Hard rock: Europe back on its metal

The triumph of the Finnish band Lordi has highlighted the Continent's enduring love affair with hard rock
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Talk about a dark horse. When those Finnish rock monsters held aloft the Eurovision trophy were it was as barely believable as Saudi Arabia lifting the World Cup. Yet Lordi's victory in Athens last month should not have been wholly unexpected. For, all around the world, rock still rules. Despite the fuss over hip-hop and R&B's status as the lingua franca of pop, axemen remain at the top of the tree.

What was especially surprising about Lordi's victory was how the band's support stretched across Europe. Rock continues to dominate northern Europe. Yet Lordi won by scoring high right across the continent, with maximum points in the host nation, Greece, and a creditable 10 from Spain. In fact, they accumulated the biggest margin of victory in the competition's history.

Lordi had been invited to enter Finland's national heat by the competition's organisers, keen to end the country's poor showing in successive years. The band were happy to oblige, as they were set to release their third album. Lordi had until then failed to break out of the frozen north, unlike the mild goth-rockers Him and the eyelinered Busted-types The Rasmus. But it is not only new names that have benefited from the continued popularity of rock, as revealed by the return of hoary old metallers Def Leppard. In the wake of Mötley Crüe's comeback and a barnstorming tour by Bon Jovi, the original guitar-slingers from Sheffield are back. These pioneers of the new wave of heavy metal, the home-grown movement that also brought us Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, enjoyed their greatest success in the mid-Eighties with their more poppy hits "Animal" and "Let's Get Rocked". But even with such strong melodies, their denim ensembles and permed hair marked them out.

The band faded, but 2006 sees them in rude health with a covers album, Yeah!, that includes unlikely homages to The Kinks, David Bowie and Blondie. It has reached a respectable 16 on the US Billboard chart, while the band have co-headlined festivals around Europe with fellow poodle-haired Eighties fixtures Whitesnake, and are set to return home for a couple of dates this weekend.

Long-maned rockers and Tolkien-goes-panto creations were all meant to have been swept away by the grunge revolution of plaid-shirted mopers with earnest emotions led by Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Yet metal still enjoys a worldwide following, as the Lordi frontman Tomi "Mr Lordi" Putaansuu attests. "Rock people woke up!" he jokes about his unlikely victory. "Those people don't usually watch Eurovision or care about it, but we got the message out to people that a vote for Lordi was a vote for the genre, and it worked. For rock fans it doesn't matter where you are from. I heard this year Eurovision had more viewers than before, so may be that was the rock fans."

He was still surprised that his band won, but knew he could pick up support on the Mediterranean. "There is a big underground movement that has not found the mainstream, because they only come out at night, if you know what I mean. Look at metal magazines - you'll find bands from Spain and Greece."

Sam Dunn, a rock fan and the co-writer of the documentary film Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, agrees. With his master's degree in anthropology from York University, Toronto, the film-maker is well placed to discuss Lordi's success in places so hot that they complain that their masks start to melt. "Rock is bigger there than people expect. Spain is still a deeply religious country and metal people do like to invert the crucifix. I'm from Canada, and metal has always been biggest in Quebec, the most Catholic state." Indeed, part of Lordi's success may be down to the campaign by religious leaders in Greece to get their entry banned, even though it lacked anti-Christian messages and the band continue to deny that they are into dark practices.

After the success of his debut film, Dunn is now researching its follow-up, tentatively titled Global Metal, which looks at how the genre has become such a worldwide phenomenon. "Metal is an emotional and visceral form of music that makes people feel something, rather than think in a particular way. That's why it is usually dismissed, because critics are always looking for the next Bob Dylan or an artist that wants to change the world."

So rock can thrive right under our noses without us noticing. Not that this means Lordi are assured a glittering career, for even metal fans may go for a novelty act for a short-lived laugh. Mark Palmer, the boss of Roadrunner Records UK, the home of Megadeth and Sepultura, is wary of rolling out the red carpet. "They will burn brightly for a short time, but what they're doing is nothing new. Lordi have released a few albums here without doing any real business and Kiss did it 10 times better 30 years ago."

Indeed, Putaansuu admits he is the president of the Kiss fan club in Finland, But Palmer still welcomes acts from previously unheralded nations. "A few years ago, the idea of a band coming out of Finland would have been ridiculous, but now we have loads of them. We just wish we could have a homegrown band that could equal the success around the world of Def Leppard." Palmer might be in for a long wait, but Lordi's success shows that, in the most unexpected places, there are performers striving for recognition. Those about to dress as Orcs, we salute you.