South Park Festival rose from the ashes of Sauna Open Air last year, gathering some 8000 metal and hard rock fans to Tampere for two days. This year the organizers had booked Def Leppard as the main attraction and hoped for another success story. With 11000 tickets sold, they got their wish and as a result, it's been confirmed that there will be a South Park 2016. Only one word to say to that... awesome! For an old hard rock relic like me, South Park is pretty much the only Finnish festival worth going to, but it's also a festival for the younger people who have just been bitten by the hard rock bug.
The first band we saw was MASTERPLAN. I have to admit that even though I really liked their first few albums, I haven't been really paying attention to them lately. I do know that original vocalist Jorn Lande returned to the band only to leave again after one album. The band's current vocalist is Swedish Rick Altzi. His CV includes
As we were rushing towards the stage, the band's grandiose intro tape was playing. The set opener was the track that introduced the band back in the day, "Enlighten Me". Altzi sounded good, he added his own touch to the song but didn't make it sound too different to the original. The same could be said about the other Jorn-era songs, which included "Cold Hearted Light", "Back For My Life" and "Heroes", to name a few.
The band's founding member, guitarist Roland Grapow and longstanding keyboard player Axel Mackenrott have been in the band since the early days. The other three slots are these days filled by the aforementioned Altzi, drummer Martin Skaroupka and Finnish bassist Jari (or "Jorma", as Altzi introduced him) Kainulainen, formely of Stratovarius.
The older songs were my favourites, partly because they were familiar to me, but also because the new songs seemed to be heavier and less catchy. But anyway, a good start for the festival.
ALL RISE, a local band were up next on the Tent Stage. I had only heard one song from them which sounded pretty decent, so they had been marked as one to check out. Well, they were a tight band with a style somewhere between traditional melodic metal and the more aggressive modern metal sounds. I enjoyed their melodic side more, but the harder stuff wasn't too bad either. Vili Rantanen, one of the band's two guitarists played another set later with his other band Teräsbetoni. Double dose of metal!
STRATOVARIUS are one of the key bands of the Melodic Power Metal genre, and their influence can be heard on dozens of albums. They are also one of the most popular festival bands here, so I've seen them quite a few times over the last few years. At South Park they played a crowd-friendly "Best Of" set spiced up with some recent tunes.
Timo Kotipelto commanded the crowd just like a frontman of his calibre should, and sang well too. Bass player Lauri Porra was another striking figure on stage, sporting his usual flared "CliffBurtonJeans" and a lot of energy. New, young drummer Rolf Pilve has brought his fair share of energy to the show as well.
There were quite a few foreign people in the audience, I have to wonder what they thought of Saku & Speedy, the MC's of the festival. These comic characters were really popular when they played their two-song sets and introduced other bands. The characters are played by Heikki Silvennoinen and Timo Kahilainen, known for their work in Kummeli TV series. They are both accomplished musicians too.
Saku & Speedy told some dirty jokes and played their two "hits" from the TV series, "Hän-Mies" and "Tuomiopäivä". Both songs are possibly among the finest heavy metal songs of all time, containing lyrics which are sheer poetry. Or not.
STARGAZERY had the almost impossible mission to perform after Saku & Speedy, the self-confessed real headliners of the festival. This band, mostly from Oulu area, deals in Melodic Metal, and after hearing their superb second album earlier this year, they were one of the bands I was eager to catch live. I'm glad to say they didn't disappoint.
Although most of the band is from Northern Finland, the band's singer Jari Tiura is a local guy from the Tampere area. Some of you may know him as the one of the ex-singers of Michael Schenker Group. He seemed genuinely pleased to be playing in his hometown with some of his friends in the audience. His non-pretentious, humble presence on stage was actually quite refreshing, proving that the bigger-than-life rock star image isn't the right one for every singer. I also thought that his vocals were better live than on album, he sounded less operatic.
The band's mastermind is Pete Ahonen, who is a one-man metal factory. I think he's in at least 5 bands at the moment, and for most of them he's the main songwriter. Strangely enough, he seems to be able to divide his time between all the bands quite equally, so it's hard to say which is his main thing and which are merely side
The band's set was short but full of fine songs, such as "Every Time I Think Of You", "Painted Into A Corner" and "Voodoo". I was surprised that the first release from the new album - "Bring The Halo" - wasn't played. The already notorious Cher cover "Dark Lady" did get an airing with its’ Finnish lyrics, and it brought some new visitors to the tent. As tight as the band was during the other songs, this particular song sounded a bit under-rehearsed. A fun addition to the set though, and I still think it could be a hit if picked up by the radio programmers.
The German metal legends ACCEPT could have been the headliners, they were immensely popular at South Park. I noticed it already earlier, when just about every other band shirt seen was an Accept one. A few years ago they played a set at Sauna Open Air in the same location, followed by two headlining shows of their own. This groundwork paid off nicely now and they played a storming set to thousands of their fans.
It is with some regret that I have to confess missing some of the bands’ set. The band kicked off their set with two new songs that didn’t really impress me, followed by ”London Leatherboys”, possibly one of their most oddball songs from their glory days. The band was in fine form, with long-standing members Wolf Hoffmann and Peter Baltes taking care of the frontline with vocalist Mark Tornillo. New guitarist Uwe Lulis and drummer Christopher Williams are apparently more like ”hired hands”, at least they’re not mentioned on the band’s website or Facebook page in the line-up. Anyway, the band offered plenty of photo opportunities for the photographers, throwing all the classic metal poses, mad grins and synchronized headbanging.
”Restless And Wild” was the first real classic in the set, but at that point we thought we could take a break. Now looking at the setlist I wish we hadn’t, as they played some of my favorite tracks when we were away. Goddamn it, I missed ”Midnight Mover”! Well, these things happen.
As we returned, a lot of people sporting Accept-shirts seemed to be leaving, even though there were still two bands left. Accept - the winners of the day?
TERÄSBETONI have been on a hiatus for the last few years. They’ve only played a few select shows and haven’t recorded any new material. The South Park gig was a special one, as their first album ”Metallitotuus” was celebrating its’ 10th Anniversary. The band played the songs from it in the same sequence as on the album.
The tent was packed, and the band’s anthemic power metal seemed to be very popular. Even though the band hasn’t been too active lately, to my ears they sounded as good as ”back in the day”. Jarkko Ahola is a fine singer and a good frontman, while the rest of the band may have lost their hair but none of their skills…
The band’s breakthrough hit ”Taivas Lyö Tulta” was the most popular song of the set, with ”Orjatar” probably as the ”runner-up”.
EXTREME was the Friday’s headliner, and they were GOOD. I wasn’t sure what to expect, I’ve never been a huge fan of theirs and their comeback album ”Saudades de Rock” came and went without leaving a trace. However, with their show at South Park, Extreme placed themselves among ”the most gracefully aged 80’ies hard rock bands”. In fact, from a distance it seemed like they hadn’t aged at all!
Gary Cherone seemed to have endless amounts of energy AND vocal skills, while Nuno Bettencourt probably made all guitarists in the audience weep with his effortless playing. What’s more, with bassist Pat Badger he added some of the best live backing vocals I’ve ever heard to the songs.
To be honest, some of the songs in the setlist were hardly my favorites from the band’s catalogue. I guess it says something about the band’s live charisma that I didn’t mind those ”weaker songs” at all. There was always Bettencourt’s guitar playing to marvel and Cherone’s antics too…
For a non-rock listener the band is most known for their acoustic ballad ”More Than Words”, which was played in the middle of the set. It was preceded by Bettencourt’s guitar solo, which was introduced as the ”part that pays the bills”. Nuno joked that these days they are paid according to the number of notes they play… and that ”You can sing along if you know the words”. Not many people knew the lyrics to a guitar solo, but most did know the lyrics to ”More Than Words”, and Cherone had the crowd sing the first verse.
”Get The Funk Out” was the perfect closing number for the day, and while Accept may have had a bigger crowd, Extreme did prove that they were worthy of the headliner billing with their superb show.
Saturday’s first band was LOUDGUNS, a Finnish melodic hard rock band. They’ve released two albums independently and earlier this year they signed a deal with Rock It Up Records/City Of Lights Records (Germany) to get a wider release for their latest album ”Sunset Runaway”. A good thing, as their indie releases managed to fly under my radar.
Loudguns put on a good show, and got a nice reception despite the early hours of the day. Vocalist Lassi Vääränen put a lot of effort into his performance. As did the others I’m sure, but Lassi’s enthusiastic showmanship stole the limelight somehow… well, that’s what frontmen are for!
The band’s music is melodic hard rock with a bit of a German twist I’d say. Their chorus-heavy songs and clever use of keyboards made me think of bands like Jaded Heart and Axxis. Not because they sound very similar, but they all do have something in common. Maybe it’s Lassi’s high-pitched voice or the song structures.
We skipped young thrash metal band Ranger, melodic rockers Free Spirit who I just saw a couple of weeks earlier and Viikate, who played Motörhead covers and came back to the festival for SANTA CRUZ.
I’ve seen Santa Cruz a few times before, and it’s been interesting to watch them grow from an up’n coming band to serious contenders. On previous gigs I’ve always felt that their song material doesn’t match their intensity, but I think that it’s all ancient history. With two albums below their belt, Santa Cruz have enough good material to give just about any band a run for their money.
New hits like ”We Are The Ones To Fall”, ”Wasted & Wounded” and ”Bonafide Heroes” worked great, as did the band. Surprisingly, there were only two songs from the debut in the setlist, a special request from a fan (”Sweet Sensation”) and the closing number ”Aiming High”. As I like the new album more, I can’t complain… All in all, one of the better sets of the festival.
AMORPHIS played next on the big stage. Their melancholic metal appeals to the Finnish crowds, and they are a solid live band with a charismatic frontman in Tomi Joutsen. He has gotten rid of his long rasta locks since the last time we saw the band, but hasn’t lost any of his intense stage presence.
Amophis is a difficult band to categorize. Their style changes from track to track, from death metal to melodic radio-friendly rock via progressive rock… Most songs do have that certain very Finnish melancholic vibe to them.
Speedy and Saku told the same jokes and played their two tracks again, and introduced the next band - RECKLESS LOVE. The Merry Metal Merchants I’ve seen quite a few times before, last year at the same festival for example. Compared to their last year’s main stage set, I’d have to say that this year’s set in the tent was better. They pretty much played the same songs but there was more atmosphere in the tent.
I was hoping for a sample of the new stuff they’ve been working on, but I guess it’s too early. All three previous albums got 4 songs each, so this was a very ”democratic” set in that way.
Much has been written about bands using backing tapes lately. Obviously Reckless Love had some keyboards and possibly backing vocals piped in, but they weren’t the only band at South Park doing that. I can’t say it bothered me too much. There were times when the band sounded very ”live”, take ”Edge Of Our Dreams” for example. The studio version is highly polished piece of soft rock and one of my favorites. The live version marches on like a rhino, the rumbling guitar crushing all finesse. The chorus does work though.
I can’t really say which songs were the biggest crowd pleasers, as each one of them was lapped up. Even the slightly less well-known tracks ”Badass” and ”Wild Touch” from the debut album. ”Hot” is probably the band’s most well known song and the expected last song of the set. The weather outside didn’t match the lyrics but in the tent it was pretty hot indeed.
HELLOWEEN, the legendary German metal band made a welcome return to the venue. They played at Sauna Open Air in 2011, the same year as Accept, and had a similary loyal league of followers waiting for them. Unlike Accept, Helloween had not replaced anyone, in fact this line-up of the band celebrates its’ 10th anniversary this year.
The band rewarded their loyal fans with plenty of classic tracks. Interestingly, they only played two tracks from their latest album ”My God-Given Right”, the title track and ”Lost In America”. They might have been able to squeeze in an additional track but the crowd-participation game during ”My…” took a few minutes. On the other hand, their medley of 5 songs gave fans of those particular tracks at least a snippet of them.
I know some Helloween fans are still thinking that Michael Kiske is the one and only vocalist for the band, although Andi Deris has been in the band for much longer. Although his voice is somewhat different and rougher than Kiske’s, he did an OK job on the classic tracks. Maybe he was a bit more comfortable with his ”own” material though.
All in all, Helloween played a good gig and were one of the more popular bands of the festival.
Apart from the headliner, ECLIPSE were probably the band I was most looking forward to seeing. They really took a leap to the front row of hard rock in 2008 with ”Are You Ready To Rock” and have since put out three very solid albums in a row.
I’ve seen the band a couple of years ago at Firefest and they were very good, but somehow they were even better at South Park. It didn’t matter that they had keyboards coming from a laptop or whatever, the four members on stage were absolutely on fire. Vocalist Erik Mårtensson must have caught the hyperactivity bug from another Swedish Erik, that Gröwall dude from H.E.A.T., he was constantly on the move yet never missing a note. With most guitar duties left for Magnus Henriksson, he thanked and shredded away like the guitar hero he is.
Now with three albums worth of killer material to choose from (I’m not counting the first two, even though they have their moments), the band pretty much delivered a set of nothing but hits. Starting with ”I Don't Wanna Say I'm Sorry”, one of my favorite songs of this year, they began converting new Eclipse fans. By the end end of the set, the number of Eclipse’s witnesses had increased dramatically. Amen to that.
DEF LEPPARD had played at Sweden Rock the previous day, and most comments of that show had been very positive. They had a really cool looking stage with plenty of video screens, and they played a highly polished and professional set. Some might say that it was even a little bit too polished, but I won’t go there. Any band with a one-armed drummer can take some liberties when it comes to additional help.
A lot has been said about Joe Elliott’s voice, and while it’s obvious that it’s not what it was 30 years ago, I thought he fared okay at South Park. Just like Jon Bon Jovi and many others, he has had to adapt and change his vocal style, but I wasn’t too bothered. Sure, at times he sounded like he was in agony, but at times he sounded just fine.
The setlist didn’t offer any real surprises, most of their biggest hits were played as usual. Festival gigs aren’t really the occasions to throw in deep album cuts anyway. And younger readers, no, ”Let It Go” is not the song from ”Frozen” movie… although I do wonder how it would sound Leppardized…
Review: Kimmo Toivonen