Finnish Funeral Doom Icons Skepticism's New Album, 'Ordeal,' Is a Triumph of Gloom
Stream the new album and check out an in-depth interview with keyboardist and lyricist Eero Pöyry.
Photo by Juha Karvonen
Unlike their one-then-done genre co-developers in Thergothon, Finnish funeral doom pioneers Skepticism have slowly and steadily been releasing music for nearly 25 years. Seven years have passed since their previous release, though the act’s notoriety is again rising in North American following a domineering Maryland Death Festival set back in May. Clad in distinguished black suits with starched black or white button downs beneath, the band played as the sun dropped in the humid sky—a fittingly oppressive setting for the band’s equally oppressive sound.
According to keyboardist and lyricist Eero Pöyry, the show marked a first for the band: it was the first time they’ve performed in view of the sun. The upcoming September 18th release Ordeal marks many more firsts: it’s Skepticism’s first record for Svart Records, is their first live recording, and features the first instance that vocalist Matti helped out on keyboards (it’s on opening track “You” and they did it because to play the note, Eero would have needed “a third arm”) .
Captured in one take at the intimate Klubi in Turku, Finland on Saturday, January 24, 2015, the long-anticipated fifth full length is monolithic, glacially paced, and dismal; growling howls are woven throughout. While Skepticism’s previous album, 2008's Alloy, was more guitar-based, this album sees the band embrace a live sound that merges instrumentation, which results in atmospheric leaps: it’s often hard to tell where the keyboards end and guitars begin, meaning stunning cinematic swells are the norm.
We talked about that and much more on a cold September afternoon, over a crackly line that connected Riihimäki, Finland to Calgary, Canada.
Noisey: Ordeal is the first-ever live funeral doom album. In terms of recording and production, why did the band choose to take that route?
Eero Pöyry: Seven years is just our normal pace. We did albums at a faster pace in the early stages of the band, but then it took us five years to do Alloy and then seven years to do Ordeal. Actually, after Alloy, I said "It won’t take us that long for the next album," but it took longer, so I won’t say anything anymore! Originally, I thought that this kind of music doesn’t work live, but actually, we end up playing a couple of gigs years ago, 2001, and 2002 and so on.
When we started doing it, we realize that actually this music works pretty well live. Having done that many times, but not too many times after that, we’ve come to think that actually, playing live is the best way to play this kind of music. How we felt is that the music is stronger live, and when you see the audience mesmerized somehow and hear them talk to us about the way of the show, we thought there was something special about the live set up and performance in the show we do. So there is something special, it would be great to get that something special in the album as well. We had been thinking about doing an album live for some time, and we had written a couple of new songs. So we started discussing whether these songs would be fine for that way of working. And we decided they were. At that point we had roughly “You” and “Momentary” written…. So basically this way we choose to work also affected the songs. It was kind of a long route. Also, recording live means that it won’t be so clean and so perfect as many albums these days are. The drums are corrected to the millisecond. That isn’t our thing. Recording live makes it dirty, in a good way.
The crowd response is left in. You can hear the crowd cheering at the end of several songs, including “Momentary” and “March Incomplete.” The last song “The March and Stream” has it to, after a delay. From what you’re saying, that seems Skepticism left in the response for a reason.
Yeah. Take the crowd response and compare that to, let’s say, a brutal death metal or grindcore band, and it’s quite different. Most of what you hear is the glasses at the bar. And the best crowd response in the album comes when the album ends. Then there is silence for 20 seconds. And that actually happens at the show and that response is better than anything.
To me personally, the response to doom seems more emotional, whereas during more technical, brutal kinds of shows, the response is more physical.
I think you are on the right track with that. In our lyrics, I want to write so there is space; we don’t say too much, so you can understand your own way. It’s the same with the music. There is space in it, so it won’t be like sports in a way. It’s simple, like you said, and you build your emotions on top of it, rather than having it ready-made.
It’s not commonly known that you’re the primary lyricist for Skepticism, whereas Matti is the vocalist.
I’ve written all of our lyrics on nearly all the albums. On Ordeal, [Guitarist[ Jani Kekarainen had an idea, so he wrote a draft for two songs and I chewed it up and finalized it. So Matti hasn’t been working on lyrics; his strong point is performance.
So it’s like a Sabbath situation— you’re the Tony Iommi writing the lyrics, while Matti is your very own Ozzy Osbourne with his own performance aesthetic. Obviously you’ve got a different sound.
Yes. A different sound and hopefully less problems with substances [laughs].
You guys have a very somber aesthetic, and both the album name and the cover art tie into your performance. Why name the album Ordeal? I think the prevailing way to describe the band is as “sad.”
I wouldn’t say we are a sad band. I would say we are serious, and I think there is a difference. So basically, the thing is that when I get on stage, we dress-up, we leave our normal, day-to-day selves and concentrate on the music. That’s why I didn’t object when people started calling the music "funeral doom," because how you see people act in a funeral is that they are serious. Also, of course, usually they are sad as well, but the seriousness is what we brought from there. So the thing is that there are music styles that are meant to be sad or depressed or happy, but for me especially, this style of our music is something I am very serious about and I feel very fortunate to do it as well as we can. Being on stage performing, there is no sadness, it’s more pleasant, or I would even say there is a lot of joy performing, even if the music is dark. The thing is, people ask us if we are depressed or sad people, but the thing for me is that it’s an aesthetic choice. I just enjoy dark music.
When you talk about seriousness as an aesthetic, is that a response to seeing other aesthetics in music that didn’t resonate with you back when Skepticism began?
One of the reasons is a bad translation from Finnish to English. I went to a record store when I was young, and was different sections, like popular music, light music and classical music, which was labeled “serious music" in contrast with “light hearted music," so basically, that’s one of the reasons. When we started, it was mainly this underground thing, this brutal death metal that was supposed to be sick and there was a lot of gore. Carcass was big back then, and it was all rotting this and that. And then, there was black metal, and everything must be true-evil-cult-black-raining-ice. There is nothing wrong with either one of those. They both have their own aesthetic. But neither was quite appealing for me, I just didn’t feel comfortable with them, so the seriousness theme felt better.
Seriousness is also deeply embedded in the Finnish culture. I’m a dual citizen in Finland, and when I lived there, I noticed that people are somber in a way that isn’t reflected in the majority of North American cultures.
[Laughs] Well, that is a fact. Especially, we seem more serious when we are, because we are not used to small talk. If someone asks a Finn who we are, we answer how we are, not like you are supposed to answer. Also, when Finns speak English, they often sound rude because there is no separate word for please. I think that it’s important, that in Finland specifically, in all genres of music, there are more popular songs in minor keys than in other Western cultures. Finns in general like their music to be melancholic. That’s in our mother’s milk. For example, if you listen to “Finlandia” by Sibelius, it’s quite dark as well. Folk dance music is quite sad as well. We’ve grown into that. Also, metal is more in the minor keys than other popular music genres like pop, dance or rock. So that might be why metal is so popular in Finland.
You guys recorded the album at Turku’s Klubi. Why did you choose that club specifically and does the DVD have more songs than what’s on the album?
There is no deeper connection to Klubi, other than the fact we’ve played their twice earlier with Esoteric. We had good experiences with that. It’s a traditional old style club, not like 19th Century old, but early 20th century old. The size is good; it takes up to 400 really crowded, but not too large. These intimate spaces seem to work best for us. Also, we could arrange it so we could have the entire day working. Our record label is based there too, so those things started clicking together. We could have done that in Helsinki, it would have been easier for people to see that, but we had people from Poland, Amsterdam, Russia who came and saw it. When it comes to the songs, when we played their, we did the Ordeal album, then two songs “Pouring” and “The March and the Stream” as a kind of encore to give people who came to see us something more in addition to the album. On CD and LP it’s the new songs and the two old ones, and the exact same thing is on the DVD as well. There are two packages: one is CD plus DVD, the other is LP plus DVD. So you always get the DVD, whether you want it or not. One of the reasons to do this live is because live is our strongest point. The visual part, even if it’s subtle, we don’t make an act, or do much, we just play. But some people feel and react strongly to that, so we wanted to have that available to everyone interested.
You mention the two songs on the album that are featured on previous recordings, which is “Pouring,” the second track from your 1995 debut Stormcrowfleet and “The March and the Stream” from 1998’s Lead and Aether. The songs are altered, but I’m curious about how making a reinterpretation of your own song works and what that means for your writing process.
It’s very organic. We’ve released every single song we’ve ever written. What happens is we work on a song for a year or two years even, or even more, until it’s perfect. So basically, if some part isn’t working, it’ll turn into something else or we’ll change it or whatever. We’ll work on the songs like we’re building a house. So if we think at some point it doesn’t fit, we don’t burn it down. We just change the walls and doors and everything else until it’s good. So in these seven years, we’ve only written six songs, and that’s it.
In terms of reorganizing and rebuilding the songs, on Ordeal, it feels like there are more keyboards and organ sounds than on Alloy.
There is much change, at least in the equipment, at least from Alloy. What’s different in a way that I enjoy is that the keyboards and the rhythm guitar blend in quite nicely, so sometimes it’s hard for you to tell the difference. But basically I am playing the exact same gear I played on Alloy, but just with new sounds. One of the reasons why it blends in like that might be the live set up. When we had to set up things so they sound well when they play together in one go, perhaps that contributes to that. That’s a new, fresh approach that I haven’t heard anyone say that Alloy sounded more guitar based, but that’s a good approach.
What kind of keyboards do you play?
’ve got a bunch of stuff in there. I’ve got two keyboards, two different sound bodies, bass pedals, and then I’ve got a tube compressor in the rig. I’ve got 120 kilograms of stuff to fly. So basically, when someone from some country asks us to play a show there, we have to discuss the extra baggage price, and that’s usually the reason we can’t go. My contribution to the sound of the band is that, so I’d rather take all that with me, even if it’s painful at times. What I’ve got in the setup now, is each and every keyboard I’ve played in all the Skepticism albums. Not the exact pieces I’ve used but all the same models. So not the keyboard I’ve played on Farmakon (2003), but the same model. That stuff is quite old.
The atmosphere on this album is massive, so it makes sense when you say about the guitar and keyboards working in unison.
Actually, what kind of fools people at times is that, before we had the session guitarist Timo Sitomaniemi, what we did for Alloy was have Jani play guitar through two amplifiers, so basically in a lot of passages, he’s playing a double distorted guitar that is clean on amp and distorted on one amp. So he has a nastier than normal set up. Also, the bass pedals I play with the keyboards seem to trick many people. There is a guitarist of one band from the last festival we played who asked Jani, "How down tuned is the guitar you played to come up with those low frequencies?" When in fact those low frequencies were the bass pedals of the keyboard. The way we utilize keyboards and guitar seems to work in such a way, the people hear the music, not the instruments, and that’s the success. But still, you refer us to Black Sabbath earlier, and the unison notes, we are using that heavily, what they came up with in the 70s.
Sarah Kitteringham writes about, talks about, and performs doom metal. She's on Instagram.