Tuska 2016 – Sounds Like A Joke: Metal Festival, Craft Beer And...
July 6, 2016, a year ago
LGBT athletic competition! Kid you not. The Helsinki town planners, showing once again how open minded they are, scheduled the annual Tuska festival downtown, the identical weekend as an outdoor craft beer convention and the equivalent of the Gay European Olympics. Not that there's any overlaps (I think?) No wonder it was difficult to book a hotel room eight months in advance.
A stylistic journey, over the last nineteen years, if only moving a few miles from the center of Helsinki, which established the uniqueness of Tuska, in the overpopulated European metal festivals: playing on the city streets. Long since moved to an under utilized spot, near the port, the three day event continues to showcased the global elite, as well as local metallic up & comers (exclusively afforded one of the 3 stages, the fledgling band aspect has helped foster the health of the Finnish scene). While no outright Can-Con requirements, nearly half the main stage acts are homegrown, underscoring the importance/popularity of Finnish metal (in an out of the country), the last few decades. For the first time, the music was allowed (aloud?) until midnight, Friday and Saturday, making for ten hours of music (alternated seamlessly between the Radio Rock and Helsinki main stages, with occasional partial overlaps with the aforementioned, underlings' Inferno stage) and “just” seven hours on Sunday, but there were a couple of after-show, late night options, at local clubs, each night, including a warm-up gig at the famous Tavastia, on Thursday.
A sonic flashback, the trio of acts squeezed into the small club were being billed as “Future Legends of Tavastia.” The Sunset Strip inspired headliner, Santa Cruz, has already toured North America (alongside Amaranthe), while thrashers Lost Society have been making some noise across continental Europe festivals for a few years now and newcomers Shiraz Lane, already signed to Frontiers, have taken the road of many a countrymen and hit Japan first. Given what was happening around town, the combination of craft beer infused, gay metalheads couldn't have been any more potent than the cohabitation of young, sexed up Shiraz female fanbase and the Lost Society faithful!
Know it was a home gig, but truth be told, the level of intensity and conviction was inverse to their spots on the bill. Hungry and undeniably wanting to showcase themselves, as opposed to like-minded headliners, Shiraz Lane jumped into the fray, with English-only raps, Hannes Kett announcing, “Come on, How the fuck are you?” before even playing a note. Finnish soundman, stocked with 3 bottles of beer, for what was to be 45 set, max. Plenty of teased hair, ripped knee jeans, I think I saw this once before. In reality, probably 30-35 years too old for the target market, based on the predominately female screams accompanying each song. Bassist Joel Axel (not buying either part of that handle!) looks to be influenced by Dana Strum (Slaughter), if part of Faster Pussycat. Unfortunately, after a take no prisoners beginning, the band settled into an 80 hair band retrospective, moving from aggressive, to mid-tempo, then power ballads. Kett suffers from a similar malady that initially plagued countrymen Timo Kotipelto (Stratovarius), in that he knows the English script, which he delivers without fail, yet has no idea how to judge the audience. Under red lights, Kett appeared onstage in a straight jacket, as the music recalled Skid Row's “Monkey Business”. It ends with most of the band in the crowd, as dual bubble machine (a one-a and a two-a) cover the stage.
Strange sight, knee-high athletic socks, with shorts, on Lost Society frontman Samy Elbanna. Mirko Lehtinen opted for the flannel shirt and shorts Dimebag Darryl look, but come on, you're the bass player. Plenty of jumping about and pinwheeling hair, but short on memorable songs. After opening with the title track from their recent Nuclear Blast CD, they also aired “I Am The Antidote”, as well as white lit “Terror Hungry”. Unlike most thrash acts, guitarists solo with their instruments vertical (ala national hero, COB founder Alexi Laiho), even during twin leads. Fun, but not quite world class, yet.
Santa Cruz proved the adage that sometimes, less is more. The aforementioned North American opening slot left me impressed, but a full set of their glammy pop, was too much. With limited time, groups typically load their “best”/most action packed tunes into a set. Tonight, they were hampered by a weak, less than rousing start. Archie, the headband wearing frontman, could pass for Poison singer Bret Michaels, back in the day. Occasionally, he straps on a guitar, but rarely strums it.
Friday's show began at 2pm, before work let out. The first important band of the day was the Finnish debut by Delain, in a country that virtually invented female-fronted operatics. Jumbotrons either side of the tented Helsinki stage, Charolette Wessels was replete in 70s shaggy, white faux fur coat, with no shirt, just black bra underneath (sorry guys, the jacket never came off). Opening with “Suckerpunch”, the long starved fans eating from her hand immediately. Spunky guitarist Merel Bechtold wandered the stage, a smile permanently etched on her face, as they transitioned into “Get the Devil Out of Me”, then “Army of Dolls”. Can't drink outside the fenced enclosure, none directly in front of the stage.”We are the Others”included the piped in backing children's choir. Verging on the territory of fellow Dutch outfit, Epica, the concluding “Pristine” sees gruff throat male counterpoint (death vox), courtesy of bassist Otto Schimmelpenninck van der Oije. Thanking the fans, Wessels plugged the forthcoming Moonbathers CD before departing.
I'm sure the seven guys onstage, aka Swallow The Sun, wished someone/something would live up to their moniker and obliterate the glaring globe shining brightly on their pasty white skin and bald heads. Ouch! A dank basement, at night, would be a more fitting venue for one of their gigs. The music, rarely getting above a crawl, vacillates between heavy and esoteric, using prerecorded spoken word voice-overs, as well as clean and guttural voices. The band were scheduled to perform each day, playing a different section of the new, three-part Songs From The North, at each stop.
Cain's Offering began as an outlet for original Sonata Arctica guitarist Jani Liimatainen, alongside Stratovarius singer Timo Kotipelto, although it now also includes Strat's keyboardist Jens Johansson. T-shirt of the weekend, spotted in the crowd: Dyslexic Santa Worshiper! “Stormcrow” was up early, followed by “The Best of Times” and “More Than Friends”, high energy power metal, to mid-tempo rock. After shooting a couple of songs, ducked out to visit the indoor hall, for the first time. Mantar is a two-man, extreme black metal outfit, with hints of hardcore in the guitar-drums sound.
After a while, returned to Cain's Offering, in time to witness the speedy “Constellation of Tears”. Apparently this was (somehow) just their first show in Finland. Might explain the lack of merchandise for sale: opportunity missed.
By contrast, homegrown Lordi are well known here and abroad. Beneath the facade of a church/castle (operational wooden doors) was a tombstone littered graveyard, complete with a pair of military cannons (?). This was the costumed troupe's playground for 60 minutes. There were plenty of explosions, plumes of fire and sparklers and that's just two songs in! Kicking off with a bang (literally, fireworks), it was straight into “Bringing Back The Balls To Rock”, about as subtle as their onstage persona. In the heat, Mr. Lordi soon ditched the black fur headdress, still, couldn't have been fun in those get-ups in the middle of summer. Something tells me the Lordi concept was hatched over many drinks on a cold Finnish winter night. “Get Heavy” is appropriately so, whereas the wishful thinking “It Snows In Hell” was a piano ballad. In a scheduling coup for the home team, the majority of the Lordi set was unopposed by bands on other stages, everyone's musical focus trained solely on them. “Who's Your Daddy”, “They Only Come Out At Night” and sprouting wings for “Devil Is A Loser” was a strong, sequential trio, late in the set, before ending with red confetti littered “Would You Love A Monsterman” and “Hard Rock Hallelujah”.
Testament took the stage, all wearing sunglasses, although Gene Hoglan ditched his after the opening “Over The Wall”. Seen the band several times in the last year and they are sounding great. Here they stuck mostly to the hits, as well as stayed away from the ultra-heavy material of the late 90s (apart from “DNR”). Chuck Billy was clearly enjoying himself, madly air-guitaring his half-mic and flickering his tongue at the crowd. “Rise Up” and “The Preacher” see each member staking their own territory, well aware the photographers will be gone shortly. Tough to get a shot of any two, in one frame. Classics “Practice What You Preach” and “The New Order” are back-to-back, lots of crowd sing-alongs, whether enticed, or not. “Into The Pit” gets one circling. Billy dedicated “Native Blood” to indigenous people everywhere. “Disciples Of The Watch” is another burner, before closing with “The Formation Of Damnation”. Killer set!
At least it was a change of venue, so that we didn't have to directly compare the just finished Bay Area thrashers with Behemoth, now holding court beneath the tent. Opening under darkness, apart from a few red light, with back to the crowd, Nergal gives his fire ritual offertory and the flash pots either side of drummer Inferno suddenly burst into flame. The band and crowd are about to do the same, as the Polish frontman/guitarist buzzes around like a man possessed (an accusation delivered for real, at home, by powers higher than a mere music journalist). The most densely packed photo pit of the weekend, organizers really should investigate rotating a second group through, as many (not me) were prevented from getting anything of quality, by merely being forced to the fridges of the pack, where there are no sight-lines. Once more, the congregation is treated to a complete run-through of The Satanist album, plus some bonuses, come the encore. “Messe Noire” sees Nergal climb atop the monitors and swing the thurible, smoking incense burner over the crowd's collective head. “Ora Pro Nobis Lucifer” is an absolute scorcher, aided by repeated quartets of fiery plumes rising from the front of the stage. As mentioned in a review of the North American tour, miss some long standing chestnuts of the Behemoth canon, what with the emphasis solely on the latest record, but at least as part of the first (of two) encores, we got the always brutal “Conquer All”. Onstage, this band is (literally) on fire!
Hey, I love the guy, be honestly, there's nothing subdued about Tobias Sammet, onstage, whether fronting Edguy, or his grand creation, Avantasia. So the pomposity of introducing his multinational assemblage onstage, utilizing the the “Sunrise” overture from the Richard Strauss composed “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (widely recognized as the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey), should come as no surprise. Just a glimpse into the wicked comedic streak always running through Sammet's mind, a trait that would quickly be put to the test, in concert. The staging was almost as immense a construction: a two-tier, stone edifice, with iron railing staircases at each end, and one down the center. This main promenade lead up to a second level, where Tobias (and many of the backing/gust vocalists) could traverse overhead the drummer and/or keyboardist.
Beginning at 10pm, sun still bright, as Avantasia embark on two hours of musical theater, their first every in Finland. Following the lively “Mystery Of A Blood Red Rose” opener, Sammet introduced the "title track of the new album," but after only a couple seconds, bailed out of "Ghostlights", stopping the band cold and then announcing, "Am I drunk? You're supposed to be drunk." Acknowledging that he'd chosen the wrong song, corrected himself, saying, "This is not the title of anything, but a really good song." Cue smile/giggles from the musicians onstage. Probably threw off Pretty Maids singer, Ronnie Atkins, who was waiting in the wings to perform the scheduled "Invoke The Machine". Afterwards, preparing to introduce the third song, the singer wryly deadpans, "Sure you have to idea what song will be next. Just for you, Helsinki, the title track to the new album!” That's thinking on your feet. The remainder of the set saw a parade of visiting guests, with varying degrees of success, depending upon the material, starting with Unisonic/ex-Helloween singer Michael Kiske, on the aforementioned title cut and an early appearing signature tune, “Avantasia”.
Kiske truly mugged for the tv camera that beamed feed onto the video screens either side the main stage, even going as far as to stick his face up against the lens. Sorry, not a big Magnum fan and the mellower Bob Catley stuff leaves me cold. Jorn Lande had a couple of songs in the spotlight, including “Scarecrow”. So did Mr. Big's Eric Martin, who sang “Twisted Mind” alongside Atkins, while Sammet was offstage. Amanda Sommerville got a chance to get off her backing vocalist riser (next to Herbie Langhans) for a duet with Kiske: “Farewell”. However, the pièce de résistance is the all hands on deck encore/finale of “Sign Of The Cross” and “The Seven Angels”, a whirlwind culmination of the first day.
Apparently it works, since Saturday was sold out, 11,000 strong, but what's with putting all the dark, atmospheric acts on in the afternoon sun? First Swallow The Sun, now Primordial. some are put off by Alan Averill's use of theatrics/corpse-paint (the only member thus attired), wrongly surmising that the Irish band are gruff throated death/black metal. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Averill (aka A.A. Nemtheanga) adopts an almost Pete Steele, spoken word style deliver to the lyrics and frequently (most notably today, on “No Grave Deep Enough”), there's the hint of a traditional Irish jig/folk melody running through the music.
With all the subtlety of the prerecorded mock incoming missile explosions, the trio known as Tsjuder took to an oft fog shrouded stage. The Norwegians are no stranger to past controversy, especially singer/bassist Nag, who decided to write the word “FAG” across his stomach (the G somewhat smeared by his bass), apparently “an ode” to the profuse public flyers advertising the weekend's LGBT events.
A wild ride of a different sort was provided by the heretofore unknown (yet still not understood) Turmion Kätilöt, a predominantly Finnish language assortment of techno-infused dance music, performed by corpse-painted individuals, ranging from the spiked armband, crutch wielding frontman one of two simultaneous vocalists), to more Kiss made-up musician. They use all kinds of pyrotechnic props, as well as unleashing a flood of beach balls on the crowd, to bat around (appropriately for the lone English track, “Grand Ball”). Are they serious? Are we supposed to take them seriously? Some of a cross between Rammstein, Insane Clown Posse and a three ring circus.
Lines for filling up water bottle were almost as long as the bathroom queue. Speaking of which, Friday, the open air urinals were situated in the center of a ring of port-a-pots. This being Europe, had to issue with the females passing in/around guys doing their business. However, modesty exists in Finland, as someone obviously complained, with Saturday seeing the men's facilities moved further back, behind the portable toilets, thus the ladies didn't have to interact with the guys, apart from entering the area together.
Omnium Gatherum will tour North America this all, along with countrymen Sonata Arctica. While sharing a melodic similarity, they are heavier, with more forceful vocals. So knowing I'll see them later, went to check out the technical death of Obscura. In reality, it's just the vocals which lump these talented players in with the death metal camp, like Atheist and Cynic before them. The young Germans, dressed in matching black, long sleeve “sweaters” should be on a smaller stage, but Tuska offered only the infinitesimal indoor Inferno stage. Given the recent flood of good press, undoubtedly they'll have more opportunities to occupy such large stages, and as such, learn how to maximize the space, not just gaze at their instruments. Seven of the ten songs aired were off this year's Akróasis CD.
It's been ten years, since I last saw Thunderstone, at ProgPower USA, in September 2006. During that time, the band underwent several line-up changes, including at vocals, but original singer Pasi Rantanen has been in the fold since '13. Commensing with “Veterans Of The Apocalypse”, the same one that begins their just issued AFM disc, Apocalypse Again, it was evident that many others hadn't seen the Thunders in a while.
Three newbies were dished out by mainstay guitarist Nino Laurenne: “The Path”, “Higher” and “Through The Pain”. The rest of the set saw them lift one selection from each record, going all the way back to “Let The Demons Free” off the 2002 eponymous debut. Actually, there were a pair off Evolution 4.0, including “Forevermore” the song they sang on the Eurovision song contest.
Opening with “You Gotta Believe”, the Bello-Ian-Belladonna version of Anthrax offered a mixed bag: nearly half the songs off the two most recent albums, a ubiquitous pair of covers (Trust's “Antisocial” and Joe Jackson's “Got The Time”, #2 in the running order), as well as “Madhouse” and a trio off “Among The Living”. Joey Belladonna walked from side to side and when not belting out the words, admonishing the crowd. Guitarist/mainstay Scott Ian pretty much kept to himself, stage left, often skanking around in a circle, while playing. Earlier in the day, he had participated in a fan Q&A session. Not shocked about the absence of debut material (as they only trot out one song, each headlining tour), but no 'N.F.L.”, neither “Gung Ho” nor “Medusa” from last year's 30th anniversary for Spreading The Disease and without Charlie Benante behind the drums, none of that goofy rap flavored “I Am The Man”. However, Belladonna did add a bit of Judas Priest's “The Ripper” (“You're in for surprise. You're in for a shock) at the start of “Madhouse”.
Had heard the name: Jess And The Ancient Ones and the hyperbolic English music press (as usual), blowing them up to be the new big thing. So decided to check out what all the hubbub was about, performing the same time as “Thrax. Onstage was a woman in 60s inspired psychedelic print, floor length dress, dancing around like a (drug?) possessed Flower Child. Expected to hear Grace Slick (Jefferson Airplane) sing “Somebody To Love” at any moment. Not my thing, sorry!
Above and beyond the historical imposition and identifying with Viking ancestral values, the anti-Christianity aspect of Ghost really resonates in European countries with a federally sponsored/endorsed denomination, especially amongst a younger populous, who have increasing turned their backs on organized religion. Doubtful they were all officially license Ghost shirts (judging from the sparse/single design option available for purchase this weekend), but saw numerous depiction of Papa, including: as the shark, beneath the swimmer, in a Jaws take-off, replacing Jack Nicholson's face, bursting through the door, in The Shining, “Here's Papa!” The set has remained fairly consistent. Opening with the infectious “Spirit”, including crowd chanting the titular chorus. “From The Pinnacle To The Pit” follows quickly, the pontiff addressing the crowd. By the time for “Stand By Him”, it begins to rain, in earnest. Eventually, it becomes a full bore, lightning strike night sky: a philosophical battle between Heaven & Hell, right here on Earth.
Threatened to be a total washout. Had no desire to walk half an hour (each way), in the rain, only to stand in the rain for bands I'd seen previously. In some cases, multiple times. While the scope of the entertainment was already scaled back (just eleven bands in 7 hours, of which only half held more than a passing interest to my jade, journalistic senses), a steady rain, in the early afternoon, hampered both enjoyment and attendance. Certainly prevented me from taking out the camera. Unlike many fests, Tuska is located on solid (paved) ground, so there's no mud. Small puddles of water gather on the black top, at various spots around the Suvilahti complex. Had already experienced the ambient, female fronted Myrkur, as well as the South American girl-thrash trio Nervosa (twice on 70,000 Tons of Metal), so the plan was to hit the remaining big three: Gojira, Katatonia and festival closing Children Of Bodom. Unbeknownst to all, it end up being warmer and sunnier at 8:30pm than it had been at 2, and the persistent rain dissipated.
Just a personal note to all the kids who are now getting access to the photo pit, thanks to digital cameras and the proliferation of web media. It's a cooperative, we try to help each other out. Leave you photo bag outside. It's crowded enough, especially for big shows/bands without a backpack (or like one dope in Helsinki, a knapsack and a shoulder bag). If you don't know your camera well enough to worry about, that you NEED something from those carry-alls, dropped just feet away, give up now. Two, know technology allows you to hold camera overhead and still see stuff through viewfinder on the back, but don't as there are at least half a dozen other people being blocked by your inconsiderate ways. Lastly, if you want to shoot towards the crowd, to get a fans-against-the-barricade moment, don't do it while everyone else is trying to film the action onstage, as you, your camera/lens are obscuring the shot. Some, unlike me, are actually trying to earn money/a living doing photography and your antics possibly take food off their plate. It's not all just drunken fun and games for those people. Respect.
Couldn't tell if there was more gray clouds in the sky, or fog onstage for Gojira. The Duplaintier brothers brought their French melodic death juggernaut to Tuska. The band's stock has been rising, especially with younger metalheads, and new album Magma is sure to bubble over into the mainstream. Apart from a wood grain Fender, the goatee sporting Joe (guitar/vocals) could pass for a young Bruce (Springsteen, circa Born To Run, not Dickinson). He gave the Finnish people props for their metal knowledge and good taste. As man-made for swirled around the stage, bathed in purple and red, interrupted by a storm of strobes, Gojira offered a staccato riffing“The Heaviest Matter Of The Universe”, complete with their trademark squelches. Wisely, for a festival, where only a certain percentage of the population is there to see you (specifically) and may only know something of your music, they kept the Magma material to a minimum (released in late June).They paired newbies “Silvera” and “Stranded” back-to-back, early in the set and then added “Only Pain”later. With Joe tethered to the mic, not much movement onstage. Strangely, just the title track from the critically acclaimed (winning many album of year awards) L'Enfant Sauvage saw the light of day.
Paradoxically, especially in terms of the darkness onstage and frontman Jonas Renkse face draped hair, but Katatonia probably had the biggest contingent of photographers of the entire weekend. At least they didn't have to play in complete sunshine, as I'd seen on a previous trip to Tuska. A dozen Marshall cabinets, stacked 4x3 were either side the drummer! Their subdued, almost progressive, sounds were (like forthcoming COB) basically unopposed, so everyone could pay attention solely to the Swedes. Don't know how many got the irony of opening with “July”, just days into the month. Unlike many others, under the big top, the lighting for Katatonia was not only noticeable, but pronounced, especially in the absence of any real onstage action. Renkse got into “Serein”, occasional pumping his fist, punching the air, as the lively tune progressed. “My Twin” was bathed in deep, nearly opaque blue (less a few accents of white), guitarist Anders Nyström headbanging in place. The backing of “Old Hearts Fall” and “Dead Letters” was a personal favorite stretch, before ultimately leaving the stage with “Forsaker”.
Know Alexi Laiho has joked about being born under a bad sign, but weather threatened to make this the third time I'd seen Children Of Bodom play an outdoor summer festival set, in a deluge. Thankfully, the report proved false. Four yellow, 55 gallon oil drums lined the front of the stage, a giant I Worship Chaos banner draped behind the Bodomites, as they walked on and launched into “Follow The Reaper”. From the opening bell, Laiho appeared healthy and in good spirits (not filled with them), sticking his tongue out and really taking in this homecoming, crowning achievement. And he had a few rarities in store, as well.
They let the new guy (guitarist Daniel Freyberg) start “Trashed, Lost & Strungout”, while Laiho climbs beneath the giant COBHC sign, to get next to Wirman, as the keyboardist hits the Psycho inspired start to “Hate Me'. The instrumental “Lake Bodom” sees keyboardist Janne Wirman afforded a breather. What? No keys for “Lake Bodom”? Worry not. Netta Skog, the headbanging accordion player for Ensiferum (ex-Turisas), made the first of two appearances. Plenty of power, especially from the drums, on “Angels Don't Kill”, which gave way to another voiceless track, “Silent Night, Bodom Night”. An unsanctioned drone hovered over the stage as the tinkling of ivories exploded into a massive eruption, for “Hate Crew Deathroll”. Speaking of the keys, Laiho gave Wirman a shout out, before the proper set concluding “Downfall.”
One of the dangers in having such a well known act end things, is that some people will exit early, thinking, “I've already seen COB” or “They're local, I can always see COB again,” but in this case, they missed something special, come the end. After the encore began with a cover of CCR's “Looking Out My Back Door”, things really got weird (in a good way). The shirtless, fedora wearing Laiho (also minus his axe) led an instrument switching party (Wirman out from his keyboards, to try his hand at bass), on a run through The Ramones' “Somebody Put Something In My Drink” aided by a collection of friends. The extra voices were rejoined by Skog, as the guys returned to their respective instruments, for a “Ghost Riders In The Sky” (popularized by Johnny Cash and later The Outlaws) send-off. Unexpected, loose and fun, just the conclusion for Tuska 2016. See you next year, for the 20th Anniversary?