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Things Learned At: Kuudes Aisti, Helsinki
Luke Turner , July 12th, 2013 13:14

Luke Turner heads to the hot hot venues of Finland to get balls like dim sum and see all sorts of stern and wonderful music from Mika Vainio, Cold Cave, Savages, Vatican Shadow and more. Photograph courtesy of Ilkka Vuorinen

The Finns like the rough with the smooth

Just as the landscape that surrounds the taxiways of Helsinki's airport reveals hard rock appearing through the short scrub, and alongside the steel central reservation of the motorway into town can be seen wildflowers, Kuudes Aisti's programming is a decidedly Quietus-friendly mixture. On the merch stall, the tote bags don't have the usual line drawings of birds, but gasometers and modernist architecture. Loud Sounds From A Quiet Nation is the motto of this year's bash, which frankly rather does Finland down...

Finland is fun land

...and it's not just the predictive text on my phone that's telling me that. Essentially, Kuudes Aisti is a pretty far-out, well-curated experimental music festival that feels very different from anything we'd get in the UK. There's quite a balanced gender mix, and crowd that seems fairly mainstream but extremely open-minded. There's no theming, no symposia, no over-thinking things at all, just one artist after another, people happily going from the Finnish hip hop of KC/MD Mafia to Savages, or the scratchy punk rock of Atom Mouth Gimlies to Levon Vincent as if it were the most natural order you could imagine. This we can get behind...

Europe will be Savages' playground

It's nice to see Savages back in the raw of a small festival stage, even if it is a little too daylight and that rawness means that technical problems rather hinder the opening. Jehnny Beth strolls around the stage nonchalantly, her concession to Savages' increasing success about an inch on her heels, and she's still representing HTRK via the pendant she's worn since pretty much the first gig. The band are crunching for 'City's Full', though, and when it all kicks back in after she sings "going back home"... well, that's basically another country conquered, from metal contingent to a backward baseball cap punk rock dude. Anyway, the most exciting period of a new group will be when you catch them early and hear a new song emerging miraculously at every gig. Record release schedules being what they are, that always cools down, and you have to listen out for the honing. And tonight that's most evident on 'Waiting For A Sign', which is crisp and clipped and eddies like the terns and seagulls who've popped in from the Baltic and wheel above. As one of the best tracks on Silence Yourself, its growing power is an exciting omen for where Savages go next. In practical terms, they leave at 7am, for Moscow. Aesthetic perfection in the most mundane of processes is always a wonderful thing to see, in this day and age.

"This is the country of legislation"

...we're told early on the first night. The festival is beset with all sorts of rules about where you can drink and walk with a drink or smoke or whatever, and bins that tell you exactly what to put what rubbish and where. But really that's as far as the legislation goes, for there's an open-minded mess that the Quietus frequently encounters in Scandinavia. It also means that nobody ever seems annoyingly munted, and even when Levon Vincent plays a superb, well-geared set that shifts between techno and fluid jazzy piano, funky and stern in a venue that's basically Corsica Studios on a second floor, there's not a melting wax icon face in sight, just a load of blonde heads (odd being in a place with a blonde majority) bobbing away. On Sunday evening, we speak to festival boss Arttu Tolonen, whose own band Riitaoja played this weekend. Apparently the set went down well, well enough for the audience to shout for an encore. Our man refused, telling his colleagues: "If you want to go over your set time, find another fucking festival. I'll find out if I still have a band tomorrow."

Factories make the best festivals

Kuudes Aisti takes place in a former cable factory in a run-down part of Helsinki. In the other venue, swifts zoom above a gravel yard, next to which the giant concrete wall of a building that someone got halfway through demolishing rises to provide an artificial nesting cliff for swifts. Lucky Dragons bring the distended rectangles inside, playing in from of a screen of monochrome squares that twist, bend, flatten, disappear. Using a laptop, what looks like wires coming out of a modular unit, and some kind of horizontal sheet to manipulate the images, his sparse music is based around throbs, pulses and truncated drones - a pleasing contradiction, while the bits of chopped up vocals that pant into a rhythm are reminiscent of Steve Reich. Later on, Laurel Halo scatters twinkling diamonds around scraping, thicker rhythms, like dancing in treacle in the same spot, at once militant and soporific - as you approach the building for her set from the main site opposite, the window frames buzz and growl.

National stereotype moment - the Finns love a sauna

Alas, the Quietus isn't offered a modern experience with a bevy of Nordic beefcakes and beauties (more's the pity) but the festival itself isn't that far off. Perhaps these venues are spectacularly well insulated in caution of the winter, but whatever the reason, each one is a brutal sweat box even when half full. Even in my linens, within seconds I am dripping like a Greene character with crumbling life and colonial verandah. Not that this is a complaint, of course, as any pain from heat merely heightened the pleasure of this collection of satisfyingly intense sounds.

Cold Cave and Vatican Shadow are American soul brothers

"Where we live by 2:30 everyone is arrested and making mistakes". Wesley Eisold has had quite the run through of line-ups, from him with Dominick Fernow to a full band that never quite clicked behind him to this, a synth duo. Cold Cave are certainly one of the most perplexing groups, or sonic identities America has thrown up in recent years, never quite seeming to be accepted anywhere. This is perhaps because a background in American hardcore, British stadium goth, New Order with all the berking around taken out (so basically the Stephen Morris bits left in), and European cold wave teases and then alienates most. For me, that combination of frustrated masculinity, camp and showy noise is quite some drug - I'm a badge-wearing fan, and Cold Cave never cease to surprise. Tonight is hard, glassy sandpaper, closer to the initial material that appeared on the Cremations release, Eisold screaming "for the rest of your brittle life" over aggressively nonplussed backing. It's masochistic in a way too - 'Heaven Was Full' turns into an oppressive, humid dirge. If the music that Cold Cave recall gave voice to self-aware dispossession, it's an uncomfortable listen to hear that pop instinct so aggressively mangled and self-directed. It's very... honest. As Eisold sings, "I prayed for truth until my face turned blue."

By contrast, Dominick Fernow might seem like the master of dangerous obfuscation, with Vatican Shadow's cryptic track and album titles and gigs performed in fatigues making some suspect he's the musical wing of the War On Terror. CIA funding for drum machines! Chemtrails! Etc.! To my mind, there's never been any ambiguity about Vatican Shadow's methods or intentions. Tonight, Fernow is silhouetted in front of a screen that displays slide after slide of collage, all taken from newspaper headlines and stories on the post-9/11 world along with texts from the Bible and Christian reference books. This cut and pasting to me makes it abundantly clear that this can't be anything other than a critique of the enraged lashings of an America in relative decline, along with the blinkered misadventure of any religion when taken to perverted extremes, with a swipe at the conspiracy theorists who feed on this. There is a sliver of bleak humour, too: "Immigrate to Canada - we can help!" and certain recurring motifs and logos that are perhaps clues to further unlocking - a blue "petrotechnic" logo. It is at once deeply unsettling, bleakly euphoric, the constant barrage of words of doom at one with the music: chaotic shipyard noise with, at its heart, a vicious techno jackhammer as brutally sophisticated as Ugandan Methods or Regis at their most militant. For all the sonic violence, I can't think of anyone else who has so effectively and eloquently succeeded in soundtracking the dominant geopolitical narrative of the past decade.

Every nation has a Shellac...

...and here they are called Fun.

Thurston Moore wants to be King Hipster in the 16th-century as well as the 20th and the 21st

You can hardly move around the music bits of London's most fashionable postcode these days without bumping into the gangly former Sonic Youth man. But this weekend he's managed to escape the temptations of London Fields in the blazing sun to bring his new band Chelsea Light Moving over to Finland, and very good they are too. I think perhaps this is because they dovetail most with the bits of Sonic Youth I like the best - the chugging, nails down a blackboard pop songs. One new piece is introduced by Moore saying it is "written in collaboration with John Donne, an English poet from the 1600s. I don't know if you know this cat. It's called 'The Ecstasy'. In those days it was a little difficult to go blue..." He reads the poem, and then the song they've based around is really good too, fierce and chunky, as is the rest of the set.

Bless the Finnish monochrome

Our northerly latitude means that it never gets dark dark at Kuudes Aisti. Across the water, there's a gigantic heap of slag adjacent to a power station, and it takes on various tones of grey to black as it remains crisply outlined against the sky. In the pop world of my imagining, Mika Vainio would be a national hero who'd get to play on top of it with lazers and all kinds of shit. Nevertheless, his reputation means that people are quite content to sit through a mysterious 20 minute delay while Madteo is allowed to overcome technical problems and play his final drone. Vainio, in red baseball cap, stands behind mixers and in front of a black and white display showing flickering white lines. I last saw him play at Cafe Oto, where the PA didn't have enough range to cope with the sound - it's not apocalyptic 'oops, there goes that power station' noise that's Vainio's strength, but his subtlety. He needs a good system to make that work. Tonight, each kick and crack is just so, the rumbles full of depth and texture. This means you can pick your own route through the music, locking in on the drone or constructing techno movements from the sharp and icy peaks. The infernal heat of the room rather compliments the brooding noise. In some of the louder cracks, it's like we're tiny flies crackling into the void on a kebab shop's blue element, and later on a lolloping beat feels like a piston-powered titanium rabbit. At the end techno and Sunn o))) lock in mortal combat, plummet from the heavens, and land on your head.

TEETH, tall and thin with a beard, employs a graceful and minimal greyscale on the artwork of the series of EPs released on his Signal Life label. His set on Saturday night is no less precise, though his European take on UK bass music lets in a lot of colour and light, just as bleak images of buildings behind him are intercut with a barrage of internet-sourced images.

The Finnish colourists are also worthy of praise

The one disappointment at Kuudes Aisti is that the queue and fear of queue situation means that it's impossible to countenance going to see the mighty Hexvessel, who no doubt conjured images and vibes of mystical and magical goings on in the dark forests of the north, where northern lights glow, moose grunt and bears growl and shit etc.

Jimi Tenor has improbably not aged since he first appeared in the 1990s. In fact, I'm pretty sure he's wearing the same blue trousers and pink shirt combo he sported at Sonar a few weeks ago. Anyway, he takes the tropical atmosphere in the venue (yes, alright, I can't stop going on about it, but seriously, my balls by this point are like dim sum) as the cue for reggae- and jazz-tinted sax tropicalia of the highest order, one track even starting out like it is about to be a rendition of the music from Test Match Special. And he plays 'Sugardaddy', which predictably sends the place wild.

Finns! You are our brothers and sisters!

Apparently when Blur played a festival here recently, they bombed in front of a few thousand people, as thousands more piled into the metal stage. Long may your triumphant individualism reign!