Tuska Open Air Festival has cemented itself as one of Helsinki’s most iconic annual events and as such, was a must for any self-respecting metalhead to attend. The 21st installment was held at Suvilahti in Helsinki from June 29th to July 1st, 2018. It was also the eighth and final time Tuska would be at Suvilahti, as the area would soon go under maintenance. Seeing as last year’s Tuska was the 20th anniversary and was widely considered an audience and commercial success, this year had a lot to live up to. Check out the gallery here.
I arrived as the doors opened and went straight for the merchandise stand to ensure I got my EMPEROR shirt. Not far away from there was the usual food and beverage district. I can’t say much about the selection since I’m entirely too cheap to pay for festival food. Some of the marketing was spot on, however, like a burger stand brandishing the slogan, “Go vegan or die trying.” Next to the Helsinki stage was a mobile Alepa (convenience store). They sold the usual sandwiches, sweets, and cigarettes, as expected and at regular prices. They also had a face painting service for €5 which I’m not too proud to admit, I took advantage of twice. Next to it was a wall exhibiting the Finnish comic strip, Belzebubs, by JP Ahonen. The characters and theme are largely black metal and occult, so the series was sure to strike a chord with a lot of people here. The first day was a bit overcast and chilly with a chance of rain. So sunscreen was optional.
The first band to play was Danish death metal group, BAEST. They were on the Helsinki stage, which was under a tent. They had a white backdrop with their logo in red, resembling a blood splatter. Right away, I noticed they had a very humble set up: two Orange amps and two amps for the bass. At exactly 14:00 the announcer came on to officially start the festival. BAEST had church bells as an intro tape, a tried and true classic. Their look was very hipster (skinny jeans, ironic facial hair, the works) but their sound was pure, ’90s-style, brutal death metal. Nothing revolutionary but it worked well as the opening act. They even got the crowd to open up the first mosh pit of the weekend – not bad for an emerging band.
I could only stay for a while, since GLOOMY GRIM started at 14:15, a Finnish black metal band. They had lit candles and a skull on stage with the singer in full corpse paint and a medieval cloak. He floated about the stage menacingly and even drank blood from the aforementioned skull. They too were very traditional, within their respective genre. On the other hand, every song had a theatrical flare, including a staged human sacrifice. There’s something eerily beautiful about blood on a white dress. I was certainly entertained.
The first big name was CROWBAR from the USA. These seasoned veterans came on to play their signature slow and heavy stoner metal. Singer/guitarist Kirk Windstein had a deep baritone gargling voice and his beard had grown to an admirable Santa Claus length. He made a quip about having played in all kinds of rains and storms but that he’d never seen anything this windy. “So, if you see my fat ass getting knocked over – you’ll know it’s really windy,” he joked. These Southern dulcet tones, I felt, would have been better suited for a tent stage on the third day – when everyone’s a bit more tired and hungover. The main stage at 14:45 needed something a bit faster to get the festival going. Windstein was a delight though, and his charisma carried the show.
TRIBULATION started with an eerily beautiful intro tape of what sounded like a rendition of an Italian traditional song. Their sound could be described as black heavy metal or black n’ roll, as they incorporated the melancholy and aesthetic of black metal with straightforward rock or heavy metal. They took the stage in vampyric pale makeup and tight leather and satin. The whole band looked absolutely gorgeous. A perfect mix of messy and classy. Guitarist Jonathan Hultén didn’t so much sway to the music as straight up ballet danced all through the show, even going so far as to wear ballet shoes. It was a bit distracting, honestly. Otherwise the music and the presentation were downright mesmerizing. I found myself swaying along in a trance for the whole show. Some of their most impressive and catchy songs like “The Lament” and “Strange Gateways Beckon” would ring in my ears for weeks to come.
Turmion Kätilöt was on next. They had a lot of pyrotechnics and a big sound. Industrial metal isn’t my thing so this was my chance to take a break and sit down somewhere.
Just as it started to rain, MOONSORROW started. Fortunately for them, they were on the stage with the tent, so it filled up quite quickly. That’s not to say they only drew in a crowd because of the rain. Their reputation among the Finnish folk metal scene can not be overstated. They had some problems with the mics but they soldiered on regardless. During the second song “Ruttolehto” the backing vocals were a bit off-key at times; otherwise the epic was great as usual. The singer announced the next song as, “not necessarily shittier, but older”; it was “Kivenkantaja.” Little moments like these stick to people’s minds. MOONSORROW was great, as always, but we’ve come to expect that from them.
DEAD CROSS was a bizarre supergroup consisting of former SLAYER drummer Dave “Dom” Lombardo and Mike Patton, known for everything ever, but perhaps most famously FAITH NO MORE. They had a hardcore-meets-thrash-metal sound that didn’t take itself very seriously. Patton wore a Hawaiian shirt, floodpants, Jamaica-themed socks, and what looked like my grandpa’s worn-out leather jacket. Patton had a modifier on a stand in the middle of the stage, so he could control his vocal effects by himself. Before the third song he announced, “we have a fucking drummer!” The whole thing felt to me like a vacation for Patton as he fooled around on stage and had a general leisurely attitude. Then again, if you need to do something like thrash metal in 2018, it’s good that they made it weird. Peculiar or no, I did see two moshpits open up near me, so they were doing something right. They finished by lifting a riff from “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” by THE BEATLES. It was epic. After that they still came on for an encore of “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” by DEAD KENNEDYS which lasted all of 60 seconds. It was a fun tag on, nonetheless.
One of my favorite bands (as is well-documented on this very site), LEPROUS, was up next. They were on the Helsinki stage and got to use the inherent darkness of the tent to their advantage. As in their club gigs, they had the dim lighting, the nonsensical graphics on the screens… basically everything an atmospheric and proggy band of their likes could want. Singer/keyboardist Einar Solberg was, as always, a pleasure to listen to. He kept showing off how he can always go up an octave and come back down with no problem at all. Newer hits like “From the Flame” as well as songs from “The Congregation” like “The Price” all worked beautifully. The songs were the perfect balance between weird and catchy for their time slot. Here’s to hoping they’ll play some more clubs soon.
At this point I was about ready to go home. I had the stamina to check out a bit of MESHUGGAH first. Their approach to progressive metal is more focused on creative beats than melody and as such their sound suffered a bit live. The interesting time signatures, though fun to follow for a while, got a little muddied in the low-end sound. Following this was BODY COUNT but I simply couldn’t get over my own snobbishness to give a rap metal act a chance. Hence I went home to gather my strength for the next day.
Day two began with a local ’80s nostalgia pump, TYRANTTI on the Radio Rock Stage. They had a tongue-in-cheek, cutesy sound. Songs like “Kobra” from the new record of the same name seemed like children’s versions of heavy metal classics. Still, it seemed to work well enough to the few people who had gotten up early enough to see them. Incidentally, not two days before the festival, I came across their signature beer. It tasted like the band sounded: just fine, nothing special.
One of the curiosities this year was the Star Wars parody band, GALACTIC EMPIRE. They’ve made two albums’ worth of progressive metal versions of themes from the Star Wars movie series. Seeing them live, some of the renditions only seemed to make me appreciate the genius of John Williams’ work. The different compositions highlighted aspects of the songs that had to me, up to this point, gone largely unnoticed. This includes how the main melody of “Rey’s theme” (Rey being the heroine of the new trilogy) was in essence a derivative of the Luke’s theme from the original series, which made perfect sense for the character. The whole band was dressed as barely legally distinct versions of familiar characters. Not-Darth Vader did most of the speaking in between songs in a most impressive James Earl Jones voice. In “Battle of Heroes” the backing track’s operatic singing got a bit lost in the mix but it didn’t slow them down. Directly after the solemn epic, they descended into full blown silliness, with “Cantina Song” (which, I’ll have you know, is impossible to play). Later they would play “Duel of Fates” in which the operatics were really low-quality but curiously loud. Perhaps something got mixed up in the sound guy’s notes. They finished on a medley of the final songs from the original trilogy. In between songs they’d done geeky comedy routines in character. It fit the tone quite well, though I felt the timing on the interactions seemed rushed. GALACIC EMPIRE surely left a smile on everyone’s faces.
I saw the first two songs that BEAST IN BLACK played that day. Finland has a rich tradition of embarrassing cock metal, with these guys often touted as the next big thing. The singer proved he can belt out an impressive Rob Halford/Tim “Ripper” Owens impression, for sure. That being said, he never went down from the glass-shatteringly high squeal. Whether it was because his voice is just naturally that high, making it less impressive that he can get that high or if it was just a stylistic choice, which remains unknown. See, if the point of power metal was just to have high vocals, every band would be fronted by a mezzo soprano female. I needed a bit more variation than this. The second song had a synth melody that sounded like “The Final Countdown” and it was at this point that I realized I had had enough of this band.
Fortunately for me, CRIMFALL was on the Inferno stage. I’d written about their latest album, “Amain,” with the boss and had mixed feelings about it. As I came in, they had just started “The Last of Stands” which was epic, varied, and uplifting. That and songs like “Mother of Unbelievers” and the slower song “Silver and Bones” were stunning when played live. The lead vocalist, Mikko Häkkinen, has really matured in his gutteral growls over the years. The new female singer, Helena Haaparanta, owned the stage in her national costume -inspired dress. They had garnered a decently sized crowd, considering it was still early in the day and another power metal band was playing at the same time. They clearly intended the crowd to sing along to a lot of sections but the much of the crowd was perhaps a bit too quiet at this point.
THE 69 EYES was the first non-metal group of the day. I wasn’t very familiar with them aside from the few hits I remembered from the early 2000s such as “Feel Berlin,” “Brandon Lee,” and “Lost Boys.” Their whole thing was Billy Idol -esque rock ‘n’ roll as seen through a Goth aesthetic. To me, it seemed a bit downplayed, as if they were saving their strength for a faster, more heavy song that would never come. I had assumed the Goth rock would have been a welcome change of pace after three bands of unadulterated cheesy metal. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the last song, “Lost Boys,” that I felt any real energy from the band. I did hear from some others that they had been happy with the show, especially since they haven’t been active for a few years.
Yet another Finnish band was up next: MOKOMA. Thrash metal in Finnish, they’ve played Tuska before and are generally respected in the community. Their sound was very rich and heavy, especially after the last band seemed so lackluster. Some of their vocals got a bit too schlager for my taste, but they kept a good, unapologetic feeling going.
Then came something different: CARPENTER BRUT, a synthwave band. I don’t really know enough electronic music to have an educated opinion on this. I was a bit prejudiced to it but mostly the sound was surprisingly organic and they even had real drums on stage. One song I had been hoping to see was “Cheerleader Effect” as it had Kristopher Rygg of ULVER and ARCTURUS fame on vocals. Sure enough they played it and even though the vocals were just playback, it was still a strong enough song. They even had the audacity to play a cover of the ’80s dance hit, “Maniac.” I felt it a solid reprieve in between the metal bands.
EMPEROR is from that infamous second wave of Norwegian black metal, which is known for some church burnings and murder, as well as other insane acts. They’ve only ever played a handful of gigs in Finland but ever since 2007 they’ve found a home at Tuska. They started with “Ye Entraceptum,” which gave singer Ihsahn a chance to show off both his signature growls and his clean vocals. Ihsahn then remarked that they had come to celebrate the anniversary of “Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk.” In that mind, they played “Thus Spake the Nightspirit” next. It was a gorgeous classic that had an easy line at the end for the audience to sing. Following that was “Encircled by Khaos”; it seemed as if they’d play the album in its entirely. I’d almost let myself forget how many killer tracks are on this album and I will admit going completely nuts for “With Strength I Burn” live again. In fact, the band played one of their tightest shows from what I’ve seen of them. After “The Wanderer,” the final song of the album, they played “Curse You All Men!,” which was a maniacally fast, aggressive song from “IX Equilibrium” and finishing with “I Am the Black Wizards” and “Inno a Satana.”
On the Helsinki stage was HALLATAR. They were formed from the remnants of TREES OF ETERNITY after Aleah Starbridge tragically passed away. The line-up was all-star, featuring Tomi Joutsen (AMORPHIS), Gas Lipstick (ex-HIM), and founder Juha Raivio (SWALLOW THE SUN). They did still incorporate some old recordings of Starbridge’s voice into the new songs, which came from a backing track. The funeral doom metal sound was well suited for the tent stage, especially since the lighting was unaffected by the sun, still blazing outside. It was a bit of a drag after EMPEROR, however. The emotion in the songs seemed genuine but it never quite got to the same level as 2 years ago when SWALLOW THE SUN played “Heartstrings Shattering” and Starbridge’s voice came posthumously from the backing track. That time, I got choked up. This was interesting but not quite as visceral, at least to me. Later I talked to some people who had no idea of the history of the band’s inception and wondered if perhaps my own feelings had tainted my enjoyment of the band. I’ll have to re-examine that going forward, especially if HALLATAR keep going without Starbridge and evolve into something new.
The German thrash metal giants, KREATOR, were next on the Radio Rock stage. They had an impressive stage with screens in the shape of cathedral windows. In the first song, they showed scenes of fire and brimstone – namely hell. They had chosen to open with “Phantom Antichrist,” which was still relatively new but not from the latest album. Following that was “Hail to the Hordes,” which is brand new. The chorus had a catchy melody and the song had a good groove all throughout. The drums seemed excessively loud, which made the overuse of double bass more evident. After that, singer Mille Petrozza recounted that this was their third time playing at Tuska and that he distinctly remembered the mosh pits at Tuska being “spectacular.” He then motioned the crowd to open one up, which they promptly did. So as they played their classic, “Enemy of God,” the crowd did form one of, if not the most impressive mosh pits I’d ever seen live. It seemed the set relied heavily on the last two albums. Then again, songs like “Satan is Real,” “Civilization Collapse,” and “From Flood into Fire” were strong enough to carry the set and I didn’t miss the older material.
Arguably one of the most influential melodic death metal bands, AT THE GATES, started with their new song and title track of the new album “To Drink from the Night Itself,” which was met with a surprisingly enthusiastic reception. They then followed with the classic “Slaughter of the Soul,” to which the audience knew how to sing along. Its spiritual successor, “At War with Reality,” came next. It was more straightforward than most of the older songs but was energetic enough to hold its own. The songs from the new album have a more disturbing atmosphere that played to their advantage. The newer songs got a very warm response; “Death of the Labyrinth” and “The Chasm” even spontaneously formed a moshpit. Going in, I was sure it was just the older songs like “Blinded by Fear,” “Cold,” and “Under a Serpent Sun” that people knew and loved. On the contrary, the band and its fans proved me wrong. The whole set was pure gold from start to finish despite the fact that they only had songs from “Slaughter of the Soul” and the two new ones. Otherwise it was one of the clear highlights of the festival.
The night’s headliner was the French extreme progressive metal group, GOJIRA. As their newest album, “Magma,” was largely successful and well received, they opted to start with a song from it. I, for one, loved the first three albums but had major issues with the new one. To me it felt like it had lost all semblance of melody in order to just play with the wah-wah pedal. That being said, they used the backdrop to its full potential, projecting whatever imagery they felt they needed. One of their common themes being environmentalism, they often displayed desolate landscapes. Sometimes the imagery was more literal, such as for “Flying Whales” where they had images of whales. The song itself garnered another absolutely massive mosh pit. After a while, to my complete surprise, singer/guitarist, Joe Duplantier said that the gig almost didn’t happen because of an accident with the truck carrying their gear. He gave extra thanks to the people of Tuska who managed to gather enough gear for them to do the show. That was a sobering reminder of the fleeting and fragile nature of life. Even a big festival such as this could have been brought down by a simple vehicular mishap. But there was no time to worry about that, since there was some serious metal afoot. Aside from any drama backstage, the show was a complete success. It had been a long but rewarding day.
Day three was the sunniest, warmest day yet, which seemed appropriate since the day had been saddled with some of the cheeriest and lightest bands of the festival. Starting off was Finnish traditional hard rock group, TEMPLE BALLS. They looked and sounded exactly like they’d just arrived here from 1986. Bright blue denim, curly hair, falsetto and all. They came on stage with the confident swagger of a headliner that the modest early crowd quickly recognized. Though the audience was still a little stiff, it being the first act of the day, there was a genuinely good rock ‘n’ roll feeling in the air. Despite them being a pure nostalgia act, they did show off some expert musicianship.
Meanwhile on the Inferno stage was BLACK ROYAL – a death metal group from Tampere. Their debut album, “Lightbringer,” had just come out this spring and their sound was exactly what I needed to get my day going, as they weren’t completely beholden to the death metal label; the lead guitar had a more varied and often lighter style of riffs. As such, they were a strong, heavier counter-program to the hair metal outside. The singer’s on-stage rants were very nonchalant; in one instance he segued into the next song by casually announcing, “you are all children of the demon, by the way. If you didn’t all know that already, you do now.” The casual tone didn’t quite fit the grandiose metal music but it did break the ice somewhat. I’d be interested to see them again at a club gig after they’ve grown a bit more in confidence.
On the Helsinki stage was STICK TO YOUR GUNS. The hardcore band came on and I immediately hated everything about them. The singer gave the most douchey rant to start off and they proceeded to poison the air with the most American style so-called “metal” imaginable. The vocals were the most obnoxious poser growls mixed in with BLINK 182 -style skater garbage. And were there breakdowns? Oh, you better believe there were breakdowns. To say one positive thing about them: the second rant was about nationalism being a problem, which they said was the root of why their home country keeps children in cages along their southern border. I was inclined to agree. I’m sure the band stands for a lot of good values, but to me their sound was simply too much to stand.
After a short break, the down-to-earth rock group, TIMO RAUTIAINEN & TRIO NISKALAUKAUS, took the Radio Rock stage. They were downright legendary in their own right and as they started playing, the festival started filling up. Their sound is straightforward modern rock in Finnish with some folk metal influences. Though their style was far from my comfort zone, it was reassuring that in this world of over-produced electronic music, there is still a place for something this sincere. The performance reflected the simplicity of the music – the band stood almost perfectly in place the entire time and even their outfits were casual black worker shirts and cargo shorts. Plus they were comfortable enough on stage to tell poop jokes. Love it or hate it, I got the impression they didn’t care either way. Not my thing, but I could respect that.
The true star of the weekend came on next: IHSAHN. We last saw him the previous day fronting EMPEROR. His solo project could be described as progressive extreme metal as it combines prog elements with his black metal roots. They began triumphantly with “Lend Me the Eyes of Millennia” from the latest album, “Ámr.” It was a stark contrast to the last band with its sharp, piercing synth intro. As the band joined in, the sound got seriously muddy though. Usually IHSAHN’s live group is LEPROUS, but this time they had a different line-up, merely a four-piece with no live bass player, leaving the bass to come from a backing track. The music was so complex and in such different tunings that they had to switch guitars several times. As always, it messed with my head to see seven- and eight-stringed guitars. Surprisingly, one of the highlights was the gorgeous slow song “Sámr,” which Ihsahn performed with soulful reverence. This followed by the more upbeat “Until I too Dissolve,” for which the crowd dutifully clapped their hands in the air. After that, Ihsahn switched to his purple guitar and proceeded to scream out “Mass Darkness,” a more extreme metal track, but arguably still at least as catchy. The backing vocals on the chorus were a bit too quiet but the audience helped out by screaming along. Ihsahn then dedicated the next song to Finland, appropriately titled “My Heart is of the North.” Following that was at last something not from the last two albums, “The Paranoid” from “Eremita.” It was a perfect microcosm of what IHSAHN, the band, is – it had fast black metal sections, prog trickery, and solemn introspective clean bits. Then, following a brief pause in order to fix a drum issue, they returned. They then went straight into the excellent ballad, “Pulse.” It seemed to me that Ihsahn got a little too excited and his delivery turned a little too James Hetfield at the end. They then finished the set with “Frozen Lakes on Mars” from “After” and the strange “A Grave Inversed.” Ihsahn described it as an older song even though it came out as recently as 2010. It seemed, since it was the oldest song on the set, that IHSAHN had set out to move on from the first few albums.
At this point I was left so entranced by IHSAHN that I had completely forgotten that the oddest artist pick of the festival was up next. Sure enough, Swedish ’80s hair metal group, EUROPE, began to play at the extreme metal -focused open air event. I’d listened to some of their new stuff and found it surprisingly interesting. Evidently they had made a comeback as DEEP PURPLE. My biggest worry, however, was that the crowd would treat them as a joke regardless. Their first song was the new “Walk the Earth,” which bizarrely enough, seemed to land. As the song goes, “we will walk the earth / like champions,” they came on, despite my worries, to triumphantly take charge. The front of the stage was packed and the audience sang along to “Rock the Night.” Whether the positive response was ironic or not, it was still positive. The singer even learned enough Finnish to say, “Onko vielä krapula? [Are you still hungover?]” At the end of the show, there was a bit of a lull, but then as the intro to “The Final Countdown” came on, the crowd went absolutely nuts. It was a hell of a show. In spite of my apprehensions, I found EUROPE so entertaining that I completely forgot I had planned to catch GRAVE PLEASURES as well. Let that stand as a testament to how pure stubborn confidence can make a show.
Turning around to the Helsinki stage was CLUTCH. Their thing was a largely a classic Southern rock vibe. The vocals had a touch of blues and the band had a stoner sound but it was surprisingly fast. I didn’t know the songs but I found them a pleasure to listen to. The singer, Neil Fallon, seemed to improvise some of his timings and delivery, which made following him interesting. This seemed like a good party band for a Sunday evening. As for the next band, PARKWAY DRIVE, I decided to skip it. Metalcore doesn’t work for me any better than the skater hardcore I previously eviscerated and I didn’t think I could give it a much fairer treatment.
Looking back, it had been an exceptional Tuska. I didn’t see this many bands just for the purpose of this report. I was, in fact, excited to see a lot of them. Most years I’m content to see three or four bands per day. Really, there were only a few bands that I outright refused to listen to. It occurred to me during the final day that I had only just gotten used to the idea that Tuska was at Suvilahti rather than at Kaisaniemen puisto – and that this was ironically, its final year here. Where the festival will go next, I’m anxious to find out. It may even need a bigger place.
Written by Vincent Parkkonen & Kalle Uotila
Photos: Janne Puronen