Dark River Festival in Kotka is one of the longest-standing small scale festivals in Finland, yet is known for hosting some of the best small and mid-level bands around. It’s been a shame that we haven’t been able to come before this year, and we were only able to attend on Friday August 7th, but better half than not at all, right?
Having never been to Kotka before, arriving at the festival area was kind of exciting as we drove into the middle of what seemed like nowhere. The parking area was very close to the festival entrance and the camping area was even closer. Upon arrival, the staff were fantastic and more than willing to help out, getting us all set up quickly and efficiently.
The festival area itself is quite small, hosting around 1,000 people, but it was nicely arranged in its small space so that there was a fair amount of shelter but it wasn’t too stuffy. The tent area in the bar had a small stage that hosted cover bands later in the evening between sets, while there was still tent space outside the bar for merch and the general public to sit in if the weather turned bad.
The first band up was called TORCHIA and were entirely unfamiliar to us. They were dressed in corpse paint and black metal garb and the singer moved in a low squat, waving his arms around. They put on a shockingly energetic performance for their normally grim and stationary genre, and as a non-fan of the genre, the music did not offend my ears. We didn’t catch the names of any of the songs they played, but if you’re into black or extreme metal, these guy might be worth checking out. Even if the music wasn’t necessarily for me, I appreciated their performance and stage visuals.
There was a fairly quick stage change-over before FROSTTIDE took the stage at 17:40. Painted white and black and looking grim, they came out ready to prove that they deserve a spot in the folk metal elite of Finland. Felipe Muñoz on keyboards was crisp and cold, Joonas Nislin‘s drums were hard and heavy, and Juho Patinen‘s vocals still make the band come to life so much more than in the past. Session members Matti Meri-Huhti on guitar and Taneli Jämsä on bass were back again, with the former looking and sounding much more confident than during his first-ever gig at On the Rocks, and both of them felt like they belonged with the trio.
Muñoz greeted the crowd first in Finnish, but then changed to English due to the presence of some foreign guests in the crowd, A&P Reacts, who like me hail from Canada. Even for a small festival, quite a few people came early enough to catch FROSTTIDE‘s set, and all of them had their fists up. Muñoz talked about how 6 years ago they were releasing their debut, how good and bad things have happened since then, but we must always rise up.
Approximately 30 seconds after FROSTTIDE finished their set, the clouds erupted into a massive downpour that cleared up just after BRYMIR started. You rarely get beautiful timing like that in Finland, so maybe this year we’ll need to leave an offering to one of the forests. The more we watch BRYMIR, the more enjoyable they seem to become. The post-rain atmosphere kept the smoke thick on stage and the drums blasted strong and fierce while Viktor Gullichsen belted out “Ride On, Spirit!” Their set was more or less the same as it has been at other events this summer, and the new material was sounding particularly excellent on this night. It’s been a long time coming, but having had such a good time watching them this summer, they’ve finally forced me to pay attention to them and it’s time to get familiar with their material at long last.
Alas, we were jinxed with only a little bit of luck weather-wise. The skies opened up again and we opted to hide inside for MARIANAS REST. The band’s gloomy style suited the rainy weather, but their sound didn’t pique our interest, so we took this time to have our dinner break. Sadly, the only real complaint we had about the festival was the food. Texas BBQ has been at a handful of events in summer 2019 and they have proven to be really basic, over-priced festival food. I’d rather shell out 12-14€ for a good quality burger with nice meat than pay 10€ for crap, so hopefully next summer the festival brings in something a bit better. The other food options were smaller things like sausages, which are fine by Finnish festival standards if you need a snack after a few beers.
The festival approached its climax with OMNIUM GATHERUM at 21:20. They came on to a nice intro, ambient with a dynamic build-up, right into some good old fashioned metal. We’ve probably said this a few times, but these guys have really come into their sound in recent years and it’s been cool to see them grow in popularity. The bar area had no gaps against the rail by the time their set started, as everyone rushed to find a place where they could see the stage. Vocalist Jukka Pelkonen greeted the crowd after a song or two and then introduced “The Nail” from 2008’s “The Redshift.” That was a nice nostalgia trip from 10 years ago and they were sounding great. More often than not, I struggle to write anything about these guys because they’re just good. Guitar solos? Good. Vocals? Good (and far better than 10 years ago). Drums and bass? All good. Energy? Good. It’s just solid across the board. Every time we’ve caught them this summer, it’s been a worthwhile event.
Friday’s grand finale was none other than ENSIFERUM. It felt like it’s been a while since we’ve seen ENSKA, with my last show personally being the “Two Paths“ release gig back in 2017. Following the “Ad Victorium” intro, they started with “Blood is the Price for Glory” and then quickly moved on to an older classic, “Token of Time.”
Vocalist/guitarist Petri Lindroos was happy to greet the audience and get everyone hyped up, and by “One More Magic Potion,” the entire crowd turned into an insane dance party. The stage felt a touch naked without any keyboards, but it’s nice to hear they didn’t seem to have replaced them with a backing track. “For Those About to Fight for Metal” is a pretty cheesy song and not one of the best newer tracks, but it was good fun live and there were plenty of conga lines and mosh pits to go with it.
Lindroos praised the mosh pit from “Way of the Warrior” and mentioned that they’d play something more disco metal: “Two of Spades.” That’s always a ton of fun, even if the vocals aren’t quite as good as Frederick, but what can you do? “Stone Cold Ruins” and “In My Sword I Trust” were nice treats, and they closed the set with “Lai Lai Hei.” This led to a rather fantastic wall of death during the pick-up, where there were so many chaotic collisions that nearly a quarter of the pit went down at one point. Fortunately this festival seemed to have good pit atmosphere, and everyone helped gather the fallen. He clearly weren’t taking it too seriously, having a ton of fun, and it certainly rubbed off on the crowd. I can’t actually remember the last time I’ve had so much fun at an ENSIFERUM show.
Our first impression of Dark River Festival, even for one day, was overwhelmingly positive. Everything was so small and friendly, the crowd wasn’t too drunk or rowdy but were having a ton of fun, the camping area wasn’t overpopulated, and bands and concert-goers alike came together to party at the end of the night. Though the food could have been better, the overall organization of the event was smooth and efficient. We’d like to see more quality like this coming from the bigger festivals! We’ll be keeping our eyes on their line-up for next year – who knows, we may be back!
Written by Bear Wiseman
Photos by Laureline Tilkin