Jarkko Toivonen tells the story of Unholy
If it comes to the late 80’s/early 90’s Finnish metal scene, I would say it was overshadowed by the Swedish and Norwegian bands. Finland had a lot of talented outfits such as Abhorrence, Funebre, Sentenced, Belial etc., but only Amorphis managed to reach commercial success. Among those bands was a unique one called Unholy, who stuck out of line. They belonged neither to the death metal, nor to the black metal wave, they did their own thing. Former guitarist Jarkko Toivonen told us the early story of this awesome, talented group that belongs to the list of my first ten fave bands of all time.
Jarkko, the Finnish death metal scene has been revered for years as one of the best around in the early 90’s, and a fair amount of bands since then have incorporated its signature sound into their own. How do you explain this?
I haven’t followed metal scene since early nineties, today’s Finnish death metal scene is unknown for me – from oldies but goldies early Abhorrence, Demigod and Unburied first demo tapes sounded impressive while Beherit was my absolute top 1 Finnish metal band in late 80’s/early 90’s.
Do you think that the single most influential medium on the country’s burgeoning Death Metal scene was Klaus Flaming’s weekly radio show Metalliliitto (The Metal Union)?
I used to listen to it from 1988 to early nineties. I followed every single show which was broadcasted. Even though Klaus played mostly mainstream metal sometimes he played underground bands’ demo tapes. Playing demo tapes was a great thing as now we could hear unknown bands. Greatest thing with Metalliliitto was the interviews, I still remember parts of the Manowar interview, it was so funny: Klaus asked their drummer does he shave his beard with old fashioned straight razor or an electric one and the drummer shouted I use a sword! The interview continued and Klaus asked about his favourite drink, and the drummer answered: no drinks – only stuff which goes to my nose.
Although there were certainly a few burgeoning acts in Finland before the show hit the airwaves, Metalliliitto was without question a vital proponent of extreme metal’s fledgling early years. Do you agree with it?
Absolutely. It was an important part of the Finnish metal scene, metalheads recording Metalliliitto shows on c-cassettes and later made home dubbed compilations, like I did. Another great thing was Klaus told about forthcoming metal gigs from mainstream to underground bands.
In 1988 you founded Holy Hell with Pasi Äijö on bass/vocals and Vesa Junna on drums. How did you get together? Was it the very first outfit for all of you or did you have any experience as musicians prior to it?
We were just 3 young guys learning how to play. When Vesa played drums we didn’t have a band name so we called ourselves Autotallica (“Garage-tallica”). Vesa lived on the other side of town and it was difficult to arrange rehearsals with him.
Vesa was soon replaced by Kimmo Hänninen, correct?
Kimmo lived near to the rest of us and was a better player than Vesa was. Vesa out and Kimmo in so we could rehearse almost every day and the band name changed from Armageddon to Holy Hell and we now had enough own songs to record our first demo tape.
What about the musical background of Kimmo?
He also played the guitar, but his musical skills didn’t get better while I and Pasi’s playing skills were improving. I practiced guitar playing after I got a decent guitar and amp/lead often 12 hours in a day. Kimmo did not have much interest in practising and rehearsing, his other hobbies were more important for him than playing drums with us.
Did you start writing originals or were you jamming on covers?
I wanted to play heavier and more experimental stuff than Celtic Frost and Black Sabbath. We played cover songs from S.O.D, Metallica, Possessed, Kreator just to name a few.
How long did it take you to come up with own materials?
Writing From the Shadows took 6-7 years.
Who would you cite as your influences? Were you on the same wave-length both musically and personally?
Celtic Frost and Black Sabbath from metal bands, Bach, Ligeti, Barber, Penderecki, Wendy Carlos, Bartók, Tangerine Dream and many others. With Carlos, Bartók, Ligeti and Penderecki I felt we’re on the same wavelength.
In 1989, within one month, you recorded two demos Unhallowed Passion and Kill Jesus. Can you give us any details regarding these stuffs?
Unhallowed Passion was a rehearsal demo and we sold or traded only a few copies of it as it was a rehearsal demo with bad sound quality, while Kill Jesus was recorded with a 4-tracker with better sounds.
Were you experimenting and beginning to find out what you’re made of?
We experimented all the time, some demo tapes have the same song but with improved versions. It was like a never ending search for the perfect result.
Was the second demo the first step to a particular sound that would gradually grow and get tighterwith early Unholy releases and then maximize itself on your first full length From the Shadows?
Yes, as from that demo to From the Shadows we had almost the same equipment so our sound was almost identical as in Demo 11.90.
At which point were you joined by guitarist Ismo Toivonen? How did he get in the picture exactly?
He was a member of the band from the start but he didn’t have his own gear and couldn’t rehearse with the rest of us.
Is he your brother, by the way?
No, he’s my cousin.
Was he your first choice or did you audition other guitarists as well?
There were no auditions. We used to jam in Ismo’s garage he was in the band from a start though he couldn’t rehearse with rest as of us as often as me, Pasi and Kimmo rehearsed.
What can you tell us about his musical past?
11 years of classical music training with violin and piano. We both were big fans of classical music and used to play Toccata and Fugue in D minor Ismo playing keyboards and me playing guitar.
What made you to change the band’s name to Unholy in 1990?
Holy Hell was the name of one of Possessed’s songs so we didn’t want to give an impression we were influenced by Possessed.
How do you view that in the mid to late 80’s/early 90’s doom metal seemed to be split into several parts? There were the traditional Black Sabbath-inspired bands such as Trouble, Witchfinder General, Saint Vitus, Pentagram, Count Raven etc., there was Candlemass, Solitude Aeturnus who managed to create an epic, dark, operatic style of doom and the funeral doom acts started to emerge as well, not to mention the death/doom hordes such as Paradise Lost, Anathema, My Dying Bride, Winter, Sorrow, Asphyx etc.
I didn’t follow the metal scene and like I said I quit listening to metal in the early nineties, from that list I’ve heard Candlemass’ Nightfall and My Dying Bride’s Symphonaire Infernus et Spera Empyrium was also good.
In 1990 you released the The Procession of Black Doom and Demo 11.90 demos. Did you improve a lot compared to the Holy Hell period?
Our playing and songwriting skills improved and we found our own style. Procession of Black Doom, bass guitars E-string was half note out of key and no demo sleeve but we decided to release it as it was the first Unholy demo. Soon we released Demo 11.90 with better sounds and the demo had a sleeve. In those days if a demo tape’s sleeve was badly done usually it got bad response just cos it didn’t have a sleeve in ‘zine reviews.
When and why did you recruit a new drummer Jan Kuhanen? How did you find him?
We tried to get him to play drums in Unholy, but it took a long time till he finally decided to join us. Finding a good drummer from a small town Imatra was the same as trying to find a needle in a haystack. Kimmo was so untalented we were very happy to get rid of him.
Before he joined, you tried out Mika Arponen…
Another replacement for Kimmo, didn’t work so he was out in a week or two.
Two other recordings have been done, Slow Doom Death Rehearsal (1991) and Trip to Depressive Autumn (1992). Were they better representations of the band?
Trip… was the presentation as Jan played drums.
Would you say, that Trip… shows an earlier recording and a brand of music that probably wasn’t initially marketable?
It was not meant to please people, we made music for ourselves and if someone liked our stuff it felt good. I never had a naive idea to become a famous musician, our music was too weird for the average metal listener.
Was Unholy singular at that point in their regard for slower songwriting, utilizing this with an extreme sense of hair-raising instrumentation?
Most of the songs which we wrote came by experimenting and we didn’t like to play fast, we just wanted to play heavier and in a more experimental way than other bands did and not copying other bands or taking influences from other bands, but taking influences was inevitable. Everyone takes musical and non-musical influences subconsciously.
The band got signed to Lethal Records after the release of Trip to Depressive Autumn. Do you still remember how you were picked up by them? Which bands were on the label’s roster at this point?
We got our first offer from Peaceville, they offered 7” single deal, but our songs were too long for a 7” single. Then Michael of Lethal sent us a contract, I still remember it was only 1 piece of paper, but we checked it and it said studio is free for us and our travelling expenses and hotel will be paid when we enter Wien. Unfortunately only the studio was paid. We got in trouble in a hotel as the hotel manager asked for payment for our 2 weeks hotel room. Michael made a few phone calls and he managed to lend enough money to pay the hotel bill.
Were there maybe other labels’ interests in the band?
Peaceville and one French label whose name I don’t remember as their offer was we pay part of the album costs by ourselves, but I declined it as we couldn’t afford to pay anything.
What kind of a deal did Lethal offer you? Did they promise a lot of things such as touring support, promotion, advertisements in magazines, fanzines etc.?
They promised all kind of things which didn’t happen. I think Michael’s idea of a record label was honest, but with a lack of knowledge of promotion and such things his label went soon to bankruptcy. Nevertheless, without Lethal Records From the Shadows wouldn’t exist.
Were you known for pushing the second wave death/doom sound into territories that would help define the atmospheric death/doom and funeral doom subgenres that arose in the mid 90’s?
No, I didn’t know that.
Is Unholy’s sound very complex and rich, and have a unique sound and style?
That’s the listener’s decision. Hope so.
Was the record a really remarkable beginning for the band, showing all the elements that would soon be presented in more mature and affected ways to the audience?
Felt great to have a full length album as we were one the first bands in Finland with an album and a foreign label.
Did Unholy definitely know on From the Shadows how to create a great and surrounding atmosphere through the simplicity of the keyboard passages?
I have always thought Ismo is a very talented keyboard player.
Around this time guitarist Waltteri Myllynen was involved in the band, wasn’t it?
Ismo had to do his military service and Waltteri was our only candidate for rhythm guitar. Most guitar players were into Black or Death Metal and we didn’t need a DM or BM band guitarist to play in Unholy.
You had serious quarrels with the label and you decided to part ways. What did go wrong with them?
I wanted to go into a more experimental direction and started to play in Temple of Tiermes. I recall all of us needed a break. Some of the guys had a job so their time for Unholy was limited.
Within a small amount of time, you were signed by Avantgarde Music and it seems you were one of the first signings of the label that was founded in 1994, is that correct?
I and Roberto had been penpals and tape trades since demo tape days and as he had a label his contract looked good we thought it’s a good label for us.
Did they ask you to give any pre-production material? Did they give you artistic freedom?
There was no need to ask pre-production material as the album was produced with us and Music Bros, so we had time to listen to the master CDr and approve it, then send it to Roberto, who should have sent master CDr to CD factory. Unfortunately Roberto managed to ruin our ready to print album artwork. For some strange reason he put wrong colours and grammar errors to our album art even though we had full artistic freedom.
Were you prepared to record your second album The Second Ring of Power, when you entered the Music-Bros Studios during 14-24 March 1994?
The rest of us was prepared, but I was smoking weed and drinking beer in some shithole. Eventually the guys found me and on the 3rd day at studio I started to play my guitar parts, had so severe hangover I had to take Valium for a few days as my hands were shaking it was impossible to play in that shape.
Did you get a decent budget to make the album?
Budget was good compared to Lethal Records amateur studio and we got a small discount as the Music Bros guys were our friends.
What do you recall of the recording sessions?
Atmosphere was tense as I wasted studio time for beer drinking, but eventually everything went fine.
Do you consider it considerably tighter than your debut? Is the songwriting also more structured, but sometimes faster?
It has more fast parts compared to the 1st album.
Did you manage to surpass the intensity of the debut album?
I hope so, but it’s impossible to objectively rate songs which I wrote and played.
Is it a high-quality and deeply inspired, but above all unique doom metal what Unholy had to offer?
Hope so, like I said it’s impossible to rate songs and albums objectively where I wrote songs and played the guitar.
Did you explore even weirder fields with violins, keyboards, female vocals, obtaining an unreal atmosphere: dramatic and mentally altered?
I often took psilocybin to get even more weirder ideas for our songs, and most of us were daily weed smokers. Those two substances must have a major effect on our songs. We had a violin at our rehearsal place and we often did some experiments with it.
How do you view that Unholy were truly something special in the early 90’s when you released your masterful debut, as well as your follow-up, The Second Ring of Power?
It was certainly a different and experimental album compared to the rest of the metal bands.
The full-length was experimental and did not receive much positive feedback, so a planned tour was cancelled and in December 1994 Unholy was put on hold. Can you tell us more about it?
We got quite many tour offers but for some reason they were cancelled, Avantgarde Music’s lack of arranging tours and gigs were the same as Lethal Records’, promised tours and gigs which didn’t never happen.
The band members pursued other musical projects such as your Temple of Tiermes, so you went on seperate ways, but did you remain in touch with each other?
Yes, we were good friends and we still chat on a weekly basis. In 2012 it was great to meet my old friends and play some Unholy tunes with ‘em.
What do you think about the band’s other two releases, Rapture and Gracefallen?
Heard them only a few times and they sounded good dark Doom Metal. I had to listen to them preparing for the 2012 farewell mini tour.
You re-entered them in 2012, you did some live gigs, the demos have been released (2011), and two singles saw the light (2013). How could you sum up this period?
For me it was fun to jam with the rest of the guys and to play a farewell mini tour and say goodbye to our fans.
Are you aware of the Towards Unknown Mysteries boxed set, released on tape format by Darkness Shall Rise Productions last year?
Of course. I spent 2 years making that tape box with Denny of DSR. I still have 1 die-hard box and a few regular boxes left saved for a rainy day.
Do you still follow what’s going on in the metal scene these days?
I quit listening to metal in 1992 almost completely. I’m not interested in metal music.