Our gang has recently returned from Waves of Darkness on the Baltic Sea, a festival of neofolk and industrial music that took place on M/S Romantika ferry on 14-16 September. The ferry took off from Stockholm and stopped in Riga before returning. The festival was organized by Death Disco Productions in partnership with legendary industrial music label Cold Meat Industry and featured an all-star line-up: Rome, Ordo Rosarius Equilibrio, Spiritual Front, Brighter Death Now, In Slaughter Natives, Of The Wand And The Moon, Darkwood, Sephiroth,The Protagonist and a few others.
We combined the cruise with a few days in Stockholm, a destination we thought would be pleasant for our first trip as a family of four. Almost four months old, our baby had more or less left the newborn madness behind and started to morph into a reliable travel companion. We were pretty confident that we’d have a great time despite (or because of?) our questionable plan to bring our small children on a neofolk cruise. And we weren’t wrong! My brother, a closet neofolk fan, flew in from Finland to be with us and made it extra special.
As someone who hadn’t been back to the North for a while, Stockholm felt very nostalgic to me. This was a little surprising as I’m not usually prone to nostalgia when it comes to past stages of my own life (as opposed to times and places I never directly experienced, in which case all bets are off). We arrived just as that dark, foreboding, sexy Nordic autumn was setting in. For four days, I binged on licorice, soft ice cream, crisp bread and cinnamon buns, relishing in those first signs of the Best Season. Shout-out to the Old Town’s Lakritsroten, a fine licorice shop and actual heaven on earth.
As for our mainland activities, we kept things pretty basic. On day 1, we visited the National Museum and discovered its Midvinterblot fresco (aka that Blood Axis album cover y’all weirdos know), terrifying sculpture garden and fantastic children’s exhibition. On day 2, we chilled out in Skansen and checked out the bears, wolves and other Nordic animals. On day 3, we marveled at some prehistoric skeletons at the Natural History Museum and took the metro, two activities our 3-year-old son was equally excited about.
Party boat M/S Romantika took off on Saturday. We met my brother, fresh off the airplane, at T-centralen and set course for the Tallink Silja Terminal at Stockholm’s Värtahalmen. Finding there was easy: we just followed the long trail of gothic survivalist types that ran from downtown to the harbor. My brother had spotted a few obvious cases already on his morning flight, clad in complex configurations of Nordic runes and 50 shades of black. Neofolk: not as niche as you thought!
The whole concept of the festival, of course, was bonkers. The neofolk scene is where perpetually sad intellectuals with useless university degrees – I the saddest of them with the most useless degree – come to ruminate on such things as life, death, war, sex, rise and fall of civilizations, apocalypse, ancient gods and the terrible romance of human existence. Nordic-Baltic passenger ferries like M/S Romantika, on the other hand, are where people wearing baseball caps come to get drunk on duty-free alcohol, sing karaoke and pocket food from the breakfast buffet. Were we headed for a collision of lifestyles? Or would it in fact be exactly the kind of carnivalistic marriage of elite meaning with bourgeois form that the neofolk crowd loves? We were intent on finding out.
To facilitate our mission, we’d put together our own timetable for the event. The festival program started around 7 pm on both days. This meant that one of us would always have to stay behind in the cabin to watch our sleeping kids while the other one was out and about.
Luckily, we mostly called dibs on different bands: I on Spiritual Front, Darkwood and Of The Wand And The Moon, my husband on Brighter Death Now, In Slaughter Natives and Ordo Rosarius Equilibrio. I would also have liked to see Sephiroth, but it was logistically easier to give that one to the husband. Rome was the only band we were going to see together, thanks to my brother promising to babysit the kids.
Bedtime that first night was a predictable disaster. Our son was already kind of tired and cranky from a full day of traveling, but before tucking in we wanted to make a quick stop at the merchandise table. I was hoping to pick up the official festival t-shirt, plus a Spiritual Front t-shirt to replace the one I used to have that got lost in the sands of time. Our son wouldn’t have it: he went totally berserk in front of some 200 dark intellectuals and one Simone Salvatori, the devastatingly handsome frontman of Spiritual Front and my imaginary scene boyfriend. We carried him away kicking and screaming. It was all very dignified.
One hour later, the lights were out and both kids were quietly sleeping in their beds. Based on prior experience we were pretty confident that there wouldn’t be a round two during the night. And so I left my husband with my Kindle in the darkness of the cabin — I’ve been making him read Annihilation by Jeff Van Der Meer — and ventured out for my actual festival experience.
Spiritual Front, as always, was amazing. It might not have been their best show ever, but they’re just so fun that I don’t even care. I’ll never not admire the consistency and dedication of a band that has built an entire discography of theatrical dark pop songs about queer BDSM, the pain of being alive and, well, more queer BDSM. And yet their appeal is near universal: out of every 10 people I’ve played it to, regardless of background and taste in music, 9 have fallen in love with it. Their The Smiths cover album is my most anticipated release of (I assume) next year.
All of this reminded me of what I love about the neofolk scene after being in and out of it for over 15 years: the celebration of all things dark and carnal through elaborate symbolism. Sure, the music isn’t always great, as anyone who’s suffered through the complete works of any of the scene’s founding bands knows. Sure, some bands and fans, famously, have trouble separating “freedom of artistic expression” from being an offensive jerk. I’ve certainly been guilty of apologism myself, but I try to check myself these days. What’s more, I see so many other fans, bands and organizers push back on the less savory parts of the scene. Thanks to them I feel better about indulging in the good stuff on offer, such as Spiritual Front and their whole shtick.
After Spiritual Front, my brother took his turn watching the kids and my husband joined me for Rome, a Luxembourgish neofolk project by Jérôme Reuter. Rome is known as one of the better neofolk artists out there and one that’s openly anti-fascist. I enjoyed the show a lot despite not being very familiar with the music from before. Afterwards we had a quick stroll on the ferry’s deck, breathing in the cool air of the Baltic Sea. Then it was time for me to head for the cabin.
When the morning came, we had reached Latvia. I have nothing much to say about it except that it was very cold and rainy. We visited Riga’s Jugendstil Museum and had lunch in the Old Town. Our muscle memory still placed us on the ferry; it felt like the ground was moving under our feet at every step.
Back on the ferry later that evening, the second day of the festival kicked off. I was able to put our son down pretty quickly, but my husband had to pop our baby in a carrier and take her to see Lamia Vox to get her to close her eyes. I don’t know what kind of a testament that is to Lamia Vox, but it’s something. After the two of them returned to the cabin, I went to see Darkwood with my brother. It was nice to hear that proper big folk sound, with drums and violins and all.
After Darkwood, Peter Bjärgö was on. We left to hang out on the deck for a while, but found it too cold and windy — an autumn storm was rising on the sea. We then did a little late-night duty-free shopping and went to release my husband. As he wasn’t ready to re-enter the concert venue either, we sat in the hallway outside of our cabin with some drinks and 700 grams of Reese’s peanut butter cups, in a bit of an impromptu party situation. We were joined by an old friend we hadn’t seen since both him and us left Finland.
Outside, the storm was gaining momentum. When my husband left to see Ordo Rosarius Equlibrio, a band he describes as a guilty pleasure, the ferry was already swaying quite a bit. Lying awake in my bed, I could feel the waves getting stronger and stronger and crashing into the ferry from both sides. I wondered how it would feel at the concert venue two decks up (“People were sick all over the place”, my husband later confirmed).
I’ll admit that all of that movement felt a little unsettling even to me with years of experience of taking passenger ferries in all kinds of weather. However, my sweet and tender children had never experienced anything remotely like it before, and it wasn’t long until they started waking up… and demanding to be helped to fall back asleep… and waking up again… for the rest of the goddamn night. None of us got any real sleep that night. One week later, our baby is going through a bit of a sleep regression, and I can only trace it back to that night. But that’s another story.
By the time we were back in Sweden’s shores, the storm had calmed down and a bright morning sun had pushed the clouds away. We enjoyed a final breakfast on the ferry, said our goodbyes and then we were on our way. My brother took a train towards the airport while the four of us stayed in Stockholm for one more night.
For our last night, we’d booked Skeppsholmen Vandrarhem on Skeppsholmen, a small museum island connected to the mainland by a pedestrian bridge. Hostels aren’t always the best places to bring your kids, but this one worked brilliantly. We were staying alone in a six-bed dorm roomy enough to make our kids sleep in separate areas and still leave space for the parents to have dinner and chill. We had a view over the bay and the beautiful buildings and ships on its other side. At night the winds came back and I felt soothed once again.
Thus ended our first trip as a family of four. Was it all we were hoping it would be? I’d say it was more. Whatever hiccups occurred along the way, the festival was amazing and our kids even more so. I just love seeing our son’s joy over the smallest (and biggest) things when we travel, and I know our daughter will soon follow suit. Maybe next year we will finally take on Mėnuo Juodaragis.