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Situated a few kilometers north from the outskirts of the greater Helsinki region, the small town of Hyvinkää is unlikely to be mentioned in any tourist guide. Yet for the past few years it has been continuously gaining repute in black metal circles, thanks to the success of Steelfest, which especially since the death of Hammer Open Air has become the major annual gathering of the dark tribe in Southern Finland. As May tends to be a busy month, I missed earlier instalments of the festival due to conflicting schedules and the situation last year was no better. However, the prospect of seeing Primordial again was a strong enough incentive to buy a one-day ticket at the last minute and cut my other responsibilities of the evening short in order to catch a late evening train to Hyvinkää.
I even managed to see the last bit of Vader, and what´s more, the brief time spent in the historic factory yard between the red-brick walls of Villatehdas was enough to ensure that this year I was going to be there from beginning to end.
"Beginning" in this case meant Axegressor, who started slightly ahead of schedule and without announcement, because the weekend´s stage presenter, Finnish radio legend Klaus Flaming, had not yet arrived. However, the first riffs were enough of an introduction to prove that the band lives up to its name, which also means that they were a good choice of opener. While representing thrash rather than black metal, their pure energy and precise riffing quickly wiped any thoughts of work and weekday chores from the mind and put it in the right state for a weekend of partying. By the time of "SS-18", my coiffure was history...
Of the festival´s two stages, Axegressor played the indoor one, but when I came out, I was greeted by none other than the sun. The temperatures were far from a year ago (mid-May sunburn 2014, never forget...), but the improvement over the official forecast for the day was remarkable. Despite the temptation to temporarily rid myself of it, I kept my leather jacket, but the Ketzer guys opened the outdoor stage clearly dressed for summer, particularly Infernal Destroyer. His vocal performance didn´t fully live up to his name (or maybe the all-too generic material doesn´t provide the prerequisites for a more impressive performance) and bassist Necroculto´s undeniable cuteness was slightly impaired by his late-Movember ´stache, but overall they were easy on the eye as well as the ear. Extra points for dedicating one song to the late BB King.
My first main act of the day was Satanic Warmaster, who managed to fly under my radar until last year´s excellent "Fimbulwinter" but delivered just as magnificent and atmospheric a show as said album had led me to expect. The visual side, particularly the mostly blue and white stage lighting, was perfectly in tune with the music, although Werwolf revealed that not all songs were penned with frostbitten fingers: as he stated in his announcement, "Winter´s Hunger" was written in the blazing heat of last summer. Mostly consisting of older material, the set was dramaturgically well constructed, putting more stress on melody in the first half (e.g. "One Shining Star", "Fimbulwinter´s Spell" and becoming ever more brutal towards the end, closing with "The Burning Eyes Of The Werewolf" and "Vampiric Tyrant". Impressive.
The tank traps strategically placed near the front of the stage during the next gig may have been mere decoration, but then again, they could have been there to protect the audience from the relentless assault of Mor Dagor. Never heard of these Germans before and to be honest, I don´t expect to remember them for very long, but they were vigorously entertaining for the time being. In terms of stage personality, the singer even bore certain resemblances to Johan Hegg, which is no bad thing.
By this time, several friends of mine had arrived, which meant that it was time for a beer. Might have been two, actually, but missing Dim Aura and seeing only very little of Vorum was a small price for enjoying sunshine and good company in probably the loveliest beer garden of any Finnish festival. Long tables and benches under big old trees yet close to the main stage are a rarity as such, and it was even allowed to enter and leave the indoor area with a drink in your hand. Anyone familiar with the common Finnish practice of separate drinking zones far from the closest stage will understand my appreciation. Like at Hammer Open Air back in the day, the solution was made possible by declaring the festival adult-only, but now that the main metal boom is over, not a whole lot of kids are into old school black metal anyway (although I saw a few at Emperor´s Tuska gig last year). Speaking of the premises, another huge plus was to have an actual bathroom with running water and ample supplies of toilet paper. A rare bit of comfort at a festival, and highly welcome.
The clear winner among the more obscure acts of the day was Evil Angel. The five-piece from Lahti released one full-length album some eight years ago plus a handful of splits and demos, but its members have been a good deal more active with their other bands, namely Sacrilegious Impalement and the lesser-known Witchtiger. Evil Angel were not only surprisingly good (in spite of some technical issues) but also great fun to watch. Part of the amusement was owed to singer Orgasmatron´s unorthodox outfit, possibly inspired by the likes of Miley Cyrus. Or maybe it was simply his idea of, well, badass...
Following the release of last year´s the compilation 20th Adversary of Emptiness, Kuopio´s own death metal pioneers Demilich finally returned to the stage for a few gigs. Included are several shows abroad, the next of them being Maryland Death Fest (where they also visited on their last actual tour during the brief comeback of 2006), but Steelfest seems to have been their only summer festival gig in Finland. They didn´t waste the memorable occasion and delivered a set worthy of their cult status, never mind that it took the sound guy a little while to properly present the band´s most unique asset: the grave-deep voice of Antti Boman. The set contained most of the Nespithe album - including the imaginatively titled "The Planet that Once Used to Absorb Flesh in Order to Achieve Divinity and Immortality (Suffocated to the Flesh that it Desired...)" - plus a an even older demo track and the comparatively new "Emptiness of Vanishing", which was recorded in 2006 but only released on the recent compilation. No new recordings are to be expected from Demilich, but the old stuff is timeless.
The next band left me with mixed feelings - musically, Temnozor were my favorite of the day, but a certain segment of the audience ruined it for me. I shall not give this faction more exposure than they deserve, but while they were not out for violence (Finland, so far, has been lucky in this respect compared to other parts of Europe), they made me feel uncomfortable enough to withdraw to the other end of the hall. The sound was better there, too.
Unleashed, on the other hand, not only surpassed my expectations but totally slayed. I didn´t even take notes during their set, instead I just stood nailed to my spot in the front row and moshed like everyone else. The festival was not sold out, but judging from the size of the crowd, the number of unsold tickets cannot have been very large. Unleashed were the last band on the outdoor stage on Friday, the sun had set a good while ago and it was getting chilly enough for me to wake up with a flu the next morning, but during the gig itself I felt immune to the temperatures. Hammer fuckin´ Batallion!
Not disappointing either, yet a bit of an anticlimax in comparison were Dark Funeral. As many seminal black and death metal albums were released in the early to mid-nineties, anniversary shows in their honor have become a bit of a fashion in the past couple of years. And there´s nothing wrong with that at all, but I don´t have any specific personal connection to The Secret Of The Dark Arts, which was played in full at Steelfest. In fact the only DF album I own is the latest one (Angelus Exuro pro Eternus, 2009) and the last time I saw the Swedes was at Tuska 2004, so I wouldn´t have minded a set consisting of more recent material. Besides, I was fairly exhausted after Unleashed, which may have diminished my appreciation, or at least my degree of attention. Fortunately, the set was long enough to include a few extra songs after the Dark Arts set, among them "My Funeral" from Angelus and the brand new "Nail Them To The Cross". And given that a new album is in the making, maybe they´ll even deign to promote it with a club gig in Helsinki later this year...
Actually I´m not sure whether the above-mentioned flu resulted from braving the cold during Unleashed or rather from the air conditioning at the hotel, which also left me utterly parched when I woke up in the morning. Honestly, I wouldn´t mind seeing this invention banned from buildings designed for human inhabitation anywhere north of the Mediterranean... Staying at the hotel, on the other hand, also had its benefits, with the result that our Saturday morning stretched into early afternoon. By the time we arrived at the festival grounds, Coprolith singer Ben just asked if anyone in the audience had an honest hangover. If as many as a single hand rose into the air, I didn´t see it, but hey - nobody with a serious morning after syndrome would be at their post before 3 pm. I felt a bit sorry for the band, as they were videotaping the whole gig and a bit more of a crowd in front of the stage would have made them look better, but they cannot be blamed for not trying. The drummer even did his job standing during many passages that did not require both feet at the bass drum.
Touching on the subject in the previous paragraph brings to mind the festivalgoer who stated to have already wondered why he didn´t have a hangover - in a comment to the organizers´ Facebook announcement to expand the bars on Saturday: "Now we have more stuff and you get your beer faster than yesterday." And they were true to their word, which was particularly noticeable indoors, where the lines at the counter had been excruciatingly long and slow the night before. On Saturday, I never had to wait more than a couple of minutes for my beer, so thanks for the quick remedy! And the first band I caught on the indoor stage turned was a good accompaniment to the first pint: despite a known partiality towards Norwegian black metal, I´m no great fan of Svarttjern, but although they were one of the less exciting acts of the day, they put on a surprisingly rocking show.
Not quite as energetic as Torture Killer, though, who soon had a sizeable moshpit churning in front of the big stage. Together with Sotajumala a couple of hours later, they were clearly responsible for the party portion of the afternoon. In direct comparison, the latter scored higher points in terms of interaction, with singer Mynni going so far as descending into the photo pit and offering some fans a drink, whereas Torture Killer seemed somewhat reserved and in the end left the stage without as much as a "kiitos", although the crowd eagerly shouted for more. But the force was with both of them, and so was the sun – for a few hours, Steelfest actually felt like a true summer festival.
Between those two bands, however, it was mandatory to retreat inside for a while, as not to miss Sargeist. To me, they were the first true highlight of the day, not least so because of Hoath Torog’s vocals – I’ve seen him with Behexen before, but with Sargeist, his performance was even more intense and he sounded like some strange beast from another world. In spite of the major differences in style, he made me think of Primordial’s Nemtheanga singing his heart out on this very same stage a year ago. Oh, and for the record, Torog’s make-up was better.
The first folk metal outfit of the day was Wyrd, a local band of very sparse activity. In fact I don’t know if they’ve played a single gig in the past five years, but the absence of routine did not hamper their set. One of the few bands of the weekend to feature keyboards and clean guitars (if not in abundance), they brought some welcome additional color to mix. They might be described as a darker version of Finntroll, without the Swedish lyrics. A part of the songs was in Finnish, the rest in English, apparently with even a bit of Sámi in between. Me likes.
After this, it was time for a bit of socialising, more beer, a glimpse of the Czechs taking a beating courtesy of Canada in the hockey world cup semifinals – in a way it was good luck for the early evening bands that Finland had not made it that far, otherwise they might have lost a large chunk of the audience to the TV in the beer tent – and, of course, some food. Tough decision, as the choice of vegetarian meals was better than what I’ve found at many bigger festivals, but in the end I settled for the Poppamies soy burger, highly recommendable. There also was a good selection of CDs, vinyl and other merch; I ended up spending much more time going through it than planned, as I was supposed to meet a friend by those stands, but her train was half an hour late and her phone had died.
By the time she finally arrived, Dead Congregation had pretty much finished their set. Well, no time to feel bad about it, the main acts of the evening were still ahead and the first of them was just about to start.
Over the years, Moonsorrow gigs in Finland have become increasingly rare, and there is no guarantee of even seeing them once a year. Yet on those treasured occasions they make every moment count, as was again proved by last year’s only show in Helsinki, where they treated the packed club to a two-hour display of epic grandeur. Naturally, the Steelfest schedule didn’t allow for this quantity, but the quality was the same. The first song happened to be the one that made me a fan of this band some fourteen years ago, "1065: Aika". "Taistelu Pohjolasta" went even farther back in time, all the way to the 1999 demo. After the third song, "Pimeä", I wondered for an instant whether I had misheard Ville’s announcement. But no, he had indeed said that the next song was the last, and it was none other than "Tulimyrsky". In other words, half an hour of pure ecstasy.
The resulting thirst combined with an increasingly annoying cough and worries about my camera, the navigation button of which was showing signs of malfunction, shall take the blame for me not concentrating on Asphyx to the deserved extent. The Dutch death legends around outstanding vocalist Martin van Drunen (who by the way confessed to love the classic Finnish long drink, Lonkero) played as powerful a set as Unleashed the night before, but this time I was seriously freezing didn’t have the energy left to rock out in the front row.
In the end I went back inside before Asphyx finished, warming up while waiting for one final dose of glorious pagan metal, this time from Nocturnal Mortum. Atmospheric and melodic, these Ukrainians not only draw on their own local tradition but also on western prog, and more than one guitar solo had "inspired by Gilmour" written all over it. Again, the lighting beautifully complemented the music. I guess there were still some folks in the audience who would be ready to abuse ancient heritage for the purpose of promoting modern-day nationalism, but this time they had the decency of keeping quiet. For a little while, politics seemed far away, and the common language mentioned by stage host Flaming in his introduction was understood by all. Or maybe I’m just an incorrigible idealist, but in a world were idealism requires more courage than cynicism, I’m not ashamed to be.
And speaking of it, one thing that requires a truckload of idealism is the creation of a festival like this one in the first place. Thumbs up to the whole crew, from the open-minded organizers to the friendly and helpful security staff. Musically, Steelfest may be Finland’s most brutal festival, but in all other aspects it as cozy and welcoming as a party with good friends can be.