The Agonizing Glory of War (and Death Metal)

Tuska Open Air Metal Festival – Suvilahti, Helsinki – June 28–30, 2013

Thursday

The third Tuska in Suvilahti announced itself with quite a bang, as among the first revealed bookings were two legendary names whose return to Finland had been eagerly awaited for years and I had yet to witness in the flesh – death metal warmachine Bolt Thrower and the master of heavy metal horror King Diamond.  As time went on, the rest of the bill didn’t shape up to be quite as mind-blowing as this flaming start might’ve fooled some to expect, but it’s still safe to say that the organizers managed to pull together the most exciting Tuska line-up in years.  At least I caught myself looking forward to the last weekend of June with atypical exhilaration.

The eve of the festival was already packed with action, as the town was set ablaze by official pre-parties and other less related events to lure the metal junkies out of their caves on this Thursday of excited expectation.  The confusingly coinciding Rock the Beach had invited Therapy? over to The Circus for an afterparty show and funnily slapped Rytmihäiriö as one of the warm-up acts, while Virgin Oil was hosting a bunch of cover bands, but we found ourselves heading to Tavastia for starters and continuing to On the Rocks afterwards.

Final Assault destroying all the civilized planets

Those with a three-day Tuska ticket in their pocket or a wristband around their arm only needed to cover the narikka charge to enter Tavastia, so kicking off the four-day metal marathon with some thrashing and grinding at this Helsinki rock mecca was an easy choice.  After tactically missing the musically adequate yet conceptually all too silly opening act Tukkanuotta, we were attacked by the crossover storm of Final Assault.  While my previous encounters with them had been at smaller and perhaps more suitable venues, and the mood at the half-empty Tavastia didn’t feel too receptive, the band speeded, stomped and sweated through their slot with admirable energy and enthusiasm.  These guys might not be teenage stallions anymore, but the classy compositions and their intense interpretation come bursting from the heart, proudly standing alongside the genre’s classics, and putting most younger acts to shame.

Olli & Pete feastin’ on ’em

Having just unleashed their third album, Feastem were rightfully occupying the headliner spot.  Delivering opinionated, pissed-off grindcore with a tight, sharp sound that’s not devoid of catchiness, they’ve been steadily climbing towards Rotten Sound’s throne in recent years.  Their raging rampage on stage is bound to leave one gasping for air as well, with particularly vocalist Pete performing with passionate possession while vomiting forth fire and fury in a way that’ll make you want to tear down the fucking walls.  The little anecdotes he shares in between the songs also have the habit of being relevant and entertaining, from the traditional “working tomorrow, aren’t you?” face-rub of “Working Man Blues” to dedicating the booze-drenched delirium of “Pohjalta kuuluu” to Jere of Cut to Fit, perhaps the only absolutist in the audience.

Marko & Oppu on their way to oblivion

After Feastem’s compact dose of controlled chaos, I quickly skipped onwards to On the Rocks, where the Estonian two-man powerhouse Talbot had already wrapped it up, and the main act Barren Earth had just launched into their first tunes.  Sami Yli-Sirniö must’ve been caught in other ropes, as Kimmo Korhonen of Solacide was filling in for him, and less than two weeks later, we found out that the show had also been special in a more significant way, marking Mikko Kotamäki’s last time behind the BE mic.  I didn’t sense any feeling of a farewell in the air at the time, though, with the only detectable melancholy floating around being the grievous beauty of their songs.  While I recognized still being mostly unfamiliar with Barren Earth’s latest album The Devil’s Resolve, there was a fair amount of older material to maintain my interest, with “The Leer” reaching the most rapturous heights of the bunch.

Apart from an enjoyable gig, visiting On the Rocks gave a good taste of what the weekend would have in store in terms of mingling, as the night was filled with delightful reunions with friends from Chicago to Morocco to Copenhagen.  Thoughts and brews were naturally shared with several of the more usual suspects as well, and all these collective good times were an excellent reminder of why the Tuska weekend is one of the highlights of every summer – not only musically, but also socially.

Friday

James “Metal” / TesseracT

Having backed out less than a month before they were supposed to open up Tuska – thanks to their guitarist’s hand injury – The Dillinger Escape Plan’s replacement with Tesseract felt like a considerable downgrade.  Knowing how intensely the mathcore masters would’ve ripped apart the main Radio Rock Stage, the Brits’ progressive expression was unable to excite me on any level, lacking the bite and the balls.  At least I know one fan that was happy to see their unexpected addition onto the bill, but apart from the bass sound standing out semi-enjoyably at times, there was nothing to go on with for me.

Luckily at the same time, Cut to Fit had something entirely different to offer on the inside Club Stage.  The down-to-earth do-it-yourself attitude of the Lahti trio is admirable, and their raw grindcore is of class as well.  Add to this vocalist Jere’s honest and funny speeches about how the gig was their “biggest” ever and how surprised he was by the decent attendance, and the band put up a short and thoroughly entertaining afternoon show.  Afterwards, I left the room with the encouraging conviction that Cut to Fit are deep in the core of what underground music should be all about.

Abhorrence invading the biggest stage of their supremely short career

After a brief period of unwinding in the grassy comfort of Puistobaari, it was time for one of the year’s most noteworthy grave robberies, as Abhorrence had been summoned from beyond to kick things off at the Inferno Stage.  These legendary mummies of early 90’s Finnish death metal underground had already blasted off the coffin lid somewhat unofficially by decimating Bar Loose a month before, but vocalist Jukka still amusingly declared on the Tuska stage how this was their first gig in more than two decades.  Contractual obligations or dementia settling in, who knows?  I felt some of the brutal power of their undying classics going to waste in the big open daylight setting, making me regret the absence of the more intimate tent stage this year, but Abhorrence still pulled off the job respectably, attracting a wide range of spectators from adolescent moshers to elderly ladies.

Teemu & Jari reveling in summery sunshine

While the metal masses seem to have been wetting their pants over Wintersun recently, the band hasn’t claimed a special spot on my map beyond their obvious instrumental virtuosity, and their set on the main stage didn’t manage to steer my stance into a more favorable direction either.  Retreating to the echoey darkness of the Club Stage to greet a friend led into a moderately positive surprise, though, as I was welcomed with Dreamtale’s solid power metal.  While I tend to play it safe these days by simply avoiding representatives of the style, their tunes carried that genuinely powerful and engaging vibe that drew my teenage heart to Stratovarius around the turn of the millennium.  And contrary to what their terrible choice of moniker made me expect, I didn’t sense any distractingly goofy or cheesy aspects that too often seem to plague their kind.

Keeping me firmly at the inside stage, Torture Killer’s catchy butchery was an expectedly tasty treat that served as enjoyable foreplay before bringing out the big guns.  Even though the songwriting on the band’s fresh full-length Phobia hadn’t entirely lived up to my expectations, they still delivered pure murder on stage, with the newest mic-man Pessi sounding every bit as powerful and commanding as his more established predecessors.  With Torttu serving us a solid selection of their most punishing tunes from along the road, what I saw of the set was highly approvable, but with so many psyched spectators in the room, scoring a decent spot – let alone a beer – proved an annoyingly serious challenge, and so I preferred to grab a quick refreshment somewhere a bit less cramped before Friday’s first headliner.

Jo / Bolt Thrower

It had been a long while since England’s humble death metal giants Bolt Thrower had spread their wings over Finland, and for summer 2013, Tuska managed to summon the band over for their only European show of the year.  Not only are Bolt Thrower one of the most legendary names of their genre, but they have maintained a consistently high quality with their output, and refused to fade away with dishonor.  They’ve chosen not to record another album unless they feel capable of outdoing themselves, and have been cutting back with the live dates instead of cashing in on their former merits until even the most die-hard fans grow weary.  That’s the kind of mentality you rarely come across.

Although I and Bolt Thrower don’t share a long and intimate history, their attacking aural atrocities had been in heavy rotation in my headphones recently, penetrating my consciousness with brute force and fateful melodicism.  Add to this the plentiful words of praise I had heard about the band’s recent gigs, and I was looking forward to their Tuska appearance as one of the most awaited highlights of the summer.  Being filled with all this anticipation, I felt compelled to leave the comfort of the far-away drinking area and head closer to the eye of the storm.

Gavin / Bolt Thrower

Nevermind the desert that made my mouth its home, BT delivered more than an hour of gloriously empowering mid-tempo death metal with their career-spanning set.  While the inclusion of some of the rawer and faster early cuts warmed my heart for sure, it was the later-day pieces like “Powder Burns” and “…for Victory” that truly set it on fire.  The iconic riffery of “The IVth Crusade” perhaps claimed the highest throne, though, and the Those Once Loyal picks deserve a proud salute as well, reminding what a smoking hole in the ground that album generated in 2005.  However, it wasn’t just the sounds that turned the Suvilahti crowd into a roaring mass of maniacs, as the band’s stage performance was full of passion as well, with especially the First Lady of Death Metal Jo Bench and charismatic frontman Karl Willets and his monstrous voice reigning over all.

As a dessert to this prime bloodbath, Amorphis played a bunch of their mostly all-too-familiar tunes on the Inferno Stage.  Always enjoyable, yet rarely exceptional.  We had already witnessed their latest Circle presented from beginning to end a few months earlier, so this performance felt more like your standard festival set for the easy-listeners.  A nice one to watch from behind the drinking area fence, though, while preparing for another band that I knew I couldn’t just watch from the unsatisfying comfort of some distant beer haven.

The King & the Grandma

Friday’s main headliner and the last stage number in Suvilahti was rightfully King Diamond, having become one of heavy metal’s most iconic characters during his over-three-decade career.  As there were no overlapping acts, those in the audience who didn’t fancy Kinkku’s unique vocal style got to leave for their afterparties early, while the rest of us stayed to enjoy his awesomely absurd horror theatre.  Having never seen the band live, and rarely possessing any interest in watching live videos – be it a professionally shot DVD or a crappy camera-phone clip on YouTube – I didn’t quite know what they had in store for us visually.  Needless to say, the magnitude of the props took me by surprise as I first gazed upon the castle-like setting of the stage with its bars, railings and sets of stairs.

One of the most essential theatrical elements was surely stage actress Jodi Cachia, who depending on the song appeared as the monstrously wicked grandma, the voodoo-possessed Lula, or poor Miriam in her final throes of pregnancy and demonic possession.  The stage hands carrying additional props and instruments back and forth during the set were no ordinarily roadie-looking fellows either, but faceless hoodlums, who seemed to be wearing funnily colorful sneakers, though.  Noticing this kind of minor details wouldn’t have been possible without the big screens around the stage, which I must’ve been staring at more intensely than ever before, as there was almost constantly something interesting going on up there.

…and the Kingly fanatics.

The show in itself was already entertaining, but it was the steady stream of King Diamond classics – as well as a few Mercyful Fate ones – and their excellent interpretation that made the experience truly captivating.  The extraordinary variety of the King’s voice best stuck out on the disturbingly deranged vocal insanity of “Up from the Grave,” while song-wise the Abigail coverage pulled the highest straw.  A 90-minute best-of left me hungry for a way longer one, but also brought to my mind the distant but oh-so-delicious possibility of one of those whole-album sets that are so fashionable these days…  Anyhow, I walked away with a wide smile on my face afterwards, convinced that I had just witnessed heavy metal at its best – evil, morbid, yet so delightful.

The night was still quite young, and I wanted to make haste towards Tavastia, thinking that theirs might end up being one of the afterparty gigs to sell out.  Arriving at the destination, my fears proved silly, as the stage room of the venue wasn’t even open yet, and the rest of it was quite empty, too.  Well, at least I didn’t take any chances when it came to seeing two important bands for me – Sleep of Monsters and The Resistance – even if it was highly because of their vocalists’ previous endeavors…

Support Monsters not Reason

By the time Sleep of Monsters went on, the attendance hadn’t grown considerably, but the surroundings didn’t make much difference as these Babylonian bastards let loose their trippy and addictive abomination of gothic rock.  Despite having heard mere short samples of the band’s songs beforehand, and therefore all of them being practically unfamiliar, the tunes of their yet unreleased debut filled the room – or at least my head – with magic.  While the material was catchy and felt fairly easy to digest, Ike Vil’s vocals were the mesmerizing darkness that gave it the depth of an abyss.  There was also a trio of supporting female vocalists, and while I would usually more or less detest this kind of a line-up addition, here it actually worked, not dominating the sound too much nor appearing as mere forced eye-candy, but adding a justified spice to the songs.

Omnium Gatherum going Beyond

Concentrating on seeing so many great bands all day had made me seriously neglect my alcohydration, so I figured the evening’s middlemen Omnium Gatherum would provide a convenient break to mend that… think again.  These Original Karhula Gangsters have stayed solid one album after another, but haven’t managed to properly catch my ear, especially after venturing into more progressive realms on their more recent works.  But damn, their live performance was so impressively full of energy and enthusiasm that it just demanded my full attention.  And suddenly, the venue didn’t seem so empty anymore.

The Resistance bending – not breaking

Swedish supergroup The Resistance didn’t get quite as excited of a reception overall, but forced my head to bang harder than all day.  As key member and guitarist Jesper Strömblad wasn’t with them this time for some reason or another, the band performed as a four-piece, but this didn’t even feel like a hindrance, as they still ended the night with a murderous set.  Marco Aro has been one of my favorite extreme metal vocalists for over a decade, and seeing him in action for the first time was a total thrill, from the ripping rage of his voice to the sincere speeches in his familiarly sympathetic Swede-Finnish.  While The Resistance’s sound held plenty of traditional Swedish death metal bulldozing, the hardcore-tinged stomping parts attacked with additional fury, as particularly spat on us by one of the very first tracks the band ever crafted, “My Fire.”  Even though we had just heard the news of Marco’s glorious(?) return to The Haunted the day before, I truly hope he’ll be keeping The Resistance’s fire burning as well…

Saturday

The bread and butter of WBTBWB

After perhaps the best single Tuska day for me so far, and the ensuing wilderness of the rest of the night, our Saturday wasn’t off to a blazing start, and missing the early sets of notable newcomers Lost Society and Baltimor became a reality.  At least we made it in time for most of Soilwork – who are starting to become almost as boringly commonplace of a visitor as some of their countrymen – but having recently released their most interesting album in ten years, they felt like quite a relevant addition to the bill after all.  Some of the new tunes and a few ever-reliable classics served as decent reminders that these Helsingborgers aren’t ready to be flushed down the toilet just yet.

Bearing the single-handedly most idiotic band name ever printed on a Tuska poster, We Butter the Bread with Butter seemed like a car crash worth at least a little peek, as it was on the way from the main arena to the better offerings of the Club Stage anyway.  The average-sounding deathcore of these Germans (somehow their nationality does not surprise me) didn’t strike nearly as memorably retarded as I was expecting, and the guys could’ve looked way more faggy and ridiculous as well, now just leaving me with a bland, forgettable impression of a group whose main (or only) claim to fame is their silly choice of moniker.

The Delirious Order starting to mangle

After reaching the inside stage, I was soon met with an enjoyable set of delirious orders from one of Finland’s best (and best-kept) tech-death secrets, De Lirium’s Order.  Since their return with a revised line-up and their third album Veniversum, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the group tear up several stages, and while this time the amount of audience was particularly favorable – creating an ideal setting for their “.44” video shoot – the messy sound in the hall didn’t do justice to the complexity of the compositions.  Hearing “The Art of Butchering” off of the band’s murderous debut executed live was the highlight of my festival day nonetheless.

Venien / Von

Primitive U.S. black metal pioneers and cult act Von might’ve seemed like a true catch if the band’s confusing reunion circus with its name right disputes, supposedly half-assed rehearsal-like gigs and side projects hadn’t watered their name down to an awkward shadow of the legendary entity they were over two decades ago.  Having minimal expectations towards their show at the Inferno Stage and little familiarity with their recent recorded endeavors, I was surprised to be met with plenty of slow obscure moments in the midst of the standard blasting, with some of them bearing carefully compelling traces.  Indeed, if this had been presented in a dark club setting under an unrelated moniker, I might’ve found it quite immersive.  However, when the band’s current state breathes such a lack of vision in so many other aspects, the natural choice is to turn one’s attention to fresh, genuinely vigorous acts instead of trying to force yourself to get excited over a once remarkable but now practically dead horse.

Sami’s finest buddy pic so far

Kreator, then again, proved to be far from that, although their previous Tuska visit five years earlier had hardly convinced me.  This time the band sounded considerably more ripping and powerful, including Mille’s vocal delivery that was agonizing only in a positive manner.  Continuing the evening on the Club Stage, Urfaust were an entirely different bat with their hypnotic black metal laced with maniacal clean vocals.  While the duo has been a frequent gig guest in Finland, and I’ve surely seen them in much more suitable situations, it exhilarates me to think what a surrealistic slap in the face their deranged intoxication rites must’ve been for your more average metalhead that might’ve haphazardly wandered into the room…

While several extremities were represented within Saturday’s bill, thrash felt like some sort of a common thread, as after Kreator, the next Radio Rock Stage act and the day’s headliner was Testament.  This was a rightful upgrade from their weirdly early 2010 slot, as these Cali thrashers are definitely on the better-preserved side of the genre’s classic acts both on stage and record.  However, I’ve never gotten too much in sync with their style, and therefore found myself already looking forward to the more intense domestic thrash and way cheaper beer that Lepakkomies would have to offer… This sweaty Kallio cave has been hosting alternate Tuska afterparties for several years now, and had an irresistible treat in store for us on this Saturday night as well.

Breakin’ the Saturday sweat with Nuclear Omnicide

Malicious Death’s older and stinkier farts with their tremendous riffs opened up the gates to the Underworld, while the barely legal Kyrkslätt crazies of Nuclear Omnicide spewed forth burning storms of radiation, presenting a more speed limit defying high-intensity take on the style.  Finally, local combat metal knights Ranger wrapped up the night with a pressure wave of merciless headbanging and stagediving, almost giving the feeling of being transported back through time to some out-of-control 80’s metal show… no wonder everyone in the underground seems to be going apeshit over these guys.  As most of our out-of-town friends knew better than to stick around for Sunday’s considerably lamer Tuska line-up, and the place was packed with friends from all over, this also became the most brew-possessed peak of the weekend’s hangout extravaganza.  Obscure conversations, inebriated manlove and healthy activities like crawling on tables surely made this night one of those we’ll always remember, even if it’s hard to recall the details.

Sunday

Opening up one’s eyes on a Tuska Sunday often feels like Doomsday, and 2013 was no exception.  Even a few morning drinks and some hilariously shitty videos we watched with friends that found themselves around the apartment didn’t seem to get our engines started.  A round of naps and pukes later, we had already missed the only extreme offerings left, Deathchain and Hateform, who had been weirdly set to open the day with their partly overlapping sets.  As the next couple of hours of the schedule had little to offer for our tastes – with female-fronted acts like Amaranthe and Battle Beast – some more chilaxing took place before finally dragging our asses to Suvilahti for the mighty Stratovarius.

“Goddammit, Jens – try to keep up with the song, for once!”

Having just seen a headliner club gig from these domestic power metal heavyweights a few months ago on vappu, this wasn’t a long-awaited show I had packed a ton of expectations for, but as I’ve come to know Strato as a live act that never lets the audience down, it felt like the definitive performance of the day.  Showcasing the solid new album Nemesis, along with a fair bunch of hits from the band’s golden era, the set was nothing too special, yet with Kotipelto and Co. interpreting all of it with such honestly invigorating spirit, they truly kicked my ass back into gear.  I might not follow Strato’s undertakings with a fanboy’s passion anymore, but feel delighted to see them still doing decent albums and energetic gigs, showing they have again managed to tap into the spring of youthful inspiration.

Floor flooring the skeptics

It’s too bad post-metallers Betrayal at Bespin’s slot entirely overlapped with Stratovarius’s, as they were one of the few interesting lighthouses in the midst of the storm of po(o)p-metal and out-of-place rock bands… well, I guess this Tuska Sunday was mostly for mainstreamers just coming to see one or two of their favorites anyway.  And then there was nothing but Nightwish left to headline it all off for the next two hours.

When my sister introduced her youngest brother to albums like Hatebreeder, Visions and Oceanborn nearly 15 years ago, the almost obsessive fascination towards the first two certainly overpowered the last, but there was something captivatingly unique about the sound of this young Kitee group as well – Tarja’s operatic vocals, in particular.  While my metallic interests soon started shifting elsewhere, that slight appreciation towards Nightwish remained.  Until Tarja left and some Swedish pop bimbo with zero character threw herself out of the bushes in an attempt to fill her boots, that is.

However, this time there was a new frontwoman in play, as a Dutchess by the name of Floor Jansen had taken over the mic, at least to help the band finish off their currently scheduled gigs.  I was skeptical but carefully excited to see what she would be able to bring to the table, being an experienced metal vocalist and not just another fair face with a decent voice, after all.  Now there’s no denying the fact that Tuomas is a gifted composer, but to be all that they can be, Nightwish need a truly powerful lead vocalist.  And Floor showed that she just might be the right lady for the job.  Her strong voice did justice to songs originally sung by both of her predecessors, and her stage performance didn’t lack captivating charisma either.  While I haven’t been following the band’s journey too closely for the last decade, I might have to do better during the next one if she sticks around.

The Gambina-fueled backbone of the Spermtroopers

Virgin Oil had been hosting the official afterparty gigs since Thursday, featuring a plethora of tribute bands, as well as original acts from Indonesian grinders Noxa to established domestic names such as Convulse and Blake, but Sunday’s post-Tuska purgatory was all reserved for covers.  The most interesting and impressive one of these was no doubt Spermtroopers of Destruction, as these familiar faces bashed out a whole hearty set of the offensive crossover of S.O.D.  Expecting Dark Avenger to end the weekend with gloriously pompous heavy metal brotherhood, we were left quite disappointed, as after Judas Rising’s set, the same guys just stayed on stage and switched from Priest to Manowar.  They sure knew the songs, but the feeling wasn’t quite there.  Or perhaps it was just the lack of drunkenly roaring shirtless Manowarriors in the crowd…

* * *

Photography: slideshow | individual band galleries

Leave a Reply