REFUGE Solitary Men
The early 1990s were a dismal time to be a fan of traditional heavy metal. So many of my favorite bands were either dying off or releasing disappointing, watered-down, bastardized, “modernized” albums to try to fit in with the trends. Like a beacon of light into the darkness, however, Rage stood strong, steadfast and true. The classic lineup of the German power trio – consisting of Peavy Wagner (bass/vocals), Manni Schmidt (guitars) and Chris Efthimiadis (drums) – had been intact since 1988’s Perfect Man. But they achieved their pinnacle with Trapped! (1992) and The Missing Link (1993), both landmark releases of German heavy metal genius which to this day are among my favorite albums released by anyone ever. Unfortunately, the classic lineup disintegrated after The Missing Link. In the intervening decades, Peavy soldiered on with Rage, faithfully and fearlessly, with varying degrees of success. Schmidt became a family man and largely disappeared from the scene, save for a successful stint in Grave Digger. And I’m not sure what happened to Efthimiadis after XIII (1998).
Then something magical happened. In 2014, the stars aligned and Peavy/Manni/Chris reunited under the banner of Refuge (a famous song from The Missing Link) for occasional festival appearances. The gigs were fantastic, the timeless tunes sounded better than ever, and most importantly the guys really had fun playing together. Somewhere along the way, an idea was hatched to record a new album. Italy’s Frontiers Records inked Refuge to a recording contract and after a long and anxious wait, Solitary Men is finally here. The nods to the past are ubiquitous, not only in the album title (a play on “Solitary Man,” perhaps the greatest Rage song of all time) but also in the Andreas Marschall cover painting (same artist from Trapped! and The Missing Link). Even better, the songs were hammered out in the same rehearsal room that Peavy, Manni and Chris had used in the old days. Most of the tracks are brand-new, but a couple incorporate unused ideas from the past. Also, the album concludes with a welcome remake of “Another Kind of Madness” (the Japanese bonus track from The Missing Link).
Apologies for the lengthy windup, but context is important. What you need to know is that Solitary Men is a celebration of everything great about the classic Rage period. It successfully captures the energy, the vibe, and the spirit of those magnificent albums. It oozes freshness and exuberance. The boys sound like they’re having the time of their lives. Manni Schmidt (always one of my top guitar heroes) delivers a massively inspired performance, putting on a clinic of gargantuan licks, riffs and solos that embody his signature style and distinctive sound without coming across as a mere rehash of what he’s done before. There’s no denying that Peavy Wagner’s venerable pipes are beginning to show signs of wear and tear (hey, aren’t we all?), but he sings his heart out on this album, obviously giving it everything he has. And Chris Efthimidias is the mighty engine that makes the locomotive go, bashing the skins with the hyperactive zeal of a man half his age. How are the songs, you ask? Pretty damned great. Tracks like the brilliant, double-bass driven “From the Ashes,” the gold-plated melodies of “We Owe a Life to Death,” and the crushing “Summer’s Winter” hearken back to the glory days with such fury and conviction that you’ll soon realize you’re living in the golden years now. And the straightahead midtempo anthemic material such as “Man in the Ivory Tower” and the stomping “Living on the Edge of Time” is executed flawlessly. Things get a little odd on the more experimental “Waterfalls,” but the classic Rage lineup always had that streak back in the day, as well (Reflections of a Shadow, anyone?), so this feels authentic and true to form somehow.
Overall, Solitary Men has been extraordinarily well received by the long-term fanbase, and with good reason. Honestly, none of us (band members included) had any right to expect that Peavy, Manni and Chris could piece together an album of this surpassing quality, and this much in keeping with the feel of the old masters. Refuge has given all of us a wonderful gift. The only sour grapes I’ve seen on the Internet are from people who either don’t understand the difference between Refuge and present-day Rage (simple: Refuge has more of an old-school touch and the instantly recognizable guitar playing of Manni Schmidt) or who harbored unreasonable expectations that Solitary Men should be better than Trapped! and The Missing Link. Those albums are timeless, quivering classics for a reason folks, and it’s unfair to evaluate Solitary Men by comparison to them. Viewed on its own merit, Solitary Men is a triumph of German heavy metal and one of the best things I’ve heard in 2018 so far. Can’t wait to hear some of these tracks aired live at the Bang Your Head!!! Festival in Balingen next month. It’s gonna be like a firestorm …
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
DON’T DROP THE SWORD Path to Eternity
Regardless of whether you think the name is kitschy or cool (I’m still undecided myself), the fact remains that Don’t Drop the Sword have released one of the more exciting debut albums I have stumbled across in some time. The Bavarian quartet has made remarkable strides in a very short period of time. Indeed, Don’t Drop the Sword formed in 2016, released an excellent self-financed EP entitled Into the Fire in early 2017, and followed that effort with a full-length album called Path to Eternity in December 2017, all without formal record label backing. Although many fledgling acts struggle with carving out a musical identity and settling on a creative direction, Don’t Drop the Sword display a formidable laser-beam focus on their chosen sound and style, which is stripped-down, guitar-oriented, vintage ‘90s-era German power metal not far removed from the sonic territory occupied by their contemporary countrymen Evertale. The Into the Fire EP offered glimmers of brilliance, but Path to Eternity is a bold step forward in all respects and shows the band hitting its stride and ready to ascend to the elite level.
The obvious signpost band here is Blind Guardian, circa the Tales from the Twilight World to Nightfall in Middle Earth period. Vocalist Anti has a characteristic young Hansi Kursch timbre to his voice, albeit generally smoother, cleaner and less strained than the bard from Krefeld. And it’s impossible to hear a song like “Rotten Wings” without being instantly reminded of Blind Guardian, particularly the infectious swelling repetitive chorus which captures the magic of tunes like BG’s “Nightfall.” The band even try their hand at an acoustic folky BG-styled ballad (a la “Bard’s Song” or “A Past and Future Secret”) in the form of “Jester’s Tears,” with considerable success as evidenced by the goosebumps it induces. Many of the songs include guitar and vocal melodies in that trademark Olbrich/Kursch vein. Lyrics are steeped in traditional fantasy themes, including such familiar but welcome source material as The Dark Tower (“We Deal in Lead”), Lord of the Rings (“To the Proud a Grave,” about the mines of Moria), Homer’s Odyssey (“Siren Song”) and Game of Thrones (“Blood will Decide”). All of that said, it would be unfair to write off Don’t Drop the Sword as a mere clone. Their songwriting is generally straighter and more direct and to-the-point than Blind Guardian’s, the style of lead guitar playing is markedly different than Andre Olbrich, and elements of bands like early Running Wild (“Blood Will Decide”) and Hammerfall also crop up in Don’t Drop the Sword’s writing. Thankfully, the material on Path to Eternity leans heavily in favor of speedy numbers, as evidenced by the likes of “Path to Eternity,” “Guardians of Light,” “Wastelands of War,” “Hero of All Times,” and the ripping middle section of “Banished to Nightly Realms.” Perhaps the crown jewel of the entire album is track 12, “King of the Dragon Age,” a sub-4 minute adrenaline-rush hammer of a track, with torrents of speed, a brilliant chorus, a devastating mid-tempo bridge, a stirring solo section, and a magnificent vocal performance throughout. Assuming the drummer could get through the track without collapsing from exhaustion, “King of the Dragon Age” would surely bring the house down in a live setting. Wow! This is German power metal at its most exhilarating.
If there’s a knock on Path to Eternity, it’s that the prolific Bavarians just might have overdelivered here. At 14 songs and nearly 64 minutes, this album (which was released a mere 10 months after the 5-song Into the Fire, with no overlap in tracklisting) is a bit of an endurance test. Not all the songs are diamonds, although none are throwaways and all have merit. With judicious editing (say, 11 songs and 50 minutes), Path to Eternity could have packed an even more potent, concentrated punch than it did. But don’t let this minor nit dissuade you. Fans of German power metal, classic Blind Guardian, and current bands like Evertale, Rocka Rollas, Blazon Stone or Judicator just might fall in love with Don’t Drop the Sword’s take on a timeless sound. I know I have.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
CROM When Northmen Die
(Pure Steel 2017)
Talented multi-instrumentalist Walter Grosse has been making high-quality albums under the name Crom for a decade now. Far from a “band” in the conventional sense, Crom is essentially a one-man project, with Grosse writing, recording and playing almost everything on all the albums. The only exceptions on When Northmen Die are that drums are played by Seraph; two guests add bits of vocals, choirs and lead guitars; and the bonus track is a cover song (by Old Man’s Child, of all people). Don’t know about you, but I tend to be leery about “solo” bands because one guy working alone often has neither enough ideas nor enough quality control to capture the best songs, performances and arrangements possible. Crom has always been an exception to that rule (along with the likes of High Spirits and Ironflame). I found the German’s previous albums, Vengeance (2008) and Of Love and Death (2011), to be enthralling, captivating listens, with Grosse being a wellspring of endless creativity and talent. The same is true of When Northmen Die, a labor of love that Grosse wrote and recorded over a six-year period spanning from 2011 to 2017.
For the benefit of the uninitiated, it is a challenging (and largely futile) exercise to pigeonhole Crom’s music into a narrow category. Undoubtedly, Crom’s biggest influence/inspiration is Viking-era Bathory, circa Twilight of the Gods, as evidenced by the somber moods, epic arrangements, swelling choirs, and atmospheric grandeur throughout. But When Northmen Die is much more versatile than that. Opener “Behold the Lights” is pure, heart-pumping Euro power metal. The high-energy tracks are juxtaposed against delicate acoustic-dominated pieces like “Dear Father” and “Rain.” Elsewhere, “Betrayal” and “I’m with You” flirt with dramatic, spoken-word theatrics. All of these aspects of Crom’s sound are expertly constructed and performed, and the sense of dynamics, of ebb and flow, ensures that the 68-minute running time never feels labored or boring. To these ears, though, Crom is at its most magnificent on the grand, epic, Viking metal pieces like “Shields of Gold, ” “Sentenced to Death” and the breathtaking, nine-minute “When Northmen Die.”
For all of its diversity, When Northmen Die feels surprisingly cohesive, held together by Grosse’s distinctive and simply beautiful melodies, his clear and emotional voice (only occasionally dipping into harsh realms), and the prevailing feeling of melancholy. Why so sad? In the liner notes, Grosse dedicates this album “to the great memory of my fallen hero Walter Grosse (senior).” So he lost his father. With that realization, the lyrics, cover art, concept, everything suddenly makes sense. See “All Alone,” where Grosse sings, “Don’t mourn the lifetime that we’ve spent / I’ve found my destiny and peace / My son, now thou shall be king.” Then there’s “Dear Father,” with the heartbreaking line, “Father’s coming home.” Or “I’m with You,” which begins, “Now that I’m gone / You still must be strong.” You get the picture. (I understand that Grosse also recorded a version of KISS’s “World Without Heroes” for this album, but it’s not included on my slipcase, limited Pure Steel CD. Too bad, as this song would be an ideal complement to the themes presented.) The lyrics and delivery feel so heartfelt that I can only surmise that When Northmen Die was therapeutic for Grosse in processing and channeling his own grief from a deeply personal loss. His ability to tap into that genuine emotion is what gives When Northmen Die its power and its magic. There’s nothing contrived or affected about it. Lest you reach the conclusion that this must be a very depressing album to listen to, let me hasten to add that’s not the case at all. It feels very uplifting and majestic, despite the vibe of melancholia. Speaking for myself, When Northmen Die gives me a sense of peace and happiness every time. Yes, there is sadness in the world, but there is also beauty and majesty and this record exudes both.
Crom is not for everyone, and I think Grosse wouldn’t have it any other way. When Northmen Die is the kind of album that will be revered by some, and unappreciated/ignored by many. Count me unequivocally in the former category. If epic Viking metal with acoustic flourishes, plaintive vocals, gorgeous melodies and an overriding atmosphere of sadness and loss sounds like it might appeal to you, then investigate Crom without delay. The shields of gold are waiting to reward the brave … Finally, I understand from a recent social media post that Grosse has assembled a live band to bring Crom’s music to the stage in the relatively near future and is soliciting fan input for what songs should be included in the setlist. Oh, how I would love to see that someday.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
ACCEPT / NIGHT DEMON
Mehr! Theater, Hamburg, Germany
January 12, 2018
On a chilly gray Friday in northern Germany, the legendary Accept roared into town to kick off the European leg of The Rise of Chaos Tour 2018. Tonight’s venue was the Mehr! Theater, a cavernous modern structure located in a commercial complex near the Hamburg waterfront. The German heavy metal faithful turned out in full force to see their heroes in action, and by showtime the venue was jammed with roughly 2,500 delirious headbangers.
Accept fashioned a massive stage production befitting the occasion, utilizing a post-apocalyptic theme that essentially brings to life the cover artwork from The Rise of Chaos. As the taped intro announced their impending arrival, the Teutonic terrors stormed onstage at 9:00 p.m. sharp with a heart-racing rendition of the new record’s stirring opener, “Die by the Sword.” As the band shifted into crowd favorite “Stalingrad,” the intensity reached an even higher peak. For the next two-plus hours, Accept thrilled the Hamburg audience with a generous 21-song set that expertly balanced old classics and new material, with nary a weak link or lull in energy to be found. Following evergreen “Breaker,” singer Mark Tornillo (sporting his trademark sunglasses and army-style hat) addressed the crowd for the first time, telling us about Accept’s new album and how pleased they were to be presenting material from it here tonight. A selection of four tracks from The Rise of Chaos followed in quick succession, and the crowd’s voices joined the backing vocals in unison on the choruses of tracks like “Koolaid” and “Analog Man in a Digital World,” which were welcomed with the same fervor as old favorites.
Throughout the evening, guitarist Wolf Hoffmann and bassist Peter Baltes worked the stage like the seasoned pros they are, but with obvious relish, easy smiles, boisterous energy, and infectious enthusiasm. The duo made abundant use of the raised platforms lining the front of the stage, and also frequently ventured out on the two catwalks extending into the audience to get closer to their adoring fans. Hoffmann took a dramatic solo spot that led seamlessly into “Neon Nights,” complete with sparkly disco ball lighting effect illuminating the entire hall. Speaking of Wolf and Peter, an absolute highlight of the set occurred during surprise deep cut “Objection Overruled,” which featured a killer vocal from Tornillo (“Horsewhip ‘em!”) and an extended instrumental break in which Hoffmann and Baltes each ventured out onto a ramp and playfully dueled each other with solo after solo.
The last five tracks that Accept performed tonight mark a stretch of unparalleled heavy metal excellence and sheer paradise for the old-school metalhead. Imagine, if you will, the band going from “Pandemic” to “Fast as a Shark” to “Metal Heart” (which began with Hoffmann, Baltes, and Uwe Lulis all perched on platforms, bathed in deep blue light and stage fog as CO2 jets blasted compressed air around them, and ended with a skull-splitting Christopher Williams drum spotlight) to “Teutonic Terror” to “Balls to the Wall.” That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you throw down the gauntlet and close out a gig in style. The Hamburg audience responded accordingly, with the band members being visibly chuffed with the crowd reaction and Tornillo announcing that this show was the best tour opener ever. Honestly, it didn’t feel like a tour opener at all. Everything was running at peak efficiency and flawless performance all night. Accept are a relentless metal juggernaut, and they are coming to a town near you. Don’t miss those six-string saviors, screams in the night, and war drums pounding. Accept mean business.
The evening’s musical festivities commenced with direct support act, Night Demon. After making waves in the true metal underground for several years as a stellar live band, the trio from Ventura, California has been rewarded with a prize slot opening Accept’s European tour. They are making the most of the opportunity. Indeed, the band’s high-octane musical attack was on full display in Hamburg. Night Demon ripped through a well-received 45-minute set laden with old-school fist-pumping anthems. As a special tribute to the late Fast Eddie Clarke, who had passed away just one day earlier, Night Demon played the first verse and chorus of seminal Motorhead track “Overkill” before segueing into their own “Dawnrider.” Even hooded skeletal mascot Rocky made an appearance on stage during “The Chalice,” urging the audience to drink from the titular goblet. Fans attending this tour should definitely plan to arrive early!
Review by Kit Ekman
EVERTALE The Great Brotherwar
Much as I’ve always been fond of power metal, the genre has fallen upon adversity in recent years. Its worldwide popularity appears to have waned, most of the innovators and leaders of the style are no longer at their peak, and it has become all too rare to come across a new power metal release that really captures the imagination. (Oh, I know bands like Orden Ogan are thriving, both commercially and creatively, and I love the likes of Seven Kingdoms, Blazon Stone and Silent Knight, so please don’t take this as some kind of blanket condemnation of the genre.) Enter Evertale like a welcome wind from the north to inject freshness and excitement into the too-often staid and stale power metal world. After a well-received 2013 debut, Of Dragons and Elves (not a very subtle title, eh?), the German quartet returned in late 2017 with The Great Brotherwar. Any doubts about Evertale’s stylistic bent are quickly eradicated by perusing the digipak CD and booklet. Andreas Marschall cover painting? Check. Fantasy lyrics about knights and dragons and hammers and kings? Check. Van Canto cover version? Check.
What the packaging won’t tell you is how fantastic The Great Brotherwar really is. Evertale have closely studied the German masters (early Blind Guardian principally, but also Gamma Ray, Iron Savior, Orden Ogan and Savage Circus), and have released an album that can go toe-to-toe with any of them. This is classic guitar-driven (and largely keyboard-free) power metal from the German school, loud and proud, oozing with class, bombast, lightning-fast riffing, pummeling double-bass workouts, majestic melodies, swelling choirs, and monstrous epic choruses that drill immediately into your head and will have you singing along and raising your fist in no time. Vocalist/guitarist Matthias Graf possesses an optimal voice for this kind of music, with a roughness, expressiveness and charisma that is very much in the tradition of young Hansi Kursch, Jens Carlsson (Persuader / Savage Circus), the guy from Freternia and even Joe Liszt (Ancient Empire). Graf and his guitar partner, Matthias “Woody” Holzapfel, do a fantastic job with the speed riffs, the Olbrich / Siepen style melodies, and the memorable themes and harmonies. There appears to be a fantasy concept running through the lyrics, and the album begins with a spoken-word, sound-effects battle scene about no retreat, no surrender and no tomorrow (somewhat reminiscent of how Blind Guardian kicked off Nightfall in Middle Earth). The eight original compositions (there are also four instrumental / intro pieces) are of uniformly stellar quality, each being a glittering example of kick-ass power metal, with every nuance and detail ringing true as a sacred blade forged in iron and steel. I love them all, but if I could only pick one, I’d take “For the King and the Crown,” which slays me every time with the “We are the grey – GREY – wardens!” part. The full-instrumentation cover of “Take to the Sky” (perhaps Van Canto’s finest hour, if you ask me) is the icing on the cake, demonstrating how, gimmick aside, Van Canto’s music works because they write killer metal songs. Production-wise, the album sounds great too, particularly the choir parts, which are expertly done and deliver an epic melodic payload alongside the punishing drums and ripping guitars.
The caveat to all of this effusive praise, of course, is that there really isn’t much originality on display on The Great Brotherwar. If the idea of a young band paying homage to the likes of early Blind Guardian and Savage Circus at a ridiculously high level of proficiency is offensive to you, then don’t listen. For everyone else who enjoys the aforementioned bands, The Great Brotherwar is nothing short of mandatory listening. Evertale have categorically proven that European power metal is not dead. Even after all these years and so many disappointments by once-great bands, it is still possible for a new German power metal album to send shivers down your spine, knock you on your ass, and transport you to faraway realms and distant battles with dragons and kings. Make no mistake: The Great Brotherwar just might be the finest power metal album from 2017. It’s not easy to find NoiseArt releases in the United States, but this one’s well worth the time and expense of tracking down.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
MASTERS OF DISGUISE Alpha/Omega
(Limb Music 2017)
Over the last few years, German speed-obsessed maniacs in Masters of Disguise have emerged as one of the best new bands in continental Europe. Guitarist Kalli Coldsmith and bassist Mario Lang were part of the last Savage Grace lineup backing SG mainman Christian Logue at live appearances in 2009 and 2010. When Logue decided to lay Savage Grace to rest presumably for the final time, Masters of Disguise (whose moniker, mascot and logo were all derived from and an homage to Savage Grace’s first full-length album from 1985) was born. Much more than a cover band, Masters of Disguise have dedicated themselves to preserving the spirit and attitude of the classic Savage Grace sound (and more broadly, the U.S. power/speed style of the 1980s, along with melodic thrash like early Heathen). Alpha/Omega marks the prolific act’s third full-length album since 2013, to go along with an absolutely killer 2016 covers EP entitled The Fine Art of Aging Gracefully.
Masters of Disguise’s motto is “speed metal with class” and those four words beautifully encapsulate what Alpha/Omega is all about. Amidst the widespread old-school heavy metal revival of today, somehow the 1980s American speed metal style has been largely overlooked, but not if Kalli Coldsmith and his mates have anything to say about it. Much like the band’s previous recordings, Alpha/Omega is packed to the gills with pure, glorious, unadulterated speed metal bliss. With the exceptions of the more midtempo, Manowar-ish “Shadows of Death” and the stellar cover of Exciter’s moody epic “Blackwitch” (the CD bonus track, which some will know from the fantastic Exciter tribute album released earlier in 2017 on Bart Gabriel’s Skol Records), Alpha/Omega is a relentless rush of glorious speed from beginning to end. The performances of Coldsmith and fellow axe-slinger Wolle Buchinger are like a master class in razor-sharp, precision speed metal riffing, somehow never forgetting to be catchy and memorable in addition to being ridiculously fast. The jackhammer rhythm section of Lang and Jens Gellner brings the relentless thunder to match the guitars stride for stride in the high-octane sensory assault. And vocalist Alexx Stahl (also known for his work in Roxxcalibur, Viron and improbably enough Bonfire) is one of the finest unsung talents in metal today, boasting truly impressive power, charisma, range and control, reminding me in spots of a young Hansi Kursch during Blind Guardian’s speed-metal period.
As for the songs, Alpha/Omega is truly an exercise in top-notch, uniformly high-quality melodic speed metal. After a Savage Grace / Iced Earth inspired introductory instrumental “The Rise (and Fall) of Kingdoms,” the band rip into the near-thrash intensity of “Sacrifice,” which showcases Masters of Disguise at their most aggressive. A clear standout track is “Demons from the Past,” which not only includes more glorious speed riffs than you can shake a stick at but also features a brilliant vocal, a magnificent chorus and a clever arrangement at the three-minute mark where the all-out attack pauses and Stahl sings the chorus with just a clean guitar accompaniment before, bang, the hammer comes down and the track breathlessly races to the finish like Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt being shot out of a cannon. Honestly, every song on Alpha/Omega is a highlight, including the somewhat mysterious “Sign of the Cross,” for which Christian Logue receives sole songwriting credit but which never appeared on any Savage Grace LP. I’m guessing this is a “lost” SG song written by Logue for a later incarnation of Savage Grace but never used, much like “The Templars’ Gold” and “Barbarians at the Gate” from previous Masters of Disguise albums. Whatever the back story is, “Sign of the Cross” is a great track. Actually, though, my favorite stretch of Alpha/Omega consists of the last three proper songs, “Witchhammer,” “Knutson III: Nemesis (I am the Law),” and “The Leech,” each of which is absolutely flawless speed metal ecstasy with rocket-fueled riffs, amazing vocals, and hugely memorable melodies. Damn, the dueling Hansen/Weikath-styled guitar solo in “Witchhammer” is worth the price of admission all by itself, giving me goosebumps and bringing to mind some of the best moments on Walls of Jericho.
Honestly, I can’t think of another band today executing this style as well as Masters of Disguise. If you have an affinity for classy speed metal, then Alpha/Omega should be at the very top of your shopping list. And if you’ve already completed your “best of” lists for 2017, you may need to scrap them to make room for Masters of Disguise. I know I will.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
HEADBANGERS OPEN AIR FESTIVAL
July 27-29, 2017
Over the years, Jen and I have had the good fortune of attending many incredible underground European metal festivals. Until this year, however, Headbangers Open Air had always eluded us. HOA enjoys a sterling reputation amongst the European metal faithful, with many of our European friends confiding in us that HOA is their absolute favorite festival. It’s not hard to understand why. Billed as the “largest garden party in the world,” HOA is like an outdoor version of Keep It True. Attendance is manageable (approximately 2,000 tickets sold each year), the lineup (25 bands spread over three days) is jam-packed with true heavy metal highlights, the vibe is friendly and intimate, and there’s hardly a trace of corporate greedy blood-sucking tentacles to be found. This is a festival of the people, by the people, and for the people. It’s been that way for two decades, this being the 20th anniversary show for HOA. It is truly a special event, and absolutely deserves its revered status in the pantheon of Euro metal fests.
It is not, however, the easiest festival to attend from a logistical standpoint. The festival site is actually a farm, with amiable festival organizer Thomas’s farmhouse located on the grounds. The path to HOA leads down narrow, winding, country roads seemingly hacked out of the vegetation, with tall cornfields on either side. The nearest sign of civilization is roughly 4 km away, where there’s a grocery store, a train station and the small town (maybe village would be more accurate) of Brande-Hornerkirchen. It’s literally in the middle of nowhere. Most people drive to HOA, but for vehicle-deprived attendees like Jen and me, it actually is possible to get there by other means. From Hamburg, you can take a 40-minute trainride to Dauenhof train station for 7 Euros. From there, a taxi shuttle (run by the friendly Taxi Schmidt company) can take you to the festival site for just 2 Euros. We actually did not need to avail ourselves of the public transit route to HOA because our pals in Night Demon kindly offered us a ride from Hamburg in their van on Thursday morning; however, we did use the Taxi Schmidt / train combo to get back from HOA on Sunday morning, and it worked beautifully.
A few words about festival organization / layout. There’s really not much to it. A small one-way road approaches the festival site, with large camping areas to your right. The backstage area abuts that road on the right, making for easy access for artists, tour vans/buses, etc., and facilitating the loading and unloading of gear. Across the road from the backstage area is small day-parking area that also has room to accommodate a few dozen campers. This is where Jen and I pitched our tent, and it was a genius idea really, because (i) we were much closer to the festival grounds than the main camping areas, and (ii) it was very serene and peaceful in our little satellite camping spot at night, which was not the case in the main campsites from what I understand. When you walk onto the festival grounds, there’s a path with vendors (food, drink, ice cream, mostly, plus a few more typical heavy metal stalls), bathrooms, meet and greet tent, a seating area near the HOA’s main kitchen, portable toilets, and the like. At the end of that path is the entrance to the festival infield/stage area. You turn left, submit to a thorough security patdown and then you’re on the infield. The infield/stage area is actually adjacent to the vendor booths, meet-and-greet, kitchen area, but separated by fences and thick hedges. So you can hear the music from the vendor/kitchen area, but you cannot see a thing. The only vendor allowed inside the infield/stage area is co-sponsor Hellion Records, which sells its own wares as well as certain band merch (for a 20% markup – bands also had the option of selling their own merch in the meet-and-greet tent outside the infield/stage area with no markup). There was also a beer stand and a few portalets inside the infield/stage area, but that’s it. This meant it was a pain in the ass to get food, go to meet-and-greets, visit vendors, etc., because you couldn’t see any bands while you did so and you had to pass through security again to access the infield/stage area. I must have been patted down 10 times every day going in and out of that place. It would have been nice if I could go get a sausage or a sandwich without having to pass through security, and if I could have watched a band while enjoying the food/drink/merch purveyors or waiting on a meet-and-greet, but alas, the layout was what it was.
As for the stage itself, it’s a permanent wooden structure, not as big as you would expect, with good lighting, pretty good sightlines, and a roof that provides shelter for probably 300-400 attendees. (I’d guess you could jam a total of around 1,200 people into the infield area altogether. It’s not a very spacious area.) Those not under the covered roof area must stand in the grass and dirt, exposed to the elements. The only barrier is a single, thin, waist-high metal rail separating the audience from the stage (with an ample photo pit in-between, although I couldn’t believe how packed the photo pit was for every single band). If you know me at all, you know I love to be upfront at shows, poor sound conditions be damned. I can’t tell you how many bands I watched with that rail stuck against my torso, my head and arms straining forward above the rail and my feet and legs pushing forward below the rail. I spent a lot of hours with my body wrapped around that rail like a pretzel, haha. Sound was surprisingly good for most bands (save for a few notable exceptions I’ll discuss below). Even upfront, I could hear everything clearly most of the time. And the bands I talked to reported very good sound conditions on stage as well (i.e., they could hear what they were doing and got the monitor mix they wanted), which is a rarity in a festival environment. Set changeovers were kept to a brisk 20 minutes, and the bands ran on time. On Day 1, the music went from 4 p.m. to midnight, with it being more like noon to midnight (or a bit later) on Days 2 and 3. There were a total of 25 acts: 7 on Thursday, 9 each on Friday and Saturday, with most bands getting at least 50 minutes and headliners getting roughly 90. Of those 25, I saw all or part of around 20. I missed a few bands either for lack of interest, for socializing, or (in one case) for delayed arrival on the festival site (more about that soon). So this won’t be an entirely comprehensive report. As always, my apologies to the bands I didn’t see or didn’t see enough of to cover herein. I’m only one guy and I’m trying to do it all: see the bands, talk to my friends, enjoy the festival ambience. So invariably some things fall through the cracks.
I’ve touched on this already, but one of the most refreshing things about HOA is how non-corporate it is. Unlike most festivals these days, you are not besieged by advertisements or corporate sponsors. Fest organizer Thomas makes it a point of pride not to gouge attendees, even though he’s basically the only game in town for food and drink given the remote location. For 0.3 liters of beer (which was Dithmarscher, a pretty good albeit not exceptional local beer) on draft, you paid just 2 Euros (roughly $2.40), plus a refundable 1 Euro deposit for the glass. That’s extremely reasonable. Sandwiches were 4 Euros, sausages on a roll were just 2.50 Euros. Coffee in the mornings was 1.50 Euros. You get the idea. HOA could have charged double those prices and people would have gladly paid because there was no other place to obtain these basic food and drink necessities. But HOA kept pricing fan-friendly, and I salute them for it. Speaking of fan-friendly pricing, each advance three-day pass I purchased cost just 54 Euros (roughly $65) for three full days of incredible music, with camping fees included. What a bargain! (Wacken Open Air passes, by comparison, run something like 200 Euros each.) To underscore the fan-friendliness of the entire experience, at 3:45 p.m. on Thursday – 15 minutes before the music kicked off – HOA staff tapped 3 kegs of Dithmarscher and distributed free beers to everyone until the kegs were depleted. Amazing, and much appreciated. They say the fastest way to a man’s heart is through beer. Wait, what? People don’t really say that? Okay, well, the fastest way to my heart is through beer, and HOA went a long way toward endearing itself to me with that kind free-beer gesture on the front end of the festival.
Thursday, July 27, 2017
By the time we reached the HOA grounds on Thursday, it was around 2 p.m. The first few hours were a blur. We had so much to do. First and foremost, we had to select a campsite and set up our tent. You would be hard-pressed to find two less outdoorsy, camping, roughing-it people than Jen and me. We had no idea what we were doing. Still, we chose a pretty good campsite in the day parking area across the road from the backstage entrance. We erected our $30 Wal-Mart tent with a minimum of mishap, although there was much cursing and gnashing of teeth along the way (“Guide wire? What the f@#k is a guide wire? I don’t know how the hell it’s supposed to go?”). Eventually, miraculously, our shitty little tent took form, we arranged its contents, set the padlock, and went off exploring. Within minutes, we encountered dear friends from Europe, so we spent time catching up and drinking beer with them. All of this is a long-winded explanation for why we missed the first couple of bands (Rohbau and Bad Influence, each of whom played a 30-minute set). We were acclimating to our surroundings and that took priority.
We finally entered the infield/stage area early in BLACK HAWK’s performance, which was already underway. Black Hawk are a long-running northern German band, whose history dates all the way back to 1981. Currently signed to Pure Steel Records, they have six full-length albums to their credit, including most recently The End of the World, released earlier this year. If no-frills German metal is your game, then Black Hawk fit the bill nicely. The four-piece band, which features in its ranks ex-Paragon guitarist Wolfgang Tewes, did a more than competent job of warming up the still-thin crowd. A bunch of their friends seemed to be upfront, so it was fun to see the enjoyment of Black Hawk’s performance through their eyes. One guy standing in front of me was already three sheets to the wind, unfortunately. He lost his balance and stumbled backward into me, inadvertently kicking my leg and giving me a nasty, bloody gash that I had to contend with for the remainder of the festival. Great, 30 minutes into my HOA experience and I’m already wounded, haha. Anyway, the big surprise in Black Hawk’s set was their inclusion of the KISS classic, “Detroit Rock City,” which the band had previously covered on their The Invasion album in 2008. Some folks were underwhelmed by the cover version, which was surely different than Black Hawk’s original material, but I thought it was fun and worked well in a festival environment. Nice to make your acquaintance on stage, Black Hawk. Partial Setlist (again, we arrived late, but this is how it ended): Heavy Metal Axe, Scream in the Night, Nothing to Lose, Fire in the Night, Detroit Rock City, Heroes.
Seems awfully early to have one of the highlights of the entire festival, but nonetheless here it was. NIGHT DEMON did not receive the most enviable of time slots (6:25 – 7:25 p.m. on Thursday), but it didn’t matter. Since the release of Darkness Remains four months ago, the Ventura-based trio have worked the European territory tirelessly, playing dozens of shows that included marquee appearances at the Rock Hard Festival in Gelsenkirchen, at Keep It True, and so on. That hard work (which in turn built on ND’s legacy of extensive touring in Europe for the last several years) has paid off in spades. Despite the unfavorable time slot, the HOA infield/stage area was filled with metalheads, many of them sporting a wide variety of Night Demon apparel. The crowd was amped up and ready to embrace their heavy metal heroes. Night Demon did not disappoint a single soul. Jarvis, Armand and Dusty – all wearing matching ND sigil necklaces – stormed the stage with relentless energy and power for 60 minutes, blasting through 15 old and new favorites. By now, Darkness Remains cuts like “Maiden Hell,” “Black Widow” and (my favorite) “Dawn Rider” have settled in nicely alongside the likes of “Curse of the Damned,” “Ritual,” and “Screams in the Night” in the ND setlist. It all meshes seamlessly. “The Chalice” was up early today, and while it was strange seeing Rocky in daylight, the effect still worked. Also noteworthy were the band’s punked-up run through “Radar Love” (if I’m not mistaken, the first time I’d ever seen them do that particular cover tune) and the eerie, chilling “Darkness Remains,” augmented by dramatic lighting effects, Armand puffing on a cigarette while he churned out the leads. Never would have imagined “Darkness Remains” working as a live cut, with its laid-back vibe, but it does, even with no effects on Jarvis’s voice. It was the only chance to breathe during Night Demon’s one-hour onslaught, and added immensely to the dynamics of the set. Behind the drums, Dusty was suffering through a head cold, but you never would have known it to watch him on that stage. He had conserved every ounce of energy he had today, and poured it all into the gig. The guy’s a hammering juggernaut, and goodness knows he got an intense workout with this high-energy set.
It’s hard to tell whether there was more sweat being generated onstage or in the crowd, given the amount of physical exertion going on in the audience. Night Demon chants sprung up spontaneously after nearly every song. It was a proverbial “the crowd is going wild” moment. And it gave me chills. Here’s why: for years, I’ve watched Night Demon play mostly to small audiences in small rooms, mostly in the USA. For years, I’ve seen those guys pour out all their blood, sweat and tears on those tiny stages, whether anybody was there to appreciate it or not. Tonight, I saw, in a way that was much more tangible than a YouTube video filmed on somebody’s phone during a Euro festival, that those efforts have not been for naught. Night Demon have built and are continuing to build something. They’ve struck a chord with the European metalheads. And rightfully so. When the band played their Iron Maiden cover, “Wasted Years,” to round out their set (it’s become their default closer at high-profile gigs these days), I actually felt the tears welling up. Wuss, right? Maybe so, but it was a beautiful thing to see, my friends on that stage, the love and the energy flowing back and forth between band and audience. For so many underground metal bands today, this is the ultimate dream. And Night Demon are living it. I couldn’t have been more proud, or more impressed, by what I saw. All hail Night Demon! Setlist: Welcome to the Night, Ritual, Maiden Hell, Curse of the Damned, Full Speed Ahead, Black Widow, The Chalice, Heavy Metal Heat, Hallowed Ground, Screams in the Night, Dawn Rider, Radar Love, Night Demon, Darkness Remains, Wasted Years.
I didn’t have much energy left in the tank after the explosive Night Demon show, but I rallied quickly because the next band were Hamburg metal stalwarts PARAGON. I’m a long-time fan of the band, but hadn’t seen them play live in some 15 years, since I saw them opening for Gamma Ray in Paris. Bassist Jan Bunning assured me beforehand that Paragon have improved greatly as a live entity in the intervening time, thanks to new members and increased musical proficiency. In a way, Paragon were the ideal band to follow Night Demon on the HOA stage, with their bruising, timeless brand of pure German heavy metal being exactly what the crowd craved. Right out of the gate, Paragon crushed through the first five songs, in order, from their 2002 Law of the Blade opus. While I dearly love those tunes and that album, I was surprised they’d devote such a large chunk of their setlist to Law of the Blade, given the depth of their catalog, but Jan explained to me later that Law of the Blade is widely regarded as the fans’ favorite Paragon record, and they aim to please. The band then kicked into a three-pack of highlights from their fine latest album, Hell Beyond Hell, before a smattering of old classics, finishing off the night with the brilliant “Thunderstorm.” Paragon looked and sounded powerful, professional and tight. The musicianship was strong, and the stage presence was excellent, particularly with respect to vocalist Andreas Babuschkin, who worked the stage masterfully and belted out the challenging vocal lines flawlessly. Outstanding performance all the way around by Paragon, and I vow not to let another 15 years pass before I see them next. The hope and plan is for a new Paragon album in 2018, so watch for it! Setlist: Abducted, Palace of Sin, Armies of the Tyrant, Law of the Blade, Across the Wasteland, Rising Forces, Hypnotized, Hell Beyond Hell, Impaler, Hellgore, Thunderstorm.
The Greek thrash maniacs Suicidal Angels were up next, but Jen and I opted to skip them. Not because we don’t like Suicidal Angels (for the record, I’d say they’re one of the better younger thrash acts, and we saw them play a killer gig at Bang Your Head festival in 2015), but because we wanted to see how the Night Demon meet-and-greet played out. So for the next hour or so, we stood along the edge of the meet-and-greet tent, watching as a veritable sea of headbangers queued up to approach the table where Jarvis, Armand and Dusty were seated. There was a seemingly endless array of merch to be signed, photos to be taken, hands to be shaken, etc., but the band took it all in stride, with grace, class and respect. Midway through the event, mascot Rocky made an appearance, so we hung out with him for awhile. The undead are not allowed out of Satan’s presence for long, however, so Rocky’s time among the living during the meet-and-greet was brief, allowing for only a few lucky souls to snap photos with him before he was summoned back to the bowels of Hades. The meet-and-greet cemented what we already knew, namely, that the European underground metal community have taken Night Demon into their hearts. It was great to see.
After a beer and a sandwich, Jen and I returned to the infield/stage area in time to see tonight’s headliner, PRETTY MAIDS. Like a lot of metalheads, I suppose, I am a big fan of the band’s earlier, heavier stuff, but am a bit flummoxed and annoyed by all the fluffy, glam-rock kind of stuff they do too. Still, in my experience, Pretty Maids have proven to be an excellent festival band because of their deep catalog of hits and their compelling stage presence. The short-version of my review of Pretty Maids’ gig tonight is that it just wasn’t their night. The longer version goes something like this: Unlike every other band to play today (and notwithstanding the 40-minute changeover to get everything dialed in), Pretty Maids were saddled with a wretched sound. Everything was muddy, and there was feedback all over the place. The band were visibly irritated, with Ronnie Atkins complaining about “technical problems” after nearly every song and bemoaning the fact that they couldn’t hear anything onstage. That kind of negative energy only served to deplete the crowd even more. The icing on the cake was that, in contrast to other festivals where I’ve seen Pretty Maids, the band’s setlist seemed skewed too heavily towards the wimpy, AOR, keyboardy kind of stuff. This is not the kind of crowd who will warm to “Walk Away” or “Little Drops of Heaven” or snippets of “Another Brick in the Wall,” you know? Sure, we got some heavy metal too, including an early dose of “Red Hot and Heavy” and “Yellow Rain,” and the expected late flurry of “Back to Back” and “Future World,” but it just seemed like too little, too late. The choice of the limp “Lovegames” as final encore sort of underscored the whole problem. As a result, the Pretty Maids gig was just kind of a bummer, notwithstanding that it was bassist Rene Shades’ birthday, and there were lots of disgruntled HOA attendees by the end of the night. Too bad. Partial Setlist (don’t know the titles of the some of the lightweight stuff, sorry): King of All Lies, Kingmaker, Red Hot and Heavy, Yellow Rain, Walk Away, Rodeo, INVU, Little Drops of Heaven, Back to Back, Future World, Lovegames.
So now it was midnight, and live music was already finished for the day. We were in no hurry to make our way back to our little hovel in the grass, so we got some 2 Euro beers and hung out with friends. Eventually, we encountered a very drunk, huge German guy spilling out his heart to Jarvis in broken English, prompting us to go over to try to rescue our friend. No good deed goes unpunished, it seems. Once the big drunk guy found out that I liked Night Demon too, he proceeded to give me no fewer than three hugs, all the while professing his undying love and gratitude for ND. I asked the drunk guy’s buddy if he’s always this way, and he answered, “Only when he’s drunk,” haha. Then the rain started to fall, for the first (but sadly not the last) time this weekend. Not so funny. Somewhere along the way, the ND guys realized they had an extra bed in their hotel, so they graciously offered it to us as a means of keeping us out of the rain tonight. We gratefully accepted. As a result, we had warm, dry accommodations tonight, and were rescued (for one night, at least) from the untold horrors of the campsite and our $30 WalMart tent. Heartfelt thanks, guys!
Friday, July 28, 2017
Predictably, the morning got off to something of a late start because we’d been up so late the night before. It felt unbelievably luxurious to take a nice, hot shower in the hotel, then go downstairs for a continental breakfast of coffee, rolls and Nutella. The Night Demon family kindly dropped us off back at the festival site on their way out (they had a gig in Kiel that night, so they couldn’t stick around). It all worked out perfectly, except that by the time we returned to the HOA grounds at around 12:45 p.m., we’d already missed the first band of the day, Satan’s Fall. Oh well, it was a small price to pay for an unexpected night of creature comforts, protected from the elements. Speaking of which, today’s weather seemed promising enough when we arrived. Temperatures were pleasant and it wasn’t raining. There were small areas at the festival site where a bit of mud had formed during last night’s rainshowers, but nothing to be worried about. We crossed our fingers and hoped we were in the clear. We hoped wrong, haha.
Musically, our day started with a bang thanks to a healthy dose of speed metal courtesy of the German WARRANT. The band’s 1980s output, the First Strike EP and The Enforcer, is hailed in certain corners of the underground, and I’ve always been a fan. Today’s 50-minute set was geared heavily toward the classic material, with just a few tunes from the band’s 2014 Metal Bridge album to keep things copacetic. Warrant are a three-piece band, led by bald bassist/vocalist Jorg Juraschek who is the lone original member. He doesn’t sing like he used to, but still does just fine. The ripping speed metal of tunes like “Scavenger’s Daughter” and “The Rack” definitely got the crowd going, but Warrant also had a few tricks up their sleeves. First, during “Nuns Have No Fun,” they brought out a woman dressed in a nun’s habit. Predictably, she had stripped down to her underwear by the time the song was halfway through, much to the audience’s delight. (Word has it she was backstage offering to do anything other bands wanted, onstage or off, all weekend long.) Hey, lowest common denominator tactics can still be successful. Then, during the awesome signature song “The Enforcer,” the band brought out their hooded, axe-wielding executioner mascot from the album covers, but with a twist. In addition to the mascot, a small child who couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 years old also came out on stage wielding a tiny plastic axe. As the Enforcer strutted and posed and flexed his muscles, this cute little kid blissfully waved around that tiny axe. It was pretty adorable, honestly, a passing of the torch from one generation to the next (perhaps with a generation skipped in between given the ages of those onstage). Anyway, gimmicks aside, the Warrant show was excellent, and I was very happy to hear these classic tracks aired live. Setlist: Come and Get It, Ordeal of Death, The Rack, Cowards or Martyrs, Asylum, Scavenger’s Daughter, Satan, Nuns Have No Fun, Immortal, The Enforcer, Torture in the Tower.
Much like yesterday, the biggest highlight of the day came early today. It’s no secret that New Jersey’s ATTACKER are not only one of my favorite bands in the world, but are also among my favorite people. They blew the roof off the now-defunct Metal Grill in Milwaukee when we last saw them in April, and I fully expected them to do the same today. Attacker’s show was not without its stress and drama. As guitarist Mike Benetatos told me beforehand, somehow the airlines had lost five guitars (belonging to both Attacker and their traveling companions in Blood Feast) yesterday. The band had been sweating bullets over whether their gear would even show up in time for the gig. Thankfully, it did, and both Attacker and Blood Feast were able to play their own instruments. Logistical headaches aside, Attacker played a simply magnificent set today, delivering a master class in U.S. power metal done right. There are no weak links in this band. Every musician is top-notch, although the focal points are quite rightfully the air-raid siren vocals of Bobby “Leather Lungs” Lucas (who is and always has been one of the best metal vocalists in the world, for my money) and the guitar histrionics of Benetatos and his partner in crime, Jon Hasselbrink. In addition to being a monster player, Benetatos is a born rock star, with his flailing hair and flying fingers electrifying the stage. And behind the kit, drummer/original member Mike Sabatini is the picture of concentration, looking on benevolently from on high as his bandmates unleash hell below. The crowd went ballistic from the first note of “Sins of Man” to the last note of “Glen of the Ghost,” and everything in between. Of course, the biggest reaction was reserved for the old stuff like “The Hermit,” “Zero Hour” and “(Call on) The Attacker,” but more recent material like “The End” (featuring Benetatos on co-lead vocals in the chorus) and “World Destroyer” went down a storm too. The cherry on top was getting to hear my favorite Attacker song, “Glen of the Ghost,” wrap up the set once again, as it did in Milwaukee. There’s no question that Attacker were in top form today. They played great and received a massive reception from the audience. Still, it’s telling that part of the reason the band are so good is because they’re such perfectionists. Afterwards, Sabatini told me almost immediately that they’d messed up “This is Power” because Lucas had come in at the wrong time. I had noticed that something was out of sync (briefly) in that song, but I’m sure most people hadn’t. Yet Attacker always want to deliver the absolute best show they possibly can, so the brief hiccup bothered them. Today may not have been a perfect Attacker show, but it was damn close to one, and I’m ever so happy to have been here to witness it in person. My only question is why Attacker weren’t much higher on the bill than they were. They set the bar impossibly high for anyone else to reach on this day. Setlist: Sins of Man, The Hammer, World Destroyer, Revelation of Evil, The End, This is Power, Carcosa, The Hermit, Zero Hour, Slayer’s Blade, (Call on) The Attacker, Glen of the Ghost.
We didn’t get to see much of BLOOD FEAST’s set, unfortunately. We needed food, so that meant leaving the infield/stage area. We also wanted to chat with the Attacker guys for a bit, and they were hanging out over by the meet-and-greet tent. More importantly, the weather had begun to deteriorate, somewhat significantly. There were intermittent periods of heavy rain showers sweeping through the festival grounds. It wasn’t constant, and as long as we remained in the covered area in front of the stage we would be fine. But we were concerned that the paths might get muddy, so in an abundance of caution we elected to walk to our tent to don our mud boots as a precautionary measure. (Turned out to be the smartest decision we could have made, for the rain was going to dog the festivities at HOA for a long time, indeed.) Along the way, we encountered other friends, and ended up socializing a good bit longer than we’d intended. By the time we made it back to the stage area, Blood Feast only had a couple of songs left. What we saw, however, was simply hammer-down savage thrash metal, delivered with a high degree of intensity and precision. The audience was eating it up, too. By all accounts, Blood Feast were awesome today, and from the ten minutes or so that we witnessed, I will not dispute that assessment.
Aside from Attacker, the other band that I was most looking forward to seeing today was STORMWARRIOR. Their blend of Walls of Jericho-era Helloween and Running Wild is extremely close to my heart. Until now, however, the only time I had ever seen them was in their first (and to date, only) US appearance at the ProgPower festival circa 2009. That was a long time ago. I got my spot on the rail alongside my Australian friend Stu McGill (of the band Silent Knight, playing tomorrow), and for the next 55 minutes we were transported to a northerne lande of bloode and fyre and warriors and iron and steele. Blond-maned founder/guitarist Lars Ramcke’s distinctive vocals were right on point. I didn’t recognize any of the other three faces on stage, however, so I guess Ramcke has assembled a completely different lineup of musicians in Stormwarrior since I last saw the band. I will confess that I missed seeing former bassist Yenz Leonhardt, who left the fold just a few months ago; however, all the new musicians did a fine job. With Stormwarrior, it’s all about the songs, and damned if they don’t have some of the greatest German metal hymns of the last two decades. There’s singalong stuff like “Odinn’s Warriors” and “Metal Legacy,” there’s the speedy genius of “Thunder and Steele,” and the closing salvo of “Heading Northe” (one of my all-time favorite songs, if truth be told) into “Iron Prayers” is simply untouchable. Yeah, maybe you could criticize Stormwarrior’s performance as being a bit too stiff, reserved and clinical, but these songs rule. To hear them played live at a high level is a remarkable gift for which I was and am most thankful. I understand Ramcke has a new album in the pipeline, so hopefully that will see the light of day before too much more time passes. Setlist: Iron Gods, Heavy Metal Fire, Metal Legacy, Blood Eagle, Ragnarok, Valhalla, Thunder and Steele, Odinn’s Warriors, Steelcrusader, Heading Northe, Iron Prayers.
In case you were wondering, it was raining like hell again. Whoever was responsible for the songs being played over the PA was not without a sense of humor, so they starting spinning songs like The Doors’ “Riders of the Storm” and Guns’n’Roses’ “November Rain” between bands to lighten the mood. Might as well have a laugh about it, I guess. Getting upset wasn’t going to be constructive, and the rain was just going to continue to fall. We stayed put in the covered area at the front of the stage, but began to wonder whether and to what extent things were getting muddy in the uncovered festival areas. We would get our unhappy answer soon enough.
As I told founding members John Tzantis (guitar) and Mario Cosentino (bass) a couple nights later on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg, there was a time when New York’s GOTHIC KNIGHTS were a beacon of light in the darkness for me. Flash back to the mid-1990s. Traditional heavy metal was almost dead in the USA, and I despaired that the halcyon days of 1980s metal were gone forever. Then my friend Denis Gulbey told me about Gothic Knights. When I heard their debut album in 1996, it must have been, I was blown away. This was the music I heard in my head, the metal that pumped through my veins. All was not lost. Over the years, GK never got their due in the marketplace and, other than an appearance at an ill-fated Jack Koshick event in New Jersey more than 15 years ago, I had never seen the band perform live. So I was excited to see them today. Gothic Knights now feature a young singer, Gabriel Colon, who sports an impressive range and a penchant for paint-peeling high notes. What shocked me about Gothic Knights’ performance at HOA was that they delved way back into the history books to play no fewer than five songs from their 1990s output, including my favorite GK song, “War in the Sky.” (Colon seemed confused in introducing the song as to whether it was on their first or second record. Trick question: It was on both, haha!) Never imagined I’d hear those songs played live, and they sounded pretty fantastic. (Tzantis told me that some of these songs hadn’t been played in 20 years and that they’d originally intended to do them as a medley, but then learned the entire songs after HOA organizers expanded their set time by an additional 15 minutes.) The newer material was quite solid, as well, but the early stuff has a special place in my heart, so it was a real treat to hear it played live. Guitarist Dave the 3rd deserves some kind of award for his audacious skeleton pants and gloves. And the band went over quite well with the German crowd, although perhaps 70 minutes was a bit longer of a setlist than GK needed. It’s hard for a cult, underground band with whose music an audience is not well acquainted to hold that audience’s attention for such a long period of time. Still, Gothic Knights gave it everything they had, and can justifiably be proud of their performance today. Setlist: Guardian Archangel, Down in Flames, Warrior of Faith, Creature of the Dark, Bridgekeeper, War in the Sky, At Dawn You Die, Sleepy Hollow, World in Chains (new song), Keeper of the Gate, 1689 Trial of the Witch, Death from Above.
As I watched Dutch metallers PICTURE set up, I had a sinking feeling that this might be a disaster. You see, the gentlemen in Picture are not young men. Their heyday was back in the very early 1980s, and they look their ages. One guitarist looks like Brian May’s older brother. The bass player wore glasses with a string like you might see a librarian wear. The singer wore a headband even though he had no hair to hold in place. I point this out not to poke fun at Picture’s appearance. If we’re lucky, we all get old, and someday we’ll look it. My point is that this band did not appear capable of delivering a top-notch heavy metal performance. Oh, how wrong I was. Picture was one of the best bands of the festival. With a sound steeped in the classic NWOBHM style, Picture were like a Dutch Saxon or something. Their setlist was culled almost exclusively from the first four records (with the awesome “Live by the Sword” being the only latter-day inclusion, if I’m not mistaken). And oh, how many great songs they played. Opener “You’re All Alone” drove the crowd into delirium with the catchy “you fly too high” chorus. Another highlight was when the title tracks of the second through the fourth records were played all in a cluster mid-set (broken up only by “Live by the Sword”). The band sounded great, played great, and looked to be having a ball up there. Picture even engaged in some death-defying tricks late in the set, such as when the vocalist sang an entire verse while perched atop the flimsy wooden gate that opened to the backstage area, or when the bassist ventured out into the crowd and played a whole song amidst the punters in the dirt below. Who says you can’t teach old dogs new tricks? Not only that, but Picture proved to be cheeky bastards, as well. The stage manager told them they were out of time, but the crowd kept begging/demanding more, so the stage manager relented and authorized them to play one more very short song. In response, Picture performed an extended version of “Lady Lightning,” complete with improvised jam parts and lengthy band member introductions. Haha, so much for running on time. Anyway, the bottom line on the Picture gig is that I learned once again that you’re never too old to rock. Picture have an incredible collection of classic songs, and the HOA audience loved every single minute of their performance. So did I. Setlist: You’re All Alone, Get Back or You Fall, Message from Hell, NightHunter, No No No, Nighttiger, Eternal Dark, Live by the Sword, Heavy Metal Ears, Diamond Dreamer, Hangman, Unemployed, Bombers, Lady Lightning.
By now it was almost 9:00 p.m. Because of the long summer days in northern Germany, there was still an hour or so of daylight remaining. We were famished, so we left the stage area to get some food. What we saw appalled us. Given the heavy rain showers today and the thousands of feet treading the soft soil, the HOA festival grounds had been transformed into a massive sea of wet, deep mud. With every footfall, your foot would sink into the dark muck all the way to the ankle, or even deeper in places. We thanked the heavy metal heavens that we were wearing mud boots, but even so, the going was treacherous. It was like walking on ice, very slippery. We saw any number of metalheads lose their balance and fall into the muck. And many of our colleagues had not thought to bring boots, and so were trying to navigate the endless field of mud in sneakers or even flipflops. The pull of the mud was so strong that we saw it rip people’s shoes off their feet. For the remainder of the weekend, it was not uncommon to see people traversing the mudfields in bare feet. Yuck. Of course, the mud was heaviest where the foot traffic was greatest (i.e., on either side of the security checkpoint at the entrance to the infield/stage area, near the beer tent, near the food vendors, near the portajohns) and in the areas where heavy trucks and equipment had been hauled. I’ve never, ever seen so much mud in my life. It was like those YouTube videos you see of Wacken festivals at their worst, only we were living it instead of watching it on a screen. And the rain continued to fall, off and on, off and on, all through the day. We decided to go check on our tent because we were concerned that all the wind and rain might have destroyed our little $30 WalMart hovel. Much to our pleasant surprise, the tent looked great and was still bone-dry on the inside. It’s a heavy metal miracle! The campsite, however, was also a muddy mess, particularly at the entrance (where there was a great deal of vehicle traffic) and by the portalets, which were surrounded by a lake of some the deepest mud of all (at least, I hope that was mud). For all that, there was nothing to do but, as Chris Boltendahl once said, keep on rockin’. So that’s what we did. We wolfed down some dinner and some beer and returned inside the stage area to watch the last band and a half of the night.
By the time we re-entered the stage area, BLIND ILLUSION were probably halfway through their set. I know they were a big draw for many at HOA this year, but to be honest, I was never much a fan. Blind Illusion’s brand of thrash was a bit too weird, a bit too off-kilter for me back in the day. And it remained so tonight. Blind Illusion’s set was characterized by lengthy instrumental passages, lots of jamming, and extended guitar workouts by guitarist/vocalist Marc Biedermann without much to draw the listener in. The song titles I heard Biedermann announce included “Smashing the Crystal,” “Ice Age,” and “Race with the Wizard,” but it all sort of ran together for me. The only thing that really stuck out about Blind Illusion for me was their cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” but only because it seemed superfluous. Nevermind me being a killjoy, though, the band looked to be having a great time on stage, with multiple breathless, exuberant stage raps from Biedermann. More importantly, the HOA crowd really seemed to dig Blind Illusion. One unintentionally funny moment was when Biedermann changed into a fringed Wild West style vest. The fringe kept hanging down onto his guitar strings disrupting his playing, so he frantically ripped and tore at the fringe to try to remove it, then finally gave up, ditched the vest altogether and played the remainder of the gig bare-chested. The band did not utilize nearly all of their allotted 70 minutes, and when the crowd cheered for an encore, Biedermann responded not by playing more music but by cavorting across the stage a few times using what could only be described as David Lee Roth-type martial arts moves. It was all a bit surreal, really. I’ll close by saying that Marc Biedermann looks like a man who has lived a hard life, but he was clearly relishing every minute on stage tonight. He and his band look happy and healthy, and I know the Germans were thrilled to have them as part of the HOA roster.
Perhaps the most polarizing performance of the weekend was SANCTUARY’s headlining set. To me, it all came down to expectations. If you thought the band were going to do only classic material and skip The Year the Sun Died altogether, you were mistaken. If you thought Warrel Dane would effortlessly nail those insane high vocal lines from three decades ago, you were totally unrealistic. But if you expected a solid mix of old and new stuff, with Dane gamely going for the high screams from time to time, but otherwise shifting the vocal melodies to a lower register or letting the audience sing the high parts, then you probably got exactly what you came for. I did. The only real surprise for me was that I didn’t realize original bass player Jim Sheppard was no longer in the band, and I didn’t recognize the second guitarist. Nonetheless, what Sanctuary delivered on the HOA stage was an utterly professional, headliner-worthy 15-song set spanning their career. From my spot at the barricade, I had an excellent view of guitarist Lenny Rutledge, who played really well, interacted with the audience, and seemed really into the gig. The other guitarist and bassist held up their end of the bargain, particularly the high-energy bass player who constantly crisscrossed the stage and headbanged furiously. Dave Budbill remains a beast on drums. And then there was Warrel Dane, he of the ghostly pale complexion, cowboy hat, and purple fingerless gloves. The man did not look well, and he was initially rather surly in his stage raps. But the obvious love and adoration of the crowd eventually chipped away at Dane’s icy demeanor, and he warmed to the audience as the night went on. In terms of his vocalization, Dane sang the new stuff great, predictably so given the lower register. For the old songs, there were times when he absolutely swung for the fences and went for the high screams. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But, as the mighty Mythra would say, at least he tried. There were other times when he sang entire old songs in a lower range, altering the vocal melody beyond recognition to do so. I know some attendees were sorely disappointed by this. I wasn’t. Dane has made it very clear in interviews for years now that he simply can’t sing those super-human high notes like he once did. So should Sanctuary not exist? Should they not perform those songs? No, under the circumstances, I’m eternally grateful to hear songs like “Battle Angels,” “Die for My Sins,” “Taste Revenge” and “Eden Lies Obscured” performed live, whether the vocals are note-perfect or not. I think most – though by no means all – of the HOA crowd agreed with me. By the way, there was an easy tell as to whether Sanctuary were about to play an old song or a new song. If Lenny had his black guitar, it was going to be The Year the Sun Died material. If he had his white guitar, it would be an old classic. I like the new album fine, but nothing touches the early Sanctuary songs in my heart, so I was always ecstatic when he switched to the white guitar. Oh, and Lenny lost his whammy bar late in the set while playing a solo. The damn thing fell off his guitar and landed in the dirt in front of the stage. Don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen before. After the show ended, I got the attention of security, had them retrieve the errant whammy bar from the dirt and place it back up onstage, where Lenny’s guitar tech soon recovered it. My good deed for the day, haha. Setlist: Arise and Purify, Let the Serpent Follow Me, Exitium (Anthem of the Living), Die for My Sins, Seasons of Destruction, The Mirror Black, White Rabbit, Question Existence Fading, Frozen, The Year the Sun Died, Battle Angels, Eden Lies Obscured, Soldiers of Steel, Sanctuary, Taste Revenge.
By now, it was almost 1:00 a.m., but our night wasn’t over. You see, we were in no hurry to traverse the giant mud field back to our uncomfortable tent, so we did what any reasonable person would. We went to the bar and drank beer with our French friends until almost 4 a.m. We did more than drink beer and converse, because there was entertainment in the bar area. In particular, as a tie-in for the release of the new Thor album, the German Thor tribute band members were conducting an arm-wrestling contest, with prize packs for anyone who could defeat all three increasingly burly guys at arm-wrestling. So let me get this straight: It’s two in the morning, we’re hanging out with some French dudes drinking beer whose name I cannot even pronounce in a muddy German field watching an arm-wrestling competition? Wow. Life can be pretty random sometimes. Things took a turn for the worse at around 3:00 a.m., when the rain started coming down harder than ever. By around 4, with the rain showing no signs of abating, we sloshed and slipped and slid our way back to the tent to try to rest. Amazingly, the interior of our crappy WalMart tent was still dry, although there was some dampness on the walls. We created a “mud corner” in the tent and placed our mud-caked boots and ponchos there, then tried to rest. I didn’t sleep a wink, but just stayed awake listening to the rain pelting the exterior of the tent all night long and even for the first couple of hours after sunrise.
Saturday, July 29, 2017
Today’s mission was simple: Survive. The overnight rains had made a terrible situation even worse. The mud was deeper, wetter and more prevalent than ever. As we emerged from our tent to wash our faces and brush our teeth using bottled water, we observed many of our neighbors packing up their tents and vacating the premises. Looks like the mud caused more than a few HOA attendees to throw in the towel and head home. Not that it was easy for them to leave. In the heavy heavy mud, tires might spin endlessly without ever gaining traction. Vehicles everywhere were stuck in the mud, with tractors going around to help extricate them, for a price. A number of the vendors inside the festival grounds were also packing up and heading home, waving the white flag of surrender after Mother Nature’s relentless assault of the past 24 hours. For our part, we took a page from Unrest’s book: “I’ll never surrender, baby / My heart is burning for a fight,” haha. So we wandered over to the breakfast area, got a nice hot sausage and a cup of coffee, and tried to put the best possible spin on the day through bleary, sleep-deprived eyes. The good news was it wasn’t raining anymore (and in fact didn’t really rain most of the day). The bad news was the damage had been done with the saturating downpours of yesterday and overnight. Ankle- to shin-deep mud was everywhere. We decided our best play was to get into the infield/stage area as soon as it opened, grab a spot in the covered area near the front of the stage (where there was no mud), and stay there until we absolutely couldn’t take it anymore. That way, we would minimize our mud dealings. Turned out to be a sound strategy, really.
The first band of today was the awkwardly named AXE VICTIMS / UNIVERSE. It was actually two bands with the same members, or one band playing songs from two different bands, depending on your perspective. Axe Victims was a German trad metal band that released an album called Another Victim via Mausoleum Records back in 1984. I guess most of the members of that band went on to form a hard rock band called Universe. So the set was split between Axe Victims material and Universe material. Some of the Axe Victims songs (most notably “Shoot from the Stars” and “Young and Wise”) sounded pretty terrific. The Universe stuff was more in the vein of innocuous hard rock, so not really my thing. But it was all well-played and made for a pleasant enough start to the day. Setlist: Shoot from the Stars, Heartbreaker, Now or Never, Gravy Train, For the Ladies, Too Far Gone, Tear it Out, Young and Wise, Soldier of Life, Bad Child.
There was a good deal of buzz about German occult metallers ATTIC leading up to the gig. I couldn’t believe how elaborate their stage production was. They brought four huge silver candelabras with black candles burning throughout the set. They lined the front of the stage with incense candles. They placed big wooden railings like church pews on either side of the front of the stage. There was an altar with skulls and goblets and upside-down crosses. There were scrims depicting atrocities, apparently involving witchcraft. I had a laugh with Jan Bunning in the photo pit beforehand because the band even brought their own Hansa beers and placed them around the stage, eschewing the free beer available backstage. None of these items (other than the beer, of course) were used during Attic’s stage performance as props or anything. There were no ritual sacrifices or pagan rites performed on the stage. It was all just there for ambience. I’m sure it would have worked better at night in a tiny darkened club than at 1:00 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon outdoors, but oh well. Image-wise, all band members wore heavy black raccoon paint around their eyes (a bit like Slayer circa Show No Mercy), with the vocalist going for the full-on white facepaint and black eyes with black painted horns coming from the eyebrows. Is it close enough that King Diamond could sue? Is it close enough that Gene Simmons could sue? Who knows, but it looked pretty cool. Musically, Attic were just what you would expect: Ass-kicking Mercyful Fate worship. Both guitarists were excellent with their leads, harmonies, and attacking stage presence. Vocalist looked cool and sounded good when we could hear him, but sadly his vocals were buried in the mix most of the time. Funny, that didn’t really happen with any other bands this weekend. Anyway, Attic’s set was highly entertaining and really effective. I think these youngsters are a cut above most of the KD / MF clones out there, and have enough talent and skill that they could really make a go of things. I know their new album, Sanctimonious, is about to drop via Van Records, and I look forward to hearing it. Not sure about setlist, but I can tell you the last three songs they played were “Join the Coven,” “There is No God,” and the truly awesome “The Headless Horseman” to close out the set.
Here was a moment I’d been eagerly anticipating for many months. I’ve been an Internet friend of Stu McGill for quite some time now. Stu plays guitar in a band from western Australia called SILENT KNIGHT. I’ve reviewed all of Silent Knight’s albums for True Metal Lives (or another site I was previously involved with), and their Iced Earth/Gamma Ray guitar-driven power metal stylings are right up my alley. But Perth, Australia is a hell of a long way from Alabama. I never imagined I’d meet Stu in person, much less see the band play live. Well, HOA marked Silent Knight’s first show ever in Europe, and damned if I was going to miss it, so there you go. I was a little nervous for the lads beforehand because very few people in the audience were familiar with them and power metal as a genre could be hit-or-miss with this dyed-in-the-wool underground audience. Turns out I needn’t have worried myself. Silent Knight’s HOA set was very well-received for a number of reasons. First of all, the band’s got some incredible songs, and tunes like “Conquer and Command,” “Empty Threat,” “Curse of the Black Rose,” “One by One,” and “Power Metal Supreme” are tailor-made to kick ass in the live arena, whether the listener has heard them before or not. Second, the band played with great acumen and energy. Lead guitarist Cameron Nicholas is a remarkable talent, absolutely one of the top axemen of the weekend. Drummer Dan (didn’t catch his last name) is a monster player as well. McGill and Nicholas (each of whom must stand at least 6’2”) work the stage confidently and effectively. They seemed right at home on the big-ish HOA stage, and provided added entertainment value by trying to cause each other to make mistakes (grabbing the other guy’s guitar neck or whammy bar, or giving him a playful kick mid-solo). When it looks like the band’s relaxed and having fun, it’s easier for the audience to have fun too. Finally, there’s just something really endearing about a band like Silent Knight, traveling halfway around the world with hat in hand, chasing a dream at great personal expense to play for a bunch of Europeans who’ve never even heard of them. The band’s humility and heart-on-their-sleeve demeanor were easy to see, and the crowd rewarded them with frequent SI-LENT KNIGHT chants. Overcome with emotion, Stu McGill stood up there, positively beaming, with his fist over his heart in appreciation for the crowd’s warmth. Like I said, it was a special moment. I was so happy for my friend (well, friends, really, as I got to know the other band members on this trip too) that I stood there against the barricade with a huge grin of my own for probably their entire set. A vignette underscores what a favorable impression the band made. Before Silent Knight’s set, a European friend asked me what they sounded like. I told them. The friend said, “Oh, you mean, happy metal? I don’t think I’ll like that.” I just nodded and told them to wait and see. After the show, that same friend came up to me and said, “Wow, that wasn’t happy metal at all. That was just good heavy metal.” I couldn’t agree more. All hail Silent Knight! Setlist: Conquer and Command, Empty Threat, Raven’s Return, Prisoner of Your World, Curse of the Black Rose, Masterplan, Silent Apparitions in the Night, One by One, Evil is Thy Name, Power Metal Supreme.
Before this weekend, if you’d asked me about BULLET, I probably would have frowned, muttered something vaguely uncomplimentary about AC/DC clones, and turned back to my beer in peace. Well, now that I’ve seen them live for the first time, I stand corrected. Bullet are an amazing live band with far more of a metal edge than their “AC/DC copycat” tag might lead you to believe. Like Attic, Bullet went all-in with an elaborate stage production. In lieu of a banner, the band utilize an electric sign featuring dozens of white light bulbs that spell out the word Bullet, like a circus-version of the KISS sign. There were multiple pyro apparatuses lining the front of the stage that shot fire and smoke skyward upon command. There was a saw blade / shop table placed at center stage to allow vocalist Hell Hofer to re-enact the cover artwork of Storm of Blades by placing a knife against the spinning sawblade, producing showers of sparks, at the beginning of the set. During “Dusk to Dawn,” there was a dummy amplifier whose cover fell off, revealing a roadie-controlled puppet who made hand gestures and danced throughout the song. Goofy? Sure, but it worked. There was an anvil with a hooded executioner figure who came out stage with a hammer to pound said anvil during “Hammer Down.” And at just the right moment late in the set, both guitarists and the bassist flipped their instruments around and lofted them skyward to spell out the words, “Bite the Bullet.” Haha. More generally, Bullet’s music was just simple, good-time, party-hearty heavy metal rock’n’roll. The musicians were all running around like maniacs, clearly enjoying themselves and having a blast before the adoring audience. This kind of stuff works brilliantly in a festival environment. And the HOA crowd was going crazy all around us, singing along and rocking out. If you want to rock out, drink beer, and have fun at a festival, then Bullet is exactly the prescription for you. I thoroughly enjoyed their set, enough to where I definitely need to check out the band’s recorded output more carefully. Setlist: Storm of Blades, Riding High, Heading to the Top, Rolling Home, Turn It Up Loud, Dusk to Dawn, Stay Wild, Hammer Down, Bang Your Head, Bite the Bullet.
Wanna know my surprise band of the festival? That’s easy: ATLANTEAN KODEX. Oh, I have their albums, and I enjoy them. Yeah, they’re overwrought and melodramatic to a fault, almost a caricature of epic metal taken to the nth power. But that blend of Twilight of the Gods-era Bathory, Into Glory Ride-era Manowar, and I dunno, early Candlemass or something, with poetic and philosophical lyrics about the travails of Europa and songs routinely hitting the 10-minute mark is nonetheless very cool. Live, however, you wouldn’t think it would work at all. You’d think it would be a trainwreck. The musicians are almost completely motionless on stage, except that short-haired singer Markus Becker (whose hand was bandaged, for some reason) wanders around a bit while he sings. The stage is blanketed in fog. The tempos lumber ever so slowly, the songs drag on forever, the band members all stand rooted to their spots. Sounds like watching paint dry, right? Wrong. It’s actually pure magic because the HOA audience knows every single word to every single song (except “Kodex Battalions,” which I gather is a new song from the brand-new live album, so people haven’t memorized it yet), and they sing along with a sort of emotional depth that you feel like their lives are hanging on every syllable. Watching Atlantean Kodex’s performance, hearing the mighty epic metal with clear emotional vocals, and seeing the audience melding with the music in such a pure fashion was enough to give me goosebumps. It was like a religious experience. Forget Attic, we were all in the church of Atlantean Kodex and the priest just delivered one hell of a homily. The bond between band and crowd during Atlantean Kodex’s set was the sort of alchemy that happens ever so rarely in the live concert experience, as band, fan and music all transcended this dreary, mundane mortal plane for 60 minutes and became something greater, stronger, and far more powerful than the sum of its parts. If none of this makes any sense, I apologize. I guess you just had to be there. But what on paper should have been the most boring, yawn-inducing set of the weekend ended up being the most spiritual. I guess that’s the magic of Atlantean Kodex. I can’t say I fully understand it. But I deeply respect and appreciate it, and feel fortunate to have witnessed it first-hand. Setlist: Enthroned in Clouds and Fire, Atlantean Kodex, Pilgrim, Sol Invictus, Fountain of Nepenthe, Kodex Batallions, Heresiarch, Twelve Stars and an Azure Gown.
One of my favorite memories of attending the HRH NWOBHM X-Mas Rocka in Sheffield, England last December was seeing ROCK GODDESS for the first time. So the news that they were playing Headbangers Open Air was most welcome, from my standpoint. Unfortunately, some logistical and technical issues caused the band to go onstage roughly 10 minutes late, prompting guitarist/singer Jody Turner to apologize to the HOA crowd right away, while assuring us that it wasn’t their fault. Nonetheless, the Turner sisters and bassist Tracey Lamb did their best to make up for lost time by delivering a massively entertaining 60-minute set. With Rock Goddess, there’s no bullshit, no gimmicks, no trickery, just three British women rocking hard and kicking ass. It was especially fun for me to watch Rock Goddess’s performance through Jen’s eyes, as she’d never seen the band before. Jen tends to be pretty critical of women in heavy metal bands, particularly those (and there are many) who show skin as a way of obscuring lack of ability. Well, Jen was in heaven during Rock Goddess’s set. All three band members have musical talent and stage presence for miles, both instrumentally and vocally. And they’re not up there shimmying around in low-cut outfits doing the lowest-common-denominator thing. Rock Goddess’s live performance today could be a training video not only for women in metal, but for anyone in metal. They do it right. Their love for the music is obvious, they put 100% into their performance, they treat the audience with respect, and Jody has that incisive British sense of humor to boot. Today, their set featured all three songs from their newly-released EP, It’s More than Rock’n’Roll (“please buy it,” implored Jody, “it’s cheap,” haha). Maybe the HOA audience was beginning to show signs of exhaustion on the third day of a challenging three-day festival, but most of the crowd was still with Rock Goddess, 100 percent. Jen and I certainly were, and we had a blast. It’s what we live for, indeed. Approximate Setlist (may not be exact): Satisfied then Crucified, Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right, Back Off, You’ve Got Fire, Take Your Love Away, To Be Betrayed, Back to You, It’s More than Rock’n’Roll, Flying to See You, Make My Night, Love Lingers Still, God Be With You, Heavy Metal Rock’n’Roll, We Are Metal.
When we last encountered RAVEN in Chicago less than three months ago, the Gallagher brothers were still reeling from the absence of longtime drummer Joe “The Baron” Hasselvander, who had been sidelined by a heart attack just days earlier. Today was a different story. The Baron remains MIA (and firmly in the thoughts and prayers of Raven lunatics worldwide), but the brothers have now worked extensively with a fill-in drummer, Mike Heller (who has also played with Fear Factory and many other bands). With dozens of Raven gigs under his belt, Heller (a monster drummer in his own right) looks completely comfortable and in sync with his bandmates, which in turn frees up Mark and John Gallagher to go batshit crazy on stage without having to worry about what the drummer is doing. During the opening number, “Destroy All Monsters,” John looked up from his bass guitar while singing the second verse, saw Jen and me in the front row, and broke into a big smile and gave us the thumbs up, all without ever missing a beat. I think he was a bit stunned to see us up front at a Raven gig so far from home, especially in the mudfest that HOA had become. It was definitely one of the more interesting and entertaining Raven shows I’ve ever attended. During the second song, the mighty “Hell Patrol,” Mark Gallagher broke the bottom string in his guitar, prompting John to quip, “Who do you think you are, Keith Richards, playing a guitar with only five strings?” Any other guitar player would have either switched to his back-up guitar, or borrowed somebody else’s guitar, or stopped the show for long enough to change the string. Not Mark. Nosirree. With the exception of his guitar solo and one or two other songs (for which he did in fact use his backup guitar, the one with the Extermination cover artwork), Mark played that five-string guitar for the remainder of Raven’s set, complete with the bottom string hanging off. It was one of the most ridiculously awesome things I’ve ever seen at a metal show. Then the stage lights suddenly cut out in the midst of Mark’s solo, remaining off all the way through the next song, “Tank Treads (The Blood Runs Red).” Other bands might have stopped and waited for the lighting issue to be fixed. Not Raven. They kept going, and eventually the stage lights returned. Nothing can stop Raven. Ever. What you really need to know about this Raven show, in contrast to the 10+ times I’ve seen them before, can be summarized in four simple words: “Hung Drawn and Quartered.” They played it. Pretty much the ultimate overlooked deep cut from All for One, and they played it. It completely and utterly ruled. In fact, basically the whole Raven setlist ruled. In their 12-song set, the Gallagher boys managed to pack in such underplayed diamonds as “Hung Drawn and Quartered,” “Hell Patrol,” “Faster than the Speed of Light,” “Firepower,” and “I Don’t Need Your Money Honey” (as Lars Ulrich would say). Holy awesome setlist, Batman! It also helped that each brother’s solo spot was curtailed (left in the set, but limited) to accommodate time restrictions, and that the traditional medley at the end was streamlined to “Break the Chains” / “War Pigs” melody / “Born to Be Wild,” thereby creating time for a full airing of the aforementioned “I Don’t Need Your Money.” The band looked great, sounded great, and played great. The HOA audience lapped up every single second of the gig. And I had my favorite performance of the entire festival. Setlist: Destroy All Monsters, Hell Patrol, All for One, Hung Drawn and Quartered, Rock Until You Drop, Mark solo, Tank Treads, Faster than the Speed of Light, Firepower, On and On, John solo, Break the Chains / Born to Be Wild, I Don’t Need Your Money Honey.
By now, it was almost 9:00 p.m. Jen and I had been at the same spot, under cover and at the front of the stage, for more than nine hours, with no food, no beer, no bathroom breaks, no socializing, no leg stretching, no nothing. It was time to remedy that. So we sallied forth, through the infield and outside the security checkpoint in search of beer, dinner and a portalet. Just as we had expected, the mud conditions had gotten no better, even in the absence of additional rains today. The mud was deep, treacherous, and ubiquitous, making it very slow going to walk from one end of the grounds to the other, to stand in the beer lines, etc. As a result of these delays, we ended up missing the first half of TOXIK’s set, which I absolutely hated to do. Still, we made it back inside for the last 30 minutes or so, and were really impressed by what we saw. Toxik was laying down top-shelf thrash, with crushing riffs and excellent vocals, much to the delight of the crowd. Biggest circle pit of the festival was showing its appreciation for Toxik’s performance. I was a bit surprised to see only one guitarist, and even more surprised when they broke out a cover of “Symptom of the Universe” near the end of their set. But Toxik’s gig – at least, the part of it that I witnessed – was a smashing success. My only criticism was that the sound (which had been so clear for so many bands) was both louder and muddier for Toxik than it had been for almost anyone else, which was a shame.
Just like that, it was time for the final band of the HOA weekend. I always tell Jen during festivals like this that the days are long, but the festivals are short. So it was here at Brande-Hornerkirchen. Fortunately, the festival ended on a high note with Japan’s LOUDNESS as tonight’s headliner. I and many others had been bitterly disappointed in April, when Loudness were denied entry into the USA and were forced to cancel their appearance at the Spring Bash in Milwaukee. Tonight made up for that loss. Make no mistake: Even 35+ years into their career, Loudness are a formidable live band. So great is their confidence that they had the audacity to open the set with three songs in a row (“Crazy Nights,” “Like Hell,” “Heavy Chains”) off their best-known album, Thunder in the East, from which they played nothing else the entire night. You might expect them to save those big international hits until the end, but they didn’t need to. Loudness’s set was littered with one great song after another. The heavy metal party vibe was in full swing and the audience was firmly in the band’s corner from the first note until the last. Short-haired, sunglasses-wearing singer Minoru Niihara’s voice may have worn down a bit over the years, but he still gets the job done, and is an enthusiastic and engaging frontman. The guy who everyone wants to see, however, is guitarist Akira Takasaki. Okay, I don’t understand his fashion sense at all (basketball jersey, backwards ballcap, blonde-dyed hair, etc.), and it appears he may have lost his upper front teeth, but holy crap, that man can play guitar. Akira Takasaki was an other-worldly guitar talent when he burst on the international metal scene 30+ years ago, and he remains so today. Let me put it to you this way: I usually get bored and start thinking about beer during a guitar player’s solo spot. During Takasaki’s extended solo, however, I (and basically everyone else on the festival grounds) stood there staring slack-jawed in rapt attention, positively mesmerized by the magic that man was working on the six strings. Phenomenal, phenomenal player. Really, the whole band was fantastic, the crowd cheered their every move, and the 80-minute performance went by in a flash, with the boring lengthy ballad “Ares’ Lament” (a/k/a “So Lonely” off Hurricane Eyes, where I never liked it, even as a teenager) being the only misstep from my perspective. “Crazy Doctor” and “S.D.I.” marked the perfect conclusion to a virtually flawless set. Afterwards, everyone was raving about Loudness, and rightfully so. Wow. Setlist: Crazy Nights, Like Hell, Heavy Chains, Loudness, Shadows of War, Face to Face, Let it Go, Black Star Oblivion, drum solo, Ares’ Lament, The Sun Will Rise Again, Metal Mad, guitar solo, In the Mirror, Crazy Doctor, S.D.I.
For 30 or 40 minutes after the Loudness show ended, we hung out around the stage area with friends, telling stories, laughing and generally saying our farewells. To their credit, the security staff allowed us to linger and (in contrast to the last couple of nights) did not force everyone out of the stage/infield area immediately. Then, shortly before 1:00 a.m., Mother Nature decided to remind us that she hadn’t forgotten about us and that she was still in charge. It started to rain again. Hard. So Jen and I donned our ponchos and went back out to festival grounds to join our French friends from the afterparty the night before. One of them saw us in our ponchos, soaking wet, and commented that we looked like “the picture of misery.” Hahaha, I hope we weren’t that pathetic. But it sure did seem like a low blow for the weather gods to punish us with more rain now, NOW, after all we’d endured already this weekend. We stuck around and drank beer with our French colleagues until sometime after 2:00 a.m., then decided to call it. Back to our still-dry tent we trudged, through a roiling, endless sea of ever-deepening mud. But we were happy in our hearts. We had experienced Mudbangers Open Air, one of the greatest European festivals we’d ever attended. And we had survived!
If you’re of a certain age (like me), you might remember the old MTV commercials where Pat Benatar said, “Too much is never enough.” In that spirit, Jen and I awakened Sunday morning, packed up our campsite, dodged all the cars stuck in the mud, and went in search of more live music. For 2 Euros each, we took a taxi shuttle (thanks Taxi Schmidt) out of the land of mud and filth to the Dauenhof train station, where I removed my mud boots and left them at the station in a symbolic act of closure. For 10 Euros each, we then took a 9:30 a.m. train to the quiet town of Itzehoe, spent a couple of hours sleeping on a bench in the town center, ate a giant Doner Kebob for 5 Euros, and made our way to the tiny Lauschbar, across the street from famed Hellion Records (which was sadly closed, it being Sunday at all).
Lauschbar was the site of the HOA afterparty. Sadly, the event was poorly promoted and even more poorly attended (paid attendance had to be in the single digits). For us, it made for a marvelous afternoon. We hung out at length with the Silent Knight guys. I discovered Benediktiner weissbier on draft. Mmmm, delicious. Still way behind on her beauty rest, Jen napped for hours upstairs in the backstage room. And we had the pleasure of witnessing one-hour sets from SILENT KNIGHT and GOTHIC KNIGHTS, plus an opening set by a young local band called MAJAK. The Majak dudes were all very kind and hospitable before the gig. They came out onstage with their faces dabbed with a red blood-like liquid and played a cool 40-minute set that mixed thrash, death and traditional metal, with three different guys handling vocals. They even did their stage banter in English (“We’re Majak, and we play rock’n’roll, as you might have noticed,” haha) because most of the tiny audience was foreign-born. Then Silent Knight hit the postage-stamp sized stage. Beforehand, they had mused that it’d been ages since they’d played such a small room before such a small crowd. But that didn’t deter or diminish their performance in the slightest. If anything, they sounded tighter, more powerful, and overall better than they did at HOA the day before, delivering an absolute smasher of a set that was identical to the previous day’s set list, but with the addition of their fun “Final Countdown” cover tacked onto the end. Spectacular! Likewise, Gothic Knights held up their end of the deal with an exciting performance that largely tracked their HOA gig, as well (although they dropped “Keeper of the Gate” and “1689 Trial of the Witch,” and added another newbie called “Into Eternity”). GK vocalist Gabriel might have spent a little too much time at the bar before the gig, but his performance was still on-point, except for when he tried to sing during the solo part of “Creature of the Dark,” prompting guitarist John Tzantis to elbow him in the ribs to get his attention, haha. Given the frankly discouraging conditions (tiny venue, nonexistent audience) and the huge letdown after the massive festival gigs Silent Knight and Gothic Knights had just played, either would have been forgiven for mailing it in. But they didn’t. They played with heart, and they played with soul. All three bands supported each other. And I got to rock out just inches from the stage where all this great music was being played. That’s what I call a good day. Afterwards we hopped a train back to Hamburg, checked into our hotel, took a shower for the first time in three days, and met up with the Silent Knight guys and a couple of the Gothic Knights guys at around 11:30 p.m. to experience some of the wonders (some more than others, haha) of Hamburg’s infamous Reeperbahn, including a visit to the legendary Night Light heavy metal bar. All in all, it made for a perfect ending to a perfect heavy metal weekend.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
ABANDONED Still Misanthrope
If you remember Abandoned, give yourself a round of applause. The German thrashers released a pair of generally well-received albums (‘Thrash Notes’ via Dockyard 1 in 2006 and ‘Thrash You!’ via Locomotive in 2007) a decade ago, then vanished without a trace. Vocalist/guitarist Kalli Kaldschmidt has remained active playing guitar in the excellent Masters of Disguise and the magnificent NWOBHM tribute act Roxxcalibur (as well as a stint as guitarist in Jameson Raid) and guitarist Holger Ziegler also plays in Roxxcalibur, but Abandoned went dormant. The band never formally split up; however, there were key temporary defections, as both Ziegler and drummer Konny Cartini departed for a few years, then rejoined the fold in 2012. Their return (along with the arrival of third guitarist Torsten “Mr. T” Schweickart) sparked a reactivation and a rejuvenation of Abandoned. They started playing shows again (with Holger and Mr. T dividing up bass duties from song to song as needed), rebuilt their following, regained their momentum, wrote some songs, and have now unleashed a new EP, entitled ‘Still Misanthrope.’ The title will no doubt bring a smile to the faces of long-time fans, as it hearkens back to Abandoned’s 2003 demo, ‘Misanthrope.’
‘Still Misanthrope’ is a fascinating and enjoyable listen, not only for what has stayed the same but also for what has changed. Right off the bat, be reassured that Abandoned are still very much an old-school thrash band, albeit one with a slightly modern take on the classic, time-honored German thrash style. The songs are mostly quite fast, but they have enough melody and personality to balance out the aggression and catch your ear from the first time you hear them. There are ample moments of overt catchiness on here to provide a respite from the all-out speed assault. “F**k You Bastard,” especially, gets embedded in the listener’s brain immediately! Throughout the EP, the guitar riffs and leadwork are uniformly excellent, with healthy doses of both the German and Bay Area sounds, and even at times a dash of NWOBHM or USPM, if my ears don’t deceive me. Abandoned have also retained their charming tradition of listing the beats per minute (“bpm”) for each song, just as they did on the older albums. (For the record, the listed bpms range from a low end of 185 to a scorching 210/220 bpm.) What pleasantly surprised me, however, are the areas in which ‘Still Misanthrope’ improves over its predecessors. The production choices are far more to my liking here than on ‘Thrash Notes,’ for example. Gone are the overly-processed, mechanical, grating guitar tone and irritating snare drum sound. In their place, Abandoned have achieved a powerful sound that is neither faux retro nor annoyingly modern. Another fine improvement is in Koldsmith’s voice. He is still more of a shouter than anything else, but his vocals are deeper, throatier somehow today than they were before, and there’s more of a melodic aspect to them now. Think of him as a cross between Pro-Pain’s Gary Meskil and Testament’s Chuck Billy, and you’re probably not too far off the mark. For my taste, it’s a more effective delivery, so those who may have been disenchanted with the vocals in Abandoned in the old days may yet find ‘Still Misanthrope’ to their liking. Nowhere are these sonic and performance upgrades more evident than in “Holy Terror” and “The Oncoming Storm,” both of which are remakes of ‘Thrash Notes’ songs that blow away their original versions in all departments.
The sad thing is that this EP runs just six songs and 23 minutes in length. It definitely ends too soon and leaves the listener wanting more. For clarity’s sake, ‘Still Misanthrope’ contains four brand-new songs, all of which are strong and worthy, and the aforementioned two re-recordings to give a facelift to a pair of old ‘Thrash Notes’ tunes. It’s a very solid package and thrashers with an affinity for the Teutonic variant of the style will find much to enjoy here. At this stage of the game, Abandoned are totally pro in all facets of the game, from writing to performances to production. They know their thrash, and their sincerity and devotion to the genre shine through at all times. I’ll be eager to hear the next full-length, but for now ‘Still Misanthrope’ serves as a welcome appetizer to reintroduce the heavy metal public to Abandoned and stoke the flames for what comes next. We will, we will … thrash you!
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
METAL LAW Hellrider
(Metal on Metal 2016)
As darkness fell on 2016, the always-reliable Metal on Metal label issued a trio of high-quality pure heavy metal albums. One of those was Metal Law’s ‘Hellrider’ disc. If the band name rings a bell, it should. Metal Law are a German traditional metal band that released a pair of fine albums in the ‘00s, namely ‘Night of the Wolf’ in 2007 on the Battle Cry label and ‘Lawbreaker’ in 2008 on Metal on Metal Records. After a prolonged eight-year hiatus, Metal Law are finally back with their third album. More precisely, singer/guitarist/writer Karsten Degling is back with an entirely new supporting cast of musicians. I do not know the inside story of how that sequence of events came to pass (i.e., what happened to the other guys, why it took so long for Degling to reconstitute the band, etc.), so I will not speculate. The important thing to know is that Metal Law have returned, and they’re stronger than ever.
What does that mean for you? Well, if old-school, chest-thumping true metal of the German school is your thing, then it means you should celebrate. Metal Law’s sound is very much in line with their countrymen in Majesty, Grave Digger, Wizard, Dark at Dawn (especially vocally), Rebellion and so on, with an obvious infatuation with Manowar and an affinity for the likes of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Accept. Obviously, this is well-worn musical territory a la bands like Greywolf and (sometimes) Aska, with the expected musical and lyrical clichés, but that’s part of Metal Law’s charm. There are times when I listen to new music that I want it to challenge me, test boundaries, and push the envelope. But there are other times when I listen to new music that I want it to sound warm and comfortable, familiar and triumphant. This ‘Hellrider’ disc is tailor-made for the latter circumstance. This is music for blasting out of your car stereo with the wind in your hair, pumping your fist as you sing along at full volume to mostly mid-paced, anthemic, head-shaking tunes like “Hellride of Steel” or “In Metal We Trust” or the magnificent speed of “Thundergod.” These are songs about riding motorcycles and cranking heavy metal and living for the music that flows through our veins. No, it isn’t complicated or technical or particularly cerebral. But it feels good, and it conjures up a twinkle of that same life-affirming thrill that you felt when you first started listening to this music so many years ago.
The reason why ‘Hellrider’ works is that it’s very well executed in all respects. The songwriting is strong, and the tracks are laden with catchy melodies and cool choruses. The performances are worthy, especially in the tasteful guitarwork and the gruff yet charismatic vocals that oddly but effectively channel Eric Adams from time to time. Production is powerful and professional. The 12 tracks (including a remake of the standout “Crusaders of Light” from the 2008 ‘Lawbreaker’ album) are consistent in terms of both style and quality throughout. Hell, even the cover painting of label co-boss Jowita Kaminska-Peruzzi complements the music perfectly. For fans of Manowar and the rougher-lunged German traditional metal style, this Metal Law ‘Hellrider’ album should be a blind buy. Here’s hoping that not another eight years go by before we hear from Karsten Degling and Metal Law again.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
True Metal Lives
The Voice Of The Underground