Tuska Turns 20, Attracts a Record Crowd – Here’s Why It’s So Successful
Before I went to Tuska Open Air Metal Festival, I expected a metal festival plain and simple – a no frill cacophony. However, Tuska represented something greater than just that: it felt more like a meeting ground of Finnish cultural quirks, unchallenged love for all things heavy, and fierce individuality of expression enveloped in an easy-going festival mentality. It managed to find a harmonious character that belied its overly concrete setting, within an event that straddles pragmatism with a well-conceived aesthetic and flair that accentuates that it is both a community event and an individual experience. With a record crowd of 37,000 over the entire three days and another record 14,500 patrons on Saturday thanks to the draw of H.I.M, Tuska fittingly celebrated its twentieth year.
Starting the festival with a press tour is certainly where the seed was planted: Festival CEO Eeka “Metal” Mäkynen had an air of calmness as he directed the media pack to the different areas of the festival. He exhibited some unexpected flourishes that you would not expect at a metal festival: a whisky bar; a ‘black dining’ hall where you can make a table reservation; a lavishly decorated V.I.P replete with pentagram light fixtures; a wood-fired tent sauna; and adjacent, a variant of blood-letting in the form of cupping (kuppaus). Near the sauna stood a sausage vendor, and all the trees in the area were decorated with tubes of mustard: some ropes even hung between the trees, weighed down by the seemingly endless natural companion of sausage. Nearby was the food area, with an omnipresent flock of seagulls, and scattered around the festival were drinking enclaves nearby each stage.
Sitting down with Eeka provided some substance to what the tour suggested. With vast experience in the local venue, Nosturi, he found it exciting to work in a festival: “I’ve been going to festivals all over the world and now I get to work on my own. For me, the cornerstone of Tuska is so solid: the bands, the staff, the brand. I can start to work on that: decorations, food options, modern world needs on top of the foundations.”
In 2011, Tuska moved from Kaisaniemi park to its present location in Suvilahti, which regulated the selling of alcohol, although the option to bring your own food remained. It seems that the secret to Tuska’s longevity is finding a balance between the core concept and small experiments. “We add things on top of this base, such as the whisky bar. The metal people are so into it: you saw the sauna? We’ve been open for a couple of hours and it’s already full, they’re having a great time,” says Mäkynen. On a final note, he highlights the importance of the twentieth anniversary and H.I.M’s show: “After twenty years of waiting, getting H.I.M to Tuska is a dream come true. Both H.I.M and Tuska started out around the same time. Here we are at the same table; twenty years later the paths cross again.”
Throughout the festival, I hear time and time again that Tuska is one of the best festivals in Finland. It was apparent that people had very strong associations with the annual three-day metal fest, with it maintaining a loyal credibility amongst those that I talked to. It feels as if the festival deftly managed a balance between commercialism, functionality, summer liberty, tight scheduling and a warm openness in its foundation. So much so that Tuska is perhaps one of the festivals that I have attended that finds its balance the most — maintaining a geniality that permeates the entire festival area, its patrons, and the entire cohort of volunteers and paid professionals that coalesce in Tuska.
The wood sauna seemed to be the appropriate way to begin the festivities. Thoughtfully, patrons are provided with a towel and plastic bag for their belongings, which are then looked after in a cloakroom, completely free of charge. Exiting the sauna, I met a gentleman that experienced his first cupping, with his back detailing the experience: large rings where the cups were applied and small cuts to let the blood flow. Yet the look on his face was contrary to his back, simply describing it as “very relaxing.” Later on in the festival, I hear again that it’s “the best feeling ever, you feel so free,” and finally that it “makes me agitated, in an energetic way.” Speaking with Miia, the kuppaus practitioner who is also trained in massage and phytotherapy, she explains that under Swedish rule, farmers were advised to have kuppaus before the hard work of summer. She carefully displayed her “axes” – the blacksmith-forged and highly decorative instruments that make tiny cuts in the skin. Before the treatment, the person must enter the sauna to aid hygiene and loosen the skin. Then, the person can select from three different “axes” – Tuuletar (Lady of the wind), Sankari (Hero), and Lohikäärme (Dragon). Miia insists that she can usually guess which one a person will pick, and is more often than not correct. After the procedure, honey and tea tree oil are applied to the back.
Wintersun kicked off the main stage on Friday, playing their convincing blend of folk underpinned by melodic power metal. Suicidal Tendencies provided a high-octane set of thrash metal and skate punk. In between bands, I was fortunate to attend “Critical Headbanging,” a panel discussion featuring Pekka Olkkonen of Stam1na and heavy-metal academic, Niall W.R. Scott. They discussed the culture of metal, what responsibility bands should take towards young fans, and the complexity of the metal genre that can be very expressive and inclusive, yet can also be limited, exclusive, and stigmatised.
Following a brief interlude, Devin Townsend later charmed the audience with sincerity and a hard metal edge, exclaiming after a slow, love-tinged duet: “I fucking love metal,” after which his face contorted as he screamed his lungs out with the band following suit, pummelling the audience. Mayhem, the infamous Norwegian founders of black metal, unleashed a maelstrom in the suitably dark Väkevä Tent Stage. The ambience was gloomy, the sound unrelenting, and the backlit outlines of a band cloaked in medieval, hooded tunics (black, of course) all contributed to the somewhat ritualistic and defiantly atmospheric set that Mayhem consciously evoked. The evening was ended by Sabaton, whose galloping onslaught and penchant for war-themed songs, in addition to a clear predilection for pyrotechnics and stage design, ultimately resulted in a band that couldn’t stop smiling and an equally pleased audience.
One of the hard-to-grasp aspects that makes Tuska endearing is the somewhat comically knowing edge that heavy-metal culture exudes in Finland. In a nation that prides itself on being the highest per capita metal band nation in the world, the embrace of this mantle is an affection clearly laced with pride, yet it is through this embrace that the somewhat nonchalant mockery of Finns shines. For example, a grocery store container retailing the same prices as its shops outside the festival, with a side-gig of face painting offering classic black metal and kiss inspired themes (for a price). You could argue that this is great marketing (and it is), but I would add that there is something unabashed about the root of this small detail and its underlying principle – it is toying with a commonly known cultural association, understanding the stereotype, and embracing it with a pride and humbleness that makes it endearing and very powerful. This kind of tongue-in-cheek culture is woven through the commercial side of the festival: a free laundry service provided by Bio Luvil offers a special wash only for black clothes. This example hints at the magic of metal in Finland: normalised, common, and so closely interlinked with day to day life.
The second day was immediately more noticeable crowd-wise, although the temperature dropped significantly. My sauna ritual started the festival again and I was greeted immediately by a large tent full of sweating bodies, with a face-painted individual asking if I was Swedish the minute I entered. Everyone got that treatment, and it continued to provide a talking point for all inside. The man asking was the self-appointed sauna God, with a face full of paint slowly melting in his sweat and a command of the room. The sauna was at a next-level of use, and the colloquial nature of the people inside put the rest of the day in good stead.
Electric Wizard, the U.K sludge veterans of doom metal, was certainly a standout of the day. Paying homage to their clear Sabbath influences through bell bottoms and a thick wall of sound, the British heavyweights married a predilection for stoner culture and chugging riffs. Liz Buckingham, the lead guitarist, defied any gender stereotypes surrounding the heaviest of the heavy. Amorphis delivered what was to be expected as the rain finally unleashed on the crowds, which left revellers choosing between a visit to Triptykon or preparation for the huge crowd magnet, H.I.M.
In this interim, it was evident that the crowd at Tuska was demographically diverse, with the extremes at either end of the age spectrum paying homage to metal’s encompassing effect in this nation. It feels, at times, that Finland is one of the few places in the world where it’s such an encompassing experience: that men in their 60’s can enjoy H.I.M alongside its legions of young, female fans. In the same vein, I earlier stumbled upon a father dancing with his 4-year-old child as she planted herself firmly on the ground between two stages, intent on drawing in the dirt. The father was listening to the band emblazoned across his shirt performing on the main stage, nonetheless enjoying their performance in a somewhat different way to a person deep inside the moshpit. In essence, it is the range of ways to see this festival that speaks to its calm and relaxing atmosphere: there is a tingling inclusivity that binds the metal community together in a way that is unassuming and very down-to-earth. It is a cultural and music genre combination that is hugely appealing, and you can’t help but be impressed by the sheer rawness of it.
It was hard for me to evaluate H.I.M’s performance at Tuska, given that I am quite unfamiliar with their music. Yet, the size of the crowd, the fanaticism of their fans (I met one couple that had seen them twelve times), their visible experience on stage and the majority of the crowd singing their heart out to each song certainly hinted at the profoundness of their presence. It was a warm and affectionate setting for a band at the beginning of their farewell tour.
The final day at Tuska blazed warmth, indicating a fitting resolution to the event. Before entering the sauna again I spoke to the sauna master, Timo Martikainen. The tent was acquired from Russia: a former U.S.S.R army tent. It was a preferable choice due to the high ceiling when compared to the Finnish military standard. He built the setup inside himself, which contained two large burners and additional stones piled on top, and it has seen festival use within Europe. Nearby, I noticed a sand hourglass, which he used to keep a sharp watch on the sauna. As it’s a tent, the humidity fluctuates rapidly, requiring more attention than a conventional sauna. The affable and softly spoken Martikainen tells me of his long association with sauna-managing, industrial design, and glasswork while going about his duties.
Battle Beast was the first cab off the rank, with the strong front-woman Noora Louhimo lashing the audience with power metal ferocity. Baroness followed, with an extremely energetic and heartfelt set that is highlighted by singer/ guitarist John Baizley’s passion, and lead guitarist Gina Gleason, who was not afraid to pour her soul into her playing.
Apocalyptica graced the sun-drenched main stage, which was symmetrically prepared for their famous Metallica covers. Their set completely redefined what you can expect from a cello: it is one thing to hear their music, but it is another to see the way that they treat their instruments in person. The clash of exceptional classical training and metal‘s tenacity is a strange one, with each members‘ stage presence complimenting the other. Antero Manninen played with steely reserve, while the remainder thrashed about and sung to the Metallica songs that so clearly resonated with them. Their playing was both gentle and furious, poised and unhinged, as if Metallica were right in front of you, while the discipline of classical traditions was just below the surface.
At the same time, one of the festival’s most interesting and original performances was taking place: Oranssi Pazuzu. Kattilahalli was the ultimate venue for the thought-provoking quintet. It’s almost impossible to describe their gig: black metal psychedelia, fearlessly controlling and contorting the ambience through both minimalism and excessive loudness, with brief respite afforded by the warmth of psychedelic influences. I looked to my left while I got some fresh air as their sound was so overwhelming: there was a woman in her late sixties peering into the darkness of the hall, and I wondered, is she waiting for someone, or did her look of utter transfixion sum up this music? Oranssi Pazuzu attempted to take its listeners into another dimension, in which was arguably was one of the best gigs at the festival.
In between sets, I finally visited the washing service that I had been pondering. Again, the service was for free: you received a bathrobe to wear (black, of course) while your black clothes were washing and drying. The girl working there said that it depended on how drunk people got as to how popular it was, especially with the cold weather of the first two days. Sunday proved to be a much more popular day, with the sun elevating the festival vibes and ability to lounge around in a bathrobe. One festival-goer even had their underwear washed, hastily getting naked in front of the washing tent.
Finally, Mastodon brought Tuska to a close: the brutish American muscle of their sound combined with dexterous and seamless transitions from song to song, weaving like a snake through a vast musical territory. The drummer, Brann Dailor, was an endless dynamo, working at the very core of the band, while somehow managing to perform occasional singing duties. Their set was unrelenting and there is barely time to speak as each song melded together. It was exactly what you would expect from one of this centuries’ most promising outfits. At the end of the set, Dailor, with a level of sincerity and showmanship that you’d expect from a frontman, wished Tuska a happy twentieth anniversary, commenting on the beauty of the day, the country, the festival, and finally, the people attending: “Look at you, I mean, I can’t even find a fucking ugly person here!”
When exiting the festival, the record numbers of people had the delight of passing a bus that had been parked in the lot since the second day of the festival, promoting salvation and god’s word. The ending of Tuska’s alternate reality that was carved out over a long weekend was met with a megaphone-equipped hardline preacher, flanked by supporters. Puzzled, I spoke to a man who had a colourful and desperate attempt to reason with the zealous spokesman. The man yelling the loudest was not one that attended any specific church but had a deep interest in Jesus himself. The conviction landed him squarely against thousands of people clad in black, worn, and presumably not able to appreciate their presence. Some decided to moon them, and others shrugged off the provocation with the soothing football chant: “Olay, olay olay olay”. In one instance, the dialogue and body language moved as close as it could to an altercation. Perhaps it was summed up best when the metalhead who attempted to talk to the man with the megaphone said, “I don’t come and play Iron Maiden in a church.” For a festival that was generally lauded for its peace, the provocation seemed a fitting twist to a very successful year for Tuska.
Front-page picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today