STEELFEST – Villatehdas – Hyvinkää, FINLAND – May 20-21, 2016
Guess what, winter is over, and you know what that means? Festival season. Better put on my drinking boots.
With Vappu well behind, and June just around the corner, another summer festival season is upon us. Whether you like the jazz, or you dye your hair grey because you are hipper than everyone’s grandma, if you like beat boxing while you spit white suburban-born thuggish fantasies off the top of your dome, maybe you have a silly looking top knot hairstyle and prefer whatever autotuned pop sensation is shaking his wee-wee on stage this summer, if you’re a punk, a raver, a hippie, a regular old dude or a hairy, heathen metal warrior, you know that Europe is the land of the summer festival. Summer festivals are something of an ancient tradition; they hearken back to a more primitive time when people would gather to celebrate the changing of the seasons, a successful harvest or to pray to the gods for a fertile year, sexy young virgins, and the successful live birth of children. Today the motivations have changed, but the habits are still in place: people must gather and celebrate something. What then, other than music, offers a better channel for primitive release? And how it must, because it seems all of today’s modern festivals center around this most important institution of cultural expression and social cohesion. Music, the great leveler. Enjoyed by the rich and poor, the fat and thin, the smart and the dumb. Everyone likes music: it does something for us, and because of this the superstition-based social gatherings of yesteryear have been replaced by drunken hordes of adults at play, united by music and the need to escape their pathetic mundane realities. I am no exception to this theory, and given that my personal taste leans more towards the ‘extreme’ end of the metal spectrum I prefer to kick off my summer festival season each year at Steelfest in Hyvinkää, Finland, which by now has become a tradition for me.
Being perhaps one of the lesser known amongst the plethora of blasphemous, drunken, noisy, debaucherous convocations we know as European summer metal festivals, Steelfest in Hyvinkää lacks not for atmosphere, fun, quality organization and consistently solid artist lineups. This year was no exception. Being on the smaller side as festivals go, Steelfest never fails to bring a delicious mix of local, international, eclectic, and even some very rare acts to the stage. Indeed, with each passing year Steelfest seems to root itself deeper and deeper into the institution of Finnish heavy metal. For me personally it is a great way to start my summer and offers a much needed late May release from the slow-to-fade winter melancholy residents of the great northern forests are perhaps all too familiar with. So it is once again that I have decided to share my experience and some insight to this gathering of the wicked, the drunken and the passionate fans of heavy metal.
Festivals are many things to different people. What I find most alluring about festivals, aside from the musical aspects on which they are based, is the opportunity to spend some obligation-free time with people whom I do not get the chance to see very often these days. The social aspect of festivals is just as important as the musical side. How fun would it be to see 20 killer bands if you were the only soul in the audience? Maybe some of you would love that. I, on the other hand, enjoy good company while festivaling, and this year we had assembled a killer group consisting of loud Finnish metal warriors, a dude called Roy who is more like a brother to me than anything else, and a few legendary members of the mystical and esoteric Yankee Drunking Collective. However, I am also feeling older than I used to, and my party antics seem to mellow out more and more as the summers float by, and this year I was really only capable of paying attention to a few things throughout the course of the fest. That is, the few choice acts I was really looking forward to and the few close friends I rarely get to see. My days of partying through every single set and maintaining clarity seem to be far behind me. Nonetheless this was a killer weekend and if you’ll listen I tell you about it.
Day one, Friday, began with a short train ride from Helsinki to Hyvinkää. Located just about 55 kilometers from Finland’s capital city, the small village of Hyvinkää is rather accessible for festival goers. I had sort of expected a massive festival turnout, as this year all accommodation in the Hyvinkää was sold out months ahead of time. However, as with years past I was relieved to find that the festival area, although crowded, was not packed and the setting was as relaxed and comfortable as always. The lack of options for accommodation in the immediate area is not a major inconvenience anyway, as Helsinki and other nearby villages are relatively easy to travel to and from each night after festivities have closed. I was playing host to a few guests on the eve of this year’s gathering and our festival morning started with mead, tales of past glory, a discussion on the merits of animism and a nerve-wracking encounter with a hungry, ranting schizophrenic on the train. All in all we made it to Hyvinkää largely hassle-free and with much time to spare before the gates were to open.
Being early is always a plus, as it offers time to look through the lineup and schedule where to be and when. Also it allows for the consumption of cheap beer, which can be obtained in the supermarket conveniently located next to the venue. I spent the first two hours in front of the area palling around, drinking beer and getting a feel for the most anticipated acts of different festival goers this year. Of course I had my own opinions on the matter, and was already pretty bummed out that quite a few of my most looked forward to acts, Possessed, Bölzer and Sacrilegious Impalement had all cancelled. But this first day was still full of promise and great heavy metal, and couple that with the pleasant weather and there was almost nothing that could dampen my spirits… until I found myself confronted by the most urgent and basic call of nature, and the venue gates were not yet open. There was an hour and a half before the festival was to begin, before gates were to open when it hit me. The sudden, violent urge to shit. What to do? I was able to get in early with my credentials, which was most desirable as I was at this point a ticking time bomb full of filth and stench. And as these things go I was sure the facilities would soon be defiled beyond all human comprehension, before the first band had played their final note. Thus I actually felt lucky. Once again my spirits raised.
The toilets at that moment, that pre-festival period of peace and serenity, were clean and enjoyable. I was not against having a thoughtful sit after my waste was thoroughly expelled. It smelled slightly chemical but not offensive in the toilet, rather how I imagine the toilets in a Paris whorehouse might smell. Like cheap perfume, English botanicals and the most powerful disinfectants known to the human race. I decided to snap a photo of this clean, serene environment. For moments like this are fleeting, and, as all festivities in the name of the dark lords go, the peace one finds in a tip-top porta-shitter would soon be consumed by reckless violation and expulsion of the most vile sorts.
Yes, it is the small things that we can slow down and appreciate. A cool shaded spot to release the excrement from one’s bowels is often taken for granted. Yet this is not a fundamental human right. Millions of people worldwide must shit amidst noise, chaos, and filth every day. They know not of the pleasures derived from choice plastic toilet seats, sterile and smudge-free. And so before the festival was even underway I was tipping my hat to the mighty Steelfest for letting me in early to poop, to enjoy this Nordic privilege, to expel my filth under the most luxurious conditions the present context allowed. To be at one with my thoughts, the day, the toilet and the most pleasurable, primal and basic act of defecation.
Let this photo be a memoriam to those who have shat before us, in less than desirable conditions, and all those who may come next, made to suffer under the lingering stench of the remains of what I consumed last night. May this stand the test of time, and be a message to us all, so that we may never take for granted the free thrills of a good shit.
With the shittiest part of my day behind me I was free to enjoy all that Steelfest had to offer, and returned to the grass outside the festival gates in search of hints revealing what secrets the impending madness may hold. I found myself amongst the dregs of the earth. The drunks and the freaks. My kind of people. The youngsters, warriors who have not yet lost the faith. For them there seems to be a certain magic, they seem to have hope for a movement or a scene which has deviated so much from its roots, unaware of the cyclical nature of things. One spark lights many flames, to illuminate many doors and blah, blah, blah. I realized I am not as optimistic as I once was about things. I am older, drunker, and let down by my own shortcomings, and finding it hard to get as totally amped as this younger more resilient group. Yet this festival still excites me; I still enjoy the elements of festivaling, just in different ways I suppose.
Anyhow, these youthful rockers were drunk and of that I was not envious at all. Philosophical drunk, at two in the afternoon. Poor bastards. The discussion shifted from heavy metal and festivals to questions of reality and television. Everyone, after all, wants to believe in an ideal reality. This belief, however, is what makes us lose sight of the very shitty, very real reality in which we actually must exist and interact. Trash is the product of created reality packages, streamed through the television and in to your homes… or anyway so sayeth the drunken wild youth of Finland. Is that then why we are gathered here? To experience something real? Are we taking a break from the digital self, from the shiny scripted reality society tries to force on us all daily? For these young metal warriors perhaps. Or perhaps, and more than likely, they are just here to get totally fucking blasted before the gates even open, with high hopes and anticipation to experience live acts which we all seem to understand. In this moment of lived reality we are the actors, there is no script or camera, there is no audience behind a TV screen and there is no pressure to emulate a version of reality that is constantly being sold to us as superior to our own. For today we are living out a dramatic rendition of how things could be. Festivals can be sort of a game… this was getting to be too much for me.
I was growing tired of the babble and the bull. The gates were set to open and I was very excited to find the first act, Saturnian Mist, just getting under way, so I bid the young drunks farewell and pretty much ran inside to catch the mist. I had last seen Saturnian Mist many years back, in 2011, at the original PRKL bar in Helsinki and was really impressed by their straightforward performance and energetic stage presence, so I was excited that they were to be this year’s opening act. Steelfest is pretty good at selecting solid openers, and this entertainingly energetic performance really set the pace for the remainder of the first day. (As in, I would continue to drink energetically and enthusiastically as if I were on stage with an audience watching me do so.) In the years that have passed since I last saw this band perform, they have taken on the addition of two percussionists who are admittedly almost more entertaining than front man Zetekh. Not to imply that his performance was anything less than full frenzied, sleazy madness, but it is hard to compete with a man-size werewolf chicken playing the drums… I mean c’mon. Sure, it could have been the fist pumping and Satan’s name being chanted over some pretty cool solos which rallied the crowd to such a level of madness that we even almost witnessed a 30 second pseudo-mosh pit. It could have been. But you and I both know it was the werewolf chicken man. He was the real star of this set, which was followed by another Finnish act, Lappeenranta’s own White Death, who to their disadvantage did not have any life size chicken monsters on stage.
Admittedly I was not, and still am not, very familiar with this particular band. It seems to be a late addition to the offspring spawned by the trademark Lappeenranta sound synonymous with Satanic Warmaster, who is, when we are talking about the Lappeenranta bands, the mightiest and most entertaining to this author. At any rate I dedicated myself to about three songs before heading off in search of beer. Honestly I just found nothing in this act. There was nothing terrible here; I mean, I did not turn away in total disgust. This band seems to consist of mostly what I would call decent but slightly generic leads accompanied by the visual aesthetic of cloaked, bloody, witch-looking men acting ‘scary.’ I could have been watching Satanic Warmaster, and probably would have enjoyed it a whole lot more, but I wasn’t. I was watching something that instead felt a bit recycled. To be honest, the only thing I felt was thirsty. So I gave up and got the beer.
A beer, it turns out, was just what I needed to get my juices flowing and prepare me for the third act of the day, Inferno from Czech Republic. Personally Inferno was one of the acts I looked forward to the most. The first time I saw them live was at the now defunct Black Flames of Blasphemy in 2013, around the time they released Omniabsence Filled by His Greatness, where they delivered a crushingly heavy and truly creepy set of eastern hatred paired with conflictingly hypnotic, cosmos-destroying guitar riffs. While this Steelfest set was just as good musically, and consisted in large part of a lot of material from Omniabsence…, it did not strike the same deep chords as three years ago. The lighting could have been a little darker, in order to fit the forlorn atmosphere set by the unearthly riffing of Ska-Gul and Morion. I was very satisfied to see that front man Adramelech had ditched the mask and hood he had been wearing for the past few years to once again give this band a face that stands up to the demonically harsh and commanding vocals. It is clear through the look in Adramelech’s eyes that these guys truly believe in what they do, and this set was truly worth waiting for. The only thing that bothered me, and actually sort of pissed me off a bit, was Adramelech’s decision to sit down on stage with his back to the crowd in the middle of the fucking set. It felt like a big fuck you, it added no atmosphere to the performance, and contained no apparent symbolism. It just looked like he felt that he deserved a good sit. In my opinion, a front man should never turn his back on the crowd for more than a few seconds unless it is to drink water, or doing so adds to his performance somehow. Moreover, no one should ever sit down while performing, especially in this genre. This is black metal; this is war music. Stand tall and proud. The whole sitting thing just seemed a bit diva-ish, as it really took away from the atmosphere of the set. Regardless of this detail, if I put the sitting aside, Inferno put on a really good show and left me with high hopes for new material from this band soon.
After such an emotionally inspiring and spiritually taxing thirty minutes of devout black metal, I needed to recharge my festival batteries with high doses of alcohol and amyl-nitrites and shake off the solemn feeling of doom and gloom. So off to the beer drinking area I went, and there I would remain through the next three acts. I did not plan this beery vacation, but somewhere between the poppers, the beer, and a giant guy named Ekii ranting about all sorts of nonsensical madness I had no real need to go and watch. Besides, I had a great vantage point from which to listen to Swedish death-metallers Demonical, who delivered a loud, brutal, and fast-paced set. As Sverker Widgren growled and howled on stage, Lady Enslain and I filled our guts with barley juice and our brains with poppers. Meanwhile the air around me filled with nonsensical bullshit which I freely spewed at anyone foolish enough to sit within earshot. It was great. I did not necessarily even need to move; I could hear the band, and anyway if I wanted to I could get a similar kick the next day by watching Widgren’s other band Diabolical. I also sat out through Lathspell, whom does not interest me much, and Horna whom I have seen many times before. Horna was comfortably audible from the beer tables and actually made for some really good party music.
After sitting out three bands, however, I decided I probably should watch something. This is the hardest decision at festivals sometimes. Of course there are acts I am there to see, and a few I will watch anyway, but there are also people who I am there to socialize with and enjoy. Free time is a rare commodity these days, so I tend to use environments like this to catch up and enjoy a little bit of the party as well. Considering how things went after I decided it was time to watch a band, I wish I had continued to sit and make merry in Steelfest’s festive environment. As I said earlier, there is always bound to be some cancellations with these sorts of festivals. That is a given and no big deal. I was personally a bit bummed this year, as some bands I wanted to see cancelled, but no biggie, the organizers of this festival always do an awesome job replacing them—when they use any band other than Goatmoon. This seems to be some sort of running joke in Finland, but I just don’t get it. Goatmoon somehow plays every festival and/or fills every festival’s cancellation vacancy. It would not be a shock to discover this shitty joke transcends even the metal scene: I would not be surprised to hear about Goatmoon sieg heil-ing their asses off at Flow, or Ruisrock, or even at Pori Jazz Festival. Goatmoon descends on festival vacancies like seagulls on an abandoned bag of cheese puffs or a helpless young child’s ice cream cone. So it was no surprise that Goatmoon happened to be the band that was playing when I decided to go and watch something after my three band hiatus.
Goatmoon for me has always been a double-edged sword. On the one hand I really like the raw aggressive sound of the earlier recordings. I really like the way BlackGoat Grave Desecrator, aka Jaakko Lähde, is able to convey the essence of Finnish nature, identity and winter through music. These qualities at one time made Goatmoon a band worth looking at. On the other hand, the later material seems to have lost its raw edge, and because of this BlackGoat compensates with increasingly adolescent lyrical content and childlike bravado on stage. To be honest I found this set unwatchable and a bit embarrassing. Musically it was only good enough to captivate the sort of crowd who finds some appeal in pure shock value. Politically speaking, Goatmoon seems to only be rooted in their ideology so far as it is easy to give blind Hitler salutes and shout “white pride.” In today’s Europe at least it guarantees people will pay attention, and when the music is no longer inspiring I suppose you have to do something to capture an audience. More and more I feel like the creativity behind Goatmoon fell off somewhere as the political rhetoric in the music became more prominent and more incendiary. The Finnish language actually has a word which perfectly sums up how this particular set left me feeling: it is “myötähäpeä,” and sort of means “second-hand embarrassment.” When the frail, angry man on stage started yelling “this is only for Aryan women,” I decided I had seen enough, I was not the only one either, and I’ll leave it at that. Sloppy sounding tired songs, political bullshit… I went outside to find something actually entertaining.
Much to my dismay Blasphemy was the next band on stage, so I hung around the beer area having fun goofing off. From what I could hear, they were busy delivering a sloppy, chaotic, and oftentimes confused set, overpowered by a rhythm section which reminded me of a less talented black metal version of Anal Cunt. I know it is not a popular opinion but this fucking band annoys the shit out of me, and they just played at the final Black Flames of Blasphemy only six months ago. I do not understand the hype surrounding this band, but far be it for me to complain. The fact that I had no desire to watch Blasphemy allowed me to enjoy some of the other really nice aspects of Steelfest. I was feeling pretty hungry around this time, and this festival always has a really solid selection of awesome food vendors. There was also plenty of merchandise stands, including one put up by the legendary Kvlt Records, which was nice since the store itself was closed for renovations for the moment.
I want to point out that I understand festival line ups need to satisfy a range of people, and I was in no way disappointed on this first day. The opening was killer, I had waited quite a long while to see Inferno again, and the last three bands were sure to end the first day on some very high notes. By the time Blasphemy was done playing I had eaten, I was well inundated with beer, and I was ready for the eastern pagan onslaught that is Kroda. When seeing this band live, the very first thing one notices is the beast of a human called Eisenslav who fronts the six member stage ensemble. This bastard had disco-muscles to shame even Orion of Behemoth. The sound on the inside stage was really dialed in by this point and I thought this was likely the best set of the day. The lighting was great and the band played an enchanting variety of material. It is difficult to translate the feelings a band like this is capable of producing in the studio to the stage, but I feel the live rendition of “Die with Your God” did last year’s release GinnungaGap GinnungaGaldr GinnungaKaos some real justice. I was moved by the set, moved to thirst, and thus with a head full of pagan folk tales in a language I could not understand, I battled my way out of the hall through hordes of hairy metalheads to the beer tent.
As twilight faded to a starry spring evening, American death metal old schoolers Sadistic Intent took to the outside stage for the final open air performance of the day. After all these years, this band can still deliver a truly rockin’ set of great old school death metal. However, because of certain restrictions pertaining to the consumption of alcoholic beverages near the outside stage, I was forced to enjoy this set from a distance. It did not bother me one bit, though, as Sadistic Intent makes for perfect background music when partying with friends and new acquaintances. I was having a blast, and realizing that the thing that keeps me consistently coming back to Steelfest each year is the way the setting promotes high spirits and allows for people to cut loose and party if they want to. And party we did. I was in the midst of some mighty boozers, channeling the spirit of the liquor and hailing the dark lords of metal. This is why Steelfest remains one of my favorite festivals, because it is actually really fun. You do not need to always be right up on the stage; you can see and hear just fine from the tables. As the California death metal brothers brought their set to a close I made my way, for the last time of the day, back inside to watch a portion of Norwegian supergroup 1349’s set. They were the closing act of the night, and I watched briefly with a very good friend of mine who came to Steelfest all the way from Oslo. I was too sloshed to get any pictures, and my ride back to Helsinki was nearly at the festival gates. Day one had come to a close, and with a head full of booze and feeling absolutely beatdown tired I walked out of the hall, met up with my brother (who was so fucking drunk I could dedicate another 20 paragraphs to that shit alone, but have not the time nor the energy to do so) and walked out of the gates and into a car. When I awoke I was in Helsinki out front of my building, my own comfy bed awaiting me inside. Fucking awesome. ‘Twas a good day indeed.
Day two began with some much-needed substance abuse: snus, weed and whisky. I had secured a ride back to the festival, but was actually in no big hurry as the opening act of the day was some Finnish comedy duo called Bat & Ryyd whose humor does not strike any sentimental chords with me. I heard from those who did watch them (surprise, all Finns) that they were great. However I don’t find things of this sort to be funny, so I did what any sensible man would do: I slept in until my ride was downstairs. Once I was safely in the car I set straight in on the whisky. Day two was all about two things for me, music and whisky. By the time we made it to the festival the aforementioned comedy duo was actually just hitting the stage, so my companion and I decided to hit the grocery, buy some choice beverages and stock up on the snackulation. We then found some shade and got down to business. And a messy business it was: two drunken baboons stuffing their face with garbage and greedily sucking a peaty Islay from the bottle like a pair of retarded hamsters. After this I was totally schnockered and had not even approached the gates yet. Yet this has never been a problem, since I have always used this protective layer of drunkenness to survive day two of any festival. Sometimes I succeed.
The early afternoon found the hungover hordes slowly and sluggishly making their way into the area. Quite a lot of people were content to socialize just outside the gates and drink their own supplies of liquid happiness, which was fine with me. There were lots of familiar faces, and a bit of socialization always gets the metal engine roaring. Hailing from the small town of Lahti, death metal filth bags Mörbid Vomit were the first band of the day I really wanted to see, and they were not set to start until three p.m. anyhow. The weather was absolutely fine and everyone was in high spirits. I like the second day of a festival always a little more than the first. Everyone is hungover and in the full festival mood, and no matter who you are elsewhere in the world, here we are all in the same boat for the day.
Three p.m. finally came around. I went inside, and boy am I glad I did. I found myself totally “Engulfed by the Plague” as Mörbid Vomit violently assaulted the small, smelly and tired midday crowd with aggressive yet rocking death metal riffs, crushing bass lines paired with wild hair, and clearly spoken, gut-wrenching throaty growls reminiscent of a young George Corpsegrinder, delivered by front man Ville Ryöti. This band is really solid live and set the pace of the second day for me. Groovy solos, hell, pain and madness. This set forced the hangover out of us all.
When Mörbid Vomit had played their final note and the small midday crowd rushed towards the inside stage for Diabolical, I leisurely strolled over to the seating area, found some good company, and soaked up some choice cosmic rays. I had no desire to rush through my day, back and forth between stages. When I was younger I would diligently watch every band at a festival, even those I did not care to see, collecting live performances like baseball cards, taking nothing away from it all except a list of names that could be drawn upon in future conversations regarding who sucks live and who is entertaining. This all seems so trivial to me now. These days I am content to enjoy the other aspects festivals have to offer, while taking in only the sets than mean something to me. Fortunately enough Diabolical was the only band between Mörbid Vomit and Latvian pagan history professors Skyforger, whom I was very excited to see live for the first time.
Skyforger is a band that has some meaning to me, and brings back memories of my first year living here in Finland. It was during this time a very good friend of mine first exposed me to the band. Typically I do not go in for flutes and clean singing; most folk metal just ain’t for me. But there are exceptions to every rule and Skyforger became one of them. Relying more on history, warfare and solid instrumentation than fantasy and excessive woodwinds, these guys are a very strong example of what heartfelt, patriotic folk tales can be when paired with pagan imagery and a black metal sound. The set consisted of a nice mix between old and new material and a few choice hits that everyone could chant along to. Every member of this band is multi-talented and shares equally in their duties on stage. The baritone vocals of Edgars “Zirgs” balance perfectly with the growls and snarls of frontman Peteris “Peter” and the backing shrieks of Alvis. It feels a bit unfair to designate a frontman in this particular band, as all members perform with a captivating gusto and play off of one another’s energy in equal parts. I felt that this was the perfect act for the outside stage at midday, as the bright sunlight did not take away from the performance but rather added to it. When their final song came to an end Edgars “Zirgs”’ eyes finally came back into his skull and the satisfied crowd let out a genuine cheer of approval.
I decided to take a long break from the stage areas after this. There were only three more acts of the day that really interested me, and there was no way I wanted to immediately go inside for another gig after Skyforger had been so impressive. I found out later that this was a poor choice, because by all accounts Hyvinkää’s own Sawhill Sacrifice gave an excellent gig, with some guest vocals and live strippers that made their set stand out for many. I am not going to beat myself up over it though; I really was having a lot of fun outside, watching and participating in the boozy antics of a drunken festival crowd. Not to mention the World Hockey Championship finals were going on, and Finland was playing against Russia to secure a spot in the final game.
Hockey is serious business here in Finland, and for a while there I felt like almost all the Finnish attendees of the festival were checking their phones for play by play updates. We had the game streaming live at our table, which just made the drinking and the camaraderie all the more boisterous and lively. Steelfest is great because I consistently witness everyone having a good time year after year. People here smile and laugh a lot and that is odd for Finland, if not so odd for the people of the heavy metal community; a lot of metalheads are just fun people, playing by their own set of rules. I stayed outside whiskying myself into a comfortable warm oblivion until Impaled Nazarene took to the main stage inside. When we are talking about bands here in Finland, this band in particular has always been a favorite of mine, and I never pass up the opportunity to see them live. Their simple stage show is effective and they are truly cut from a different mold than the rest of the Finnish black metal scene. This can produce awkward and comical effects when you superimpose a band that speaks whatever comes to mind without regard into a festival like Steelfest.
I downed the rest of my fire water in one big gulp as I speedily made my way to the indoor stage. Mika Luttinen was just releasing the first utterances of what was to be a strange, energetic, and entertaining set indeed. I am not sure if it was me or the band, but someone here was very, very drunk. The band itself is in their 25th year and show no signs of stopping. The set was great and bizarre, two things you would expect from Impaled Nazarene. I mean musically they were playing as they always do; fast aggressive black rock and roll, incorporating grindy riffs where possible and showering us all with Luttinen’s perversions, pains, angers, patriotism and historical insights. The truly bizarre part came mid-set, in the form of a rant spouted off by frontman and original member, Mika Luttinen.
Aparrently Luttinen has a current problem with another legendary musician in the Finnish scene, Sami Tenetz of Thy Serpent. As a side note here Tenetz also owns legendary record shop Kvlt, and is known locally known here in Helsinki as a nice, approachable person. Regardless, it is natural for people to sometimes disagree on things. That seems like a personal point however. Making it very, very public is where this all becomes strange to me. And public it became, like dirty underwear flying through the air in the middle of the set as Luttinen started off his tangent. People were already riled up because Finland had just beat Russia in hockey and we were all watching a band well known for their patriotism and songs about the historic Winter War between Finland and Russia. Needless to say, Luttinen took a pause in between songs to actually announce the final score of the game, and people went ape shit. Flames were stoked here, people. Then seemingly out of nowhere (or maybe not, but my Finnish comprehension is only so good), Luttinen verbally attacked Tenetz and insulted his band and Barathrum front man Demonos Sova over a dispute regarding the quality of Impaled Nazarene’s latest release. Or something to that effect, I actually got the full inside scoop from some Finnish friends of mine after the festival. At any rate enough reached me for it to feel, just for a brief moment, like there was going to be some tension in the scene. I for one think that this may be something metal in Finland needs at this moment, some classic beef between musicians. To be fair I really like Impaled Nazarene and I am fond of Thy Serpent as well. I just found the whole thing to be funny and bizarre. Needless to say, Impaled Nazarene‘s set was great. No frills, no gimmicks, just good rock and roll and a dedication to Lemmy. Fucking killer. I can’t wait to see the band again.
All comedic drama aside, I was absolutely plowed with booze. I was not sure I could make it, but I needed to see the polish mystery that is Batushka. So I went and got some food from the market and then just had a good peaceful sit outside the gates for a while. Alone with my thoughts, trying to snap back into a sociable mood, when all of a sudden it hit me: there is no way I am the only drunk guy here; this is after all Finland. If I just stand up, act casual and blend in with the natives perhaps no one will notice. I decided to give this experiment a go and watch the Norwegian black metal outfit Ragnarok. Last time I saw this particular band perform, vocals were the duty of the bloody little sleazeball Hans Fyrste, who performed them with loathing, precision, and disgust. I was curious how the only original member and current vocalist (slightly larger than Fyrste, but no less bloody and almost equally as filthy) Jontho would measure up.
The set started out as one would expect, with an onslaught of trademark Norwegian misanthropy pouring forth, and ended somewhere along those same lines. Jontho’s vocals were no big issue, as he proved worthy of delivering that good old raspy Norwegian fry which fans of the ’90’s will never grow tired of. I think most could agree that in today’s black metal there is so much variety in vocal styles, and vocalists from other regions have developed trademark sounds of their own. One thing I like a lot about most bands from Norway is that you know who they are simply by the vocals alone. Ragnarok really fits this profile. It was a decent set of black metal, and the audience seemed to think so as well. Windmills, windmills everywhere. I think that perhaps the best element of this performance however was the animated stage presence of guitarist Bolverk.
I know black metal is supposed to be dark and full of hatred and don’t get me wrong, these elements came through in Ragnarok‘s performance. Yet at the same time you could visibly see that Bolverk was having a hell of a good time playing to the crowd and photographers. It was clear he loves playing music and performing live. To me this is a crucial element of live performances and music in general. At the bottom of it all, the people we watch on stage are still people, nothing more and nothing less. To see the actual reason someone wants to play music come through in their performance is rare. What we usually see is the image they have crafted and perfected, we see the elements of the performance, but not the people underneath, who work tirelessly to deliver the performance. Bolverk, while delivering the crafted performance to which I refer, still allowed for something more personal to bleed through. We could see he was having fun. To the naysayers who believe there should be no fun in black metal, only robes and kvlt rituals, fuck you. Get off your high horse, get a life and go watch Ragnarok.
Showmanship and Norwegian rawness aside, I was still drunk as hell, so I had my fill about halfway through the set. I went to splash some water on my face, babble some bullshit to my friend and co-conspirator Lady Enslain, whom I am not even sure I found, but I did find the big bald legend of a brother of mine, the famous Roy. If you are ever at a festival in Finland watch out for this guy. He will give you booze, buy you shirts that don’t fit, offer you water and hang with you when everyone else is watching some shit you don’t want to see. Fuckin’ dick. Water was actually a welcome relief, for a second I had forgotten it existed. As that cool, clear, tasteless liquid passed over my lips and into my mouthhole I thought “they ought to give the guy who invented this shit a gold medal.” I felt better almost instantly, which was good because I was gearing up to see the most talked about act of the evening, Poland’s mysterious robed choir boys Batushka.
With only one release, 2015’s Litourgiya, there is not much known about this band who remain cloaked in smoke and shadow. Everyone has already heard they consist of members from other well established bands and their only release met instant critical acclaim. While musically the album itself is hauntingly beautiful and reifyingly evil, full of melancholy, disdain, hatred, darkness and hollow liturgical chants, I am usually quite wary of the hype surrounding these super groups before enough time has passed to allow an accurate judgment of dedication and staying power. (Ghost, anyone? A band that at first seemed interesting and had some good tunes rapidly led me to disappointment as they revealed themselves to be fakes motivated by other factors.) That said, Batushka seems to be genuine, and they effectively stripped all humanity from their stage presence, giving a true performance in every sense of the word. This was very meticulously put together, and I feel like any concerns over how such a complex album can possibly transfer to a live setting may now be laid to rest.
Now to be clear, Batushka is doing nothing really new here. The stage was set up like a tabernacle and the performance-based ritual borrowed elements from a range of diverse acts, simultaneously evoking Watain, Portal, Cult of Fire and the ever influential King Diamond. What made this performance stand apart from other intricate, ritualistic stage shows was the real and intense orthodox feeling that grew layer by layer as their performance rose from the chime of a bell and the lighting of a candle, to the thunderous cacophony of blast beats, heathen vocals, droning riffs and the liturgical chants of the choir. The attention to detail and the fact that they did such an effective job concealing not just their personal identities, but their human identity, behind the robes made this a truly striking performance indeed. It had the appearance of a ghoulish congregation, and the three-man choir added to the aura of orthodoxy. Musically, the set consisted of their debut album Litourgiya, seemingly in its entirety, accompanied by requests of “Steelfest, let us pray.” I know this is all designed to convey feelings of a church-like setting and a ritual paying homage to heavy metal’s dark overlords, but I think there is a line that sometimes gets crossed these days. Black metal itself is the ritual. Black metal in its rawest form stands against the church as an organization, against god as a master and against sharply defined modes of Christian veneration. When I actually started to feel like I was at church I started to question the validity of bands that call themselves black metal, but imitate a fucking Sunday mass.
Those feelings aside, I liked the set. I like the album, but I can’t be the only one who sees the irony in a room full of people wearing clothes that are covered in images which go against everything the institution of organized worship stands for raising their fists and yelling “fuck yeah” to the order of “let us pray.” I think this band has huge potential, and I would like to see them continue making music of the magnitude they reached on their debut. The performance was well rehearsed, the sound was decent, and the show was entertaining. My biggest complaint is just the church-like atmosphere. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I yearn for the time when black metal sets were fierce, in-your-face whirlwinds of spikes, blood, hair and leather. A raised middle finger to the gods and laws of civilized Western society. The music is still great, but the energy has been drained. Or maybe it’s my energy, my capacity to care, that has been drained. I will never forget the feeling I got when I first heard Marduk’s Christ Raping Black Metal. My hair stood up, I was terrified and intrigued. Or when I first heard Transylvanian Hunger, and did not know music could be so hauntingly magic and captivating. It was dangerous, and it was very real and felt evil. Perhaps I would have gotten that old feeling back if I had stuck around for Graveland or Gorgoroth, but I doubt it. My head was swimming with intoxication, I was both impressed and depressed by Batushka’s sermon, and I had concerns over missing the last train home to Helsinki. With that I bid everyone a good night and set off through the gates and out of Steelfest. Another great fucking festival behind me. I cannot wait for what blasphemies and satanic delights future years may hold and I can only guess it will be related to heavy metal and too much booze. As a final note, I would like to thank the organizers of this festival, who consistently do an amazing job bringing us interesting bands, good fun and a quality setting each year. Hail.
Report and photos by Joshua Irwin, copy-editing by D.A. Smith