The ‘Gaulic’ Metal Festival Village at the Dark River

“The year is 50 B.C. Gaul is entirely occupied by the Romans. Well, not entirely… One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invadors. And life is not easy for the Roman legionaries who garrison the fortified camps of Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium…” (Asterix The Gaul)

Ok, actually it’s not 50 BC but 2020 AD. Well, in our case the invader is a virus, forcing fierce metal heads all over to bend their knees in stead of banging their heads. All over? Well, not entirely, because one small festival crew of indomitable Finns resists …

The Kymi Crew Defies The Virus

Only very slowly cinemas and smaller theaters wake from the pandemic coma, while mega events such as top league soccer games, or Formula 1 races take place without audience. A subculture of streams has been established to keep the idea of festivals and concerts alive – somehow. But then streams don’t really compare to a show with audience. In Finland, events even exceeding to an audience of 500 people are permitted to take place again – given there is a concept ensuring a minimised infection risk (Finnish governmental restrictions and press release June 17th, 2020). So just like Asterix and his friends, the Dark River Festival (DRF) crew has never ceased building their Gaulic metal festival village in Honkala Finland!

Then again, Finns are neither Gaulic fighters nor vikings – as I have been personally reassured about 100 times! But Finns have Sisu! And perhaps this is their magic force or super power to make metal festivals happen (there is also the Saarihelvetti taking place) when all other festivals – metal or not – were cancelled. “Seem like it, yeah! The Virus has wiped away almost every festival (not just metal) for this summer, and I’ve actually heard that even people not that much into Metal are attending our festival, because they just want to Festival.” Henri Eerola, the former festival manager, texts me.

Photos: Kaunis Kuolematon @ Nosturi, Metal Crane Festival 2019 by Ms Cesar Little (click to enlarge)

Sisu vs Lock Down

Consulting Wikipedia for a definition, we learn: “Sisu is a Finnish concept described as stoic determination, tenacity of purpose, grit, bravery, resilience and hardiness and is held by Finns themselves to express their national character.” Undoubtedly, the DRF crew’s spirit of resilience and stoic determination has been quite challenged. More than ever. When a wave of lock downs in several degrees swept from China over Europe (and subsequently all over the world) in spring, no one really expected the festival season to be completely cancelled. But when we all began to breathe again and consider the situation from this new angle, it became obvious that a sudden return to normal would only result in higher death toll. So one tour after another and one festival after another got cancelled or postponed by at least by months or immediately one year.

I ask Henri how he feels about this extreme situation? The situation is kind of bitter sweet, because deleting almost a year full of work and cancelling festival is something I wouldn’t hope to happen to anyone, it’s just exorbitant fatality. This said, we as one of the survivors are of course reaching more recognition than before, but I still think the price is too high. I feel bad for everyone that is suffering from the effect of the pandemic.”

Photos: Insomnium @ Astra, Berlin/GER 2019 and Oceanhoarse @ Z7, Pratteln/CH 2020 by Ms Cesar Little (click to enlarge)

”Nevertheless, because we are living under state of emergency, …”

Usually the small festivals taking place quite in the end of the summer season have a good fight to pull their audience. People might be fed up by the big festivals earlier or short in money and days off after their summer holidays. Not this year. The ticket pre-sales have been better than ever. Has the crew any idea yet to what extend their festival will grow? ”We are expecting a lot of people, much more than the previous years, but I can’t talk about the total numbers, because we are continuously calculating the big picture to make sure we play this thing by the book. Nevertheless, because we are living under state of emergency, kind of, I can assure that the headcount and the wideness of the festival area will be in prefect balance, so everybody are able to keep the distance if they want to.” Henri later adds that naturally people feeling ill are recommended not to attend the festival.

Honestly, I have become a bit pessimistic lately, noticing the growing the gap between what people do and want vs what people should do and should want.  Bulliying those who follow the official rules has become too normal. Excessive partying at distance zero in Mallorca party zones lead to a new partial lock down there. Spontaneous open-air city parties suddenly turned into fighting and raiding; end with injured police men and looted shops. – I am keeping my fingers crossed the metal folks remain the peaceful festival crowd they have always been!

Photos Fear Of Domination @ Nummirock 2018 by Ms Cesar Little (click to enlarge)

Stoically One Step After Another

But then our ‘Gaulic’ Finns will know how to handle their potential ‘Roman’ invaders. Still, the particular situation will have brought quite some extra workload. So, how has planning and preparing the festival actually been like this year compared to before?Much more work, of course, because we have been in constant connection with health authorities so we could assure every detail for safe festival environment. And you have to remember that for a long time we did this planning and preparation without even knowing for sure that the festival would eventually even happen.”

Could you explain a bit more how you have merged the Dark River Festival with the needs of the pandemic situation? “We follow the instructions of the health authorities directly: for example ensure the area is wide enough for social distancing and take good care of the hygiene and the sanitation.”

“We can’t let people down.”

When the speed with that the virus spread slowed finally down, the DRF 2020 seemed some sort of save. And with mostly artists from Finland neither travel restrictions nor the course of infection abroad should do any harm. Mostly, however, means not all of them! Already months ago, mostly in 2019 even, the Kymi Crew presented the line up for their 2020 festival – The Nightflight Orchestra and In Mourning from Sweden as headliners among Insomnium, Wolfheart and Bloodred Hourglass from Finland. Now, merely one month before the dark-doomy-atmospheric Melo Death masters of Kaunis Kuolematon (presenting their new material) will open the festival, it becomes clear that the Swedes are not coming – due to the pandemic situation in Sweden and thus being denied to travel into Finland (without quarantine)! What was your first reaction when it was clear the Swedes would not be able to come? “We can’t let people down. We have to do everything we can to fix the situation. Let’s get to work.”

Photos: Wolfheart @Nachtleben, Frankfurt/GER 2019 by Ms Cesar Little (click to enlarge)

The Swedes Drop Off The Lineup

That’s Sisu in action. Stoic and resilient. Simply go on and make the best out of it! But how difficult was it to find bands filling in for the Swedish bands? “Not that easy actually. Because especially many major bands that we could imagine replacing The Night Flight Orchestra -scale performer had already pulled the plug for the summer and wasn’t prepared for this kind of one-off -gig. And of course, we wanted to normalize the situation as fast as possible, so we could inform people about the change, so also the time was essence. We can’t thank enough Diablo and Dawn Of Solace for stepping forward, and based on the feedback we’ve received, people are really happy with the replacements.”

The emotional amplitude of the Dark River Festival’s first day could not be any wider. Right after Kaunis Kuolematon, the furious Fear Of Domination take over and certainly will make the air burn with their explosive energy. Then Dawn Of Solace (reawakened band project combining the deeply emotional songwriting and majestic riffs of Tuomas Saukkonen with the unique voice of Mikko Heikkilä) will lead the crowd on a slower pace into void and darkness, right before the pack of Wolfheart (touring all over Europe with Mors Principium, Bloodred Hourglass and Atlas in spring 2021) shatter the stage in a winter a thunderstorm! Some old school heavy metal vibes with Lost Society would add some lighter sounds followed by no one less than Insomnium, the masters of most melancholic Melo Death, will sing us their most unsettling lullabies like such as “Pale Morning Star”, “While We Sleep” and “Weather The Storm” .

A Broken Hand And The “Universal Satan”

This was the plan and then life happened again – just when everything seemed to be fixed. ”Dear friends at Dark River Festival, Kotka: We are beyond devastated to announce that we have no other option but to cancel our show …” (from Dark River Festival Facebook page, 23.07.2020, 10:00 am CEST) Lost Society had do cancel due to their drummer, Taz, breaking his hand in an accident! Another shock. Lost Society’s show are a highlight, a must-see and now that! And well, yes, a shock it is – in a way, at least when you run into a Turmion Kätilöt show for the first time and have no idea what to expect on stage! A softer soul might need quite some Sisu facing the Universal Satan, the Kymi crew however has an abundance of it! (By the way, Europe beware, Turmion Kätilöt are about to raid the big stages in winter touring with Nightwish.)

Photos: Turmion Kätilöt @Batschkapp, Frankfurt/GER 2019, and Asim Searah @ColosSaal, Aschaffenburg/GER 2018 by Ms Cesar Little (click to enlarge)

In my experience, the tiny tent stage has become a spot to expect magic to happen. Perhaps the local brewery has added a bit of Getafix’s secret magic potion into their steam beer fed to the musicians before show? Even so, Asim Searah – known from Wintersun, Damnation Plan and Kiuas – does not need magical support to enchant with his selection of metal classics. Take Damnation Plan’s version of DIO’s “Don’t Talk To Strangers” a more than promising appetiser for this! And make sure not to miss the Duo Kaikkonen & Liekkala and their deeply moving, acoustic performance. Purisitic and finest proficiency.

‘Diabolic’ Saturday

The ‘pandemic break’ has turned out to be a well of creativity. Quite some bands used to come up with new music, such as Domination Black who can rightfully be seen as the roots of the Dark River Festival. They will open on Saturday and certainly use their opening gig on Saturday to present their brand-new album, “Judgement IV” (stay tuned for the review).

Photos: Domination Black @ DRF 2018 by Ms Cesar Little (click to enlarge)

Crimson Sun will add some female power, before Wheel lead the crowd on the winding path of progressive music. The first tent stage hero on the night will be Bryn Jones, vocalist of Los Bastardos Finlandes. Later some sort of common suspects take over, (Tino-Viljami) Vanhala & (Teemu) Aalto. It’s quite a challenge to play right in the eye of the ferocious main stage storm. But they will make a welcome contrast playing some acoustic HIM covers. Oceanhoarse, who toured in January/February 2020 still with Marko Hietala all over Europe, have also become a regular at the Kymi stage in Honkala and will add to the strong classical heavy metal party of the Saturday line up. A bit of disco feeling will come with the extreme and colourful Blind Channel and warm up the crowd before Bloodred Hourglass , who have also worked on a new album, will teach the crowd to sweat “Where Sinners Crawl” and bang their brains to their “Quiet Complaint”. Fitting the nightly hour Diablo will make the grand final of the Dark River Festival 2020.

”We got this.”

For the first time, there are VIP tickets available for the Dark River Festival. The one unique feature of the Kymi festival has always been the atmosphere: intimate, family-like. Artists have merged with the crowd after their gig, the crowd, artists and family make the crew. Everybody on the venue seems to know everybody.

Blinc Channel @ Casiopeia, Berlin 2019

Duo Kaikkonen & Liekkala @ DRF 2018

Bryn Jones @ Storyville, Helsinki/FI, 2020

Vanhala & Aalto @ DRF 2019

Photos by Ms Cesar Little and Ulrike Habeck Photography (Bryn Jones) (click to enlarge)

Why VIP tickets? Aren’t you afraid it might undermine the we-are-all-family-here atmosphere? Interesting question, because losing the heart-warming atmosphere is the last thing we want to do. In my opinion, having the VIP -area doesn’t change anything, especially now when the whole area is wide open because the festival is K-18. You still wouldn’t have to go VIP if you wouldn’t want to, but actually the VIP -tickets are selling really good, so I could imagine this also is something some of the people have craved. If people want to pay an extra buck for some extra space for breather, good food and nice drinks, let them do so.”

So there is only one question that remains. An unavoidable one! “How optimistic are you? I mean, in the very bitter end a local or regional outbreak might still cancel everything.” – “The situation is Finland is getting better and better as we speak. Because of the mature approach to the situation from the get go, Finnish government pointing out the needed arrangements and sticking with the plan as a country, I’d say we are on our way back to normal. So yeah, very optimistic. We got this.”

Now that I am writing this preview, I am becoming a bit melancholic. Due to the pandemic situation and my poor health condition I cannot attend the Dark River Festival this year. A hundred times I have thought it over. It’s simply not working. F*! I had so much loved to see this particular festivall and the unique atmosphere I have experienced in the previous years.

Photos: Bloodred Hourglass @ Schüür (Lucerne, CH) 2020 by Ms Cesar Little (click to enlarge)

Brave New World?

The virus has stopped the world, and our entire cultural event industries including musicians, venue owners, labels and professional stage workers are about to go bankrupt. Don’t get me wrong, I am certain some sort of new venues, labels and so on will fill the vacancies in the aftermath. I am confident that culture will find new ways of marketing and to reach its audience. But are we really willing to submit all our traditional institutions to destructive force of the virus?

We should not, I am convinced. Streaming shows is nice but does not compare to banging in front of the stage. Attending a festival supports them all. Perhaps this year, consider buying an extra shirt and an extra cd/vinyl to support another artist/band not only on and during the Dark River Festival.

Although there still are a couple of weeks left and thus space for more dramatic turns, I am certain this festival is going to take place. This incredible line up on the Gaulic metal village stage and this abundance of Sisu in the Kymi crew will leave no Rom… *earse* virus any chance of invasion!

Thank you Henri, Julia, Ulrike, Gernot and Conny!

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