MAENTSAELAE, Finland (AFP) — Most teens may not get excited about church, but in Finland they go out of their way to attend in the latest testimony to the country's infatuation with heavy metal music: Metal Mass.
"It's nice that there are slightly different church services compared to the usual ones," says 15-year-old Teea Pallaskari, who skipped geography class to make the service in the plain, red-brick Lutheran Church -- the state religion -- in this small town about 60 kilometres (40 miles) north of Helsinki.
Inside, Pallaskari and her classmates squash together on packed pews, belting out hymns as a lead singer moshes wildly onstage to his band's earsplitting tones.
When the music stops, the students burst into ecstatic applause and whistles -- to smiling approval from Pastor Haka Kekaelaeinen. It's Metal Mass -- or Metallimessu -- and it's okay to be loud.
"It was really good," Akseli Inkinen, a 17-year-old high school student with long, messy hair and big headphones, says afterwards.
It is hardly surprising that masses with metal hymns have surfaced in Finland, which won the Eurovision Song Contest for the first time in 2006 with Lordi's monster heavy metal song "Hard Rock Hallelujah".
If it has a niche audience elsewhere, heavy metal is now mainstream in Finland. Helsinki alone abounds with heavy metal karaoke bars, dedicated metal clubs and regular gigs, adding to the dozens of summertime heavy metal festivals held around the Nordic country.
Some say the answer lies in the Finnish character.
"Finns are known to be reserved, serious and very honest ... Somehow heavy metal fits into this as it is no-nonsense, honest, straightforward and quite gloomy," Mikko Saari, a co-founder of Metallimessu, tells AFP.
"When you switch on the radio in Finland, you hear heavy metal music. The Finnish Eurovision Song Contest and even 'Idols' (the Finnish equivalent to the "American Idol" competition), were won with metal songs," says Kimmo Kuusniemi, one of Finland's metal music pioneers.
The first metal mass in Finland was held in 2006 at the "Tuska" ("Pain") metal music festival in Helsinki. Since then, a Metal Mass tour bus has been zigzagging across the country.
"This is not the Church's plan. Bishops did not plan this. It was started by five metal fans, three of whom worked at a church," Saari says.
Not everyone is happy with the mix. Some churchgoers feel loud rock music has no place in a house of God, and some pure metal fans accuse the Lutheran Church of co-opting their music to lure young people.
"Of course some Christian circles were scared and some true metal people were irate. But many said that the idea was great and that they had been waiting for it," Saari says.
Kuusniemi, 50, who is producing a documentary about Finnish metal music, says he too was at first skeptical. "For me, metal mass was a surprise. Metal music and church did not fit in the same room."
But the Finnish music scene has changed dramatically since he started his own band, Sarcofagus, in the late 1970s when the genre was widely considered "devil music", he says.
Today, heavy metal "is truly a mainstream phenomenon, metal is everywhere, and people have a positive attitude towards it."
So far this year, Finland's top 10 album sellers include three heavy metal records: Children of Bodom, Teraesbetoni and Finnish "Idols" winner Ari Koivunen.
Heavy metal gained a foothold in Finland thanks to independent record labels who gave little-known metal bands a chance to record, according to Jouni Markkanen, a promoter and agent with Finnish Metal Events (FME).
But now the big -- and small -- record companies are investing heavily.
"There are many bands with export potential in Finland, it has been proven," says Markkanen, saying Nightwish and HIM as well as Children of Bodom have sold well abroad.
But "we are still waiting for a mega class success."
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