Roundtrip To Hel: Discovering Tuska Open Air Metal Festival, Part I
Band Photo: Children of Bodom (?)
THURSDAY, 6/27 - 13:30
Unmistakable, husky German accent behind me. I glance over my shoulder, turn, step aside the river of disembarking passengers from the Lufthansa Airbus parked out in the drizzly gray. The veteran green-fatigue-jacketed metalhead, balding, sporting a life-without-parole graying goatee, sticks out his hand.
“Holger. Nuclear Blast.” We shake, he grins and nods at the Testament logo above my lapel, only partially obscured by my boarding pass. He slips me a company card - “Holger Tiefenbach, Distribution & Marketing” - and lifts a finger toward a sign down the corridor: “Matkatavarat.” Luggage.
As we stride through Finland’s Helsinki-Vantaa Airport, locate the carousel for Flight 848 from Frankfurt, and wait for our suitcases to materialize - I was forced to check mine at the last minute and have since developed acute missing-luggage paranoia - Holger brings me up to speed on our shared reason for being here: Tuska Open Air Metal Festival, sixteen years running, 2014 edition set to kick off tomorrow afternoon.
“It used to be held in Kaisaniemi Park, right in the middle of the city. It was the greatest. You’d show up, basically have an afternoon at the park, and then head straight to the bars nearby, when the sun was just barely set.” He seems to almost sigh while tossing off a plaintive, what-are-you-gonna-do shrug. “They moved the location three, four years ago.”
“So it’s not as much fun now?” I want to get my finger on the pulse of conventional wisdom.
He’s quick to clarify. “It’s still awesome. The new location just took some getting used to.” On our painless stroll through the open doorway that passes for an immigration barrier - the stamps and stern looks and “papers, please” stuff was handled back in Germany, natch - Holger gives an inside view of current happenings back at the Nuclear Blast bunker.
“We spent a lot of time promoting that Tuomas Holopainen solo album - the one about Scrooge McDuck,” he tells me. I haven’t heard it, and ask him how it is. “Not metal. That’s how it is,” he chuckles. “But cool if you’re into that wacky stuff, like the last Nightwish album.
“And we signed Slayer!” He clenches a victorious fist like a kid receiving his BB gun on Christmas. “Finally.”
We’ve reached the Arrivals lobby, and a leather-jacketed brunette gives a wave. Rachel Roth (WandererOfKalevala), Metalunderground.com photographer and correspondent, currently residing in Vantaa. We have a bus to catch, and before parting ways with Holger, I bum a cigarette, pocketing the e-cig I’ve been abusing for two months.
I make a half-hearted promise to myself not to do this too much during Tuska (and not to beat myself up for doing just that). Rationalization is still the great human sport.
The weather sucks. Through the bus window, the passing parade of pretty neighborhoods and verdant foliage is muted by the cloudy, gray gloom above; the air choked thick with swampy moisture. And a raincoat is the one thing I failed to bring.
One of those types that steadily shrinks in withdrawal the less she talks and, conversely, grows more excited with every spoken word, Rachel lets her light Midwestern accent explain how she wound up in such an unlikely place.
“I hated Detroit,” she admits. I don’t blame her. It’s a dismal monument to error and crushed dreams. “I always wanted to live here, and came over a few years ago as an au pair. People fall in love with Finland. I stayed.”
17:00 - SUVILAHTI
The gunmetal cloud cover throws Suvilahti into deep shade.
The former energy production district in the neighborhood of Sörnäinen - once abandoned, now renovated for more artistic uses - lies bare, nearly uninhabited, save for a few event staff scurrying about ant-like amidst the gaping, empty expanse of concrete and mammoth, lonely stages.
The larger of the two stages bears the name and logo of Finland’s largest radio station and Tuska sponsor, Radio Rock. At least a football field opposite, facing its big brother, lies the Inferno stage, named for its benefactor, the country’s premier metal magazine.
The dark-blonde photojournalist strides up beside me and Rachel at the second of two ticket windows. The tiny shack sits smack in the middle of the main throughway just shy of the gate.
“Hi. I’m Nikky Holmes from Metal As Fuck.”
I can’t help but crack up at the delivery, in what Rachel’s colleague and fellow expat (from Australia, that is) describes as her “Geoffrey Rush accent:” prim, proper, and perfect for enunciated profanity. For a moment I almost forget to retrieve my own press credentials.
22:00 - ON THE ROCKS
They call these things dive bars, but “descend, get lost, and drown” bar seems more appropriate in this case. The front room of On The Rocks, a rock club (duh) adjacent Helsinki’s Central Railway Station, looks like an ordinary bar.
Then I take an almost-hidden flight of stairs in the very rear. Lower. A landing, a sharp turn to the left. Lower. A winding labyrinth of a basement that resembles a complex system of caves, awash in red and blue lighting, save for the warm incandescent glow from the bar.
A group of guys dubbed El Grende cranks out acoustic Misfits tunes, and pretty well, too. I follow the music.
Wait a minute. Is that… yes, it is, down a short flight of steps from the bar area and across the narrow dance floor spread before the stage… a THIRD BAR! I glance around, making sure I’m not looking at a weird reflection of the bar to my right. Nope. Holy shitfire, these people drink a lot of booze.
Rachel and Nikky are snapping photos of Barren Earth, Finnish masters of melancholy and tonight’s Tuska pre-party headliners. The cave system is small enough for me to navigate its cracks and chasms without losing sight of the band for too long.
I consider Rachel’s advice: “Get yourself hammered and talk to Finnish women.” It’s mostly dudes down here. I even mistook one of them for a chick a few minutes ago, which was traumatizing. The ubiquitous long, straight blond hair really throws you off if you’re not prepared.
A glance to the right. There’s Holger of Nuclear Blast, utterly plastered on a heroic German level, pouring the remnants of a beer onto the tap fixture itself, cackling as if mixing vinegar and baking soda for the first time. Yeah… not sure I want to get there.
New Barren Earth singer Jón Aldará, a Faroe Islands import, addresses the crowd in English, which helps. During a quick restroom visit, I offer my two cents in an ongoing discussion of the band’s music: “It’s as if Amorphis and Swallow The Sun had a child.”
“That’s what it USED to sound like, I guess,” someone mutters from across the room. I turn to wash my hands. It’s Mikko Kotamäki, Swallow The Sun vocalist… and former Barren Earth vocalist. … Awkward.
I soon realize what’s happening. This is in fact Jón Aldará’s live debut with the band, and Mikko is here to officially pass him the torch. Toward the end of the set, the two singers share the mic for the song “Flicker,” trading vocal lines in a seamless changing of the guard.
It’d be nice, in a perfect world, if every vocalist shuffle were handled that way. Later on, shit might taste like chocolate and monkeys might even fly out of my butt.
FRIDAY, 6/27 - 01:00
“I hate to ask, but can I bum one of those?” Why am I doing this? I wonder, and answer myself: sometimes, at a bar, you just need to have the real thing.
“Sure,” through teeth clamped firmly on an unlit cigarette. Out comes a fresh one from the pack. A wink. “It’s a Camel.” Guitarist Sami Yli-Sirniö, sleeves rolled up, shirt saturated in sweat, pockets the pack. I step outside the dressing room, twiddling the butt between two fingers like some talisman or lucky charm. I’m swept by a sudden insatiable urge to escape this cave and find the surface. Not a good sign.
I barely noticed when Rachel and Nikky appeared nearby - they’ve been rushing about, gathering their equipment after wrapping an interview with Barren Earth - but here they are. After a few moments of discussion, I turn my back and watch the merch table do a brisk final round of business.
I scan the dwindling T-shirt selection. The “Curse Of The Red River” shirt I bought earlier hangs like a minuscule wet napkin, draped over my shoulder. I wonder now if I should’ve purchased a medium instead of a small. I’m starting to suspect that a “small” in the States is larger - maybe it’s just assumed that we’re all hopelessly fat bastards.
I turn back, and some unknown dude is standing beside Rachel. They’re both speaking; I’m assuming something mundane, professional, or whatnot. Just as I realize this fella is utterly tanked, in comes that Geoffrey Rush accent like a knife through a nutsack, cutting the guy off mid-sentence.
“Sorry, she’s not interested in talking to you right now. Buh-bye!” A glittering smile, for effect. BURN. I nearly spit my beer across the room as the confused interloper skulks away.
“I turned my back for a few seconds. What the hell was that?” I ask. Rachel shakes her head in baffled, bemused bewilderment.
“He had his hands on my ass.”
14:30 - SUVILAHTI
Main gate. The crowds are gathering - better swarms of people than the rainclouds of yesterday, which have completely vanished - and the three of us are strolling right past everybody. I’m not going to be modest and say a press pass doesn’t sometimes feel like having a third cock.
Ensiferum’s “Unsung Heroes” backing banner looms at the rear of the Radio Rock stage. Beyond the accumulating clusters of fans near the stage, a long line is forming for the EMP Merchandising stand, almost a separate stage in itself.
Somewhere on the other side of that densely packed queue of black-clothed bodies lies the unassuming entrance to the press area.
14:45 - RADIO ROCK STAGE
And here we go. Ensiferum has always possessed a magic touch, playing a delicate game of Twister with multiple perceived subgenres - folk, melodic death, thrash, power - and rarely veering too far for too long into any one of them.
Their trademark stage appearance mirrors this balance. A quartet of shirtless Finns, plus a clothed, very discreet, very female Emmi Silvenoinen on keyboards (to this day, I’ve never heard hollering chants of “take it off!” from an Ensiferum crowd, so that just reinforces my point - people are here for music, regardless of labels). Tasteful streaks of black warpaint on the cheeks. And that’s basically it. No over-the-top visual gags.
It’s at this point that, in a discussion with my new colleagues, I learn that frontman Petri Lindroos’ first name is, in fact, NOT pronounced “Petrie,” like the little flying dinosaur from “The Land Before Time.” Finnish names are hard.
15:40 - INFERNO STAGE
Watching Poisonblack is rather personally excruciating. Nay, simply HEARING them is excruciating. Let me explain.
Once upon a time, singer Ville Laihiala fronted Sentenced, a brutal death metal band that became a melodic death metal band that became, for lack of a more thorough description, “HIM for dudes.”
It was this latter stage, with the 2002 album “The Cold White Light,” that initially grabbed my attention. That year, I failed to attend the band’s one and only North American tour in their fifteen-year career, opening for In Flames. “The Cold White Light” became its own consolation prize, a tissue for my wretched teen-angst tears, as important as the work of Kurt Cobain was to early ‘90s brats.
Four years later, the band was no more. Three years after that, their guitarist and lead songwriter was dead of an alcoholism-induced heart attack. A darkly fitting nail in the coffin of a band that managed to revolve every lyrical topic around suicide.
I’m still in mourning for Sentenced. So Poisonblack, despite adding several extra doses of high-energy hard rock to the equation, simply rattles my bittersweet memories with that DAMN VOICE. After a few songs, I can no longer bear to watch.
16:00 - PRESS AREA
“Shot, Coke, or energy drink?” The girl behind the small portable bar counter, logo “Jaloviina” fixed across the wood surface, pours an oversized shot of the caramel-colored cut brandy.
Mind you, I’ve agreed to try this stuff on a dare. I hear snickers behind me.
“What the hell. Give me some energy.” There’s still a whole lot of day left, and the sun’s barely going to set anyway. I watch the shot of the “bold spirit” blend with the neon chemical shitstorm on ice. At first taste, I don’t exactly gag, but… let’s just say the jury’s still out.
One thing for sure: this stuff is rocket fuel. I could use a cigarette.
16:15 - RADIO ROCK STAGE
Has Phil Anselmo ever played a show sober in his life?
He may now go by the official moniker “Philip H. Anselmo,” but it’s the same guy up to the same antics. After cranking out about half his solo album “Walk Through Exits Only” with his backing band The Illegals, it’s pretty clear he’s sloppily improvising his way through two-thirds of the setlist.
Oh, wait, did I hear that right? He’s actually admitting it up there: “We’re just making this shit up as we go along.” The good news: drunk, stoned, or not, he’s performing like a beast.
The man’s live screams are still among the most bloodcurdling to have ever reached my ears. Raw, hoarse, husky, thrashed, shredded. One imagines gargling razor blades and winces. Stigmata of the throat.
It’s a Christmas stocking full of covers from here on out: Superjoint Ritual (“Fuck Your Enemy,” “Waiting For The Turning Point”), Agnostic Front (“United & Strong”), Portal (“Black Houses”), Arson Anthem (“Wrecked Like Clockwork”), Down (“Bury Me In Smoke”), and, of course, Pantera (“Death Rattle,” “Domination/Hollow,” “A New Level,” “Hellbound,” “Primal Concrete Sledge”).
Anselmo even straps on the guitar and abandons the mic for a song or two, including a brief section of Slayer’s “Raining Blood.”
At one of the more confused meanderings in the set, some trademark Anselmo bravado: “Yeah, yeah, I know. You’re waitin’ for us to get the fuck on outta here. Waitin’ on yer heroes in black and white makeup… naw, I’m kidding. I like Dimmer Burger, [sic] nice guys.” Away from the mic, an affected shout, pretending to conceal his voice: “Posers!”
Anselmo may laugh at his own jokes, but at least the crowd helps him along.
17:35 - INFERNO STAGE
Nails might as well go by “NyQuil,” because this shit is putting me to sleep.
I’m a pretty finicky doom metal fan as it is, and I tend to pick through the Southern Lord roster with tweezers, but DAMN, this is dull. Maybe I need some of what Anselmo’s been having.
[EX POST FACTO: I couldn't find a YouTube video of this particular performance to share. Maybe everyone with a camera fell asleep.]
17:45 - CLUB STAGE
Ahhh. Two desperately-needed things: shade and a musical defibrillator. The so-called “Club Stage” resides in a long, vaguely T-shaped white building - part of the original factory complex - at the edge of Suvilahti proper.
Not that I can actually see this alleged stage. The hundred-or-so feet of space are jammed so tightly with upright human bodies, an Auschwitz train might be a relief.
Speaking of which, I can’t seem to locate any fire exits. Better not jinx us all by dwelling on this too long.
Instead, I somehow force my way up front, edged over to stage left. Battle Beast is obviously THE band to see at the moment, and I suspect they’ve stolen about half of Nails’ audience.
‘80s-style anthems with an injection of modern muscle. Proudly cheesy keyboards. A drummer that makes liberal use, with his feet, of the “sex beat.” And a vocalist, Noora Louhimo, that could singlehandedly supply Helsinki’s power for a full day. She’s that electrifying.
Glancing over this “dress to intimidate” leather-clad figure, it’s apparent she’s the type that would kick my ass for even suggesting she’s in a so-called “female-fronted band.” While not an Angela Gossow disciple, she’s obviously not here to “sing pretty.”
18:15 - RADIO ROCK STAGE
It’s gotten to the point where any Finnish rock or metal festival seems lacking without Children Of Bodom. Despite major worldwide success, the band is really going for broke on its hometown stage show.
A beaten, antique sedan - '60s, '70s? Hard to tell - propped up on cinderblocks directly in the middle of the stage; even drummer Jaska Raatikainen’s kit occupies a humbler spot to the side. The headlights strobe intermittently with the beats. Nice. Never seen that before.
A battered pickup truck off to stage left with a grill - yes, a COOKING grill in the open bed, not the front grille - turning out hamburgers by the minute. Beach balls. A massive backing banner that forsakes the band’s logo for a kitschy scheme of blue, purple, and hot pink: “BODOM BEACH BARBEQUE.” With a Q, not a C.
Keyboardist Janne Wirman, decked out in a Hawaiian shirt, consistently abandons his perch and crosses the stage during sections that don’t require him, alternating between shaking someone’s hand (random folks just keep appearing at stage right) and chugging a beer.
I keep expecting him to fall behind, get lost, or forget an entire part, but he never does. Or if he does, he’s a master of appearances.
19:35 - INFERNO STAGE
As the slow, dangerous riff-buildup of “Buried Dreams” floats across the park, two priorities clash a tortured battle in my head: watch Carcass live for the first time, and find some cigarettes.
I’ve been bumming them like a fiend for hours. I knew this would happen: it’s time to buy that dreaded pack for myself. So much for sticking to my guns.
Around the corner from the Inferno stage squats what amounts to a single-wide trailer with a small flight of steps leading to a door at either end. The idea is to cycle customers through in a consistent stream and let them pick their items as they shuffle forward in the “assembly line.”
I’m about halfway through the line, trapped in the packed store, when I realize there’s no tobacco for sale. I’m missing the band for absolutely nothing, and the strains of “Incarnated Solvent Abuse,” “Cadaver Pouch Conveyor System,” and “This Mortal Coil” floating through the door just make me want to push and shove my way out of there.
Or yell “Fire!”
Finally, with that ill-advised detour out of the way, I can watch. Here’s the thing about Carcass: even with no stage props or gimmicks - hell, even without any members moving around much - the band is one hundred percent captivating.
Part of it may be the thrill of watching some veterans, with little left to prove, effortlessly pull off what an endless swamp of younger bands barely manage to achieve with sweaty, almost desperate hyperactivity. The other part? The contained stage moves.
“Uh-oh. William’s disrobing,” bassist/vocalist Jeff Walker snickers as guitarist Bill Steer flings off his jacket with a seeming flick of the hand. You don’t need to flat-out windmill, or even headbang aggressively, to keep a crowd motivated. Sometimes all it takes is just the right pose, just the right dash of grace, just the right flash of style while playing.
Mercifully, the sun has retreated to a point where the rays aren’t frying a hole in the side of my face, and a few clouds have advanced to give the impression of “evening” (as defined in the Lower 48). Walker calls attention to the modest clusters of people beginning a lazy exodus toward the Radio Rock stage.
“We know a lot of people can’t wait to see Dimmu, but we want to thank all of you still here for sticking around for the best show in town… And you’re welcome, for bringing you the ‘Gothenburg sound.’”
He chuckles at himself. “Yes, yes. Call me arrogant. Call me Jeffrey.”
20:30 - RADIO ROCK STAGE
Final act of the day.
People give them a hard time, but there’s a reason Dimmu Borgir have reached their level of stardom: they know how to target a triangle of appeal.
First, there’s the epic symphonic element. The band was among the first to blend it with black metal, and in doing so may have alienated “trve kvltists” who just don’t know a good time when they hear one, but also brought multitudes of outside fans into the fold. Tough titties.
Then there’s the fact that despite what some goalpost-moving metal-nerd virgins would have you believe, this is still a pretty fucking heavy band. “Last year was the tenth anniversary of an album called ‘Death Cult Armageddon,'" frontman Shagrath announces, "And we completely skipped it. So we’re playing most of that album today.” They are indeed, and it’s monstrous.
Finally, there’s the outlandish costumed theatricality, an ethos opposite that of Carcass, but one with its own honored place. Like it or not, Dimmu Borgir has transcended the subgenre from which the band sprung and taken a slot alongside the Kisses, GWARs, and Slipknots of the world - popular acts united on a visual (yet visceral) front.
And I love every minute of it. The constant pyro blasts help, too; as the sun lowers, the increasing frequency of fiery orange bursts, and accompanying waves of heat, feels downright medieval. A lighting of the torches, a gathering of the village mob.
That reminds me: when this is all over, it’s time to buy some cigarettes.
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