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Flow Festival – A Journey into Sound

{mosimage}This summer Finnish music lovers have been treated to an unparalleled slew of world class bands in more off-center genres. Helsinki's very own urban music festival Flow was definitely a culmination of this streak, boasting a promising lineup of artists from cutting edge electronica to vocal jazz. Practically the only thing missing was anything mainstream or middle of the road.


Since its humble beginnings as an annual series of club nights, Flow has profiled itself as a music festival for those with an eclectic and contemporary taste. But since it has grown into a big open-air event it has also drawn recurrent complaints of poor arrangements. To be sure, most of the people were there for the music, and the festival attracted a bare minimum of hangers-around. But with equal certainty, if the voluminous lineup with overlapping performances did not necessitate a pick-and-choose approach, the sheer impossibility of moving around in the area did.


Rarely have I seen such poorly organized people flows (ironically), such unnecessary bottlenecks, and such bathroom queues stretching off into eternity. While the two makeshift club venues were pulled off well with nice industrial-chic atmosphere, it was damn near impossible to get in for the first hour after the doors opened. And having the festival catered by a fancy restaurant might sound like the perfect idea for an event likely to attract the tragically hip. But those also include bohemian types with less cash to throw around, and lack of low-cost nutrition was a frequently overheard bitching point.


But despite obvious shortcomings, the music and the spirit of enjoying it made the festival a success. Altogether 22,000 people found their way to the old Suvilahti gas plant, attracted by the veritable smorgasbord of interesting (and fashionable) performers.





Friday evening kicked off with Jamie Lidell, a UK producer-turned-soul singer. His antics were amusing, but ultimately lacked the necessary hooks to heat up the crowd. He was followed on the main stage by Norway's soft-as-fleece Kings of Convenience. Their bittersweet laments were at first lost on the crowd of philistines gathered at the back, whose incessant chatter betrayed their lack of interest in the subtleties of the band's songcraft.


Fortunately the duo stepped up the pace towards the end with an added viola and bass kicking in, and for the last three or four songs they had the audience eating from the palm of their hand. It became very clear from that performance, what the role division is between the two: brown-haired Eirik Glambek Bøe is the quiet sensitive type, while bespectacled Erlend Øye is the fun-loving aloof type (with an uncanny ability to imitate a trumpet, apparently).




The other main event on Friday evening was Iceland's Múm, who provided an equally subdued but wondrous experience. On record their fairy-tale folktronica relies heavily on floaty ambient soundscapes and electronic buzzes and clicks, but in a live setting the rhythmic and dramatic aspects of their music came to the fore. Finnish percussionist Samuli Kosminen did an excellent job replicating many of the glitchy and crackly rhythm elements heard on Múm's records.


Performing with all the playful naivety of a nursery full of fairies, the band thoroughly charmed at least the army of indie pop geeks amassing front of the stage. But such a trippy experience was no doubt less effective towards the back, and the main stage could've used a more party-friendly performer to top up Friday's lineup. 

The sound in vogue in electronic music right now seems to be something of an offshoot of the electroclash (whatever that was) trend from a few years ago, with dominant retro samples and synthesizers and punky shouts for vocals. This scene was well represented at this year’s Flow, at least judging from the scores of kids dressed in combinations of neon and black. Finland’s juvenile delinquent duo Jesse and girlie squad Le Corpse Mince de Francoise heated things up in the smaller tent stage through the day, while the main stage features such soft and gentle performers.


After Múm had closed the day on the main stage, a definite promise of Friday night mayhem was in the air as the crowd oozed its way to the smaller tent stage to prepare for one of this year's most talked-about newcomers, Canadian electro duo Crystal Castles. But Crystal Castles' old-school computer game samples are apparently incredibly difficult to replicate on stage, for the show was a full 45 minutes late, presumably because of technical problems. Meanwhile the audience, who clearly numbered more than the small stage could take, were left holding their breath packed like sardines. Sadly, this reporter must admit that about 40 minutes into the wait I gave up and left, grumbling something about nothing being worth this cr*p. According to eyewitness accounts the band did eventually appear on stage and played a gripping set of five or six songs with fierce energy, before stepping down as swiftly as they came. 






Saturday dawned rainy and grey, but none of the music lovers seemed to mind too much. The festival area was packed, with the day sold out and a series of promising performances ahead. Moving around was even harder than Friday, and it felt like a good idea to park oneself in the clearing around the main stage and forget any foolish dreams about shuttling between stages. One of the day’s most anticipated artists was French pop eccentric Sebastian Tellier, whose show was advertised as an – ahem! – erotically charged experience. Tracks from Tellier’s rather explicitly  titled new album Sexuality promised a lot, as did his outfit of pink hobo-pants and sparkly jacket in sexy burgundy. However, the drizzle-drenched audience was left rather cold by Tellier’s orthodox synth-pop, and instead of the promised tantric sexual meditation we got some bland guitar masturbation. If the audience was moistened more by the rain than Tellier, party-friendly Brazilian electro-pop group CSS (short for Cansei de Ser Sexy, or “tired of being sexy”) wrote a different story.


With the rain finally giving up, frontwoman Lovefoxxx climbed on stage in a Hawaii-print catsuit and beat the crowd into shape. Evidently there’s a lot of love between CSS and their Finnish fans, testified by the crowd’s reaction to the song Left Behind which mentions Helsinki no less than three times. While some snobs might have found relying on fireworks to provide the final masterstroke a sign of weak musical content, the confetti-shower provided by CSS' effects department was definitely called for, and added to the carnevalesque feel of the show. The Roots closed Saturday on the main stage. With over 15 years of experience and eight albums of organic hip hop under their belt, the band provided a surefire riot. It is not every day you see an ocean of people busting moves all the way back at the mixing booth. One song fluidly merged into another, and at times turned into protracted jams on a single theme.


Regardless, the energy level was kept high throughout the 1.5 hour show, with no unnecessary self-indulgent solos or aimlessly wandering jams. The party was set to continue in club Voimala next to the main stage, but the DJ performers turned out rather disappointing. Brooklyn-based sound system Massive B did play some fine reggae tunes, unfortunately only in occasional 20 second bursts. Every few seconds they would mute the music, shout out some slogans, and – if the music was any good – most likely change the track again. This not only made dancing pretty much impossible, but also felt akin to something else premature (and equally disappointing). I say, play some damn music and keep your paws off the mute switch!  The final performer was advertised as one of the must-see events of the festival. I couldn’t tell you why. DJ Funk’s name certainly promised more than what he delivered: some run-of-the mill smutty, unfunny ghetto house. The man’s apparently a luminary of the genre. I shudder at the thought of this being the cutting edge of club music.






Sunday was the laid back day, with smooth jazz and light pop on the menu. Kicking up a tight jam session was the now near-legendary Flow mainstay Five Corners Quintet, with drummer Teppo Mäkynen stumbling through some of the summer’s funniest song introductions. They were followed on the main stage by Señor Coconut’s humorous computerized mambo versions of recognizable pop gems. Meanwhile, Stockholm-residing Norwegian native Ane Brun made a bunch of new friends with her passionate girl+guitar folk songs. I predict she’ll be back to Finland sooner or later, judging by the expression on her face when the first roaring applause bellowed out in the tent stage. A personal highpoint of the whole festival was without a doubt living legend Martha Reeves, who had the massive crowd dancing to some worn out Motown standards like they were the freshest thing out there. Although her voice is not what it once was, she performed like a true entertainment professional with over 50 years of experience. Reeves and The Vandellas did not provide the most interesting sound experience of the weekend, but certainly one of the most fun ones. Despite some weariness in her voice and appearance, Reeves kept up an amusing banter with the crowd and seemed to enjoy her time on stage. As the sun went down the feeling of an impending end to the three day party crept in.


{mosimage}But events like this must go out with a bang, and late addition to the roster, Australian synth-popsters Cut Copy were there to light the fuse. Within the blink of an eye they had beat the crowd into a dancing frenzy.  a blend of artificial sounds from the past two decades, a stock of sing-along-able melodies, and enough flare to make the gas plant parking lot feel like a proper stadium. Their music is far from revolutionary, and perhaps not even that contemporary, but it's pure well-executed pop –  catchy and infectious. A perfect Sunday night closing act. 


The festival weekend provided so many fantastic musical experiences it’s hard to imagine another Finnish festival to measure up to it. On the other hand, the lineup was highly eclectic, and it was at times hard to imagine if there was a collecting theme to it. And, while the time and place – mid-August in an old industrial compound – has its atmospheric perks, it does have some disadvantages compared to festivals held in more natural surroundings, not least the set-up of people flows and green areas for sitting around. Having the festival area in the middle of the city is a great idea, but unfortunately organizers blinded by greed did everything they could to keep people from slipping outside to eat and drink.  


Next year Suvilahti won’t be an option anymore, so we shall have to see where Flow will land next. Let’s hope the organizers continue to learn from previous experiences. The idea of having club venues inside the festival area is definitely a good one, and hopefully they will continue to bring in DJ performers as well. In terms of artistic quality, Flow has every chance of becoming the Finnish equivalent to Sweden’s Accelerator festival.


Photos by Vilhem Strösjöm

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