From Frank Ocean to Aphex Twin: Our top 10 live performances from Helsinki’s Flow Festival 2017

Between vinyl markets, conceptual performances, video installations, and almost 40 of Helsinki’s top restaurants, Flow Festival played host to some incredible live music across three days, the result of an intelligent and wide-reaching music program that spanned everything from world-dominating pop and Finnish indie rock to obscure classical music homages, era-focused vinyl DJ sets, sweaty club raves, and even an comprehensive record-label celebration. The Helsinki music and arts festival, which for three days every August takes over the city’s Suvilhati cultural hub that’s been built in the shadow of a disused power plant, is considered one of the most progressive and well-rounded events of its kind in Europe – and there’s a lot of those – and what unfolded across those three days certainly justified the high levels of acclaim.

Quality curation is the bread and butter of any successful festival, but there’s a whole different level of quality here, brought by artists both obscure and world-famous. I was on-ground at Flow Festival this year and tried my best to sift through the many top-notch sets I saw through the weekend and pick out at top 10. So here it goes…

10. Death Grips

A Death Grips performance is like finding a golden ticket wrapped around a bar of chocolate. The self-inflicted scarcity of Death Grips adds to the heavy and heady mystery surrounding the industrial rap project, so when they’re found on a festival line-up you best believe you need to at least see some of it – my time was spent running between Flume and Death Grips, but lucky the stages are close. What I saw was very much like the last time I saw them live, taking Sydney’s best live music venue and absolutely crushing it underneath the weight of scorching, hard-hitting, fuck-you-up production and MC Ride’s punk-ish raps, delivered with a hellish energy that was unlike anything Flow saw that weekend.

9. ALMA

The Finnish are tremendously proud of the country’s biggest pop star and current best-known export. Her music is on-trend but her punchy accent and expressive, commanding voice set against glossy dance-inspired pop beats separates her from other similar acts, which is why huge cuts like “Bonfire” and “Chasing Highs” were just as tent-shaking as big-guns like Aphex Twin and Flume.

8. Goldfrapp

Goldfrapp rocked harder than most of the acts on the line-up. Their polished synth-rock, smoothed by Alison’s incredible, penetrative voice, was an endless source of festival-stealing moments, with vocals that floated all the way to the back of the main courtyard with perfect clarity. Alison stood in bright red, set against swirling mist that looked like clouds, constantly flashing with bright white strobes to give the impression of a lightning storm – fitting, seeing as her set was preceded by an actual lightning storm (which unfortunately led to Danny Brown and Sampha both being cancelled). Her powerful, sugary vocals were bounced between two keytarists who flanked Alison at the front of the stage while Will was up controlling the big crunchy, stadium-shaped beats which made everything from “Ocean” to “Strict Machine” sound incredible.

7. Joshua Redman: Still Dreaming

The Finnish sure love jazz. Flow Festival is also quite proud of their impressively designed Bright Balloon 360° stage, a defining atmosphere for the event and an intimate performance venue that across the three days hosted nothing but world-class quality from both locals and internationals. It was the only stage where you’d have to show up well before the performance to guarantee a decent spot, as the several entry points would spill out beyond the stage, with many trying their hardest to peek in. Bright Balloon’s biggest crowd of the weekend was the legendary Roy Ayers, but I’d have to go with Joshua Redman as my highlight. The accomplished jazz saxophonist and composer was performing a special tribute to his father, Dewey Redman, who was part of a project called “Still Dreaming” once upon a time. Compositions from that era as well as some originals were carefully and patiently crafted live before an over-capacity crowd, tightly controlled by Joshua and his all-star band who highlight the intelligent, provocative, warm and immediate pieces that remain jazz treasures after all these years.

6. Monsp Records

Since 1997, this independent Finnish record label has apparently been ruling the hearts and minds of the younger generations. It began as mostly punk but in more recent years has leaned towards hip hop with tough, rough and impressively punchy production; that’s pretty much what we got here, a variety of the label’s artists taking the stage to deliver songs that have obviously long been considered anthems for Helsinki’s hip. At any given moment through the set I would look around and see a dozen or so people rapping word-for-word along with the artists on stage, all of which were in very fine form to help their home commemorate 20 years in the business.

These kind of special, concept performances were found all across Flow Festivals program; not only does this bring a distinctive flavour to the festival, but it also gives international visitors a chance to truly appreciate contemporary Finnish music.

5. Vince Staples

Vince Staples is one of the best emcees the younger generation of rappers, of that I’m certain; especially after this performance. The recently released Big Fish Theory has proven to be a project full of brightly textured electronic-leaning beats and tough-as-nail raps, giving Vince the discography necessary for him to build a live show that is far beyond what many of his peers can put together. The spasmodic, twisted EDM of tracks like “BagBak” fit in perfectly with the energy of fan favourites like “Senorita” and “Blue Suede”, Vince pacing back and forth in front of a bright neon-orange backdrop while guiding the crowd with his dexterous raps. I’ve seen him live a few times now and this was undoubtedly the best.

4. Flume

If he isn’t already, then give it a couple of years time and Flume will be referred to as a pioneer. Australia’s mega-successful producer has become such a big ticket around the globe, a position only hardened with the hit-heavy Skin which was released last year to critical acclaim. Clearly those productions have struck a major chord with the younger generation in Helsinki, with pretty much the entire festival (even with a Death Grips clash) showing up for his midnight live show, taking the warehouse-sized Lapin Kulta Red Arena tent into the palm of his hand, with a dynamic light show that flowed through tracks like “Never Be Like You” and “Yeah Right” plus exceptional interpolations of tracks from Major Lazer, RL Grime, and more.

3. The Holy

Without a doubt my favourite Finnish act of the weekend, at least out of the ones I stumbled upon. Their richly crafted indie rock is busy and, at times, messy, but it’s always in service of hard, emotive and memorable rock & roll. Not every band can boast two drummers on stage and make it sound so smooth, containing all that brash, loud rock and shaping it into soulful songs that built into crowd-pleasing atmospheric dance-rock. The band’s lead vocalist has a crispy Springsteen-like voice, his voice powerful enough to cut through all those ambitious walls of sound with clarity and an expression far beyond what one would expect given the controlled chaos of the instrumentals.

2. Aphex Twin

The Lapin Kulta Red Arena was packed with people ready to immerse themselves in Aphex Twin’s complex digital walls of sound. The iconic British producer started his set off with the ebb and flow of digital waves, fuzzy and sharp textures that were slowly built into tremendous and energetic bursts of electronica, defined by rougher shapes that were smoothed by ever-changing rhythms and bass that made the arena feel like a sweaty warehouse rave. His more-is-more approach to lasers and strobes was a dazzling sight, which changed into hilarious projections towards the end of the set which depicted various artists on the Flow line-up with distorted faces, along with politicians, sports starts and pop culture figures

1. Frank Ocean

I’ve always been a fan of Frank Ocean but have never had the desire to see him live. To me, he always seemed like one of those amazing recording artists who would unfortunately fall flat on stage, not knowing how to express his songs in a way that truly captures the warmth and perfection of cuts like “Thinkin’ Bout You”, “Forest Gump” or “Nights”. Sure, his latest live show has been acclaimed to no end, instantly mythologised with every performance making headlines around the world. But since when isn’t anything Frank Ocean does met with the editorial equivalent of a fawning and hyperbolic child? I’m very weary of hype-beast culture, so I approached Ocean’s Sunday headliner set with modest expectations.

I’m happy to write that I was wrong. In fact, I was very wrong. This was perhaps one of the best headliner sets I’ve seen in a very, very long time. Whether that’s due to Frank’s obvious perfectionism or just the general atmosphere – which was polite, adoring and energetic – I’m not quite sure; all I know is that even tracks from Endless and Blonde that weren’t anything special took on a whole new life with Frank’s performance and his very strict adherence to very particular textures and tones, both in the beats, the live instrumentals, and the vocals.

Within the first two songs – not counting the Ocean-less “Pretty Sweet” introduction – it became apparent that even the slightest kink or sound issue just wouldn’t fly with the 29 year old singer. Nope, he’d re-start “Solo” and “Chanel” when each weren’t sounding precisely the way he wanted to; strutting over to his enormous tape deck and beginning it all again. Casually walking around an island stage, set-up like an open-air recording studio with keyboards scattered around and a strange-looking, air-pressured tower of lights, Frank seemed like the most casual headline act in the history of music festivals. His presence was warm, inviting and surprisingly intimate, mirroring much of the qualities of his music; making us feel like we were in the studio with him had a quieting effect on the crowd as well – or maybe Finnish crowds are significantly more polite than Australian crowds – with everyone silent as Frank’s smooth voice would soar across the industrial space, nuanced and expressive which channeled and gave new life to songs like “Good Guy”, “Chanel”, and “Biking”. It also helped that, for the majority of the set, Frank had a runway packed with an orchestra gently lifting his songs and expanding them into full pieces that were both epic and humble at the same time.

The biggest moment was perhaps “Pyramids”, which he performed in it’s entirety and made quite the show of it as well, engulfed in a grid of purple lasers while the synth-rich beat was compartmentalised and reinterpreted with an extra thud for stadium-worthy impact. Oh, and then you had “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You”, which was the song I was most anxious about hearing live, which was performed in full, twice; first the original and then the second remixed with a slowed-down sample of “Time” by J Dilla.

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Feature image: Flow Festival / Anni Hartikainen