It’s been twenty years since melodic death heroes Children of Bodom released their first album, Something Wild; since then, they have made nine acclaimed studio albums and become one of Finland’s biggest exports. ‘20 Years Down and Dirty’ is their anniversary tour, a short but gruelling month of playing a different European city almost every night. I caught up with them in Zurich, and this is the most excited I’ve ever been about a concert. The self-proclaimed Hate Crew have a unique blend of melodic death metal which, in an otherwise saturated genre, is unmistakeably their own – thrashy riffs, intricate guitar work, cinematic keyboards and blastbeats, all held together with a sprinkling of humour. As a classical-musician-turned-metalhead, they are my favourite band, and I have a strong suspicion that vocalist/guitarist Alexi Laiho is a genius.
Children of Bodom were preceded at Komplex 457 in Zurich by Forever Still, a young Danish rock/alternative metal band who share the Nuclear Blast label. I’m not sure they were the right fit for supporting an extreme metal event; or rather, this audience wasn’t the right audience for them. However, they all had great stage presence, and beautiful vocalist Maja Shining was magnetic and charming. She did her very best to whip up a muted crowd who were only really here for the main event, and she is clearly a grafter, coming out into the arena straight after the set to sell her own t-shirts and meet the audience.
Children of Bodom began at high speed with ‘Deadnight Warrior’, and proceeded to take us on a nostalgia trip through their first four albums. A part of me was disappointed not to hear some of their bigger recent tracks, but it made sense in this context to go back to their roots.
Children of Bodom have had a chequered live performance reputation in the past, but tonight they were tight and precise. Alexi was nailing all his solos and everyone was focused. ‘In The Shadows’ was perfectly layered, the frantic ‘Needled 24/7’ was a huge crowd-pleaser, ‘Lake Bodom’ deliriously folky and ‘Hate Crew Death Roll’ full of violence. Their best-known tracks ‘Everytime I Die’ and ‘Angels Don’t Kill’ were also played with genuine passion.
Furthermore, the band were obviously energised by playing songs they hadn’t touched for a long time. They played ‘Red Light in My Eyes Part 2’ for the very first time in Switzerland; this song from their first album is basically Mozart’s Symphony No.25 adapted for a death metal band, and the synchronisation between Alexi and Janne (keyboards) during their joint solos was jaw-dropping.
The brilliance of Children of Bodom is their sense of balance; everything resolves as it should, which is immensely satisfying. The manic high-register solos and prog/horror symphonic sections are always followed by deep riffing to maintain the heaviness; the raspy vocals contrast well with the low-register guitars and prominent bass to prevent them grating too much; there is enough variation in the drum work. Janne knows when to hold back on the keyboards; too much would be irritating, just enough is cinematic and poignant. And Alexi’s solos, despite being technical challenging, are not ostentatious because they always flow from the context of the song.
During the show, my main concern was that the crowd were going to lose the band’s good will, because there were a couple of problematic assholes in the audience. Someone threw beer in Alexi’s face during the first minute, and a barely-standing drunk guy in a hat mistook the circle pit for an opportunity to cause trouble. However, the band remained professional and stayed with the crowd the whole way. Alexi frequently addressed the audience, moving on quickly from singling out the belligerent individual, to engage the rest of the crowd with aggressive enthusiasm. His expletive-ridden monologues and raspy vocals are the perfect foil to his exquisite guitar-playing. It takes thousands of hours to perfect solos like that, and even more thousands to master doing it in front of an arena, while singing, with people chucking beer in your face. Henkka Seppala on bass and new guitarist Daniel Freyberg also engaged with the audience, with plenty of eye contact and moving around the stage. Keyboardist Janne had a permanent expression of mild amusement, and was so relaxed that it was easy to forget his fingers were moving at the speed of light.
The band ended their set on ‘Children of Decadence’, with its fevered neoclassical fills, then returned to the stage for two unexpected encores, ‘The Nail’ and ‘Towards Dead End’. This concert was Children of Bodom at their very best; I could easily have watched it over again from the beginning. Since Monday I’ve been re-listening to all the old Children of Bodom albums; full of nostalgia for their past, and eager to hear what they will come up with next.
[This interview was conducted prior to the band’s show in Zurich with Children of Bodom’s bassist Henkka Seppala, who has been with the band since 1996. We felt that the conversational tone of the conversation would be lost in a feature format, so it has been preserved in transcription form and published in conjunction with the live report.]
Henkka, you’re about half-way through a really intensive tour schedule, a show almost every night – how are the energy levels? Are you tired?
Yeah, we’re about half way through; two weeks in, two weeks to go – it’s a short tour for us, so we’re not tired, we’re happy.
You decided to go with mainly your early material, from the first four albums, on this tour. How has that been received by audiences?
It’s been good. Of course we’re not playing some of the recent ones, so it’s always scary to see how people react when they hear things they haven’t heard before. But then when you see the die-hard fans, they go crazy when they hear our old stuff.
And I guess it’s a nostalgia journey for you too?
Yes – for us it’s refreshing to play something we haven’t played or practiced in a long time, so it’s been good for us as musicians.
I want to ask about your classical influences, because I’m a classical pianist, and I think that’s one of the reasons why I like Bodom. Everyone knows Bodom are influenced by Mozart, but I think it goes deeper than that. Alexi is the main composer, but do you all have classical training?
No, I’m actually the only one who doesn’t have classical schooling, apart from some lessons on the guitar… Jaske, Alexi and Janne went to a school called the Pop and Jazz Conservatorium, which is more jazz-oriented. And Janne was a jazz pianist before he joined the band. Which is good for improvisation I guess…
And do you listen to classical music?
Not really, no!
As the bassist in the band, obviously Bodom are known for intricate guitar and keyboard interplay, but the bass is also very prominent in the mix – how much creative freedom do you get in the studio to put your own stamp on things?
Maybe not in the studio, it has to be done before. But yeah, I get as much as I want, I’m very satisfied, and usually everything that has been suggested is okay.
Now you have Daniel Freyberg in the band, how is that going? Does it bring a new dimension to the guitars?
Well, he’s still new, so at the moment he’s just doing the stuff we tell him to do, but definitely as time goes by I’m sure, I hope, he will become more confident. So there will definitely be a new dimension once he’s settled in. He’s doing brilliantly, I’m really happy, he’s a great guy!
‘Morrigan’ is my favourite Bodom song, and I recently discovered that all women love ‘Morrigan’ when they hear it – so I’m disappointed to be such a cliché! Why do think some of your songs are more accessible than others, to people who might not normally listen to extreme metal? What makes some more popular than others?
I don’t know. I think ‘Morrigan’ is a bit softer, easier, maybe because the tempo is lower; it has a very clear and catchy chorus. It’s actually one of my favourites too.
Speaking of cinematic, I find Bodom’s music very cinematic; has anyone ever approached you to do a movie soundtrack?
Yes, there was one occasion, but then the movie was never made… so it died. And then there’s also this new horror movie called Lake Bodom, a Finnish slasher movie.
Well that has to have Children of Bodom in it, surely?
It doesn’t! We were talking about doing the whole soundtrack, but then we weren’t able to do it because of our schedules, the movie was already in production.
That would have been perfect..
It would have been really interesting but just wasn’t possible..
I’ve heard you are planning a new album next year?
Yeah, we are going to write it this year and record it in the Fall.
Can we expect any new directions, or are you just going to see what happens?
Yeah, we are just going to see what happens, like always, we never plan…
It’s worked pretty well so far right?
You have done some unusual, unexpected covers in the past – Britney Spears is the obvious one, but I love Danger Zone, that is awesome.  If you could cover any song in the Bodom style, what would it be?
I don’t know. That’s what we’re always trying to figure out when we go into the studio, finding out the covers that are good, that work for our style.
I love that you do that, because it has a little bit of a sense of humour.
We try to pick songs that have a sense of humour and also that can be done in our style and that are suitable for arranging. Some of the songs just don’t work. But it’s really hard, I don’t know.
I can’t imagine how exhausting it must be spending all this time on the road, and I have 4 kids so I know about exhaustion! What do you do to relax; when this tour is over will you get a chance to go home, do something non-musical?
I’m gonna be hanging with my kid, she’s 2 years old. And playing football, spending time with friends and family.
I guess having a two-year-old will probably keep you busy enough right?