"Maata Näkyvissä" is a peculiar festival. 10.000 people flock to Turku Arena and the Fair Centre year after year to see international and domestic name bands, yet most people hardly know that there's a big event going on in town. The reason for this is the fact that "Maata Näkyvissä" is a Christian festival, mostly advertised within the Christian community. Last year the festival's headliner was Stryper, and that probably drew quite a few newcomers to the event, but this year there wasn't a major cross-over artist that would have drawn many non-practising Christians there. However, me and Mira liked the athmosphere of last year's festival and there were some interesting bands in this year's line-up, so we added the festival to our schedule quite a few months ago.
The festival is a 3-day event aimed mostly to the young people, and there's much more than just music in the programme. There are studios, speeches, seminars, a Gospel Star contest and other activities taking place over the three days. Many of the youngsters make a special weekend out of it, staying in the school accommodation and enjoying the festival vibe in full. We were the for the music, but there were some interesting words spoken between the sets too. Päivö Parviainen (pix below, on the left) , a 96-year old mission man who spent many years in China, got a great response from the young audience, who were visibly touched by his words.
Saturday was the main day for us, but I managed to catch one band on Friday, Finnish-Swedish prog metal act Mehida. Well, I did see the last couple of songs of Hilastherion (pics above, second and third from the left) 's set too, but their thrash/death/whatever metal didn't offer anything to me. It's really quite weird to hear a guy singing "Jesus Rules", yet trying hard to sound really evil and demonic? I don't get it, but I guess it goes with the genre... The band was quite well recieved though, so somebody obviously does "get it".
Mehida is the new band of former Sonata Arctica and Wingdom keyboard player Mikko Härkin. The band also consists of vocalist Thomas Vikström, guitarists Jani Stefanovic and Olli Tanttu, bassist Toni Mäki-Leppilampi and drummer Markus Niemispelto. This wasn't the line-up seen on stage though, as Stefanovic wasn't able to attend and Tomi Eskelinen filled in.
Mehida's progressive metal is sometimes a bit too progressive for my taste, but thankfully most of their songs are on the accessible side of prog. Their Swedish vocalist Thomas Vikström is a good frontman and a superb singer, who can rival just about any singer you care to name. As it is usually with progressive bands, there's no shortage of virtuosity in the band, each member is very skilled. What's more, the band were fun to watch on stage, they could've stood there staring at their instruments intensively but instead they leaped around and threw all the metal poses in the book and a couple more.
The setlist consisted of most of their first album and one new track if I'm correct. Oddly enough, they didn't play "Guilty", which is probably the catchiest track of the album, and my favourite too. I'd imagine that it would've gone down a storm, but that was not in the cards. Personal highlights of the set were "Wings Of A Dove", "Grace" and the ballad "A Letter From Home". The new song sounded okay, but the chorus didn't seem to have that final impact.
An encore was loudly requested, but the schedule of the event doesn't allow such things. Too bad, the band could've pulled a surprise out of their hat and play Vikström's breakthough hit "Free Like An Eagle" by Talk Of The Town. Now that would've been great, even though I might've been the only one to recognize the song!
Saturday's festivities had already began early in the morning, with first concerts taking place well before noon. We arrived to the Arena just before the performance of The Rain, one of the biggest Christian rock bands in the country. The arena was packed, and the floor area had already been closed from the general public. In fact, there didn't seem to be too many available seats anywhere.
Last year The Rain played a longer set as right before Stryper, and while they were quite impressive back then, this year the band was much better. The set was a streamlined "best-of" set with some of the strongest tracks of their latest and highly successful "Yhtä Kuin Voitto" album. As far as I'm concerned, they could've skipped the speeches between the songs and play a couple of additional songs, but I guess that goes with the territory. The words spoken seem to be as integral part of the set as the words sung. Most of the audience was probably lapping it all up and why not, the guys are good speakers. As a musical experience, the set would have had a better flow if they had just let the music do the talking. It's not like their songs don't have enough "message" as they are!
When The Rain was concentrating on the music, they were a force to be reckoned with. Their melodic wall of sound and big choruses had the Arena jumping, and the additional background vocalists Timo Lewis and Sami Asp added even more muscle to the hooks. I must admit that I'm not totally sold on vocalist/bassist Tatsi Haveri's vocals, but he makes up for that by being a good frontman. His brother Sami's vocals are more natural sounding and he actually sang more, but he doesn't strike me as a "frontman"-type of a character, more content on being behind his keyboards. Last year the band had an additional guitarist, but this year Jussi Salo had to get by on his own. That didn't seem like a problem, although the solo of "Vastavirrassa" seemed a bit pale compared to the layered version on the album. Drummer Pasi Hakala is a solid rhythm machine with a suitably "flashy" style of hitting the drums, and his little speech wasn't too bad either, there might be a little stand-up comedian in him...
The band's show was enhanced with pyrotechnics and some video material on the screens, making it a rather grandiose spectacle. Considering their popularity, the 8-song set was way too short, and left the audience hungry for more.
Next band highlighted in our timetable was Sacrecy, a young progressive metal band. They were playing in the other venue, the Fair Centre, where two stages were set next to each other. As I entered the hall, a band called August was finishing their set. They played polite pop with Finnish lyrics, not very interesting to me, but I did snap a couple of photos of them anyway.
I reviewed Sacrecy's debut album sometime ago, 6 out of 10 was the rating I believe. It wasn't a remarkable album, but now that I had the chance, I wanted to check whether they are a better live act. And... I guess my rating for the live performance would be the same, 6 out of 10. Good musicianship, enthusiastic stage presence (at least the bassist and the guitarist seemed to be quite energetic), but as always, it comes down to the songs, and Sacrecy just doesn't have any killer songs yet. Decent enough, okay, quite good... but in the end, I can't remember a single melody or a riff.
Frail were the next rock band on stage. They released their first album two years ago, and got some decent exposure for it - even had their video on MTV and the album in Top 40. Unlike the other bands of the festival, Frail's Christianity isn't quite as obvious. I actually found out that they're a Christian rock act after seeing their name in the line-up...
The band's somewhat Goth-styled appearance in the promo photos and the moody, keyboard-driven video "Pieces Of Silence" made me expect a dramatic, HIM-styled band, but instead Frail 2008 appeared to be a rather down-to-earth rock band with T-shirts and jeans. Gone was the Goth style and gone were the keyboards, the band rocked hard and put on a good show. They even had some "choreographed" spins and moves!
Vocalist Tarmo has a bit Jared Leto-like appearance, which might explain the number of girls in the frontrow... he also has a good, likeable voice. Guitarist Lary and bassist Junnu bounced along like battery bunnies, doing those rehearsed moves. One doesn't see that too often in rock circles. Musically speaking the band's sound was rougher than on the album, and the lack of keys made it a little bit one-dimensional. None of the songs really stood out, even though there were some quite decent hooks here and there. Somehow the songs sounded a bit too much alike.
If Frail's Christianity wasn't too obvious, there was no question about the religious nature of Scandinavian Metal Praise. This band/project plays songs of praise done in a metal/hard rock style. The participating musicians have chosen to remain anonymous, because they don't want the spotlight on themselves, but on the songs. They say that this way they can use who ever is available for any particular gig, as they are all professional musicians with several other projects going on at the same time. I'll respect their wish to be "unknown", even though I can't help if you happen to recognize some familiar faces in the photos...
The SMP gig was merely four songs ("Take Me In", "Praise Adonai", "Sing Hallelujah" and "Worthy Is The Lamb"), kind of a showcase for their first album released during the weekend. I quite liked their Nightwish/Within Temptation-like interpretations of these praise hymns, none of which I knew beforehand. The band's stage presence did leave a lot to be desired though. They didn't seem to take any kind of contact with the audience, and the female vocalist seemed to be suffering of techical problems with an ear monitor or something, as her self-confidence seem to vanish after the first song.
I don't know whether the lack of communication is something that goes hand in hand with the band's anonymity, but it surely doesn't work too well. On the other hand, the band could have used some masks or hoods to cover themselves, like Crimson Glory, Kiss or the Gregorian monks, which would have been quite cheesy...
The concert's "headliner" Sanctus Real didn't play as the last act for some reason, maybe scheduling or something. The band's doing quite well back home in the U.S., scoring hits and selling a lot of albums. In Finland they're fairly unknown I guess, most certainly outside the Christian market anyway. I bought a couple of their CDs before the festival just to get to know their music, but I hadn't even heard of them before that.
Sanctus Real play alteranative-tinged mainstream rock that owes a lot to the likes of U2, Lifehouse and Soul Asylum. The two albums of theirs I purchased didn't blow me away, but had enough pretty good songs to ensure that their gig might be a good one. Indeed it was, not earth-shattering but a good one.
The festival hosts had thought of a good prank to play on the band, "the festival shocker". They instructed everyone to be perfectly still and silent, with their cameras and camera phones ready, and to only start making noise when vocalist Matt Hammitt opens his mouth for the first time. The prank worked like a charm, the band walked to the stage in complete silence, and once Hammitt said "hello" the whole hall erupted and a thousand flashes went off. Must have been a weird moment for the band!
The band opened their set with the mellow "The Face Of Love", but kicked it into gear with their excellent version of U2's "Beautiful Day". Vocalist Matt Hammitt knew how to work the crowd, and the band played well even though they had a "hired hand" guitarist filling in for Chris Rohman, who was back home. He and her wife got a new baby boy on Veteran's Day, congratulations to the family!
Apart from the aforementioned U2 cover, the hightlights of the set for me were "I'm Not Alright", "Turn On The Lights", "Say It Loud" and the super-catchy "We Need Each Other" with its' "Oh Oh"-chorus. I quite like the band's lyrics, which are actually quite clever and deal with everyday issues. That cannot be said of all Christian acts, some of them tend to be a bit one-sided with their preachy and unimaginative lyrics.
Finnish metal band HB had the honour of closing the festival. Their Nightwish-influenced metal has made them one of the biggest Christian bands in Finland during the last five years, and they have made some progress in other countries as well. My knowledge of their stuff was limited to their one english-language album "Frozen Inside", which was released earlier this year. Not surpisingly, they sang all the songs in the set with the original Finnish lyrics.
The gig was their first one for some time, as they had been in the studio recording their latest album "Piikkinä Lihassa". The album was released during the festival, so the gig was actually also an album-release party. The band seemed to be a bit rusty, not necessarily musically but otherwise... the set didn't seem to flow as if the band really didn't know what was coming next. Normal hiccups of the first gig in ages, I suspect.
Since my knowledge of the band's material is limited, I didn't know many of the songs. However, the ones from "Frozen Inside" (its' Finnish version "Enne", to be exact) sounded more powerful live, and the new material sounded good too. I took some notes during the gig, and apparently the first track was a bit "Folk Metal"-like, it was a song from the new album. "Etsivä Löytää" from the first album was a good hard rock track, even though its' opening riff reminded me of Popeda's "Kersantti Karoliina". The new single "Minä Olen" was a powerful song, which also featured vocals by the keyboard player Antti Niskala alongside the band's lead singer Johanna Aaltonen. The Nightwish-influences popped up in most of the songs, with powerful choir and orchestra parts adding a symphonic feel to the music. And no, there wasn't an orchestra or a choir on stage... although the fans did their best to add their voices to the sound! One more thing that I have to add... Bassist Tuomas Mäki-Kerttula gets the award for "The Hottest Shoes Of The Night"!
All in all, another nice festival experience at "Maata Näkyvissä". I guess we got a good overview of the Christian Rock genre, which is quite vibrant and alive. I have a feeling that we'll be there next year again...
More info on the event can be found here: http://maatanakyvissa.fi/en.