Finland is famous for its heavy metal scene, so it’s no surprise that it’s the first country with a college course on the infamous music genre. The three-week summer course is given by Italian PhD candidate and metal-singer Paolo Ribaldini. He’s earned himself the nickname ‘heavy metal professor’ during his stint on The Voice of Finland, where former Nightwish singer Tarja Turunen was his coach. We talked with him about heavy metal, the Fins and their love for roaring guitars and soaring vocals.
Ribaldini was born in Mantova, a small town in the region of Lombardia in Northern Italy. There he studied euro-classical music for many years at the conservatory of his home town and graduated in violin. After that he dedicated himself to popular music in his PhD research at the University of Helsinki. His research topic is ‘heavy metal vocals in the classic age of heavy metal’. Last year he started giving a university course on heavy metal titled: Heavy Metal Music in Contemporary History and Society, a course that he created himself. He applied for the Helsinki University Summer School with his program and it was ‘welcomed so warmly and enthusiastically that the whole course took off quite easily’. He also has a couple of interesting guest professors to help him out. Among them Wasp guitar player Doug Blair and British author Joel McIver. Even though the course has been cancelled for this summer, he’s positive that he can give it again next year and many years after.
A course like this has never been given before and it has been cancelled this year. Is there really a need for a course on heavy metal?
“Well, I suppose as long as there are people who are interested in a topic, there’s need for classes and even more for research and speculative commitment to that topic. In 2015 there were people from Italy, Spain, Mexico, Switzerland, Japan, China, Germany, Greece, Dominican Republic, United States of America and Austria enrolled in my classes. I also received many e-mails from aspiring applicants from Portugal, Serbia, Italy and Australia, who couldn’t raise any funding for the course expenses and had to give up. Therefore, I believe there’s a need for it, yes!”
Can you explain what exactly the course is about?
“First of all, the course is a general overview on the evolution of heavy metal music from its beginnings till the present days. Of course it can be quantitatively exhausting, since there are many influential bands and historical periods to take into account. I prefer to give the students the tools to understand how the music works, the possible reasons for why certain things happened the way they did, what the main styles are and how they developed, and what the basic elements behind it are. I hope the students learn how to approach this music genre in a critical and more conscious manner, and how to use some quite simple but fundamental bits of knowledge in order to better understand what they’re listening to.”
I read that ‘The course participants will also explore heavy metal music at concerts’. What can they learn at a concert?
“Quite often when you’re approaching a topic of research, studying it in the field can be greatly helping. Last year we attended a gig in Helsinki and I asked the students to go and listen in a critical way. The next day we had a brief discussion about what they had noticed from the musical and extra-musical point of view, and how they understood those things through the tools we had developed together in the classes. But not everything has to be serious. We also went to have a good time together and to enjoy a concert as a break from the routine of the tight daily schedule.”
What makes a concert good, according to you?
“I don’t believe I have a univocal answer. In my opinion it depends on many different and not even necessarily related things. Is the band one of your favorite or are you going on a trip for adventure? If you know nothing about the act, you might be bored or positively surprised. Your emotional situation plays a role in it as well, if you’re in dire straits for something unrelated to the gig it’s quite hard to enjoy the concert in its fullness, or it can be a fantastic diversion to forget your pains for a couple of hours. The financial dimension, it must be said aloud, is also important. If you go to a gig and pay nothing the expectation bar is possibly set lower, whereas if you finally find the ticket for a successful band (and possibly pay them with every last drop of your own blood) you’ll probably expect nothing less than perfection according to what you want to hear from them.”
It was a logical choice to move to Finland, because it’s is probably the only place in the world where a class like this can be given. Can you explain why heavy metal is more popular in Finland than in any other country in the world?
“I have to shatter that conception. Finland has produced many renowned and successful metal bands, but the consumption of heavy metal music by the general audience is not very different from most other countries. Metal is more popular in Germany and Austria for example, or even in some South American countries. In Finland metal-heads are a minority and are seen as outsiders just like in most other places.
So Finland is like every other country when it comes to metal music?
“Not entirely. There are some peculiarities about Finland. I can give a course like this because the education here is very open-minded and very free in some senses, so it didn’t bother anybody that I came up with something like this. Furthermore, the Finnish government did a smart thing back in 2006, when Lordi won the Eurovision song contest, by publicly supporting the band and the Finnish heavy metal scene, because it brought good publicity to Finland as a country.”
“It’s also true that there are a lot of bands coming from Finland, and the ones who achieve success (commercial or underground) are often praised for the proficiency of the musicians. That probably derives from advanced institutional pop/jazz music education developed in Finland since the early 1970s. People like Alexi Laiho from Children of Bodom, Netta Skog from Ensiferum, Erkka Korhonen from Northern Kings, Matias Kupiainen from Stratovarius; they all were brilliant students in one of these schools.”
I also read something about the climate as a reason for the popularity of heavy metal in Finland. Do you think there’s a relation between metal and the climate?
“It’s probably true in part. The Finnish weather can be harsh most of the year, and might enhance feelings of sadness, distrust and oppressive weariness. But even in the wintertime, Finland can be magnificent.”
You have said that in many other countries being a metal fan can sometimes put you in trouble in social contexts. It seems this isn’t the case in Finland. Why is that?
“In Finland people mind their own business, basically, so you don’t have to fear being prosecuted as a worshiper of the devil if you listen to Ozzy Osbourne. However, trouble in social contexts doesn’t necessarily mean you’d be beaten to death or accused of horrible crimes just because of your t-shirt and your haircut. ‘Social troubles’ also means discrimination, bullying, mobbing, and prejudice. So people might think that you worship the devil, but at least in Finland they won’t try to send you to the stake.”
Why do you think there’s still a stigma around heavy metal in some countries?
“Heavy metal is by definition a sub-culture ‘against’ something. It developed socially as a rebellion to the common thought in society, and musically as a step forward from rock and roll, blues, and progressive rock, which were already seen as children of a lesser god in the eyes of the classical establishment. Heavy metal was ‘everything that was extreme’: louder, faster, more flamboyant, more aggressive, less politically correct, less compromising, and it definitely voiced the deepest fears of the human being with a disenchanted eye. It was based on the occult, on post-nuclear images, on a merciless criticism to society, and most of all, it spoke of things that people were not, and still aren’t, comfortable with. But nowadays, heavy metal is widely considered as a cute toy in most of the western countries. It is one of the many more or less ‘weird’ sub-cultures that the world has to offer, and it doesn’t seriously scare many people anymore.”