The Dark(est!) River Festival 2019

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The Dark River Festival is the kymiest festival there is, they say. The venue near the Kymijoki is located in the Finnish Kymenlaakso which is as much the valley as the county. It is the only spot in the world the Dark River Festival (DRF) crew can think of to have this festival. I learned that this festival is really different (see interview with Henri Eerola). Bands love to return to the ‘kymiest’ stage and the ‘kymiest’ crew, said the musicians I asked. So do the fans. 

What’s pulling not the moths to the light but the metalheads to the kymiest festival? Equals ‘kyimiest’ simply the ‘darkest’? Rather not, I suppose, it must be more than that. Thus remains: what is ‘kymiest’? What makes it so particular if not outstanding? Let’s dive into the festival atmosphere, breathe the air of grassy fields around and catch its flow to the find out what moves the entourage. Let’s see what audience, managers, musicians and media folks experience at the DRF.

The Most Unlikely Venue

The shuttle is a van with two spots in Kotka. From there it crosses the motorway Helsinki – St Petersburg to follow more or less the Kymijoki upstream along ever smaller villages. Approximately at the ‘Will-we-ever-arrive?’ point, the shuttle leaves the paved road and enters the woods. Arriving at an opening, there is small number of tents next to the parking lot that is neither large nor crowded. A steep hill looks weirdly misplaced here. Signs lead around this hill and well hidden behind it there is the venue with shooting range for biathlon on the right. Few merch and food stalls, the main stage, the backstage and the beer tent encircle the smallish in-field, literally a grassy, pasture-like spot. You can easily make it to the gate to first row within the minute. Sharp! No hurry needed. But that means also that you can follow the gigs on the main stage from the beer tent area still way better than in Wacken from all spots save for perhaps the first two or three rows. All this reminds me a bit of exploring Tolkien’s Hobbiton in a metal festival way of things, naturally.

Tanja Buska (festival office manager) puts it this way: “The place, Honkala, also has an important role, ‘cause where else do you drive by fields and through forest to get to a rock festival, and when you get there you find yourself being at skiing stadium (even though Cheek kept big concerts in a skijumping arena, so we’re quite close, right?” She is laughing. “When you talk with the artists they give positive feedback and are happily surprised about what they have found after trusting their sat-navs.“  Guided here by sat nav to their headlining gig, Petri Lindroos (Ensiferum) says: „First impression when arriving to the festival was like going to a summer cabin with tons of people there! Very nice atmosphere all over, cosy I could say. Nice staff from that few I met during our short stay.“ He adds: “Overall we liked the festival and hope we can play there again!!!” – Horns up!

Lauri’s and my view over the well filled in-field.

I climb up that weird hill, actually part of the cross country slopes. I have to make my way through waist-high grass to a wooden bridge from where the venue lies beneath me. It is rather quiet up here and I can watch the backstage area as much as most of the in-field. I decide to return during the final gig. It’s dark when I do. And this time I am not alone. A helping hand grabs my own and opens a gap in the fence. It’s Lauri Eerola (Domination Black) and a friend of his I can’t recognise in the scarce light. Once upon a time, Lauri raised the idea of the DRF. It’s his ritual to come here each year during the final gig. In sweet melancholy we lean on the fence while Blaze Bayley and his amazing band are shattering the stage. The crowd is large enough to comfortably fill the in-field. „I can only imagine what this feels like for you because even to me it is a magical sensation I feel right now.“ I say and Lauri nods, slightly proud and a tad overwhelmed. As unlikely as a skiing facility is to host a metal festival, it has a charm of its own. Built to be used in the darkest season and filled with life, music and people in the bright summer light.

The Lineup, the Sauna and The Gap In The Curtain

Siikamäki & Kurki – playing their very touching “Tears of the dragon” (B. Dickinson) version.

The DRF lineup 2019 promised entertaining shows as for example Brymir and Omnium Gatherum have been known to be reliable deliverer. Some local bands like Donner or Marianas Rest (main stage) or Siikamäki & Kurki or Vanhala & Aalto (tent stage) ensure that the idea of festival stage time their own bands is kept alive. Their friends and family make a noticeable share of the crowd which certainly adds to the atmosphere. Then again, Ensiferum and Blaze Bayley pull on a wider scale. It is far more than sort of an upgrade from a local to an international lineup as we are about to see.

Brymir – well known for their show qualities!

The shows of the bands were great! Just that simple. They all delivered. And pointing out a few – as the length of a well readable article would allow – would mean to leave out others who would deserve the same attention. So I am just and anyway I am certain that the ‘kymiest’ is neither simply names nor yet another ode to performance.

Ville personally very special moment

In one way or another Iron Maiden has played a role in any metalhead’s life, right? For years, Henri Eerola (festival manager) tells me, they worked to get Bayley here on stage. The other photographers left as I sit in the pit, in a corner of the fence. I watch Hantta Leivo (stage head) leaning on a loudspeaker next to me. He is all lost in his memories, it seems. I watch Ville Siikamäki (stage manager) kneeling at the far side of the pit. He is staring in deepest awe at both their childhood hero and trying to capture a few very personal memories on his smart phone. Just like in the good old times, Chris, Luke, Karl and Martin (Absolva and Blaze Bayley) play the Maiden Anniversary Set without any hip gadgets. Pure. Honest. It looks so easy. At the very end of this journey on the memory road, the Blaze Bayley band invites us all to join them in the merch tent after show. There was no signing session scheduled, no meet & greet planned and promoted, however, each of them shows up at the merch stall to stay as long as fans and crew take to ask their questions, their photos and make new memories. Later join the crew’s after-festival party! Dark River Festival is a well-run, intimate festival that provides quality bands, good beer and a wonderful atmosphere! The organisation of the event was remarkable as a fan and as an artist prospective, extremely friendly and positive people, and finally the shows I performed at Dark River were all outstanding! A festival I hope to return to in the very near future”, Luke Appleton (Iced Earth, Absolva, Blaze Bayley) sums up his Kymi experience.

Petri Lindroos, Ensiferum, Friday’s headlining show.

Master Luke Appleton – to me, the kymiest show of the weekend.

Very obviously they enjoyed their time at the DRF, blended into crowd and crew even. But what tells the ‘kymiest’ from other festivals? The idea to mix local bands with some bigger fish? Probably a little detail can make all the difference: Harri Sunila, Jaakko Mänymää (merch stall) and Niko Lindman (overall festival management) play in in Marianas Rest. Hantta and Ville (stage team) play in Donner and Siikamäki & Kurki. Those who play, are those who manage and run the festival! So guest musicians meet the same guys on and off stage. And that connects them all quickly and beyond all potential admiration. Actually even this sensation they share although perhaps the names might differ. „We shared backstage with Omnium Gatherum“, says Petri and adds his greetings: „And big thanks for them waiting for us in the sauna when we were done with our show – cheers, boys!“ Take this a little gap in the curtain through which you can sneak into the backstage of the Finnish metal scene. The scene is tight web of a limited number of individuals. The vast majority of Finnish musicians have known each other or are even friends; friends you meet at festival that feels as relaxed as like playing at your summer cabin to stick with Petri’s images.

From The Neighborhood And Beyond

A&P Reacts meets the Moomnis: Pedro with Muumi C, Asim with HM Rock and Antonio

Somewhere in the crowd, I spot a familiar face, Asim Searah from Wintersun who is also active in Damnation Plan (Progressive Death Metal) and Cantilena (Thrash Metal). After a warm-hearted welcome and some private words, we get into discussing his recent activity. Wintersun are looking forward for their gig at the huge Roskilde Festival in Denmark. Personally, I am more happy to hear that Damnation Plan have begun to work on a new album and even hope to release it by the end of this year, still! Good news! Damnation Plan also signed with the Raven Management and thus hope to boost their stage presence.

Antonio & Pedro (A&P Reacts) in action for their vlog

Not surprisingly, the DRF pulls crowd from all over Finland. But guests from Portugal/Canada guests such as Pedro and Antonio Almeida from A&P Reacts (a popular YouTube channel)? What’s special at the DRF to Pedro?Dark River Festival might not be the biggest or most famous festival in Finland but it has the most heart and soul.“ They decided pro the DRF after a weighing carefully and favouring it over several bigger festivals! Now they take their time to meet the bands, report on their vlog and interview for example Petri Lindroos (Ensiferum) or the festival managers Henri and Niko .

The Neighborhood Block Party

The audience is limited in numbers. It seems to me that I saw most of them last year already. Most likely I did as many come from the neighborhood in one way or another. There are metalheads of all ages, with their families and little ones, and those who might be their grandparents. I see people with a wheel chair or walking frame and naturally they have front row spots. I see Markus Vanhala and Niilo Sevänen (Insomnium) in the crowd, chatting with friends while having a beer with them. In an another moment, I see Markku Pihlaja (Return To Void) at a table chatting and laughing. And there are more familiar faces around. Pedro sums it up: “The festival brings together people that share two things in common, the place where they live and their love for metal. Almost like a neighborhood block party with metal as its soundtrack. The fact that the festival is small adds flavor and brings a family atmosphere to the grounds, where everyone knows everyone, where families gather to listen to music and you are able to enjoy two filled days of awesome bands and incredible atmosphere.

Then there are visitors from all over Finland and from Russia and other countries – such as me and my friends. I ask my friend, Matze Güntner, visiting the DRF for the first time, how he experienced the festival compared with Rock Harz. He really enjoyed the familiar, if not intimate atmosphere in the audience very much. With a smile he describes the small camp and that he has never seen a camp so close to the venue. In the crowd, everybody seems to know each other, he says. I am a bit surprised. Somehow, I was thinking my similar impression based on being close with the crew and some of the bands.

The Dark(est!) Soul

Obviously it works not only for me. „The family vibe is not only present in the crowd but also in the people that organize and put the event together. There is not only a sense of family bonding but also a feeling of all working towards a common goal, a real team effort“, Pedro says and points out, „Organizers, workers, fans, bands, crew, everyone at Dark River Festival comes together as one, and that sense of all for one, is what makes it so special.“ I couldn’t agree more. It is about the team effort, the crew and their unique link. But how do you get in there? And what is special for those who run the festival?

Niko Lindman, Marianas Rest and Festival Management

Niko: “So what DRF means to me? It touches me in many levels and it has acted in my life in many roles, but the red line in it has always been the atmosphere we have made together. Friendship of different people with same passion when it comes to music and the location of the festival. People are living now everywhere over Finland but still somehow that ‘Kymi’ aspect binds people together. Many of us may have their own angle and understanding about what it is, but from those we have made it a unique festival in my opinion. Can’t imagine any other location for it so that place is a very center of it.“ He takes a short break: “My own history with DRF is long and actually next year will be personally interesting, because then I´ve been in DRF organization in a way or another more than half of my lifetime. Next year I´m turning 28 and according to my calculations it’s going to be my 14th DRF. I lived my youth about 2 – 3 kilometers from the venue, so as a young metalhead it was more than natural to go there and start to hang out with those people. First years, I gathered bottles, did the maintenance, few years I was in the backstage host team, taking bands in there and took care of their well-being in Kymi. Then few years, I was at the entrance selling tickets for people and got to know more DRF audience. Last 3 – 4 years, I´ve been doing that promote stuff including thinking festival roster, booking bands and taking care of the contracts, tech- and hospitality riders etc., and sharing them with the right group leaders in DRF organization.“

Tanja posing with HM Rock (DRF 2018)

 I live 600 km away nowadays, but a phrase: ‘You can leave the Dark River Festival, but Dark River Festival doesn’t leave you!’, probably tells it all about me. I have been hanging around the festival since the 3rd DRF and year by year it has become more important for me. I began selling merchandise and a few years now I have been managing the festival office. I feel I’m one of the lucky ones, who can be involved more than just the festival weekend. For many months of a year it happens online or on the phone, but with my DRF-family anyway“, Tanja says about herself. I have spent quite some time in her office. It is sort of the head, the managing brain during the festival and still a quiet place. Busy, yes. But quiet.

Tanja looks at me: “What is special and unique at Dark River Festival? The answer has to be the atmosphere. And the atmosphere comes from the people, the will to have fun and make a nice festival!“ Niko after a short break: “As I said before, for me DRF is primarily friends and that satisfying feeling of being part of that great festival and atmosphere we have created together. Secondly it’s also very good practice for understanding how organizations work, learning dynamics of different people and social situations, you name it. All are very useful stuff for life in general. And of course I’m very grateful that I have had a chance to play live there with the bands I have been in. It’s very nice that after these years DRF still wants to give a chance for local and smaller bands to play live in a real festival environment and I hope that festival will continue that tradition for years to come.“

Conspiracy (?) at work Henri, Niko and Ville backstage

“After all I have to rise friendship as the most important power we have. With that friendship and soul, we have there we can make DRF happen and I hope that bands, press, audience and all other people there can see and feel that. That’s our message and heart of making it“, Niko concludes.

From Tanja’s point of view: “So, for me Dark River Festival is having fun with my friends, and as a result of that having fun the ‘kymiest’ festival just happen. Due to this quite long distance between my home and Kymi ‘my people’ at the DRF-family make all the work before the festival and I’ll try my best to help them by holding the strains they give me, making sure everything has been taking into consideration that on the festival-weekend everything works, and at festival finding the right person to quickly make things work if needed. I myself have done at least a little of everything else at the festival, but playing on stage.“ Shy smiles shyly. “Oh, and I’ve never been there as a customer!“

Just like Pedro said they love it because they love doing it together. They share a common goal and the will to achieve it together! There are issues and sudden challenges, of course. But even when the headliner is uncertain to arrive at all, let alone on time for its three stage slot, the crews radiates serenity. Neither Ensiferum, nor Luke had played at the DRF before and arrived rather late; a narrow time frame to experience the hospitality and atmosphere. None of the crew are professionals in event management. None of them are educated in running a festival. Their expertise has grown with their several tasks at the DRF and resulted in a remarkable professionalism as noticed Luke or me. Tanja tells me: “Dark River Festival has grown a little bit bigger every year, but is always ‘our festival’, a kind of homemade party, but ‘behind the scenes’, we try to be as professionally as possible without being true professionals. The main artists are also bigger names than before, but still we also have local bands playing every year. Big or small band, we try to make them feel cosy, so they can do their job playing for us and our customers as good as they can.“ Cosy and welcome – I have felt both in each single minute I have spent at the venue. It was about me. Not the editor. Not the photographer. But the entity. This makes ‘personal’ undoubtedly the best word sums up my own Dark(est!) River Festival experience.

The Kymiest Sides Of Life

“What is metal to you?“ – I have asked that many times. To wonderful Anneke van Giersbergen (The Gathering, The Gentle Storm, VUUR) metal is most of all the community, the brotherhood of those who face darkness, are open to speak of and handle the dark sides of life, such as diseases, death or sorrow. This echoed quite often in the days and weeks before the DRF 2019 and of course, while approaching it. I wonder how the Kymi Community will deal with my condition? Obviously, I have been fighting the hardest fight of all which often triggers pity in the eyes of my encounters. Pity cuts deeper than any other knife in contrast to compassion and simply acting normal.

I was a bit afraid to return to the DRF in particular because of the very personal atmosphere that overwhelmed me in the best of senses. Approaching the venue in 2019, I am thinking once Anneke’s characterisation of the metal community. My life has been put upside down. And I long for distraction, being taken normal, just me – like in 2018. Behaving normal (= like before or with any other) is not ignoring the disease or the fatal thread the comes with it. It is appreciating the personality and rating life as well as the individual higher than the disease or the potential fatality. It proves personal strength!  This is exactly what I found! ‘Its simply great, youre here again!’ is the message I found in so many welcome hugs. A relieve to me. My situation poses a challenge and the DRF crew accomplished the mission with their natural sovereignty to cope with the dark sides, ‘the kymi’ and even the ‘kymiest’ sides of life.

‘My Nummi-media-family’ in action: Jarmo, Hanna and Raisa

I need to mention that I am just as happy to see the number of media folks covering this outstanding festival is rising. I hope that more of the ‘Nummi-media-container-crew’ will follow. This is not alone about plain growth in numbers but in particular of the very faces! Thank you all! It adds to my very personal Kymi experience.

The Kymiest Entity Of All

Suvi and her silent colleague at the merch

When I speak with Suvi Nopanen at the merch on Friday, she tells me laughing that ‘her staff’ is generously allowed to play on stage today and feel like ‘real rock stars’ afterwards. I join her laughing. And although the actual deal – as far as I know – entitled the guys to party after their gig, I find them back at the stall selling merch soon after their show. The party follows Saturday aftershow and their very obvious highlight is to have Blaze Bayley and band here to join their party.

The crew is united by dedication, a common goal and friendship. Whoever comes to the festival is considered a friend and treated as such, just naturally. As most of the people at the venue – be it crowd, crew or bands – is considered a friend; newbies perhaps only future-friends. Anyway all are treat equally. And perhaps that motivated the British musicians to stay.

What is ‘kymiest’ festival? Good music, great bands and amazing shows. Beyond that and the aforementioned features, the ‘kymiest’ festival benefits from a particular lack of boundaries. Pedro named it ‘all for one’. The crew branches into the lineup and crowd. The crowd branches into the lineup and crew. The lineup branches into crew and crowd. The DRF is one big, organic and living entity, the ‘kymiest’ entity of all.

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"It has always been this way!" - I heard this phrase too often and it became the best reason for me to make it (whatever it is) my own way.

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