By Carl Begai
In 1986, the Sacramento-based band Tesla released their blues-based shred rock debut, Mechanical Resonance. Stamped at the bottom of the liner notes were the words “No Machines” placed above a graphic of piano keys with a line through it. It was the band’s response to the pop-happy ‘80s’ love affair with sickly sweet keyboard pre-sets that had infected the realms of rock and metal. As if the Max Factor-sponsored glam movement wasn’t bad enough, the instrument that Deep Purple legend Jon Lord made respectable had become the musical equivalent of a chick flick. Thus, keyboards and their players in general were saddled with a reputation for softening up a band’s potential backbone-of-steel sound and / or being completely dispensable. In the world of soaring vocals, screaming guitars, crushing bass and tribal drums, anyone caught behind a Korg was often considered “just a keyboard player” with nothing special to offer. Things have since changed, with the likes of Janne Wirman (Children Of Bodom) and Jens Johansson (Stratovarius) re-establishing the instrument’s credibility, and Nightwish owing their millions-sold existence to the almighty keys.
In the case of Finnish bashers Battlelore, the soft spoken Maria Honkanen is responsible for filling out the band’s trademark Tolkien-inspired sound. In many cases it’s her contributions that carry the songs without dulling her bandmates’ fangs. A member since the band’s late ’90s inception, it’s safe to say Battlelore would be a much different animal without her.
“I’ve never really thought of it that way – ‘just’ a keyboard player,” says Maria. “I do influence the songs quite a lot, but all of us do our part to make it all work. It’s a group effort. I don’t tend to make too much noise of myself in regards to ‘just a keyboard player’ kind of comments. I’m one of the guys and do my part as they do theirs, and by no means do I want to underestimate their work in all of this. I wouldn’t know anything about playing guitar, even though I’d like to (laughs). We’re all important for the whole. Battlelore wouldn’t be Battlelore without all of us.”
Maria breaks down her songwriting method, which effectively defines the term “artist.” There’s nothing simple about the process that goes into creating a Battlelore epic.
“When the guys record song skeletons with guitars and drums at rehearsals, I add their tracks on my laptop and start composing my own parts over the guitars. I usually ask Jyri (Vahvanen) or one of the guys what their original idea for the song was and what sort of lyrics we’ll have to get the right kind of atmosphere for each song. Based on the idea from the lyrics or song titles or inspiration elsewhere, I try out different melodies and orchestral instruments that would work on each song and each part of the song. Usually the melodies and the music just flow right through me – I don’t know how it happens, I hum the melodies in my mind or out loud, try playing the melodies with different sounds or with the flute and it all comes together. After I find the leading melody, I add more tracks, make harmonies and add pianos or harps or whatever feels right for the part in question. I usually rather compose too much and then leave something out than do too little; so far we haven’t had to really leave out much, though.”
“I guess the tricky part is to find the right kind of instrument for each melody – I at least try to use the sort of melodies that the instruments would normally play if we did have a real orchestra behind it all. I’m not sure how well I’m doing it, but I guess it’s okay (laughs). Then, of course, there are parts in the songs that don’t need anything at all. If there are strong guitars or melodies by the guitars, I prefer to let them shine alone and leave all the extra ‘have-to-put-this-just-to-have-something’ keyboard parts out of the songs completely. After my demoing, usually the singers do their parts on top. There have been times when Tomi (Mykkänen / vocals) and Kaisa (Jouhki / vocals) have had some great ideas of melodies already over the guitars before I’ve composed my parts. On those occasions I try to remember what they’ve been humming during rehearsals or listen to what they’ve demoed on the guitars, and fit my melodies and harmonies with their singing. Sometimes things change in the studio as well, but we deal with them there. All in all, the most important thing for us is to get everything to work together to create the right kind of atmosphere for the song in question.”
Battlelore’s new album, Doombound, plays with the band’s formula, building slowly rather than hitting hard and fast as previous outings Evernight (2007) and The Last Alliance (2008). Mykkänen referred to the new album in a recent interview as progressive rather than straightforward when comparing it to The Last Alliance.
“Having done so many albums hasn’t really changed anything,” Maria says of Battlelore’s music, “except, of course, our own abilities, experience and knowledge of our instruments. The music is still out there, we just have to pick the right notes and put them in the right order to create something new (laughs). My composing is based quite a lot on the guitars, so changes in that area automatically change my work as well. Not necessarily how I do things, but how I start to approach the songs or what sort of things I compose. For Doombound, I think I was just as willing and eager to try out new things and new approaches as the rest of the guys, and that shows in the songs as well. I agree with you and Tomi that Doombound is definitely not the easiest of albums – it opens up quite slowly. Finding all the details and little things takes time, but I do think it’s rewarding as well, to really dive in the music and just concentrate on all the bits and pieces that create the whole. Luckily, we’ve had the privilege of working with great producers. Our producer for The Last Alliance and Doombound, Janne Saksa, has golden ears. He can hear if some notes clash for a millisecond, so he’s been a great help if we’ve had to change things.”
Unlike most bands that rely on symphonics, Battlelore haven’t gone the trendy route of hiring an orchestra to blow up Maria’s compositions to monstrous proportions. It’s a practice that has enhanced some bands while reducing others to a sonic car crash. Short of Hollywood hiring the Finns to record a Peter Jackson movie soundtrack backed by an 80-piece symphony it’s not an avenue that would benefit the Battlelore sound in any way.
“(Laughs) I guess mostly it’s been a matter of money! We couldn’t have afforded to work with an orchestra even if we’d wanted to, it’s really expensive. But yes, with our kind of music I guess it might be too much, as the songs are quite versatile and have their heavier moments as well, and I wouldn’t want to fill them with just orchestral stuff. I like the idea of real instruments as opposed to keyboard sounds or computer stuff, and that’s what I’m aiming at with the symphonic parts, but the possibility to use other kinds of sounds as well makes things more interesting and helps create other kind of atmospheres in the music, too. I do admit that over the years there have been more and more keyboard parts and arrangements, but it hasn’t been intentional; it’s just something that’s happened. Having the possibility to record demos at home has made it easier to plan more tracks and try out different things, and that shows. But as I said before, all of it is serving a bigger purpose – how to tell the story through the music as well as lyrics. It all has to fit in the atmosphere and mood of the song.”
“Our music is the sort that, fortunately, I haven’t had to leave anything out yet,” Maria reveals. “Of course playing it all live would be impossible, as some parts of the songs could have 16 tracks of keyboards/orchestrations, so I always have to make different live arrangements. So far I think I’ve managed quite well, finding the important parts that need to be there, and leaving out some smaller details. The guitarists have the same problem, having to make live arrangements because there may be more than 10 tracks of guitars. It would be a dream come true to be able to play it all, but with only two guitars and one keyboard it’s just not possible (laughs). Battlelore is a live band definitely, and all the songs are much more energetic live. I think that that’s the way it should be, and because we don’t want to use any playback stuff we just need to manage with the energy of a live show with the slightly altered live arrangements.”
Maria had her work cut out for herself on Doombound, taking on the additional task of creating the Special Edition’s bonus DVD. She admits to being the engineer of her own 25 hour days and related stress, volunteering for the job of her own free will.
“The idea for a bonus DVD came since we knew that Napalm wanted to publish a digipack version of the album with some bonus material, and we didn’t have any leftover songs from the studio. Instead, we had all this great material from a few live gigs that were filmed and edited by a friend of the band, Toni Salminen, with the help of the camera crew. Our sound engineer, Tommi Vaittinen, had mixed some of the songs already, so we asked him to mix some more. None of this material had been shown anywhere and we felt it captured the energy of a Battlelore live show better than any other publication of live shows we’ve had so far. We asked Toni to put the material together for a bonus DVD. It was Toni who then suggested that, as we had a lot of video material from our tour in Europe 2007, we could check if there was something we could use for the DVD as well. Toni brought us the material to check whether there’d be something, and I wasn’t so sure because I thought it would all have to be censored (laughs). I checked the material again and I guess I got a bit excited – yeah, just a bit – about the possibility to make an actual DVD with more material than the live shows. We’ve been playing together for more than 10 years now and haven’t really thanked our fans or celebrated our journey in any way, so it felt like the perfect thing.”
“I edited the first tour video (Evernight Over Europe), I remembered that we had material also from our tour in Finland. So, I edited that as well. Then, of course, to celebrate our journey throughout the years we wanted all of our music videos in one place, and I wanted to add a photo gallery as well since the photo gallery on The Journey DVD got a lot of good response. I went through my personal files and photo albums and collected photos from the band members, friends and family, scanned the old photos and went through all of them and the digital photos, and I tell you, there were thousands! After that I chose the photos that are now on the DVD, and with all the planning and scanning and things, I had to add four galleries to get even a small part of the photos I wanted to show. It was a blast though, and made me remember all the good times we’ve had together – the celebrations, the experiences and all the great moments on and off stage. The DVD also contains photos and music videos with the old Battlelore members as they once were a part of the family as well and we are grateful that they walked with us a part of the journey.”
Credit where it’s due, Battlelore fans have Maria to thank for one hell of a keepsake.
“I guess I was the driving force to get the bonus DVD done and with as much material as it now has,” she concedes, “but the idea itself came from Toni, who compiled all the material. I couldn’t have done anything without him and Timo (Honkanen / bass), who showed me how to edit videos and do all that sort of stuff. My IT support at home (laughs). The main idea, however, was to thank our fans for the support over the past 10 years and give them a bit of ourselves. We haven’t really shown our ‘own’ faces to our fans before; I believe that the content of the DVD will give us faces and show just a bit what it’s like being a part of our Battlelore family. Now everyone can be a part of it, in a way. I think we’ve achieved that and I’m very proud of us being able to do this ourselves to really show our gratitude.”
Having driven the point home that she is certainly not “just” a keyboard player, Maria offers a closing look into her artist’s soul…
“Creative work can be really exhausting at times, and at least I need to find things that inspire me besides the stories of the songs themselves,” says Maria. “Finding inspiration isn’t always easy – of course music, books, movies, life itself is inspiring for the most part – but for me the biggest source of inspiration is nature. Especially our Finnish forests and lakes, the empty landscapes, winter, spring, summer, autumn; Finnish nature at its best is untouched and beautiful, and the silence can be overwhelming if you’re not used to it. Other than the Finnish nature we’ve been really lucky to have toured around Europe and been able to see places and get inspiration from different places and experiences. In my personal life I also travel a lot, and I’ve fallen in love with Iceland. During our visit we rented a car, drove around the country, wandered on the mountains and enjoyed every minute of it. The landscapes are epic and beautiful in their unique way. The climate changes all the time – rain, fog, sun, wind, it can all change in a heartbeat. It’s pretty unique and sometimes it feels like dreaming rather than being awake, and it’s easy to imagine all the folklore related to Iceland. It’s there, present in the nature. You can really feel small with the mountains on the other side and ocean on the other. In a way it reminds me of Finland; kind of melancholic and desperate, but beautiful and hopeful at the same time.”
“I completely understand bands like Sigur Rós and Sólstafir now that I’ve seen Iceland,” she adds. “The melodies are right there; in the landscape, the low hanging clouds, the emptiness of it all, and the rough and beautiful nature. The main melody in the beginning of ‘Last Of The Lords’ on Doombound is inspired by Iceland – it always reminds me of the epic mountains, glaciers and waterfalls. The main melody in ‘Kielo’, on the other hand, is inspired by Wales and Scotland – the hills, nature, history and folklore, and was created after our visit there. I guess one could say that touring and seeing places is more than the celebrating, gigs and experiences – it’s also finding inspiration in the unexpected places and times.”
All photos used with kind permission from Maria Honkanen, Timo Honkanen and Toni Salminen.