How Alexi Laiho’s Fun and Fearlessness Saved Metal From Itself

Photo by Markus Felix/PushingPixels, via Wikipedia

When Children of Bodom first broke out on the scene, metal wasn’t big on good times. On the mainstream side of things, nu-metal had money, booze, and mayhem, but that all got bogged down in its artists’ angst, which was so much of the genre’s commodified appeal by the end. The underground, meanwhile, was defensive and salty, and used technical ability and outward humorlessness as gatekeeping tactics to scare away casual fans at the door. Both bristled at the hilarity of the ‘80s, which they saw as a parade of shallow cheeseballs. If you were going to have synths, they better be darkly erotic.

And then, Alexi Laiho showed up, and brought with him everything that was always awesome about metal. He was a death metal kid from Finland who still worshipped the high-flying arena-shakers of classic bands like Iron Maiden. His riffs were delicious, his solos overwhelming, and his choruses unforgettable. His songs had synths with synths growing out of their synths. At a time when metal was standing against a far wall with its arms crossed, Alexi Laiho came sauntering over, handed it a beer, and pulled it onto the dance floor. And for that, metalheads owe him everything.

The obvious weapon that Laiho had in his corner was virtuosity. Every song on the first two Children of Bodom albums, 1997’s Something Wild and 1999’s Hatebreeder, overflows with solos that would on their own elevate a track by any other band. While that showy-yet-capable aspect of metal was once championed by the NWOBHM and thrash movements, it had waned due to groove metal and nu-metal’s macho low-end chugs. But an unabashed worship of old-school metal’s over-the-top artistry immediately set Children of Bodom apart from the pack, and also earned Alexi the support of guitar legends like Slayer’s Kerry King. He brought metal’s original bragging rights back to the forefront: You can hate this music all you like, but that dude can shred.

Of course, any guitarist’s playing can be complex and at the same time unlistenable–what made Alexi’s talent so incredible was that he had fun with it. Children of Bodom’s music was never buried under Laiho’s technicality; instead, a backbone of strong, catchy songwriting gave the band’s endless squeals and dive-bombs sure footing on which to sprint. Alexi wanted you to headbang to these songs, to put your arm around someone to them; the band seemed to always uphold that classic adage, It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. While everyone else was acting tough or tormented or impervious, Alexi Laiho was reminding us how fucking rad it was to hear two guitarists braiding solos together. If you were scared of a little cheesiness, well, don’t come to the party.

At day’s end, that was Alexi Laiho’s greatest strength: he wasn’t afraid. In a scene where Not Giving A Fuck is an adopted persona to a pathetic degree, Alex Laiho seemed to genuinely not give a fuck about anything other than writing killer metal. He’d put a twinkling snow-fairy synthesizer effect next to a death metal breakdown. He’d play a solo straight out of an ‘80s one-hit wonder in the middle of a rabid thrash track. He’d cover W.A.S.P. and Scorpions and Andrew WK while on tour with Mastodon and Lamb of God. He did it for the love of the game, for the love of the music that inspired him. By doing so, he showed us that we were allowed to just throw ourselves headfirst into that same love, and never, ever feel sorry for it.

Timing was on Alexi’s side when it came to success. By the time Children of Bodom were dropping 2000’s crushing Follow the Reaper and 2003’s unfuckwithable Hate Crew Deathroll, nu-metal’s one-chord pony had collapsed from a coke stroke, while death metal’s frumpy misanthropes were beginning to acknowledge how much they fucking adored Dio. The metalcore movement of the early 2000s worshipped the virtuosity of old-school metal and the acidic catchiness of European melodeath, and so welcomed Children of Bodom with open arms. That said, Bodom’s first two albums were products of the late ‘90s, when his style hadn’t yet returned to the spotlight. Alexi Laiho made those records because he wanted to. The renown he earned later was awesome, but not pivotal to what he was trying to do.

Metal has no point if we don’t enjoy it. Sure, dark humor and a general distaste for society are healthy attitudes to foster, but living well continues to be the best revenge. While Alexi Laiho’s life was cut short at a tragically young age, we can take solace in the fact that he lived it doing the thing he loved, no more, no less. Hopefully, we can learn from him by example, and love this music and culture that we’ve chosen for ourselves with the bravery and reckless abandon with which Alexi imbued all of his art. It’s one hell of a ride if you don’t fear the reaper.

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Words by Chris Krovatin