July 15-18, 2015
Ten years. That’s how long it had been since Jen and I last attended the prestigious Bang Your Head Festival. It wasn’t that we disliked the event. It’s just that we decided our energies were better focused on smaller, more intimate festivals like Keep It True, Up the Hammers, Pounding Metal, Warriors of Metal, Ragnarokkr and so on. You see, Bang Your Head is a big fest. It’s not Wacken big, to be sure, but it consistently draws approximately 15,000 metalheads per year. That’s a large metal festival, in any sense of the word. Notwithstanding our proclivity for smaller fests, we decided it was time to pay a return visit to Bang Your Head this year (we had attended in 2002 and 2005) in honor of the Festival’s 20th anniversary blowout, in which fest organizers expanded the event to three full days (rather than the usual two), plus the traditional preparty the night before.
Wednesday, July 15, 2015
After a couple of delightful days with cool weather in the biergartens of Stuttgart, we woke up today and took the DB regional train to Balingen, a painless 75-minute ride through the countryside of Baden-Wurttemberg. We arrived at the Balingen train station, weighed down by tent, sleeping bag, towels, etc., at 11:45 a.m. and proceeded directly to the CP2 campsite (an easy 5-minute walk from the festival grounds, with the added bonus of a Real supermarket across the street), which had just opened this morning. Here we encountered our first hiccup. You see, the CP2 site was advertised as being “open camping;” however, clever Germans had already staked out virtually all of the available space for themselves and their (not-yet-arrived) friends. Time after time, we located a vacant patch of green grass and began setting up our tent, only to have a sunburnt German metalhead come over and fuss at us that we were not welcome there. It was very frustrating, particularly given that there are not supposed to be any “reserved” camping places at CP2, such that any space not presently in use should have been fair game. I didn’t feel like arguing with our prospective neighbors, however, so Jen and I kept wandering through the campsite as nomads in search of a home. Finally, a group of kindhearted Germans took pity on us and our ridiculously tiny tent, and allowed us to “squat” on their territory. Thanks, kindhearted German dudes. The next step was actually assembling the tent, which we hadn’t done in ten years. The results were predictably error-filled and hilarious. I’ve no doubt our German hosts derived great mirth from observing our futility from the comfort of their sunshade. Eventually, after much cursing and gnashing of teeth, we got the S.O.B. put together, and we were home sweet home for the next four nights.
It was hot today, probably in the upper 80s with bright sunshine beating down on all the pale campers below. As a result, Jen and I devoted much of the afternoon to finding patches of shade near the campsite to take refuge from the heat until 6:00 p.m., when the doors opened for the warm-up show. In contrast to 2005, when we were last here, the BYH Festival now has two stages, a huge open-air stage and a smaller stage in the adjacent recently-constructed Halle building. The pre-party was held exclusively in the Halle, so this evening marked our first opportunity to check out that facility. It’s a large, sparse, nondescript exhibition hall (capacity approximately 2,000) with concrete floors and a low stage constructed at the far end. The Furstenberg beer vendor established booths in the hall, selling Pils and (my favorite) Weizen in 0.3L servings for 3.80 Euros all weekend long. The trick was that neither the beer vendor nor any other food/beverage vendor at the festival accepted cash. Instead, you had to convert your cash into tickets (called “Bons”), with each Bon worth 1.90 Euros. Food and drink were priced in Bons. So 2 Bons would get you a beer, 3 Bons would get you a water (haha, Germans charge less for beer than they do for water!) and so on. The Halle was nowhere near full tonight, presumably because of the uninspiring pre-party lineup that had been convened. By the way, as we were waiting for the bands to start tonight, we spied BYH promoter Horst, so we made a point of going over to introduce ourselves and thank him for the event. Horst was in something of a dark mood this evening. All he wanted to talk about with us was the fact that the weather forecast called for temperatures of 39 degrees Celsius (102 Fahrenheit) during the festival. Yikes! What happened to our balmy Stuttgart biergarten weather? That’s okay. We’re tough. We can handle being outside all day for three days in triple-digit heat rocking out to some of our favorite bands, right? Right??? Things seem to have just gotten a bit more complicated for the home team. The warm-up party kicked off with NOPLIES, a local Balingen act given the honor of beginning the festival. I had never heard of Noplies before and wasn’t particularly impressed with these short-haired Germans’ brand of traditional metal mixed with modern rock. Still, I applaud the gesture of allowing a local act to be first on the stage during the Bang Your Head Festival (even though I would have preferred it to be Balingen natives Stormhunter instead), and the lads definitely gave it their all.
Nitrogods was supposed to play next; however, they no-showed for reasons that I never heard (somebody probably explained from the stage in German, I just couldn’t understand). As a result, next up was the band that most people seemed most enthused about tonight (judging by the number of their t-shirts spied in the crowd), BATTLE BEAST. This was my first live experience with the Finns, who seem to be surging in popularity on the strength of their third album, ‘Unholy Savior.’ I was predisposed against Battle Beast, even though I own and like all their albums, given the vampish appearance of blonde singer Noora Louhimo and the band’s recent headlines of kicking out founder / sole writer / guitarist Anton Kabanen. That just ain’t cool. Oh, and Battle Beast had a crapload of backing tracks (operated by laptop computer) and a keytar player tonight, both no-nos in my book. (Poor guy was saddled with serious tech issues all night too.) Despite these negative marks, I wound up being quite pleased with Battle Beast’s 50-minute set. They played a mostly well-chosen mix of the better tracks from all three albums. Louhimo sang with more power and poise than I would have expected. And bassist Eero Sipila (the heir apparent to leadership over the band in the wake of Kabanen’s unceremonious ouster) was fun to watch and listen to as he headbanged mightily and engaged in funny between-songs banter with the crowd. I still say some of Battle Beast’s material barely qualifies as metal (hell, “Touch in the Night” can’t even be called hard rock with a straight face, can it?), but this Finnish sextet put on a professional, entertaining set clearly demonstrating their readiness for a USA debut in the not-too-distant future. They’d be a no-brainer for ProgPower USA, for example. Setlist: Far Far Away, I Want the World … and Everything in It, Out on the Streets, Let It Roar, Into the Heart of Danger, Black Ninja, Unholy Savior, Iron Hand, Touch in the Night, Enter the Metal World, Out of Control.
In a rather drastic stylistic shift, NUCLEAR ASSAULT followed Battle Beast on the Halle stage. Wow, we went from keyboardy Euro pop-metal to old-school crossover in two seconds flat! Having witnessed this band’s headlining performance in Chicago at the Ragnarokkr festival two months ago, I knew what to expect from the long-running New York thrashers: A quality performance that couldn’t match the searing intensity of the band’s glory days, but that did not tarnish or compromise the band’s legacy either. That’s pretty much what we got, too. The visual focal points of Nuclear Assault today are diminutive, heavyset, short-haired guitarist/vocalist John Connelly (not having problems gripping his pick tonight like he did in Chicago) and tall, lanky, fountain-of-youth bassist Danny Lilker. Sure, the sound is kind of sloppy, with the music all too often devolving into an undecipherable wall of noise. But it still does my heart good to see Lilker and Connelly (and white-haired Glenn Evans behind the drums, for that matter), and it sure is hard to argue with some of the gems in their catalog like “Rise from the Ashes,” “New Song,” “Sin,” and “Trail of Tears.” A humorous aspect of Nuclear Assault’s gig tonight was that for the first three songs, Lilker didn’t have a microphone because of technical issues, such that he was forced to come over to Connelly’s (much shorter) mike stand and lean way over to bark out his vocal lines in “Brainwashed,” for example. Finally, Connelly wryly observed, “At some point, Danny’s going to need his own mike,” after which the issue was corrected. No setlist surprises or, really, any differences from the Chicago set in May, although Nuclear Assault did cut a couple of tracks to fit within the allotted time in Balingen. I spent the first three songs front-row center, then gladly vacated my position after getting kicked in the head not once but twice by crowdsurfers. Not sure what I was expecting – that’s supposed to happen at Nuclear Assault gigs. Setlist: Rise from the Ashes, Brainwashed, F#, New Song, Critical Mass, Game Over, Buttf**k, Sin, Betrayal, Analog Man in a Digital World, Died in Your Arms, Wake Up, When Freedom Dies, My America, Hang the Pope, Lesbians, Trail of Tears.
For my money, that was basically the end of the warm-up show. Oh sure, there were two more bands to follow Nuclear Assault tonight, but I wasn’t really interested in either one. SEPULTURA has held no allure for me for more than two decades. Tonight I watched a few of their songs from a distance, but couldn’t get into them at all. Didn’t like the vocals or the music on most of the songs, although it was mildly interesting to hear “Dead Embryonic Cells” for the first time in many years. I dunno. This style of music doesn’t do much for me these days, and with the absence of Max and Igor it really doesn’t seem like an entity that can credibly tour under the Sepultura banner anymore. But that’s just me. The headliner spot tonight went to J.B.O., who are billed as “Germany’s premier comedy metal act” in the program booklet. I’ve seen J.B.O. before, and their goofy schtick did nothing for me then (of course, the language barrier could play a role in that). In the interest of conserving our hearing and trying to get a good night’s sleep before the three-day, all-day onslaught of the Festival proper ensued, Jen and I skipped out on J.B.O. altogether and ventured back to the surprisingly quiet and peaceful CP2 campsite to our home sweet home tent. It wasn’t easy to sleep in there. The hard, lumpy ground was uncomfortable for our unaccustomed backs and the temperatures became surprisingly chilly, a fact for which we were underprepared. Plus, there was the excitement factor of being at Balingen, so we were both pretty wired. Not much sleep came to either one of us and the clock ticked slowly toward Thursday morning.
Thursday, July 16, 2015
German summer days are long. So it should come as no surprise that we were awakened before 6:00 a.m. by light streaming into our tent. Time to rise and shine! First order of business this morning (like every morning at the campsite) was to walk over to the nearby metal trough to partake of the running water. You could stick your head under a crappy spigot, wash your face and underarms, soap yourself down, and brush your teeth. Not as good as a proper shower, sure, but we’ll take it. Then we walked into town and bought some yogurt, pastries and breakfast beers, which we consumed on a shady bench in a quaint square adjacent to a church. We couldn’t help but notice, as we sipped on our Weizens and nibbled on our Fruhstuck, that it was already hot as hell in Balingen, with not a cloud in the sky. Given these extreme weather conditions, it looked like today was going to be something of an endurance test, standing out there on the scorching blacktop watching bands all day. Doors were at 11:00 a.m. this morning, with attentive security staff confiscating Jen’s sealed bottle of water on the way into the grounds. Really, on a day this hot, you’re not going to let people bring in sealed water bottles? The official fest rules said that only 1L tetrapaks (i.e., cardboard boxes) of water would be allowed on the festival site, but we searched multiple grocery stores in vain for tetrapaks of water. (Fortunately, the fest organizers relented on the last two days of the event and allowed 1L tetrapaks of any nonalcoholic liquid, which worked well because you could find fruit juices and teas in the requisite cardboard packaging, getting sustenance as well as hydration.) At any rate, the festival site is the Messegelande, or fairgrounds, of Balingen. It’s essentially a large open expanse of blacktop anchored by the massive open air stage on the eastern edge (right next to the Halle), and an array of vendors on the western side. We explored the festival site a little bit, then made our way to the front of the stage shortly before noon.
UK thrashers ONSLAUGHT were given the honor of beginning the outdoor festivities today. The band’s recent output is hit-and-miss for me, but I do dearly love their ‘The Force’ opus from 1986, so I was looking forward to seeing Nige Rockett and the boys for the first time today. They opened with the seminal “Let There Be Death” track off ‘The Force,’ but I didn’t recognize it for some time because (i) the stage sound was muddy and overwhelmed by bass, and (ii) vocalist Sy Keeler doesn’t do any high screams anymore, but has adopted a much gruffer overall tone, to which he has adapted the vocal lines of the old ‘The Force’ songs. Although Rockett and the other stringed players were mostly static on stage, Keeler gave a noble effort to his frontman duties despite the vicious heat. He wandered out onto the protruding catwalk in the crowd repeatedly and chatted amiably with the crowd between songs. His only real misstep was professing his love for “Bavarian beer,” which caused murmurs of dissatisfaction all around me. (You see, Balingen isn’t in Bavaria. It’s in Baden-Wurttemberg, and they’re proud of their own regional beers here. Whoops.) Songs like “Metal Forces” and “Killing Peace” (with its striking “spitting blood in the face of God” tagline) went over well, and there were plenty of smiles and sweat around the fairgrounds when things came to a climax with “Power from Hell.” I have a feeling Onslaught’s power and fury translate better on a small dark club stage than on a huge sun-drenched outdoor festival stage, but I’ll take what I can get. Partial Setlist: Let There Be Death, Killing Peace, Destroyer of Worlds, 66-Fucking-6, Fight with the Beast, Metal Forces, Children of the Sand, Sound of Violence, Power from Hell.
It’s interesting how the subgenres clash at a big festival like BYH. After the ferocious thrash attack of Onslaught, we segued into the sleaze/glam/Sunset Strip sounds of HARDCORE SUPERSTAR. I’m only dimly familiar with the recorded output of these long-running Swedes; however, they’ve obviously amassed a huge following in Europe, judging by the large number of HCSS shirts I saw near the front of the stage during their set. The stage featured an enormous brightly colored backdrop that effectively camouflaged the band members. Diminutive guitarist Vic Zino wore his heavy leather jacket for the entire gig. Poor guy must have been melting. Vocalist Jocke Berg is definitely the visual focal point of Hardcore Superstar, relentlessly pacing and working the stage, intense heat be damned. Great frontman. Adding to the genre clash spirit of the moment, he was wearing a Venom ‘Welcome to Hell’ shirt. Imagine in the 80s if the singer of a glam band wore a Venom shirt onstage. It wouldn’t happen. Those worlds simply never collided. Anyway, Hardcore Superstar put on a completely fun, professional set of good-time sleaze-rockin’ tunes. There were a bunch that I didn’t recognize, apparently because they played five or so tracks from the first album, which I do not own. Nonetheless, “Last Call for Alcohol” brought out the party vibe, with the band downing shots as a dozen or more young women came onstage to drink and sing along. “Moonshine,” “Don’t Mean Shit” and “We Don’t Celebrate Sundays” were also bigtime highlights, and a whole lot of fun. The gig ended on a high note with Berg leading the crowd to sing the “F**k the law” refrain of “Above the Law” as a roadie dismantled the drumkit, midsong. Good times. Partial Setlist: Need no Company, Lost Forever, My Good Reputation, Touch the Sky, Last Call for Alcohol, Cry Your Eyes Out, White Boys, Don’t Mean Shit, Moonshine, We Don’t Celebrate Sundays, Above the Law. Perhaps the lightest weight band of the entire weekend was H.E.A.T. I’ll admit to have a soft spot for the Swedish lads, even though their brand of Bon Jovi-influenced keyboard-laden AOR/hard rock generally isn’t my thing at all. Their intro music was, appropriately enough, “The Heat is On,” which had much of the crowd singing along and air-saxophoning (okay, not really). What followed was a totally enjoyable set of innocuous bubblegum fluff. Floppy mohawked scrawny singer Erik Gronwall (decked out in a shirt reading “Let’s Regret It On”) may be a pretty boy kneeling down at the front of the stage and moving his eyebrows up and down with an impish grin, but the dude has a hell of a set of pipes. The songs were expertly played and easy on the ears, with the crowd responding favorably to the big hooks and AOR choruses. Gronwall actually came down off the high stage into the photo pit to sing set closer “Living on the Run” eyeball to eyeball with the folks in the front row. Nice touch. For a summer festival, with the sun beating down and the sweat pouring off your body, H.E.A.T. were a perfectly entertaining and fitting diversion. Setlist: Point of No Return, A Shot at Redemption, Better off Alone, It’s All About Tonight, Inferno, Tearing Down the Walls, Mannequin Show, Bad Bad Bad (with Highway Star excerpt), Emergency, Living On the Run. Unfortunately, the heat really was getting severe by this point (3:00 p.m.). Jen was thoroughly enjoying the band H.E.A.T., when she became overcome with a heat-related sinking spell and had to retreat to the shade of the Halle, which was kept open during the day with benches, food/drink vendors, restrooms and shelter to accommodate exhausted metalheads in need of a breather. Signing sessions also happened in the Halle during the day. By late afternoon, however, the Halle was repurposed into a secondary live music venue, such that from about 6:00 p.m. onward, bands were performing contemporaneously on the Halle and Open Air stages. Anyway, Jen retreated to the Halle for hydration and shelter, leaving me to sweat it out alone on the blacktop near the front of the Open Air stage for the next two bands, who provided two of my favorite performances of the weekend.
I’ve been a big fan of Sweden’s GRAND MAGUS for many years, ever since the Wolf’s Return album in 2005, where their sound began mutating away from the stoner/doom style and incorporating increasingly more trad metal / early Manowar type influences. For all of that, I’d never had an opportunity to witness the power trio in a live setting. Today changed that, as J.B., Fox and Ludwig floored me with a pummeling selection of their best songs from the last decade. Okay, they were kind of a static presence on stage. There was no running around and very little movement by J.B. (guitars/vocals) and Fox (bass/backing vocals), but it didn’t matter because they were producing the most magical, crushingly heavy wall of sound. The titanic riffs and mirror-shaded J.B.’s mesmerizing vocals merged perfectly into a sonic experience that was as powerful as it was primal. Perhaps they would have been better suited for a small dark club stage, but Grand Magus enthralled the crowd, garnering a huge crowd reaction and a nearly neverending epic singalong to “Hammer of the North” to finish off the set. One humorous note during the gig was that about halfway through, I noticed Mark Briody of Jag Panzer in the photo pit during “Triumph and Power,” rocking out with his fist in the air. A few minutes later, I noticed the security staff escorting him out of the photo pit (where he apparently wasn’t authorized to be). Undeterred, Mark worked his way to the front row about 10 feet from where I was standing to enjoy “Like the Oar Strikes the Water” in all of its glory. Grand Magus are a special band, indeed, and they rocked Balingen hard today. Setlist: Ravens Guide Our Way, I the Jury, Sword of the Ocean, On Hooves of Gold, Kingslayer, Triumph and Power, Like the Oar Strikes the Water, Steel Versus Steel, Iron Will, Hammer of the North.
So let’s see: We’ve worked our way from thrash to sleaze/glam to AOR to doom/trad. What’s next? How about some more thrash? I hadn’t seen DEATH ANGEL since the final BWBK Sixpack Weekend in Cleveland back in 2005. To say I was excited about seeing these veteran Bay Area thrashers would be a huge understatement. They exceeded my expectations today. Hitting the stage backed by a striking banner featuring the artwork from ‘The Dream Calls for Blood,’ Death Angel took no prisoners on this day. Singer Mark Osegueda was all over the stage, spending more time on the catwalk protruding into the crowd than anyone else had done so far. Guitarists Rob Cavestany and Ted Aguilar were right there with him, taking multiple opportunities to hit the catwalk for solo spots. Bare-chested bassist Damien Sisson looked like Cliff Burton’s buff nephew with his bellbottoms and his Rickenbacker. The main thing to know about the Death Angel set, though, is that they whipped up a prodigious amount of energy, sparking the weekend’s first large circle pit in front of the stage and landing one punch after another, whether on new stuff like “Son of the Morning,” old stuff like “Voracious Souls,” or vicious closer “Thrown to the Wolves.” The entire set fit together seamlessly and sounded superb. Osegueda was in a talkative mood in between songs. Not sure how much the Germans understood, but he talked about being reflective upon the release of their new Thrashumentary DVD, thinking about the glory years of the past and the glory years of the present and thanking us all for supporting Death Angel on their heavy metal journey. Before “The Dream Calls for Blood,” he ruminated about the importance of following one’s own path and releasing energy. He came across as very humble, very sincere, and very thoughtful and articulate too, whether the audience understood his message or not. It was also cool to see the members of Hardcore Superstar watching from the side of the stage in rapt attention. This is how the masters do it, folks. Thus concludes today’s lesson in violence. Thrash class dismissed! Setlist: Left for Dead, Son of the Morning, Claws in So Deep, Buried Alive, Voracious Souls, Succubus, Third Floor, Seemingly Endless Time, Dream Calls for Blood, Ultraviolence (partial), Thrown to the Wolves.
After Death Angel’s set, I reunited with a newly hydrated and rejuvenated Jen, who was feeling refreshed after some time off her feet and in the shade. We were contemplating food options during this quick break, since it was nearly 6 p.m. and we hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. Suddenly we were distracted by a familiar voice and a smiling face. Our Swiss friend Stephan (whom we’d met at Up the Hammers in Greece in 2013) suddenly appeared before our eyes. Hugs and happy conversation ensued for a few minutes. It was so cool that in a festival of 15,000 people, we could just randomly bump into our pal. Love it. Anyway, Jen and I then grabbed some food (Schupfnudeln, my new favorite dish, which combines sauerkraut with some kind of round potato noodles and what might be a tomato sauce – delicious!!!!). Thus refreshed, we stayed outside to catch the first three songs of SONATA ARCTICA’s set before moving inside to the Halle for our first indoor band of the day. I’m a big fan of the early Sonata material (fast sugary power metal) but really don’t care about the band’s more recent melancholy/ experimental ventures. Haven’t seen them in years and wouldn’t go out of my way to see them anymore, but in a festival setting it seemed like a good idea to watch the first 15-20 minutes of the set from a distance. Well, Tony Kakko has now dyed his hair red. There’s a new bassplayer that I don’t remember before. “White Pearl Black Ocean” seemed an odd choice to open their set given that it’s such a lengthy track; however, I like the song, so I wasn’t complaining. Next was newbie “X Marks the Spot,” in which S.A. demonstrated how to ruin a perfectly good song with annoying/obnoxious voiceovers seemingly every 30 seconds. We were just about to give up and head inside when the first notes of “Full Moon” rang through the air. That evergreen song put a smile on our faces and reminded us of when we followed the Gamma Ray / Sonata Arctica / Vanishing Point tour through Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic back in 2001. The band may not be good for much anymore, but we’ll always have “Full Moon.” On that high note, we ducked inside the very crowded hall for one of our most eagerly anticipated bands of the Fest. By any metric, Sweden’s ENFORCER are near the head of the pack for the New Wave of Traditional Heavy Metal. Across four sterling albums, Olaf Wikstrand’s crew have set the bar high for their colleagues and have showcased a near-perfect blend of reverence/homage to the past and fire/ energy/excitement/inventiveness for the present. This was my first chance to witness Enforcer’s live attack, and I was not disappointed. Amazingly, I was able to work my way through the crowd with little difficulty and find a nice position in the second row, with two short women in front of me so as not to impede my sightlines. Also, I noticed with interest that Mark Osegueda from Death Angel (barely 30 minutes removed from his own performance) was standing at the side of the Halle stage in a light blue sleeveless t-shirt watching the first half of Enforcer’s set with a big smile on his face. Never would have guessed that he’d be a fan. Anyway, the leatherclad Swedish quartet stormed the stage and took no prisoners for their 50-minute set. Energy levels were ridiculously high throughout, with Olaf in particular dashing around the stage playing guitar, headbanging and bearing the crazed look of a man possessed by metal. His voice was spot-on, the guitars were relentlessly awesome, and the 50 minutes passed in a flash as one incredible song followed after another. There wasn’t a single misstep, false note or wasted moment about the entire affair. I was blown away. Only niggling criticism was that they didn’t play anything from the first album. Nonetheless, it was clear from tonight’s display of lethal precision that Enforcer have perfected their art of high-velocity traditional metal, and they’re coming to get you all!!! You have been warned. Setlist: Destroyer, Undying Evil, Hypnotized by Fire, Live for the Night, From Beyond, Death Rides This Night, Run for Your Life, Below the Slumber, Take Me Out of this Nightmare, Midnight Vice.
Big metal festivals can be an emotional rollercoaster. One minute, you’re riding high on the adrenalin of a world-class performance. The next minute, you find yourself let down by a one-time icon going through the motions. Orden Ogan were up next in the Halle. I enjoy the Germans and felt they put on a great show at ProgPower USA last fall; however, I elected to skip them in favor of seeing W.A.S.P. on the Open Air stage. The reasoning was that I had just seen Orden Ogan a few months ago; meanwhile, it’d been more than a decade since I’d seen Blackie’s troops and there might never be another chance given his recent health issues and prolonged musical inactivity. Big mistake. It’s not that W.A.S.P. sucked. They didn’t. It’s just that the whole gig felt hollow, phoned-in, and completely devoid of any emotional spark. Symptomatic of the apparent “who cares” attitude was the fact that the W.A.S.P. banners proudly listed the dates 1982 and 2014 and proclaimed 32 years. Uhh, it’s 2015, guys. The setlist was a carbon copy of what Blackie & Co. have been playing for years, with no surprises, no alterations and not a single song post-dating ‘The Crimson Idol.’ Blackie’s voice itself was okay, considering the toll of years, so I won’t criticize him for that (though others around me did). And the band at least sounded good, including the last-minute fill-in drummer whom Blackie never bothered to introduce. There wasn’t a single line of dialogue from the stage that wasn’t canned, with Blackie mostly just announcing song titles and, during the “I Wanna Be Somebody” singalong part, mimicking his stage raps going back as far as the ‘Live in the Raw’ days. Oh sure, the songs have all held up well over time. I love “Hellion,” “Chainsaw Charlie,” “Wild Child,” etc. But this beast had no heart. No surprise, then, that W.A.S.P. didn’t even come close to using their full allotted time. I guess Blackie was in a hurry because he had to go cash a check. Whatever, I’m just bummed I skipped out on Orden Ogan to watch this. Setlist: Hellion/Torture Never Stops, The Real Me, L.O.V.E. Machine, Wild Child, Sleeping in the Fire / Forever Free, The Idol, I Wanna Be Somebody, Chainsaw Charlie, Blind in Texas.
By now, it was a little after 9:00 p.m. It was still light outside, but the heat had left the day, so now it was cool and pleasant. We looked around and surveyed the sunburnt, dehydrated German hordes around us. As bad as the carnage was, it could have been worse. Credit goes to the very visible security and medical (German Red Cross) staff working diligently to look after the fallen. On a personal note, credit goes to Jen for being resourceful enough to keep refilling our empty Coke bottle with water from the sinks in the women’s restroom in the Halle to keep us hydrated without having to pay confiscatory prices of 5.70 Euros for a bottle of water. Our key decision to make now was where to watch tonight’s headliner. We picked a nice spot alongside the second barrier (this festival, like many others, has a second barrier about 30 feet back from the first to aid in crowd control). We could have gotten closer (as we did for every other band today), but part of the point of attending a huge outdoor festival is to partake of the larger-than-life spectacle of the headliners, which you just can’t do if you’re pressed up close to the stage because you can’t take in the full scale of it all.
If we wanted a spectacle from tonight’s headliner, we came to the right place. Jen and I have seen SABATON on many stages over the years, but never outdoors on a gigantic platform like BYH. The boys brought their full arsenal of tricks, props and gimmicks tonight. Chief among those was the enormous tank that served as drummer Hannes Van Dahl’s office for the evening. The band had pyro galore, including fireworks shot from the tank, plumes of fire synchronized with the music at the front of the stage, loud bangs, and showers of sparks at opportune times. The band appeared in fine form in front of the adoring German audience. (Oh, I know the band has its detractors. Surely they all wandered back to the campsites early or headed into the Halle to watch Finntroll instead. The enormous crowd gathered in front of the Open Air stage, however, was highly partisan and in Sabaton’s corner from the first note to the last.) Sabaton are always an incredibly entertaining live band, and tonight was no different. Musically, there were the predictable highlights like “Ghost Division,” “Carolus Rex,” “Attero Dominatus,” “Night Witches,” and “Primo Victoria,” but also a few unexpected surprises. In honor of BYH’s 20th birthday celebration, Sabaton treated us to the first-ever live airing of “No Bullets Fly,” one of the top tracks on the ‘Heroes’ album. They also dusted off the old classic “Panzer Battalion” and the rarely played “Panzerkampf” for our benefit, so it felt like a special night. Elsewhere, the set was heavily weighted in favor of the ‘Heroes’ album (no fewer than 6 of that album’s 10 cuts were played), with a few surprising and notable omissions from the back catalog (“Cliffs of Gallipoli,” “40:1,” “Uprising,” “White Death,” etc.). As everyone knows, frontman Joakim Broden has quite a sense of humor and he was in rare form tonight. The German audiences love to chant “Noch Ein Bier” to him, meaning “drink a beer.” It’s kind of a running joke. After nearly every song, the “Noch Ein Bier” chant would break out, prompting hilarious commentary from Broden. Sometimes he would accommodate by downing a beer. Other times, he would protest by saying things like, “When I drink, I get drunk. When I get drunk, I get naked. Trust me, there’s nothing to see down there.” Still other times, he would call out one poor guy in the crowd in an Anvil shirt whom he blamed for beginning said chants, using the opportunity to belittle his t-shirt, call him an asshole for not wearing a Sabaton shirt, challenging him to a beer-drinking contest (Broden won) and so on, all in good humor of course. (At the end, the Anvil shirt-wearing fan got the last laugh when Broden apologized for calling him an asshole and handed him his mirrored sunglasses as a prize.) Anyway, “Noch Ein Bier” definitely was an ongoing theme of the night. Small wonder, then, that Sabaton were selling BYH event shirts bearing the “Noch Ein Bier” slogan on the back for a mere 30 Euros. PT Barnum says there’s a sucker born every minute, and sure enough I parted with around 33 USD for one of those ridiculous shirts to commemorate the occasion.
As I said, Broden’s a tremendous frontman and he used those skills to full capacity tonight. In addition to all the jokes, he was effusive in his praise of this audience, calling the Germans the most loyal fans that Sabaton has and expressing amazement that the BYH crowd was still so animated and energetic after being slaughtered by the oppressive heat all day long today. All of this repartee was welcomed. Less welcomed were the many instances of time-wasting schtick (above and beyond the “Noch Ein Bier” tomfoolery). Before “Resist and Bite,” there was a big charade of Broden taking Thobbe Englund’s camouflage guitar over Thobbe’s objection, then playing bits of “Smoke on the Water” and “Master of Puppets” while Thobbe and fellow axeman Chris Rorland complained and protested. There was the bit where Thobbe keeps playing the intro to “Swedish Pagans,” as Broden feigns indignation that it’s not on the setlist, before bassist Par Sundstrom walks over, picks up a set list on stage, and tears it to shreds. There was also the addition of a costumed, miked-up crew member walking out on stage and ordering Van Dahl to get out of his tank, with ensuing dialogue between band and tank guy. I dunno. After a while, it all seemed way too gimmicky, too juvenile, trying too hard to be clever. Sometimes you just have to shut up and rock. And it doesn’t seem that Sabaton did quite enough of that tonight. Sure, they gave us 18 songs, but if they’d abandoned a fraction of the schtick and let the music do the talking, they could have easily worked in 3 or 4 more, including the dearly missed “Gallipoli”/ “40:1” etc. listed above. Don’t get me wrong: Sabaton played a killer set tonight and I loved seeing them on the enormous Euro festival stage. But the gig could have been even better than it was if they’d reined in a bit of the BS in favor of a bit more metal. That’s all. Anyway, Noch Ein Bier! Setlist: Ghost Division, To Hell and Back, Carolus Rex, No Bullets Fly, Panzer Battalion, Resist and Bite, Screaming Angels, Swedish Pagans, Panzerkampf, Far from the Fame, Art of War, Soldier of 3 Armies, Gott Mit Uns (sung as “Nock Ein Bier”), Lifetime of War (sung in Swedish), Attero Dominatus. Encores: Night Witches, Primo Victoria, Metal Crue.
A funny aspect of holding the BYH Festival on the edges of the town of Balingen is that there’s a town-imposed curfew of 11:00 p.m. for live music on the Open Air stage. So even though it was still relatively early (hell, darkness descended just an hour ago), there were no more Open Air bands after Sabaton today. There were still, however, two bands left in the Halle, where no such curfew applies. Jen and I spent 20 or 30 minutes milling about the outside festival grounds, soaking in the vibe and the atmosphere, before finally working our way into the Halle, where KORPIKLAANI were already in full tilt. I had never seen the Finns before, and would not classify myself as anything more than a casual fan. Still, the 45 minutes or so that we spent watching their gig in the Halle were immensely enjoyable. Their happy folky beer-drinking melodies produced by violin and accordion had many in the room dancing jigs. It’s an amazing experience to see exhausted, sunburnt, drunk German metalheads kicking up their heels in sheer delight after a long day of headbanging. Jen quickly joined in the mirthful fun, while I stood off the side with my Hefeweizen smiling contentedly. One interesting aspect of the Korpiklaani set was the dichotomy of it. Sure, there were plenty of happy jig-dancing tunes on display, but there were also some more somber, morose, moody types of tracks too. I (along with the bulk of the attendees, apparently) greatly preferred the former in my delirious state of exhaustion, but the contrasts were interesting and not unwelcome. Don’t ask me what songs Korpiklaani played, as I couldn’t begin to tell you (all those damn Finnish lyrics and way too many albums for me to keep it all straight). What I do know, however, is that the Finnish sextet were ideally situated for their late-night assignment at the Halle, bringing just the right atmosphere and joviality to put a spring in the step of many a tired headbanger.
After Korpiklaani, the Halle emptied out in a hurry. It’s perfectly understandable, of course. It had been a devilishly long, energy-sapping day, and there were still two more to go. But wait, there’s still another band left to play the Halle tonight. Saddled with the unenviable 12:50 a.m. – 2:10 a.m. timeslot were glam/sleaze rockers CRAZY LIXX. I knew basically nothing about the band, but I felt bad for them that they were faced with the task of playing to a mostly empty room, so Jen and I resolved to stick around for at least the first three tunes of their set. The three songs we heard sounded fine, basically what you would expect for a band of that name in terms of ‘80s hair band stuff. Under ordinary circumstances, we probably would have stuck around. But these weren’t ordinary circumstances. We wanted to conserve our energy, our strength and our hearing for the next round of battles tomorrow, so we drained our beer glasses, washed our hands and faces in the Halle restrooms, and proceeded into the darkness for the sanctuary of our peaceful little tent. Except that the tent was not peaceful when we arrived there. In contrast to last night’s serenity, there was a full-on afterparty going on in the supermarket parking lot adjacent to the CP2 campsite, including a DJ playing ear-rattlingly loud renditions of ‘80s standards by the likes of Twisted Sister, Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Metallica, Dio and so on. Dozens – if not hundreds – of people were milling about in the parking lot, drinking beers, eating food purchased from vendors in the parking lot and generally reveling. Wait a minute … I thought there was an 11 p.m. curfew. How is it that they get to have a DJ blasting music in the campsite parking lot until all hours of the night??? I don’t know, but the end result for us was that our tent – in addition to being lumpy and uncomfortable – was way too noisy to accommodate sleep. So we stretched out on the floor of the tent, happy at least to be off our feet, listening to the DJ until the music went silent sometime after 3:00 a.m., when all finally became quiet and peaceful and I faded off into restless, fitful slumber.
Friday, July 17, 2015
Once again, by shortly after 7:00 a.m., the sun had risen sufficiently high in the sky to render the tent uncomfortably warm. We stumbled out, still rubbing the sleep from our eyes. I was startled to feel a burning in the back of my legs. Sure enough, they were bright red and severely sunburned, but only the back of the legs, not the front. The reason is that, when standing in front of the Open Air stage, I was facing East. The sun was above and behind me to the West, resulting in sunburn city for my pasty white legs. Oh dear. I slathered on the sunblock this morning in the hopes of avoiding similar sun exposure today. Other than that, it was our standard campsite ritual of sticking our heads under a spigot in the aluminum trough to achieve a modicum of cleanliness, wandering into town to the Rewe supermarket for muffins and breakfast beers consumed on a shady bench in the old town square, then back over to the festival grounds by 10:30 a.m., when the doors opened for another blisteringly hot day on the blacktop of the Messegelande. In a good hydration innovation for the day, we brought in 1L tetrapaks of fruit juice (banana / pear) and fruit tea to aid with both hydration and caloric intake. Security staff wouldn’t allow plastic bottles, but the tetrapaks were deemed okay. So that was progress, and saved us from the need to buy 5.70 Euro bottles of water.
Whilst wandering the grounds before the musical entertainment portion of the day began, we bumped into Mark Briody from Jag Panzer, who graciously spent 15 or 20 minutes chatting with us before heading backstage to change clothes and warm up for the impending Jag Panzer show. Mark is a class act and was both kind and generous with his time. Among other things, he regaled us with the story of how he was so excited to see Grand Magus yesterday that he paid somebody 5 Euros to ride in the back of a truck to get to the festival site (the shuttles weren’t running from his hotel) and sneaked into the photo pit without a camera or a pass just to be close to the action. He also indicated that he’d be performing on the far side of the Jag Panzer stage all alone because he’s “the Richard Sherman of Jag Panzer” with no one (not even Harry) venturing over to that side. We compared notes about everything from the Air Force Academy to the festival experience to Chicago pizza. At the end of this most pleasant meeting, Mark gave us a cool souvenir guitar pick bearing the phrase “Jag Panzer gave me this guitar pick.” What a great guy.
First up on the sweltering Open Air stage at 11:30 a.m. was TANK. Now, this was somewhat of a controversial pick because it’s the Tank without founder / mastermind Algy Ward, who has a medical issue that prevents him from performing live (although he still records new music). This iteration of Tank features longtime guitarists Mick Tucker and Cliff Evans, but they’ve moved away from NWOBHM in favor of a more melodic power metal direction, as evidenced by the inclusion of ex-Dragonforce crooner ZP Theart. It’s not surprising that this development pissed off a lot of people. For myself, though, all I care about is whether the band is good in its present incarnation. And TANK 2015 is very good, judging by today’s performance. In a wise decision, the band shifted back and forth between old Tank classics and newer songs, splitting the set about 50/50 between the two, and including a brand-new, previously unaired song called “World on Fire,” which sounded excellent and was quite appropriate given the searing heat. Most of the band just stood in place and played their instruments, but Theart put his frontman experience to good use, moving around the stage considerably, dousing his hair and the audience with bottled water at every opportunity, and releasing a steady stream of f-bombs throughout. The riffs sounded killer, Theart’s voice (while obviously different from Ward’s) fit new and old songs nicely, and it was overall a most pleasant and enjoyable way to kick off the day, closeminded purists notwithstanding. Setlist: This Means War, Judgement Day, Echoes of a Distant Battle, Honour and Blood, Great Expectations, Don’t Dream in the Dark, World on Fire, (He Fell in Love with a) Stormtrooper.
Last time I saw JAG PANZER was at the Keep It True Festival in 2008. They’ve always been one of my favorite U.S. metal bands, for both the quality of their songs and the quality of their live performances. Today presented a different configuration of the band than I’d ever seen before. Bassist John Tetley was home dealing with shoulder reconstruction after an unfortunate slip and fall on the ice in the Colorado winter, so he was replaced by fill-in Aric Avina (who also plays in Benedictum). Lead guitarist Joey Tafolla is back in the fold after a prolonged absence during the Broderick and Lesegue eras. But some things never change at a Jag Panzer gig. There’s vocalist extraordinaire Harry “The Tyrant” Conklin, all decked out in chains, leather, and a JP shirt (this time with shaggier black-dyed hair and heavy black eye makeup). And of course, there are Mark Briody on guitar and steady Rikard Stjernquist thumping the drums. Today’s JP gig began, gloriously, with a spine-tingling romp through “Black,” although it was more than a little ironic given the punishing sunshine that was cooking us all. The ensuing set was a mix of bona fide Panzer classics (“Chain of Command,” “Iron Eagle,” and of course “License to Kill” and “Generally Hostile”), a couple of less obvious tracks (“Future Shock” and, surprisingly, “Let it Out” from the Scourge of the Light LP), and a quick cover version of UFO’s “Lights Out” into (oddly enough) “We are the Champions.” Not the ending many were expecting, to be sure, but Jag Panzer seemed in top form today, with no rust evident despite their relatively long layoff. Tafolla nailed the leads, the rhythm section was solid as a rock, and The Tyrant’s voice appears immune from the ravages of time. Both Briody and Conklin moved around quite a bit, and Tafolla surprised Briody by wandering over to his side of the stage during one of the instrumental sections. As the band were taking their bows, I called out Rikard’s name and he tossed me a shattered drum stick for a souvenir from the gig. It is good to have Jag Panzer back in action. The world of heavy metal is better for it. I only hope this is the start of bigger and better things to come: new album, more gigs, more Panzer! Judging by the wildly enthusiastic audience reaction, the good people of Balingen agree with me. Setlist: Black, License to Kill, Generally Hostile, Future Shock, Chain of Command, Let it Out, Warfare, Iron Eagle, Lights Out / We Are the Champions.
I know everybody loves TYGERS OF PAN TANG. I know they’re one of the architects of the NWOBHM movement, hugely influential and all that. I know “Spellbound” is a killer tune. But honestly, I’ve never been particularly fired up about the Tygers. It’s a little too tame, a little too rock, a little too 70s sounding to my ears. Again, that’s just me. Nonetheless, I wanted to take the opportunity to check them out, despite my relative ignorance, on the Open Air stage. By all appearances, white-haired guitarist Robb Weir is the only original left in the camp, as all of his bandmates appear to be considerably younger than he. Today, the Tygers also had the benefit of the first decent cloud cover of the entire festival, providing a much-needed respite from the terrorizing sun. I enjoyed the Tygers of Pan Tang set for what it was, but it didn’t really alter my perception that the band doesn’t quite have the power and heaviness for which I thirst. Perhaps that makes me a fool. It surely makes me out of step with the throngs of Germans who went pretty much berserk during their set. “Spellbound” was killer though. Partial Setlist (the songs I heard and can remember): Rock Candy, Paris by Air, Killers, Insanity, Keeping me Alive, Rock’n’Roll Man, Suzie Smiled, Don’t Touch Me There, Spellbound.
One of our biggest draws to attend Bang Your Head this year was the inclusion of REFUGE on the bill. I’ve always been a Rage fanatic. While I love every era of the band, my favorite period of Rage has always been the Peavy Wagner / Manni Schmidt / Chris Efthimiadis lineup. ‘Trapped!’ and ‘Missing Link’ would both rate in my Top 5 Rage albums, and ‘Perfect Man’ and ‘Secrets’ are no slouches either. The chance of seeing the Peavy / Manni / Chris team back together on stage performing all these classic tunes was simply too good to pass up. To make things even better, Manni befriended Jen and me nearly a decade ago when we were following around Grave Digger on tour in Europe. We’ve kept in touch over the years and were very much looking forward to the reunion. I knew it was going to be a special gig when Manni was surveying the crowd before the gig began. He saw Jen and me perched on the rail directly in front of him, broke into a huge smile, and gave us the double thumbs-up. From then on, he kept a watchful eye on us during the entire gig, mugging for the camera when I tried to take a picture and watching us rock out. (Manni later told us that his wife Mona had noticed him looking in our direction the whole gig and thought he must have been making eyes at a pretty girl!) Enough about that, though. The Refuge show was awesome. It was hotter than Hades, sure, because the clouds had vanished and the sun was attacking the stage. Peavy and Manni are both on the hefty side, and the sweat was just pouring off them for the entire gig. Nonetheless, they didn’t let the heat slow them down, delivering an absolutely killer 10-song set of pure highlights and (bang) raw energy from the Rage discography. Peavy’s voice sounded amazing (okay, he can’t quite hit the high notes on “Invisible Horizons” anymore, but who can?), and looked noticeably happier and more relaxed on stage than we’d seen him in quite some time during the Smolski era. Meanwhile, Manni’s axework was flawless, and Chris must have done the equivalent of running a marathon behind the drums. The only surprising inclusions in the set (both strong songs, regardless) were “Death in the Afternoon” and “Baby I’m Your Nightmare.” Everything else was classic after classic after classic. I couldn’t stop grinning from ear to ear. I was so happy to hear these songs with this lineup. The opening salvo of “Firestorm” into “Solitary Man” was heavenly, and the closing combo of “Don’t Fear the Winter” (especially when it’s 100 degrees outside in July!) and “Refuge” (from sunburn) was the icing on the cake. It was a triumphant performance, well worth the flight to Germany all by itself. All hail REFUGE! Setlist: Firestorm, Solitary Man, Nevermore, Death in the Afternoon, Enough’s Enough, Invisible Horizons, The Missing Link, Baby I’m Your Nightmare, Don’t Fear the Winter, Refuge.
The punishing heat and sun had shown no signs of abating, but this heavy metal train kept on rolling, so we rolled with it. Next up in today’s phenomenal lineup were the German metal commandos of PRIMAL FEAR. The boys were breaking in a brand new drummer in the form of ex-U.D.O. skinbasher Francesco Jovino, who performed admirably before the large German contingent. With no new product to support, the setlist was a very cool best-of retrospective heavily laden with the band’s hits, and was perfectly tailored to the festival environment. The guitar team of Tom Naumann and Alex Beyrodt was superb, particularly the latter, whose six-string pyrotechnics and guitar heroics were as enthralling as always. I will say, though, that Beyrodt appeared to struggle more than most with the heat. He kept pouring water over his head and late in the set showed signs of dizziness and disorientation as he blinked his eyes and looked around with a dazed expression. I honestly worried that the poor guy was going to keel over or lose his balance, particularly when he’d clamber atop the bass bins at the front of the stage and go into full-on guitar histrionics mode. But Beyrodt stood strong. Elsewhere, Ralf Scheepers re-affirmed his stature as one of the greatest voices in heavy metal with an absolutely flawless performance. I swear, the guy seems to get more power, more control and more range as he ages. (I noticed with a smile that Queensryche singer Todd LaTorre was checking out part of Primal Fear’s set from the photo pit. I’ll bet he was thinking exactly the same thing about Scheepers’ formidable vocal presence.) Bassist Mat Sinner kept his mirrored shades on for the whole gig, and seemed relaxed and happy, flashing smiles and thumbs-up to the crowd. Overall, this may not have been the definitive Primal Fear performance, but it was absolutely a homerun for a festival gig. I do hope to catch the band playing a proper headlining show sometime soon, but this will do nicely for now. Setlist: Final Embrace, Alive and on Fire, Nuclear Fire, Unbreakable, Seven Seals, Angel in Black, When Death Comes Knocking, Chainbreaker, Running in the Dust, Metal is Forever.
By now, I’d been out in the heat for five hours straight and was honestly feeling more than a bit weary and dehydrated myself. So we decided to hang out in the shade of the Halle for the next hour or so, foregoing much of the Loudness set. While we were cooling off inside, we noticed that Refuge were having a signing session, so we got in line to make sure we’d have a chance to say hello to the boys. Manni saw us even when we were back at the end of the line and gave us a big smile and a wave. As we neared the front of the line, Manni abandoned his spot at the autograph table, walked over to us and said, “I want to say hello to my American friends.” It warmed our hearts, really it did. We didn’t have much time with Manni, only five minutes or so, but we made the most of it, sharing a few laughs and a few stories. He said that because of unexpected traffic snarls, the band had only arrived in Balingen one hour before they were supposed to go onstage, and things had been so hectic that he hadn’t even had an opportunity to change into his stage clothes before they went on. We also had a couple of minutes to visit with Peavy Wagner, who said he recognized us from the ‘21’ tour three years ago when Jen and I had followed Rage around Germany. Peavy smiled more than I ever remembered from my previous interactions with him, and kept telling us how much he loves the music that Refuge is playing and the opportunity to look after all the eras of Rage now (which hadn’t been the case during much of Victor Smolski’s tenure in the band). He seemed rejuvenated by the changes he’s made with Rage and the formation of Refuge. As legendary (but overlooked) a figure as he is in the German heavy metal scene, Peavy Wagner deserves happiness. I do hope that he’s found it and that he’s got loads of great music left in him. Our Swiss friend Stephan was also on hand (having had Peavy autograph what looked to be the entire Rage discography) and he graciously agreed to act as our photographer, snapping pictures of Jen and me with each of Manni and Peavy. (A hoped-for shot of us with the entire band never materialized due to various distractions at the autograph table, but that’s okay. It was a brilliant moment regardless.)
Thus refreshed and fortified, we made it back outside to catch a little bit of the LOUDNESS show on the Open Air stage while wolfing down another gesmacht bowl of Schupfnudeln. Like most American metalheads, I was introduced to the Japanese act via the ‘Thunder in the East’ album and also enjoyed (to a greater or lesser extent) their subsequent ATCO output, before they added Michael Vescera their singer and tried to sell out to the US market. I haven’t paid attention to Loudness in many years, but my ears perked up inside the Halle when I heard them come out onstage, opening with “Crazy Nights” and following up with “Heavy Chains” shortly thereafter. Once outside, I watched the tail end of their set, which included “The Sun Will Arise Again” (at least I think that was the title, definitely a more recent tune) before a brilliant closing burst of “S.D.I.” All in all, I can’t say that I saw enough of the Loudness performance to judge it, but I loved hearing those three old songs performed in top-notch fashion by Akira Takasaki, Minori Niihara, and whoever the rhythm section is these days. Heard several reports from others that the Loudness gig had been terrific top to bottom, so maybe I gave it short shrift. Still, there are only so many hours and minutes in a festival day, and sometimes you have to be grateful for a bite-size chunk of a band’s performance in lieu of the full meal. Such was the case with Loudness today.
ARCH ENEMY were a last-minute booking announcement for the Open Air stage, the product of the festival organizers’ admitted inability to land their desired headliner for Friday night. Plan B was to move Kreator into the headlining slot for the night and book Arch Enemy to fill out the day’s roster. There was a time – circa ‘Burning Bridges’ and ‘Wages of Sin’ – when I would have classified myself as a big Arch Enemy fan. But I moved on, or they moved on, or something, and I haven’t paid any attention to the band in quite some time. Heard they pulled a diva move today by not allowing any journalists (of which I am not one) into the photo pit. Anyway, I watched the first few songs of theirs. I guess it was good to see Jeff Loomis on stage again, and I certainly appreciated some of the Amott / Loomis guitar interplay. But the blue-haired female singer does nothing for me. More importantly, the songs do nothing for me. I was just contemplating what to do next when, abruptly, the heavens opened and a heavy rainstorm ensued (at least part of which occurred under bright sunshine). While the idea of a cooling rain was appealing at this moment given the miserable heat thus far, getting drenched did not. So Jen and I hightailed it into the Halle …
… where STORMWITCH were just getting underway. Now, much as I love the band’s early material through ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ Stormwitch were not on my ‘must-see’ list today because the band’s recent albums have ranged from okay to downright poor. I really wasn’t interested in seeing a pale, watered-down version of Stormwitch, so I had planned to abstain. But Mother Nature had other plans, as the driving rain pushed us indoors for their set. My first comment is that Andy Muck’s distinctive voice has aged beautifully. He still sounds fantastic. Unfortunately, however, my suspicions were correct. The set was heavily laden with unexciting material from recent Stormwitch LPs, including cuts like “Evil Spirit,” “Taliesin,” and “Season of the Witch” from the last album, and the title tracks from ‘Witchcraft’ and ‘Dance of the Witches.’ The songs didn’t really improve in the live setting, given the low-energy of the band members, although my friend was quick to comment, “Hey, at least it’s better than watching Arch Enemy.” Haha, true enough. Late in the Stormwitch set, things took a turn for the better, as the unexpected gentle ballad “Tears by the Firelight” gave way to a glorious run through “Call of the Wicked,” “Ravenlord” (wonder how many attendees thought this was a Hammerfall cover?), “Priest of Evil” and “Walpurgis Night.” That’s what I call snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. While I would have longed for a fully old-school Stormwitch set, this stretch of pure gold will suffice.
So Queensryche were getting started on the outdoor stage, where by now the rain had stopped, the sun had re-emerged, and a pleasant late afternoon beckoned. Even from inside the Halle, I could faintly hear the strains of “Nightrider” and see Todd LaTorre way off in the distance working the front of the stage. But I had a plan. The plan was to remain inside the Halle, catch the first two or three PORTRAIT songs, then go back outside to bask in the glory of the rejuvenated Queensryche for the remainder of their set. The plan was executed brilliantly at first. I had a primo spot for Portrait on stage right, two rows back. The leather-clad Swedes took the stage with a vengeance, ripping through their high-energy, dual-guitar occult trad metal attack, with vocalist Per Lengstedt at the helm whipping the crowd into a frenzy. Along with Enforcer, Portrait were really the only band at BYH this year playing this specific sub-genre of metal. After about 10 minutes of this, I called an audible. Time to ditch the plan. Portrait were kicking ass. Why would I leave this to go see Queensryche? I mean, I love old Queensryche and I’ve never seen the band with LaTorre, but surely there’ll be chances to see that band in the future. There may never be another chance to see Portrait. We were standing at a crossroads (coincidentally, the title of Portrait’s latest album), and we chose our path. So we stayed put, headbanging, rocking out and throwing horns to the devastating Portrait attack through cuts like “Bloodbath,” “In Time” and “Welcome to My Funeral.” Beyond those few, I don’t know what they played, and I don’t really care. I was too busy feeding off the intensity, the energy and the unbridled power of Portrait to be bothered with any of the details. They were fantastic, my surprise hit of the festival. Here’s hoping I find myself at another crossroads sometime soon with an option to see Portrait again. For what it’s worth, all the reports from the Open Air stage were that Queensryche played a tremendous set of their own. I believe it. But I’ve no regrets whatsoever about the decision we made to get the complete, unabridged Portrait live experience.
Thus re-energized, we emerged from the Halle into the cool twilight to take up our position along the second barrier for this evening’s headliner: KREATOR. (Playing opposite Kreator in the Halle were Anvil, but we chose the Germans over the Canadians, having just seen Anvil in Alabama on their current touring cycle last year.) The stage setup looked incredible, with a huge backdrop of Kreator’s creepy mascot and, on stage level, an array of 18 video panels laid out in a semi-circle, with some panels horizontal and others vertical. These panels were used to display album art or other imagery (flames in “From Flood into Fire,” a sunrise scene in “Black Sunrise,” urban chaos in “Civilization Collapse” for example) accompanying particular songs. At well-chosen intervals, the band also fired white confetti into the air and sent hundreds of white streamers out into the crowd, extending well beyond our position 15 or 20 yards from the stage. In terms of setlist, Mille Petrozza (wearing a Barb Wire Dolls shirt, interestingly enough) and the boys took a page from the ‘Live Kreation’ playbook, offering up a few deep cuts from eras of the band that one would not expect to hear (“Renewal,” “Black Sunrise,” “Endless Pain,” “Awakening the Gods”). There were also a few surprising omissions from the set (“People of the Lie,” “Tormentor,” “Coma of Souls”). Overall, the set was tilted toward more recent material, with nearly half the tracks culled from ‘Violent Revolution’ and after. The band sounded great, the guitars of Petrozza and Sami Yli-Sirnio were lethal and precise, and Mille’s raging vocals cut through the still night air like a rusty blade. You know, you wouldn’t think of Kreator as having the song catalog or the stage presence to headline a 15,000-person festival, but they pulled it off. Sure, maybe the set didn’t have a whole lot of dynamics to it, but the German crowd knew the songs and Petrozza had them eating out of his hand from start to finish. Cool gig. As a postscript, after Kreator had taken their bows and were walking off the stage, promoter Horst came out and called Mille back. With obvious reluctance, Mille complied. Horst then proceeded to say something in German that I didn’t understand, but whatever it was didn’t make Petrozza smile. Someone told me later that Horst had said, “We couldn’t get a headliner tonight, so we got you.” I hope my source was incorrect, or the comment suffers in translation or something. Kreator well and truly reconquered the throne tonight, and they deserve full props for putting that headlining set together on short notice. Setlist: Enemy of God, Terrible Certainty, Phobia, Awakening the Gods, Endless Pain, Warcurse, Phantom Antichrist, From Flood into Fire, Extreme Aggression, Suicide Terrorist, Black Sunrise, Hordes of Chaos, Renewal, Civilization Collapse, Pleasure to Kill, Violent Revolution, United in Hate, Flag of Hate, Betrayer.
As with last night, the 11:00 p.m. conclusion of the headliner’s set outdoors did not spell the end of the evening’s musical entertainment. There were still two bands left in the Halle. The first was PRIMORDIAL, a band I’ve always respected but never really understood. I think I came a lot closer to “getting” Primordial tonight than I ever have before. The presentation is dark, it’s menacing, it’s intense and it’s melancholy, but it has a beating heart even amidst the bone-chilling shadows and grim appearance of hooded, corpse-painted Alan Nemtheanga. I was pleased to have this opportunity to see them, and they made a terrific change of pace / segue from the blistering thrash of Kreator. The reason we stuck around in the Halle tonight until the bitter end was that the final band of the day was FLOTSAM & JETSAM, forced to contend with the dreaded 12:50 a.m. – 2:20 a.m. timeslot. The Halle was not filled during their performance, but it was much more crowded than it had been for poor Crazy Lixx last night. Jen went to go sit against the wall to rest her aching feet and legs, while I took up a great position in front of Michael Gilbert. Within the first minute of “No Place for Disgrace,” all traces of exhaustion left my body and I was carried away by the magic of this special old-school set (6 songs from Doomsday for the Deceiver, 4 from No Place for Disgrace) over the next 90 minutes. I drank my beer, I headbanged, I threw my fists in the air and sang every word at the top of my lungs. Flotsam sounded incredible tonight, and it was so cool to hear deep cuts like “Dreams of Death” and “Iron Tears” and “She Took an Axe” and “I Live You Die,” plus the long-forgotten “Suffer the Masses” off When the Storm Comes Down. They were played basically flawlessly and, with respect to the No Place tunes, in close conformity to the original versions rather than the slowed-down (and some might say, “screwed-up”) versions on the remake album released last year. Monster skinbeater Jason Bittner put on a clinic behind the drums, and I’ve honestly never heard the band sound tighter. Erik AK nailed his vocal lines, but damn he sure downed a lot of Jack Daniels during the set. He must have pounded at least 4 or 5 shots of the stuff during the gig. Yikes. Honestly, the only sour note was when Flotz played “Der Fuhrer.” Don’t get me wrong: I love the song, and never ever imagined I’d hear it played live. But we’re in Germany. It’s probably not the best idea (and more than a little culturally insensitive) to play a song whose chorus goes “Zeig Heil! All Hail! Zeig Heil!” Even worse, AK went on a little rant before they played the tune, saying they always get shit when they play it, but they don’t give a damn because they dig the song, even though they almost got arrested in Austria. Come on, man. Okay, he added a gratuitous “F**k you, Hitler!” scream at the end of the song just to make the band’s politics clear (and I understand, of course, that the lyrical bent of the track is decidedly anti-Hitler, with lyrics like “So much pain and misery / Far away across the sea / Hope he never lives again”). But given the obvious risk that the song will be misunderstood and misconstrued, not only by law enforcement officials but by your own audience, as some kind of National Socialist crap, why take that chance? Rant over. Aside from this one misstep, Flotsam & Jetsam were easily one of the highlights of the entire weekend, and well worth the incremental sleep deprivation they caused me on this night. Setlist: No Place for Disgrace, Desecrator, She Took an Axe, Suffer the Masses, Gittyup, Dreams of Death, Hammerhead, Iron Tears, I Live You Die, Swatting at Flies, Me, Der Fuhrer, Smoked Out, Hard on You, Doomsday for the Deceiver.
I’m not going to lie. By now, it was 2:30 a.m. and I was pretty beat. We staggered back to our tent, only to find the DJ afterparty still going strong in the adjacent parking lot. We brushed our teeth in our friendly aluminum trough and stretched out on the floor of the tent, waiting until the music mercifully stopped sometime after 3:00 a.m. before drifting off to sleep. About an hour later, I was awakened by the unwelcome sound of rain hitting the tent. Fortunately, it was not a deluge or a downpour, just a light passing shower. Eventually I drifted off to a brief and restless sleep for a couple of hours, dreams of Wolf Hoffmann and Peter Baltes dancing in my head. Hiiiiiy deeee hiiiii dooh hi lah. Hi dee hi do, hi ah ah ahahahahahahha.
Saturday, July 18, 2015
The forecast had called for lower temperatures and cloud cover today, so I was not amused when I was once again ripped from my slumber by the sensation of rapidly escalating temperatures inside the tent shortly after 7 a.m. courtesy of our old nemesis, the merciless sun. Jen and I were both in kind of a stupor, more asleep than awake and none too thrilled at the prospect of trying to survive another looooong festival day. Honestly, I didn’t see how it was possible, given our levels of sunburn, dehydration, sleep deprivation, and overall bone-weariness. Still, we clambered out of bed, stuck our heads under the cold-water spigots in the trough to mitigate the B.O., and limped to the Real supermarket in search of breakfast. I distinctly recall that we wandered aimlessly through the aisles, unable to find anything remotely appetizing to eat and hobbled by exhaustion. We forced ourselves to buy a pack of chocolate donuts and some breakfast beers, then had a seat on a shady bench near one of the beer vendors. We were neither hungry nor thirsty for beer, but we mucked down our repast. Much to our surprise, the breakfast beers and donuts did the trick. We felt a renewal of energy and power, a sense of confidence, and optimism, and were ready to tackle the day. Breakfast of champions, indeed!
Faced with the difficult task of firing up the crowd on the morning of the third full day (fourth overall) of the BYH Fest were Germany’s thrash vets EXUMER. Hitting the stage at 11:00 a.m., they delivered a solid set with a good mix of tunes from their 2012 Metal Blade ‘Fire & Damnation’ album and their classic 80s ‘Possessed by Fire’ opus. I wasn’t particularly familiar with their music beforehand, other than knowing them to be a respected second-tier Teutonic thrash act. They slotted in perfectly with their reputation today, providing nothing mindblowing but a perfectly serviceable start to the day on the Open Air stage. Bald, muscular, tattooed frontman Mem Von Stein deserves special mention for going the extra mile to get the crowd into it, for speaking in both German and English for the benefit of international patrons, for spending loads of time on the catwalk, for sounding a little bit like the late great Paul Baloff when he talked, and for characterizing their gig as “heavy metal brunch.” Cool all around.
By now, the skies had well and truly clouded over and worries about the heat had been traded for worries about rain. I set those concerns aside for 50 minutes to watch HIRAX take over the Open Air stage. Katon De Pena is something of a legend in the heavy metal underground and rightfully so. The guy’s like a goodwill ambassador for old-fashioned U.S. metal, and he brings his infectious energy, his overwhelming positivity and his undying love for all things metal to every stage he conquers. Today was Balingen’s turn. To mark the occasion, Jen and I picked a spot on the rail at the very tip of the catwalk, figuring that Katon would be a regular visitor to our neighborhood. (If I haven’t mentioned it already, it’s remarkable that for a festival of this magnitude, it was generally not difficult to find a place either on the rail or in the second or third row for almost any band other than the headliners all weekend long. That was great for me because, as anyone who knows me can attest, I dearly love to be close to the action.) Well, Hirax were easily one of the most polished and professional live bands of the weekend in terms of their ability to captivate the audience’s attention, own the big outdoor stage, and lift the crowd up. As expected, De Pena was a fireball of energy, working the stage from end to end. In between songs, he talked about how they’d driven all night from the Czech Republic to be here, how excited they were to be in Balingen, how they looked forward to drinking German beer today, and how amazingly cool it was to see the festival grounds filling with people right before their very eyes as the set wore on. The Harrison brothers (on bass and guitar, respectively) were right there with him. And in addition to their banner, Hirax had festooned the stage with chains across the amps and skulls atop them. As for the song material, it was truly fantastic to hear the ‘Raging Violence’ / ‘Hate Fear & Power’ material, which I always had a soft spot for in the 80s. Never would have thought they could pull off an audience singalong to “Destroy”, but it worked, and they did another one to “El Diablo Negro.” Quickie “Hate Fear & Power” was dedicated to the late Bon Scott. And finale “Bombs of Death” ended the Hirax performance by putting a huge smile on my face. Hirax absolutely rose to the occasion today, and neither the relatively small/tired audience nor the sprinkling weather conditions impeded things in the slightest. Hail Hirax! Setlist: Hellion Rising, Baptized by Fire, Lucifer’s Inferno, Blind Faith, Boca de la Bestia, Destroy, Black Smoke, Hate Fear & Power, Hostile Territory, El Diablo Negro, Bombs of Death.
Seeing EXCITER headline the Defenders of the Old Festival in Brooklyn four months ago was one of the highlights of my concertgoing year thus far, so I was quite pleased with the prospect of witnessing them take on the outdoor stage in Balingen. As in New York, Messrs. Beehler, Ricci and Johnson roared out of the chute with the trifecta of killer cuts from their debut album: “Stand Up and Fight,” “Heavy Metal Maniac” and “Iron Dogs.” I greatly enjoyed watching Dan Beehler handling lead vocals while playing the drums. The guy’s got stamina for miles to be attacking his kit and simultaneously pouring full lungpower into the microphone. It’s amazing that he doesn’t pass out. John Ricci and Allan Johnson were more reserved on the stage than I would have expected, but Al later told me that they couldn’t use the front of the stage at all because it was wet. Oh yeah, did I mention it was raining? The on-and-off sprinkles during Hirax’s set had blossomed into a steady drizzle for almost all of Exciter’s set. It seemed to affect the crowd’s mood. People were tired, they were hungover, and they were getting rained on. Perhaps that explains the reaction to Exciter, which was more tepid than I would have expected. Beehler did his best to get the crowd going, exhorting us to be louder and yelling, “Let’s keep this heavy metal train a-rolling!” But the reaction never reached the frenzied state it had in Brooklyn, or frankly that it should have today. The result was that Exciter played a strong, powerful nine-song set of highlights from the first three albums (albeit with an unnecessary solo from Ricci) but left the stage abruptly after “Beyond the Gates of Doom” with time still on the clock and unplayed songs still on the setlist. They deserved better today, but I’m still happy to have seen the original Exciter lineup on the big stage in Balingen. Setlist: Stand Up and Fight, Heavy Metal Maniac, Iron Dogs, Victims of Sacrifice, Deliver to the Master, Violence and Force, Pounding Metal, (guitar solo), Long Live the Loud, Beyond the Gates of Doom.
Oddly enough, by the time MORGANA LeFAY took the stage at 2:40 p.m., the rain had stopped, the skies were clearing, and the mercury was on the rise. In a way, it was like coming full circle to see Morgana LeFay in Balingen today. Last time I saw them, they were the opening band at the BYH Festival’s 10th anniversary show in 2005. Now, they were further up the bill on the last day of the Fest, despite having been active for almost the entire period in between. I guess absence makes the heart grow fonder. Anyway, here they were, on the Open Air stage in the sunshine with a banner that appeared to adapt the back cover of the ‘Grand Materia’ album. I haven’t listened to Morgana LeFay in quite some time, and it frankly came as something of a surprise to be reminded of all the staccato, Pantera-type riffing in their songs. Fortunately, everything is elevated by the charismatic vocals of Charles Rytkonen, who sounded superb today, with that Jon Oliva rasp fully intact. With no new songs or product to promote, this was strictly a best-of set (almost no early stuff though). And the band chose the material very well, dusting off a lot of the stronger, more memorable songs from their discography (“I Roam,” “Source of Pain,” “Maleficium,” etc.). The crowd seemed pleased by the song selection, judging by the extremely positive response. Rytkonen was quite funny. At one point, he complained about how hot it was, then said that in Sweden it was still very cold and there were only a couple of warm days a year. The rest of the time, he said, “there are no degrees at all.” He repeated it for good measure. Then, when basically the entire band screwed up “Angels Deceit,” forcing them to stop and restart it midsong, Rytkonen made a plucking sound with his forefinger inside his cheek, then had the entire crowd do it, after which he chastised us that he was louder than we were. Hilarious. Anyway, Morgana LeFay will never be one of my favorite bands or anything, but they put on a strong performance today. Here’s hoping for renewed activity and new material from them soon. Setlist: To Isengard, Master of the Masquerade, Source of Pain, Court of the Crimson King, Maleficium, Face of Fear, Hollow, Angels Deceit, I Roam, Symphony of the Damned.
I’m not going to lie. I had a great deal of ambivalence about seeing the next band. I’ve loved those early OMEN records (and especially ‘Battle Cry’) since they came out. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of seeing the band in the U.S. and Germany with George Call on vocals. To my ears, George channeled the late J.D. Kimball as well as any man could. Of course, there was an ugly parting of the ways between Call and guitarist Kenny Powell, after which Kevin Goocher rejoined the fold. I wondered what it would be like. I was about to find out. In a now hot-and-sweaty afternoon, Keep It True promoter Oliver Weinsheimer introduced the band and they came out with interesting visual aesthetic. There was bassist Andy Haas with his axe bass, the close-cropped mohawked Powell in a chain mail shirt, and Goocher in long sleeves with what looked like a piece of armor over one shoulder. They proceeded to reel off seven songs from ‘Battle Cry,’ three from ‘Warning of Danger,’ and “Teeth of the Hydra.” It was a superb setlist and those songs are stone-cold classics for a reason. Goocher did a perfectly respectable job on vocals. He hit all the notes, and sang with the necessary emotion and power to make the tunes shine. The rhythm section of Haas and original drummer Steve Wittig did a fine job. But I still spent much of the set frowning in disappointment. To my ears, Powell made many mistakes and too often didn’t play the songs the way I remembered them. Now, some of that can be excused by the fact that he was running all over the stage, shirtless after the first couple of tunes. But it still sounded off to me. Others I spoke with swooned at this Omen set, so maybe it’s just me. Maybe my friendship with George Call clouded my perception. But nonetheless, that was my perception. Setlist: Die by the Blade, Death Rider, Warning of Danger, The Axeman, Dragon’s Breath, Last Rites, In the Arena, Ruby Eyes (of the Serpent), Termination, Battle Cry, Teeth of the Hydra.
I wasn’t terribly interested in Y&T on the outdoor stage, plus we needed a break from the heat. So Jen and I moved indoors to the Halle. Before we did so, I visited my favorite food vendor for my daily fix of Schupfnudeln. They had just served up my steaming bowl of scrumptious potato noodle goodness when I looked over my shoulder and saw Katon De Pena walking by. The Schupfnudeln was instantly forgotten as I dashed over to say hello to Katon. He was every bit as gracious and cool one-on-one as he is onstage and on social media. He asked my name, shook my hand and thanked me for complimenting him about his always-positive demeanor. Jen snapped a badass photo to capture the moment, then it was back to my Schupfnudeln. Mmmmmm, Schupfnudeln.
The first act on the Halle stage today was billed as RANDY RHOADS TRIBUTE. Basically, it was 3/5 of Jag Panzer (Joey Tafolla on guitar, Aric Avina on bass and Rikard Stjernquist on drums), with a rotating sequence of guest vocalists, including Omen’s Kevin Goocher, JP’s Harry Conklin, and Portrait’s Per Lengstedt. We stayed for seven songs, including “I Don’t Know,” “Flying High Again,” “Steal Away the Night,” “Paranoid,” “Suicide Solution,” “Mr. Crowley,” and “Iron Man.” Initial reactions were that the band played superbly and that Joey Tafolla is one hell of a lead guitarist. I wish some of the singers had been a bit more familiar with the source material, as there more than a few lyric flubs on songs that are widely known and loved by generations of metalheads. But it was all in good fun and, again, Tafolla was incredible.
Then we moved back outside, where PRETTY MAIDS were about to play to what appeared to be one of the largest crowds of the entire weekend. The fairgrounds had filled in nicely, with partiers apparently streaming in from the campsites to catch a little live music before the BYH birthday celebration concluded. I’ll confess that I didn’t watch the Pretty Maids set with the rapt attention that I typically do. I was tired, I was with friends, and yes, I’d gotten into the beer a little early today. So I was way over on the side of the stage for much of the gig, a terrible spot from a sound quality standpoint. I got towards the front for the opening trio of “Mother of All Lies,” “Nuclear Boomerang,” and “Rodeo.” I plugged back in for the nearly flawless closing sequence of “Yellow Rain,” “Red Hot and Heavy,” “Little Drops of Heaven” (didn’t need that one, but okay), “Back to Back,” and “Future World.” If that selection of songs isn’t built for a big Euro festival, I don’t know what it is. Visually, my biggest memory of the Pretty Maids show is wiry singer Ronnie Atkins out on the catwalk for virtually the entire set, a sea of upraised arms and fists around him. Yeah, it was cool.
I had precisely zero interest in Dream Theater (a square peg in a round hole for the Bang Your Head Festival, as far as I was concerned), so we moved back indoors to catch the tail end of WARRANT’s gig. No, not that Warrant. There was no “Cherry Pie” or “Down Boys” or any of that crap. This was the German speed metal Warrant. It was funny: They had their mascot onstage the entire time I was in there, you know, the hooded, axe-wielding executioner guy from their album covers. Most of the time he stood off to the side of the stage; however, he had a microphone stand and he contributed backing vocals. Later on, he walked around the stage, interacted with the band members, and even sang his backing vocals at a microphone in the middle of the stage for a bit. I can’t remember ever seeing a band do that before. Anyway, we were fortunate enough to hear the last three songs of Warrant’s set, which consisted of three of their best: “Immortal” (from the new ‘Metal Bridge’ album), plus the bone-crunching combo of “The Enforcer” and “Torture in the Tower.” This was high-quality, powerful German trad/heavy/speed metal all the way, with bald singer/bassist Jorg Juraschek sounding fantastic. After that taste of Warrant, I really wished I’d managed to witness their entire gig. But that’s part of the trade-off in a multi-stage festival. You simply can’t see everything. I’ll hope to encounter this iteration of Warrant again someday, as they are worthy. So there was still some time to kill before Accept ascended to the Open Air stage. This created a perfect opportunity to check out SUICIDAL ANGELS for 30 minutes or so. I am not overly familiar with their music, but this Greek quartet is widely (and, in my view, correctly) viewed as one of the stronger old-school thrash bands to emerge in the last decade or so. Vocalist/guitarist Nick Melissourgos and company brought the razor-sharp riffs, intense rhythms and aggressive vocals in abundance, all without forgetting catchiness and even slowing things down effectively from time to time. They weren’t reinventing the genre, by any means, but Suicidal Angels dished out some high quality thrash that left me impressed. After watching seven or so songs, we took our leave of the band, heading back outside into the cool evening air to watch the sun go down and locate a suitable position along the second barrier for the Teutonic Terrors themselves. Partial Setlist: Bloodbath, Bleeding Holocaust, Seed of Evil, Morbid Intention to Kill, Pestilence of Saints, Control the Twisted Mind, Moshing Crew.
The honest truth is that ACCEPT is the whole reason we came to Balingen this year. When the festival was first announced, I distinctly remember sitting at my desk and thinking that Accept would be the obvious choice to headline the 20th Anniversary Festival. Then I thought back over all the times I’ve seen Accept, on small and mid-sized stages throughout the southeastern USA. Then I remember imagining what it would be like to see Accept on the huge outdoor festival stage, with thousands of people singing along every word to every song. Then I ordered our tickets to BYH Fest. True story. Now that the moment was finally here, I could barely contain my excitement. The stage looked amazing, featuring an enormous backdrop with the ‘Blind Rage’ cover art, a massive wall of double-stacked amps with the Accept logo from one end of the stage to the other, and a cool drum platform in the middle. That’s it. The taped intro to “Stampede” started and suddenly we were off to the races. Whatever lofty expectations I had for Accept on this night were well and truly shattered by their dominant performance. Guitarist Wolf Hoffmann and bassist Peter Baltes effortlessly worked the stage from one end to the other, with frequent visits to the catwalk, individually and collectively. They bounded across the stage with an obvious joy and exuberance that belied their ages. Mark Tornillo demonstrated why he is the perfect frontman for this band, as he belts out the vocal lines with poise and power but knows when to step back and allow Wolf and Peter to take over. New guys Uwe Lulis (on guitar) and Christopher Williams (drums) seemed completely at home in the band. Both were marvelous players who seemed fully dialed in with their bandmates and committed to the cause. To be sure, Lulis mostly stayed out of the spotlight, but on a couple of occasions I saw Wolf motion for him to come over to center stage, or even out in the catwalk, to enjoy some time in the limelight. Wolf and Peter have both said in recent interviews that the band is tighter than ever in its new incarnation. Seeing is believing.
A curious aspect of this three-day festival was the opportunity to compare and contrast how different headliners do it. Unlike their predecessors on Thursday and Friday nights, Accept had almost no gimmicks, no props, no special effects (other than a few blasts of CO2 gas), and a few other little things. By and large, they let the music do the talking, relying on sheer energy, killer songs, and force of personality to win over the crowd. And did they ever. It was positively magical to hear the audience singing every word of so many songs, and adding rousing choirs during the singalong parts to songs like “Stalingrad,” “Princess of the Dawn,” “Metal Heart,” and of course “Balls to the Wall.” The band felt that way too, with Tornillo exclaiming with amazement, “You guys are killing it! Last band of a three-day festival and you’re all standing and screaming.” And we were. I felt like I was in a dreamstate seeing Wolf and Peter out there at the end of the catwalk, rocking out to their hearts’ content on the jammy extended version of “No Shelter.” New songs, old songs, everything was executed brilliantly, from the 80s romps through “Losers and Winners” and “Midnight Mover” to the fistful of new classics like “Dying Breed” and “Final Journey” from Blind Rage. Here’s an interesting fact: Accept played 10 songs from the Tornillo era tonight, and just 8 from the Dirkschneider period. Living in the past? I think not. You know, I wouldn’t have had it any other way (I did miss “Breaker,” though, first time I’ve seen them in recent years where they didn’t play that tune). Only moment where my heart jumped into my throat was during “Pandemic,” when Baltes dashed out onto the catwalk, then ran back to the mainstage at full speed, only to wipe out when he hit the stairs. For a split second, I imagined Peter being injured, unable to continue, the show screeching to a halt. But then Peter got back to his feet, raised his fists with a sheepish grin on his face, and resumed rocking as if nothing had happened. Both Wolf and Mark made a point of walking over to check on him, but he waved them off. A minute later, Peter was running back out onto the catwalk, sprinting to and fro, one fist in the air as if to tell us, “No worries folks. I got this.” And he did.
If the metal gods are kind to me, I will see Accept many more times before either (i) I go deaf or (ii) they call it a career. I will never see them better than they were tonight. This gig is one of those memories that I will lock away in my heart, forever and ever, bringing it out whenever I need a little sunshine, a little inspiration, a little pick-me-up to get through a tough day. Accept were the best band on the planet tonight. And I got to experience them. Thanks BYH! Setlist: Stampede, Stalingrad, London Leatherboys, Restless and Wild, Dying Breed, Final Journey, Shadow Soldiers, Losers and Winners, 200 Years, Midnight Mover, No Shelter, Princess of the Dawn, Dark Side of my Heart, Pandemic, Fast as a Shark. Encores: Metal Heart, Teutonic Terror, Balls to the Wall. The outdoor portion of the festival was not quite over. Even as the crowd began to disperse, promoter Horst came out, got the audience to say thank you to his wife and family, then introduced a 10-minute or so fireworks display. The fireworks were cool, but it was hilarious that the soundtrack to said fireworks display was Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” played twice. Yep, the song ended, the fireworks kept going off, then Horst said something, and it was “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” straight from the top again. Crazy Germans. With a shout out to the memory of fallen TS drummer A.J. Pero, Horst said his final goodnights and farewells to us all.
But the festival wasn’t done just yet. Nosirree, Bob. Horst had left us with one last musical firework in the Halle, in the form of incendiary German thrashers DESTRUCTION. We had been told not to even expect to be able to get into the Halle, so great would the demand be to see Schmier, Mike and Vaaver, but we made it inside without difficulty to the very crowded room two or three songs into the Destruction set. It was all a bit disorienting at first: The stage was shrouded in thick fog, there were strobe lights going off, and the sound was both deafening and chaotic. It took me a minute to realize that they were playing “Mad Butcher,” that’s how chaotic it sounded. A large pit had opened up in front of the stage, so I took a spot just behind it and watched Destruction for the next hour or so while Jen sat against the wall and rested her weary feet. Turns out we had a few too many leftover bons (tickets for festival food and drink), so I converted them all to beer and enjoyed several delicious cold German brews as I admired the Destruction gig. Y’know, it brought back all kinds of happy memories for me, taking me back to the time in spring 2014 when I went on tour with my friends in Widow supporting Destruction and I got to see the band every night for a week. Those memories flooded back, even as I banged my head, raised my fist, and sang along to tracks like “Eternal Ban,” “Carnivore,” and “Death Trap.” It was interesting to see that Schmier was using many of the same tricks that he did last year in the USA, such as having a roadie bring him a beer, taking a long swig, then tossing it into the crowd; or taking and playing requests from the crowd (only ones he mentioned tonight were “Death Trap” and “Bestial Invasion”). Vaaver (just back from paternity leave) played a fine solo, Mike Sifringer rocked his ass off, and the hulking Schmier did what he does best. Clear highlight for me was the one-two punch of “Total Desaster” and “Bestial Invasion” (choreographed guitar moves and all) during the encore, but I loved every minute of it. Destruction really provided the perfect exclamation point to an incredible festival experience. I’m sure I forgot some songs, but the ones I remember them playing were “Mad Butcher” (which was being played as we walked in, even though it wasn’t the first song of the set), Armageddonizer, Eternal Ban, Life without Sense, Release from Agony, Carnivore, Tormentor, drum solo, Hate is My Fuel, Death Trap, Devolution. Encores: Total Desaster, Bestial Invasion, Butcher Strikes Back.
There was a nice postscript to the night. We wandered back to the campground at around 1:00 a.m. Sure enough, the DJ afterparty in the nearby parking lot was going at full tilt. Rather than hiding in our tent and trying to blot out the noise as we had the last couple of nights, we joined the party. We walked through, soaked it all in, tried to absorb every morsel that we could. A few hours later, we had broken down our tent, turned into two bags of garbage, collected our 20 Euro trash deposit from the campsite, and wandered through the town of Balingen to get to the train station in a heavy downpour. We arrived there before 8:00 a.m., and were suddenly surrounded by young people dressed for the color run, retirees going back into Stuttgart for the day, and all these ordinary folks who had nothing whatsoever to do with the BYH Fest. A few hours later, we sat in our posh hotel lobby in Stuttgart, freshly showered, wearing clean clothes, drinking Kristalweizen in the air-conditioning and wondering if we’d dreamed the whole damn thing.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~