Will ABBA ever go away? Not if the paying public has anything to do with it. Forty years after they originally split up, the Swedish pop phenomenon are still very big business indeed. Back in May, Benny Andersson revealed that 380,000 tickets for the new ABBA Voyage show – bringing the band together again virtually as digital avatars in a purpose-built 3,000 seat arena in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park – had been sold before it had even opened. Meanwhile, more than 65 million people have seen the ABBA musical Mamma Mia! globally and tribute act Björn Again are in huge demand in their own right.
Gone are the days when ABBA could be written off as a naff “guilty pleasure” too. The musical genius of the band has long been recognised by the most unlikely and the most critically acclaimed of artists. Nirvana handpicked Björn Again to play the Reading festival the day they gave their legendary headline performance in 1992. John Grant’s The Czars covered Angeleyes in 2005, turning its pop froth into a tortured acoustic number. Portishead’s 2016 cover of SOS took the song from camp melodrama to ominous despair.
Now, ABBA’s back catalogue has found a new iteration as Amberian Dawn, the symphonic metal outfit from Finland, release Take a Chance – A Metal
Tribute to ABBA on Austrian label Napalm Records this week. And while this is a release at the periphery of commercial music, the band shares more of ABBA’s essential DNA than is immediately obvious.
Both bands are the projects of unashamed music geeks. Andersson and Ulvaeus’s forensic approach to pop is well-known, and Tuomas Seppälä,
who founded Amberian Dawn back in 2006, has commented with understatement: “There are a lot of technical skills within the band”.
In fact, this intricately adorned kind of music (just listen to the lead single
from the album SOS to get a handle on what this is all about) just isn’t possible without such skills and Seppälä, a keyboard and guitar virtuoso, was
classically trained in piano from the age of four. That both Sweden and Finland have world-class music education, with compulsory instruction from primary school onwards and excellent specialist schools, clears up something of the mystery around the surfeit of musical brilliance in the Nordic countries.
Both bands have innocently crystalline female vocals leading their sound. Until 2013, Amberian Dawn was fronted by Heidi Parviainen, now of her own band, Dark Sarah, and her classically trained soprano voice was a
major feature of the band. She was replaced by Päivi “Capri” Virkkunen, whose more mainstream, carefully enunciated vocals in accented English
are thoroughly ABBA-esque.
In truth, Amberian Dawn have long worn their ABBA influences on their sleeve, sounding like the Swedish quartet with added blast beats, gritty
guitar and keyboard orchestration. Their last album, Looking for You (2020),
included a cover of Lay All Your Love On Me that was recorded at Benny Andersson’s studio in Stockholm, no less, but the direction of the whole album was dubbed “ABBA metal” by Seppälä. It is obvious that Andersson’s
sparking piano runs are catnip to the pianist in Seppälä, and ABBA’s muscular sense of drama is in fact reflected across the symphonic metal scene as a whole – fellow Finns Nightwish and the Dutch band Epica are just two bands where ABBA can be frequently glimpsed through the dense layers of their music.
In the past Amberian Dawn have taken inspiration from slightly weightier sources of rather older provenance. The Finnish national epic, Kalevala, written in the 19th century but drawing on and formalising ancient Finnish mythology, has been mined by the band repeatedly. They have recorded songs about the equivalent of the River Styx in Finnish myth, the fire-breathing iron eagle Kokko, and the magical device forged by the blacksmith Ilmarinen, the Sampo, on which much of the narrative of Kalevala hinges.
But what Amberian Dawn really share with ABBA on this record is that they are just loads of fun, the dramatic grandiosity of their sound matching the Swedes’ pop pomp, as well as being as camp as Christmas. Indeed, while
ABBA rather surprisingly lacked a true Christmas hit, there is something very Christmassy about these lavish symphonic metal arrangements. As the
festive season truly kicks off this week, this may be the ideal soundtrack for it.
AMBERIAN DAWN in five songs
River of Tuoni (2008)
Referring to the river that separates the land of the living from the
underworld of Tuonela in the Finnish national epic Kalevala, this was the
title track of the band’s debut LP.
Kokko – Eagle of Fire (2009)
Mentioning Ukko, god of thunder, and Väinölä, the other name for the ancient Finnish nation of Kalevala, this track also seemed ABBA-inspired, with an intro apparently riffing off the guitar solo from Knowing Me, Knowing You.
This song originally appeared on the band’s debut LP, but this version was
from Re-Evolution, a selection of tracks from the band’s previous albums re-recorded with new singer Päivi “Capri” Virkkunen.
Looking for You (2020)
The title track of the band’s most recent album was a synth-pop heavy
affair, finding them already exploring the possibilities of “ABBA metal”.
Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight) (2022)
About as fun as music gets, the camp drama of ABBA backed with chugging
metal guitars and over-the-top symphonic synths. Stick it on your Christmas party playlist.