By this point in the summer, those of us who’ve attended some combination of Lollapalooza and Outside Lands and Bonnaroo and Governor’s Ball and Coachella are usually ready to hang up our wristbands. Fortunately a trio of Nordic festivals — Gothenburg, Sweden’s Way Out West; Oslo, Norway’s Øya; and Helsinki, Finland’s Flow — has offered a transatlantic alternative to the usual destinations for around a decade now. I got a chance to check out Flow last weekend and found it a remedy for American festival fatigue thanks especially to its Euro-friendly lineup and mild temperatures. Although given that NYC had its hottest day of the year on Saturday (110° with that humidity) I would’ve been happy just to spend the weekend in the Helsinki airport.
Flow takes place in the city’s former power plant Suvilahti, so festivalgoers are situated amid a giant gas holder and chimney stacks. The unlikely scenery was refreshing, and also a weirdly perfect fit given the weekend’s avant-garde booking and art installations. At one point I watched local percussionists Samuli Kosminen and Tatu Rönkkö (of the excellent Efterklang spinoff Liima) skillfully bang on household objects on a stage underneath an enormous balloon. But the weekend had heavy-hitters too. Sia and her iconic wig easily landed the biggest crowd for her inescapable This Is Acting singles and reclaimed hits by Rihanna and David Guetta. In between, pretty much every genre was represented. There wasn’t much hard rock, though, maybe because all the eligible acts played the Tuska metal fest at the same venue a few weeks prior.
The operation is as organized/eco-friendly/security-minded as you’d expect from any fest in its 13th year, but there were plenty of Finnish quirks to amuse a foreigner who has attended mostly US music events. The most prevalent food choices were curry and coffee. There were cigarettes available to purchase, but no festival t-shirts. Corporate sponsorship was subtle, but I couldn’t avoid getting aggressively pitched by reps from an anti-milk oat beverage. There was no VIP lounge beyond an unremarkable Gold Area that sold bottles of champagne but provided no views of the stages. There was a DJ Windows95, not to be confused with Win Butler alter ego DJ Windows 98.
The entertainment lasts until 1AM on Friday and Saturday, followed by hours of official afterpartying (maybe that’s what all the coffee is for), and the late night acts were worth staying up for. Massive Attack were one such highlight, revisiting singles from their sinister trip-hop masterpiece Mezzanine and inviting Scottish trio Young Fathers out for a handful of songs mid-show. Following “Safe From Harm” a long screen that had displayed 1s and 0s earlier in the night blinked “Je suis Paris,” “Je suis Instabul,” “Je suis Baghdad,” etc. A cloaked ANOHNI, meanwhile, was the weekend’s powerful closer, crooning and shimmying to her politically-charged HOPELESSNESS alongside producers Christopher Elms and Oneohtrix Point Never’s Daniel Lopatin. Behind the artists were videos of close-up emoting faces, including the Nabil-directed one of Naomi Campbell lip-syncing ANOHNI’s song about a child accepting her fate to die in a drone strike.
Rap had a decent showing, though a lot of it was delivered in the local tongue Suomi. Helsinki rapper View (23-year-old Juuso Ruohonen) rhymes leisurely in English, however, and has already earned a following from last year’s Avalon, a cloud-rap concept EP about depression. A Kanye West interview soundbyte (“We culture — rap is the new rock ‘n roll”) kicked off his set, which peaked with the LCMDF collab “Lace.” The previous afternoon saw South London MC Stormzy filling the same Black Tent and sounding surprised by the enthusiastic response to his grime tracks with DJ Tiny: “Someone should’ve told me Finland was this lit. Finland is turnt.” Lil B landed a too-prominent slot at the Lapin Kulta Red Arena tent and his small crowd seemed bemused that BasedGod spent long stretches just pacing and waving while his recordings played. I certainly didn’t mind because I got this #rare tweet:
— S???? L??????? (@scottgum) August 12, 2016
@scottgum love u – Lil B
— Lil B THE BASEDGOD (@LILBTHEBASEDGOD) August 12, 2016
Flow’s audience was older and whiter than any festival I’ve ever been to, so no surprise that punk OG Iggy Pop’s hits-rich hour — first three songs: “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” “The Passenger,” “Lust For Life” — went over much better. Later Savages’ prowling post-punk drew an enthusiastic midnight crowd to the Black Tent and Jehnny Beth did the thing where she sings “Hit Me” atop audience members’ shoulders.
Moonface And Siinai, the underrated space-rock collaboration between Canadian songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Spencer Krug and Finnish krautrockers Siinai, brought confident prog vibes to a rainy-day performance that apparently might be their last. “We don’t know if we’ll ever play a show again after today,” Krug announced. “We might, we might not.” Because he lives so far from his bandmates, the Wolf Parader explained, it would be “logistically difficult” to do this again. If this was really their last show, that is a shame.
Thundercat earned his biggest cheers when Kamasi Washington (who would play the same Bright Balloon 360° Stage later in the day) added a glorious sax solo to “Them Changes,” but otherwise there was not much in the way of the surprise collaborations. Likewise Chvrches and M83, both of whom put out terrific synth-pop albums this year, didn’t do anything I didn’t already see them do at three other festivals this summer (not their fault). Lauren Mayberry said it was her band’s first time playing Finland, and somehow that was also true of the Descendents, who’ve been around 10 times as long as Chvrches and haven’t lost any of their bite on songs from the new Hypercaffium Spazzinate.
— S???? L??????? (@scottgum) August 14, 2016
New Order were one of the most celebrated bands on the lineup, but the current tour features enough of last year’s disappointing Music Complete that I didn’t mind ducking out after a singalong to “Regret,” their last top 40 hit in America. My early exit was on account of Thee Oh Sees, the blistering Bay Area riff factory celebrating a two-day-old album of the summer contender. With two drummers the garage/psych band is a fierce assault from beginning to end. After brief issues with the sound and lighting (“Light person… it feels like I’m getting interrogated up here, man”) — John Dwyer led the group through gems from A Weird Exits and closed with a ferocious 15-minute “Contraption.”
Flow’s main problem is that it’s getting too popular for the intimate-ish setting. The weekend’s 75,000 attendees set a new attendance record and an unbelievably high percentage of them will unapologetically knock you the fuck over on the way to see hometown hero J. Karjalainen (apparently the Finnish Bruce Springsteen, though he sounded to me like the Finnish Van Morrison). You’d think an event named Flow would be better about trafficking people between stages. Anyway! Check out photos from the festivities below.