The sun was shining, the July weather could almost be classified as sweltering… it couldn’t have been time for John Smith Rock Festival, could it? You’d better believe it! Instead of rain boots and coats for this year’s festival, we got to pack our hats and sunscreen. For many people, this lakeside festival has become a summer highlight, and this year’s festival-goers got to enjoy Peurunka for 3 days, not 2, from July 18th-20th.
John Smith has gained popularity each year it’s been arranged so far, now selling out on Friday and Saturday. It’s not without reason, though. It is very hard to find a festival where everything works as seamlessly as here, aside of one or two things; namely public transportation to and from the festival area, but this was finally supposed to change this year, so our hopes for that were high. See for yourself what Sara and Lene had to say about this year’s extended edition!
Thursday – Day 1
We arrived well on time to catch the first bands and take in the atmosphere, and obviously enjoy the gorgeous weather while checking out the view. The festival area itself had remained the same this year, save a couple of additions. There were more spots to get some delicious festival food and the most adventurous guys out there could enjoy their drinks at the SkyBar, which was essentially a tiny bar area lifted up by a crane. What delighted us most was bringing in an R-kioski truck – the Finnish kiosk chain outlet offered smaller bites like toasts, sandwiches, and paninis for those times when a full plate of fries and sausage would be a bit too much, and also a variety of cold and warm beverages. We hope it’ll be back next year, as there was definitely a niche for that kind of thing inside the area. Even though you could go to the Peurunka spa’s canteen, who really wants to go through the security queue every time you want some snacks?
Sara: First up on the main stage was Arion. This melodic metal band has been around for a few years now, making their first appearance at the UMK (Uuden Musiikin Kilpailu) in 2013. The band signed a record deal and released their debut album the following year, and have been gaining fame ever since, but I’ve somehow managed to avoid seeing their live performance until now. From the first song, “No One Stands in My Way,” I could tell I’ve been missing out. The guys bring such amazing energy to the stage, all smiling from ear to ear – it’s as if they have brought the sun with them. Despite their young age, they all have such talent, each song showcasing their skills: “You’re My Melody” allowed singer Lassi Vääränen to belt out beautiful vocals, and “The Last Sacrifice” had some amazing keyboard and guitar solos. The main songwriter and guitarist, Iivo Kaipainen, has created gorgeous melodies and they are matched with catchy choruses everyone can sing along to. I especially enjoyed hearing their first single, “Seven.” The band finished their set with “At the Break of Dawn,” a song featuring Elize Ryd from Amaranthe. Alas, Ryd wasn’t there to sing it with them, but nevertheless the song is fun. All-in-all, Arion were a perfect way to kick off this festival and I’m looking forward to seeing them again in the future.
Right after Arion, we went to catch another Ranka Kustannus band, Fear of Domination, who have also become one of our staff favorites. Judging by the number of people gathered in front of the stage (and in spite of the fairly early slot), they are one of the crowd favorites too, and for a good reason – it’s always a proper party with this merry lot on stage! As per usual, there was no avoiding shenanigans, from singer Saku Solin jumping into the photo pit during the band’s titular track, to dance choreography in various songs, and general friendly banter between band members. Along with the entertainment, we especially would like to applaud percussionist Miikki Kunttu‘s choice of accessorizing with striped stockings and pink pigtails – definitely a contender for an imaginary “best dressed” award. On the setlist front, the brand new single “Dead Weight” was received well by the audience and fit right in with older hits like “Needle” and “Sick and Beautiful,” and the ever-delightful Bloodhound Gang cover “Bad Touch.” Fear of Domination’s show was also a fine example on how nice it is to find new bands at festivals; those of us and our company who hadn’t seen or heard them before were positively impressed by their show, and especially praised the contagious energy in their songs, along with how singers Sara Strömmer‘s and Solin’s voices worked together. With a show like theirs, we’re certain that attracting new fans at John Smith was far from tough!
Sara: Next up on the main stage were Swedish Avatar. Formed in Gothenburg in 2001, their music is like a breath of fresh air. This fivesome happily mixes different genres and creates a very unique sound. Also their pirate/soldier styled outfits and singer Johannes Eckerström’s almost Joker-like face paints are a sight. They kicked things off with the 2014 single “Hail the Apocalypse,” and from the start it was clear that the crowd had more than a few fans; “A Statue of the King” got some loud backing vocals from the audience and it was very difficult not to headbang along. “Bloody Angel” was another hit that had everyone singing along. I had never seen Avatar live before, therefore had no idea what to expect from their set. I must admit I really enjoyed their slightly crazy, one-of-kind style. The guitars in “Get in Line” are almost nasty in a way, “Let it Burn” is a full-on party song with its catchy riff, my jaw dropped when Eckerström whipped out a trombone during “Puppet Show!” Another great show and a band whose performance I can’t wait to see again. We are all unique in our own way and Avatar uninhibitedly embrace their weird. A quick outfit change and they closed the show with the 2012 single “Smells Like a Freakshow.”
Sara: To end our first day, we had a band we rarely get to see on the Finnish festival stages these days. Tampa-based, American/European power metal kings Kamelot, formed by guitarist Thomas Youngblood and former drummer Richard Warner in 1991, are seasoned veterans in their craft and I fully expected to get a solid, strong performance from them.
They opened the show with “Phantom Divine,” the second single from their latest album, The Shadow Theory, followed by the 2007 hit “Rule the World,” a track most melodic metal fans have probably heard once or twice. As Kamelot doesn’t often play festival shows in Finland, it was great that they had chosen songs from the early 00s as well. Although we heard plenty of more recent tracks, such as “Insomnia” and “Veil of Elysium,” songs like “Karma” and “Forever” really got our hands up in the air, and even I had to give my neck muscles a workout to “March of Mephisto.”
Kamelot has an array of songs featuring female vocalists, and for this tour they’ve been accompanied by Once Human’s Lauren Hart, who does an amazing job with both clean vocals and growls. We were also in for a treat with “Sacrimony (Angel of Afterlife)”, as Elize Ryd, the original female vocalist on the album version, joined them on stage for the song. For the encore, bassist Sean Tibbetts entertained the audience wearing massive goggles resembling the eyes of a fly, before they closed the show with “Liar Liar (Wasteland Monarchy)”. Even though Kamelot didn’t attract the biggest crowd, their performance was excellent. Not a whole lot of talking was needed, as the music, showmanship, and skill these guys have are enough. And well… the pyros helped too!
Friday – Day 2
We arrived to the area for our second day of festivities some time after Wintersun had started their set, and were pleasantly surprised upon remembering they’re still playing their first album as whole at their shows. As ironic it is to listen Wintersun’s self-titled debut in the brightest July heat, it was an extremely welcome nostalgia blast.
Sara: On day two I was a bit late to arrive at the festival area, so the first act I witnessed was Antony Parviainen Trio. I had the privilege of seeing this group last year with Marko Hietala and JP Leppäluoto, and I was excited to hear a different kind of set from them this time. Also, last year the group performed in the VIP area, but now all festivals goers were able to hear them play some Iron Maiden as they had upgraded to a bigger stage.
The show started with the 1988 track, “Moonchild.” The crowd was very much into it from the first chorus, I could see people having their own lip sync moment. Next up was “Revelations” from the album Piece of Mind, and I loved the sounds of Ilari Kahila on the cello and Petteri Vaalimaa on double bass, their instruments just shone through. During “The Evil That Men Do,” the crowd really got LOUD! I’ve never been an Iron Maiden fan myself, but hearing the excitement from the others made me wish I knew the lyrics. I think that’s the best part of cover bands – you can belt out the lyrics to your favorite songs. Overall, Antony Parviainen has a great voice that suits these songs well, and I especially enjoyed his vocals in “Blood Brothers”. And obviously, Antony Parviainen Trio plays Iron Maiden could not end without a true classic, so I was glad they finished things off with “Run to the Hills.”
Sara: Next it was time to head straight to the main stage and listen to some Turisas. Since releasing their debut album, Battle Metal, in 2004, they’ve been one of the strongest live performers in Finland and only played a couple of festival shows this summer, so I was glad I got the chance to see them at John Smith. These guys certainly don’t kid around; they kicked the show off with “As Torches Rise” and we were ready for battle. The band’s lineup has definitely seen some changes during the years, but despite life’s challenges they’ve always kept on going. This time they had some new blood on stage when South African Caitlin De Ville joined them on violin, covering for their longtime member Olli Vänskä while he’s taking some time off. It was no wonder they had chosen her, and especially during “We Ride Together” her violin sounded fantastic. For the next song, singer Mathias Nygård led us “To Holmgard and Beyond”: the crowd was ready to follow him and the same energy continued “In the Court of Jarisleif.” At this point I was happy that I had chosen to watch the show from the hillside, otherwise I may have hurt myself trying to stay clear of the mosh-pit. Another crowd favorite was the title track from their debut album, and “Battle Metal” could be heard loud by the lakeside. But too soon it was time to “Stand Up And Fight,” as the title track of their 2011 album ended their set.
Sara: The penultimate band for our second day was Stam1na, a fivesome from Lemi, South Karelia, that should be a mandatory addition to each summer festival. Stam1na are such a strong live act, and even though they tour Finland quite frequently, their set is rarely the same. They love to change things up and play songs from their earlier albums as well as from their latest productions. When Stam1na is concerned, we shouldn’t expect anything less than setting things off on strong note, and this time wasn’t an exception with “Viisi Laukausta Päähän,” followed by “Kuoliaaksi Ruoskitut Hevoset.” The lakeside really is a perfect place for a festival and even singer Antti “Hyrde” Hyyrynen praised the amazing atmosphere, naming this the best festival of the summer. I’m sure most people in the audience agreed. When it comes to these guys, some sort mischief is always due. This time, reading the setlist turned out to be a challenge, but they managed to play “Pienet Vihreät Miehet” without a hitch. For the next one the guys wanted to sing a love song to Mother Earth with “Gaian Lapsi,” the latest single from their 2018 release Taival, which also features Anna Eriksson on the album. Sadly she wasn’t there to perform it, but Hyrde did a great job singing the softer vocals.
Again Stam1na did a great job delivering a balanced set in terms of old and new. “Solar,” “Sudet Tulevat,” and calmer track “Kannoin Sinut Läpi Hiljaisen Huoneen” from Taival blended well with songs like “Masiina,” “Panzerfaust,” and “Puolikas Ihminen.” They even saved the best for last, ending the set with my new favorite, “Enkelinmurskain.” I’ve seen many festival shows from this group and it’s difficult to say which part I like the most. It could be Pekka “Pexi” Olkkonen‘s [guitars] upper body… and guitar solos, Kai-Pekka “Kaikka” Kangasmäki‘s [bass] hair flips and intense backing vocals, or the general banter between the guys. I can’t possibly choose. I do know, though, that I won’t get tired of seeing Stam1na’s live performances any time soon.
Our last stop for the day was in the woods to catch Swallow the Sun. The sun already setting and the stage was lit by minimalistic, candle-like pyros; it was yet another beautiful setting for their festival show this summer. They do fit the darkening Finnish summer nights like a glove with their atmospheric tunes and calm demeanor, and tend to gather quite a crowd, being the strong performers they are. This time was no exception to that rule – even if the setlist didn’t offer many surprises for those who’d seen them during this year’s festival season already, it didn’t affect the mood in the slightest. For those of us who didn’t see them at Tuska, bringing back “Deadly Nightshade” from their 2003 debut Morning Never Came was a neat touch, and it’s nice to see it making a somewhat unexpected return to their regular setlist rotation.
Ultimately, it was interesting to see them play at an almost similar spot as Hallatar the year before, and we found ourselves musing on how those shows felt like pieces in same continuum. It was easy to believe right there that these bands are held dear by both the arranging party of John Smith and its patrons, and we definitely understand why, as it’s not hard at all to be swept away from the hectic everyday life at their shows. This set was also filmed in its entirety and a live video of “Firelights” has already been released from there. Here’s hoping for a full DVD at some point!
Saturday – Day 3
The last day of John Smith for the year was welcomed with some well-needed coffee and a few songs from good old Viikate playing on the main stage. As guitarist-singer Kaarle Viikate – the uncrowned king of hardly translatable dad joke speeches – said, it’s the perfect picnic weather and the perfect picnic company here. We couldn’t have agreed more.
Lene: The first full gig we saw for the day was Jinjer, a band I had personally looked forward to quite a bit after missing them at Nummirock a couple years ago. I had heard a lot of positive things about them though, and they were clearly very well anticipated; the audience was plentiful and seemed to know the band and their songs quite well. The band got on stage to an amusing children’s song kind of intro and as they kicked off first song of the set, my first thought was that a few people I know would’ve asked “does it djent?” upon hearing it. The second thought, though, was that singer Tatiana Shmailyuk is a goddamned queen! Her screams are impressive, but I especially loved her clean vocals in the mellower parts, and that contrast is amazing when combined with her explosive energy on stage. Speaking of explosive, Jinjer was one of the very few bands with no pyros, which was kind of a shame. Save for one song towards the end of the set that had a funky, almost ska-like beat, they generally sounded like a mix of a Meshuggah-type groove and hardcore, which I enjoy occasionally, but Jinjer in particular would need more investigation from my part – I’m not 100% sure they’re my cup of tea, but I enjoyed the show nevertheless and would likely go see them again.
Lene: If Jinjer was all new to me, the next band we caught was from the extremely familiar end. In my early teens, the most visible goth phase was soundtracked to a great extent by The 69 Eyes‘ Paris Kills and Blessed Be, but I had never managed to catch them live before, so I was obviously very curious to see how the vampires of my youth have aged. I had stopped actively listening them sometime after Devils, so I was pleasantly surprised by their setlist consisting mainly of the material I was most familiar with, plus a brand new track called “27 & Done” as a treat in between. Visually, it was clearly some level of a leap from the Anne Rice -like ethereal charm of the Paris Kills years; it seems that vampires do, in fact, age after all… at least the Helsinki variety. Or change in style, as they resembled more the kind of vampires you’d expect to run into along the Sunset Strip. All-in-all, even if they didn’t take me back in time, the only thing even remotely bothersome from their show was the backing vocals being a little overpowering at times. As singer Jyrki69 mused that the next song is perfect for a Saturday night, as we can do something together, not privately – cue “Dance D’amour” – it was quite alright (even though I’m still convinced that song in particular really could use some flamenco claps together in the chorus).
Lene: By half past nine we reached the point in the evening that I personally had been anticipating the most – Insomnium with a special Across the Dark set, playing the 2009 album from start to finish. To make the occasion even more special, this was the first show with guitarist Jani Liimatainen as an official member of the band, and a couple songs in, singer-bassist Niilo Sevänen introduced the newest addition to their ranks to the audience, telling us he is wonderful and lovely. All three guitarists were constantly goofing around with each other, from making faces and poking to grabbing the tremolo bar in the other’s guitar – as the Finnish proverb says, “lapsi on terve kun se leikkii” [a child is healthy when it plays], and these kids seem to be extremely happy with their new playing buddy. The audience caught hold of the mood easily and didn’t seem to need a lot of coaxing to join the party, raising their hands from the slightest gesture any of the string-instrument players aimed their way.
As Ennio Morricone’s “Man with a Harmonica” served as backdrop changing music after the last notes of “Weighed Down With Sorrow” were released into the night, Liimatainen and Markus Vanhala also changed into Hawaiian shirts before hopping back on stage, which seems to have been a thing with Insomnium’s shows this summer. Among the older crowd pleasers like “While We Sleep” and “Change of Heart,” the band premiered a track from their upcoming album Heart Like a Grave called “Valediction,” with Sevänen asking if anyone’s nervous and his bandmates promptly chiming in that they were. While that’s an understandable reason to have the jitters, judging by that song alone, the new album won’t be anything short of awesome! Ending their set with the more seldomly played “In the Groves of Death,” Insomnium left us giddy and eager to see them again soon.
Lene: Our first 3-day John Smith Rock Festival weekend was closed off with good old Amorphis on the main stage, who were just as excellent as you can expect them to be. During the course of a year and some, tracks from Queen of Time have slipped effortlessly in between the older material in their set in true Amorphis manner; their shows somehow always manages to sound well-balanced, even when it leans more heavily on one or two albums. This gig was routine and easy to digest, which wasn’t a bad thing at that point of the weekend. The only thing I really missed in their show was some pyros (despite their abundance over the past few day), as they would’ve suited the atmosphere perfectly. Though, come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Amorphis show with pyros. But even without, it was nice to catch them, as usual, and I’ll probably always be just as delighted to hear tracks from Elegy and Skyforger. The singalongs ringing across the area during the closer, “House of Sleep,” put smiles on our faces too, even if they faltered a little as their outro, the Eläkeläiset cover of the same track, was cut a little short. Oh well, it’s time to stop the party at some point, right?
Overall, our weekend in Laukaa was once again extremely pleasant: the sun was shining, everything ran smoothly as expected, and the atmosphere was again almost indescribably excellent. The only things we’ve criticized about the arrangement in past years – buses and over-packed days – were taken care of this time, and it’s not much of an exaggeration to say the festival is by now quite close to perfection in every aspect. While having grown each year and selling out almost the whole weekend, the event has still retained its genuinely excited, easy-going, almost village party -like feeling, for which we believe we should thank both the arranging parties and the patrons, who come to enjoy the small lakeside paradise each year. The third day might also have been just the thing John Smith needed, and we’re all for this to continue in upcoming years.
Text: Sara Kangasniemi, Lene L. | Photos: Lene L.