Tuska 2014 – Thrash all over Norwegian has-beens

Tuska Open Air Metal Festival – Suvilahti, Helsinki – June 27–29, 2014

With frantic festival fun at Steelfest, Maryland Deathfest and Kilkim Žaibu having already given our summer a busier start than might be healthy for the body or the mind, Tuska managed to sort of sneak up on us. Despite still feeling weary after our travels, there was no postponing Helsinki’s heaviest weekend of the year, filled with metal, mates, malts and madness. While the line-up of the 2014 edition didn’t come with a promise of erection-inducing exclusivities or first-time fantasmos for me, it still held several familiarly solid names from Finland and abroad, some more rarely seen acts, and a few touches of exotica, adding up to a varied platter of extreme music that I didn’t have to send back to the kitchen.

Thursday

Having played the festival itself in 2010 and 2012, and a Thursday warm-up show in 2011 and 2013, it seems like there’s no Tuska without Barren Earth. This time their pre-gig at On the Rocks was a particularly special one, as it was the first with new vocalist Jón Aldará. After Mikko’s departure due to schedule conflicts the previous summer, this Faroe Islander had finally been announced to be his replacement in early 2014, and was now put to a live test in front of the band’s hometown audience.

With his predecessor hardly being an exciting or excited-seeming stage persona, Jón definitely brought more visible passion and movement with him, and most importantly, possessed an equally convincing vocal skillset. While his growls were as deep and daunting as Mikko’s, Jón’s clean expression had more nuances to it, hitting plenty of higher notes as well. The newbie pretty much filled the big empty boots as well as one could have hoped, so after he grows some more hair on his head, Barren Earth should be all set for world domination.

A few new songs that were presented took the band’s sound to further extremes than before, from a mellower clean-vocal-dominated piece to some of the fastest BE material to date. However, the emphasis was on previously known material, and while Jón had no problem mastering that, we also saw Mikko join him on stage for a heartwarming duet. His departure had obviously left no bad blood in its wake, and as the band seemed to have hit the jackpot with his replacement, I don’t predict unhappy whimpery from their fans either.

Friday

The actual festival program started with a real kick in the face courtesy of Psykoanalyysi, Jyväskylä’s ambassadors of vitutus-hardcore. The ski-masked bass-less trio was led by Kari Grindi [only those familiar with classic Finnish juicebox advertising will understand what an awesomely striking pseudonym that is], who didn’t only discharge his vitutus by screaming his lungs out and going on pissed off rants in between the songs, but also had quite a lot of additional action going on, from tearing parliamentary ballots on stage to throwing ski-masks into the audience. Unfortunately the sharpest edge of the band’s grinding d-beatings was cut by the inferiorly echoing sound of the Club Stage, which was the case even right in the front. Nevertheless, the band made the most out of the slightly unfavorable conditions, and I consoled myself with the thought of being able to see them in a much more intimate environment a week later.

While featuring underground terror like Psykoanalyysi amongst their roster definitely earns Tuska a nod from me, and it’s the Club Stage that has basically enabled the organizers to also give several small bands a place at the festival, the acoustics of the room are atrocious. Over the course of three years, I hardly remember any time that I would’ve heard a decent sound there, despite having watched shows from almost every point in the room. And I’m miles away from being some audiophile after all.

While most of the audience was concentrated on following Ensiferum’s tättädädää on the Radio Rock Main Stage, I proceeded to fix my ears with the first beer of the day. The prices starting at 7 euros were no shock, but ordering proved to be a surprisingly arduous task, thanks to a cashier who didn’t seem to know much Finnish apart from the beer names, and a menu that listed unavailable items while lacking some of the ones that could actually be purchased… All’s well that ends well, I eventually managed to order something else than shitty Koff Rock, and didn’t have to wander around for long until running into the first round of old familiar friendly faces.

After a short stretch of mingling outside the festival area, Philip H. Anselmo & the Illegals starting it up on the main stage forced me to re-enter, and not only because of the medicine man’s legendary status or the promise of him again performing Pantera songs after a decade-long break. Having given an ear to this fresh outfit’s debut full-length Walk Through Exits Only just a few short days before the festival, I had found it quite addictive in its chaotic, discomforting hostility, and surprisingly different from anything else I had heard from Phil’s direction before. Showcasing this new creation was what the first part of the set was also about, and despite being an enjoyable whirlpool of vomit that your average Pantera-loving redneck would hardly be able to digest, it surely didn’t present as material that’s best experienced live, especially at a big festival stage.

While already in between the first songs there was plenty of silly talk and laid-back attitude, it was the following cover extravaganza that turned the rest of the set into a bizarre jam session, where the band was having fun playing selected songs from Phil’s vast back catalog and beyond, and it felt as if the audience just happened to be there. I bet Radio Rockers looking to hear “Cowboys from Hell” or “Walk” weren’t too thrilled to watch the guys doing the Löwenbräu commercial jingle and following it with an improvised-sounding blast attack instead… Not that there weren’t more basic moments to sink your teeth into along the way as well – like the classic “A New Level” – but ending with a mere snippet of “Primal Concrete Sledge” seemed like another middle finger to the audience. While the show was surely a disappointment to many, the band’s charmingly careless and playfully assholish approach put a smile on my face. I’ve never been a huge fan of Phil or his various works, but after a genuinely devil-may-care performance like this, he has slightly more of my respect. And sporting a Funeral Mist shirt didn’t hurt either.

One of Tuska’s most (positively) surprising snatchings this year was Californian Nails, whose intensely grinding metallic hardcore definitely seemed like material that’d be bound to prevail live. Well, at least at an intimate, sweaty club. While putting them on the second biggest stage could be seen as a show of respect towards these guests from the faraway land beyond the ocean, it might’ve made more sense if they had switched places with Battle Beast instead – who were playing the Club Stage at the same time – since it’s pretty clear which act caters more to your average Tuska-goer. While the Inferno Stage’s sound wasn’t too favorable, Nails put up a furious fight that kept me in its grip until the end, with bassist John Gianelli being particularly convincing with his punky stage rage, and vocalist/guitarist Todd Jones scoring a few extra points with a brief praise of the old Finnish death metal bands in one of his speeches.

Having returned to relative relevancy with their latest album Halo of Blood, entirely skipping Children of Bodom was out of the question for me, and as the band kicked off with some strong material like “Kissing the Shadows” from their pre-sucky era, I was quite pleased. Apart from a well put together setlist, the band had brought a Bodom Beach Barbeque theme with them, including a few cars on stage with the Lost Society lads sitting and drinking in (or on) them, among other buffoonery. Despite my sense of humor being on a slightly different wavelength than the Bodomites’, the start of the gig was enough enjoyable that I felt a slight sting walking to the Club Stage after only a handful of songs.

However, the recently witnessed silliness was quickly swept away by cold and heavy waves of melancholy, as Hamferđ’s dismal death/doom dragged my mind to the bottom of the sea, to be eventually thrown onto the rocky shores of the Faroe Islands. While the band’s unusual origin was perhaps the initial intriguing factor – and vocalist Jón’s impressive debut with Barren Earth the previous night definitely added to it – even by mere musical standards, Hamferđ conveyed an exceptionally powerful atmosphere, marking their performance Friday’s top moment in Suvilahti. The inside stage tends to do a consistent job at flattening each gig with its poor acoustics, but the band’s slow sorrow march surprised also in this sense, as observing from the balcony in the back of the hall, the sound didn’t feel lacking. The sextet’s suited-up appearance reminded of Skepticism, but Hamferđ’s expression managed to take me through a much wider range of emotions, from crushingly hostile darkness to woeful cleaner parts, nearly bringing me to tears in the midst of a delightfully drunken summer day of watching metal bands alongside friends.

Having just started warming up the corpse in 2008, Carcass was a fine catch for Tuska back then, although I wasn’t too excited with their routine display of classics without a hint of madness in the eye. Despite having offered some highly enjoyable moments, after a few more encounters, I felt like I had lost the taste for seeing the band live. Until they went and put out an excellent new album in Surgical Steel, that is. At Carcass’s December gig in Helsinki warming up for Amon Amarth (absurd but true), I definitely sensed an aura of newfound energy and excitement, which is easy to attribute to the inclusion of fresh members and material. This transferred to their Tuska show as well, as the band offered a fine mixture of masterful butchery old ‘n’ new, with Jeff Walker’s dry British humour (sic) sprinkled on top. As long as Carcass is able to maintain the strength of their current stench, I hope they’re gonna keep on rotting for years to come.

The headliner of the day was another name that had appeared on the ’08 poster, as Dimmu Borgir were playing a set with a special emphasis on the “legendary” Death Cult Armageddon. If you ask me, Enthrone Darkness Triumphant is the only Dimmu album that would’ve deserved this kind of treatment, as DCA was only a milestone for furthering the band’s symphonic sound with the inclusion of a full orchestra, while marking a plunge deeper into mediocrity in terms of songwriting. Apart from some pyro, there wasn’t any unusual stage action or extra guests seen in Suvilahti, though, but just Dimmu’s averagely entertaining show with Shagrath’s over-the-top attire and Galder’s goofy grinning. While loyal followers might’ve been in a constant state of excitement, for me the first part of the set was mostly a yawn-fest. Luckily the band didn’t trudge through the whole album as I had assumed, but also covered a few songs off of Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia, for instance.

However, before Dimmu’s set had even reached its end, we started slowly heading towards our afterparty gigs of choice to avoid the worst jams while exiting the area and entering the venues. Some of us went for Tavastia’s moodier offerings Wolfheart & Amorphis, but I answered the call of Lepakkomies, where a mutilating maelstrom of metal and punk was about to open up. One of today’s most merciless grindcore groups, Death Toll 80k, kicked off this unofficial Tuska afterparty with the most sweat-inducing performance that I would witness during the whole weekend. The restlessly ripping riffs, precisely attacking drumming and animalistically raging vocals made for an annihilating aural experience that didn’t only count on blinding speed, but also presented plenty of neck-breaking mosh parts with a ravaging thrash vibe.

Helsinki’s most Brazilian metalpunks Força Macabra took the stage second, offering a break from the fastest blasts with their thrashcore fury spiced with occasional heavy metal hollerings. The quartet hasn’t been active on the release front in quite some years, but reminded that they’ve still got it on stage, giving the audience an expectedly intense Portuguese language bath, also including a few covers from their influences, like Anthares’ “Fúria.” Ending the night were Finland’s #1 grind export, Rotten Sound, who aren’t seen at this intimate of venues around here too often. This wasn’t the only noteworthy thing about the show, though, as having recently celebrated their 20th anniversary, the band accompanied the tight and refined present-day material with a few old Finnish-sung crusty cuts from their ’94 EP Sick Bastard… “Koiranoksennus! Koiranoksennus!!”

Saturday

Just like the year before, Saturday was packed with a notable amount of thrash acts, starting with Lost Society. The youthful J-Town quartet raged around the stage and mobilized the crowd seemingly unaffected by their Bodom Beach Barbeque hangover, but I found myself concentrating more on curing my own condition and preparing for the Finnish kings of the genre, Stone. And while the elderly were naturally no match for the youngsters in terms of energy, the excellence of their 80’s classics didn’t get lost in interpretation. Stone don’t seem to have any interest in possibly tarnishing their legacy with new recordings, and I definitely don’t mind them getting together for a few gigs every once in a while, as it means I can bang my head, kill my soul and let my fucking head explode to maddening thrash metal mastery that was spawned before I was.

Metal Church was one of the rarest treats Tuska offered us this year, but was probably too much of an under-the-radar kind of act to attract any wider attention – or get more than 45 minutes. I was also determined to give them a shot, but being unacquainted with their 10-album discography, the set didn’t manage to keep me in its grasp for too many songs. Their thrashy heavy metal was performed with passion, but I soon decided to go for the familiar comfort of the Club Stage instead, where Beastmilk were spilling their apocalyptic post-punk. This lot has been praised in both the mainstream and the underground, and I can only concur, as the cold and haunting atmosphere they conjure is so pervasive that it’s no wonder they’re playing several metal-dominated festivals as well. The sound wasn’t again that ideal in its echoing muddiness, but the single-guitar set-up, the infectious songs and Kvohst’s stage charisma minimized the damage effectively.

After this smooth glass of beastly milk, it was time to forget about the lighter drinks and grab a big fat beer in the form of Tankard. Having been responsible for one of the previous Jalometalli’s most exhilarating highlights, these persistent Germans had now returned to serve their catchy concoction also to the lazy Southerners. And with more than five years having passed since their Tavastia visit, the audience was eager to guzzle it down. Tankard are one of those rare cases where seeing their festival performance doesn’t make you long for a headlining club show instead, as their alcohol-soaked goofery sits just right at an open air stage on a sunny day, at least as long as you’ve got a cold one in your hand. Too bad that uptight Finnish bureaucracy dictates your liquid enjoyment to happen way in the back of James, as opposed to somewhere close to where the band is actually playing. Hell, the security personnel were probably near-shitting their pants even when Gerre helped “A Girl Called Cerveza” onto the stage during her respective song…

Tankard’s thirstifying tunes had switched our gear into full-on party mode, and the following break from anything decent provided by Arimoral and Bring Me the Horizon conveniently let us continue just wetting our whistles for a while. But hey, after giving us We Butter the Bread with Butter and BMTH on consecutive years, how you gonna top that, Tuska? Luckily soon enough it was time to forget troubles of the like, and swipe the poser scum into the sewers with some skull-splitting metal, courtesy of Ranger. This furious foursome of capital area bangers has speeded their way into the limelight during the last year or so, and all that fuzz ain’t for nothing. The band’s old-school savagery rams forth with youthful energy and to-the-bone dedication, and once they hit the stage, it all comes to life with that electrifying force that is the very core of heavy metal. About damn time that these cats graduated from playing unofficial Tuska afterparties at Lepakkomies to showing what they’re made of at the festival itself!

Suvilahti’s thrashing Saturday came to its end with Anthrax, the only one of the “big four” that I had yet to witness in the flesh. Not that I’ve largely acquainted myself with the band’s works or ever grown highly fond of them, but their solid 80’s legacy, classic vocalist Joey Belladonna’s semi-recent return to the fold, and the approvable 2011 album Worship Music had set me into the mood of careful excitement. And the group definitely delivered, justifying their headliner position with the top performance of the day. Being well into his 50’s, Mr. Belladonna might look like my mother-in-law amusingly much at times (at least when observed through beer goggles), but based on this Among the Living dominated set, his voice or stage charisma haven’t deteriorated over the years. Saturday evenings tend to be where drunken ecstasy and madness reign most supreme at Tuska, and Anthrax’s punishing performance kicked that part of the weekend off just right.

Sunday

…and as much of a blast we had had for the last couple of days, the Tuska Sunday started with its usual disabling hangover purgatory. Rarer visitors Powerwolf and Orphaned Land and familiar frowners Insomnium and Church of the Dead drifted by on the other side of town while we were busy trying hard not to simply fucking croak. But with a gem like Speedtrap gleaming in the distance, there was no other option than to pick oneself up and defy the unfavorable weather and our challenging condition. Once more into the fray.

Satyricon’s simplistically rocking tunes rang through the rainy air alluringly as we reached the festival grounds, but my target was dead-set on the Club Stage. Spearheading the new wave of great Finnish heavy metal alongside Ranger, Speedtrap have gotten their fair share of deserved attention as well, and were a brilliant choice for the weekend’s last act inside. While there weren’t too many songs left in the set once I finally made it there, the band made them count, replacing any traces of my crippling crapulence with sheer explosive headbanging mania; quite a Powerdose indeed. Ville Valavuo’s ingenious guitarwork in particular made my braincells boil with its head-busting speedfreak electrocution of stellar heavy metal riffs, and as a friendly finish, vocalist Jori thanked the fellas in the front by throwing them some LP’s.

While having respect for the pioneership of Neurosis, I’ve never really got them, and so their slot was mostly spent hiding from the rain under the Jallu tent and catching up with not-so-often-seen Lohja buddies while waiting for Sunday’s headliner. Emperor have never gotten special emphasis in my listening habits either, but they could easily be named the one must-see of this year’s Tuska, having reunited for a limited batch of shows to celebrate the 20th anniversary of In the Nightside Eclipse and play the album live in its entirety. While being surprised how balanced and clear the sound was, the band’s stage presence left me with conflicted emotions. Having queer-killer Faust again handling the battery sure gave the show a more interesting spin, but with one of the Norwegian black metal scene’s most essential works being interpreted by a nerdy-looking nostalgia-tripping family man who has long since grown up and out of it – along with an overly excited session keyboardist – didn’t sit quite right with me. Not that Ihsahn’s vocal and instrumental execution left room for complaints, but the skill without the spirit doesn’t add up to much… Perhaps it’d be time to just let dead dogs lie, this time for good? “A Fine Day to Die,” as the Bathory cover they finished it off with in respect of the 10th anniversary of Quorthon’s passing put it.

With the line-up definitely losing to the previous year’s offerings, Tuska 2014 didn’t manage to provide us with too many enlightening revelations or moments of heavy grandeur, but gave us its share of metallic revelry nonetheless. And as much of a retarded cliché the whole metalhead brotherhood thing is, there was no shortage of that, as joyful run-ins with too rarely seen comrades happened consistently throughout the weekend. An appropriate culmination of this was our inebriated congregation gathering in the downstairs of PRKL for a few rounds of post-festival brews regardless of the desolate return to everyday life lurking in the horizon… how else to top off a proper Tuska than by maximizing the next morning’s misery with a night of no tomorrow?

* * *

Photography: slideshow | individual band galleries

Leave a Reply