While the Finnish government still struggles to get control over the populace and the coronavirus pandemic, we managed to sneak a few festivals in this August thanks to limited capacities and the second round of vaccinations coming out. Tuonela Magazine managed to get our crew to both SaariHelvetti and Dark River Festival this year, with the latter happening in its traditional location in Kymijoki, Kotka, on August 13-14th, 2021. If you missed out on your favorite bands at SaariHelvetti the previous weekend, this was a great opportunity to catch a lot of them again.
HORIZON IGNITED had the devilishly early slot of 13:10 on Saturday, so the audience may have been tired, but a good number did still show up to check it out. We mostly know them from their recent single featuring Markus Vanhala, “Towards The Dying Lands,” and their new single, “Reveries,” so we were pretty stoked to hear these melodic death metal tracks live. The music had a bit of a BEFORE DAWN vibe, largely in the melodic styling, but had a different overall feel due to the lack of clean vocals. Also noteworthy was that this was the first appearance of bassist Jukka Haarala on stage with these guys. Ultimately, they made a very positive first impression on us and we wouldn’t shy away from seeing them again at another festival.
The first returning band from SaariHelvetti of the day was ARION, who closed out the second night on August 7th in Tampere. It was a bit strange to see them opening up the main stage, but ARION fans gathered around regardless of the early slot, and admittedly this band has the potential to warm up any crowd and fill them with energy. Eager to see if they’d change up their set a bit, the band pleasantly surprised us by opening with “No One Stands in Our Way.” Following this, the set did stay more or less the same as it had at the last few shows, with classic hits like “Seven” mixed with sophomore favorites like “Punish You,” as well as a good but already now-familiar selection of their new material. Altogether the band had opted for tracks from the heavier spectrum of their repertoire. The performance was strong and energetic, with Lassi Vääränen constantly dropping low to encourage the crowd with his whole body to get their fists up. While their new album was a bit too pop-influenced for many fans, it worked really well in a live setting and the material didn’t, in fact, sound quite so poppy. It was nice to get a chance to see them properly with those new songs at last!
I hadn’t been able to see ATLAS the previous weekend, which meant that this was a fresh opportunity. The northcore act is set to release their new album, “Ukko,” in October, but have released a couple of singles already. Decked out in dirty and torn white clothes, these guys had a great stage aesthetic as they put on a gritty set of harsh and doomy music, surely great for fans of the style. Perhaps it was the outfits, but there was something eerie and ominous about their music. At the same time, the band was super energetic and it was almost hypnotizing to watch them perform. Props to their drummer especially, who was viciously tight throughout their set, keeping a deeply ferocious rhythm to support the harshness of the band. I was also surprised to hear some melodic singing in there as well, later in the set.
MORS SUBITA was another band I hadn’t caught at SaariHelvetti, so once ATLAS finished up, we moved to the other stage to see what sort of show these guys had to offer. Their immediate impression was of catchy music with lots of energy and nice melodies. The vocals are strong sound-wise but were not necessarily the most musically dynamic; however, the band did a magnificent job of laying out new and old tracks. Some of our staff really love this band’s material and thought their latest studio effort “Extinction Era“ was one of 2020’s better albums in the Finnish melodic metal scene. Comments around the festival were that this is one of the handsomest bands around right now, but it wasn’t all about looks as they sweat up a storm and let the audience know they meant business. The set was a mix of old and newer songs, making up for an energetic live set, and MORS SUBITA definitely crushed it. While I can’t see myself listening to these guys much outside a festival setting (due to me generally not listening to this kind of music outside of festivals… it’s not you, it’s me), it was certainly worthwhile to check out their set while there was the opportunity.
Nearly a year ago, TRUE CULT CLUB snuck their first-ever show at On the Rocks in through the pandemic, impressing us all and teasing us with some great material from their as-of-yet unreleased first album. Vocalist Asim Searah was working double duty this weekend, as we had seen him the day before with DAMNATION PLAN and he seemed equally energetic and really happy to be back on stage yet again. This was easily the most danceable band of the weekend and a personal hit for me, being a band whose first album we are eagerly awaiting. Bassist Jaakko Nikko was making wonderful faces and Chrism on keyboards was really fun to watch during the solos, occasionally coming out to shred on his keytar. Behind the drum kit was a session player, Mikko Sällinen, who did a great job at replacing Rolf Pilve. They played all of their singles, opening with the deliciously nasty “Touch Me” and wrapping up with melodic “Empty Allies,” with my personal highlight, their cover of INFECTED MUSHROOM‘s “Saeed” in the middle. Also worth mentioning is the yet-unreleased punk-rockish song they played, which had an uplifting feeling and put a smile on many faces in the audience, who seemed to really enjoy the show altogether. Here’s hoping they drop a few more songs for us soon!
Rain or shine, SWALLOW THE SUN always have a great outdoor stage feel. On this day, the weather was meant to be rainy but we were cursed with sun during their doomy and gloomy set. It was strange to see the faces and emotions on the doom metal act’s face, as they normally opt for atmospheric, dark lighting and are often hiding beneath hoods. This is one of the last upcoming shows that will feature keyboardist Jaani Peuhu adding atmosphere to the set, as while he still worked on the new album, he will skip the upcoming tour to focus on his other band, MERCURY CIRCLE. The band’s recent setlists have, pleasantly, been a bit more of a best-of, as the band had been touring before the pandemic set in. It was great to hear some of their older material mixed in to display the nice evolution of their sound, although we were curious to see whether the band would maybe be up for a sneaky live debut of one of the songs off their upcoming album, “Moonflowers.”
The weekend’s dose of metalcore came in the form of ONE MORNING LEFT, but as someone who only kind of sort of sometimes likes very specific types of metalcore, this band has never been for me. No matter where you go though, Leevi Luoto‘s (who was also running a double shift during the festival, as he had just come from the ATLAS show earlier that day) high-pitched wailing will catch your attention, alongside their spastic instrument smashing. These guys celebrated the release of “Hyperactive“ only a few months ago in May, yet they’ve had a few opportunities to share their new material with the local scene. “Hyperactive” is indeed a good descriptor, as they were practically dancing and moshing on stage themselves. Now, like I said, normally I’m not into these guys, but they brought some very necessary energy to the festival and I couldn’t help but appreciate their chiptunes-y backing sounds and the degree of nonsense fun that their screamy metalcore offers. Altogether it was extremely entertaining to watch these guys live. Maybe I need to give them another chance…
Having missed the previous weekend’s set, this was yet another opportunity for me to make up for lost time with LOST SOCIETY. These guys released a terrific (if more melodic than usual) album last year, “No Absolution,” along with one of the best quality album release streams 2020 had to offer… yet I couldn’t make it to their set at Viikinsaari or their most recent club show at Tavastia. Luckily for me, the band are still promoting their new material, though (and we appreciate this) with strict restrictions due to COVID-19. The band have not been doing interviews or seeing people at these shows – they come, do an amazing job, and head back home. Let’s pause there and emphasize the “amazing job” part of that. Back when these guys were starting out, a couple of us old Musicalypse journalists were not sure if LOST SOCIETY would have the it factor to really blow our minds. Well, they showed us! I would not hesitate to call them one of Finland’s best live bands at the moment. They are talented and professional, yet they clearly have a lot of fun and love what they’re doing. It was really incredible to finally hear incredible tracks like “Nonbeliever,” “No Absolution,” and “Into Eternity” live at long last. They sound every bit as fantastic as expected!
At this point, my personal interest in the bands began to wane, though the final two acts of the night were still intriguing enough to stick around and check out. ONE DESIRE is a bit too polished and radio-friendly for us normally, but that doesn’t mean that their live show might not be fun, so we decided to see what these guys had to offer. They opened the set with my favorite song from their most recent album (2020’s “Midnight Empire“), “Shadowman,” which made for a really fantastic live track. To pat these guys on the back a bit, if their album was over-polished, the live show lost a lot of that and brought a bit more reality to their sound, making a lot of their songs stand out much better than they did on the album. I was pleasantly surprised by these guys and again, as one of the few lighter bands of the weekend, they gave a nice kick in the pants to the moody energy right before the festival closer, so it was a nice set at just the right time.
Finally, we reached the weekend’s grand finale, MOONSPELL. This Portuguese Gothic metal act has been around since 1992 and most recently release “Hermitage” in February of this year. Having never seen them before, this festival was a great opportunity to catch them in action. Personally, I’m only familiar with their old hit that featured Anneke van Giersbergen, “Scorpion Flower,” and since they didn’t play it, this was a totally fresh experience. As one of the few bands who were speaking any English this weekend, it was great to hear how enthusiastic they were about being in Finland and being able to play here. Obviously, the band has played in Finland many times, but it was a first for Dark River, so we hope they felt the heartwarming atmosphere that this festival always radiates. A lot of the bands from earlier in the day had also stuck around to check out the set and the crowd was smiling, with a ton of heads bobbing and hands in the air. Their material was completely unfamiliar to me, naturally, but they had a smooth and enthusiastic kind of energy to their show that made it easy to move to and get that last bit of festival energy out. Those of our staff who were familiar with the tracks mentioned that their set was a nice mix of fan-favorites and their latest tracks off “Hermitage.” While I don’t think this would work as the headliner at too big of a festival in Finland, the intimate Dark River setting was just right.
Thus wraps up what was, most likely, our last festival of the season already, due to further COVID-19 restrictions and cancellations. With limited options, it was nice to have a few opportunities to get some live music in, though there could have been more variety in the genres – if melodeath isn’t your jam, there were not a lot of bands outside that genre to shake up the overall mood (and while melodeath can be energetic, it can be a bit much after a while). That said, the unusual bands of the weekend were some of the best I’ve seen in a while and the atmosphere of the festival was as incredible as it ever was.
Let’s give a few shout-outs then to the best parts of the festival! First of all, in 2019 they only had one stage, so it seemed like the addition of a second stage allowed for maybe more attendees but also faster transitions between the bands. While it was a little less intimate due to the increase size of the area, it still remains one of the most intimate festivals in the country and truly, as media representatives and crowd attendees alike, these are some of if not the most caring and respectful event organizers we’ve come across. As an example, festival host Henri Eerola [East Coast Events] stopped to apologize to the photographers before one of the main-stage bands for having such a cramped pit and promised to make it better next year.
For artists and medias, the backstage is a wonderful, comfortable place where everyone feels friendly and willing to chat and help one another out. The VIP area seems to have a relaxed vibe with a more personal bar area and more shelters and comfortable sitting areas. Located on a hillside, it had the perfect overview of the main stage and second stage. I had also complained in 2019 about the burger joint at the festival being terrible, so the addition of The Van as the providers of burgers was a truly fantastic choice, as it both supports a local business and really upped the burger game for attendees – now these were burgers worth 10€ (though fries with only unmelting parmesan… it could’ve used some sauce or gravy because those were damn good fries but much too dry)! There was also a great pizza place called Pallas (named for a “tunturi” [trans: a really big hill or a really small mountain] up north) that had some of the best pizza that we’ve ever had in Finland – it’s a shame that they were only selling whole pizzas and not individual slices, because pizza isn’t the most festival-friendly food, especially if you’re dealing with high quality and good, melty cheese. I wonder if slice-by-slice sales might have been a bit faster and more practical for hungry festival-goers and even a bit more profitable for the business; even if the quality drops by a fraction for being less fresh, this was still literally some of the best pizza I’ve had here, so I’d still gladly take it. Next to those places, there were a few more standard options like thai noodles and sausage fries, providing altogether a nice selection of food for festival goers.
Further props to the organizers: with a promise of rain, they had laid down a lot of thick, absorbent mulch to suck up moisture. While the rain never came on Saturday, we did have a flash of heavy downpour on Friday and I didn’t see almost any mud in front of the big stage. Arrival and organization was smooth and friendly and all the people working were very helpful. While not all of them spoke English very well, if they couldn’t help you they were more than happy to find someone who could. The parking and entry/exit by car was smooth, though somebody really should convince the Honkalan Hiihtostadion to fill those potholes already – they are nuts!
If I’m offering some constructive criticism for the future, the one exception to the above enthusiasm was the merch booth. Having just come off a truly incredible merch experience at SaariHelvetti the weekend before, I was astounded at how poorly this was run. The fellows there, lovely guys for sure, had clearly not really… done anything? The merch was poorly displayed so many of the bands couldn’t be seen, there were no sizes listed, and the shirts didn’t seem pre-counted or organized, so even with no queue, it took upwards of 5 minutes to get a shirt from the back. Furthermore, the guys didn’t seem to ask for size preferences… I’m not too easily insulted by being given a size or two too big but I know a lot of women (and a few men) who would be. Also, I struggled to communicate with them in general, in English or Finnish (not to be a drag, but maybe they didn’t need to drink so much while working?).
Besides that one minor issue that didn’t affect the shows itself, this was another truly fantastic edition of Dark River Festival, where it’s so easy to find friends and acquaintances, make new friends, and always feel warm and welcome. We enthusiastically hope that we’ll be able to attend a potential Dark River 2022 next year, if the pandemic allows! Maybe they’ll name their campsite after us properly?
Written by Bear Wiseman
Photos by Laureline Tilkin