For the eleventh time – we’d say consecutive, but you know, COVID… – we found ourselves traveling to Hyvinkää to visit the biggest extreme metal event in the country, if not the Nordics at the very least: Steelfest Open Air 2023. Already in the train to town, one could hear people from different countries, lots of Americans and Germans for instance, who were slowly gathering for this 3-day marathon of darkness, black metal, and way-too-sunny weather for the season.
Thankfully this year Steelfest returned to the 3-day format (the overdose of bands was quite heavy, not to mention the extra toll on everyone involved), so it was easier to dose the energies over the weekend, as Friday saw sixteen bands performing on the two stages, and there was one more on the following day.
As people slowly began to approach the area and sit down in the shade trying to tame their hangover from the first day, the performances started with RIENAUS, prominently featuring two members of AZAZEL (the bass player joined their ranks last year). Besides the somewhat energetic vocalist, the band also seemed a bit numbed, but that’s nothing to hold against them as it’s hard enough as it is to kick off the second day when most people are still half-asleep. Some Satanic black metal helps a bit, so we got to hear for example some material from the latest “Luciferille,” before heading into the gym hall for GAURITHOTH.
Another band coming back from beyond the grave, the guys from Mikkeli grabbed the attention mainly for the inverted wooden cross decorated with a bloodied animal skull and the multitude of chains and spike from the most unthinkable places. Chain-whipping aside, still some valid entertainment at this time of the day.
Things really started to get going when RITUALIZATION took the outdoor stage with their blackened death metal. Sharing a couple of members with MERRIMACK, they delivered an interesting set spanning through their not-too-long discography. The singer particularly seemed to be in good shape, but of course it helps when the music is also pretty catchy.
GRAVESPAWN was probably the most epic-looking band of the weekend, with chainmail, armor, and all sort of battled-themed decorations (fitting well, of course, with their music). They have been quite prolific in the last few years with two new releases already in this decade to present to their Finnish audience: “The Elder Darkness” and “Scourge of the Realm.” Veering between mythology, history, and some strong medieval quest feel, it was certainly something to see.
The set included also a rarity for this kind of festival, as the guitar player at some point took to playing the mandolin. Sadly, she dislocated her shoulder during the show, but somehow the adrenaline kicked in long enough to power through to the end of the set. Big kudos for that! (and we wish her a speedy recovery)
Following was the band with the most unpronounceable name: try to say TSATTHOGGUA correctly (unless you are a Lovecraft fan, then it’s not fair). Recently reactivated, of course a bondage-themed band couldn’t come from anywhere else than Germany. They performed a lot of new, yet unreleased material, as well as many songs from their debut album, all with passion and energy that you would not expect while sweating in the sun wearing leather straps and masks. Certainly it was an interesting act to see!
Inside it was YMIR’s turn. So far we had a lot of black metal – of course – but not so much pagan black metal. The fully renewed band, which aside from the only original member, Vrasjarn (PROFETUS), now features member of TRUE BLACK DAWN, HORNA, TYRANNY, and an unmistakable – although fully in white clothing – Corvus (KORGONTHURUS), filling in that void with their music from the self-titled “Ymir” and follow-up, “Aeons of Sorrow.” This was also the band’s first live show, so if you like this kind of genre and are not familiar with the band, we suggest adding them to your playlist.
Maybe one of the most interesting revelations of this festival was SEX MESSIAH, not for the name, but for the intensity and raw energy of the songs and the really good performance offered by the Japanese/Bolivian duo. They manage to keep everyone’s attention on the stage and definitely deserve the praise and hefty applause for their show, filled with thrashy riffs and overwhelming power.
Another band from Colombia, INFERNAL was also quite convincing in their delivery. Less flashy than other Colombian bands seen here (but with a whole lot of corpse-paint nonetheless) they are veterans in their country’s black metal scene, and that showed on this day as well. It’s actually really good to have the chance to see bands like this and not only the “usual” few names, as it’s yet again something that keeps this festival interesting.
Another interesting act upon which expectations were quite high was GRENADIER from Canada, a pretty young band that combines catchy death metal melodies and guttural vocals into something that feels like it’s hitting you indeed like a grenadier attack. One who also feels like a bomb hitting is the singer, who was jumping around doing sparring moves, first covered in a gray hoodie and later on a plain black T-shirt when the atmosphere got too heated up. The rest of the band wasn’t as active, which took away a little from the energy of the show perhaps, still was nice to get to see these songs performed live, especially as this was their first time in Europe.
It had been quite a while since last time we saw TOTALSELFHATRED, and maybe even due to that, their show was one of the best from them in the last 5-6 years or so. It often takes a particular mood to get into this kind of music, but the setting and the band’s performance made it so that the gig grew on the audience with every passing moment.
A completely different attitude was that of the Colombian trio WITCHTRAP, with a speed thrash attitude and vibe, which set up a much happier mood, clearly. The enthusiasm of the band is contagious and Burning Axe Ripper (guitars/vocals) could easily compete with Devin Townsend for funniest facial expressions (and outclass him in amount of hair left). This show felt very refreshing at this point of the day.
After many years it was a great opportunity to witness again the bizarre creature that is RIDE FOR REVENGE, especially considering that this seems to be their only live show this year, as well as for the foreseeable future. One of the most unique acts of the festival, the band guides you into an anxious and violent ride through their music, including some fresh new material such as ”The Dancing Weird” from the “Satan Goes To Church”-split.
Everything started slowly with everyone on stage building up to the entrance of Harald Mentor who then vomited his aggressive vocals at the audience backed by the trademark drumming of HAIL CONJURER and the dissonance of the guitar riffs. Pure excellence.
KALMANKANTAJA joined the party as a late replacement, but the guys found themselves ready to go and – maybe even for the first time – they got to play on the outdoor stage. For sure the band has been very prolific in its career, so they surely didn’t lack in new live material to offer. The overall performance was on par with what we have been used to seeing from them, and the audience gathered outside reacted in kind with enthusiasm.
Heading towards the final stage of this second day – this next band thus surpassing the number of acts from Thursday – we ran back inside for the Norwegian GEHENNA (an important distinction). The band from Stavanger performed mainly their later material (“WW”), which is a bit of a shame for the most traditional fans. But on the other hand, the older songs were pretty well received and all-in-all the gig was quite solid, so here is some hope that the band is back on the right track.
This launched us into the final round of Satanic black metal rituals of the day with BEHEXEN. The band hasn’t been very active in the post-COVID times, so in exchange, they gave to their fans a very balanced set, including “Mouth of Leviathan,” “My Soul for His Glory” and “Death’s Black Light,” among others. It was good to see that despite the inactivity, the band worked as effectively as always live, largely thanks to the charisma of their frontman.
Finally we reached the end of this long day when Nattefrost and his CARPATHIAN FOREST made their entrance to play a “Black Shining Leather”-25th anniversary special set. One can say whatever about Nattefrost but he sure knows how to capture the audience by the balls and he is one hell of a frontman (although maybe he got a little bit too chatty at times). The performance included, of course, THE CURE’s “A Forest,” as well as the cover of “All My Friends Are Dead” (TURBONEGRO). You cannot go wrong with that, so of course the crowd was going pretty wild despite the late hour – at least those with the energy to still do so. In the end, CARPATHIAN FOREST delivered beyond our expectations, although personally the interest was more oriented towards Saturday’s NATTEFROST show.
This concludes the second day and sets the stage for the third, longest one. Heading into the early days of Finnish summer, as we are now used to on the Steelfest weekend, it was actually quite pleasant to still spend some time outside and enjoy the short night walk from the venue, but it was also wise to get to bed at a decent hour to be able to face the final part of the festival.
Text & photos by Marco Manzi