Mention Eurovision and most people will instantly think of Abba’s Waterloo, or the sight of Céline Dion singing Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi in her widest-shouldered blazer. The contest is notorious for thrusting the cheesiest, most bombastic pop it can find into 180 million people’s living rooms every May, and most of the artists playing 2023’s edition in Liverpool on 13 May will cleave to one of two formulas: Europop bangers, or earnest ballads delivered with beseeching, outstretched arms.
Yet since the turn of the century, Eurovision’s love for singalong anthems and OTT theatre has unintentionally made it perfect for a genre that positions itself as pop’s polar opposite: heavy metal. The genre has employed larger-than-life drama ever since Iron Maiden started taking a 10ft-tall zombie on tour; even the most satanic black metal heretics often take to the stage in facepaint. And so nearly every Eurovision throws up a ferocious metal curveball, the most famous being the orc-cosplaying Lordi who won for Finland in 2006 with Hard Rock Hallelujah. Other memorable performances include those by Icelandic electro-goth BDSM troupe Hatari in 2019, bare-chested Finns Teräsbetoni in 2008, and Eldrine, an Evanescence-esque Georgian band in 2011.
This year, there are not one but two hard-rocking entries: Australia’s Voyager and Germany’s Lord of the Lost. Danny Estrin, frontman of synth-metal band Voyager, grew up in the small German town of Buchholz in der Nordheide and, although his family left for Perth when he was 11, his band have brought him back to Europe with their song Promise.
As a child, Estrin was obsessed with Eurovision; he owned a vinyl compilation of all the winning songs. “Millions of people watch it in Germany, and it had a significant impact on the way I write music,” he says. “The central element of Eurovision, certainly in the 70s and 80s, was melody. It was all about that beautiful, catchy hook. The emphasis I place on melody in Voyager definitely stems from that.”
Lord of the Lost are industrial glam-metal, entering with the song Blood & Glitter. “Eurovision is the perfect stage for us,” says lead singer Chris Harms. “We are a very visual band.”
Listen to Blood & Glitter and Lord of the Lost will seem like underdogs: it contains stampeding drum beats, hulking riffs and snarling vocals. Watch the music video, though, and the band become frontrunners. Against a red backdrop, the androgynous Harms is regal in his red-and-gold attire. Voyager’s Promise brings similar levels of pomp by casting chugging guitars against dance-rock synths and the band’s gleaming white outfits.
Hard rock took a long time to land at Eurovision. While rock’n’roller Freddy Quinn represented Germany at the inaugural event in 1956 with the high-energy So Geht das Jede Nacht, it wasn’t until 2005 that Wig Wam became the first metal band to play, earning ninth place for Norway.
The following year, masked monsters Lordi took the prize. “Among all the Barbie and Ken doll lookalikes there, we were real; we were the least plastic!” says the band’s founder, vocalist and costume designer, Mr Lordi, who adds that Finland’s love of metal propelled his band into the contest. “On an average day in 2001, on any radio station in Finland, you could hear a Metallica song and the next one would be Madonna.”
The rest of the work was done by the catchiness of Hard Rock Hallelujah andthe band’s startling makeup. “When we were on our way to rehearsal [in full costume] and somebody was giving an interview to a big TV station, the cameras would start to turn,” Mr Lordi remembers. “There were some delegations saying: ‘Finland needs to let everybody know when they’re coming to the venue, because otherwise they’ll steal the spotlight from everybody else.’”
In 2007, Andorra sent punks Anonymous, the Czech Republic fielded hard rockers Kabát and Iceland was represented by metal singer Eiríkur Hauksson. However, none made the final. Turkish rap-metal band Manga, on the other hand, earned second place in 2010 amid an inferno of pyrotechnics. Then, in 2021, Italian glam band Måneskin won the contest with the strutting Zitti e Buoni, while Finland’s Blind Channel finished sixth with their nu-metal stomper, Dark Side. Finland’s much-fancied 2023 entry Käärijä performs a noisy bit of hard dance, and they sent another heavy act to Eurovision in 2022: veteran goths the Rasmus.
It was 19 years since the band’s international hit In the Shadows and they hadn’t had a charting single anywhere since 2009 – plus founding guitarist Pauli Rantasalmi had recently left. “We were in a bad place,” says vocalist Lauri Ylönen. “We broke up, basically, so it was nice to have a mission together and something to conquer. It welded us together as a new group.”
The Rasmus’s Eurovision entry, Jezebel, marked their renaissance. To write the song, the band collaborated with composer-for-the-stars Desmond Child, and Jezebel reached No 4 on the Finnish singles chart. That success sadly didn’t translate to Eurovision domination, as the band finished 21st, but Ylönen says Jezebel is still “a hit in our setlist”.
“You could tell that the audiences got bigger [following Eurovision],” the singer says, “but I also believe Jezebel is a great hard rock song.”
Lord of the Lost haven’t even played yet and are already enjoying a similar commercial bump. Not only will the band support Iron Maiden this summer, they also recently performed for King Charles at a showcase of German music held at the British consulate in Hamburg. (“He has this aura,” Harms says. “He approaches you and you suddenly feel calm. It’s a great gift he has.”)
Eurovision is the biggest stage that heavy metal bands will ever play, as the genre’s bombast, melody, pyro and – in the case of Promise and Blood & Glitter’s roaring bridges – brutality gets condensed into three minutes.
“It’s pretty weird being in lifestyle magazines at the moment,” says Voyager’s Estrin. “I had to do an article the other day called What I Know About Women, which didn’t even mention music or Eurovision. I’m milking it: I’m never gonna have the opportunity to do this stuff again, so why not have fun with it?”
• The 2023 Eurovision Song Contest will be held from 9 to 13 May at Liverpool Arena. Lordi’s new album, Screem Writers Guild, is out now through Atomic Fire. The Rasmus’ new album, Rise, is out now through Playground. Voyager’s new album Fearless in Love is expected to be released later this year by Season of Mist. Lord of the Lost support Iron Maiden on their UK tour in June and July.