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Unioni Festival at The Circus, Helsinki 9/19-20

Photo of Arch Enemy

Band Photo: Arch Enemy (?)

Unioni Festival was a new occurrence this year, and this mini festival quickly became the most anticipated even of the autumn calendar in Helsinki. People came from all over Europe, and even as far as Los Angeles to catch the amazing lineup these two days boasted. Livenation has really outdone themselves this time around, and with both nights of the long anticipated Unioni festival sold out, they’d do well to be patting themselves on the back!

This was a concert that no one wanted to miss, and unfortunately I have the numerous emails from total strangers to prove it! It’s quite disconcerting to check your “others” feature in messenger and have tens of people asking me for guest list passes in exchange for cleaning my house, hundreds of euros, and even an offer to be my best friend forever to prove it. Guys, seriously, don’t ask, we photographers can’t do this for you even if we’d really want to!

Friday came around, and I will admit, that even after I’d been looking forward to this festival for months, it was hard to get out of bed. Pj’s and pumpkin spice lattes are a pregnant women’s greatest love, but when the camera calls, she is rather insistent!

We arrived in time to catch Insomnium, and act that just always manages to outdo their last performance. The consistent energy from these guys is impressive and always captivates their willing audience.

My fellow journalist Nikky Holmes, along to be my bodyguard/cowriter had these words to share about the Insomnium and Arch Enemy performances:

"Insomnium’s stage presence has grown in leaps and bounds over the last couple of years. These days with a local crowd they convey a relaxed confidence in their show without the feel of an overly choreographed stage presence. I glance back into the crowd to watch the sea of faces lit gently from the stage. A couple press through to get closer and my view of the stage is blocked, but given that the photographers are leaving the pit I’m not too worried.

Rachel follows them and passes me her bag. “Air, I need to go outside.” We push back through the crowd and out into the gentle autumn night chill. We can barely hear Insomnium from out here, but after a few minutes of fresh air Rachel is ready to brave the crowds again. I shoulder her bag, and we head up to the less crowded upstairs bar. Wine for me, expensive tap water for Rachel.

The sound quality is better up here, less of the simple roar of noise you hear next to the stage, and more of the complex harmonies Insomnium is so well known for. We catch up with friends, and enjoy the mix of new, popular and old songs from the Joensuu band. A personal favorite song of mine, One for Sorrow, has the crowd downstairs seething and surging as Insomnium wrap up their festival set. With enough room to move around upstairs, and a good view of the stage, I’m not looking forward to our trip downstairs again for the start of Arch Enemy. However, I’m keen to see how Alissa White-Gluz lives up to the hype.

About half an hour later, and halfway through "Enemy Within", I realize how wise Angela Gossow was in choosing her replacement. White-Gluz has all the energy of Gossow’s characteristic stage presence, with enough of her own style to be more than just a copy. Gossow’s death growls were the guts of Arch Enemy’s live shows for fourteen years, and from what I can hear White-Gluz has more than enough brutality to her vocals to match this power. White-Gluz also has a unique charm to her performance, bourn of irrepressible enthusiasm.

Flashing a smile as she thanks the audience between songs, White-Gluz’s performance shows that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. She has beauty and charisma, but damn does this girl give everything when she growls. "War Eternal" is delivered with unwavering ruthlessness, and Ravenous with unrelenting power. We slip back into the crowd as Rachel finishes up her photos, past many a smiling fan. It looks like this new singer has won over the Finnish legion of Arch Enemy fans tonight."

Unioni day two was met with a small amount of exhaustion and trepidation, but still to compensate a huge amount of excitement! Today’s lineup was my personal dream, Solstafir AND Katatonia AND Swallow the Sun? What more could a girl ask for?

As Helsinki was lucky enough to have some pretty amazing Americans in town, we met at our favorite watering hole beforehand, and naturally got so caught up in conversation we missed the first band, which would have been an awesome performance from Barren Earth. When I finally arrived at The Circus, I was lucky enough to have beaten the queue so it was easy enough to waltz in and find a good spot to catch Swallow the Sun!

The band played a wide range of material from their past few albums, including many crowd pleasing favorites such as “These Woods Breathe Evil”. Every time I hear this song it takes me back to Detroit, where I heard this song the first time, and now still love it four years later halfway across the world! Kai Hahto was not with the band this time, but the drummer in his place managed to fill his shoes quite well, though naturally fans felt the absence. As always with Swallow the Sun, the atmosphere is not just in the music, but in the smoky lights that paint trails over the faces of the band and the audience members; and in the somber mood that fills the venue and become almost tangible. Standing in the audience, one isn’t sure whether to be happy or sad, because the beauty in the music is such a dark sort but transfixing all the same.

Next up, and continuing the melancholic mood of the night was Solstafir! "Þín Orð" was the opening song of the night, and immediately we were launched into another world. The set featured a mix of both old favorites and new songs of of their latest release "Ótta". The dark silhouettes on stage seem inhuman, and one can easily forget that they are such; at least until the flares of light make them look solid and real again. Solstafir’s sets always seem to be a mix of anger and grief, but still cathartic in a way that is difficult to describe. At one point frontman Aðalbjörn Tryggvason asked for a moment of silence during an instrumental interlude, but an audience that already so immersed in the music was rendered unable to abide by the request fully. As always, I stood at the back of the audience with my heart full of hope that they would once again play "Fjara", and my wish was once again granted. At that moment there is nothing to do but let the music take me away, hold my mjolnir tight and quietly mourn and remember those who have gone before me.

Last ( but certainly not least up for the evening) and closing this year’s Unioni was Katatonia! This was a much more energetic set, then I have previously experienced from these guys, and it definitely catered to the wishes of the fans; being a mixture of both old and new material. Jonas Renske was as mysterious as always, rarely letting his face be seen behind a mask of long dark hair; but his voice sounded remarkably more resonant tonight and suited the material well. The audience crowded tighter towards the stage and it became impossible to navigate through the mesmerized audience. Finally the magic tapered off, and after a gracious three song encore, people slowly began to gravitate towards the doors and the evening was over. Some went off to after parties, some went to gigs elsewhere in the city, but I made the long trek back to my quiet little apartment in the country side and listened to Solstafir just a little while longer.

WandererOfKalevala's avatar

Rachel Roth has studied classical music and folk music at the University level, and enjoys studying Folklore in her spare time. She is an avid metal and folk music fan lucky enough to be living in Helsinki, Finland. Currently, she has expanded her love of music to include photography and freelance writing. You can see more of her photography here or at liliumphotography.com.

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