because it contains contrasting components.”
Of course, every time I speak with any band members about anything at all, I always tend to put my foot in my mouth, by asking some stupid question… So why shouldn’t I continue this trend with Mr. Laakso. I briefly mentioned that I picked up a “phoenix from the ashes” type of vibe from the cover artwork (which is beautiful by the way) and I might as well hide in the corner… Laakso comments: “I specifically wanted to avoid the phoenix connection, but I guess it is unavoidable as the bird is on the painting is on fire.” There I go again. Thanks for at least not laughing directly at my face! Usva on the other hand puts it bluntly, “I don’t think the birdie on the cover has anything to do with the rising phoenix. There are probably enough metal albums about that theme already, hehe.” Luckily I saved myself by offering that I think it might also have to do with something from Finnish mythology. Continuing on, Usva states, “The connection to Finnish mythology is a better suggestion. I’m really not too keen to explain the lyrics very thoroughly, because I prefer that the listener let the music and lyrics create a world, and a meaning of its own. As I mentioned, I think the artwork suits the music perfectly: there is melancholy, harshness and beauty just like in our music. The swan is actually the national bird of Finland.” Laakso chimes in, “There are, of course, a lot of symbolic elements to using a white holy bird, which is on fire, but the message is not about blasphemy or suffering. The fire swan is a noble and a poetic creature, which, as I mentioned, is combines the two opposing elements, fire and water. The album is full of opposites musically, too.” So there you go, if you have a chance to speak with Laakso or Usva about Tulijoutsen, don’t mention a damn phoenix.
I said before about the beautiful artwork, and if you’ve followed any of Kuolemanlaakso’s work to this point, you would have to notice that their artwork is incredible and always seems to capture the contents of the album perfectly. Laakso comments that “Maahy Abdul Muhsin, a 19-year old prodigy from the Maldives, painted the artwork. I gave him the themes and some guidelines, and he executed it with utter perfection.” Well, Mr. Laakso, it does perfectly capture the essence of the album, so apparently you made the right choice.
Did you ever wonder what was in a band’s name? In the case of Kuolemanlaakso, I learned that it was Finnish for “death valley”. If you look closely, the band’s name ends in “laakso”. “Wait a minute!” I thought, that’s one of the member’s names! Usva explains, “Yeah, you nailed the translation of the band name correctly. The band started out as a solo project of Laakso’s, and it was originally supposed to bear his name. Unfortunately there was a pop band in Sweden already with the name Laakso, so the project ended up with the title Kuolemanlaakso after a few twists and turns. Laakso used to live in California for as a youth, and visiting Death Valley was an epic experience for him. The hottest and driest place on earth is heavy shit, and suits our harsh music.” I don’t think you could have found a more fitting name.
If you weren’t aware that Kuolemanlaakso was started as a solo project of Laakso, well now you are. The music on Tulijoutsen seems more organic and lush than its predecessors. I asked band if this was something they had actually aimed towards with writing this new material. I also asked for a general rundown of the band’s songwriter procedures. Usva responded with answers to both questions: “One of the biggest differences between the debut and Tulijoutsen is that the latter is much more of a band effort as far as songwriting is concerned. On Uljas Uusi Maailma, Laakso wrote almost all music, as the whole thing started out as his solo project. He is still the main songwriter of the band, but this time there’s also a lot of stuff from other members, which complements Laakso’s style of songwriting as well as adds more variety to the album as a whole.” Continuing on, Usva mentions, “If somebody comes up with good material, we’ll definitely use it. I personally think that interactive, collaborative songwriting, when the chemistry is right, is one of the best things in life. It’s also becoming something like an old school thing nowadays, since many bands are now operating more “professionally”, meaning sending loads of files via Internet, and dragging their asses to the rehearsal place only when they have to. When you record demos alone in your home studio, you may get lost within yourself and end up disguising a shitty song behind 200 tracks of orchestration, heh.” Whether or not Usva meant which band I thought he meant, I’m fairly certain we’ve all heard something similar somewhere. I’ve always said that even when you polish a turd, it’s still a turd.
The music on Tulijoutsen seems more organic and lush than its predecessors. I asked band if this was something they had actually aimed towards with writing this new material. Usva comments: “It’s a cliché, but I think the music came out quite naturally. Having much more experience as a unit, following the recordings of our debut and playing a bunch of live shows together, gave us a pretty good hunch, what we want to sound like on this album. We wanted to keep things mainly slow and really heavy, but also a bit more melodic.” If you haven’t heard the new album yet, I can attest that it’s both slow and really heavy, so Kuolemanlaakso accomplished what they set out to do. He also adds, “The past year gave us a better view of our strengths and weaknesses, so basically we were just a lot more comfortable with doing our own thing. I think the more organic approach, which you mentioned, might just be a consequence of the recording process. We recorded the whole thing in the middle of a forest in a wooden cabin, so the surroundings were quite organic, to say the least. We also had much more studio time than with the debut, which was recorded in an insanely busy schedule.”
The members of Kuolemanlaakso are also involved with other musical endeavors and have extensively toured Finland. How does the band keep their ever busy schedules straight? Usva states that, “Kotamäki sings also in Swallow the Sun, which is obviously a way bigger band than we are. They’ve been around for ages. It was clear from the start, that we would respect their schedules. None of our other projects are that busy touring around the globe, so there have been no problems of whatsoever. With Kuolemanlaakso’s live shows, we prefer quality to quantity. But if a good opportunity to tour outside Finland arises, we’ll surely grab it with both hands. And then you guys would have to learn how to pronounce the name of our band.” That is a lesson I would gladly learn to see the band’s destructive force in a live setting.
Kuolemanlaakso’s sound is both stripped down and lush. Usva describes the influences behind the band’s crushing sound: “Kuolemanlaakso was born of the infectious enthusiasm of Laakso. He was blown away with Triptykon’s Eparistera Daimones, and wanted to try to write something similarly crushing and stripped down. On the debut there were also some really Finnish sounding melodies and petite influences from all kinds of music. On Tulijoutsen, I think we’re doing much more of our own thing, although there are still some Triptykon/Celtic Frost influences present.” I tend to agree as each successive release shows the band further marking their territory and making their sound their own. Usva continues: “We listen to a lot of different music from various genres. For me genres are irrelevant. Good music is good music. As far as metal is concerned, most of my personal favorites are from the 90’s. Tales From the Thousand Lakes by Amorphis was probably the biggest reason I wanted to play in a metal band and start making music of my own. During the Tulijoutsen session, we listened to quite a lot of bands like My Dying Bride, Paradise Lost and Dissection to give you a few examples.”
Speaking of other bands, I was curious as to how the band felt about the recent explosion of Finnish bands. You know, the so-call New Wave of Finnish Heavy Metal, such as Barren Earth, Tombstoned and Domovoyd. Usva states, “We do our thing, and the others do theirs. I haven’t put any thought on subjects like that. They are all good bands, though. On my part I can say, that I got a little bit bored with the ever-increasing technicality that seemed to be eating the emotional side of metal music. The Kuolemanlaakso approach just feels just right at the moment.” It’s not surprising that they would feel this way, considering the stripped down sounds of the band.
What does the future hold for Kuolemanlaakso? Laakso simply states, “It’s better to burn out than fade away…” while Usva explains, “We’ll see… We’ll keep making music, that’s for sure. We’d definitely love to do shows outside Finland, too. When we started out a few years ago, we really didn’t have that much expectation, but things started happening pretty fast and smoothly. Let’s hope we continue on our upward trajectory and keep our eyes and minds open. A world tour with My Dying Bride or Triptykon would be a blast, if I could choose.”
Looking for a kernel of wisdom from the members of Kuolemanlaakso? Well don’t ask Usva, as he jokes, “I play the bass, which kind of excludes spreading words of wisdom for me.” I’m sure all of the other bass players out there would have to agree. I can’t fully agree with his sentiment, though, because he wound up playing bass on two monumental albums. Quoting Socrates, Laakso replies, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
I finished the interview by getting all fanboy, like I usually do. I thanked the band for their time (innocent enough) and for the excellent music they’ve written so far (getting a little over the top). Then, in all my ultra fanboy-ism, I told them, “I can’t wait to hear what’s next from your band”. Laakso, the joker he seems to be, states, “It’s way too early to be talking about our albums to come, but I think it’s safe to say that expect the unexpected as our journey has merely begun. Kiitos for your time and effort!” Usva states, “Thank you for your interest in us and for the support! We’re making underground stuff and aiming to please ourselves musically, so to be able to touch others somehow while doing our own thing, is already a dream come true.”
I’ve said it before in reviews, I tell it to people all the time: support the underground, people. It’s acts like Kuolemanlaakso that hold the future of the metal scene we all have come to love and adore. Check out Tulijoutsen, available through Svart Records, which will be released on February 28, 2014. Kiitos, Uvsa and Laakso.