Men Ruined Melodic Death Metal for Me But Kalmah Saved It

The Finnish stalwarts new album, 'Palo,' stirred up thoughts on gatekeeping, gender, and growing out of genres; stream it here.
April 3, 2018, 3:45pm
Photo courtesy of Spinefarm

I didn’t expect to have an overtly emotional reaction to the new Kalmah album, Palo. Honestly, I almost skipped right past it when I saw it in my inbox, ready to auto-consign it to the purgatory of my “Promos” folder until a pinprick of curiosity and nostalgia inspired me to press play. I can’t remember that last time I willingly sat down and listened to this kind of bombastic, joyful, vaguely folk-tinged melodic death metal—but as it turns out, it’s been way too long, because I love this album. It's a strong, dynamic record that showcases a band fully in control of their sound, and comfortable with themselves as musicians; in short, Palo cooks up the kind of satisfying, spit-shined, bread and butter melodic death that has been imitated to hell and back but only perfected by a chosen few. As the notes chugged and pirouetted through my headphones, it felt like I was giving myself permission to enjoy the kind of music that had formed a cornerstone of my early musical development—but that I’d abandoned in my pursuit of all things faster, harder, bloodier, more brutal. In a way, it felt like coming home.

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Back when I was first properly getting into underground metal, I depended largely on a crew of older friends to guide my burgeoning interest in the left-hand path. Given that this was the early 2000s, they were all very into folk metal, Viking metal, and above all, melodic death metal—and soon enough, so was I. Most of them were boys, though, so our experiences as melodeath fans varied in a few crucial ways. Being a teenage girl at a metal show meant that I couldn’t wear a Children of Bodom shirt and expect to be taken seriously; melodic death metal and its offshoots were marginally more accessible than “regular” death metal, and so, the logic appeared to dictate, it was less metal—less respectable, less authentic. It didn’t count.

Rocking a Kalmah shirt was the same as showing up in a DIY Nightwish corset; doing so would proclaim not only my femininity (the horror!) but my appreciation for melody, which is as close to a cardinal sin as one can come whilst knee-deep in the extremely serious process of building up extreme metal cred. I wouldn’t say that digging melodeath is seen as a feminine trait in and of itself; rather, that my doing so while also occupying a teenage girl’s body compounded any derision aimed at my wimpy music choices tenfold.

It was my guy friends who introduced me to more “modern” bands like Children of Bodom, Dark Tranquillity, Kalmah, and their folkier counterparts Thyrfing, Wintersun, Falkenbach, and Moonsorrow. We all queued up for the same merch, and screamed along to Alexei Laiho’s feline screech together in the car on the way to shows. None of them ever got laughed at for liking those bands, though, or had their intentions challenged when a more-brutal-than-thou type spotted In Flames on their Ipods. This did eventually have an impact on my listening habits, the same way I abandoned other “uncool” metal as I became more immersed in what the underground had to offer.

War of painting the genre and its cultural impact with too broad a brush, I reached out to Jordan Campbell, a Minnesotan metal writer and sworn melodeath fan who runs a blog devoted to the genre, Black Rain Artifacts, to see if there was any overlap between what I'd experienced as a fan and his own recollections.

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"Melodeath was definitely perceived as a more accessible offshoot, and that perception wasn't necessarily incorrect," he told me via Twitter DM. "Looking back on it, I think that accessibility was probably threatening to the gatekeepers. The descriptors used on the message boards I'd frequent ranged from "flowery" to "gay", so i guess in that sense, some people may have perceived this un-truest of death metals as "feminine," but in hindsight, that said a lot more about them than the music." "As for melodeath right now, I think it's purely a nostalgia genre," he added. "It's dead. Much in the same way it's almost impossible to be a straight-up thrash or industrial band in 2018, it's pretty much impossible to pull off melodeath unless you're part of the old guard. And Finnish."

(Conveniently enough for Kalmah, they tick both boxes, having been formed in Oulu, Finland back in 1991; originally known as Ancestor, they swapped out their band name in 1998.)

It was nice to find out that I wasn't just projecting, and that these kind of growing pains are universal for any young music fan, metallic or otherwise. Even so, breaking up with melodic death metal was a pivotal turning point for me. I continued to revel in the harmonic dazzle on display and religiously memorize Ensiferum lyrics, but I increasingly found myself drawn towards harsher, less accessible sounds—in part because I was sick of seeing my taste dismissed, but more importantly, because it was ultimately raw black metal and grindcore that made the greatest impact on me. I just hadn’t known they existed until a few years after I bought my first Insomnium CD.

As I gravitated towards more extreme genres, I left my once beloved melodeath in the dust, allowing it to languish alongside other outgrown in-between sounds like nu-metal and ‘New Wave of American Heavy Metal’ bands like Shadows Fall and Killswitch Engage. Melodeath deserves better, though, and I’m glad that Kalmah is still out here keeping the faith. I only hope that the current generation of heavy metal girls who hear it will be better fans than I was, and will dive in headfirst—and hold fast to what they love, sniveling gatekeepers be damned.

Stream Palo below, and look for it come April 6 on Spinefarm..

Kim Kelly is being a nostalgic old hesher on Twitter.