Die Laughing

Finland's Children of Bodom deliver death metal with a smile.

Children of Bodom, with Dimmu Borgir, Nevermore, and Hypocrisy the Agora Theatre, 5000 Euclid Ave. 7 p.m. Wednesday, December 10, $20 advance/$22 day of show, 216-241-5555
After four fun-filled, face-smashing albums, Children of - Bodom are making their U.S. debut.
After four fun-filled, face-smashing albums, Children of Bodom are making their U.S. debut.
The relationship between metal and mirth can be strained at times. Bands that seem too happy to embrace irony and self-mockery (or too happy, period) risk being labeled parodies. This Is Spinal Tap is a tour-bus staple, and a generation of metalheads has grown up laughing at it, but coming off as too Taplike is the kiss of death for real-life metal acts.

Take the Darkness, for example: unlikely as it seems, the band's love of early-'80s power metal may be utterly sincere, but its cringingly retro wardrobe and deliberately cheap-looking videos make the group seem like a joke to perhaps oversensitive U.S. metal fans. The fact that most Darkness fans come from the notoriously metal-hostile indie-rock world only makes them that much more unacceptable.

Finland's Children of Bodom, now on tour with Dimmu Borgir, has encountered the same criticisms. The group is seen in some quarters as insufficiently serious. This isn't the band's fault, of course. It's tough being the product of a Scandinavian scene that once prided itself on making metal almost literally a life-and-death affair. (The book Lords of Chaos provides an understanding of the blood-soaked history of the scene.) Band members don't share that attitude, though. They just want to play their music and have fun with it.

"I think it's funny that people take [metal] so fucking seriously," says vocalist-guitarist Alexi Laiho. "I find it really funny that we've seen stuff on our website with people taking the lyrics so seriously. Like, there's a song called 'Bodom Beach Terror,' which is like -- it's funny as hell. It's supposed to be like a class-B horror-movie title. But people are writing, 'How can you say 'Beach' in a metal song?' What the fuck? Come on, dude, lighten up."

If any album can make death-metal fans smile, Bodom's latest, Hate Crew Deathroll, is it. The disc showcases enough instrumental and songwriting skill to satisfy the most technique-obsessed headbangers. At the same time, it's a ferocious, nonstop party. The first four songs -- "Needled 24/7," "Sixpounder," "Chokehold (Cocked 'N' Loaded)," and "Bodom Beach Terror" -- fly by in a relentless 15-minute blast of lightning-speed guitar riffs, slamming drums, and throat-shredding vocals. There are two crucial elements, though, that vault the band out of the death-metal pack. The first is their ability to write a fist-pumping chorus. The second is Janne Warman's keyboards.

When most metal bands employ keyboards, they tend to go for spooky or ominous effects, affecting a horror-movie vibe. Not Children of Bodom. Warman's sound is quite literally cartoonish -- like Rick Wakeman composing music for an Atari 2600 video game in 1982. And he's not relegated to the background, either -- Warman gets keyboard solos on the majority of Hate Crew Deathroll's tracks, and they never fail to provoke a grin. "In the studio, we were playing through thousands of different sounds," says Laiho. "We really wanted to do something different and not rely on the basic choirs-strings-bells sounds. Whatever sounded good to our ears. We figured what the fuck? Let's go for it and use it."

Hate Crew Deathroll is the Children's fourth album, but this is the band's first U.S. tour. The group is encountering a warm reception, to Alexi's surprise. "I figured nobody here really knew who the fuck we are, so they wouldn't be into it while we played, but most of them have turned out to be kick-ass crowds. Especially Canada. They were going nuts. We had a good crowd in Chicago and pretty good in Detroit -- a lot better than I thought it would be."

A catalog of four albums is enough to establish a fan base, particularly in the tight-knit death-metal underground. So it's not all that shocking that there are fans in each city that have been waiting years to see Children of Bodom live. "Yeah, we got that a lot," Laiho says. "You can also see in some of the venues that most of the people came for Dimmu, but they were interested in Bodom anyway. We do like 30 minutes, six songs per show, and we're really busting our asses up there. We usually go over pretty well onstage, and people who've never heard Children of Bodom before come up after and say to me, 'Hey, dude, that was cool.'"

In a way, Children of Bodom, along with Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth, are the future of European extreme metal. They're the three most forward-looking acts around right now, and each released a monster album in 2003. All of them have done it by ignoring the sectarian warfare that marred Euro-metal in previous decades. In fact, Laiho says that attitude has largely vanished -- and he's glad to see it go.

"That kind of thing doesn't happen in Scandinavia anymore, and even in Europe. It was like that in 1994, but not anymore," Laiho says of the once-dogmatic, violence-prone, underground-metal scene abroad. "That whole attitude -- that you're not allowed to be commercial and you're not allowed to sell any albums -- that was like 10 years ago. As far as bands and musicians, nobody gives a shit at all. They all think it's funny.

"I used to be into those bands a lot," Laiho adds. "I still listen to Darkthrone, who have a really shitty sound. In its own way, it's kind of cool. I'm into punk rock as well, and it's the same kind of thing. But like I said, don't take it too seriously."

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