Steelfest Open Air – Villatehdas, Hyvinkää – May 24–25, 2013
After having successfully come out of the closet into the event horizon of the metal public in 2012, this time Steelfest had taken their game up a notch and notably multiplied the amount of foreign names on the roster. Established legends like Sodom and Mayhem were accompanied by several less obvious and more underground visitors from abroad, and domestic extreme metal know-how was again well-represented by a plethora of Finland’s finest – from rarely seen oldheads to some of today’s most promising newcomers.
While one of the previous year’s foremost flaws had been how far the drinking area was from both stages, Steelfest had now fixed the problem the same way as Hammer Open Air had after their first year. The event was strictly K-18, and you could walk anywhere on the festival grounds with your alcoholic beverages purchased within the area. This change surely devastated some minors – especially local ones – who would’ve loved to enjoy the exceptional quality line-up, but it also notably improved the festival experience for the rest of us, as you never had to choose between having a brewski alongside your buddies and getting a proper view of the band.
Another major modification since last year was the second stage [named appropriately Hanneman Stage] being situated inside one of the surrounding buildings this time, providing a welcome shelter from the not-so-summery May weather, which actually ended up being surprisingly temperate and tolerable. The darkness of the industrial-looking hall was also a good contrast to the daylight of the outside arena, and was surely a better match with some of the grimmer goons on the bill. The echoing sound was inferior, though, but wasn’t nearly as bad as some comments made it seem, as long as you were close enough to the stage.
The narikka system was also different from the traditional, as there were lockers that you could leave your things in against a one-time payment, and you could re-visit them as many times as you’d like, in case you needed to put on more clothes or store some freshly bought merchandise into a safe place. However, this didn’t work out so well for those who just needed a place for their extra travel booze that naturally couldn’t be brought to the area, as the lockers themselves were past the gates. Luckily, the personnel at the ticket counter seemed to be understanding in this matter, and agreed to store people’s alcohol-packed luggage as long as they had room at their little booth. Good for us, we had a driver whose car to leave our refreshments in, and it’s not like you were allowed to leave the festival area to go drink your own and come back, anyway.
Even by just relying on the liquids ingested before entering and the beer purchased in the area, the attendees were visibly not having a problem getting stupendously smashed. Intoxicated encounters included the infinitely amusing “Mr. Chilinuts,” whose random ramblings always came back to his favorite salty snack that he was eagerly munching and generously sharing, and a quite hostile-seeming fellow who was banging the table we were sitting at with his fist so aggressively that our beers spilled all over it.
We were determined to be there already for Friday’s opening act, as Kirkkonummi’s thrashing teenagers Nuclear Omnicide had claimed the place through the Steelfest Demoni competition. While we had already seen the quartet demolish more intimate establishments, they didn’t seem to have any trouble taking over the more sizeable Hanneman Stage either. Forceful headbanging and unbound youthful energy reigned, as the band rampaged through some of their debut album The Presence of Evil’s most ripping tunes – unfortunately omitting the band’s apocalyptic title track, though – with even a few fresh cuts thrown in. Kicking off the event, Nuclear Omnicide set one hell of a standard of intensity for the rest of the bands, although still under-aged guitarist Igi must’ve been pretty bummed, knowing he had to leave right after their set and miss enjoying any of their backstage beer, not to even mention seeing some utterly classic thrash…
After the always reliable Gorephilia’s whirlwind of poundingly heavy death metal at the open air Inferno Stage, Satanic Warmaster started Friday’s quadruple Finnish black metal barrage inside. These Carelian wolves have proven to be a strong live act as well, maintaining my interest effectively even if most of their recorded works don’t speak to me much. Werwolf’s arrogant charisma and hateful vocal delivery, and the undeniably high quality of the song material are easy-to-point-out strengths, with a well-picked cover song usually spicing it up. This time it was “The Return of the Darkness and Evil” for the win, and despite this classic being a quite unsurprising choice, it’s always a delight to hear Bathory’s early works slaughtered live in such a fitting context.
The resurrected early 90’s Nokia death metal group Purtenance were among the most interesting domestic bookings, as this was to be their first public appearance in two decades, with half of the line-up revised, though. As their previous year’s comeback MCD Sacrifice the King had been an enjoyable little release, yet nothing that memorable, I wasn’t having my expectations particularly high, but was still looking forward to their show with careful curiosity. With the band playing on the bright outside stage relatively early, the setting wasn’t very supportive, and the quartet’s stage presence seemed very modest – passionless, even – as they weren’t making any effort to perform more extrovertedly than at your average Sunday rehearsal. However, hearing some of the old sonic slime live was well worth the watch, with newbie-vocalist Ville reminiscing the immense impact that “Black Vision” had on him when he first heard the song as a kid, while the straight-forward “Demon Gods” ravaged most commandingly out of the fresher bouquet. I walked away neither disappointed nor impressed, thinking that maybe my next encounter with Purtenance will be a more intense one, once the band have gotten their rusty scythes properly sharpened, and are ready to make some heads roll.
Enochian Crescent’s performance at Steelfest 2012 had been an end of sorts, as it was the last one vocalist and founding member Wrath did before parting ways with the band. However, this year the rest of the line-up returned to Villatehdas with new frontman Hellwind Tuonenjoki, a shortened moniker The Crescent, and a fresh batch of quality songs from their recent album Risti. Older EC material still had its place in the set as well, with the cruelly rocking excellence of “Black Flame of Satan Burning” from the debut Telocvovim being a particularly exhilarating pick. Hellwind’s forceful and straightforward vocal style was notably different from his predecessor, but this didn’t bother me at any point of the set, although I can’t say that hearing him scream a part like “MAKE ME THY HAMMER OF WRATH” didn’t feel slightly weird… His stage appearance and antics were also far less freaky, with him bringing out a flaming torch for the aforementioned song being the only more memorable move. However, the band did have a guest gal who came to anoint Hellwind and the front row fanatics during “Väkisinkastettu,” so that eccentric vibe was still there. The new album’s strength was best demonstrated by the memorable soon-to-be-classic “Lilitu” and the spine-chilling atmosphere of the down-tempo title track “Risti,” closing the set and leaving me with high hopes for the band’s future endeavors, be those on stage or on record.
As blackthrashers Urn had cancelled their festival appearance, Goatmoon had been called to the rescue, and managed to stir quite a fervent heilstorm in the audience. The band’s melodic yet harrowingly hateful black metal was indeed responsible for one of the most striking performances of the day. As the set mostly consisted of the more refined material of later releases, the raw primitivity of “Kunnia, Armageddon!” was also heard in a more “professional”-sounding, full-band version, enforced with a flute.
Friday’s fourth dose of domestic blackness Horna was the longest-running of the bunch, but offered the dullest experience for me. Current vocalist Spellgoth wasn’t lacking fire and devotion in his voice and presence, but overall, the presented material mostly just didn’t do it for me. When it comes to songwriting, the Corvus-era material is simply superior in my books, as the 90’s “classics” done with Nazgul don’t have too much to offer, and the latest album seems to have taken Horna a step further from my musical preferences.
Swedish Vomitory were the first foreign visitors to step onto the stage, and perhaps the most special lure of the day, considering that they had announced that they were calling it quits by the end of the year, with this being the band’s last appearance on Finnish soil. Having already started in the heydays of the European death metal surge, but not getting their debut out until ’96, Vomitory were perhaps running a bit too far behind to ascend among the classic names, but have been steadily spewing out solid albums ever since. Judging by the crowd gathered at the Inferno Stage, and the intensity of the moshpit that “Terrorize Brutalize Sodomize” induced, for instance, it seemed that there’s a fair amount of Finnish followers that will miss the band after their persistent and uncompromising journey is over. Despite being largely unfamiliar with the band’s catalog, the show was an enjoyable ride of brutally yet catchily executed death metal in the Swedish vein. The sound wasn’t quite ideal, but I was bothered by it far less than many of my fellow spectators seemed to be, based on the harshly criticizing comments heard from them afterwards.
After a steady flow of compelling performances, the next two bands offered a welcome party break, as the fast and raw black metal of Darkened Nocturn Slaughtercult still didn’t do much for me, just as it didn’t on their two previous Finnish excursions. Belphegor was a less frequent and therefore a slightly more interesting festival guest, and while their billowing black/death metal was musically potent, and their stage performance experienced and energetic, it’s mostly the somewhat corny-seeming thematics that leave them trampled under the hooves of beasts like Behemoth, if you ask me.
Sodom was a sufficient score for the headliner position, and their thrashing tunes were a great way to end the night, but having just seen the band a few months before with a pretty similar setlist, it wasn’t that much of a thrill. A few fresher cuts were passed with mere approving nods, but old-school killers like “Outbreak of Evil” irresistibly called for headbanging frenzy, no matter how many times before they’ve been heard. Still, as our sacrificially sober driver suggested starting to head back to Helsinki already before the show was over, we agreed without quarrel, setting our course towards the comfort of home a tad sooner than most festival attendees. There would’ve also been a deadly afterparty close by with Malicious and Vorum, but for those of us who weren’t bunking locally, it just seemed unreasonably late to even consider.
The second festival day would’ve been kicked off already an hour past noon by a few solid up-and-coming domestic acts, but we didn’t have misguided illusions of actually seeing any of them, as even Barathrum at three o’clock ended up being too soon for us to make it. Hell, at least we managed to see the end of “The Blasphemer,” based on which Sova and co. seemed to be in a surprisingly intense shape instead of the staggering alcoholic chaos we’ve gotten used to.
Italian Darkend (or at least their vocalist Animæ) had a whole lot of theatrics going on, but their attempts at creating an atmosphere of darkness and horror fell flat in the afternoon light of the outside stage. The band might be totally worth checking out for fans of the style, but for me, their symphonic black metal just had a sense of trying too hard, and simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Swedish thrash trio Tyranex, then again, have proven able to work their craft approvably almost anywhere and anytime, from late nights at small pubs to large festival stages in the afternoon sunshine, but their overly prominent live presence in Finland recently has made them a bit too much of a household name to get excited about.
The cloaked and bloodied quartet of Kadotus seemed like an act more fitted for the inside stage, but even in the sunlight, their vile and hypnotic black metal made for a worthy half an hour. Although further familiarity with their latest full-length would’ve surely enhanced the experience, the mere aura of distress that shone through was enough to convince. One of Finland’s hottest (and arguably dumbest) new death metal names Mörbid Vomit was Saturday’s first real crusher, though. Based on a vomitorial video clip posted on social media a few hours before, frontman Ryöti’s condition wasn’t exactly ideal, but that hardly showed in the band’s performance. Having just listened to some Bloodbath on our car ride to Hyvinkää, it was easy to note how unoriginal Mörbid Vomit’s highly Swedish-sounding take on death metal was, but that didn’t diminish the sheer quality of the songwriting, especially when delivered with such force, and topped with a foreboding appearance of filth and gore.
The steady lava stream of Finland’s finest underground extreme metal continued with Flame entering the arena, spewing forth a scorching combination of black and thrash metal. Catchy riffs burning their mark on your cortex, storming bursts of bestial rage that make fists pound in frenzy, and ominously noble leads to ride over the ruins in morbid glory – armed with elements of this caliber, Flame never manage to disappoint. Lie in Ruins up next on the Hanneman stage didn’t get as much of my attention, as I opted to enjoy fresh air and great company for most of the time instead. You guys get that second album out and we’ll see about it again, alright? However, notable was the change that the band’s stage appearance had gone through, their average underground metalhead look now being boosted with bloody corpsepaint, although far from being as soaked as their colleagues in Mörbid Vomit.
Saturday’s most significant Finnish offerings were served in the form of a double treat of 80’s thrash, as National Napalm Syndicate had reunited with their old singer Aku Raaska to play the material of their debut, and local legends Necromancer had been exhumed from some forgotten cemetery. I wasn’t too devastated that we managed to miss most of N.N.S. while grabbing some grub, knowing that there’d be more chances to see them, and they’ve never been one of my old domestic favorites anyway, partly due to the lack of ferocity in Aku’s expression. More than two decades had “manned up” his voice quite a bit, though. However, Necromancer were an entirely different deal. This lot had only put out a few demos and one 12” single in their time, but the few songs I had heard from them had represented some of the strongest speed/thrash of their time, comparable to Stone’s highlights in its deadliness. Hearing these tunes live gave such a rush, as despite the quartet’s average midlife-man look, their stage presence emanated nostalgic excitement and the riffs blazed with youthful energy. I’m not sure if I’d ever want Necromancer to return on a more permanent basis, but another dose of this in-your-face excellence would surely be welcome some time. And a compilation putting together all of their old recordings is needed, badly.
At this point, our lovely photographer’s camera quit cooperating completely and simply fucking broke for good, so forgive us for the lack of visual evidence of the rest of the night. I can tell it was mostly spent under Norwegian rule, though, starting with Blood Red Throne, whose brutal death metal combined the straight-forward and the technical in a way that made for an easily enjoyable show. Tsjuder’s fast black metal didn’t lack in execution either, but this kind of extremely Norwegian sound is rarely able to offer me a deeper experience. Big points to Steelfest for booking both of the aforementioned, though, as bringing over long-running quality acts like these – that don’t come around every year (if ever) otherwise – is what I’m usually moaning after, especially when it comes to festivals. Oh yeah, there was also Mayhem putting a period at the end of the festival. While they were surely one of the major draws, and therefore a somewhat “sure bet” for the organizers, I’ve never considered them an ideal live act, preferring to be absorbed by their recorded works instead. They haven’t released any new material to peak my interest in several years either, so I didn’t mind retreating back to Helsinki a bit early on Saturday as well, as our chauffer came to whisper into my ear his thoughtful assessment of Mayhem’s show: “vittu mitä paskaa.”
However, there was one more name in the schedule before Mayhem that I was quite psyched about, as Destruction had finally returned, having released two new albums since their previous appearance in Finland at Jalometalli 2010. While those fresh endeavors can’t be considered masterpieces by any means, they are still semi-solid works that I’ll gladly hear a couple cuts from among the classics. And most importantly, the trio executed all of it with enthusiasm and excellence rarely seen from bands running in their 4th decade. Having so many mandatory killers on their track record naturally didn’t allow too much rotation in the set, and therefore it was short of surprises, but special mindblowing mania was granted by “Bestial Invasion,” which felt like a fucking napalm injection into my veins. Most beheading headliner of the weekend, that’s for sure.
Steelfest 2013 showed us another fine May weekend filled with good times, kick-ass folks and quality bands – just like 2012, but improved with smoother arrangements. The attendance also seemed favorable, showing that despite the recession – or whatever excuse the “metal industry” slobs throw around for the lack of crowd at their audience-underrating, run-of-the-mill events – a worthy underground line-up can make people open their wallets. Therefore, I’m confident that this won’t be the last time we’ll be visiting Hyvinkää.
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