STEEL FEST 2013 (Hyvinkää, Finland)
Summer time is a special time in Finland, the snow is gone, the sun shines for 18 hours a day, the birds sing, people retreat to the peaceful serenity of a cottage by a lake… and the festival going metal heads come out to play. While Europe has a great festival culture in general it is no understatement to say that Finland is rapidly becoming one of the better destinations in the North for people who want to include affordable music-based recreation in their summer travel plans. At a point in economic history where more people have less disposable income - and tickets to the giant European heavy metal fests can run upwards of 170€ - Finland and its smaller scale, more affordable, but by no means less of an experience festivals are growing in popularity.
One thing everyone knows about Finland aside from sauna, snow, hockey and the country’s love affair with alcohol is that Finland is world renown for producing and embracing good heavy metal. This fact really shows when you compare the scale of Finnish festivals such as Hammer Open Air, Tuska, Nummirock, Black Flames of Blasphemy and Steel Fest Open air to the scale of the acts these promoters are able to secure and the low cost of ticketing and accommodation. Housed in an old brick factory and its surrounding grounds this year’s second annual Steel Fest Open Air in Hyvinkää, Finland, was the perfect kick start to the summer festival season.
Day one, Friday May 24, began with a short 5€ train ride from Helsinki to Hyvinkää, followed by a short and leisurely five minute stroll through the beautiful small town to the festival area. Opening the festivities at 4 p.m. was Finland’s own Nuclear Omnicide. Already in their third year, these aggressive young thrashers are making a name for themselves with the March 2013 release of their first full length The Presence of Evil, and their own evil presence at this year’s Steel Fest was well received by many early arrivals. Up next was Gorephillia. Gorephillia’s sound is a testament to the awesomely brutal Finnish death metal scene which - along with label mates Maveth - they are largely at the head of. I caught the second half of their set, and found myself disappointed I missed the first. Fast and heavy, Gorephillia is death metal done right. Of the few performances I have seen from this band I would say that this one may have had the clearest sound, but not their most effective stage delivery. However they had powerful finish and were the perfect lead in to the next few acts.
About half past five Satanic Warmaster began their set at the indoor stage. Bitterly delivering hatred darker than that of his recordings, Werewolf never fails to deliver an excellent show, at times playing sloppy as hell and in the next second as tight as Judas Priest, with a matching energy on the drums. As a live band Satanic Warmaster effectively conveys a serious feeling depression and anger, and captivating darkness. Driving the final nail into the end of their set Werewolf delivered one of his trademark, all together inhuman, wolf calls as he threw down the microphone, turning his back to the crowd and left the stage with a “fuck you” attitude that a lot of modern black metal is lacking.
One of the most anticipated acts for me in this year’s lineup was Finnish black metal legends The Crescent (formerly Enochian Crescent). Almost one year after announcing the decision to part ways with vocalist Wraith, a powerful vocalist and excellent showman in his own right, The Crescent is proving to remain a formidable force in Finnish black metal. This was my first opportunity to witness a live performance after last year’s split and I was not sure what to expect, although new front man Hellwind Tuonenjoki has proven his capabilities both as a drummer and vocalist in his various other projects past and present. None the less I was skeptical about how one could replace or reproduce the extreme stage antics of Wraith and thus maintain the reputation this band has for powerful performances both musically and visually. The short answer is that one likely cannot, but make no mistake: The Crescent is no less furious in its new incarnation than it was in the days with Wraith on stage. The set consisted of many new songs from the 2013 full length Risti (‘Cross’ in English) as well as many Enochian Crescent trademarks including the devastatingly wrathful, yet eerily captivating “Black Flame of Satan Burning”.
As if the atmosphere at this point was not otherworldly enough the language and hauntingly beautiful keyboards of the new album’s title track “Risti” really gave a sense of separation between the present and some darker dream time now long past. It is fair enough to say that Hellwind has much to offer the Crescent as a band, and while the stage show has taken on a different form it is no less striking and no less entertaining. All bands must be allowed room for growth, and perhaps the split of founding members Wraith and Viktor was a step in the right direction for all parties involved.
Finland’s own controversy Goatmoon was next on the bill. A last minute addition to the festival lineup they joined this year’s Steel Fest to make up for the sudden cancelation of Urn. Being the local legends they are it would have been a large disappointment for Finnish and international fans to deal with their absence were it not for the willingness of Goatmoon to step in and fill their shoes. For a band that has had to at one time play under a false moniker due to the ideological disagreements between a certain Helsinki venue and BlackGoat, vocalist and brains behind the operation, it never ceases to impress the amount energy put forth during a Goatmoon show from both band and fans alike. The set consisted of a nice mix between songs from the latest full length, Varjot, and classic Goatmoon anthems such as “Alone” and “Kunnia”, “Armageddon”. Despite what many may have to say about the political leanings of a proudly nationalist act, Goatmoon still delivers black metal in its rawest form. In a time where more and more bands are striving for a “black metal” sound, Goatmoon stands out and stands strong by simply making it, and perhaps it is the unwavering belief BlackGoat holds in what he is doing which makes it so.
Another testament to the pure devotion within Finnish black metal can be found in the form of HORNA, who hit the stage around 10 p.m. This year saw the release of their ninth full length studio album, Askel Lähempänä Saatanaa, which - when coupled with the live performance given at Steel Fest - proves that this constantly producing band has no intention of slowing down or growing stagnate in the near future. The ceremony was performed on the inside stage and was somewhat of a standard performance in terms of black metal’s ability to engage a large audience. That being said the sound quality from my vantage point was excellent and unlike most black metal guitarists Infection can be quite entertaining to watch at times, and Spellgoth truly appeared to be dead behind his empty eyes which added to the overall feeling of descent into the inferno this performance created.
At nine p.m. Vomitory hit the outside stage for what was by all accounts a solid, heavy as hell set. This was to be the last Finland would see of these Swedish death metalers as it was announced on February, 20th this year that after the summer’s scheduled gigs the band would be calling it quits forever. Unfortunately for me this means I will never truly catch a full Vomitory show as the first half of their set was spent waiting in line at the market across the street securing myself an adequate supply of post festival beer. That is the problem for a beer drinker in Finland, it is illegal for shops to sell alcohol after 9 p.m. Your options are stock up early or hit the bars and pay double. Having secured my evening refreshments in time I hurriedly rushed back in time to catch what was also to be another powerful performance of the dark ritual that is black metal. Having never heard much of the German four piece Darkened Nocturn Slaughtercult prior Steel Fest, I was unsure of what to expect from a band with such an interesting name. A friend of mine had strongly recommended I catch the set and so I made my way once again to the inside stage.
Aside from having the thought that the sound inside was now growing progressively worse there was nothing about this show that did not totally kick ass. Fronted by the frighteningly beautiful and robustly villous Yvonne “Onielar” Wilczynska the Slaughtercult is the embodied manifestation of what black metal should be. Blood, sex, anger and true devotion all poured forth from the stage while Onielar’s demonic shrieks sent chills down my spine more than once. Anyone still believing metal belongs only to men would surely change their tune upon witnessing the force that is the Darkened Nocturn Slaughtercult.
There were only two bands left and I decided to sit Belphegor out and enjoy some fresh summer air. Finnish summer nights are unlike any other in the world. Of course all of this was leading up to one name and one name only. Sodom. One of Germany’s own “big three” and one of the forces which drew a younger me into heavy metal in the first place. After missing the opportunity to see them some years back I had been waiting in anticipation for the opportunity to come once more. And then they hit the stage. And I have not been so surprised at the rift between expectation and reality in a long, long time. I am not sure if the problem was me, I was less than sober but that never prevented me from really getting into a show before, but the fact that my neck felt fine the next morning tells me something. As mentioned the sound inside had somehow grown worse, could this be due to larger crowds? It also occurred to me that these guys are not exactly in their mid 20’s anymore and touring can be exhausting. Or was it that this is Finland, and by midnight in Finland everyone is shit wasted, even the band? Whatever it was, it was not that bad it just was not the kick in the balls I had been hoping for. The next morning I came to find out many shared the same or stronger opinions. Granted I was not blown away in the same way one is by a Manowar gig, but can we really compare apples to oranges? It was Sodom, it was rad.
And with that day one of Steel Fest came to an end. I decided not to attend the official after party located just outside the venue, and instead went to a friend’s hotel room for some much needed rest. I slept like the dead. Day two, Saturday shaped up to be a great day for me although my focus had switched to the social aspect of this type of event rather than the music. One thing I can say about Finnish festivals is you will make a lot of friends, and they will keep in touch with you after the festivities have come to an end. Of the acts I did catch on Saturday, Barathrum stood out, as they usually do, with energetic liquor soaked performance. True to their nature they never disappoint.
In between Barathrum and Flame there was more entertainment going on in the festival area than at the stages specifically. So I spent my time wandering around in imbibition and good company. I made an honest attempt to see Flame, one of Finland’s best black thrash bands and a personal favorite of my festival companion Niko, but I just could not tear myself away from the fun I was having hanging around the tents and vendors. This went on for five acts, torn between catching a full set, or absorbing all the hilarious tales of past festivals, glory and drunkenness that Finns constantly regale you with after a certain stage in the afternoon. I chose the latter. That is to say until Tsjuder, who put on from what I caught a pretty solid show, it is just at this time I was getting quite tired. Not to say I was tired of the festival at all, it was very well organized and very, very fun. I just came to the realization that I am getting old, and keeping up with my Finnish company through a three day “total alkoholocaust” proved to be difficult and undesirable. So it was, around 11 p.m. on day two of Steel Fest I threw in the towel. No big deal for me as I only missed Mayhem who from what I heard gave a lackluster performance anyhow. Looking back one last time at the venue I left with a sense of real satisfaction. Time and money both well spent. The train ride from Hyvinkää to Helsinki is rather quick, 30-40 minutes or so and I was at home, in bed before 1 a.m. I can tell you for all the action, and genuine fun of the festival cold water and the company of my faithful pup Freyja made a perfect end to a radical weekend.
It has to be acknowledged that there were a lot of domestic acts, but this is Finland and here metal reigns supreme. This however only adds to the unique feel of Finnish festival when you consider the top name acts the promoters are able to secure from abroad. With a capacity of only 1,500 attendants per day it is a very intimate festival setting, which in the end makes for a better social experience. While there is something to be said about festivals with a capacity for 75,000 attendees, I feel that often watching a show in these festivals becomes more of a chore than it is worth, toilets become rank, bubbling pits of despair and procuring water when thirsty is enough to work up a new thirst in and of itself. Steel Fest and its sister festivals in Finland are slightly less chaotic, just as potent musically and offer the experience of a Finnish mid-summer night for festival goers coming from abroad. Also if you consider that Steel Fest had deals with local hotels whereby you can secure a two day festival ticket, 75 euro value, and two nights stay in the hotel for under 150 euro it becomes quite affordable. I know bigger festivals can run, total cost, up to 800€ or more for the whole weekend not including travel expenses. I can honestly say that train ticket and all I spent less than 100 euro for two days of beer drenched heavy metal fun at Finland’s Steel fest. It was worth every cent, and so much more. Next up on the summer roster is the mighty three day Tuska open air, Helsinki. For anyone looking to attend a well organized, affordable and unique heavy metal event next summer look to Finland, and look to Steel Fest 2014 as the gods of metal are smiling on this northern summer paradise. Hail.
Review and photos by Joshua Irwin