It was that time of the year again: to pack our wellies and raincoats and head out to Peurunka Spa Hotel in Laukaa for the third consecutive John Smith Rock Festival. But as it turned out, neither raincoats or boots were much needed, as apart from the excellent live shows, the festival gods graced us with gorgeous sunshine and lovely heat for most of the weekend. One has to love that when it happens during the Finnish summer, and Sara and Lene happily obliged to bring some of that back to you!
Friday – Day 1
We arrived to the festival area on Friday afternoon, ready to have a sweaty first day. Right off the bat we were surprised with a rain shower though, and everyone who had showed up for Brother Firetribe’s performance got effectively soaked, ourselves included. Despite the rain, Brother Firetribe (fronted by singer Pekka Heino) had an energetic show, and we were thoroughly amused when Mr. Heino forgot the lyrics during their song, “I’m on Fire.” The festival area itself, we noticed, hadn’t changed much from last year, but some small touch-ups had been made: the security check was placed a little further behind the spa hotel, and meet ‘n’ greet booths were considerably easier to find than last year, now located beside the main road, along with a new bar. Some of the festival visitors took advantage of the access to the beach all weekend, which was definitely one of the perks of the venue location during a heatwave. The festival is still a no-minors event, and we agree that in John Smith’s case, it definitely works for their advantage; aside from the opportunity to wander around with your drinks, not having fences to cut through the already small festival area and needing to dig out your ID when moving from one spot to another really does make your life easier.
Sara: We were soon able to escape the unstable weather and head into the VIP tent for Antony Parviainen Trio featuring Marco Hietala and JP Leppäluoto. This trio has some serious talent and powerful voices, so it’s safe to say I was excited to see what the guys would come up with within the next hour. Cue the tears when the band stepped onto the stage and their cellist Elias Kahila started playing Sibelius’ “Finlandia” – that song has always been my weak spot, so I’m glad they soon picked up the pace and began the show with Dio’s “Rainbow in the Dark.” All three vocalists have such different singing styles, so at first I was a bit skeptical of how well they would go together (side note, I had not seen these guys perform together prior to this). Luckily my fear was unnecessary – throughout the set their harmonies were on point and each one got a chance to show us exactly why we love them so much. Leppäluoto melted all our hearts with his rendition of Metallica’s “The Unforgiven”, Parviainen showcased his impressive vocals with Iron Maiden’s “Wasted Years”, and made the crowd sing along when he belted out “Lumessakahlaajat” by Timo Rautiainen & Trio Niskalaukaus. We even got a cello solo during “Wasted Years”, and the guitarists J-V Hintikka and Ilari Heinäaho graced us with lovely tunes during “Fire Woman” by The Cult. The trio really knows how to entertain and what I loved the most were JP’s dance moves during “Wildchild”, Marco’s Hawaiian shirt and love affair with his electronic cigarette, and just all the general banter between the guys. They closed the show with Ozzy Osbourne’s “Shot in the Dark”, and I left the tent a happy camper.
Next band to play on the Kaaos Stage was the Swedish CyHra. Having released their debut album only last year, CyHra is still pretty new in the metal scene. That doesn’t mean the band is without merit; this supergroup is fronted by singer Jake E [ex-Amaranthe] with names like Jesper Strömblad [ex-In Flames] on guitar, Alex Landenburg [ex-Annihilator] on drums, and guitarist Euge Valovirta [ex-Shining] thrown into the mix. The songs are definitely influenced by the musicians’ backgrounds and have a lot of catchy riffs and impressive solos. The show started with the monologue to “Dead to Me” and soon the party mode was on. Flowing straight into their second single “Letters to Myself” and finishing that with “Suomi Finland perkele”, Jake E. tried to incite the crowd. Unfortunately, we could hear from the start that he had some problems with his ear monitors and his vocals didn’t always hit the mark.
During “Heartrage” we got to enjoy lead guitarist Euge Valovirta’s lovely dance moves and he even planted a cheeky kiss on the fellow guitarist, Jesper Strömblad. From the start Valovirta was the true entertainer – his hip movements were almost mesmerizing, and the solos in “Dark Clarity” and “Muted Life” helped make him the center of everyone’s attention. When Valovirta lost his shirt, even Jake E. couldn’t help but comment on his physique.
Towards the end of the show it seemed that Jake E. had recovered from the earlier stumbling and he got the stage all to himself when he beautifully belted out ballads “Inside a Lullaby” and later “Closure.” After the thank you speech (and a couple of shots drunk by Jake E. and drummer Alex Landenburg), they closed the show with the first single, “Karma.” Despite a couple of major sound issues, they were a good and entertaining performance.
Sara: A band that I manage to see almost every year is Amorphis. This solid performer brought probably the biggest crowd in front of the Soundi stage, and I can’t say I’m too surprised. From my knowledge and observation, some people seem to have a love-hate relationship with this band. Or maybe they are all closet Amorphis fans, I don’t know. Anyway! Amorphis always bring a good show, and this time wasn’t any different. Since they released the new album, Queen of Time, this past spring, it was only natural that several songs from this new creation ended up on the setlist.
Opening with the single, “The Bee”, and immediately following with, “The Golden Elk”, we got to experience how well the new material plays live. I must admit, I personally prefer their newer productions so I was pleased to hear songs such as “Sacrifice”, “Bad Blood”, and “Death of a King” from their previous album, Under the Red Cloud. As always, we heard the crowd favorites “Silver Bride” and “The Castaway”, not forgetting the ultimate singalong song, “House of Sleep”, and closing the set with “Black Winter Day.” The Amorphis guys are such esteemed professionals in what they do; they don’t even need any gimmicks to bring down the house. Singer Tomi Joutsen is the conductor and again he led the band to a great performance. I enjoyed myself, and it seemed everyone else agreed.
Lene: Our second to last musical pit stop for Friday was again by the Kaaos Stage, to check out what Insomnium had to offer us. The show being the last in the Winter’s Gate touring cycle, we had been pondering early on what kind of setlist they’d cook up for the occasion – “Winter’s Gate”, obviously, but what else? Well, we were in for a surprise, as the band decided to not play the 40-minute mammoth at all, which was bit of a pity, considering that they likely won’t play it anytime soon after this almost 2-year run, wherein they toured the world with it. I’m likely not the only one who will miss those shows, but on the other hand, I have nothing to complain about hearing the older material live, and neither had anyone else at their John Smith show by the looks of it. They may be somewhat safe bets, but you won’t catch me whining about hearing “Killjoy” and “Mortal Share” anytime soon, and especially “Black Heart Rebellion” was a nice pick after a couple years break from their setlists. Even if the gig wasn’t the peak I’ve seen of them, Insomnium is always a solid choice on any occasion, and the late slot worked in their favor for some added atmospheric value. Without a doubt, they could have drawn a good crowd in front of the Soundi Stage as well, but from my experience, their shows are best enjoyed when surrounded by some trees, if possible.
Last to hit the stage on day 1 was the Italian powerhouse that is Lacuna Coil. Fronted by the beautiful Cristina Scabbia (vocals) this band has been around for over 20 years, releasing a book about said 20-year history this coming fall. Despite having been around for a while and having a solid fan base, the area in front of the Soundi Stage could have been busier. The late timeslot may have played a factor, but the band didn’t let that be an issue. Kicking things off with Karmacode single “Our Truth”, we had a show at full force. Without making it sound like they are 85 years old, these guys are such veterans it’s a joy to watch them onstage. Songs “Kill the Light” and “Trip the Darkness” from the 2012 album Dark Adrenaline, and then more recently released “Blood, Tears, Dust” showed us exactly how good they are. They each do their own thing, but it all works and captivates. Since they released the album Delirium only a couple of years ago, it was only natural that mid-show we heard more material from said album, and “My Demons”, “Delirium”, and “House of Shame” took us to the Lacuna Sanitarium. The crowd pleaser and cover song “Enjoy the Silence” had everyone singing along and the nostalgic first single “Heaven’s a Lie” gave all the feels. Highlighting the message in the penultimate song, “Nothing Stands in Our Way”, Scabbia had the crowd screaming “we fear nothing” alongside her. Closing the night with a song from 16 years back, we said goodnight with “Swamped.” For all the festival-goers who still had energy to stay and watch Lacuna Coil, the show was a rare treat.
Saturday – Day 2
For the second day of festivities, some of us decided to take a page from the early bird’s book, closely dodging a heavy shower of rain that sadly forced us to miss the local favorite Leverage with their comeback show, but luckily didn’t hinder our initial plans.
Lene: John Smith has already established itself as a trailblazer of sorts with not only bringing in bands that rarely visit Finland, but also the local rarities and comebacks, and this year was no exception. Before meeting up with the rest of our crew, I started my day with a cup of strong coffee and teenage nostalgia a’la End of You. This five-piece is one of the last remaining bands of the Finnish Gothic metal phenomenon that graced the stages in the beginning of millennia, and one I hadn’t been able to catch live before, so this was definitely a treat to anticipate. And they certainly didn’t disappoint; I was just as giddy seeing them now as I would’ve been as a teenager, and the small audience who braved the chances of rain seemed to enjoy their energetic performance just as much. The set was heavy on the debut album, Unreal, with a couple of tracks from each later album, and I was personally extremely pleased that they started and ended the gig with “Better God” and “You Deserve More” from their 2008 full-length, Mimesis, which I used to have on heavy rotation some 10-ish years ago. It could be a bit of a stretch to say I felt like traveling back in time, but it sort of made me wish I could, to be able to see them in earlier stages of their live evolution. But while waiting for the invention of time travel, the current phase works out more than well – the band seems to be happy to be back on stage, and singer Jami Pietilä’s voice and stage presence are both well on point. All-in-all, End of You was an excellent pick-me-up for my day 2, serving good times for everyone involved.
Sara: My second festival day started with the Swiss folk metal group Eluveitie. Formed in 2002 by singer and multi-instrumentalist Chrigel Glanzmann, this band has had a colorful history with a revolving door of band members. One thing that has stayed the same throughout the years is the way they combine melodic death metal with traditional Celtic music.
The show kicked off with “Your Gaulish War” and I was immediately a bit overwhelmed with how many things were going on onstage. With a total of nine different musicians and plenty of various instruments, Eluveitie can be a lot. Through the first third of the show, everything was a bit disjointed, as each band member focused on their own choreography and instrument without making much contact with the others. Luckily mid-set the atmosphere got a bit more relaxed and the crowd got to join in and sing the chorus of “Call of the Mountain.” Immediately after, we were rewarded with the newest addition to the band, multi-instrumentalist Fabienne Erni, singing “A Rose for Epona.” By the 2010 single “Thousandfold”, we had a full-on party with pyros and all. The band closed the show with their first major single, “Inis Mona.” After having a rough start, I’m happy Eluveitie managed to give us a good performance. Personally, I never knew bagpipes could be that sexy.
Sara: Next up it was time to hit the disco. I’ve always been intrigued by the sheer freakiness that is Turmion Kätilöt, so of course I had to check them out at John Smith. Fronted by singers MC Raaka Pee (Petja Turunen) and Shag-U (Saku Solin), this band is just something else. I hadn’t seen these guys since the longtime vocalist Spellgoth (Tuomas Rytkönen) left the band in 2017 and was replaced by Solin, and luckily it looked like Solin fits in better than well. So well, even, that I was traumatized by his outfit – the leather skirt didn’t cover much, and his dance moves during the opening song “Verta ja lihaa” and later “Kyynelten tanssi” showed me a tad more than I bargained for. But I guess that’s what Turmion Kätilöt is all about?
During “Pirun Nyrkki” the crowd went absolutely insane and I couldn’t help but have a little dance party of my own. I also happily joined the crowd in singalong sessions during “Pyhä maa” and “Tirehtööri.” Before the final song that was “Lataa ja varmista”, we heard their new single “Sikiö” which was released earlier this year. Judging by that, I’m excited to hear what the guys do next. After the show, I had a massive urge to bleach my eyes and ears, but it was a great performance with pyros, fireworks, and naked body parts. And I have to love the guys for all the obscenities they were spouting through the show. They sure know how to make people blush.
As usual, we took our time to explore the food stalls in between bands, and this time put some extra weight on finding good vegan options, with one vegan companion with us. On both days, it was a bit of a hit or miss operation in one way or another: our omnivores did score an excellent falafel burger from Poppamies on first day, but alas, it was not dairy free. On the second day, we did find a falafel platter that at least should have been completely vegan – we’re not completely sure, but we’ll take their word for it – and was certainly filling, if not really topping our list of excellent festival food. This time the omnivores went for the most traditional Finnish festival food, makkaraperunat [pan fried sausage and potato], and decided firmly that it was indeed an improvement to have something else than that on the menu these days. In conclusion, we’ll give the food a 7+ – basic, mostly alright festival food, nothing spectacular, and the stalls could do with more clear signs on what the dishes include for easier decision-making.
Sara: One new acquaintance for me this weekend was Raised Fist. Formed in Sweden in 1993, they are a hardcore punk band whose music I would immediately describe as explosive. From the first song of the show, “Chaos”, the energy onstage was insane. Starting from the band’s front man, singer Alexander Hagman, all the guys were jumping up and around the stage, so much so that I was afraid someone might get kicked in the head or end up off the stage! The crowd was definitely on board with their raised fists (pun intended) and moshpits. I was happy to stay slightly to the side; all those pyros would have melted me.
The band played a good variety of songs from their albums, with my new personal favourites “Wounds”, “In Circles”, and the statement piece that is “Man & Earth.” I loved how interactive the guys were, with each other and the audience. Guitarist Jimmy Tikkanen paid homage to his Finnish roots and played a little bit of Irwin Goodman’s “Ei tippa tapa”, which had the crowd happily singing along. The guys were excited to take a picture with the festival crowd and thanked everyone for all the support. Hagman even said Finland is the best place in the world for them. All-in-all a solid, energetic performance that I enjoyed greatly.
Sara: Finally, it was time to see a band whose show I’d been looking forward to attending again since 2010. Apocalyptica (aka holy hotness and cellos) had arrived to Peurunka to play a couple of Metallica covers: the show was a part of their Apocalyptica Plays Metallica By Four Cellos tour, which began in 2016. This tour has celebrated the 20th anniversary of their first album and the band shared their amazement of how much interest people have paid to this concept, making it last as long as it has.
The show started with the Metallica classics “Enter Sandman” and “Master of Puppets.” Eicca Toppinen, the designated frontman, explained that they haven’t done anything to change the original form of the songs and that they enjoy playing versions no one has heard in nearly 15 years. I must admit though, the songs “Fade to Black” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” were the ones that get the crowd excited and make them answer the question, “Are you ready to fuuuuuuck,” with a roar. Before “Escape”, it was mentioned that this song was first played in 1993. The lead cellist, Perttu Kivilaakso, impressed everyone with his solo, and Toppinen made a laughing comment, “Well that wasn’t half bad.” The guys also played “Battery”, which according to Toppinen, was too difficult for them back when they started. They sure knew how to play it now! The catchy “Seek and Destroy” flavored with AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” had everyone up on their feet again, screaming out the chorus with Toppinen. The band wasn’t ready to end the night yet, so we got an encore with the beloved “Nothing Else Matters” and “One”, the latter making the musicians bang their heads so hard they made my neck hurt by just looking at them. To make the set even more special, Apocalyptica left the stage with massive fireworks over the Peurunka lake.
Sara: Right after Apocalyptica, it was time to attend the last show of this festival for us and that was Hallatar on the Kaaos Stage. Formed by guitarist Juha Raivio [Swallow the Sun], vocalist Tomi Joutsen [Amorphis], and drummer Gas Lipstick [ex-HIM], I had heard of this band in passing, but I hadn’t familiarized myself with their music – I didn’t know what to expect. So when the band walked on stage on this dark summer night and started playing “Mirrors”, I was stunned speechless. Like I said, I didn’t know much about the band, but was quickly informed about the band’s background and the drive behind their debut album. For anyone who doesn’t know, their album No Stars Upon the Bridge is the guitarist Juha Raivio’s way of processing the death of his partner, Aleah Starbridge. Raivio wrote the songs soon after her death and you can hear it in every single note; all the pain and heartbreak are there. The songs are dark, heavy, heart-wrenching, and Tomi Joutsen’s voice takes them to another level. The atmosphere was somber and serious, as everyone is captivated by the brutal performance – as Lene noted later, one rarely gets to witness any audience being so reverently quiet. There is no need for side comments or speeches; the music does all the talking. They finished the show with an almost ethereal “Dreams Burn Down”, and from what we saw, it wasn’t just one or two members of audience who were moved into tears. Afterwards, I wish I could say something beautiful and elaborate, but I’m at loss for words.
We made the decision to skip Stratovarius and the afterparty with Wolfheart performing at Peurunka spa hotel, which brings us to the couple things we would have improved both this year and last: the schedules and transportation. As we said last year, with only 2 festival days and so many bands performing, the days get terribly long when the bands you wish to see the most perform almost first and last, but thankfully, at least this problem will likely be history next year, as the event extends over 3 days for the first time. The issues with festival buses were exactly the same as last year – not enough buses driving between Jyväskylä and Peurunka and them leaving really late – and we really hope that will get fixed next year as well. Outside that, it’s safe to say we were again extremely pleased to have spent our weekend by the lakeshore, enjoying both the bands and the scenery. With even the weather on our side for most of the time, it’s hard to top a combination of a program that sets the festival apart from others, gorgeous views, hassle-and-fence-free area, and overall good vibes. As with previous years, John Smith gave the older rock and metal festivals in Finland a serious run for their money. You can rest assured we’ll be back again next time!
Text: Sara Kangasniemi, Lene L. | Photos: Lene L.