Tuska Open Air Metal Festival 2016 – Live Report

Every year, a few weeks before the Tuska Open Air Metal Festival weekend, I think that three days are almost a bit too much and that while there always are bands I am interested in, the more general than extreme metal approach of the festival is not really what I usually go for. But it is still nice to go and see these few bands and meet up with friends there. But then by Wednesday before the festival weekend the excitement starts creeping in, just like the first times I went to Tuska over 14 years ago. And this year, the line-up was quite decent for my taste and there were lots of bands playing as the City of Helsinki had granted the festival permission to keep going til midnight both on Friday and Saturday for the first time.

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About 28 000 metal heads thought the same and gathered at Suvilahti in Helsinki between July 1-3. Friday greeted the black clad crowd with a hot summer day, not a cloud in the sky. Cattle Decapitation kicked things off with a blast as the first band on the Radio Rock Main Stage, and the festival area was already quite well filled for the early afternoon. But with this kind of weather, what could be better than to sip a cold beverage while the growling and squealing on stage put you in metal festival mood. The audience was saluting the festival openers with their hands and devil signs in the air, both the crowd and the band full of energy that resulted into a moshpit in front of the stage. There was something in the air, and not just the smell of sunscreen – it was anticipation for a great festival weekend to come.

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After a quick Death Metal pit stop with Whorion who plated in front of quite a crowd on the Inferno Stage inside – a refuge from the sun – it was time to enjoy a first beer in the VIP area that was all set up for a summer weekend this year: A cozy lounge area with fake grass and pillows outside and a dark and gloomy inside area for those wanting to keep their porcelain complexion. Inside, one could also spot some more items of the art project that was visible at various locations around the festival area, from the massive lamps at the Inferno Stage to the triangles decorating the pillars on the Helsinki Tent Stage to the little table lamps in the VIP area: The collages of x-ray images added a little extra something to the atmosphere. Great to see that also metal festivals are starting to incorporate other art forms.

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The Tuska app was also a big help this year, sending push notifications 5 minutes before the next band you favorited was about to play – so no more excuses for missing a band. Except for still having to finish your drink as you were not allowed to take alcoholic beverages outside the designated area as it usually is in Finland at all-age events. Therefore, I was slightly late to see the first of three Swallow The Sun shows during this weekend. They were playing the first of the ‘Songs From The North’ albums, and after my drink was drank I rushed to the main stage to see them play. The crowd was not huge but respectable and those standing there in the scorching sunlight loved it and let themselves be mesmerized by this powerful music.

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The band was standing at front of the stage, all in one line which looked great. And despite the bright sunlight the show was full of intensity, especially when Mikko announced Heartstrings Shattering on which guitarist Juha Raivio’s partner Aleah Standbridge, who has recently passed away, sang. Raivio then also left the stage before this song and live session guitarist Juha Räihä took over for the rest of the set. Shivers ran down my spine and tears came to my eyes, Swallow The Sun’s music does that anyway but this time it was so sad and beautiful at the same time. All you could do was sway with the music and let the tristesse embrace you.

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From these sorrowful moments to the live explosion that is Mantar. The German duo makes better music with just the two of them than many bands of five. Guitarist Hanno and drummer Erinc were facing each other, and one could see the energy between them. It didn’t take long before the audience jumped in, hands in the air – an energetic triangle that resulted in huge applause for the band. Hanno was pulling faces, contorting his scrawny, shirtless body, bending over and under the mic stand like a metal Gollum. They steamrolled the audience with rhythm and power, they are a force to be reckoned with despite technical issues they encountered during the set. So it was no wonder that the audience answered with “Loud!” when Mantar asked them if they want them to sound good or loud. They followed their own three simple rules: Kill, destroy and fuck shit up. And that they did. As well as reprimanding the crowd to not behave like on a Monday night despite the strict Finnish drinking rules, but to turn this into a Friday and put the dancing shoes on. Mantar – festival highlight number one and still as interesting to see live as the first two times.

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And as a good metal head I listened to Mantar and tried to get into Friday evening mood with some more drinks and made it just in time for the last few Kvelertak songs that rocked the tent stage in front of an excited crowd. People were clapping, lights were dancing – Kvelertak are just hell of a live band and vocalist Erlend Hjelvik is one cool Viking rock’n’roller.

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When Testament got on the main stage, there were cheers from the front of the stage til the back of the beer area. By then Suvilahti was bathed in the magical golden Finnish summer evening light, creating this unique and gorgeous, magickal “summer in the city” atmosphere. Testament sounded good and they seemed to have a blast playing.

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From the sunny main stage do the obscure depths of the packed tent stage where Behemoth were performing their ritual. Nergal & Co. had the audience at their fingertips, and delivered the show that everyone had been waiting for to the backdrop of the setting sun, conjuring up the darkness of the night (well at least the relative darkness of Finnish summer nights). All the various elements of the performance were closely aligned without seeming stiff or forced – the power of the music united all other aspects of the gig to an intriguing black mass. From the outfits to the wafers being handed out, to the shower of ticker-tape it was an aesthetical package that works, an experience that I appreciate and admire. It is invigorating and inspiring, with all the little details like when they stepped back onto the risers and they turned into horned Satans in front of the metal back drops. The stage blood red, the whole crowd nodding their heads to the rhythm, shouting along with the lyrics. It is a performance, an experience, a state of mind, not just a gig.

The official Tuska Friday ended for us there despite only returning home in the early morning hours. What is left of that night is a new drink creation called Punkkero: A mix of red wine (punkku, slangword for punaviini Finnish) and Lonkero (the Finnish mixed drink made with gin and grapefruit soda) – it doesn’t taste as bad as it sounds. Kippis & Cheers!
Saturday was not kind to those who crawled out of bed after just a few hours of sleep. The sun was shining mercilessly from a blue sky and it was almost as hot as hell. It seemed as if many people had the same kind of wake up as there were not that many people at the festival area yet, and everything seemed to be slowly waking up. But Fuck-Ushima didn’t give a fuck on the indoor stage, where it was dark, cool and just lovely – but kicked the tired crowd in their asses. After the good start, the set seemed to lack a bit in the middle part but picked up again towards the end, and people started head banging. Three guys even started a mini mosphit.

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After this musical wake-up call it was time to slow down again: With The Dead were set to play on the tent stage next. It was the first time in many years Tuska had a tent stage again and it was just perfect for the more atmospheric gigs of the weekend. The crowd was limited but interested, clapping once the guys got on stage after the intro had built up the mood. From the slow motion head banging by singer Lee Dorrian to bassist Leo Smee’s huge hat and the music there were many nice things in this gig but it was just the wrong timing for this kind of music for me. But worth checking out next time again.

The crazy ride that Circle took their audience on was more suitable to get started with the second festival day. However, that meant missing Primordial for the most part as they played at the same time. Since I’ve seen Primordial many times already and Circle never before, it was an easy choice to be made. The first impression of Circle was that they were a crazy grooving band theatre whose musical style could not be described. You might make the mistake to not take them seriously at first but what they are indisputably seriously fun to watch. Vocalist Mika Rättö went from posing seductively, to ballet dancer moves to strutting around on stage. The whole band rocked, and they seemed to have so much energy that the music couldn’t hold it all but appeared to be bursting at the seams. This gig was surreal musical theatre, a good natured, good sounding slightly insane rock show that made you happy.

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From the colorful Circle experience to the darker, black and white world of Primordial – just in time to hear the beautiful melody of for one of my favs (The Coffin Ships) sail across the gathered crowd. The area had gotten more packed over all, everyone seemed to be in Saturday festival mood, and more people were dressed up in various outfits from gorgeous to silly – Tuska is a perfect festival for people watching.

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And then it went from dark to black: Tsjuder delivered some pure Norwegian black metal. No intro, they just started blasting right away and the only thing I could think was “Hell yeah, that’s exactly what I needed right now!” It was grim, no frills, in your face black metal – just as it should be. A much needed moment of blackness and trve evil on the midst of the sunny summer day and the happier, melodic bands. It was a tight set that got me almost head banging – and that after only three hours of sleep. I had seen Tsjuder live before but I don’t remember them being that good, that sharp. It was pure joy watching them and being engulfed in this black metal thunderstorm. Another festival highlight!

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The contrast program got started on the Radio Rock Stage right after. From head banging to disco dancing: Our good old friends Turmion Kätilöt started the metal disco, playing Tuska’s main stage for the first time. And as was to be expected the place was packed, people immediately started singing along, dancing – laughing at the banter between MC Raaka Pee und Spellgoth. To complete the summer metal disco party feeling, various sized balloons and beach balls were shot into the audience. And so, to the tunes of Grand Ball we were dancing our way towards some cold drinks in the beer area.

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Next up was a quiet and melancholic break from the festival hubbub: Swallow The Sun were playing the acoustic album of Songs From The North at Solmusali, a new indoor venue. The place only holds 100 people so the tickets had been raffled off before the festival, and all those who got one were in store for a truly special experience. Upon entering there was an almost reverent atmosphere, everyone sitting down, being quiet. It is very rare to be so close at a performance, it was a very intimate and magnificent. The already beautiful songs took on a new shape and dynamic, from delicate to threating, from dreamy to a dark vibe they wove a cocoon of music around the spellbound audience, touching you with gentle fingers and before you realized it you were tenderly ripped open and sat there all raw and vulnerable, filled by the music, feeling like the audience and the band were one vibing unity. This sentiment grew even stronger when vocalist Mikko Kotamäki came to sit down on the floor with the audience during 66°50´N,28°40´E. The experience of this concert was of a very rare, intense beautiful melancholy that brought tears to your eyes, and it was an honor to have been able to experience it. The only negative point was that Lord Vicar had changed slots with Havok, and played at the same time so we missed out on seeing them.

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Still feeling dazzled, it almost seemed surreal to step outside, into the sunlight and the festival madness. Up next were Grammy-winning Ghost, who were certainly one of the main reasons Saturday had sold out which could be noticed in the longer queues and tons of people everywhere. I like Ghost but I have not been crazy about them so I was curious to see them live – and they were unbelievable. Even the weather gods complied to make this a truly spectacular show. The sky was ablaze – burning in 666 shades of red and purple. Ghost stepped on stage and the crowd exploded. The heavens parted and rain poured down. The whole of Tuska turned into one gigantic, singing crowd dancing in the rain (and later Ghost money flying through the air) under the burning sky while Ghost were creating pure live magick. The melodies and songs grew much more powerful live, and it was difficult if not impossible to escape their allure. Ghost certainly were that night, the shining and the light, the band that held Tuska together. In nomine Ghostis!

Sunday, the third festival day (or fourth if you count the warm-up evening on Thursday at Tuska Heatseeker with Lost Society, Santa Cruz and Shiraz Lane) started with feeling slightly drained, not just due to the long days but because the festival so far had delivered many intense moments. But no rest for the wicked as Myrkur’s highly anticipated gig was the first on the day’s list, and I was expecting some more powerful musical experiences coming up. The weather was also all out of sunshine after two hot summer days and greeted us with grey and rainy skies instead, a day to let these sunburns cool down.

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I was not the only one waiting to see Myrkur, and people were streaming towards the tent stage. The gig was immediately off to an atmospheric start: Outside dark clouds with a thunderstorm approaching, Myrkur standing in a white dress and a crown of thorns standing on the blood red stage. This juxtaposition of strength, pride, vulnerability and fragility lasted through the entirety of the show. The whole gig was more a performance, a complete piece of art than only a concert. Myrkur was alternating between two mics depending if she was singing or screeching, adapting her gestures and behavior to go along with the various parts of the songs. It was a dreamy atmosphere in which sometimes monsters came out, and the songs were received by big applauses. The soundcheck from the main stage that could be heard during the quiet parts of the songs created a bit of a disturbance but it could not destroy the experience.
And I don’t give a shit whether other people call this black metal or not, if they deem it trve or not or if they got their panties in a bunch because she’s female and they feel threatened in their black metal manliness – what Myrkur is doing and did on stage at Tuska was more interesting, creative, beautiful and impressive than much of what other (black metal) bands are doing nowadays. The only criticism I have is that it seemed to take some time for her to get into the flow of things as she is doing so many things on stage, and has so many ‘roles’. Therefore, at the beginning it seemed a bit fragmented as if Myrkur was going from part to part instead of it being an organic progression. This resulted in the illusion of the performance being broken at times when it should be so that all these changes of guitars and instruments happen but the audience doesn’t not notice them consciously so that the overall artistic experience is not disrupted. But this is criticizing at a very high level and throughout the gig this aspect got better – or maybe I just got used to it so it didn’t stand out as much as in the beginning anymore. Myrkur’s concert was one of the festival highlights for sure.

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Then it was time for something totally different: Mörbid Vomit delivered a tight death metal set which was not only great to get energized for the rest of the day but also practical as they played on the indoor stage and it was raining quite heavily. Talk about killing two birds with one stone. The guys stood on stage, drenched in blood and hammered their songs out to a moshing circle pit. Mörbid Vomit don’t reinvent the wheel but they deliver exactly what they promised: Death metal at its best from brutally slow to insanely fast. Bassist Pyry Hanski and the audience tried to outdo each other head banging, and even for those not head banging or running around in the circle pit it was impossible to keep still during this gig.

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A delicious and relaxing early dinner at Black Dining later, it was time for the last of three Swallow The Sun gigs of this weekend. (It was indeed a fancy Tuska this year from the seated, and beautifully decorated indoor dining at Black Dining Restaurant to the Champagne bar – I could get used to this. (Black) Metal deluxe.) When I walked in to the Inferno Stage to see the last Songs From The North album, they were playing Nick Cave’s Push The Sky Away, candles were lit and the atmosphere was set. Surprisingly, it was not that crowded yet. The band had dressed appropriately for the doom gig as well: Keyboarder Aleksi Munter was wearing a hood and singer Mikko Kotamäki a hoodie instead of his woolen cap. Then the music started: Low and heavy, the floor was vibrating. Today’s gig was going for the underbelly of the metal beast, into darkness and depth. The music cleaved its path through the hall, slowly but unstoppably. Nothing else but this one sluggish moment mattered, nothing else existed. On stage, dark silhouettes bathed in red, green, blue. Doomed be!

Swallow the Sun really deserve a special mention for playing one of the Songs From The North albums on each festival day. From the summer festival show on Friday, to the very intimate and unbelievably beautiful acoustic concert on Saturday to the dark doom gig on Sunday each and every one of them was incredible in its own right, but as an entity they were one of the most special festival experiences ever.

It seemed I was all out of space for any more music, emotions or intense experiences so I just caught a short bit of Katatonia on the tent stage, one last atmospheric moment before Children of Bodom were set to close the 19th Tuska Festival. Katatonia played in front of an excited crowd and mesmerized with their melodies and melancholy.

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Children of Bodom were of course awaited by many, the area was packed and it wasn’t raining anymore – a perfect ending to the last festival day with wild head banging on and off stage. To these tunes we made our way out of the area and onwards to our traditional post-Tuska White Russians at Majava Bar to process all the impressions of this great festival weekend.

by Nina Ratavaara