The guitar veteran, old and steadfast, sat in a tavern not afar the shores of the Dark River, sipping an ale with his stick-pounding brother-in-arms, while a tiny lass growled thundering echoes in a sweet tune over the chords of a distorted descendent of the instrument he once wielded. “Let us give this lass a stage”, the mumbled beat master and his friend declared in a rising voice: “Let us give a stage to us all. A stage holding a carnival of roaring hymns as gloomy as the Dark River!”
Hence on hidden in the woods of the faraway Northern realms, the Dark River Festival was held year after year. Neither rains nor storms, nor foes either huge or invisible could stop the brave and diligent clan setting the stages and celebrate life with heavy music at the shores of their Dark River.
At long last, I am back at the Kymijoki, after which the Dark River Festival is named in Southern Finland, roughly 130 km east of Helsinki. I am about to soothe my vain longing for an actual festival with outdoor stages, bands playing loud as hell and feasting crowds.
It is Friday early afternoon, like just past noon when Rytmihäirö (Finnish for arrhythmia) open the Dark River Festival at main stage. I am back to something that once upon a time used to be normal: namely running to the pit as I am late. This time I am late as my interview with Nico and Jaakko from Marianas Rest overlapped with the opening gig, since the schedule had to be tightened merely days ahead of the festival due to new corona restrictions. But here we are!
Gates opened at noon and now, little more than one hour later, the crowd counts a decent number of heads. But then, Rytmihäiriö have always made for a good reason to come and experience their show at whatever time of the day. Today makes no exception. Not at all. Vorna open on the former main, now second stage, one hour later. All bands are given slots of approximately one hour and there is only a short window to proceed from one stage to the other for the audience. Their atmospheric black-metallish melodic music sets a sweet contrast to the faster Rythmihäiriö previously.
With Kiuas proceeding on the main stage, the DRF 2021 continues their tradition of giving bands a warm welcome back on stage after a much longer pause. Although obviously the musicians have grown a bit older, they rock the stage and pull an unexpected crowd cheerfully singing along their hits. MyGrain follow, succeeded by Kalmah, both delivering powerful darker chords and growls. With Marianas Rest, the first local band appears on stage. Their doomy melodic death metal is of disturbing beauty and despite the daylight in the early summer evening the atmosphere they create is gloomy and deep.
With Finntroll, the first internationally renowned act takes over on main stage and their fans have waited long – filling that time with plenty of beers and shots. They play their first DRF gig just like the progressive metallists from DamnationPlan following them. The Swedish veterans of Evergrey set a worthy final highlight on day one.
Swallowed By The Sun
Saturday noon, the forecast promised rain. Quite a lot actually, but it fails us. What a heavy burden to us, the musicians, the crew, and the crowd to celebrate another festival day in fair weather?! Horizont Ignited from Kotka kick off at the second stage, finding a remarkable crowd before them. The diverse vocal range of their frontman, Okko Solanterä, is a more than pleasant surprise not only to me but to those who were not familiar with it. Arion open the main stage, delivering an energetic show, succeeded by Atlas Northcore. The guys from Tampere are setting a more progressive and somewhat theatrical highlight with their sort of burial garment and distorted soundscapes. When Mors Subita from Oulu rock the main stage, the crowd can’t be tamed any longer: the show and the music demand a pit. There is no way around! The band feasts on the crowd’s enthusiasm. For once, the air is burning.
Another, perhaps unexpected highlight follows with The True Cult Club, a new band from Helsinki. They keep the crowd moving and their eye-candy frontman keeps the girls smiling. With Swallow The Sun a set of slower and darker songs follow. I observe, Juha Raivio’s soundscapes put the crowd under a spell and despite the sunny summer afternoon, his melancholic tunes do not fail to create an intense and gloomy atmosphere.
The Final Pack
Again, the contrast could not be any harsher when One Morning Left (touring with Eskimo Callboy soon) display the party power of the sloth. Lost Society who just signed with Nuclear Blast, is one more of those bands with a reputation for fantastic shows. Their chemistry and energy get even the last feet moving. As they warmed up the crowd for the great finale, One Desire provide a moment to breathe and rest swinging gently before the Portuguese kings of dark metal Moonspell set the grand finale to the DRF 2021! And what a finale they deliver! Their setlist is a nightly and powerful journey through their music history missing none of the highlights.
The weekend is a chilled festival full of great show acts, various genres, and a colourful crowd. The festival has grown and yet it is still the cosy event it always used to be. Chilling begins with your arrival at the biathlon facilities of a small place near Kotka. In fact, you arrive at a grassy spot surrounded by trees, and weren’t there a couple of houses nearby? You can’t see them from here though. By central European standards it feels very remote!
Chilling in the Sun
My car is parked between some other campers who did not make it onto the new caravan camping site, as that was sold since June. Over yonder mighty veterans of festival campers, rusty busses of historic appearance and numerous ‘just normal’ caravans make the camp at the lively arrival zone. A short walk around a small hill gets you to the actual venue. On this side, numerous people have a drink sitting in the sun on the slope of that small hill before they enter in-field. Only a few paces off the entrance is the tent camping area. It is not too big and offers a comfy degree of space for each tent. Music from the camp mixes with that from stage.
It is a peaceful and relaxed crowd, moving back and forth between the stages, having drinks with their friends and festival encounters in the sitting area and most of all, enjoying the music played from an actual stage – not a virtual online gig but the all-over, multi-sensual experience of a festival. We all do enjoy it. The smell of stage fog, the noise of a crew setting the stage for the next band, even queueing up for a beer or a loo –none of that we had for far too long.
A Shared Taxi and Fair Pricing
How does the crowd like the festival? Well, it’s obvious, the party people enjoy the atmosphere with all their senses. But then, there are so many rather quiet folks, neatly keeping their distance. And yet, if you ask those looking grim guys from the back, hardly moving at all if not to refold their arms, you may still hear them say it is the best. So, I ask if there was something they did not enjoy. The short breaks make it hard to get a drink between the bands. Another one says he was waiting for more than one hour for the shuttle on Friday, but it would not come so he and his friend shared a taxi. One mentions he had expected that his vaccination status had been checked before being permitted in, but it had not happened. But mainly I hear how great it is to be in a festival at all again, how much they love to see those bands and some point out the cool location and atmosphere on the camping site. And not to forget, one points out that the pricing of the tickets as well as the drinks are quite fair.
DRF Fashion: Spiked Ears, Neon Colours and Band Merch
Taking a walk through the crowd, it looks like someone cut a slice from Nummirock, the dear grand lady of Finnish summer metal festivals, and transferred it to Kotka. Spiked ears mark the Finntroll fans, pretty women come in neon colours mixed with all shades of black, elaborated hair dresses and impressive make-ups, and the band merch displayed on every other breast gives a precise overview of the ‘who-is-who’ in the 2021 metal hearts. Some represent the festival line up, the number of DRF shirts grows with the number of gigs as the festival runs and some simply show their recent favourite band – maybe sending a message: ‘Hei Kymi Crew, get them on stage next year, please!’
The Kymi Crew has become the crew who made it anyway. Not even the wicked virus could stop them neither in 2020 nor in 2021! As the world changes, the festival changes too. And although the course of events in the past two years had an impact on the Dark River Festival, its metamorphosis began independent of it.
Basically, the Kymi Crew had to address a couple of questions each year, and this was even before the last chord of the ongoing festival was played: Will our traditional festival outline pull enough crowd to pay the bills in the end? Will we even find enough local bands to play next year? Will we get enough bands in general to play for what we can offer?
All these questions linger in their minds while running the stages, managing the entrance and whatever else happens, expected and unexpected during a metal festival, however small or big it is. No doubt there are as many answers to these questions as heads they are considered in. By the way, 2021 is not the first time they gave the two-stages-outline a try as Henri Eerola, one of the main heads behind the DRF, mentioned in our interview in 2018.
This time nevertheless, it seems to be a more profound change as the whole concept, the management and the marketing have undergone a metamorphosis. Promoting a festival taking place in the valley of the Kymijoki (literally Dark River), with the Kalevala in which the dark river needs to be crossed by the dead to enter the underworld, seems almost a natural idea. Enabling the festival to grow then demanded they acquire new financial resources, and that they restructure the management. This is quite a big step on several levels and naturally, such a metamorphosis tends to polarize those involved.
Kotka under the Moonspell!
Saturday night, approximately one hour after Moonspell played their last chord. Their stage is packed, the in-field is nearly empty as the crowd is either home or waiting for the transfer at the parking lot; even most of the helping hands have departed already. But the festival office is filling with the core of the Kymi Crew. There is the security guy from the main stage who has just had his twelfth DRF, there is the festival back-office sorceress whose task is to manage the impossible just as it happens, there is a hand full of stage people, runners, and whatnot and naturally, there is ‘The Sami’ right in the middle. Tiredness is slowly taking over as the adrenalin that kept them all moving… well, running, vanishes from their veins.
‘The Sami’ thanks everyone for the incredible performance. Once again, the wicked virus had threatened the entire festival. New restrictions had to be implemented and changed the schedule only some days ago but who cares right now? What matter is: The Dark River Festival 2021 took place – even bigger than ever! Each of them here in the office had a hand in making it happen against all odds and all obstacles. The end of his little speech could read like this: ‘And we made it. Yes, we made. Again! Moonspell played! Damn, Moonspell, here on our stage in Kotka. I bet they never heard of it before they agreed to play here.’ There is a little pride flickering from the tired eyes all around. They are determined to make it again next year! And the year after that. And many more years to come!
The Kymi Patchwork Family
Only a little later, I find myself sitting with the whole lot on the porch of the festival office, sipping a beer, cooling down. Tired but happy they look. There was hardly sleep for any of them in the past few days due to the invisible burden of making the biggest ever DRF work, and as smoothly as can be given circumstances. I hear them exchange all the little tales that happened during the weekend, making plans for the festivals to come while some are simply watching out in the night. Although a given, not the entire original Kymi Crew was happy with the new outline, so some faces I would have loved to see here and now are missing. The atmosphere of this very moment is what it has always been: a bunch of friends being weary but jolly as can be to have made it – together!
I admit frankly that I do miss the ‘local and tiny’ atmosphere as much as wandering through the crowd of familiar faces as I experienced it in earlier years. I also loved to experience the local bands I never heard of before and the extremely intimate tent stage gigs. This cosy tiny spot hosted artists like Netta Skog, Siikamäki & Kurki or Luke Appleton, and I remember their shows being full of goose-bump moments. But life has changed. Anyway, the recent setting forced changes (more space, more sanitizer, more masks and, as kids are mostly yet to be vaccinated: no under-ages on site). Then the Kymi Crew did their best to keep the spirit and the unique atmosphere. What I experienced reminds me of a patchwork family. A divorce separates in the first step but only to grow in the next step by getting attached with new families. Naturally this changes a lot but makes a new, bigger family in the end, like the Kymi patchwork family.
The Dark River Festival 2022 is announced for August 12th/13th already and I am certain it will be worth travelling there again.