Just a moment away from Helsinki city centre, in an industrial area surrounded by a large construction site, apartment buildings and the sea, there are 25 000 people gathered in a small bubble of new music, pop/punk/rock legends, vegan food, red balloons, modern art, fairy lights and glow-in-the-dark graffiti. In other words, the three days see nearly 15% of the total population of Helsinki (for comparison: if this was in London, the equivalent would be around 1,200,000 people) enter a rabbit hole that leads them to the city's main music event of the year.
At only 12 years of age, Flow Festival has grown to be one of the most-loved festivals in Finland and indeed Europe: it's regularly listed among the top festivals on the continent, right alongside favourites like Primavera Sound. This reputation is certainly deserved; in addition to putting on world-class acts each year (alumni including Kanye West, Florence and the Machine, OutKast, Björk, LCD Soundsystem, Pet Shop Boys and Bon Iver to name a few, with this year alone seeing acts like Sia, Iggy Pop, New Order, Massive Attack and Morrissey), they serve a large offering of upcoming Finnish and Nordic artists. This year all ticket types sold out and the festival had its record number of attendants - though this seems to be the case every year. Something new is is therefore demanded from the festival to set them apart. With Flow, this seems to be their fervent approach to food on offer - everything is provided by local restaurants, with all dishes approved by the organisers - and the range of arts it brings together, taking Flow from just being a music festival to an art festival of sorts.
This is not to say the music doesn't keep you busy all weekend. This year, the festival Friday was filled with interesting, current names like Laura Mvula, Savages and Jamie xx; meanwhile Iggy Pop delivered a characteristically energetic performance, stopping people in their tracks even if they were planning on heading to the smaller stages. The best of Finnish music came in the form of Mikko Joensuu, who had been given an early evening slot in the huge Red Tent. Despite being a newcomer in Finland's music scene without an established fanbase, people flocked to listen to the emotional set. Fronted by Joensuu, who managed to create an intimate atmosphere despite the size of the audience, the show came across as one of the most natural performances of the entire festival; perhaps not least because Joensuu was wrapped in a blanket, as if the whole show took place in a cosy living room.
It is undeniable, though, that the visually arresting, political set from Massive Attack and Young Fathers was the most interesting of the night. Dipping into a variety of genres and heavy topics, touching on issues like the negligence of refugees in Europe, they set the tone for the whole festival: concerts can go beyond entertainment and comfort, slipping into deeper themes, interacting and communicating.
The following day provided an even wider range of music, with Dungen and Liima producing the most intriguing sets, Chvrches charming with a polished and energetic show and M83 enticing a large audience, despite a rather dulling performance. The most captivating displays were on the main stage: in addition to some sleaze, crowd-pleasing and a suggestive, over-the-top, even Elvis-like performance, The Last Shadow Puppets showed both talent and charisma. TLSP didn't gather the largest crowds and may not have been the favourite of many Flow-goers, but even those who weren't their biggest fans couldn't deny their entertainment factor. Following TLSP, FKA twigs treated the audience to an intensely cool, choreographically and visually perfected set that didn't leave anyone cold, despite the reservations that could be seen among the audience members at first.
The closing act was however the most talked-about of the evening: Morrissey filled up the Red Tent and the surrounding area to the brim - with a few unlucky listeners overpouring a little bit too far to enjoy the set. From closer up, though, you could see he was trying a little too hard to be Morrissey. He still has it all when it comes to voice and performance, but there was something dispassionate about the delivery. The enthusiasm and eagerness came through between songs when he encouraged the audiences to not let the political class run the game; shamed Spain, Portugal and Mexico for their bull-fighting tradition; dedicated (slightly unexpectedly) 'I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris' to Paris and Nice; and showed graphic and grotesque videos of animal slaughtering during The Smiths' classic 'Meat is Murder'. This was where he seemed most in his element, and the music appeared to simply be an instrument to deliver these messages, a necessity - a means rather than an end. He intended to provoke and shock, of course, and managed it: a large chunk of the audience decided to leave when the slaughter videos began.
On Sunday, it was a challenge to find anything equally thought-provoking or entertaining as Saturday's acts. Daughter were undeniably on point, but sounded a little bland after a few songs - perhaps this was because they would have suited a smaller stage better. The large tent seemed to drown them out and demanded something a little more extravagant or powerful from the band. A more intimate show on the Bright Balloon stage could have been a much more interesting listening experience. Described as the "punk event of the year", Finland welcomed the rarely-seen-onstage Descendents. Among puns about finishing their tour in Finland, the group seemed to get completely sucked into their performance. There was such sincerity and even childlikeness to their enthusiasm that it was contagious and fun, in a way you wouldn't necessarily expect from a group of middle-aged people whose popularity peaked decades ago.
New Order were one of the most anticipated bands of the festival - one of the festival buildings even boasted a huge neon sign saying: "Tell me how do I feel" (from New Order classic 'Blue Monday'). They didn't disappoint, though they didn't wow either. Their set was long enough to cover a range of songs from different eras, transitioning between ages seamlessly. Similarly to Morrissey's set though, New Order appeared a little lukewarm about playing their biggest hits - apart from their truly moving Ian Curtis tribute at the end when performing 'Love Will Tear Us Apart'. This seemed to open something up that had been missing from the gig until then.
At the same time, the main stage was taken over by Sia's film-like performance. Typically, she stood still most of the time, when the majority of the stage was given to actors and dancers. Whatever happened on stage was portrayed on the screens at the exact same time, though with a quality of filming that seemed prove it had been filmed beforehand and very carefully crafted to coincide with the live show with complete precision. This left many in the audience slightly confused - some disappointed as they wanted to see the actual performance, and some fascinated by the novel approach and varied show.
The whole festival finished with Anohni's Hopelessness - a final reminder of the messages many artists had been trying to deliver throughout the weekend, though this time it was even more refined and better verbalised within the songs. An unexpected headliner of the Red Tent, the combination of Anohni's voice, the haunting themes and the expressive videos created an atmosphere that was in fact perfect for closing the festival.
It would be silly, then, to deny that Flow was a success. But with a line-up similar to other festivals, maybe there should be even more focus on the bolder bookings, who are already given main stage slots earlier in the day. With that said, it is the biggest names that attract audiences, and bringing the likes of New Order, FKA twigs and Sia to Finland is a huge boost to the city's music scene. Flow should still be careful about slipping into the Glastonbury slope of booking any big name that is available - giving smaller acts top slots would allow the festival to profile itself as an event that aids the showcasing and discovering of new music, which it has always done on its smaller stages. Otherwise, what will Flow have to offer to keep crowds returning year after year?
See our festival galleries here: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3.