Steelfest 2014 – The 3rd Strike

Steelfest Open Air – Villatehdas, Hyvinkää – May 16–17, 2014

Festival summer 2014 commenced with the third public edition of Steelfest, an extreme metal gathering that originally started as an insider event of mere locals, but took the leap towards the big boys’ league in 2012, and has since become an underground force to be reckoned with.  Especially now in the absence of Hammer Open Air, Steelfest’s line-up revolving strictly around different variants of black and death metal branded them as an integral player on the field of Finnish summer festivals, proudly standing separate from the grey mass of more mainstream-oriented events.  While their roster was again a fine representation of the different shades of dark, there was a shortage of pure thrash this time, but it seemed like even the narrower spectrum had enough draw, as Tiketti’s website was showing the “yellow light” on the tickets already a few weeks before the D-day.

Nokturnal Mortum’s cancellation due to the band’s line-up difficulties and the unstable situation in Ukraine was an unfortunate distraction, but the late addition of Necrophobic more than made up for it.  There were very few bands that possessed the first-timer appeal – with nearly half of them being familiar names from Hammer – but when we’re talking about ever-trusty acts like Aura Noir, Primordial or Vader, you can count on getting your money’s worth.

Friday

Having arrived in Hyvinkää conveniently early, we had no problem with making our way to Villatehdas by five o’clock when the first band Lantern was scheduled to go on.  After the entrance dealings, I grabbed some Karhu’s and proceeded towards the open air stage, but was stopped before the mixing booth by a security fellow telling me that I couldn’t go there with my beer.  Come again?!  This was single-handedly the most what-the-fucked-up aspect of the festival, as I was expecting a complete absence of these kinds of problems, with Steelfest having gone K-18 already the year before.  However, assumingly thanks to the absurd whims of Finnish alcohol legislation/bureaucracy, you couldn’t piss, order food, or have a proper look at the bands on the outside stage with your drink.  The inside area was luckily devoid of that last hindrance, though.

Anyhow, while Kuopio’s tonberries didn’t make as intimately decimating an impression as at Lepakkomies a few months before, they delivered a fine set of deliciously dusty death metal, evoking images of skull-adorned temples and ancient cemeteries.  The primally powerful vocals of Necrophilos on top of the nearly aetheric lead guitar work of Cruciatus manage to create a devouring, otherworldly aura, and supported by convincingly committed live musicians, they have also been able to transmute that on stage in a way that could be sensed even from the distant land beyond the drinking fence.

If complaints about the inside stage’s inferiorly echoing sound had been plentiful last year, at least this time it was baptized with a performance that sounded clear and forceful.  Baptism have become one of the cornerstone acts of Finnish black metal during the last decade or so, and have spread their gospel live with impressive results as well.  With reissues of their first two albums coming out on the very same day, the inclusion of the originally vinyl-only gem “Eliterian Legion” from Wisdom & Hate felt like a suitable way to celebrate.  While live guitarist SG.7 mastered the clean invocations for the majority of the set, guest vocalist Infection joined the band for the lengthy “The Prayer,” which served as a captivatingly fervent closer, but left us hungering for more.

The most exotic foreign visitor of Steelfest 2014 was undoubtedly Raven Woods from Turkey.  While their moniker hints more at traditional Nordic-style grimness, I was quite surprised to be met with their behemothian blackened death metal sound.  Being skillfully executed, and even showing occasional traces of originality, their attempt at it was fair, yet hardly managed to keep up my interest for very long.  Being easy to file under that aforementioned Nordic grimness, up next in the burial chamber of the inside stage was new local outfit Hautakammio with their raw and predominantly fast black metal.  The five-piece had the basics down approvably, but lacked any factor that would’ve truly captured the attention of someone who was virtually unfamiliar with their material.  Whereas I’m inclined to keep my eye on Hautakammio’s future endeavors, this time greeting all the acquaintances around had much more appeal than watching the band’s semi-static live show.

Maveth have claimed their own dark corner on the delightfully wide wasteland of current domestic death metal, and have also left a crater on my map with their heavy and restless pulse.  Following up their 2012 debut full-length, this time the band had some new tunes to introduce from their upcoming split with Embrace of Thorns.  It’s too bad the thirsty part of the audience missed out on a lot of Maveth’s crushing potency, as comparing the sound from behind the fence to how it was closer to the front, the difference was substantial.

Soon after we had retreated back inside, it was Valkyrja’s turn to take over the arena.  Having already seen this lot warming up for their countrymen Marduk some years ago, my first impression of them wasn’t too favorable, bringing to mind Watain’s disabled lillebror.  While Valkyrja’s recorded undertakings hadn’t appeared any more original, at least they had presented some strong moments, and therefore I felt like giving the Swedes another chance on stage as well.  Ranging from inconsequential mediocrity to promising bursts of faith and fury, this time the band put up an overall decent performance, at its best offering riffs and melodies that were gripping enough to wipe unfavorable comparisons out of my mind – even if just for a moment.

Watching Valkyrja was also a good time to refuel the liver and poison the brain in anticipation of Aura Noir, whose wretched yet catchy black/thrash was definitely something to revel in from up close instead of just peeking from the distance through the bottom of your beer mug.  A friend I ran into during the gig was enjoying the best of both worlds, though, sipping his brew in front of the stage without a care in the world, until security took note and proceeded to drag him away…  Can’t really blame the guy, since the unusual drinking restrictions hadn’t been announced or specified on Steelfest’s website – or anywhere else, for that matter.  Anyway, being an obedient little headbanger myself, I got to gorge on yet another prime slab of hostile dark aura and merciless metal spirit in its full.  Despite my frequent run-ins with this furious foursome during recent years, they manage to get my blood boiling every time, this time freshening up the set by pulling “Swarm of Vultures” out of their sleeves.

Once the Norwegians were done, we moved back inside and prepared for a different yet equally killer interpretation of thrashing hellish metal from their Eastern neighbors, only to have Nifelheim start 15 minutes late.  The band’s long ongoing silence on the release front has definitely had a decreasing effect on my excitement over their live desecrations, and them keeping us waiting in the midst of a busy festival schedule surely didn’t help either.  But oh boy, did they take the stage by storm once they finally got on.  In the end, I suppose it’s secondary how many years have passed since the previous album or how many times the musicians around Hellbutcher and Tyrant have changed, as long as they keep on delivering classics like “Black Evil” with the burning morbid insanity those songs deserve.

Unfortunately the Swedes’ unpunctuality forced us to skip their last stretch in favor of not missing any of Deströyer 666.  These Euro-Australian purveyors of war continued the evening’s grimly thrashing theme in a consistent fashion, from straightforward middle-finger-waving molten metal to uplifting melodies of defiant pride and victorious glory, and being the last act on the outside stage, the dusk settling in provided additional effect, reinforcing the atmosphere.  D666 have been taking their time with their albums as well, but it’s not like Finland’s getting tired of hearing the same tunes just yet, with the band stopping by every couple of years.  However, this time they did offer something new in the form of something old, as Slayer’s “Black Magic” had crept into the set.

Friday night’s final blow at Villatehdas came courtesy of two-man (South) American powerhouse Inquisition, and while the duo continue to impress me with their monumental live sound, they haven’t tickled my tastebuds too intensely on record so far.  After indulging in the preceding three highly familiar hell-raising hordes on the bill, I was unable to immerse myself in Inquisition’s more complex cosmic esoterica with the required level of concentration, and knowing that we’d cross paths with them again in the near future, we happily headed back to the hotel for some good ol’ beerage.  The afterparty at Jalostamo would’ve also had some Iron Maiden covers to offer, but we had filled our quota of live metal for the time being, and carrying jumbled memories of several strong performances we had already witnessed, felt satisfied with just switching off our brains for the rest of the night.

Saturday

Two Jyväskylä troops were giving Saturday a solid start, as Steelfest Demoni competition winners Apocryfal were opening the day at 2pm with their skilled death metal, followed by long-running black metal occultists Alghazanth.  Despite my fair interest in seeing both, the park on the way from our hotel Cumulus to the festival area was simply too inviting to pass up without some pussikalja in the sunshine, and so we only made it to Villatehdas for the third band and the first must-see of the day, Convulse.

Nokia’s resuscitated death metal veterans had already swept us into the sewer with their live appearances several times since the band’s unexpected 2012 return, and put out some striking new material as well.  However, with their second guitarist having left some months before, this was the first time we saw Convulse shrunk down to a trio.  Although the sound was a bit lacking during the guitar solos, this wasn’t much of a shortcoming overall, as the band bashed through a bucketful of their classic early 90’s putrid incantations, spiced with a few fresher cuts that blended in agreeably.  Convulse’s genuinely primitive brutality reigned, and there was little else to do than submit in nonstop headbanging frenzy.

Blasphemous barbarity of the old school continued on the inside stage, which was taken over by another Finnish trio from back in the day, Archgoat.  Their blacker blasting has never bewitched me as much as it appears to do to a whole lot of others, but as I’m not one to drool over Blasphemy or Beherit’s earliest desecrations either, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.  Archgoat’s seemingly monotonous mangling conjures an exceptionally hypnotic atmosphere, though, but I was hardly able to sink into it on this already promisingly inebriated summery afternoon.  Standing out in the midst of the faster majority, the slowly crawling darkness of “Day of Clouds” was responsible for the most memorable moments of the set.

At first, Croatian Manheim seemed confusingly obscure of a pick to summon over, but the fact that Hyvinkää’s own Sawhill Sacrifice were scheduled to play Underwall in Croatia the following month hinted towards some kind of a gig exchange deal, knowing both bands’ affiliation with their aforementioned domestic festivals.  However, only about a week before, Manheim folded, and Goatmoon were booked as a replacement – just like they had filled in for Urn in 2013!  This arrangement left no room for complaints, though, as we had seen an approvable show from Manheim at the previous Underwall already, and Steelfest’s on-call band put up their standard show filled with powerful performing, quality black metal, and hailing victory.

Having called it quits in 2007, Mustan Kuun Lapset had decided to air out the coffin for a bunch of spring gigs, culminating in this final (at least for now) festival performance.  While I’ve never developed a special relationship with the band’s melodic and melancholic blackish tunes, they were one of the most exclusive names on the bill – even more so than most of the foreign acts – and therefore couldn’t be ignored.  There sure was nostalgic excitement in the air during MuKuLat’s career-spanning set, making the overall atmosphere quite special and contagious, even when most of the presented material was only half-familiar to me.  Well, at least the concluding “Sodoman ilmestys” was an engagingly catchy rocker in its blood-and-shit-drenched glory.

Despite standing out as one of the most unique forces to emerge within the realm of underground black metal during the last decade, Urfaust have already become a commonplace visitor around here, seemingly coming over to get smashed and bash out their crazed canticles every year now.  Not that I didn’t once again enjoy their damned delirium, but apart from vocalist-guitarist IX’s increasing amount of hair, there wasn’t too much news to report.

Desolate Shrine, then again, were far from commonplace, playing their first gig ever.  The capital area black/death metal trio was supported by three more musicians on stage, with the live sextet sporting several significant faces of the Finnish scene.  However, they appeared rather as an entity than a collection of individuals, performing quite statically, and musically relying on lengthy, hypnotic tracks over easily digested aggressive attacks.  While the latter element wasn’t completely absent – as demonstrated by “Born to Lose One’s Way,” for instance – I was left with the feeling that thorough familiarity with both of Desolate Shrine’s full-length albums would’ve been required to fully appreciate what they had to offer live.

Long-running Norwegian black/death brigade Aeternus were definitely the rarest import treat and showed some tasty potential, but weren’t of too much interest to us, as our mouths were already foaming for Saturday’s highlight, Necrophobic.  These Swedes had made their long-awaited Finnish debut at Hammer Open Air two years before, and passed with shining grades, but new album Womb of Lilithu had hardly been the most major event in the Necro-camp since then…  With the band and their long-time frontman Tobias having parted ways – following his controversial clashes with the law – Necrophobic had reunited with Anders Strokirk, who handled the vocals on their debut The Nocturnal Silence back in ’93, and was now apparently stepping on stage for the first time with them since his unexpected return.

While Necrophobic offered me the most important moments of the whole weekend, delivering a possessively powerful performance, it’s also hard not to criticize a band you feel so strongly about.  Vocally, Anders proved to be the right man for the job, and his sole concentration on cruelties of the throat also made him seem more like a front figure than his predecessor, but some of his speeches left an awkward “out of it” impression… but perhaps that’s forgivable after a 20-year absence?  I suppose some might’ve also expected more extensive coverage of The Nocturnal Silence, but the set seemed similarly constructed to the previous one, apart from featuring a few new songs, of course.

Saturday’s last two bands at Villatehdas were the obvious headliners, standing out as probably the most well-known names on the whole roster.  Neither of them were strangers to playing in Finland, but having delivered a feisty fight every time I’ve been present, both were dead certain feathers in Steelfest’s cap.  After skipping Finland in 2013, Vader had now returned, only two weeks before unleashing their 10th album Tibi Et Igni, which seems to continue on the same unwavering warpath if the published preview track is to be trusted.  Not perhaps the ideal timing for their visit, as at least I would’ve welcomed a fistful of new blood into the set, but the Polish death machine was fair enough to keep it familiar for the audience.  A few more songs [from any album] would’ve been neat – I’ll continue moaning after “The Final Massacre” in particular – but other than that, this was another mercilessly crushing display of Vader’s enduring reign.  And lo, they didn’t waste any time on playing covers either!

Celtic pagans Primordial have bewitched Finnish crowds several times during the last couple of years, largely thanks to their frontman A.A. Nemtheanga, who’s a captivating performer and a great vocalist, balancing fiery spirit and naked melancholy in his expression like only few others can.  Despite finally having a new album in the horizon as well, the band still relied mostly on 2011’s Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand.  While the bitter glory of “Bloodied Yet Unbowed” once again made the blood rush in my veins exceptionally rapidly, it wasn’t too many songs later that the hour started growing weary… Primordial and a whole lot of their more faithful followers surely didn’t, but our small crew unanimously retreated from the field before the battle was even over.

Had we not felt so consumed already, Saturday’s afterparty would’ve had some final goodies to offer in the form of Death as interpreted by Suicide Machine and drunken thrashing from Hellboozer Union, who I managed to miss at Steelfest 2012 and still have yet to catch.  But we chose instead to grab some grub and head back to the hotel, where our efficient five-minute power nap turned into a full night of sleep instead.  Oh well, I think our cups for the weekend had already overfloweth with social interaction, alcohol abuse and – most importantly – great heavy metal.

Although both days seemed fairly crowded, and Saturday even ended up being sold out, I didn’t detect any unreasonable delays in the essential services, whether you wanted to buy a drink or empty your bladder of the previous one.  At how many major festivals is this the case?  On the downside, while the organizers surely didn’t set their own weird drinking restrictions, and shouldn’t be blamed for them, these are things that should be communicated clearly beforehand.  And not having free water available anywhere in the area falls under simply fucking unacceptable, if you ask me.  Despite these setbacks, Steelfest was again a solid starter for the festival season, and having now established themselves in the course of three years more than sufficiently, we’re looking forward to another rendezvous with Hyvinkää’s heaviest to blast off our summer 2015 as well.

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Photography slideshow
Steelfest website

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