North From Here: The Story of Sentenced by Matti Rieki

Sentenced burst into existence like a moment of drunken exuberance but then vanished just as quickly, appearing with Shadows of the Past in 1991 to ride the Demigod and Darkthrone style of dark mid-paced death metal to its conclusions, then peaked with the magnificent North From Here two years later, but by the next album, became some kind of gothic hard rock that drove away death metal fans in droves.

North From Here: The Story of Sentenced by Matti Rieki attempts to chronicle this band, but regrettably, falls short hard by focusing too much on the band and its neuroses, too much on the really irrelevant post-1993 years, and not enough on the early days of the band and the thinking behind what motivated their unique takes on the death metal genre. In a hundred years, people will still want to hear about the band behind those first two albums, but no one is going to care about the toilet wash of alcoholism, personal problems, label greed, and general inexperience that swallowed up the band after 1993.

Noir fans might recognize an old story: decent kids from decent homes in the countryside demonstrate exceptional talent, then the world eats it up by luring them into temptation, and eventually, the divergent needs of the many consume the ability to produce coherent statements, and you end up with a flavor of the same old shit on a new type of biscuit. Sadly, that is the Sentenced story, despite how massively talented the band members were and are, and how great the first two albums were.

The funereal theme was also evident in the quietly stylish album cover art by Vesa Ranta, as well as in the band’s last music video, “Ever-Frost”, which portrayed Sentenced carrying a coffin across marshland, lakes, and fields. The video for “No One There” from The Cold White Light, directed by Pete Veijalainen, had beautifully depicted an old man taking care of his wife who is succumbing to dementia . And it’s old men that you see in the band’s final video as well. In its “alternate reality” storyline, the grey-haired band members have kept on rocking all the way into old age. (216)

It sounds like it may have been hard to nail the band down for interviews, or for them to recall years that allegedly floated by in a sea of vodka and beer. If someone told me that this book had been written by a member of the Temperance Movement, it would all make sense, since the only enduring message one gets from this is that random undescribed magic happened for those first couple albums, and then the band drank themselves into irrelevance and death (sadly, in the case of immensely talented guitarist Miika Tenkula, who died of a congenital heart defect like Quorthon, but exacerbated by rampant alcoholism).

Interviewers in metal have a tough job with experienced bands. Having done a billion interviews, they know how to keep it at the surface, which is to say interesting things to rock fans, most of which enhance mystique by hiding vital details and emphasizing the “rock ‘n roll story” that most fans want to hear, which is that these were regular guys who just walked into a studio one day and somehow magic happened and a great album came out. Since that is never the case, an interviewer has to dig.

That becomes difficult when your subjects are reticent, cannot recall, intoxicated, surly, or some combination of the above. Most of the book seems to come secondhand from second vocalist Ville Laihiala. Written after the death of Tenkula in 2009, the book features surface-level commentary from the other members, but relatively little from Taneli Jarva, the bassist-vocalist who served as spokesperson for the band during its relevant era.

In addition, translator Salla Harjula made a dubious decision regarding how to convey the statements made by the band in English:

I’ve chosen the Northern English Yorkshire dialect to represent the guys’ Northern Ostrobothnian dialogue in the original. For one thing, it’s a true dialect rather than an accent in that it’s got its very own vocabulary as well as pronunciation characteristics. (9)

The translator enjoyed the book Trainspotting in which the use of dialect featured prominently, giving hipsters something to play with while they tried to be clever and unique at the local dive bar. Unfortunately, this makes for ridiculous text that not only fails to capture the subtleties of the original Finnish, but projects the band members into a comical form of English that adds nothing to the meaning, but detracts plenty from the reading experience.

Laihiala remembers an album signing session in an American record shop where the main event was In Flames, but Sentenced had been allowed to tag along. The Finns did at least get their own table – in a corner, at the back of the store, away from the crowd. “I thought it were cool as fuck. Everyone left us alone”, Laihiala looks back on it with something resembling a smile. “We laughed at the whole thing . Maybe one guy came over to ask for our autographs, and that were on an In Flames poster. No one else turned up at ours. And even then, we sat facing the corner. Intentionally.” (197)

Too much effort is spent on the personalities here, and not enough on the brains, which presumably are sometimes sober enough to recall where their ideas were going. Big mysteries remain, like how the band decided to go back to its Iron Maiden influenced sound at about the same time that Dissection and Sacramentum were kicking off, what inspired them to slower death metal in the first place, or where they derived their somewhat unique view of the world. This book is a story untold, with a surface glamour of rock ‘n roll fantasy and alcohol mysticism covering it up.

Around this time the Sentenced lads were going through an intense death metal phase in terms of their collective listening habits. The debuts of Norway’s Darkthrone, still in its pure death metal incarnation, and American progressive death metallers Atheist, spun particularly often on their turntables. Another consistent favourite was any material from the creative extreme metal band Morbid Angel and its later progeny Nocturnus. The lads were also feeling their way towards bands who used metal as more of a spice than the main ingredient, returning to the layered sounds of Faith No More and Primus on a regular basis. (55)

There is room for a book about Sentenced, one of the greatest to emerge from death metal, and a band that changed just about everything by bringing melody and mood into a genre that was otherwise headed for pure rhythmic binary language structuralism. However, this is not the book, or at least, this first edition is not. I hope the talented Riekki — clearly a writer of easy turns of phrase and insight — grabs his tape recorder and gets these guys on the horn again to dig deeper into the first five years of the band.

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7 thoughts on “North From Here: The Story of Sentenced by Matti Rieki”

  1. T Malm says:

    I hate that interviewers will talk to whoever is most vocal in the band, instead of the members who were most responsible for writing their best material. They’ll talk to At the Gates and Anders Bjorler and Tomas will say “Oh yeah in the early days it was mostly Alf’s stuff,” but nobody ever talks to Alf! Where the hell is Alf? I guess a lot of creative people are introverts, though, and it’s easier for them to have a couple band members who are better at talking to the press/fans/etc. But it sure does make for lame interviews. I won’t be picking this up anytime soon.

    Also, since when is “North from Here” their creative peak?

    1. parappa the rapper says:

      You are kidding right? It’s so far ahead of the rest of their material (first album included), you wonder how they made it. An absolute classic of the genre.

      1. T Malm says:

        Nah, nothing can touch “Shadows of the Past”. I’ll give it another listen though, I remember being vaguely disappointed and not much else.

        1. I remember that, at the time, this was the prevailing attitude: nothing special. In fact, Aditya Sharma, the fellow metal writer who passed this one on to me in a trade, said that he thought it was unexceptional.

          In my view, it took the atmosphere of the first Darkthrone, the mysticism of the first Demigod, and the melodic approach of the second Merciless and perhaps the Eucharist demo and the Necrophobic single (“The Call”) which Wild Rags was promoting at the time.

          This created a leap into actual melodic death metal, not the melo-death that came later (much like all of deathcore is a pale imitation of Obscura and Spheres).

          1. T Malm says:

            I gave it another listen and yeah, it is excellent. Fucking spectacular. For some reason I remembered it being a mix of their old stuff and their descent into gayness. Maybe I had it confused with ‘Amok’. Anyway I’ll be blasting it for the next week at least. Thanks to you and Parapper for the hearty recommendation.

  2. Gnarly says:

    “fails to capture the subtleties of the original Finnish”

    Oh, do you know Finnish? ;)

    Seriously though, trying to recreate accents in text is an abomination in fiction and non-fiction alike.

    Nice review. Time to listen to Sentenced again, and perhaps peruse the ol’ DLA reviews.

  3. Nuclear Whore says:

    Perhaps I got into Sentenced too late but I found their first record not very memorable. Some early Paradise Lost, some deep Death Metal, all very nice, but in comparison to other Death acts from that era in Finland, is not as original and tremendous as the other suspects that are rightfully worshipped in this very site. IMHO.

    Recalling an article from the early 90s from Dave Rotten (Avulsed-Drowned-Repulse) which covered a festival in Finland with early Amorphis-Unholy-whatnot: many Finns from a band(s?) drank like sponges. Alcohol can be terrible. My best wishes.

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