Flow Festival – Helsinki Finland 14/8/16 by Tony Mitchell

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This August was the 13th edition of Helsinki’s Flow Festival, which has grown from strength to strength since beginning as a two-day festival in an old railway warehouse in the centre of the city in 2004, which then burnt down the following year, finally moving to its current courtyard in Suvilhati, a power station in Kallio, the risqué district of the city which specialises in all night bars and drunks as well as bohemia. It has also sprouted an offspring in Ljubljana, Slovenia, which is growing, and now attracts people from all over Europe as well as the UK, Russia etc. Hipsters are still predominant, and this year it broke all attendance records, selling out completely to a record crowd 75,000 people over the three days, and attracting headliners such as Morrissey, Iggy Pop, ANOHNI, New Order, Massive Attack, US jazz wunderkind Kamasi Washington, and Australia’s own Sia, the first Australian headliner here since Nick Cave, although neither have lived in Australia for a while, and lots of Finnish artists to keep the locals happy in all sorts of genres from pop to hip hop to avant-garde.

On the Monday morning I discovered from the Guardian that a lot of them were also playing at the Way Out West Festival in Gothenberg, Sweden, which is a vegetarian festival. That would’ve kept Morrissey happy, after he imposed a vegetarian diet on the Sydney Opera House last year, but apparently ANOHNI cancelled at Gothenberg due to illness, so we were lucky to get her on Sunday night in Helsinki. The Other Sound, which shifted this year to a new venue, had a less alluring feel to it, and is now curated by the University of the Arts Helsinki, along with various visual arts and multi media events, having in previous years been curated by Fonal Records owner Sami Sänpäkkilä and attracted people like Evan Parker, Sound and Fury, a group formed around late Finnish jazz legend Edward Vesala, local Vladislav Delay and Blixa Bargeld, who had to perform in such a tiny space three years ago almost nobody got to see him.

One of the main attractions is the weather, which shrinks to darkness of just over three hours at the summer solstice, but by mid August is staying light until just before 10pm. And this August has been pretty wet and a bit miserable, but came right just in time to present a patches of sunshine on all three days.

Day one in the Black Tent kicked off with local rapper Evil Stöö, who wears a balaclava, raps in Finnish, has a very masculine presence and a reasonably big following, but seems to be a Finnish gangsta. Despite this being my fourth Flow, I have yet to master anything but the absolute basics in Finnish, so most of his flow goes completely over my head. Likewise with Raappana & New Riddim Crew, war up the Main Stage, where the big names appear, is a Finnish reggae artist who has recorded albums in all the best studios like Tuff Gong in Jamaica, but somehow fails to be convincing in his pale blue Hawai’ian shirt, but at least he doesn’t sing in English.

Irina Björklund is a vampy Finnish singer who sings in French, announces each song in English with rather new age sentiments and reads a letter by Oscar Wilde in English celebrating gay love, warming up the Bright Balloon 360 degree Stage, a circular stage with a large helium-filled balloon attached which tends to get very overcrowded and has in past years attracted luminaries such as Ravi Coltrane and Steve Coleman in a jaw-dropping display. This year’s headliner is Ghanian highligh artist Ata Tak, whom I manage to miss, being distracted by things going off in the Black Tent and on the Main Stage.

London Grime artist Stormzy really blows up the Black Stage with his high energy set, stripping down to a sweat-streaming torso and packing in endless waves of punters, who he has dancing frantically in a mosh pit which seems to fill the whole tent. He’s very impressed with his Helsinki audience, having performed in Norway the night before, and sets up a chant telling the audience to say ‘shut up’, after his biggest hit, naming Iceland, Sweden, Norway etc. Most of the crowd express familiarity with South London and grime music, which further impresses him, and he’s really sold on the crowd, who are in a frenzy. According to the Guardian, he made a similar splash in Gothenberg, so he’s riding the crest of a wave. Four Tet, who follows with a DJ set, gets a much smaller crowd, as do the very impressive Sleaford Mods, whose Jason Williamson raps in a very working class East Midlands accent, verging on stand up comedy, with a touch of John Cooper Clarke and the Streets, with a grimy DJ who does a kind of slouch dance, hands in pockets, when not drinking beer, with minimal attention to his decks. As his partner says, ‘he’s alays spliffed up, so it’s the perfect job, really’. They’re both extremely droll –the first album they made together was called Wank – and come from Nottingham, although Williamson, who is actually 44, and just given up his day job, was born in Grantham, Lincolnshire, near Sleaford, and the home of Margaret Thatcher. But they seem to be an acquired taste here, despite a very dedicated small bunch at the front, who set up a chant of ‘Sleaford Mods’ after they finish. ‘Thanks for sticking with us’, Williamson says at one point, ‘some people just fuck off’. They’ve described their sound as ‘electronic munt minimalist punk-hop rants for the working class’, and despite being full of profanities, Williamson told the Observer recently it’s ‘not just fucking swearing’. He apologises for Brexit: ‘we think we’re better than you, so Andrew [Fearn, the DJ] and I would like to apologise to you for that’. He performs a song off their recent album Key Markets called ‘Bunch of Cunts’, and though he can sound quite deranged at times, he’s very angry at the state of Britain, and also at the state of British pop music, lambasting people like Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller, whom he takes inspiration from in the early days of the Jam in albums like All Mod Cons . ‘I’m not a consumerist mod. I’ve earned the stripes because I have the music to back it up’. They were asked by Q Magazine to mimic a Pet Shop Boys cover: ‘I told them to fuck off. It’s just patronising bullshit. The thing is, there really is no future for a lot of people out there, so some of them, they fuck it up by getting into drugs or crime … And it’s that experience I want to articulate and that humour I hold close to myself. Besides, who else is writing and singing about that?’ A real blast of fresh air. I hope that make it to Australia soon.

I last saw Iggy Pop in 1992, when he exposed himself to my stepdaughter and thousands of others at the Big Day Out in Sydney and he’s not changed much except for age, although he badly needed a shave on this occasion. He is, after all, now 69, and despite releasing Post Pop Depression earlier this year, here he breezed through his standard repertoire, starting with ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’, without hardly breaking a sweat, punctuating each song with a string of obscenities. He even ventured down into the audience for ‘Real Wild Child’ aka Johnny O’Keefe’s ‘Wild One’, but seemed to be in a bit of a daze. He has sworn off stage-diving after an accident, so there were not too many histrionics. His band has aged also, now looking like senior citizens, as a lot of the performers here do now. On the Main Stage one relies heavily on video clips, and from my vantage point the Stooges looked like matchstick men. A Finnish friend who was on Mustikkamaa, an island outside Helsinki and said he could hear him ‘just fine’. Iggy was followed on the Main Stage by Massive Attack, whose album Blue Lines has just turned 25. This time they had teamed up with Scottish duo Young Fathers, following on from a collaboration with Run the Jewels in Reykjavík in 2014, although they seemed little in evidence, with Daddy G and Robert Del Naja doing a lot of the vocals, with what looked like Adrian Utley on guitar, along with Horace Andy and a vocalist who looked a bit like Shara Nelson, but couldn’t be, surely, who ended proceedings with ‘Safe from Harm’. Their recent videoclip for ‘The Spoils’, featuring Hope Sandoval on vocals and directed by Australian director John Hillcoat, with Cate Blanchett’s face gradually disintegrating into mummifaication, has just been released, but it wasn’t in evidence here, nor was any sign of their recent work with Tricky. It was a fairly low key set, all told, and the night’s revels were ended with Savages, who for me were making up for their cancelled tour of Australia last May, but performed to a half-full Black Tent at midnight, and somehow didn’t seem to ignite as they have before, despite an energetic performance.

I skipped Day Two, having seen FKA Twigs at the Reykjavík Secret Solstice last year, and never having been a Morrissey fan, but was back on Day Three after an early morning downpour cleared to bright sunshine, in time to see new Finnish rap hopefuls Ruger Hauer. They feature Paperi T, who performed with two other cohorts on Day One, and seems a versatile kind of bloke, even turning up at a classical music festival in July. They had joined forced with pop singer Regina, who seemed rather out of place in a rap group, although the three male rappers, apart from Pyhimys, who was clad in the usual hoodie and sunglasses, look unlike ‘normal’ hip hoppers: Tommishock is thick set, with glasses, and a bit intellectual looking, while Paperi T looks more like a rock musician, with long, flowing hair. They’re from Helsinki, have been around since 2008, and are named after a firearm manufacturing company Sturm, Ruger & Co. and actor Rutger Hauer, the Dutch actor in Blade Runner. They’re on their way up, and reached no.1 on the Finnish charts this year with their fourth album, Mature.

Mature has an odd track listing: one track is named after Charlie Manson, another called ‘Amazing’, their only venture into English, which they perform today, and the last track is ‘Auf Wiedersehen’. But they fill the new Lapin Kulta Red Arena, which is massive, and replaces the old Red Tent, and clearly have lots of fans. Regina, who is actually singer-lyricist Ilsa Pykäri of the electropop band Regina, released an album in the US in 2010, Puutarhatrilogia [Garden Trilogy], entirely in Finnish, described in Pitchfork as ‘a high-concept suite about the gardens of the human psyche that sounds to un-Finnish ears like a batch of really swell love songs, charted ambitiously for guitars, miscellaneous synths, piano, percussion, and smooth yet sultry vocals’, and evocative of Stereolab, or Lykke Li. Their 2011 follow-up, which won a Finnish Emmy award, was described as ‘shoegaze’. When asked by a US interviewer in 2014 why they didn’t sing in English, one of the male members replied: ‘it’s not going to happen. I don’t think it would change anything – I actually think there would be a risk of losing something that is very much the essence of the whole band. We are not chasing audiences, we are happy at this level of success’. He also stated the name was insignificant and that they didn’t have a label at the time, although they did release a single in 2014. So hence this mismatch of their female vocalist, with Ruger Hauer? It remains a mystery to me.

Daughter from the UK are also a new band to me, fronted by the lugubrious London native Elena Tondra, dressed in a blue and white polka dot blouse, who cracks a smile only once, and have been described as indie folk, but seem a bit shoegaze to me. They are signed to 4AD, and are very pre-Brexit, with a Swiss guitarist and a French drummer, have toured Australia, and are embarked on an extensive European tour at the moment. All in their early twenties, the guitarist and Tondra are in a relationship, and they have also toured the USA, where they appeared on Letterman. They have also won an AIM independent album of the year award for their album If You Leave
This is their first time in Helsinki, and they are very grateful to an appreciative audience, who once again fill the Red Arena.

They are followed by New Order, who need no introduction, deliver a highly stimulating set in the same tent, with lots of videos, clapping and dancing. It’s the first time I’ve seen them, too, and they do a good set, finishing up with ‘Blue Monday’ and ‘Temptation’ as they did in Sydney. Bernard Sumner is now 60, and looks like a priest in his smock with a large cross on it, but still delivers the goods. Gillian Gilbert is also looking her age on keyboards. They were of course in Australia recently, where they even played a couple of Joy Division songs at the end of their Sydney Opera House concert in June with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. They don’t do them live here, but they are played after the gig.

Next it’s time for the much anticipated Sia on the Main Stage. She appears briefly on stage in the first song, and produces a string of her hits, sometimes appearing in the videos in front of a microphone, to a rapturous audience. But basically it’s a game of surrogacy, with various dancers, male and female, standing in for her, and a strictly choreographed series of performances would could well be on video, as there is no sense of ‘liveness’ to events. Each song is preceded by a series of intriguing mumbling noises, occasionally reminiscent of Laurie Anderson, and it all lasts just over an hour, with a sense that it could have been phoned in. This is presumably what US punters are going to be getting for her extensive ‘Nostalgia for the Present’ tour from September to December, and it’s difficult to get excited about. Her new album may be called This is Acting, but there’s little of her acting in her performance. Absence may be alluring, but it is more like somebody else’s performance art. Fourteen-year old Maggie Zeigler, who gave an amazing dance performance in the video of ‘Chandelier’ when she was eleven, is a bit older now, and there is another woman about Sia’s age who is a stand-in, as well as a bloke. They all have the trade mark black and white wig, but there’s something missing.

ANOHNI gives a remarkably similar remote performance in the Red Arena to end the festival, but at least she is performing live at the front of the stage, although we can’t see her as she is clad in a huge black hood, with videos of the various stand-ins, mostly female, of his Hopelessness album projected behind him, beginning with Naomi Campbell, sometimes mouthing the words, sometimes not. It was different from the show she did with Oneohtrix Point Never at the Sydney Opera House last May, as it didn’t feature Campbell live, but as with Sia, we can hardly tell if any of this is live or not. Does it matter? Well, yes it does. It end with a list of credits, like a film, and it’s all pretty doom-laden stuff, relentless, from ‘Jesus will kill you’ to drone bombings, to the final rather gratifying image of a video of Aboriginal elder Nyarri Nyarri Morgan’s World Economic Forum address, ‘What are we doing to the earth?’ The only time ANOHNI broke through the simulation was to say, ‘So Helsinki, who’s going to be the next president?’ There was no answer. I felt like saying, ‘You’ll get who you deserve’.

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Tony Mitchell is an honoraray research associate at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has edited a number of books: on global hip hop (Global Noise, 2001), on Australian Popular Music (Sounds of Then, Sounds of Now, 2008), and New Zealand Music (Home Land and Sea, 2011). He is currently co-editing a book about Icelandic music.

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