It’s 2020 and the winter should be in its fullest when Finnish death-doom band, SWALLOW THE SUN, celebrate their 20-year-long career with a special tour: 20 Years of Gloom, Beauty and Despair from the 13th to 29th of February, 2020, appearing at Tavastia in Helsinki on the 26th. Check out the gallery here.
SWALLOW THE SUN is one of those bands that regularly appears on my playlists but are rarely something I actively put on. For a band that has been around for 20 years, it means that I tend to listen to only part of their production, while overlooking the rest. Admittedly, I have a bias towards their heavier stuff, which they expertly combine with more melodic styles. However, checking out any band for the first time – as was the case here – and when you only know part of their repertoire, it may end up in a surprise. And Swallow the Sun certainly delivered on that note.
As a venue, Tavastia is moderately sized, with a layout that is more dedicated to live gigs than the average club, with a high ceiling and an open loft in the back. I have rarely seen the place packed, even less so on a Wednesday evening at 20:00. Therefore, I was a little bit surprised by the huge crowd that was illuminated by the blue lights overhead, giving everything a suitably gloomy tint. More people kept arriving well past the appointed hour, which is why I can’t really fault the band for starting about 10-15 minutes late. Quite the opposite, I appreciate the consideration to their fans.
After the main lights went out, what remained was half a dozen electrical torches that cast the stage in orange light as a total of ten people walked on stage. I was surprised to see people carrying classical instruments, but I guess I should have read the memo as the 20 Years of Gloom, Beauty and Despair Tour consists of two parts: the first included a string quartet and acoustic compositions of “Beauty,” the second disc from of “Songs from the North” (2015), whereas the second part focused more on the death and doom metal that I know them for.
It’s one thing to produce music that combines, say, violin and metal in a studio and another to make it work on stage; this was the first thing that impressed me in their set. Most mixers lack the experience and know-how to support those instruments, let alone mixing them with several other artists. The first set was pure gloom, with beautiful acoustic compositions expertly mixed with 20 years of experience. On stage, lead vocalist Mikko Kotamäki took center stage with bassist Matti Honkonen on his near left. Lead guitar and band founder Juha Raivio had a less prominent place on the far left beside the string quartet. Special mention goes to Jaani Peuhu on keyboards and supporting vocals, which complemented Kotamäki’s performance splendidly. The band’s overall stage performance wasn’t anything special but fit the set well.
“Songs from the North” featured guest vocals by Kaisa Vala. As her voice resonated crystal clear through the audience, many stretched out to see on stage whether someone was singing or if it was a recording they were hearing. With so many people on stage and such a big audience, it was unlikely that most of the crowd could see everything on stage, and the use of backing tracks often divides opinions. As such, I wasn’t surprised that people were trying to see to confirm.
SWALLOW THE SUN really succeeded in displaying their skills outside of the death/doom style, even if the performance was a bit too progressive for my taste and Kotamäki’s voice was a tad overwhelmed by the acoustics, especially at the very beginning of the set. That said, the lighting really emphasized the atmosphere and reminded me of winter nights in the north, while sitting at a umpilaavu [traditional lean-to hut] with an open fire. It must have been a real challenge for the photographers to commemorate the event, but at the same time it really worked to set the mood and present the band on stage. As icing on the cake, they had a round canvas in the background onto which a reel of winter landscapes was projected that mirrored the music perfectly. The set literally brought people to tears in the audience.
After a good hour’s worth of music from “Songs from the North,” the band took a short intermission. The string quartet left the stage, their part complete, and the electrical torches were cleared away. What remained in the background was a large black canvas featuring the cover art from the 2019 album, “When a Shadow is Forced into the Light“ (2019). Yet again, the setting matched the music perfectly. The band had changed into more relaxed attire and their stage performance matched the strong growling vocals by Kotamäki. If his voice had been a bit muffled during their first set, it was on point during the second half. The on-stage lights featured heavy strobes and even disco balls, which may sound out of place, but fit the overall atmosphere and the alternating style of their music.
This is the first time that I’ve seen the main artist play warm-up for themselves and present two distinctly different performances. Both sets were expertly executed, which really speaks for their experience and professional skill. Twenty years is a long time and a band that has combined and experimented with different musical genres, is bound to have fans, like me, that tend to prefer some of their music over the rest. However, the 20 Years of Gloom, Beauty and Despair Tour really provided something for all their fans and left no one wanting.
Set 1 (acoustic)
1. The Womb of Winter
2. The Heart of a Cold White Land
4. Pray for the Winds to Come
5. Songs from the North
6. 66°50’N, 28°40’E
7. Autumn Fire
8. Before the Summer Dies
9. Lost & Catatonic
10. Empires of Loneliness
11. Falling World
12. Cathedral Walls
13. Plague Of Butterflies: Pt. II: Plague of Butterflies
14. Don’t Fall Asleep (Horror Pt. 2)
15. Stone Wings
16. The Giant
17. Swallow (Horror Pt. 1)
18. Here on the Black Earth (encore)
Written by Kenneth Lehtinen
Photos: Miia Collander