End of August 2015 I came home from the best music festival I’ve ever attended: Modern Sky Festival Helsinki. For the past decade I’d been suspecting that I’m too old to really enjoy a music festival anymore. My previous proper attempt was Grand Mint Festival in 2009 and since then I’d pretty much just gone to festivals to see one band without sticking around for the rest. Modern Sky Helsinki, however, had such an interesting line-up I couldn’t well refuse it.
Now, to be perfectly clear: the way the start of the festival was handled was inexcusable. The gates didn’t open on time, which in itself wasn’t that much of an issue. I was there to see Sunwoo Jung-A, who should get on the Telakka Stage at 4pm, and when we finally got in at 3:50pm preparations were very much ongoing around the stage in question. My friend and I headed to the nearby Garage Stage meanwhile to check out Thinkeries Potbelt, bringing the total audience up to a handful. We kept checking for Sunwoo Jung-A, but figured she’d just start late as a result of the previous delays. Around 4:30pm things finally start happening and the band on stage is…Hedgehog! — scheduled to get on the main stage half an hour later.
Long story short: there was no updated information on the big program displayed in the middle of the festival area, nobody in the information stand had any information about changes in the schedule, and in the end all we got to see of Sungwoo Jung-A’s set was the final 2 songs. Because she had indeed started at 4pm, but at a different stage tricky to locate for first-time visitors. Although this allowed me to see more of Hedgehog than I would’ve done otherwise–Hedgehog being one of the bands I most wanted to see, originally scheduled only 10 minutes before another of my must-sees–it was not a good way to start the festival when it could’ve been so easy to spread the information (a topic my friend and I returned to repeatedly throughout the weekend).
Those 2 songs I did get to see from Sunwoo Jung-A, however, happened to be 2 of my favorites. And that became something that repeated itself with most artists throughout the festival–even though I only saw a couple of complete sets, often just a few songs, from each artist I usually got to see them perform those songs I most wanted to hear.
Besides the initial scheduling communication miss, one of the best things with Modern Sky Festival Helsinki was exactly the scheduling. Thanks to a great timetable I could see at least a few songs from every artists, the only ones I didn’t see were because we left too early the first evening (being tired and not convinced that Zhala would be worth the wait) and coming too late the second day (since we anyway hadn’t listened to Wild Bible thus prioritized a quick nap after our walk around central Helsinki). This was in part enabled by very good placement of the stages, which leads me to the area which was exceptionally nice for a city festival.
The Hietalahti shipyard hosting the festival has birch trees growing among old brick house buildings, and of course it was right next to the Hietalahti bay. Asphalt meant that the rain earlier on the Friday wasn’t an issue. The area was nicely decorated by Vallila. The light artist had done a fantastic job both around the stages and with the area in general. And as the sun set the surroundings looked even more beautiful. As a whole the atmosphere was great. Friendly and pleasant, with artists walking around the area much like any other visitors.
There was a very generous amount of places to buy drinks (though oddly enough prices for the same item differed across the various festival outlets) and excellent food trucks courtesy of Street Gastro. The Korean pork ribs the first day were disappointing and not particularly Korean tasting (served with jasmine rice, at that), but everything I had the second day was mouthwateringly delicious–especially the steamed pork bun and Karelian pie with egg butter. The second day we also ventured to try drinks the herbal cocktail bar provided by Ahlberg, though neither the thai-basil mojito nor the cinnamon menthe strong ice tea delivered on the expectations.
What was missing was a decent merch table. Most of what was up for offer came from Panda Records even though only eccentric Thai duo Stylish Nonsense from the label’s roster performed at the festival. I could only buy 2 out of the many CDs I’d been hoping to get, but since the merch table only accepted cash I couldn’t have gotten more even if there had been others that I wanted. Another oddity was that Kuang Program had both CDs priced at a hefty 25€ each the first night, adjusted to the more expected 6/10€ on the Sunday.
Since the programme with artists was so good there was unfortunately not much time to get into any of the other things happening on the area. Video screenings, artist discussions, various art works etc. Would’ve loved to see the screening of Yangon Calling – Punk in Myanmar, but that’ll have to be another time. The “3D camera obscura art-box” presented by Kinobox Obscura was a bit of an annoyance though, as its drivers insisted on driving it in front of the Telakka Stage even when artists were performing using the bells on the bicycles to nag the audience to move.
Moving on to the actual music. I have never been better prepared for a festival when it comes to knowing the artists. I had listened through everything I could find on Spotify from all of the invited artists ahead of the event, barely listening to anything else during August. I shared a few of my favorite picks on Facebook ahead of the event and listed my Finnish favorites here on the blog. But more than just helping me decide which artists to focus on during the festival, it meant that I got happily surprised on several occasions when artists I had previously written off turned out to be great (which is really so much better than hearing a great band live only to find that you don’t like them on record). It also meant that I could appreciate the artists even more when they did something different, like when Ronya performed “Hyperventilating” in an acoustic version.
The Korean Bands
I hadn’t seen any of the Korean artists live previously so was very excited about the chance.
As already mentioned I couldn’t see nearly as much of Sunwoo Jung-A as I had planned, but for the 2 songs I did see she made a great impression. She had great control over her vocals, was endearing when talking between songs and seemed very appreciative of the audience. Though it was still very early in the day and the new location not advertised she had anyway managed to attract a group of 10-20 people.
Kuang Program followed Sunwoo Jung-A on the indoor Nosturi Stage at 5:30pm. The two members continued their soundcheck until the set was actually supposed to start and were eventually asked to get on with it. I was happy they did though as it meant seeing a more condensed version of their best tracks that I might otherwise have missed–Kuang Program is the band I’d be more likely to see in Korea, so we left after just a few songs to make time for dinner.
Neon Bunny didn’t play until the Saturday but did so at the Telakka Stage outdoors at 4pm. Although early in the day she managed to attract a fairly sizeable audience. Not only that, but from what I could see she was the only artist out of all during the festival that had her own group of fans at the front of the stage, dancing along and being generally enthusiastic through the full hour that her set lasted. It was all very dance friendly, songs blending into each other. Neon Bunny anyway talked between all songs, saying she did so awkwardly since it’d been so long since she last had a live show. That should change sort of soon though, as a new album is coming up this year with singles released before. She performed two of the new songs–live for the first time–and both had more of a soul feeling than her previous work.
Writing something about all the artists I enjoyed seeing during the festival would be just a few names short of listing all the artists booked. Instead, here are those that left the biggest impressions on me:
Friday Highlight: Nova Heart
Beijing based band Nova Heart put on an extremely engaging performance with enormous charisma radiating from vocalist Helen Feng. With the set starting at 8pm the audience was the biggest I observed during the Friday. Great music, fun talk between songs. A generally awesome time for everybody present.
Friday’s Biggest Surprise: Kikagaku Moyo
I had found Japanese psychedelic rock band Kikagaku Moyo to be rather dull and way too sitar oriented when listening on Spotify. Seeing them live, however, they were nothing if not extremely awesome. More drive and more energy than I could pick up from their recordings. Way more like the kind of rock I usually find myself heading out to see live. I also loved the long hair on all the members. Loved it.
Saturday Highlight: TEKSTI-TV 666
Finland natives TEKSTI-TV 666 were my favorites ahead of the festival and delivered well, offering my favorite performance during the festival. There were no less than five guitarists running around on stage, all seemingly having a great time. There was so much sound. And the sound was so good. All so very awesome.
Saturday’s Biggest Surprise: Hey Elbow
I couldn’t really get into Sweden’s Hey Elbow when just listening at home. Can’t say why exactly, but their sound didn’t really come together for me. Live in Helsinki on the other hand, their sound was all of a sudden amazing. It was very intense and a perfect suit for the venue.
Honorable Mention: Kate Boy
Also from Sweden, Kate Boy was one of the biggest names playing the festival. Not just bringing stylish synthpop, but also a very stylish performance as a whole. The members all wore matching jackets and caps, even sharing the same hairstyle. Stylish is the word.
More photos from the event have been posted to Indieful ROK’s Facebook page.