MY 2011 TUSKA OPEN AIR FESTIVAL EXPERIENCE

tuska2011 This year, I attended the Tuska Open Air Festival in Helsinki, Finland for the third time. It goes without saying that each festival experience differs, but this time, I went to the festival facing some particularly unusual circumstances. I had about $50 to my name (hey everyone, make sure that when you buy a plane ticket 3 months in advance you’ll continue to be employed during that three-month period — learn from my mistakes!), which mostly ran out before the first band’s sound check. Anyone still trotting around with an “America, fuck yeah!” attitude will be humbled by the power of the Euro to stomp their wallet into submission. To put it in perspective, the first time I went to the festival (in 2007), I brought about 20 times that amount with me and 90% of it was gone by the end of the week.

Unusual circumstance #2: The festival took place at a different location this year. Due to noise complaints and increasing production costs, Tuska moved from Kaisaniemi to Suvilahti, a park slightly further outside the center of town. I embrace rather than fear change, and I was pretty excited about the new venue…BEFORE I got there. Suvilahti is perhaps the anti-Kaisaniemi, minimally spacious and marred with dust patches. I went to Tuska in 2007 and 2008, and though the bands were excellent as usual, the atmosphere of the verdant park undoubtedly helped to provide a more satisfying festival experience. For the record, here’s a picture of me making my very best drunk face at Kaisaniemi in 2007:

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You’ll notice a few things about this picture. Perhaps it will strike you that the picture doesn’t have very good lighting, for example. This is because Kaisaniemi has several large, tree-filled areas in which to cool down and take it easy. Most parks feature abundant trees, but I guess Suvilahti likes to go against the grain. There were a few tents around, but sitting down anywhere meant either burning your legs on concrete or having dust kicked directly into your sinus. Here’s a picture my friend took, for comparison’s sake:

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Thankfully, Suvilahti had some nice areas at which you could refill empty bottles with nice cool water, so even if you started feeling like the promoters must be daring you to die of heat stroke, you were pretty well-covered. That said, Perkele help you if you were over 20 years old and thirsty for anything but H2O. One beer cost a whopping 8 Euros (you could redeem them at special stations for 2 Euros each though, to be fair) and any other alcoholic beverage cost even more. Even native Finns griped at the expense, so you can imagine how Americans (and our wimpy dollars) fared. It was like being at Yankee Stadium all over again! What’s worse? This year, unlike previous years, festival attendees were forbidden from bringing their own alcohol. Little roving gangs of fresh-faced youth hovered around the periphery of the park, hastily drinking cans of beer out of grocery bags, trying to get a buzz going before the festivities. Security guards didn’t seem to mind people sitting directly outside the venue to drink, but everyone was searched upon entry for any alcohol/drug paraphernalia/various contraband. Gone are the days of bringing 1.5 liter bottles filled to the brim with vodka and grapefruit juice in an overstuffed backpack — you’re not even getting tipsy at the festival itself without plunking down about $45.

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To add insult to injury, alcohol was not allowed outside designated area. No more raising your beer to the heavens during the chorus of Turisas’s “One More.” You must drink your entire beer wherever you purchased it. You can not walk around with it. You can not bring it with you to see a band. These are the rules now, or better or worse (read: WORSE). As crappy as they are for us, I feel worse for the security guards who no doubt had to endure earfuls from Tuska regulars who knew, enjoyed, and were accustomed to Kaisaniemi’s myriad freedoms.

Okay okay, enough whining about Suvilahti — let’s get to the good stuff! Now, I’d like to give you all some pointers about attending Tuska. Some of these points may seem like common sense, but hear me out:

*You are a human being, and human beings need food to live. Sandwiches are less than 2 Euros a pop at those tiny weird yellow stores. I know they’re not the same as American sandwiches — eat them anyway.

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*Neither beer, nor booze, nor cigarettes, nor other unmentionables counts as food, no matter what Pickles T. Drummer says.

*When I insinuated that Suvilahti was nearly devoid of trees, I was not exaggerating. Pigmentally challenged readers, stock up on sunscreen. You know who you are.

*Almost invariably, the smallest stages have the most exciting acts. Please note that “exciting” and “good” are not always synonymous with each other.

*Don’t remove your wristband — you won’t be allowed back in if you do. Yes, this means that if you picked up your wristband in advance, you’re going to have to shower with it and eat with it and your skin is going to get really itchy. Deal with it.

Now to discuss the bands!

To be honest, I wasn’t quite dying to see anyone in the lineup this year like I had been in previous years. Amon Amarth, an old favorite, headlined Tuska this year, but I saw them just three months ago at home. I’ve liked Turisas for many years, but their disappointing new release Stand Up And Fight put a damper on my enthusiasm. My fun at the festival would be had wandering around, discovering bands that I’d never heard of or overlooked for one reason or another.

The first band I saw was Arch Enemy. I don’t really have anything nice to say about Arch Enemy, so here’s a picture of Angela Gossow “rocking out” or whatever. The audience seemed to enjoy themselves.

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Later on, At The Gates, Swedish purveyors of melodic death metal, performed. Admittedly, I’d kind of slept on these guys. They’re one of those bands that, though I’ve liked every song I’ve ever heard by them, I couldn’t name a single one. This year’s Tuska was filled with bands like that (Goresoerd, Grave, and Kvelertak, to name a few), so it was nice to walk around catching snippets of promise in everyone’s performance. At The Gates put on a great show, and their songs, as expected, were top-notch. Do I know what any of them are called? Nope! Will I promise myself to research them now that I have confirmation that they’re good? Eeeeeehhhh, maybe after I stop falling in love with the million other bands I’ve been introduced to over the last few months.

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One more thing to mention — partly about Tuska, partly about At The Gates’s set: Tuska took place later in the summer than in past years I’d attended, and apparently Helsinki transforms from climatically cool paradise in late June to brutal hellscape in late July. This jerk behind me at the At The Gates show kept whipping me with her hip-length hair, and I didn’t even stop her because it was wet and cool and it felt good. Thanks, inconsiderate asshole, whoever you are!

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As for Moonsorrow, I wish so much that I had more to say about them. The second day of Tuska has historically been somewhat of a “recovery day” for festival goers, and though I myself almost never get hungover, I do occasionally stay out until 6 or 7am and end up sleeping until 3pm. I made it to Suvilahti just in time to hear the last 45 seconds of the last song in Moonsorrow’s set, and it sounded pretty terrific. Lesson learned.

The Devin Townsend Project headlined the second day of Tuska and, unlike most of the bands I saw, I was specifically NOT looking forward to seeing them. I was looking BACKWARD to seeing them, so to speak. Devin Townsend fans are as rabid as they are numerous, and I have the misfortune of having befriended more than a few of them. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent trying to like Strapping Young Lad (“Are you sure you’ve listened to the right album? Here, try this one!”) and The Devin Townsend Project (“If you don’t like SYL, you’ll like this — it’s waaaayyy different!”), but I know that it was entirely too many. The good news is that The Devin Townsend Project didn’t disappoint. This is because I expected absolutely nothing. Devin Townsend’s childlike enthusiasm about playing in Helsinki again saved me from wanting to gouge my eyes out with boredom (as did the flat grating vocal performance of Anneke van Giersbergen, but I digress), but overall, I just need to accept that I don’t seem to like anything that Devin Townsend does. Ziltoid is not funny, cute or cool. What is wrong with you people?

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Thankfully, the third day started off right. Kvelertak performed at the EMP stage bright and early, and everyone, I can not implore you enough — watch out for these guys. If you are not careful, they will rock your face right off. Despite their self-identification as “punk rock/metal,” they are much more metal than they give themselves credit for. Unfortunately for me, the audience was so huge that I couldn’t get even a lackluster picture of them. Fortunately, they appear to be receiving the recognition they deserve. Immediately afterward, Meshuggah took the Radio Rock stage, and I must extend my sincerest apologies to the band for my ill-informed opinion about them. Meshuggah, you do not suck. In fact, you’re quite good. I’m not even sure why I thought you sucked in the first place, but from now on, I’ll be keeping my eye on you.

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Similarly to the situation with The Devin Townsend Project, I was dragged to see The Shining, a black metal band from Sweden, by a friend who was friends with some of the band members. I had my doubts, even though that friend is one of the coolest and most musically trustworthy people I know, but I followed her lead anyway. Surprisingly, The Shining turned out to be pretty amazing. They thoroughly owned the stage and commanded the crowd, despite the astoundingly horrible acoustics of their stage. They pretty much played in a glorified garage, sound bouncing haphazardly off of stone pillars, a too-low ceiling, and close-together walls. Fans of the band were forced to go outside just to hear any of the set; fans that chose to remain inside got a better view, but heard little more than a wall of noise. The Shining did extremely well, considering the acoustic circumstances.

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Now for the Turisas discussion. One thing you’ll have to understand is that when I said that Stand Up And Fight‘s awfulness put a damper on my enthusiasm for their live performance, I was kiiiind of lying. Turisas have always put on some of the best shows I’ve ever seen, and this time I expected, if not to COMPLETELY lose my shit headbanging and moshing around, to have a pretty great time. One thing I’LL have to understand (and now do understand, hopefully) is that all the performing chutzpah in the world can not protect a band from its own terrible songs. It’s one thing to listen to an album at home and dislike it — it’s another to see the actual people from the band up on stage, pouring their hearts out over dreck and expecting the audience to do the same. Turisas have many diehard fans so my second-hand embarrassment wasn’t as bad as it could have been, and in their defense, they picked a decent mix of new and old tunes for their set. Olli (fiddler) and Netta (accordion player) hamming it up during “In The Court Of Jarisleif” will never get old for me, but the rest of the set kind of fell flat, and I can’t help but feel like the band did the best with the material they had. The appearance by the little kid didn’t help, and I’m sure that I missed out on some good crowd banter due to the language barrier, but I left the stage feeling utterly “meh.”

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Last but not least, the closers: Amon Amarth. Frankly, if you’ve seen one show, you’ve seen them all. I might be a little biased because, as I stated earlier, I attended their double-set show in May back home, but I know I’m right. You like songs about Vikings, you like decent showmanship, you like singing along — you’ll love an Amon Amarth show. There’s nothing wrong with predictability, especially when it manifests itself as consistency. Good old reliable Amon Amarth capping off the final evening of Tuska. Good times.

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As can be expected, even when the festival itself is amazing, the most interesting/fun aspects of Tuska actually took place off festival grounds and were difficult or impossible to capture on camera. Here’s a list of stuff that I was unable to capture on camera due to lack of opportunity, inappropriateness, or just plain intangibility:

*Middle-aged and elderly folks on the metro with their grandchildren, all wearing band t-shirts and 3-day wristband passes

*The sheer amount of metal heads (some plainclothes, plenty dressed to the nines in metal/goth gear) waiting on the metro platform during the afternoon at Helsinki station

*Numerous little kids wandering around, on and off festival grounds, repping bands as old as their parents (Priest, Maiden, etc.)

*The one child in the stroller on the metro that, upon seeing a teenage girl wearing Turisas-style warpaint, immediately burst into tears

*Romani folks hanging out with spoiled teenagers that don’t know the value of the beer cans they empty (15 Euro cents, people — recycling pays off!)

*People constantly shouting “Perkele!” for no reason before, during, and after the festival

Ultimately, despite differences between old Tuska and new Tuska, the festival turned out excellent. Anyone whose experience was ruined by the minor differences between Suvilahti and Kaisaniemi is either an alcoholic or a determined curmudgeon. For those of you looking for a ton of good metal (and some not so good) of all subgenres, for those of you that are scared of/too cheap for Wacken, there’s always Tuska. Hope you see you in 2012!

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