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Raving under the Midnight Sun: Solstice Festival 2019

9 hours North of Finland’s capital city Helsinki, on the lip of the Arctic Circle, a 500m high hill juts out of the surrounding pine forests and lakes and is known as Ruka. Whilst no mountain, this hill is tall enough for those on top to gaze out on a clear day for hundreds of miles in every direction, even over the Russian border to the East. It’s a well-known ski resort, equipped with sauna-filled chalets, restaurants serving delicious burgers and traditional Finnish cuisine, and enough facilities for the average family to pitch up for the week and not need to get back in the car.

It’s not the first place you’d think of setting up a dance music festival. With limited access from the chalet side, and a steep climb to the very peak, logistically it poses some pretty demanding questions. And yet, it’s often the case that the hardest work yields the sweetest fruit.

This is true of Solstice: a collaborative project run by the owners of Post Bar in Helsinki, in harmony with the site managers at Ruka. It’s a three day rave in celebration of the Northern Hemisphere’s Midnight Sun, a phenomenon in which over the summer solstice the sun never fully sets. This deserves reiterating: a 3-day dance music festival without night.

The connotations are broader than you might think. When exposed to high levels of sunlight the body naturally begins to produce reduced levels of melatonin, a chemical which creates the feeling of drowsiness. Animals such as the local brown bear and reindeer population can remain awake throughout the whole of the summer months — and let’s not forget that humans are animals too.

Of course, raised energy levels are only as good as the activities available to expend energy on. The Solstice crew more than supplied the goods, with a stunning lineup featuring some of the best international names in dance music imaginable. D. Tiffany, Buttechno, Spekki Webu, Shanti Celeste, DJ Nobu, and Mama Snake all graced the top of the poster — but it was the blending of these with unknown and rising Finnish stars which stood the festival up to such a high standard.

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Over the weekend Solstice was a testament to the prowess of all the artists present, to the majestic beauty of Finland, and to the courage and strength of vision of those involved in organising what transpired to be an almost sacred weekend at the top of the world.

Thursday’s lineup was mostly a family affair, with Denzel b2b J.Lindroos running things on the Valley stage, a wooden platform tucked in the lee of the peak and facing out to Russia. Between sets by the Helsinki crew Buttechno performed a brief and rare live set showing not only his essential contributions to modern techno but also the pulling power of the festival, and a clearly strong connection between the artists and the organisers.

The Ambient Tipi showcased the premiere of a new project rooted in the natural landscape of the country, a collection of field recording soundscapes constructed entirely from recordings from the far north of Finland, in Lapland. The project aims to document and exemplify the dynamic seasonal changes of the far north of the country (they have 8, not 4, seasons, each finely tuned to the natural environment). Consisting of one long-form minimal ambient track per season and an open-source library of the sounds, the project has a great deal of potential. It’s a bewitching live experience, stroboscopic flitting lights accompanying the somewhat haunting sounds of boots in snow and other, more mysterious recordings from the depths of Lapland.

The Peak stage — sparingly constructed within a temporarily unused ski lift building clad with glass and facing the expanse towards Russia — remains tantalisingly shut for the day. Natural Sciences-endorsed Sansibar heads back to back with Linda Lazarov on the Valley Stage until the early close at 02:00 -weaving their combined tastes through sludgy techno, slow-mo electronic ballroom acid, all the way up to elevated trance.

Robert Leiner’s essential classic ‘Aqua Viva sailing through the mix was a golden moment in the early morning sunlight, crowd cheering their approval to the breaking day. It’s a heartwarming moment, witnessing the connection between the DJ’s and their friends in the tight-knit scene in Helsinki. This, perhaps, is the most prevalent pattern throughout the festival.

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The first hours of Friday bear the brunt of a rainstorm of Godly proportions. For the unprepared sheltering in a tipi with a drink is about all that can be done throughout the belting rain, yet the Valley stage remains fully represented with a crew of dancers well-equipped for the weather. Fortunately the deluge doesn’t last long, and up at the sheltered Peak stage DJ Rubio delivers a live set, which packaged up influences from myriad styles of club music into a hell of an hour, firmly stamped with his unique sonic identity (showcased on his recently self-released album).

Rubio’s face was barely without an ear-to-ear smile, matched by the crowd as the sun cuts through the cloud cover and clears the valley, and exposing the endless forest heading out of sight over the Russian border. The diversity of the music played, particularly when compared with the softer tones exposed on his album, show that Rubio is sitting on a treasure trove of unreleased brilliance; a true jewel in the crown of the Finnish dance music scene, completely evidenced by the three rounds of raucous applause from the crowd as (our track premiere) “Cannonball” closes the set.

Whilst the successor on the Peak stage provides dark and kicking techno textures, down in the valley Olli Koponen and Yu Chuan perform a B2B set placed somewhere between oddball disco/house tracks you’ve never heard before, and rave-spirit acid house, fluently turning between the two. It’s a strong display of the duos tastes and creativity in packing for the set, and the dancers lap it up.

Later, gal of the moment D Tiffany won the crowd in a heartbeat, her jitterbug madness flicking the crowd from left to right as she cooly navigated paths unseen between feverish electro and breakbeat, touched up with a hefty dose of the slickest acid lines about. Grins on faces, 2 hours fly by as she does her thing how she does it best, demonstrating her essential position in the game.

Dutch trance master Spekki Webu, owner of trance revivalist label Mirrorzone, took the reins and provided the hard dance of the evening, weaving doggedly between uplifting trance keys and damaging rave materialism. Meanwhile, down in the valley stage Finnish disco outfit Better Things To Do heated the crowd into a keen frenzy prior to Bristol’s most in-demand house export, Shanti Celeste, who slew the competition with a wild mix of deep house and breaks cut with material tuned to the key of her Peach Discs records. A set laced with dub-weight basslines and sunshine chords was finished on an undoubtable high with The Human League’s classic, ‘Don’t You Want Me’. Celeste seemed to love every minute of her performance just as much as the spiralling crowd.

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The programming for the whole day rode between heavy electronic and equally danceable, more classic styles of dance music. The line was finely struck and perfectly executed, and though the contrast may have been strongest during Spekki’s hardcore rave up the hill and Celeste’s energetic but relatively more downbeat material down in the valley, throughout the day a bit of bouncing between stages kept interest and energy levels high — a rare thing in a world of clashing lineups and “single sound” events.

Saturday’s wind picked up where Friday’s rain left off, delaying proceedings for a few hours as the site atop the fell was closed for safety reasons. Not missing a beat, set-times were swiftly rearranged to accommodate everyone, and all of that delay meant there was a few extra hours for a lie-in or sauna — no bad thing after yesterday’s action, especially with high-intensity acts of such calibre as DJ Nobu and Mama Snake rounding off the festival.

Helsinki’s apparent unanimous favourite (and understandably so) Antti Salonen took the peak stage by the throat with a gritty selection of techno and acid. Once more the local talent showed off their well-earned stripes as across his set Salonen cut the floor up with top-tier selections and deft mixing. The early-doors festival goers showed no semblance of sobriety as they shook the cobwebs loose.

With just an hour before Nobu and Mama Snake closed the festival there was just enough time to scope out the other stages before the unmissable finale. Down in the Valley, DJ Jese served up a jubilant helping of soul and disco heaven, giving the feel-good lovers their much-needed dose, whilst in the Ambient tent the mysterious Огни delivered a riveting set of his own brand of “pagan ambient music”. Pointillistic, fogged with drone, stacked full of emotion and never dull, Огни is undoubtedly a name to watch.

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Up the hill and into the final hours of Solstice, DJ Nobu was busy scrambling the crowd with mind-meltingly raw and psychedelic techno. Fully rough around the edges and fearlessly relentless in sustained pressure, the Japanese DJ raised the barometer and whipped up a tempest. None were stationary. Closing with a slower, more pensive number was an executive decision only dared by a true craftsman satisfied with his work — and a considerate gesture too: tired legs needed brief respite before the final act.

Excitement becomes a tangible entity hanging in the air as Copenhagen’s sitting Queen of Dance steps to the controls. As the opener begins to thunder from the speakers, dense cloud cover wraps the peak in a misty blanket. No matter about the loss of view; all senses are trained keenly on the stage in keen anticipation of the journey ahead. Wasting no time in transporting us to a different galaxy, Mama Snake’s ship sails to the tune of unparalleled electro and acid — but it’s her trance music that reigns supreme. The set was laced with diamonds, from Gecko’s hammering ‘Just Close Your Eyes, to recently unearthed gems such as Mehen’s blistering opus ‘Avalanches of Compromise’, released on her own label.

Shuddering, rolling-thunder bass makes the world beyond Ruka seem immaterial; the fog outside seeps inside and holds us hostage. Summoning Copenhagen’s celebrated spirit of lightning fast techno and trance, Mama Snake’s set could have lasted 12 hours and you wouldn’t have cared, nor stopped dancing. But this was no drug-fuelled mindless rave: there was a deep connection between DJ and ravers that went way beyond that transitory love, which was all too obvious as the heart-filling final track (Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’) was sung back word-by-word as the DJ took the time off-stage to enjoy her final moments of the festival.

With such a performance it was hard to walk away from the stage: the festival seemed over all too soon, all too suddenly. To tear oneself away from the astonishing beauty of the location and the festival as a whole was like walking in leaden boots, but there’s a sad saying about all good things — and this particular thing was much more than all good.

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There’s no denying the closeness of Solstice. It seemed that between each essential component there was a beautiful connection: between DJ and crowd; between the Post Bar residents and their supporters; between the small yet elite group of international artists and the organisers and promoters; between the festival-goers, and between humans and nature. Each were central to the experience, although it must be said that the connection with nature is something I have never experienced to such an extent before at any festival.

Whereas in the UK and other places in the EU it seems like festivals are carved into the local landscape (with frequent reports of massive damage and the spoiling of the local environment), Solstice worked in harmony with Ruka, and so the experience of nature was untainted and pure. We may not have had the most perfect weather, but it did not detract from the experience. In fact, it only heightened the brightest moments once the sun did pull through. That the rain and wind came and played their part was welcomed, as it reminded us all that we weren’t in some field a half hour away from a town, but out in the real wilderness, raving in the clouds.

The festival would have been impossible without the trust and co-operation of the management at Ruka. Furthermore, the contract for further editions is for a minimum of three years — it seems truly a rarity in current times to see such commitment and confidence from landowners willing to let out their land for a festival.

It’s a bold move to allow some 1,000 ravers up onto a treasured natural jewel, but it just goes to show the clarity of vision and spirit of passion of those involved in organising. It seems many of the international artists had the same experience in dealing with the Post Bar Posse: Mama Snake was there for the full festival; D.Tiffany stayed till the very end.

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However, despite the solid gold international acts, the true pleasure as an outsider was to discover the richness of talent within the Helsinki music scene first-hand. If I could revisit the festival again on the condition of only seeing local talent play, I’d leap at the chance.

Solstice was not the culmination of some spare cash and a desire to throw a party with international guests, but the organic produce of years of dedicated hard work and true-spirited effort, a network within a new generation supporting each other to expand the limits of their capabilities. In a world of endless iterations of soulless festivals filled with advertising and mass-marketing, cliches and tired stereotypes, when something like this emerges you’re a fool not to grab it while it lasts.

As for Solstice 2020, limited tickets are now available. I simply cannot recommend getting one enough: see you at the top.

Photography by Pietari Purovaara, Samu Kintsa, Sanni Riihimäki

Top Tips for Solstice 2020

1: Plan Early – cheap accommodation and coach tickets from Helsinki will likely sell out quick once they’re available, so get your foot in the door.

2: Save a bit – Everyone knows Scandinavian countries aren’t the cheapest of places. That said, if you’re already living in one of Europe’s capital cities, you won’t be too shocked by drink prices.

3: Explore Ruka – There’s plenty to do, from hiking and mountain biking to yoga. Make the most of your time in nature.

4: Pack for every weather – Finnish Midsummer can be unpredictable. Prepare for the best and worst of it.

5: Mosquito Repellant – Bring it.

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