SaariHelvetti, a metal festival run by the Tampere-based Nem Agency and arranged this year for the third time, intrigued me with its concept and lineup already a year ago, but as a long-time Jurassic Rock attendee, I, for some reason, went on to spend my first August weekend last year in Mikkeli. What used to be an interesting ‘something for everyone’ approach to booking bands, the festival’s selection has since sunk to the abysmal level of playlist radio stations and Vain elämää, making me rethink my choice to skip SaariHelvetti and, for example, its Deathchain oldies show. This year, SaariHelvetti’s lineup really gave me no choice, as in addition to some interesting Finnish bands and the legendary Rotting Christ from Greece, the festival had snagged Austrian Harakiri for the Sky, so on August 5th, 2017, I jumped on a bus to Tampere. As of the day of the event, nearly the full 2000-ticket quota was sold, so a good party was to be expected.
Viikinsaari, the event location, is an island in Pyhäjärvi, so the only way to get there is by ferry from Tampere’s Laukontori. I only arrived at the docks about 10 minutes before the first boat was set to embark, but fortunately the queue wasn’t very long. The ticket booth didn’t have press passes to hand out, but I managed to get mine when we got to Viikinsaari – apparently there had been a small mix-up, to which I even received an apologetic email afterwards. No biggie, these things happen! The boat ride went by quickly, and once we arrived, I had to spend a moment scrutinizing the location – Viikinsaari hosts a chapel, a festivity building, a dance hall, a playground, a miniature golf course and volleyball court, a hiking trail (unfortunately not in use), a kiosk stall… you name it. It’s an amazing location for an event like this!
The first band on the running order and the winner of the Battle of the Bands from Hell contest was Laitila-Tammela based deathgrind group, Galvanizer. They took the second stage at 15:30 and bashed away for a good 30 minutes in the dance hall. Despite their young age, all three of them were incredibly good players – drummer Nico Niemikko’s performance was particularly jaw-dropping. The songs had a good number of great riffs and a sense of danger to them, and the show managed to attract a decent-sized crowd, even if all the VIP ticket-holders had apparently decided to spend their time drinking beer on the opposite terrace. It’s definitely shows like this that reward you for showing up early, even if you haven’t heard of the bands beforehand – a great show from Galvanizer indeed!
During the 30-minute transition time, one had the opportunity to observe the show at the Rock’n’Tits stage, placed behind the VIP terrace and boasting a variety of sideshow activities, from burlesque shows to a Speden Spelit tribute (a TV game show from a couple decades back). I can’t say that I know too much about burlesque, but – not to diminish the show in any way – I believe that striptease isn’t a traditional part of it, as opposed to the introduction the host gave the audience. At 16:30, Evil Drive began their half-hour set on the second stage. Compared to the Elmun baari show from the night before, their slight stiffness had vanished overnight and SaariHelvetti presented a band with a lighter mood, led by their snarky vocalist, Viktoria Viren. Because of their only 30-minute slot, the band had had to cut their setlist short, and, as a second show over the course of 2 days, it didn’t offer anything new to me personally, but the audience, filling over half of the hall space, appeared to enjoy it greatly. Not bad at all.
I had to cut Evil Drive a bit short to get to the main stage on time. Fear of Domination’s line-up grew to eight members earlier in the summer, as Sara Strömmer’s place as the second vocalist was made official mid-set at Tuska, and her presence clearly fits the band. The whole band seemed to have a lot of fun on stage throughout the 30-minute set; their percussionist in particular ran back and forth anytime he didn’t have to play. He also threw at least two pairs of drum sticks into the audience, the first time in a pretty low arc – hopefully no one got hit in the face. The band surely will have to put up with comparisons to Turmion Kätilöt until the end of time, but there were so many fans in the audience knowing all their songs’ lyrics that I wouldn’t be surprised if the situation turned around at some point in time. Even if Fear of Domination still doesn’t appeal to me musically that much (sorry, Jinx!), one cannot deny their entertainment value – FoD clearly is a party group and you had to be pretty cynical if the final song, the cover of The Bloodhound Gang’s “The Bad Touch”, wouldn’t have brought a smile to your face. The only -1 points from the show goes to the mixing booth – being as strong-voiced as Strömmer, it takes a lot of talent to lose her vocals somewhere between her microphone and the stage’s sound system.
Coming up next: the main monkey business! Harakiri for the Sky was visiting Finland for the first time over this weekend, but the crowd was surprisingly large at Elmun baari on Friday already. This time around, the second stage was already half-full before the Austrians had even begun their show, which allowed for only 30 minutes of showtime for some mind-boggling reason; almost all of their songs being around 8-9 minutes in length, HftS only had time to play three songs. As with the previous night’s show, during “Calling the Rain”, “Funeral Dreams”, and “Jhator”, the band didn’t try to make contact with the audience, but they needn’t have bothered, as almost everyone started clapping and singing along spontaneously during the more mellow passages; the cheering between songs was so loud that you would’ve thought you were in a considerably larger venue; and I believe the “we want more!” shouts after the show were the only ones we heard that day. I was dead certain after Friday that HftS would have to return to Finland, and after Saturday the feeling grew even stronger – as of writing this review, the band has already commented on the issue on Facebook and revealed that something will happen in the future – we’ll be waiting!
Next up on main stage was the crown jewel of Finnish grind, Rotten Sound. I never would have thought it possible to see anything other than good or excellent shows from these guys, but this time the main stage’s sound really didn’t do any justice to the band’s material. The sound tech managed to twist the knobs in such a way that anything else than Sami Latva’s bass drum didn’t stand out… not even his snare. Fortunately, what Rotten Sound lost with the horrible sound, they made up with their as-strong-as-ever stage presence, courtesy of their long experience. Keijo Niinimaa was his mellow self during his speeches. On top of the difficult circumstances, the band’s merchandise apparently hadn’t arrived to the location, as a car had broken down on the way, so Niinimaa encouraged everyone to buy Rotting Christ shirts, as they “had the almost same band name on them.” The setlist, similar to the ones on previous shows this summer, had a decent mix of newer and older favorites, even “Decay” from the Consumer to Contaminate EP. The moshpit was active throughout and the audience seemed to enjoy it to the fullest, so ultimately the show wasn’t a miss.
From the domestic acts, I anticipated Shade Empire’s show the most beforehand. This Kuopio-based (and one of the most criminally underrated Finnish metal groups) finally released a successor to their 2013 masterpiece, Omega Arcane – Poetry of the Ill-Minded – a month and a half ago; they also played a crowded show at Nummirock. Unfortunately, the show started out as a total pancake – if Rotten Sound had suffered from bad sound, the second stage’s sound tech made watching the show absolutely impossible. I haven’t worn earplugs at a metal show in years, and because the rhythm guitar was mixed incredibly loudly and was extremely grating, burying everything else, I had to go back outside and order a beer instead. What I could make out from the wall of screeching guitar sounds, the song seemed to be the new album’s opener, “Lecter (Welcome).” Still, Shade Empire clearly interested the crowd, because the dance hall was almost full throughout the set – hopefully everyone came back out with their hearing still intact.
The main stage’s third performer was the Helsinki-based power metal extravaganza (or abomination, depending on who you ask), Battle Beast. I saw the band for the first time around their debut album, Steel (2011), and got blown away by the charisma and voice of Nitte Valo, their singer at the time. After the ensuing European tour, Valo announced that she would leave the band, and I haven’t been able to get excited about them since, even if the current frontwoman, Noora Louhimo, doesn’t pale in comparison to Valo one bit. The group’s history hasn’t been devoid of drama, as the founding member, Anton Kabanen, got kicked out of his own band a few years back under questionable circumstances. But enough with the babbling. How did Battle Beast do in Louhimo’s home town? I’d like to say ‘excellently’, but much like the other Beast shows I’ve seen this summer, this one was lukewarm at best. Judging from the amount of Battle Beast shirts in the audience, a lot of fans were present, but most of the time, keyboardist Janne Björkroth looked like he’d rather be backstage drinking beer. Louhimo, guitarist Juuso Soinio and bassist Eero Sipilä had a good vibe going on though, and Louhimo deserves appreciation – the day marked a year without alcohol for her, making her a winner of a 500€ bet she had going on with a friend. The set was inclined towards their latest Bringer of Pain album, and the record clearly has cheerful live hits to choose from. As a conclusion, I still have to present a completely unnecessary complaint: why bring two bass drums on stage for looks, if the other one gets left without a microphone and the drummer only kicks the other with a double pedal?
I had to skip the probably the most deviant band when compared to the festival’s musical theme, the Helsinki-based death/black/punk hybrid, Mørket, for a compulsory food break before Rotting Christ’s show. If there’s something about SaariHelvetti that deserves a special mention, it was the selection of food. The new de facto price for festival food servings seems to be 10€ a pop, but unlike this year’s Nummirock for example, you’d definitely get your money’s worth at SaariHelvetti. A large flamed salmon grill was present, along with a huge frying pan for pork belly and falafel. The side dish was a spelt tabouleh (onion, cucumber, tomato, spices) with tzatziki, which you could also order vegan. The pork dish was incredibly tasty! The Tex-mex themed stall also seemed to boast good-looking dishes, and the fans of more traditional sausage-with-fries stuff weren’t forgotten, as Viikinsaari’s own kiosk sold fries with sausages or meatballs for the really affordable price of 7€.
Even though Rotting Christ have been to Finland on several occasions, I’ve never been able to see the Greek extreme metal legends of Sakis and Themis Tolis live before. The evening had already started to darken when Rotting Christ, formed back in 1987, got on the main stage and bombarded the audience for 50 minutes with simple but ingenious riffs and creative drum work. We got to hear new – as well as really old – material from the band’s lengthy recording career: “The Sign of Evil Existence” from their debut, Thy Mighty Contract (1993), was played, and if I’m not completely mistaken, “The Forest of N’Gai” from the very first EP as well. Their latest effort, Rituals, struck me as slightly dull when it came out, at least when compared to its predecessor, the excellent Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού, but especially ”Ἄπαγε Σατανά” worked flawlessly live. The actual bangers were saved for the end – first ”In Yumen/Xibalba”, and as a conclusion, ”Grandis Spiritus Diavolos.” Aww yiss! The audience was on fire throughout the set, and Sakis Tolis used every opportunity to thank Finland in Finnish and Greek. A great band and an excellent show, and this time the sound was on point as well – Rotting Christ probably had their own sound tech.
I possibly cannot comprehend why the Tampere-based samurai metal group, Whispered, still has to settle for smaller stages at festivals, as well as clubs. All the pieces for total world domination have been in place since their second album, Shogunate Macabre (2014), and their latest Metsutan – Songs of the Void pushed the boundaries even further. The band had attracted a dance hall full of people, and the moshpit circled around for practically the full 40-minute set in such a way that I thought it best to go stand right next to the mixing booth – the fence had a sharp corner and someone could easily bump into it when shoved out of the pit. Probably because of the hometown show, the setlist was a bit different: “Lady of the Wind” was featured for the first time in a while that I’ve seen, along with two covers (the theme from Ginga: Nagareboshi Gin and “Samurai” by Matti Nykänen), because why not? The final song was, as usual, “Hold the Sword.” The audience knew the lyrics to an admirable extent and cheered spontaneously, so let’s cut the crap – I’m willing to bet that Whispered will be the next big thing the instant that promoters of bigger festivals have the courage to look through the band’s makeup and costumes and realize that they’ve been outplaying all the more well-known melodeath bands for several years. I mean it, it’d be great.
As with last year, Turmiön Kätilöt had the honor of wrapping up the main stage in this year’s SaariHelvetti. The band’s always been a bit of an issue for me, because while they have a few decent (older) songs, the vast majority of their material doesn’t do a thing for me, and in addition, I don’t like the character type of their average fan one bit. Then again, I haven’t seen a whole Kätilöt show in years, so I decided to give them a chance this time. The festival’s announcer and the band’s former vocalist, Tuomas Rytkönen, pointed out that the situation was peculiar – a year back, he would’ve been backstage waiting for the intro tape to begin playing. Instead, it was Saku “Shaq-U” Solin that pulled off a double shift tonight, as he had already been on stage with Fear of Domination. Kätilöt kicked things off promisingly with “Minä määrään”, but they didn’t manage to keep their grip on me until the end, despite “Pirun nyrkki” being played halfway through and “Tirehtööri” being fun to sing along to. Hunger had started to take hold again, so I had to leave towards the second stage near the end of the show. Along the way, I heard surprisingly many conversations on how the band’s newer songs aren’t that good as the old ones. Go figure.
Over the course of the evening, the event had completely sold out, so after gorging through a set of fries, it started to be practical to move towards the boat dock to avoid the biggest crowd. As the last show of the evening, Rytmihäiriö began their set on the second stage, but even if I wouldn’t have been in a hurry, I still wouldn’t have the interest to watch their set for longer than a few songs – I’ve never found anything worth listening to from their material, and I have to say that I’d have suspected the crowd in the dance hall to be larger than it was.
The boat queue was close to 100 meters, but it shrunk pretty quickly, as a new ferry arrived to the dock right after the previous one had embarked. A couple of ill-fated festival goers that had sprained their ankles were brought along as well. Considering the weather, everyone was lucky – the island had only a few drops of rain in the afternoon, but once our ferry got to Laukontori and we stepped out of it, it started raining, and even if we only had a few blocks to walk afterwards, I was soaking wet once we got to our apartment. At least no shower was needed.
In conclusion, SaariHelvetti was an amazing event all-around, at least for a first-timer like me. Viikinsaari offers an excellent venue to host happenings like this, the event itself was organized so well that you didn’t even pay attention to the staff or security, the beer queues weren’t long despite the festival being sold out, and the lineup was great. The thing that surprised me the most was the bathroom policies – the buildings on the island had two bathroom sections, and in addition to them, I counted a total of only six (!) portable toilets, but absolutely no queueing was needed at any time – men were able to take a leak in the bushes without anyone coming to tell them not to. With the food section being on point, I cannot think of anything to criticize, and unless something really weird happens to me or to the festival’s organization, I suspect that we’ll see each other next year as well!
Photos: Janne Puronen