What the hell are they building in there?
So, you walk along darkened corridors. It descends into the guts of an ice hockey rink, but in your mind it could be a secret military lab. Or a bomb shelter in times of war, you think. You can’t see well, your eyes are adjusting to the darkness. It’s bright and sunny outside. Boys and girls wear flowers in their heads. Well, this is a summer festival.
The Dead C. That’s the name of the band you’ve come to see in this basement. Who the fuck are The Dead C? “From New Zealand. Some of noise rock’s chief architects, featuring primitive experimental rock stylings and cerebral conceptualism. The group performs infrequently outside of their home country”, you read in the internet. Right. A dark, cold basement. That’s were this band belongs, among the echoes of a puck sliding across the ice and broken teeth. You can almost taste the sweat and the blood.
Is there anybody out there? Did anyone come to see this band? There are around 300 people around you when you arrive. 300 out of 8,000 festival goers. Maybe 50 of them know the band. Their most popular songs accounts for nearly 5,000 plays on one of those streaming services. Who cares? The reason you are able see The Dead C play is because thousands of people pay to see a Norwegian pop star. Or that heavy metal band for vanilla people. And, because they drink 45 euro bottle of wines. Otherwise nobody would book this band.
Soundcheck blends into the actual show. You don’t know when one starts and the other ends. It’s a journey through noise. Guitar chords and a primal drumming, almost visible through the purple stage light, like thunder breaking the clouds. The light is so thick you barely see the shape of the bodies. Who the fuck is Mick Jagger? reads the guitar player’s T-shirt. Who the fuck are The Dead C?
The Dead C. What does it even mean?
The music is amorphous. A wall of noise, slowly built chord by chord. Distortion fills the air. The singer does not sing. He moans. Tat-tat-tat. Your eyes are fixed on the drummer as he hits the snare drum hard. Tat-tat-tat. The sound is dry and dark. Sand in your mouth.
Grab a beer. 10 euros, please. Wait… Is it God’s piss? The bartender dismisses your question with a shrug and gives you a warm bottle of beer.
Tat-tat-tat. The music does not stop. There are no breaks between songs. Music is a continuum of noise. Is it all one song? Hypnotic, deafening, awesome.
Look to your right, look to your left. There are less people around. Who wants to see this? Who wants to be in a dark basement? Let them go and eat there 15-euro vegan food or their 12-euro burrito. Yes, that one you ate before. The burrito that tastes like a kebab bathed in mayonnaise.
The snare drum continues. Tat-tat-tat. The same purple light. There are no song. Who cares about songs? Nobody will remember any songs after the festival. It’s a songwriting crisis. Just mix genres, make noise and play stages larger than your talents. Is there pop in music? Do The National care about melodies?
You hear one song you like. The heavy metal band for vanilla people play an AC/DC song. They say it’s tribute to Malcolm Young. Malcolm Young is dead, David Bowie is Dead, Tom Petty is dead, and the son of a bitch of Lou Reed is dead.
That’s why you don’t need songs. Everyone is dying. You only hear the snare drum. Tat-tat-tat.
The noisy guitar have pierced your ears and your brain. Your tinnitus can’t get any worse. It won’t go away like it won’t that snare drum. Tat-tat-tat.
55 minutes after soundcheck the show is over. Your mind is blown, but nobody will ask for an encore.
Royal Rumble: Sideways vs Flow Festival
Sideways kicks off the summer festival season this weekend. Extended to three days and move to a new location, the festival is bigger and longer than ever before.
After a few editions, Sideways is a strong contender for the title of Helsinki’s best summer music festival. The title holder is, of course, Flow Festival, which is firmly established as THE music even of the summer in the capital.
Both festivals offer a multi-genre line-up, focusing on indie, rap, hip hop, electronic, experimental, a little bit of rock and anything in between. Sideways feels a bit more left of the dial, while Flow attempts to have mass appeal, while remaining interesting.
So, which one is best? Flow or Sideways? Let’s take a look.
Most of the European summer festivals present the same headliners with Arctic Monkeys, Fleet Foxes, The National, Nick Cave and A Perfect Circle being some of the hottest tickets this season. Sideways and Flow are no different, with little room for surprises. With many acts having visited these shores often —how many times has MØ played in Finland?, festival lineups feel a bit dull this season. At the end of the day, when it comes to headliners, choosing one festival over the other, it’s a matter of personal preference. Are you itching to see A Perfect Circle? Or perhaps you want to tick Kendrick Lamar off your bucket list?
That’s a tie.
Sideways presents a good amount of Finnish acts, and unlike what happens at Flow, Finnish bands also take prime spots in the schedule. Obviously, the preeminence of local band is an inexpensive way to fill the lineup, but nevertheless, Sideways programmers have managed to curate an impressive list of Finnish artists, who are delivering the most interesting music made in Finland, from doom metal (Oranssi Pazuzu, Death Buddha Rising) to rap (View) and indie (Litku Klemetti, Too Slow).
+1 for Sideways.
While neither Flow nor Sideways reached the 50/50 male/female threshold in the music lineup, it’s getting better. In this respect, Flow leads the way with Patti Smith, Ms Lauryn Hill, Charlotte Gainsburg, Alma and Noname ranking high on the festival poster.
+1 for Flow.
An impressive music line up does not cut it any more. Any festival must include a series of side activities, which can keep anyone occupied and entertained without actually watching any bands. In this department, Sideways comes a winner with the inclusion of karaoke, stand up comedy and.. a dedicated arcade area.
+1 for Sideways.
If you take a closer look at the lineups, you will find among the smaller font size those artists with smaller commercial appeal, but big influence. At Sideways, you can find New Zealand’s noise rockers The Dead C, and at Flow Californian composer Terry Riley. Those artists won’t sell many tickets, but will drive the festivals’ reputation.
That’s a tie.
Canadians used to say that drinking American beer is a little like making love in a canoe… fucking close to water. Unfortunately, the same can be said about Lapin Kulta, a mass produced beer brand which is the Finnish version of Budweiser. Unfortunately, it is also a major partner to Flow Festival, and therefore, it’s the only beer available.
Sideways, on the other hand, has chosen a more respectable beer partner. Brooklyn Brewery will provide a healthy selection of ales, lagers and sours.
+1 for Sideways.
Any music festival takes tons of energy and one must carb up to make it until the wee hours. Tacos, burgers, noodles, ice-creams, raw cakes and vegan choices… Food plays a central role at both festivals.
That’s a tie.
Rock, pop and any music gender took over jazz festivals long ago, so it’s only far that any festival includes a good share of jazz in its lineup. Every year, Flow presents a carefully curated jazz program, combining local talent and international heavyweights. In this edition, California jazz superstar Kamasi Washington will take the Balloon stage for two extended sets. Will he sit in with Kendrick Lamar too?
+1 for Flow.
After a few editions at Teurastamo, an iconic abbatoir transformed into cultural and culinary center, Sideways has moved to the surroundings of Helsinki’s Ice Hockey Hall, including Elaintarha Park. While this is a very central location, it can’t compete with the iconic Suvilahti area where Flow Festival takes place. Plus, Flow has the Balloon Stage.
+1 for Flow.
Unless you bought an early bird ticket, coughing 215€ up for a three-day Flow Festival ticket is a hard pill to swallow, while single day tickets are 99€. Being a smaller festival, Sideways has more affordable prices: 139€ for three days and 79€ for one day.
+1 for Sideways.
Tallinn Music Week for beginners
An historic train station is transformed into a techno club to offer a 30-hour party marathon hosted by cutting-edge DJs and producers from all around the world. Colorful lights twinkle and sparkle through the glass walls of the waiting pavilion. Inside, there are no tired travelers waiting for the 4pm train to Moscow, but a number of shadows rhythmically moving to raw ambient sounds. The spectacle of lights extends into a narrow pedestrian underpass leading to the entrance of Tallinn’s old town.
Every spring, music and city blend into one during Tallinn Music Week. For a long, very long weekend, music fills every corner of the city nearly 24/7, from living rooms to the most surprising venue.
Tallinn Music Week 2018: Jubilee edition
This year the festival celebrates its 10th anniversary, and it does it with a firmly established format, which showcases over 250 artists of any genre, and a two-day conference focusing on music, new economy, civic initiative, gender politics, better cities and design thinking. Plus, side events include art, films, talks and the finest restaurants ready to cater festival goers with specially crafted chef’s menus.
Previous attendees —and many of them are surely coming back, will be familiar with the festival’s offering. But for those who have never been to Tallinn Music Week, here are a few tips to make the most of the festival.
Tallinn Music Week 2018: Tips for beginners
Plan your party night
For the most part, the music program is organized around events with a theme/genre. Take your pick: dance the night away with funk sounds, headbang at the metal stage, discover Estonian folk or venture into a drum & bass night. This approach is an easy way to find the shows and venues you’re more interested in.
It pays off to arrive early.
Hosted by producer and conductor Kristjan Järvi, the opening concert is usually one of the highlights of the festival. In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Estonia, this year’s concert will take the audience into the club sounds from many different eras roaring twenties’ jazz and swing to today’s ambient, house and hip-hop.
The 2-day festival pass is pretty inexpensive —considering the amount of music you can hear, but if your budget is tight, you can buy single tickets for a venue starting at 10 euro.
Don’t feel bummed out if there’s a schedule conflict. Many bands play two sets, so there’s double the chance to see your favorite band.
Continuing the tradition, the festival is turning unusual places into a nightclub for a long rave. The parking lot under the trendy shopping mall Rotermanni Kvartal will be filled with light and sound.
Make a table reservation
The culinary offer is world-class, but Tallinn is small city. You don’t want to find yourself looking for a place to eat during the festival’s Saturday night. Trust me, I’ve been there.
Do your homework
The festival has prepared a comprehensive playlist with 162 songs and over 11 hours of music.
- 2-day festival pass is 70 euro.
- Single tickets start at 10 euro.
- Full Tallinn Music Week 2018 program and schedule.
Black Lizard – Sinking Ship
Celebration of a New Dawn is the title of psych-rockers Black Lizard’s third album, and indeed, it is a new dawn for the Helsinki band. After signing to London-based label Fuzz Records, the band entered 22-Pistepirkko’s studio to record a bunch of songs, which present a trip through old and new forms of psychedelic music.
Such a trip is a collection of Nuggets that touches upon different garage, psych-rock sounds and styles, but never leaves 1967 far behind. For example, the track Elevation takes Younger than Yesterday era Byrds sound into a bad trip, while I Can’t Be Found is a rocker somewhere between The Electric Prunes’ I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night) and the first Stooges album.
Black Lizard have mastered the psychedelia vocabulary, but they have also been able to add their own personality into the mix. This really shines in acoustic songs, such as Morning Bliss and Sister Purple, some of the best moment of the album and the songs that push the band’s sound forward. I would only have wished Celebration of a New Dawn would have ventured beyond short three and a half minute songs. While this gives the album a pop focus, it’d have been interesting to hear a more daring experimentation.
Watch below the video for the opening track Sinking Ship.
Them Bird Things – Stephen Crow Must Die
Imagine a nightclub in London in 1964 or 65. The air is thick. The temperature is high. A cloud of smoke hangs above the sweaty bodies of a bunch 20-somethings gathered to see a concert. They clap their hands and stomp their feet while the band on stage plays an upbeat R&B with raw power. The electric guitar screams and the singer growls. The music invokes primal instincts and the audience has never seen anything quite like that. Everybody is living the blues. Lust. No more I wanna hold your hand.
Get the picture?
This black and white sequence is what Them Bird Things evoke in their newest album, titled Stephen Crow Must Die. The 16 tracks that make up the album feel louder and rawer than any British Invasion group ever was.
True to their DNA, Them Bird Things have ditched the acoustic guitars and mandolins of their previous albums. No more storytelling folk-rock songs. Forget the country. After a triptych (Wildlike Wonder, Pachyderm Nightmares, The Bride Who Came to Yellow Sky) that painted a peculiar, twisted Americana of tall tales and lovable losers, it only seemed right to return to electric instruments. “There was nothing else to explore”, tells me producer Will Shade after one mixing session earlier this year.
Simply put, Stephen Crow Must Die is only rock and roll: choruses, hooks, stinging electric guitars. It uncovers many tones of rock. Songs like “House of Stone” and “Love Is a Vendetta” shine with hooks and pop melodies, and the muscular guitar of “Alcoholocaust (I’m Drunk Again) blows the speakers off while Salla sings with lust. “Slim Harpo Sez” ticks the boogie blues off with their take on Harpo’s own “Shake Your Hips”. The nasty guitar solo in “Call Me Calamity (The Great White Hope) opens a gateway to the deep corners of our mind, which eventually is fried with the slow-burning, bad-tripping “Let Us Burn”. Fortunately, a school bell rings before the closer “Wife of Bath” returns us to sanity.
Two instrumentals anchor the record. The original “I, Julius” soundtracks a manic road trip fueled by illegal stimulants and police sirens. The cover of Manfred Mann’s “Why Should We Not” invites us to look at our doppelgänger in the Black Lodge.
Few records can pack such diversity of rock songs and avoid cliché. The band’s secret weapon —or rather weapon of mass destruction, is vocalist Salla Day. Where early albums saw Day putting the dark spirits of the blues into the country, this record allows her voice explore uncharted territory. Lacking the lungs to be a powerhouse like Brittany Howard or a scream-fest like Janis Joplin, Day sings with such refined subtlety, able to convey the full spectrum of human emotions, from a world-weary sensuality to an effortless playfulness. In the current musical landscape I can only think of Erika Wennerstrom of the Heartless Bastards as an equally engaging and peculiar female rock and roll singer. Think of Judy Henske joining The Yardbirds circa 1966.
Surprisingly enough, the vocalist did not think twice about stepping out of her comfort zone and sing rock and roll songs. “I’m usually a control-freak, but this time I had a very hands-off approach. Everything’s going to be ok, I told myself. It was easy to sing these songs”, Day admits.
Any grandiose rock album must have a guitar hero. So, please, welcome Mr. Julius Heikkilä, the new guy in the band. Freed from any constraints, pushed to invent new sounds, his work is outstanding all over the record, playing with such versatility. No room for blues and rock clichés. As producer Shade told his guitarist: “play less Robert Cray and more Link Wray”.
The creative process of Them Bird Things is much about doing things the most fucked up way. Or say, creatively different. Expect the unexpected. That being bagpipe solos or crossdressing for promotional photos. For this album, the band came up with an idea to make the recording a bit more complicated. It’s 2017, so why not to go analogue and record on tape? Coming by tape and analogue recording equipment is not simple these days. Just on time to start the recording sessions, producer Will Shade lucked out when he acquired a bulky tape machine at a a Finnish Broadcasting Company auction.
“Gentlemen, we’re rolling”, says Salla Day before launching into “In the Shadow of Mulatto Mountain”. That moment halfway through the album invites you into the studio. Stephen Crow Must Die captures a group of people playing together in a tiny room. That’s exactly how the recording happened at Cat’s Pajamas, the band’s own home studio by the seaside in Southern Helsinki. In the old wooden house, much of the music was recorded live, and tape adds an extra layer of warmth to the sound. “We rehearsed there and we taped all the time. Whenever we had a good take, that was the beginning of the actual track on the album. And, we played loud and when [drummer] Affe Forsman can bang the drums, he’s at his best,” explains bassist Tapani Varis.
As a result, there is a sense of fun and joy. “It was a fun project. Not much stress”, says Salla Day. Stephen Crow Must Die is focused and cohesive album, more than anything the band has recorded before. It’s a band album, not just the sum of parts. As such, all the originals are credited to Day, Forsman, Heikkilä, Shade, Varis. This reflects the spontaneous approach to songwriting and recording for this album. “When we started writing songs, the situation was very open. Kind of what do you feel like playing?”, says Heikkilä.
Music writer Jean Ramsey says in the liner notes that this album is a rebirth for Them Bird Things. But I think rather than a phoenix rising from the flames, Stephen Crow Must Die is another consequence of the free-flowing nature of the band. In both genre and personnel. Another step, another left turn in their already decade-old career.
But who the fuck is Stephen Crow?
The secret is out in the open. Just take a close look at the credits, and use a Finnish-English dictionary, if needed.
Flow 2017 Day 2: A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
A storm is coming. A storm will hit Helsinki hard. That was the weather forecast for Saturday night: a storm for the ages. Like clockwork, the storm hit at 7pm. After a extraordinarily hot day the heavens opened and lightning stroke over Suvilahti and extreme wind made the crowd ran for cover.
And it all lasted less than 10 minutes. Enough to cancel a few performances and close down the Balloon Stage. However, the chaos and the apocalyptic predictions will have to occur some other time. Hardly any more rain fell and the festival resume its program with normality.
Since the shows of Mikko Joensuu and Timo Lassy were cancelled, I decided to call it a day. Retreat and regroup for Sunday’s pack agenda.
It’s already a tradition to schedule a folk artist to open the Balloon Stage in the afternoon on Saturday. This year, Julie Byrne took such a slot. Just a singer and her voice, with her guitar and a bunch of songs. Byrne is a strong songwriter who whispers about common places and common moments of life using a very soft voice and sublet fingerpicking. Short glimpses of life, nothing like heavy storytellers like Sun Kill Moon or Mount Eerie. At Flow, Byrne’s performance had a charming nearness and tenderness, relaxed and light. A soft landing to the festival. On her music, I only missed a little bit of blues to give some edginess to the music.
As the store was approaching, the Red tent was hot and humid. Come think of it, that was the right atmosphere for Sparks. The band’s 14-song set was heavy on the most recent material, including four songs from their upcoming new album Hippopotamus, their first in eight years. Contrary to many legacy act, the newer songs were among the highlights of the show. Songs like the the opener What the Hell Is It This Time? and Missionary Position were fun and a good example of the Mael Brothers witty art-pop. The show ended with a couple of glam rock classics (This Town Ain’t Big For Both of Us and Amateur Hour) off their most popular album, Kimono My House. Visually, there was something terribly comforting in Sparks blue stripped sweaters. Plus, Ron Mael’s trademark tap dance, on the day of his 72nd birthday, was a stroke of pure genius.