For the second year in a row, we made the trip to Central Finland to see what the good people at John Smith Festival had cooked up. Armed with raincoats and caffeine, we survived the terrible weather and long days, and brought you back a detailed report of what went down on July 21-22nd – what was great and what the festival could do better next time. Read up what Sara wrote about Friday, and what Lene had to say about Saturday!
Friday – Day 1
The recurring theme for our weekend getaway was weather: when we left for our trip, it was bright and pretty, even hot, but the minute we arrived in Jyväskylä, we were greeted with a happy hailstorm. Needless to say, we were royally soaked while switching buses to Laukaa in spite of our raincoats, and unfortunately the rain didn’t stop in between either. So, upon our arrival to the festival site, we were more than happy to notice that some of the spa hotel’s faciloties were free to use for festival goers, and took a little breather indoors before heading down to the park area for the first bands.
The first to step on stage were the guys of Dynazty, a Swedish powerhouse fronted by a man with all the hair, Nils Molin (who now also sings clean vocals with Amaranthe, replacing Jake E.). Established in Stockholm in 2007, Dynazty has released five albums and even participated in Melodifestivalen in 2011 and 2012. My introduction to Dynazty was when they released a single, “The Human Paradox”, from their latest album, Titanic Mass, in spring 2016. I kept hearing the song on Radio Rock and each time I was hooked. After seeing Molin perform with Amaranthe this previous spring, I knew I wanted to see how he performs songs he’s more familiar with. I wasn’t disappointed. From the very first song, “Run Amok”, all five guys were pumped and ready to entertain. Even though it was raining cats and dogs at this point, it didn’t matter – the area in front of the Soundi stage was busy and the crowd was having a blast. Dynazty had chosen a good variety of songs from their albums, each song showcasing their talents: catchy riffs, fast guitars, and impressive singing. The title song from Titanic Mass had everyone with their fists in the air singing, “FIRE, FLAMES, FURY,” and by the last song, “Starlight”, I was hoping to hear more, and I bet I wasn’t the only one. The guys spiced up their set with Molin’s hip movements and hair tosses, drummer George Egg’s enthusiastic facial expressions, and bassist Jonathan Olsson’s bass solos. All-in-all it was an excellent start to the day.
Next up, kicking things off on the City Stage was Before the Dawn. Formed by one-man Finnish metal phenomenon Tuomas Saukkonen, the band called it quits in 2013, but returned to the scene to play this special one-time show at John Smith. Personally I wasn’t at all familiar with this band and was excited to find out what they would bring to us. I quickly learned that the band has gone through many changes over the years and their road has been a bit rocky. Lars Eikind, who had left the band in 2011 and returned to play this gig with his former band members, quickly announced that this would be his last time performing with Before the Dawn and he was grateful so many people had arrived (some even from abroad) to witness this particular show. Like I said, I hadn’t heard any of their material before, so it was quite bittersweet to see them for the first AND the last time. Style-wise, Before the Dawn isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but I found myself enjoying some the songs with Eikind’s clean vocals, such as “Faithless.” Due to Eikind’s presence, they played songs from the albums where his singing plays a role. They finished off their set with an emotional “Deadsong” and some lucky person got a souvenir when Eikind threw his signature cap into the crowd.
It was then back to the Soundi stage and ready for S-tool. I’ve always been a fan of Ville Laihiala’s voice and I’m pretty sure I would find myself listening to anything he comes up with. He brings that special something with his singing and I’ve always enjoyed listening to him. I’d seen Poisonblack live plenty of times, and after hearing comments about S-tool’s songs, I was looking forward to hearing if they were as similar sound-wise as people said. I wasn’t expecting to see Poisonblack and I’m very glad I got S-tool instead. Yes, the songs resemble some of the material Laihiala has released before, but it could be just because of his style of singing and his trademark guitar sound. S-tool is gruff, even a bit dirty. It’s hard and fast and fun to watch. At this point even the rain stopped and let us fully enjoy the band. The guys entertained us with their singles “Shovel Man” and “Hammering”, and also played some new songs from their upcoming debut album. Midway through the set, Laihiala started playing the intro to “Noose”, the Sentenced classic. This had everyone in the crowd going absolutely crazy, but Laihiala cut it short and just said it was in memory of the late Miika Tenkula. As we had heard the news of the Linkin Park singer’s passing only the day before, this hit me in the heart. Luckily Laihiala lightened things up with his running commentary and his thank you to Will Smith (John Smith Festival), had everyone cracking up. Thanking his band mates, he pointed out that if he was a member of the opposite sex, he would very much like to have premarital relationship quarrels with his beautiful drummer, Aksu Hanttu. The crowd gave extra applause to their bassist, Kimmo Hiltunen, who called himself a one-legged Donald Duck as he was on stage with broken toes covered in a big boot. I wouldn’t have noticed, as they were all having a blast. When it was time to play the last song, Laihiala said this would be the time his friend would tell him, “Go get some pizza and then beat off” [Hae pizza ja lähe runkkaan]. In my opinion it was the perfect finish to an entertaining show.
Another band I didn’t know much about was Timo Rautiainen & Trio Niskalaukaus. Like any Finn, I had obviously heard the name of the band, but I wasn’t familiar with their material. I made the conscious choice to stay further back in the crowd, wanting a fuller experience. Since this show was part of their comeback tour, after calling it quits in 2004, it was no surprise almost everyone at the festival area showed up for this particular event. Timo Rautiainen and his fellow musicians commanded the stage from the very first second and the crowd was singing along as loud as they could. They played a lot of their old classics like “Rajaton rakkaus”, “Elegia”, “Nyt on mies!” and even spiced things up with some pyrotechnics. We also heard a song from the upcoming album called “Suomi sata vuotta.” Unfortunately, towards the end of the set, the electricity was cut from the stage midway through “Pitkän kaavan mukaan.” At first the crowd was trying to make up for it by singing the lyrics, but they gave up after a while. For a second it looked like that was it and some people left the stage area. In about 15 minutes, the power was back on and the band was back on stage! We were rewarded with a couple more songs, with the first being “Lumessakahlaajat.” When the final notes of “Viimeinen päivä taivaan?” drifted off and the crowd roared, I couldn’t help but feel that I had witnessed something quite special. That right there is the reason why Timo Rautiainen & Trio Niskalaukaus came back.
Closing things up on the Soundi stage and ending our first day was the Dutch Delain. Personally, I’ve been a fan of the band since 2010, mostly because of Marco Hietala and his appearance on their April Rain album, which was released the year before. Since April Rain, I’ve enjoyed their music and I’ve been sad that they don’t tour in Finland. I was able to see them live for the first time in London a few years back, when they supported Sabaton. Maybe it was the fact that they were a supporting act or maybe their setlist was off, but back then I didn’t enjoy the show as much as I thought I would. So going to John Smith I was a bit skeptical, but also ready to give their live performance another chance. And this time they delivered! From the very first song, the opening track, “Hands of Gold”, from their latest album, Moonbathers, the energy level was high and stayed there throughout the show. Next up we heard the first single from Moonbathers, “Suckerpunch”, and it was followed by another track from the new album, “The Glory and the Scum.” After the introduction to their new album, the crowd was treated to some of their older songs, such as “Get the Devil Out of Me” and my personal favorite, “Army of Dolls.” Singer Charlotte Wessels did a great job of engaging with the audience, while jumping up and down on stage. By “The Gathering”, almost everyone was jumping with her, myself included. During “Hurricane” and “Pristine”, Delain slowed it down and let us enjoy Wessel’s gorgeous voice, which to me sounds almost as good live as recorded. I would very much like to be able to headbang while I sing flawlessly, so kudos to her! A short intermission had me scared that the show was already over, but luckily the intro to “Mother Machine” started playing and we were rewarded with more of their older material. “Don’t Let Go” and “We Are the Others” closed out the energetic show, and I for one can’t wait for them to return to Finland.
Saturday – Day 2
Like in Nummirock this year, we started our second day of John Smith with the melodic metallers of Psychework. Introduced as “definitely not a local band” (with band members coming from neighboring towns), the six-piece kicked off their game with “Tear of the Phoenix.” Besides moving that track up front, the setlist followed the same trail as their Nummi set, only leaving out the unreleased track “Reflection Unknown.” As opposed to Nummirock, the weather seemed to be favoring the band at first with lovely sunshine, but lo and behold – the skies opened up right at the end of their third song and it was more or less pouring for the rest of the set and then some, threatening to be too much for our raincoats. Speaking of which, we want to give a big round of applause to the audience and especially the front row, who stayed in their spots the whole gig, singing along and enjoying the show no matter what was coming down from the sky. Some real troopers there! With the same attitude, Psychework surely delivered, as they played an unfalteringly energetic set, perhaps even with a dash more vigor than usual. Even when there’s no extra shenanigans or specialties in their gig, they are always a joy to see, especially if you need a little pick-me-up (which some certainly do on the second or third day of festivals). In general, Psychework won’t fail to get you psyched about seeing live shows – and no, I have no intention of apologizing for that pun.
Antony Parviainen Trio – though not exactly a trio that evening – was our next pick after surviving the worst of what the weather had to offer that day, and it was soon clear that we had discovered the hidden gem of the festival. Reinforced with Marco Hietala [Nightwish, Tarot] and Tuple Salmela [Tarot, Lazy Bonez], the band played a set of classics ranging from Dio’s “Rainbow in the Dark” to Iron Maiden’s “Wasted Years”, seasoned with some tracks that are more rarely heard on troubadour-type gigs. What made the show so much more than a regular troubadour gig was, without a doubt, the vocal performances by Parviainen, Hietala, and Salmela. The harmonies the three singers belted out were nothing short of astonishing, and the impeccable quality of the singing alone would had been a reason enough to see them, but the combination of acoustic and electric guitars, cello, drums, and a double bass with their voices cooked up a combination that was simply irresistible. For instance, in the sense of enjoying the vocal rendition, Tarot’s “I Walk Forever” left us in awe. The untimely passing of Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell before him seemed to be looming over the whole weekend, as after “Wasted Years” Hietala spoke of the sad fates musicians have faced, some more lately, and continued the set with Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun.” The Cult’s “Fire Woman” spiced things up as a more purely fun-time piece, but we would still need to give the honor of being our favorite to Nightwish’s “The Islander”, where the cello especially got a good moment in the spotlight. We hated to be in such a rush for the next band that we missed the last song, but “The Islander” made up for that with ease. The only downside we could think of was that the gig took place in the VIP tent, which restricted the regular festival goers from going to see it, and that was truly a shame – as intimate as it was like this, these kinds of things are best shared.
The rush wasn’t all in vain, though: the Northern-Ireland based cross-section of genres, Therapy?, was my choice of previously unfamiliar bands at John Smith; by the end of their set, they were my new favorite thing to come from the Emerald Island. I mean, if a band starts their show by making the crowd shout, “Fuck you Donald Trump!”, the rest just needs to be good – and my oh my, was it even! In short, Therapy?’s sound and songs were a perfect match to my affinity towards punk, post-punk, and grunge, so I would have been sold by that alone, but they also turned out to be a joyful bunch on stage. Having been around since 1989, they are great proof that you don’t stop being punk when you get older, and I can only wish that I could be as punk as they are at the same age! I’ll also give them points for the most creative clapping and chanting any band made the audience do on Saturday, including bits like “Neil, Neil, drum like a motherfucker!” to cheer drummer Neil Cooper on. The crowd, of course, was clearly into it, allowing for a few singalongs: I may have had a lump in my throat when the audience chanted “I can’t remember” during “Die Laughing”, which was dedicated to Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington. At the end of the set, I caught myself thinking that Therapy?’s riot of a show truly made me wish they had been a part of my teenage years, so take that as you may. While they finished off with songs I was happy to recognize, “Nowhere” and “Screamager”, I decided that it’s still better to get on this train later than never.
The next band to take over the main stage was good old Children of Bodom, whom I had more or less skipped last year at Nummirock. They’re one of those bands I used to listen to a ton some 10 years ago, but lost my interest along the way. With this in mind, their 20th anniversary retro set was the best possible opportunity to catch them, and was nothing short of awesome – there was no song newer than the Hate Crew Deathroll album. It a setlist comprised of oldies and goldies, hit after hit after hit. What’s not to love about that? The audience seemed to agree with us 100%, and I’m willing to bet I was definitely not the only one on a wheel trip to their teenage years. On that note, it was great to watch other people my age and older singing along to the same songs I still remembered the words to (much to my surprise) after not listening to them for years, or recalling exactly how the solos went; shared memories are indeed the best kind. Alexi Laiho’s speeches may make one chuckle a bit after reaching a certain age, but I know that teenage me would have just been like, “Fuck yeah!”, shouting along. In order to not use my space entirely on praising the excellent atmosphere and bathing in nostalgia, I’ll need to add that Children of Bodom earned the title of visually most pleasing main stage band of the day – they had brought their own huge lights, that along with the stage’s lights, painted almost watercolor-like hues on everything. And, after the last notes of “Walking Towards Dead End” had faded into the evening, the crowd was treated with the sight of fireworks from the shore, which on the other hand was slightly anticlimactic, since there were still bands left to play. But all-in-all, Children of Bodom’s nostalgia trip was a delight to experience.
As was the case with Children of Bodom, while I’m not too inclined to see Sonata Arctica on any given occasion these days, it’s interesting to see how my childhood favorites are holding up every now and then. The night had rapidly fallen over the festival area, which made for nice mood lighting wherever there were light bulb strings sitting on fences and hanging from trees, but in all honesty, the headliner starting their set at 00:30 is a little bit late. That, however, didn’t seem to affect the audience in front of the main stage, at least not by much. It’s probably safe to say that Sonata Arctica shows haven’t really changed a lot in the past 7 years or so; if you’ve been to more than two or three, it’s easy to predict what will happen next, and that was the case in John Smith as well. Setlist-wise, I confess to not having listened to the latest album with proper attention, so I don’t have much to say about its tracks. While the new songs may not be utter masterpieces in their repertoire, the band knows how to produce them live; that’s pretty much a given. What really disappointed me was the realization of how right I had been when I had guessed they would play exactly the most predictable, boring selection of old songs everyone would expect them playing – with one exception. It had been 11 years since I last heard “Misplaced” live, and even though it didn’t quite reach the level of greatness it should’ve (or the silver lining provided by nostalgia), it had been so dearly missed over the years that it made up for quite a lot in a not-so-top-notch gig. And in spite of everything, it’s entertaining to watch Sonata put on a show on a big stage for a big crowd – and most of the audience seemed to enjoy it, so we’ll let this one pass.
Regarding the overall festival experience, we deem John Smith Festival to be quite a good one. No event can predict weather or stop it from being awful, but as John Smith was arranged in the park of Spa Hotel Peurunka, the regular festival goers also had the chance to get indoors when the heavy rain was a tad too much, charge their phones, and so on, which is definitely a plus. Unfortunately, the rain forced us to skip some bands, but we still managed to have a good time, as did seemingly everyone else. The park area and scenery across the lake, at least when it wasn’t raining, were lovely, and having a K18-event had its upside as the area wasn’t abruptly cut by fences, nor did it separate the audience so much. Of course, with a line-up like that, John Smith would likely attract quite a few minors as well, but if we once agree that it’s kind of nice to have an event only for people of legal age, that’s probably not too bad. One more thing we’ll need to give some praise for is the selection of food: most, if not all, dietary needs were well met, the range of different options was impressive for a festival of this scale, and we have no complaints about the quality either.
What we do have some negative notions about were the schedules and logistics. While it is nice to have a large selection of bands, it does lose a bit of the point when some of the gigs start at 02:00 in the morning, because at that point you’re bound to be a bit too tired to enjoy them so much anymore, if you even bother to watch them at all. In Nummirock, that kind of thing works, since everyone will wander the 2 minute walk back to the camping area anyway, and even there, no band starts at 02:00. The schedule also meant that if you were staying in Jyväskylä, you probably would have been back there sometime before 05:00, as there were surprisingly few buses driving to and from (and all of them were jam-packed). We don’t regret staying back to see the afterparty show with Swallow the Sun and Juha Raivio’s return to their ranks on Saturday, but the nearly hour-and-a-half wait before we were in the city center of Jyväskylä instead of the half an hour (give or take) did make us question it a bit. On the topic of logistics, we heard that last year the car parking was considerably more accessible, which raised some eyebrows after wandering a good while through forest to the field serving as the parking lot on Friday evening. So while the festival itself left a positive impression, getting out of there could use some touch-ups.
To conclude, we do feel like coming back again next year – the ticket sales for John Smith Festival 2018 started at the site already on Saturday with a special batch, and the first band for the next edition, CyHra, was announced on the spot before Children of Bodom too. Here’s hoping we’ll see you there once again!
Text: Sara Kangasniemi, Lene L. | Photos: Lene L.