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Nancy Bennie , December 19th, 2014 18:05

The Supermassive festival blasts into Helsinki with Jenny Hval, K-X-P, The Fall and the two Circles of Helsinki. Nancy Bennie reports

Photo by Alexey Ferapontov

Finland may not been known for its experimental music festivals, but this October saw its capital Helsinki host the first ever Supermassive, an impressive mixture of leftfield Finnish mainstays and substantially respected international acts young and old. Helsinki is a unique place, merging giant glass megalopolis structures, bustling fishy harbour and a circular church hewn literally into a layer of bedrock. It's a place where you can buy a raw sausage and crispen it outside on a roaring fire. Naked sauna-ing is a weekly occurrence. Different quarters of the city are marked by street signs of pheasants and tubby hamsters. A 20-minute ferry ride away lies the fortress isle of Suomenlinna, a world heritage site but previously home to Star Fort bastions and munitions by the shit-tonne. With its manmade grassy mounds and curved brickwork, the island resembles a surreally beautiful Hobbiton, but with a lot more cannons. There's a plenitude of Hellhammer T-shirts among Helsinki's populace – the spirit of death/black metal hangs in the air, perhaps due to neighbouring Norway, but I'm willing to bet that Supermassive will shine a light on quite a bit more than corpse paint and murder.

The first evening begins in rock joint Tavastia, with Finnish noise-rock trio Fun (not to be confused with the mashed-potato-powder American group of the same name). With any noise-rock band there's a danger of crossing the fine line of imitation over originality, but their set takes an unexpected turn of bewilderment when a horn sextet bursts onto the stage, defecating saxophone and trumpet blasts upon their semi-Chicagoan sound.

Jenny Hval is a revelatory Two-Face. Sporting her signature glitterball cap, she mixes harsh noise cranks like 'Give Me That Sound' with almost-power ballads that throb like Elizabeth Fraser belting out John Farnham's mighty opus 'You're The Voice'. Speaking of which, Hval's voice is by far the most powerful and magical instrument on stage, bubbling from the pit of her stomach up to her throat, as if her whole digestive tract is being sawed by a bow made of unicorn tails.

In one of several extended Q&A sessions that litter Shellac's longer-than-usual set, someone from the overly psyched audience yelps, "Why 15 years?", querying why it's taken them so long to return to these lands. Bob Weston replies, "Do you know how fucking far away Helsinki is from anywhere?" but it's clear the band intend to treat the crowd to make up for their absence. One particularly excited punter films Steve Albini's groinal regions for the entirety of the show. Their new-ish songs crunch as much as 'My Black Ass' ever has (I can't quite place my finger on why, but Weston singing "surveyors, surveyors" is just very, very funny) and the rarity of their live appearances ensures the band don't tire of them, happy to roll out expected Shellac schticks like playing in slow motion and an all-band cymbal-bash. Albini gifts a lengthy description of 'Wingwalker's origins to the crowd, explaining how in any population there are always two warring camps – The Killers and The Defenders Of Fun. Apparently, a beloved Chicago bar in the ’80s and ’90s called Lounge Ax was put under enormous pressure by the city, eventually forcing it to close - clearly aggression on the part of The Killers Of Fun. If there were a fictional film about The Defenders Of Fun's struggle to halt this, they would have had a theme song… and thus Shellac birthed 'Wingwalker'. The song concludes with a Roman salute – "I side with the Defenders!" – in case it isn't already clear. In a later Q&A pause it's revealed that drummer Todd Trainer's favourite film is The Defenders Of Fun.

The next day, after getting a bit lost in a snow-covered Helsinki and consuming chilled blueberry soup, I return to Tavastia for my second homegrown act, Oranssi Pazuzu - named after the colour orange and the Mesopotamian King Of The Demons Of The Wind (aka that friendly chap in The Exorcist). Primarily a black-metal outfit, they also dabble in the space-rock cosmos and have a member supervising "synthesisers, organs and effects" called Evill. Their singer is as croaky as Rupert the Bear's 'Frog Chorus' (ie a solid amount) but they possess an interesting, groovy take on this sometimes-stench genre. Watching them I do indeed feel lost, whimpering in a forest but one which contains a few more fuzzy animals than usual, perhaps a Can-loving squirrel of some sort.

The highlight of the whole festival is the high-concept staging of one of Finland's most prominent alternative bands, nestled in its experimental undergrowth since 1991: Circle, playing alongside a death metal trio also called Circle. The original band rented their name out to escape the burden of their 'brand', which has culminated in this performance touted as 'Circle Vs Circle.' The more well-known Circle are hyper-prolific and spread themselves across several side-projects, most notably Pharaoh Overlord. Releasing their 44th album this year, they've navigated their way through metal, punk, krautrock and free jazz, forever changing their sound like Tyres from Spaced's mood swings. They flank one side of the stage, arranged like an avant-garde choir, and to the left stand their death-metal counterparts. The combined sound is surprisingly shimmering, operatic, full of kosmische synths, and it's entirely bonkers, especially when sprinkled with an occasional growl from the much longer-haired contingent. One repeated riff reminds me of The Shamen's 'Ebeneezer Goode' but played by nine people with six guitars and two drummers, which is every bit as great as that sounds.

On Friday I visit the impressive Sibelius Monument, made out of 600 steel pipes, and end up in black metal store Kvlt where bones hang from the ceiling and there's a DVD for sale called Familien Orgien. Later on I head a little north to the hip bar of Kuudes Linja where multi-instrumentalist septuagenarian and explorer of jazz's outer improvising limits Joe McPhee meets his percussionist-match in Chris Corsano, a modern-day Joe Morello (and holder of three sticks in each hand) with whom McPhee has released two albums. Corsano's style is less an exercise in laying down some standard beat pipe, and more a complete deconstruction of the skins. Attached to his hi-hat is a ball-bearing string, he scrapes several wooden blocks across the snare at once, and instead of using his sticks normally, he walks them like a rambler. He also has tiny toy-monkey cymbals. Despite all this, Corsano calmly leaves McPhee acres of space to do his thing with a range of woodwinds, including a very fetching pure-white saxophone. Through this McPhee sings and spits, and at one point what I think is a flugelhorn is placed deep into the microphone, exulting a warm static. Throughout this duo's remarkable interweaving of irregular drum raindrops and effervescing unruly-blues, it's sometimes hard to distinguish who or what is making which sound – a mammoth case of ignorance being bliss. 

The fun continues as I hop across town to the indoor skatepark Aaniwaali to catch ambient big daddy Hans-Joachim Roedelius, formerly of Cluster and Harmonia, who has always explored the detached interplay between electronics and piano. He does literally this in his show: three-quarters of his set is a quiet dusting of gentle electronic chimes and musique concrete bird chirrups, while for the remaining quarter he turns left and embarks on a 20-minute piano piece. An encore featuring a sweet twinkle aptly called 'Lullaby' is as soothing as a generous application of Sudocrem.

The room is transformed into a fuggy smoke-chamber for the next performance, during which I cannot see very much at all. I half expect Paul Bearer's gurning white-face to appear, but the darkness is in fact because Canadian block-knockeroffer Tim Hecker is beginning his electronic shrapnel onslaught. Closing my eyes is the natural reaction to his tectonic-shifting noise, which is weirdly relaxing (once your brain has adjusted to the steamroller sub-bass flattening your ears). I imagine the physical pressure is similar to the scene in Wayne's World where a plane took off very, very near to Wayne and Garth's faces. I do, if truth be told, bail out before the set finishes, worried my cochlea is going to commit suicide.

On my final day of Supermassive, the large city-centre Circus venue is a perfect home for Finnish bomp-trio K-X-P. Shrouded in hooded black capes (in order to better transcend into the void of their music, I have been told) K-X-P begin with terrifying thunder-jams, creating a meditative vortex that sucks in the soul of everyone in the room. Delightful frontman, composer and self-confessed Tony Soprano of Helsinki, Timo Kaukolampi bashes his guitar and synths while discharging his faecal-vomit vocal, to concoct a catchy motorik-disco rivalling The Brothers Gibb. The secret to their rhythmic palpitations? On top of Timo's 808s, there are two very capable drummers, one of whom is Tomi Leppänen of the abovementioned Circle. (A small fact about Tomi – when Omar Souleyman came to this part of Finland, his drum-machine broke down and Tomi stepped in last-minute completely without rehearsal and with only the human noises of Omar's tour manager as guidance.) Their current EP, influenced by Manuel Göttsching's  E2-E4, is suitably titled The History Of Techno and I can't conceivably think of a better troupe of trance-inducing shamans to take on such a task.

Finally, an expectant crowd fills The Circus to see The Fall, who have not ventured to Helsinki before. Hanging at the back of the stage, a large cryptic banner reads "Dedication Not Medication… You Decide!" Like K-X-P, they opt for double-drumming which gives a rollicking and thunderous 'George Of The Jungle' rumble to each song. Stewart Lee once wrote, "Fall sets rarely include any songs older than the last couple of albums, unless they are seasoned covers of ’60s garage classics and old rockabilly riffs ripe for reinterpretation," and they don't switch from this tonight, rattling through 'Bury', 'Hittite Man' and The Big Bopper's 'White Lightning' with scuzzy panache. Mark E Smith's slurring of non-words climbs to barbaric standards, leaving Elena to carry a recognisable hook. Smith's typical interfering with the amps continues throughout and he perches down to sing completely out of view for long periods of time. If anything, this keeps the crowd on their toes, wondering where the fuck he's gone and when or if he will return. Tonight, The Fall are masters of ramshackle repetition always teetering on the brink of orderly disorder, like Cosmo Kramer's best inventions.

With the festival over and my Moomin merchandise purchased, it struck me how narrow-minded I had previously been when choosing what to listen to – plumping for English-speaking bands by default and foolishly skipping anything else. Supermassive proved that I had been a dunderhead. As good as the bands were that I am familiar with, the Finnish groups stuck out in an exotic, batshit brilliant way. With The Rasmus now a feathery memory of the past, I intend to explore the vast depths of Circle's (and the other Circle's) back catalogue, and will think twice about another Celine Dion spin.