It is said that there are more saunas than cars in Finland. Apologies for trotting out this hoary factoid, but there’s something about it that feels germane to an understanding of Flow. Fifteen editions in, this popular Helsinki festival prides itself on being one of world’s first carbon neutral festivals, with clearly semaphored commitment to sustainability. The site itself, despite its location amidst chimney stacks, gas holders and other markers of industry, is tranquil and navigable, dotted with new wave vegan food stands, plus a well-stocked wine bar where well-heeled Finns purchase bottles of organic wine to slip inside their Fjallravens. There’s no sauna, but there is a cinema. In short, it feels nice.
Still, this atmosphere of Nordic wholesomeness, a sensation perhaps heightened by the prohibitively expensive price of alcohol, can sometimes be a barrier. When we arrive on Thursday, Earl Sweatshirt is struggling to connect to a reserved crowd. His insular performance feels adrift in the expansive mainstage, although the crowd whoops when he reveals that the gasping sample in Grief is Erykah Badu, due on the same stage later that evening. The reserved atmosphere is far from a one-off: Essex industrial veterans Nitzer Ebb, never ones to embrace the art of subtlety, play to a respectful throng who nod along to the visceral arpeggiations of Join in the Chant and remain stoic in the face of some salacious chest-hair twirling on the part of Douglas McCarthy.
It is Solange who finally breaks through, with a set conversely defined by control and precision. Against a gallery-white set and flanked by a besuited band who tease out the jazz inflections of her sound, Solange suffuses material from A Seat at the Table and When I Get Home with an unexpected, albeit low-key theatricality. A cheer erupts when she places a cowboy hat on her head and swings her microphone like a lasso during Down with the Clique. Spectacularly, she directs the empowering, emphatically politically FUBU to Erykah Badu, who has stayed behind to watch from the wings. Such a shame, then, that, Solange’s microphone is switched off when she spills over the midnight curfew. A chaotic ending for such a carefully plotted performance.
For all of Flow’s crowd-pleasing programming – ranging from Sunday night headliners The Cure to Finnish superstar Alma – the most interesting, and energised, aspects of the festival lies at its margins. The Reaktor stage, actually a garden tucked away at the back of the site, boasts a line-up of underground DJs that is genuinely thrilling. Belgium DJ Nosedrip drops Chris and Cosey and Clan of Xymox to an up-for-it early doors contingent blotto on lonkero while Lena Willikens and Vladimir Ivkovic turn a blind eye to the civilised start time of 10.15pm on Sunday to dig deep into the folds of their trademark wigginess. Throughout the weekend, the Red Garden is home for the queer-aligned and subversive, including a frankly baffling performance from Bunni Groupe affiliate Bernardino Femminielli in assless chaps and, on Sunday, the reconstructed hardstyle fashionings of Gabba Eleganza. Experimental, underground music finds an apposite home in a pitch-dark concrete outbuilding. When we give up trying to access the tent housing Robyn’s Saturday night headlining performance, we end up here, switching one kind of dancefloor catharsis for another, courtesy of an intense, searing set from Berlin’s Amnesia Scanner.
Overcast skies embellish The Cure’s set on Sunday with a peculiar, elemental poetry. Despite some sound issues, the band move nimbly through their discography, from the psychedelia of A Forest to the chiming pop of In Between Days, with the darkest reaches of their oeuvre mainly represented by Play For Today, 100 Years and the surfeit of middle aged goths in the audience. Robert Smith is clearly enjoying himself, hugging his guitar close and hazarding awkward puns that pivot on the homophone finish and Finnish (“see, this is why I don’t talk much” he qualifies). Sunday, though, belongs to Flohio. Quite literally: “This is my festival: Flo festival!” she declares, from the centre of an in-the-round auditorium. Blessed with a spiky charisma, she orchestrates one of the most rapturous receptions of the entire weekend, demanding that the crowd unleash their inner beasts for Wild Yout. The response, a maelstrom of flailing limbs, causes the security guards to cast nervous glances. It provides the release we’ve been hankering after. Now, about that sauna.