Since the smaller SteelChaos winter festival last year, Steelfest has been much-anticipated. Held in Hyvinkää’s old wool factory, Villatehdas, we jumped on a train and caught the two-day festival in all its’ glory, running from May 18th-19th, 2018.
Let’s get the very obvious out of the way first: Steelfest was awesome. Ever since SteelChaos, my hype drive had gone into factor 666, and this year’s line-up was diabolically good, as well as the top-notch organization of the whole festival. It had a great sense of community and humanity about it – and considering where we were – it might come as as surprise to outsiders. Right off the bat, when queuing to get into the area proper, a group of Welsh black metal fans were talking excitedly (about having invented the queue) with a South African metalhead, which springs to mind the fact that BM circles might not be large, but they are fanatic. I had conversations with Swedish, American, Spanish, British, and Italian fans during the festival, so the diaspora was huge, without forgetting the artists.
Full photogallery to come a bit later on.
Havukruunu managed to pull in a pretty sizable crowd as an opener band, which probably tells you something of their popularity trajectory. The songs and stagecraft still being as good as ever, they were a good choice for the opening act.
Japanese Cohol took the outdoor stage afterwards and with a long droning intro, the artists and finally the frontman Hiromasa Saitou (presumably) came to the stage with some kind of sack cloth outfit and mask. After their set started playing, I noticed the music itself was quite imaginative and somewhat unique, as the Japanese are wont to do. During a pause, Saitou-san thanked the crowd in Finnish first, then switched to English, which warmed my heart immensely. Stumbling over his words, it was clear that they really loved being on stage in Finland and wanted to convey their thanks for being able to. I hope we see you again as well!
One Master (USA) comparatively was a much more straightforward affair. Nothing particularly fancy, just no-nonsense black metal, playing hard and fast. The snare drum on their set however was particularly snappy and sounded extremely good, the drums as a whole gave the band a lot of punch.
Baise ma Hache from France sported two singers, something I didn’t quite grasp the reason for, since both of the vocalists’ range and sound were pretty similar to my ear. Having a somewhat anemic stage presence and mild sound, the band didn’t sell itself very well.
It’s not hard to understand why Archgoat was once again represented in the Steel-line of festivals. Playing low and slow, the quartet on stage had a well-rehearsed grasp of their craft. The mixing was done superbly as well, so the low frequency emanations felt and sounded good. They were the first band to energize the crowd and draw them in. Very enjoyable and a good staple band for the event.
Malokarpatan from Slovakia was another odd duck – as odd a duck as you can be there – being very hard-rocky (with cowbell, no less!). At the start, the stage presence of frontman HV seemed lacking, but as the gig went on, it became clearer that it wasn’t nerves, but rather his inability to give a single fuck, which really worked in the band’s favor. Smoking cigarettes and drinking wine on stage, he epitomized black metal in their short timeslot. It also felt as though these guys weren’t just simple bandmates, but rather mates that also are in a band together (if that makes sense), which keeps the artistic vision tight.
Satanic Warmaster is another long-running and well-practiced ensemble. Playing with ease and experience, the domestic band drew in the largest crowd so far, which was electrified and energized, headbanging along. The warmaster himself, Werwolf, has his penchant for dramatic showmanship, which works in their favor and adds theatricality to his stage presence. Solid and enjoyable, all-in-all.
Deströyer 666 once again was great to see and hear live. Trashy, fast, loud, and metal as all hell, the veterans furnished the stage with goat skulls on their microphone stands. Having a great stage presence and show as well, the group headbanged (headbung?) along with the songs, moved around on stage to occupy every inch of it, and seemed to be enjoying their time playing. 3d6 hasn’t disappointed so far, nor does it seem that they ever will.
Nokturnal Mortum was one of the more anticipated groups of the festival. Hailing from the Ukraine, the composition was the first to make use of the animated backdrop (for the record, the red moon backdrop was my favorite). Their crowd was enormous and enormously on board. Their sound was uniquely themselves, brought out by years of experimentation and polish, which translated well into the live setting as well. A great live band, one of the oddities was that frontman Knjaz Varggoth didn’t speak a lick of English (while performing), sticking to Ukrainian all the way through. That didn’t detract anything from them though, just a nice personal touch.
Due to a small mishap at the festival, I had to duck out for a couple of hours, so I asked our other journo, Atte, to cover for me while I was gone. Here is what he had to say:
Watain had the privilege of wrapping up the outside stage. The band hasn’t been to Finland overly often, as I’d seen them last in 2008’s Nummirock, and they’ve had only a couple of club gigs since then. Watain has always traveled their own path and they haven’t been afraid to shock their audience – in 2010, lumps of rotten pig blood were thrown from the stage, forcing the venue to disinfect everything afterwards. The 10-song setlist was clearly geared towards their older material with a total of six songs from their first three records. The second-newest The Wild Hunt, which greatly polarized their fanbase back in 2013, didn’t receive any air time – I don’t know how the band feels about the record, but musically their latest effort, Trident Wolf Eclipse, is clearly a return to form, and naturally the album was featured with three tracks. On the visual side, Watain delivered the only pyrotechnics of the festival, as they had their signature trident symbol on each side of the stage, both set aflame. As a whole, the show wasn’t mind-blowing, but still a strong reminder that Watain still means business. I also have to admit that I couldn’t concentrate on the band, as half-way through, a friend of mine noticed some guy starting to Nazi salute the stage and started a hilarious conversation with him, leading to the poor sod running to tell his friends like a 7-year old. The last time I checked, Watain was about Satan, not some pathetic hatred towards other people.
Mortiis was the last act of the beautiful Friday evening. Being a bassist for Emperor, quitting black metal altogether, and starting doing ambient music, shifting to synthpop, and later industrial rock… the man has done a lot of different stuff. In Steelfest, Mortiis played his second album, Ånden som gjorde opprør, in its entirety as an exclusive performance. Visually, the show didn’t offer anything special,
as Mortiis stood behind his setup, delivering the ominous keyboard lines for 40 minutes, and that was pretty much it. Everything about the situation was really sketchy, but I enjoyed it nevertheless – I wouldn’t go see Mortiis at his own show on a club, but in a festival context, the show served as a funny closer for the day. All hail Casios!
As such, the first day was over and what a day it was. As an aside – the hardest thing on covering Steelfest wasn’t the amount of bands or their relative obscurity, but rather the dazzlingly beautiful women that just kept appearing out of nowhere. I’ll need horse blinders or something next year.
Hin Onde, a local band from Hyvinkää that has been in the deep-freeze for 15 years, was the opener for the second day. Their performance was hilariously “käppä” – but in a good way – käppä being something along the lines of extremely lo-fi and low-quality synthesizer samples (think old Summoning). I remember choking on my beer when a section of a song relied heavily on those synths, and I received a text message from my friend that went, “Are you listening to this?” Nevertheless, Hin Onde was rough around the edges but that gave it a very approachable, human feel; even if it did sound like a really poor man’s Ensiferum at times.
Another one of the smaller but nonetheless worthwhile artists was Nattfog. Stylistically very orthodox black metal, the quintet had an understated show on stage, but seeing that BM is more of substance over style, it fit very well.
Swedish Skogen had very crisp mixing for the outdoor stage, which had previously suffered a bit from mushy sound. Their songs playing fast and sounding great, there wasn’t a whole lot to complain about. Maybe that their backing vocalist/guitarist had some trouble grasping notes between his playing, but that’s easily forgiven.
Asagraum was a surprisingly atmospheric orchestra. Having a good grasp on ambiance and mood, the music managed to sound disturbing, along with their lead, Obscura, having a well-realized voice for it. In between songs, there was disturbed screeching and discordant instruments, which amped up the horror feel of the gig itself. Above average and definitely worth getting into.
Demilich was surprisingly enjoyable. Playing fast and technical death metal, their performance was bolstered by the excessively gregarious and funny frontman who, when not tuning his guitar, cracked jokes at the audience, and also replied to random comments shouted to the stage. In the songs themselves, their fingers flew faster than sound, which must’ve been a nightmare to sing along to. Managing to however finish their set with grace, the band did leave quite an impression, mostly from the juxtaposition of the relentlessly aggressive music and hilarious moments in between.
Alghazanth played their final show at Steelfest, so the funeral could be completed. Much more enjoyable on stage than on the album, they put their all into this one last gasp. It was a vicious last gasp, to be sure.
Saor convinced me that they were the best band of the festival maybe after one-third of their set, personally. Their sound was great – the guitars, bass, the backing flute track, and the violinist on stage created a deep, rich color to their music, which in turn created intense goosebumps and thoughts of, “Is it fine to burst into tears hearing this?” Intensely emotional music bringing to life vivid visions of rolling highlands and soaring eagles above them, Saor left their mark on me.
Necrophobic had a great horror-style intro which unsurprisingly fit very well into their overall show. Much livelier than a lot of performers, Necrophobic certainly proved that they belong on stage with well-realized songs, extremely punchy mixing, and a flair for dramatics.
Forteresse also managed to pull in a hell of a crowd, apparently having a legendary reputation. Maybe their epoch-like credibility comes from the fact these dudes play hellishly fast (and loud, but that goes without saying). Aside from their velocity-driven music, nothing particular comes to mind. Reliably entertaining and pleasant to listen to, but not much besides that.
Cult of Fire, on the contrary, was a much more subdued affair for a nice change of pace. Clearly showing a grasp and understanding of ambiance and usage thereof, the songs themselves were much more contemplative. The band adorned the stage with candle-laden altars and burning incense, clearly having a vision of what they wanted to bring to life in Hyvinkää. They were also, ironically, one of the few bands that didn’t make heavy use of the animated flame backdrop.
Greek Necros Christos somewhat continued the slower-pace of the preceding band, but mixed it up every now and again with faster sections. Heavier-sounding than the cult for sure, but lacking that certain something.
Dødheimsgard from Norway had a surprisingly talkative frontman for a black metal band. Contrast, after all, is important, so little breaks from the unrelenting banging are all the more important. Musically they were interesting enough and had a nicely subdued volume for such a late-evening band, even if one of the cymbals sounded like shit to me. Certainly worth a listen, if you haven’t already.
Naturally, Moonsorrow was a highly anticipated and well-realized show. Their usage of lights was spot-on due to it being dark outside (creating that all-important contrast) and deployment of smoke shrouded the stage in a great, otherworldly atmosphere, allowing this domestic group to go forth and rock the hell out. And they sure did that.
Tormentor was the final boss of the festival, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why. Maybe there are some other factors that don’t translate well to the stage. Musically they were skillful to be sure, but there was nothing in their outward appearance or songs that made them stand out from the 24 bands that preceded them. I’m guessing you’d need to be a fan to understand. Nonetheless they did their part and closed out the festival with a functional – even stylish – performance.
Steelfest exceeded all my expectations, high as they were after Steelchaos 2017. Not once during those 2 days did I feel tired (due to the enormous number of seats available), unwelcome, or bored. Strangers and friends alike were happy to strike up a conversation whenever, about whatever. The biggest breach of peace I saw was during Malokarpatan, when someone wanted to bring a bench to the audience and he was promptly told to put it back. The staff was polite and professional and overall everything worked like intended. I remember quite fondly singing Beast in Black with a Spanish dude for no particular reason, meeting friends I haven’t seen in ages, and – apropos of nothing – challenging a complete stranger to a cooking contest, so… seared salmon or goat cheese pasta?