We set off along to Suvilahti, part of Helsinki’s industrial Sörnäinen district. It’s a contained sector of disused buildings and open spaces, now cleanly renovated and leased out for different purposes and events. A stone’s throw from the ridged hulk of Hanasaari power plant, Flow Festival proceeds not merely beneath and between industrial chimneys and angular structures of red brick but also within several of them, opportunistic venues having developed from the empty interiors.
I arrived in Helsinki (and thereby Finland for the first time) a little too late to catch the triangular Thursday evening warm-up of The Chemical Brothers, LCD Soundsystem and native Finns Kap Kap, so my first glimpse of Flow was after its proper opening on the Friday afternoon. Compared with some of the Nordic region’s better-known festivals, it’s a decidedly small-scale affair, though with a confirmed 50,000 total attendees it enjoyed its largest ever audience this year, leading on 2009’s by around nine thousand. Considerable effort seemed to have been made to ensure international accessibility, with every Finnish body of text parroted by a helpful English counterpart, and I’m sure a decent number of attendees visited from abroad. This wider appeal is probably a good sign for the organisers, though unless migration to some larger area is an option it may not do to gain too many more people in coming years. While not overwhelmingly crowded for most of the active period, the limited capacity of the festival grounds wasn’t unnoticeable, particularly immediately prior to and following headline acts. Toilets and other services generally weren’t too congested. The whole place was spotlessly clean.
The industrial character of Flow’s location didn’t compromise physical comfort, which was nice. Over certain areas of the hard composite ground were laid generous carpets of live turf, encouraging people to nestle down and socialise with food and drink (of which a large and appealing selection was available) in strange grottos between the vats and warehouses. The consumption of alcohol was permitted in most parts of the festival – the significant exception being the area immediately confronting the main stage, which had between gentle barriers its own entrances and exits. It’s doubtful that this restriction spoiled a great deal of fun, owing to the proximity in any case of drink-permitted sections to the main area and stage. Indeed, this year the primary bar area facing the main stage was granted an agreeable second storey for ostensibly the very aim of greater visibility while drinking. The most persistent issue instead, then, will probably have involved the actual prices of the drinks and food, which viciously dwarfed those of places elsewhere in the city – something a quick trek up the road from the main entrance will have confirmed. Difficult to appreciate as it may seem, it was hardly unusual for a music festival, and it appeared to me that most festivalgoers had accepted it quite contentedly as par for the course.
Flow is unscrupulously presented as a festival for hip and (mostly) young folk; its uniformly stylish programme handouts, booklets, banners and so on giving it an assured air of synchronisation with current trends. And, as far as musical content is concerned, it more often than not managed (for good or ill) to put its money where its mouth was. With a programme incorporating a broad range of musical orientations – each of them acutely contemporarily resonant, whether centred around twee indie, skinny-jeaned dance and electro or the flexing drones of electromyography – Flow kept its side of the bargain with an enthusiastically congruous audience of well-dressed and smart-mannered attendees this year. There was a number of extra-musical elements also incorporated, including live painting activities and daily shorts screenings in the (apparently new for this year) Film Garage, sourced mainly from the large repertoire of film company Future Shorts. Band and festival merchandise was kept to one small place, CDs and vinyl to another.
Sound reproduction at most of the venues, including the main stage, was handled very well. Air’s Friday evening headline slot sounded rich and warm, and – despite the noticeable absence of Surfing on a Rocket (a minor gripe, I suppose) and the visual part of their planned “unique audiovisual set” proving quite mundane – they enjoyed rather a responsive audience. Among the least satisfying-sounding shows was Caribou’s on Sunday, which all things considered may have been attributable to their impromptu migration upward, following Jónsi’s cancellation, from tent- to main-stage.
While I’d been warned that The xx’s live show left a great deal to be desired, the lauded London trio’s first slot in Finland, which closed the main stage on Sunday evening, wasn’t particularly disappointing – the seductive currents of the recordings managed most of the time to carry through and entice quite memorably. On Saturday the rather esteemed Finns Husky Rescue played an insistent set of lingering arrangements. It proved somewhat more rewarding than Swedish starlet Robyn, who seemed to be having a lot more fun than her audience. It may just have been me though; withstanding the entire show, which closed rather sheepishly with that ubiquitous With Every Heartbeat (were they worried people would wander off had it been dispensed with earlier on?), was a chore. After Robyn (and giving her a good old shout out at the beginning of Paper Planes) stomped the monstrously hyped M.I.A., who proceeded dutifully to do her indulgent, grimy thing.
But it obviously wasn’t all about the headline artists; Voimala, an indoor warehouse venue out of which spring two large, robust brick chimneys, housed a few of Flow’s most exciting and anticipated acts, divided between its Concert and Club series. The former was devoted to ‘intensive’ early-evening experiences making use of a large seated portion, with the latter – its primary purpose – adopting more dancefloor-friendly arrangements (such as the lengthy DJ sets of one Ricardo Villalobos) in the after-midnight hours. Flow’s late-evening transformation from mostly-concert to mostly-club environment stems actively from this dual-identity approach to venue management, resulting in analogous processes occurring for the Tent and Tiivistämo scenes (see below). Appropriate for the Concert series was venue-opener Ulver, a Norwegian group whose long and roving stylistic history though neofolk, metal and dark electronics supposedly was only last year transferred properly to a performance setting. However brief their experience as a live act, the band gave terrifically intense renditions of their diverse material, accompanied by disturbing, fleeting projected imagery.
Over the weekend programme Voimala also bore witness to the likes of Kieren Hebden’s much-revered laptop project Four Tet and Canada’s Owen Pallett of Final Fantasy fame, in addition to Malian kora virtuoso Ballaké Sissoko. Unfortunately the building’s limited capacity made it impossible for many to see the shows (we approached the venue rather too late to reach Four Tet, for instance) and two rows of muscular pillars down the centre sides of the interior made complete visibility of the artists and backdrops rather a surprising challenge for most of those fortunate enough to gain access.
Beside Voimala lay the tent stage, the festival’s second-largest venue and, as a result, host to the plumpest and most representative concentration of hipster appeal, whether from (to name but a minute sample) The Radio Dept.’s serenely romantic plods, prolific Syrian Sublime Frequencies-backed Omar Souleyman’s enormous catalogue of rousing dabke numbers, the supine splendour of Baltimore’s Beach House, the nondescript creations of San Fransisco’s box-tickingly trite Girls, Finland’s own dance-pop outfit Villa Nah or UK supergroup Magnetic Man’s tedious, ravey take on dubstep. From the good to the not-so, it was certainly a labour-intensive area, putting on twenty-plus acts over the three days.
Possibly the most intriguing place, however, was Tiivistämö – a small, humid and deeply red-lit hall providing the opportunity to recline on those enormous Fatboy beanbags and absorb a sort of showcase of “the other sound of Finland” during the three days (or to explore the notion that Finnish artists such as the excellent Vladislav Delay “do [club music] better” on the Saturday night). A very generous bunch of the country’s leftfield artists, whether established, emerging or still somewhat obscure, were involved; perhaps the most known three hailing from the internationally-distinguished catalogue of Fonal Records: Lau Nau, Islaja and Tomutonttu. Islaja in particular was one of the artists whom I’d been most excited to see at Flow, yet, good and fun as she and the other members of the Fonal camp were (despite her taking umbrage at the reasonably non-contentious decision, on the part of most of her audience, not to dance to her music), it was with Saturday’s superlative free-jazz noisers Taco Bells that I was most impressed. Their single, gapless set was a massively raucous, dense blur of vibrant improvisation; effortlessly compelling to a spectator. Heikki Järvi’s project Hei was also worthy of note, assembling his live band for a set of deeply restrained, slow-motion drone works; the traditional textures of acoustic instruments substituting many of the more electronic manipulations found on his recorded material. I was also very keen to experience Ona Kamu’s Elektromys project, which arranges sonic signals produced by muscular tissue as the referent of the electromyography mentioned earlier. Regrettably I missed the performance, though.
Text: Edward Trethowan
Photos: Tero Heikkinen