Dark River 2014 – Finnish Festival Summer’s Final Throes

Dark River Festival – Honkala Biathlon Stadium, Kotka – August 15–16, 2014

Our excursions to Dark River’s one-day wintry offshoot Dark Winter Festival and the main summer shindig in 2008 had been unforgettable experiences, and not just because of the hilarious inebriated mishaps that took place, but largely thanks to the festivals’ weird yet cozy setting and laid-back atmosphere. We vowed to return, but with Dark Winter seeming to have skipped the last couple of years, and Dark River consistently managing to overlap with our other festival plans, it took six whole years for us to find the right time to come back. The line-up wasn’t the deal-breaker, being a similar mixed bag of nationally recognized quality and local talent as on previous years, but getting to take another bite of this quaint little event while spending time with some rarely seen friends from the area just sounded like the most fitting way to finish off the Finnish festival summer.

Friday

As we embarked on our journey early on Friday afternoon, the first ride of our connection was a comfortable and modern one – apart from frustrating attempts at tapping into VR’s uselessly unreliable Wi-Fi – but the proper mood of obscurity started creeping in once we switched to the rundown regional train in Kouvola. Apparently, this is the route where the old capital area commuter trains go to die. After reaching the Kymi station, it still took a bit of wandering around to figure out which way the festival was again, and unfortunately we hadn’t scheduled any time for that. So, there we were, jogging along forest paths with our bags and beer in hand while already hearing the intro song of the semi-local opener Kaunis Kuolematon, who were the foremost act of the weekend for 50% of our humble entourage of two…

Surprisingly enough, once we made it to the Stadium surroundings, everything wasn’t just as we had left it six years ago. The entrance to the area was at a different location, and they even had a designated area for camping. I guess we wouldn’t have looked as awkward trying to put up our tent somewhere on the grass this time! Not that there would’ve been time for that anyway, as having already missed the beginning, we rushed to witness the rest of Kaunis Kuolematon’s set.

[Editor’s rant begins here. If you’re sensible, you’ll fast-forward through this dubious bonus track.] Thoroughly winded from galloping through the obscured paths, dodging stray branches and hurdling over others while singing under my breath along to “Pimeyden valtakunta,” I swallowed the lump of regret from my inadvertent tardiness as I looked upon the festival’s entrance and knew I hadn’t missed but a song – which I could even consider as heightened in consequence, considering the delightfully dreary and thoroughly fitting surroundings I’d experienced it in. Arriving without my pass yet secured, with no accreditation booth in sight, and convinced that this homespun event’s staff would be sympathetic to my plight, I continued my dash to the stage, unburdened by thoughts of a ticket or orderly conduct or any other silly business of the sort. When approached by security, I rationalized, then pleaded, then pledged, that as soon as these beautiful immortals were done playing, I’d clear things up with my pass. So shockingly, this didn’t seem to fly, and I was ping-ponged around the perimeter from one järkkäri to the next to locate this elusive proof that I had permission to be there, all the while missing the songs I had so primed myself for. Visibly crestfallen and with tears of frustration erupting from my rain-soaked face, I was finally granted permission to watch from afar while the acquisition of my pass was attended to, which I eventually accepted with a mutual look of utter reproach. After contentedly absorbing what remained of the short-lived set, I reflected with abashment on my rash behavior and apologized profusely to those fine folks who were just doing their job. Turned out we had taken the wrong route anyhow – relying on our mental layout of 2008’s fest – and I had subliminally subverted the suitable entrance in my unrestrained eagerness. Oops. My bad. [End of rant. Sorry to put you through that.]

The gentle rain and the band’s gloomy tunes were a good match, and their easily digestible union of moderate harshness and cold beauty was easy to enjoy from the confines of a close-by tent, even when it’s not my favorite cup of sorrow. With songs this catchy yet deep-cutting, the guys might be able to really make a name for themselves – especially abroad with the exotic Finnish appeal – if only vocalist Saakeli could decide whether to go with eyeliner and latex or cargo pants and beard jewelry… or perhaps a bit of both is even more exotic?

Medeia brought something entirely else to the table, possessing the most wrecking vibe of the day. Having demolished countless stages with Keijo until his departure this spring, the one at Dark River was among the first handful of gigs done with new throatist Frans. While having more of a raspy yell without as much lower register as his predecessor, Frans handled his job well vocally, but his movement on stage seemed occasionally awkward, like he was either drunk or slightly unsure of what to do. The rest of the seasoned Medeia crew took care and control of the show with their hair, instruments and all-around intensity, though, putting together a fierce performance, regardless of there being sadly few spectators present at this point.

The sky was looking relatively clear again, so the moment called for a beverage break outside of the festival fences. With the camping area and a bunch of other inviting natural hang-out spots right next to the area, the event’s in-and-out policy was realistic and audience-friendly, as you could go back and forth as much as you felt like, and snatching a drink from your narikka belongings on the way out didn’t cost any extra either. In all this, I couldn’t help but wonder, why weren’t more people here already, drinking their own poison potions and taking in the cozy Dark River spirit? Either they had to work late on Friday, or just preferred to booze it up at home or a pre-party until someone really kicked their ass enough to make them leave the house… sounds like a familiar small-town syndrome to me.

We could already hear the weekend’s only foreign guests My Dear Addiction from the little bridge where we were chilling at, and it was clear that their queefy metalcore wouldn’t offer us much more than a few cheap laughs over jokingly jumping to their breakdown parts and misinterpreting some of the oh-so-deep lyrics. “I find myself in poo,” really?! Towards the end, we re-entered to take a closer look, and with the attendance looking the sorriest so far, it was another tough nut to crack: why are these guys here? Their unified outfits, backdrops and excited stage moves seemed like a textbook example of Swedish professionalism gone wrong: too much trying, too little character, and no decent material to save them from drowning into the smelly pool of bands that would’ve been better left at the school talent show.

On both days, a smaller secondary stage had been reserved for two local/cover acts, each being assigned two sets in between the main bands. The first one of these to get on (baby, get on!) was Suuri Tuntematon, who were probably familiar to most attendees through their heavy gigging in the area, or bassist Lauri’s major role in arranging the festival. The group’s repertoire consisted of original Finnish-sung rock songs with a humorous twist, without attempting to be comical in an overly jokey way. Having caught barely a glimpse of their first set, the second one was far sexier, with the whole band performing topless, which, of course, collects full points in my book. I still can’t quite shake the mental image of vocalist Juho jogging in place to “Jukolan viesti,” so I guess it’s safe to call it a memorable show.

My first impression of Thaurorod from close to ten years ago is one of an ambitious power metal band without annoying goofy tendencies, and even after several vocalist changes, this seems to remain accurate. The whole line-up cooked up such an engrossing show that they’ve either done some serious touring, or spent shitloads of time practicing in front of a mirror. Despite originating from Southern Finland, the band’s current singer Andi is Swedish, and did his speeches in English, but being an unusually funny and engaging stage persona and a talented singer, I’d be surprised if anyone minded. Thaurorod’s set came close to the exhaustive length of a full hour, but they obviously did a lot of things right, as even someone who isn’t familiar with their material, or too fond of the style, stood through it with a pleased grin on his face.

The second small-stage act was the duo Hard Acoustic, living up to their name by playing heavy metal/hard rock classics with an acoustic guitar. While they made for fine intermission music, we had already run into enough friendlies old and new to keep ourselves occupied before and after the next main course, Shade Empire. These Kuopio kalakukkos made a deep impact on me with their rough diamond of a debut Sinthetic a decade ago, but slightly fell back on the following efforts, until the fourth album Omega Arcane struck back with its apocalyptically symphonious force. Starting around nightfall, the band had the ideal natural (un)lighting going for them, and while the new songs took the main role, it was the old demo cut “Ja pimeys laskeutui” that gave me the most significant shivers.

Thunderstone had gotten Friday’s headliner spot, although the band hasn’t put out new material in half a decade, but with them gathering the biggest and most excited crowd so far, it’s safe to say they’ve been missed, at least around these parts. The band executed their heavy/power metal in a skilled and solid fashion – like one would expect from such an experienced lot – but its flavor wasn’t exactly for our tastebuds. One more round later, we called it a day and headed to the nearby bus that was driving non-campers back to central Kotka. While the festival location was way in the woods, the transportation arrangements seemed to work smoothly, and we were soon back in more civilized surroundings to meet up with our hostess and proceed to our lodgings.

Saturday

After waking up and medicating our hangovers with some gorgeously greasy pizza courtesy of the joint down the road, there wasn’t too much slacking time before we were to resume festive activities, as some of Saturday’s most interesting names were placed early in the schedule. The first group to step on the stage was Apocrypth, who had claimed their spot by winning the Dark River band competition. These young local thrashers put up a sympathetic show that displayed ability and promise, but they clearly didn’t have too much previous live experience, seeming somewhat uncomfortable for just being photographed. Some more personal touch to the material would’ve been welcome as well, as despite being decently crafted, songs like this might not be enough to make Apocrypth stand out from the swarming mass of similar bands.

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Demonic Death Judge was what I was looking forward to the most all weekend, with their trippin’ yet rippin’ stoner-sludge being a better match with my musical preferences than most of the more mainstream-oriented acts on the bill. Within their five years of existence, the band has already released more than three hours of slow and psychedelic heaviness, and played dozens of gigs around the country, but this was my first time seeing them with the renewed line-up. After the Hakuli bros’ departure last year, the strings were now handled by Toni and Eetu of fellow Karhula slugs Burweed, who didn’t appear to have trouble keeping DDJ’s unified groove and the all-embracing roughness of their sound intact. Despite having lengthy songs, the quartet managed to squeeze in something from all four of their recorded works, which gets a heartfelt thumbs-up from me, but there’s naturally always a tune or two that I end up missing from their repertoire. Anyway, this afternoon moment in the company of DDJ was a highly enjoyable one; it doesn’t get much better than nodding your head to some sludgy filth on a summery day with a cold beer in hand.

The alternative mish-mash of For the Imperium might’ve gotten the backing of a major label, but is still of zero interest to me, so I wasn’t too upset about their last-minute cancellation, especially as Profane Omen was called to the rescue. Not that I’ve ever found significant appeal in PO’s union of groove, aggression and melody either, but at least their style has an original sense of coherence, and they know how to keep your senses occupied when they hit the stage. Vocalist Jules Näveri is a particularly skilled and energetic fellow, but this time his overdone attempts at engaging the small crowd crossed beyond my line of annoyance. Yeah, I’m sure you’d love to see a frantic circle pit in front of you, but with only a few dozens of hardly interested spectators around, that ain’t happening, buddy. So why don’t you just concentrate on your own performance, instead of whining about the lack of action and audience at your gig that no one even knew about until yesterday?

On Saturday, the secondary stage was occupied by The Sitting Bull and the Bullshitters and Tea’s Half-Acoustic, with the first playing mostly original material while the latter stuck to covers. It was nice to witness The Sitting Bull Markku Pihlaja in action again, as I’ve enjoyed his vocal work in the ranks of heavy rockers Kaihoro, and his voice was at home in the more 70’s-style setting of The Bullshitters as well. On the other hand, half-acoustic rock covers with female vocals were of far lesser interest to us, so the last two small-stage slots provided welcome beverage breaks.

Continuing with the metallic main dishes of the day, Wolfheart was up next. While Tuomas Saukkonen’s move to release his compositions under a single band name gets my approval – as having a bunch of bands playing largely similar music seemed a bit silly – I can’t say I find Wolfheart any less generic than Before the Dawn, for instance. It’s difficult to point out any specific flaws in their professionally executed blend of melancholic melodies and toothless aggression, but where’s the distinctive character that makes bands like Insomnium worth my time? If I didn’t know that Tuomas makes music with all of his heart, I could hardly tell… Oh well, as our Kotka friends actually bothered to accompany us to the festival on Saturday, there was no shortage of good times, even when the band roster wasn’t consistently compelling.

Having become Finland’s most hyped new thrash sensation in just a few years, Lost Society is now such a common sight at almost any Finnish metal festival that I tend to forget what a raging force they actually are live. Both of the band’s albums are quite one-dimensional and uninnovative, but their (over)activity on the gig front has sharpened them into a deadly weapon when unleashed on stage. Especially vocalist-guitarist Samy is a wild one, running, jumping and goofing around tirelessly, although some of his spin moves are clearly copied from Stam1na’s Hyrde… However, packed with infectious youthful energy and having a few standout songs like “Kill (Those Who Oppose Me),” the Lost boys’ show was such a maniacal one that I felt bizarrely touched. Luckily I was able to control myself, as bursting into tears at a thrash metal show would’ve felt slightly embarrassing.

Whispered was a more imaginative addition to the fold, as they don’t suffer from the overexposure inflation yet, despite having recently gotten their fair share of attention as well. While their take on the Finnish melo-jaujau sound is rather an original one with its samurai thematics – which aren’t only present in their lyrics and outfits, but also as oriental musical flavorings – it’s not my cup of Japanese tea any more than Wintersun and the likes. Viikate’s unmistakable style has never spoken to me loudly either, but with their firm footing as one of the most popular heavy rock bands in the country, they were clearly the biggest draw of the weekend and an obvious headliner. I was more interested in the fact that the band’s Tervaskanto liquor was being sold at the bar than the actual gig, though, so the emphasis for the rest of the evening was on the social and liquid side of things.

Despite offering only a few truly eye-and-ear-catching performances per day, it was great to be flowing downstream this Dark River again. The festival is clearly directed more towards the locals, who aren’t used to the event abundance of the capital area where most of these bands are frequently catchable, but also anyone else with a wide interest in today’s Finnish metal will surely get their money’s worth. A friendly festival with a welcoming down-to-earth atmosphere awaits in the woods of Laajakoski. Let’s just hope that it won’t take another six years for us to find our way back there.

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Photography: slideshow | individual band galleries
Dark River website

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