• Graspop 2009 review

    Jul 7 2009, 16h35

  • Short Review: Fen - Ancient Sorrow EP

    Fev 3 2009, 17h28

    Distant, cold vocals breeze over a rhythm guitar that at times approaches levels of meandering, and at times channels Alcest's warmth. The lengthy tracks ease into different atmospheres, and are to be commended for taking some time to develop them, unlike so many bands that seem in a hurry to abandon an interesting section or riff as soon as they've set one up.

    The keys are subtle and well-employed, which makes a change from much black-metal. The vocals have just enough of a rasp to them, and a suitable presence for their role; the drumming isn't called on to provide too much in the way of artillery, nor does the guitar supply non-stop kneck-crunching riffs, with the opening of the third track being a notable exception, but that is not to say that they do not perform well: the songwriting flows excellently, and the musicianship seems geared towards the end result rather than the other way round.
    Appropriately for a band that has toured with Negura Bunget, Fen is less about rapid changes within a song, such as the tumble down to the furious Euronymous-penned riff that opens Emperor's Ye Entrancemperium, than with a more organic style of development.

    Ancient Sorrow is a strong offering; keep an eye on this band.
  • Review: Amesoeurs - Ruines Humaines

    Fev 3 2009, 17h15

    Amesoeurs' Ruines Humaines marks another release by Neige, a highly prominent member of the French black metal 'scene'. Distinct from the grimier sound of Peste Noire and the hazy dreams of the more recent Alcest material, Amesoeurs' mission is to create “Sad and violent urban music”, exploring the anguish of living in the city.

    Given this, Bonheur amputé (Amputated happiness) opens with unexpected euphoria. A fantastic riff, drenched in warmth, forms an incredibly compelling, energetic core to the track. A scream and blastbeats herald a change of pace, and as the track kicks up a gear, the guitar shimmer comes to the fore. The breakdown section riff is less compelling in itself, but it makes the acoustic reassertion of the main riff incredibly cathartic.
    The outro bass and guitar leads mirror the core melody well. An excellent track.
    But at first it seems against the band's professed mission: feelings both of distance and of closeness and recognition come across at points in the track. Perhaps it's concerned with the reckless energy of urban life, or about the city as an isolated scream of anguish punctuating a previously euphoric, connected, pastoral world. The fantastic screeching vocals are delivered at odds with the rhythm guitar; urban life is out of joint with what is human and natural; Amesoeurs is a cry of anguish. The reassertion riff gives another taunting vision of the beauty and power of the world we have lost.
    Casting my eye over the lyrics booklet, or rather Sardacas' helpful translation at http://www.last.fm/user/Sardacas/journal/2007/08/16/8vuym_amesoeurs_lyrics , the lyrics to this track seem largely concerned with bodily corruption in the first section (as they are for much of the EP), moving body's restriction of emotional experience. The song ends with the lyrics:

    A luminous look blurred
    by the grey filter of indifference.

    An empty glance.

    Physical limitations choke access higher feelings; the body and the city are both cages for the spirit. This first track is on-message lyrically and musically, and opens the EP brilliantly.

    Ruines humaines (Human ruins) kicks off to a rhythmically-interesting start, the initial sparse guitar line contrasting wonderfully with the beat of the first riff, the latter's kick is really brought out by the drumming. Less euphoric than the previous track, the rhythm guitar is more grimy. The vocals in the verse shriek in agony over the chords, going right to the edge of what Neige can produce. Perhaps this is point at which this EP best conveys Neige's stated concern for the horrors of urban living through the instrumentation: a single scream over an uncaring, somehow cluttered, cold backdrop. The lyrics connect the body and its environment as the EP reaches its thematic peak:

    In the heart of the dead cities
    the men without faces err, fraying their cancerous pores
    against the impassive crowd and the steel walls.

    The track features a minute-long percussive outro, over a monotonous metallic crashing noise, with further metallic voices joining in chorus. Can beauty spring from an urban setting? The musical achievements of the EP itself suggests as much.

    The closing track, Faiblesse des sens (Weakness of sense) opens with female vocals above a clean guitar melody; the space drips with atmosphere. There's a lovely switch to some meandering chords for the latter half of the opening vocal section, and again up to more energetic chords for the bridge. The articulate rhythm guitar that follows meanders wonderfully before being joined by a heavily distorted lead accompaniment to the next section of vocals. At first I felt this lead detracted from the vocals in that section, but it highlights the next clean section well, and adds emphasis to the reassertion of the track's main melodic idea, and when the distorted lead returns, it builds with the vocal climax fantastically and shapes the outro.


    This fantastic EP achieves its stated purpose, and does so with artistry and grace, as is to be expected of Neige. Ignoring the band's concept and lyrical themes entirely, this is a stunning EP, of cathartic, warm, tranquil, anguished, human, music that cannot fail to make a connection. The opener Bonheur Amputé and 'Faiblesse des sens' are personal highlights, as they are my musical favourites, although the thematic climax of the album probably comes in the middle track. This excellent EP shows much promise for the future; sadly there is little time to realise this future – Amesoeurs are to disband after recording their first album, which is currently being mastered. This tantalising EP serves only to heighten my anticipation for what will be a very special album.
  • Some thoughts on the summer festivals - Wacken, Graspop and Hellfest '09 as they…

    Jan 9 2009, 19h53

    As expected, Wacken '09 has sold out, despite not having announced that much of a lineup. I'm intrigued to see Bullet for My Valentine return to the bill, having followed, with some amusement, the fuss that their inclusion on the bill caused back in '07.

    From where I'm based, this leaves Graspop and Hellfest as the serious contenders; these were two top runners anyhow.

    Hellfest has a strong lineup, and started to announce it in good time. Its main strengths over Graspop are Gorgoroth, Stratovarius (whatever that will amount to) Amon Amarth and Electric Wizard, but the relative distance and fuss of traveling there weighs against it a bit when compared to Graspop's easy journey from my door down the train line to The Eurostar, and from the Eurostar across Belgium. The fact that at least a couple of my friends are going to Hellfest makes my decision a little more complex.

    Graspop should be thoroughly chastised for having such a lazy internet presence, yet another angle of its baffling refusal to build itself up as a decent brand. I suppose this has its benefits, as there is little danger of it selling out before I make up my mind where to go. Still, when information came, it was very good: it is closer to the Hellfest Lineup than the Wacken one. It lacks a few of Hellfest's main draws, but retains Wolves in the Throne Room, who I am incredibly keen to see (setting aside the prospect of seeing them later this month for a moment), Anthrax, Heaven And Hell, and adds in the mighty Blind Guardian, as well as Negură Bunget, and will encourage me to finally check out Taake. The prospect of seeing the Bards in the festival context once again pretty much makes the decision for me, as seeing them at Wacken '07 was one of the finest hour-and -a-halfs of my life.

    Of course, there is the possibility that all these distinctions will break down somewhat when the rest of each festival's lineup is announced, but right now, Graspop probably wins out on that front, albeit very narrowly.
    On convenience, it trumps Hellfest, but in the end it'll come down to which of my friends are going, or can be convinced to go, to any of these festivals. Wherever I end up, I'll keep you posted.
  • Review: Necrophagist - Epitaph

    Jan 1 2009, 22h03

    Necrophagist's Epitaph blends death metal vocals and aggression with technical indulgence and meandering, cascading guitar solos.

    Whilst Suiçmez's vocals are functional, his guitarwork, and its integration into the album, is sparkling. The rhythm guitar tone and delivery is suitably punchy and substantial, crafting a power enhanced by the well-judged drumming.
    Death metal needs a powerful rhythm section, and Necrophagist delivers this. The most impressive examples are the section from 2:00 to 2:15 in Stillborn One, the backing to Ignominious and Pale, up to the 0:51 shift, and backing to the Epitaph solo section from 2:37 onwards, the section from 00:19 to 00:22 in Only Ash Remains, the chaotic backing to the Only Ash Remains solo section, the introductory riff to Seven, and the opening 20 seconds of Symbiotic In Theory.

    The solos and lead sections have an incredibly sweet, clear tone, and demonstrate some incredibly nimble guitarwork. They have an exploratory feel, progressing into new vistas, and turning impressively in the space of a few notes. This is particularly notable in the Diminished to B solos.
    Examples of excellent soloing roll easily off the tongue: album-opener Stabwound features notable moments at 43 seconds in; 1:16, a great shift at 1:27, and more at 1:55. The soloing in Stillborn One is similarly excellent, with the increase in pace at 3:37 powering the solo through to its completion. The winding lead fill (first appearing between 00:18 and 00:31) in Epitaph is a joy for anyone who revels in such fast, technical, carefully wrapped-up, playing. An album easily worth listening to for the guitar alone.

    Something should also be said of the great bass runs, such as the ones from 0:35-8 in Stabwound, 1:04-4 in Stillborn One, and 00:06 in Only Ash Remains.

    The flexibility shown in the soloing is transferred over to the songwriting. Whilst a few sections are a little laboured and repetitive, such as the use of artificial harmonics in the Diminished To B verse sections (eg 1:01 to 1:07), and in Only Ash Remains (eg 00:31-45), which also has a rather headless riff (even if it probably works great live) on the whole, the management of structure is fantastic:
    The opening of Stabwound up to 0:25, and the placement and content of the solos is fantastically considered, as is the 1:28-38 riff transition in Ignominious and Pale, and the rambling, halting intro riff to Diminished To B (up to 0:14), the riff shift that follows between 3:30 and 3:34, and the transition to Prokofiev's dance of the knights at the end of Only Ash Remains.

    These progressions are more concerned with reordering and changing emphasis than with entering new musical spaces or bringing new aesthetics to the table. The songwriting and lead guitar sections are crucial to the impact of this album; there is not range here, but there is a delightful exploration of this narrow furrow, with enough progression to ensure that the album can't be seen as simplistic.
    It won't make you feel differently about your life; it won't raise you to emotional heights, or convey anything profound. But it doesn't set out to do this, and music can be enjoyable simply as an expression of itself, and an occasion to revel in its power and energy. As an exercise in musical energy and technical prowess it succeeds greatly; it has everything I'd want in a death metal album, even if it necessarily doesn't have everything that I look for in an album.

    All in all, an excellent half-hour of technical death metal; very highly recommended, in particular to guitarists, who should see this as compulsory listening.
  • Graspop 2008 - day three plus one, and what's special about metal gigs

    Jul 22 2008, 23h36

    We decided to wake up early to get packed up and away from the festival before the rush, but after the dew had gone, giving us a decent day in Brussels before our train left at sometime past 21:00. We got up at about 07:00, and perhaps 5% of the tents had been taken down, and another 5 was being taken down. Taking the tent down was pretty useful for dispelling our tiredness, and soon enough we had stowed them both away, washed and stocked up on water for the rest of the day.

    Whilst I had been impressed to read that the shuttle buses were running every five minutes, I was astounded by how smoothly it all worked in practice. We popped over to the food tent to spend our remaining food tokens on a hot chocolate each, kitted out with music and with stuff to read to hand for the inevitable wait. As it turned out, I had to down my drink to get on the bus, as whilst one was just leaving when we arrived, another one immediately pulled in behind it. A few comfortable minutes of journeying through the Belgian countryside later, we were at the station. Again, there were barriers and police on duty. The metal fans respectfully wait outside the station by the barriers, while normal residents roamed and grazed freely. The crisply communicative policewoman directed us unambiguously to the correct platform to Antwerp for when our train arrived. After a ten minute wait, the train arrived and we swarmed through the tunnels and out onto the platform, everyone finding seats on the air-conditioned spacious train.

    After a simple connection, we were in Brussells by 11:00. This time we thoroughly subdued the lockers, and started contemplating food. So we headed for Shadi again. Amusingly, we actually arrived before opening time, and, in a moment of bleak confusion, decided to go to the local Lidl to get provisions for a picnic. Thankfully the lidl was inexplicably closed for the day, allowing me to practice my disgruntled banter with the locals who were as surprised as we were that it was closed. As we returned along the road, Shadi had opened, as if miraculously, just in time for lunch. We stumbled our way through the baguette ordering process like pros, and made for a grimy local rectangle of gravel and pigeons to savour our baguettes. They hit the spot once again, and made a fantastic brunch.
    Sated, we wandered through Brussels. We came across a few squares I hadn't walked through before, and with my newly-cultivated ability to pay attention to more than just the ground floor of buildings, my admiration for Brussels increased. It decreased a little as I started to notice just how much graffiti there was around the place, something that didn't strike me on my first visit.

    We wandered up the hill, under the blazing sun, to the leafy national park, which was probably presumably created under the auspices of some national procreation scheme, if the numbers of couples openly making out there is anything to go by. An hour or so later we felt restless, and wanted to see if it was possible to find a free toilet in the centre of Brussels. Turns out it wasn't. The cartel fixing the prices seems to have settled at a lower bracket of 30 cents. Everywhere that didn't conform to this had obviously been hounded out of business.

    We snacked on a waffle each, feeling fantastically lethargic and drowsy as a result of this delicious snack with its lovely melted chocolate covering. We wandered back up the hill and, going a different route, found ourselves outside a rather splendid looking cathedral. We went inside and had a look round. It did most of the things I'd ask of a Catholic Church - impressive paintings, ornate stained glass, religious furniture I didn't understand (little chairs set into cupboard-type structures in alcoves, dedicated to certain families), and so on. They had a rather ugly puppet of Mary and Jesus behind one of the altars, which was a shame considering how much great artwork they had there. They also had a saint wielding what can only be described as a cross between a sword and a saw. I was delighted, particularly as the guy next to him just got a little dagger. Maybe they ran out of whatever metal it was they used to make them.

    Having had a look round the ground floor, I decided to go down into the crypt, tantalizing illuminated glances of which we'd seen as we wandered round the cathedral. A bunch of nice old headstones and dingy stone rooms would have pleased me, but instead I got an insult. The stairs that led you gleefully down to the exhibition were about as big as the room they dumped you off into, a room with a few illuminated foundations and a map of the cathedral. I had rushed down there before Greg and Duncan, and to watch their reactions as they turned round the corner was probably worth the one euro entry fee. We took solace in the fact that we weren't the first to be defrauded by the Catholic Church. We soaked up a little more of the exterior architecture, and wandered back off to the park, where we lazed around chatting on the grass, before I settled down for what was probably the most tranquil, delicious doze of my life. In the shade under the summer's blaze, the hours flowed by wonderfully. It'd be hard to explain just how much more spiritually charged and fulfilled that moment was than my trip to the cathedral just a few hours before. When it started to get cooler, I got up from the grass, detached the twigs and leaves that had settled in on my back, and got Greg and Duncan up from their similar tranquil states. We made our way at a relaxed pace to the station, stopping off for some basic sandwiches at a local cafe before we checked in for our train. The Eurostar journey was chilled, bordering on asleep, in fact. It was tricky to pick tracks that fitted this space whilst not making us fall asleep. I think I did a pretty good job of picking tracks that everyone could enjoy (as in all three of us, not the whole carriage: my player's charging unit has a line-out, allowing two more people to listen to it if they share headphones). We got off the Eurostar, and energetically (for some reason, perhaps habit) made for the Met line home. We all had an excellent night's sleep, a brilliant way to end this trip.

    Live metal music is something really special. Usually when an event is an institution, it is a let down. Birthdays, end-of-whatever events, New Years, and so on. They are mostly to me a parody of the delight that some seem to draw from them. I get a lot more from a few hours' unplanned sitting on the grass, really trying to get to know my friends better, from impromptu meet ups, from late nights spent paying loads of attention to someone on MSN, than I do from something that is billed as a moment of consummation. Some of my friends were loving Eurovision (I'm still not quite sure on what level(s)), but I could never get anything from that, as it just leaves me dead, even if it can supply people with a great time. A similar thought struck me back at school when I was sitting through a talk trying to convince its audience to go on a gap year with their company. At one point during the trip you'd go on a walk up some mountain, and it'd be really inspiring at the top. There was a photo of the summit, conveying the type of emotion you'd be feeling if you went there. Something struck me as troubling about that, how everyone would be expected to react to the mountain in more or less the same way, to have the same triumph and epiphany, to sit on the same damn rock to have the same personal life-affirming experience as the next guy in the queue.

    In MMORPGs, (persistent online roleplaying worlds, for the uninitiated,) you'd often have the farcical experience of having a group of characters each being personally entrusted with a quest to kill a dragon that lived at a particular spot, and wanting to kill it at the same time. They'd only get the reward if they killed it personally. So you'd have a queue form to slay the dragon, and it would have to reappear each time it died to allow all the players to complete their dragon quest.

    So institutionalised shared experiences leave me cold.

    But metal bucks this trend. If you have a good enough lineup, you can get me hyped up over a live music experience. You could sell me this excitement, you could even create a brand around it. And come the time of the event I'll be sitting on that rock with a huge grin on my face, lapping up this experience I'm supposed to enjoy. Hell, I'll be striking a pose on that damn rock, playing a guitar solo and riding a double-headed dragon off into the sunset.

    So metal provides this rare thing: an institutionalised shared experience with meaning. When the (rather superfluous) announcers at Graspop would say how great a band was when they finished their set, or when a new one was about to come on, I was completely ecstatic because it meant something to me, just like it meant something to the other people howling with excitement. I knew it was going to be great, and it truly was. That's something special. Whether such delights are better than the ones life grants us unexpectedly is another question (not that the two are unrelated - I had plenty of surprises at Graspop, such as Alchemist and Anneke van Giersbergen), but to be able to rely on something institutional as a guarantor of fun is something rare for me.

    Graspop's lineup was fantastic, the company brilliant, the organisation staggering, and the weather perfect. As I hope I've explained, I'm the type who's inclined to enjoy such an experience, but that shouldn't undermine all my positive experiences and observations. I'll definitely be going to another European festival next year, if I can, and if the line-ups are the same, Graspop will edge out Wacken.
  • Graspop 2008: day three.

    Jul 8 2008, 0h02

    Some light rain in the night and mid-morning brought the temperature down wonderfully, allowing us to stay dormant until just before lunchtime. The first band of the day was the Australian outfit Alchemist, who captivated me with their wikipedia page, which promised a combination of death, eastern, progressive, electronic and heavy metal. The crowd was pretty small when we arrived about ten minutes before the set was due to start, and the crowd at the front was only about one person deep, so we were practically at the front. The crowd didn't really give the band much of a welcome, but Duncan, Greg and myself cheered loudly enough to probably make up for it, and hopefully set a good example. Even the guy with an Alchemist T shirt in front of me showed no signs of support. Thankfully, my show of faith in the band was not misplaced: they had some fantastic eastern melodic meanderings that they weren't afraid to explore properly, and they mixed this up with more traditional metal elements wonderfully. Whilst the high screams didn't work well (to my ears, anyway), I was really impressed, and their set went incredibly fast. (This may be something to do with it being only 40 minutes long). Alchemist were a fantastically refreshing set, and I'll certainly be investigating them. If anyone has any pointers about where to start, please throw them at me, as samples I have heard from all their albums interest me. In the meantime, here are a few sample tracks that give a pretty accurate depiction of their sound:









    Apocalyptica, as expected, played a load of covers of familiar metal songs. As Chriss said, it'd have been nice if they had the confidence to play more of their own material live. I did smile when they said that for their final song (The Hall of the Mountain King), they would "punish you with some classical music", but perhaps they shouldn't underestimate the combination of people's open mindedness and their ability for this type of instrumentation to appeal.

    I only saw about half of Soilwork's set, but it was enough to acclimatise myself to what Gothenburg melodeath sounds like (apologies if I am taking liberties with terminology here). Midway through the set we decided to head back to the tents, to spend rest our legs in preparation for the evening, and getting ourselves suitably rehydrated. Whilst I was interested in checking out Primordial, I decided that being in a good location (and physical condition) to see Iron Maiden was more important. So we had lots to drink, and generally lazed about in our tents for an hour and a bit, before leaving to catch the end of Avenged Sevenfold. My only recollections of this band are my annoyance at their oft fatuous and sickly harmonies, and their lead guitarist's hat. At any rate, we were close to the front for In Flames, and thus were in a good position for being in a good spot to see Iron Maiden.

    In Flames presented us with a brilliant hour and ten minutes of entertainment. The crowd movement was pretty insane, and whilst we avoided the pits, every few minutes you'd get thrown forward with the mass of the crowd a good few metres, before being thrown back again. Duncan and Greg continued to try to stay by the central crowd barrier, but I had to relinquish my grip on that just a few minutes in. The band put on a great set, not that I know any of their work, with some brilliant riffs that actually sounded heavy to my ear (which most bands don't achieve) and great drumming, ensuring that the music got my attention more than the impromptu grinding from the girls in front of me. Whilst I was disappointed that Opeth had canceled, it was probably for the best, as it spared me an agonising decision about seeing them or getting a good place from which to see Iron Maiden.

    We'd put in a fair amount of effort to get good places for Iron Maiden, and were now near-exhausted and filthy (a light breeze, pits churning up dust, and sweat, are not a good combination). As soon as Iron Maiden came on, all was forgotten. They put on a stellar show that more than made up for my disappointment upon seeing them a couple of years back (when they neglected the classics at the expense of their latest album). The setlist was near-perfect (I'd only have added To Tame a Land, The Evil That Men Do and The Flight of Icarus, and I suppose that every Iron Maiden fan has a few tracks they'd add in such a situation.) and the physical set was really impressive, drawing on the visual theme of the Powerslave album.

    They opened with Aces High:



    I've always been fond of Iron Maiden's '80s material, and have a special place for their Piece of Mind, which was my first metal album. Duncan and I spent pretty much a whole Christmas holiday listening to it on repeat whilst trawling through the Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King hack and slash PC game. I went out sometime in the January sales and got The Number of the Beast, and Powerslave a few months later. Whilst each of these new albums had amazing tracks on them, Piece of Mind has always remained something special to me. So you can imagine my delight when I heard them blast out the opening Revelations riff. Before I continue spamming videos at you, I should credit the youtube user kangouras68, whose surprisingly good quality recordings I have relied on heavily in the following selection.

    Revelations:



    Sadly the Powerslave video cuts off the best bit, but the length of this guy's videos show a clear awareness of space limitations, and he's cut them all very sensitively, so I can hardly complain. Look out for Bruce's awesome costume change:



    Run to the Hills was obviously played, and was obviously awesome:



    Fear of the Dark (Man, that is some bad singing along. Still, I couldn't hear them over where I was. I had an Irish girl a few rows behind me singing even more awfully and enthusiastically, and was probably butchering the sing-along-with-the-lead-guitar-melody section enough myself as it was.):



    The Trooper was another highlight, with Bruce's flag-waving making me feel more pride in Britain than I'd ever felt before:



    Duncan was super-pleased that they played The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner. I cheered extra loud for Coleridge:



    Iron Maiden always seem bogged down by their eponymous track. Iron Maiden always seems to me like a relatively weak way to end their set, even if it is a nice chance for them to set off the pyrotechnics and have Eddie appear, and even if it has a nice old-school, driving bass, and near-proggy ring, to it, and even if it does grow on me each time I hear it. Janick's guitar strutting perhaps even surpasses Malmsteen's:



    Eddie was awesome:



    The encore was great. Sadly Eddie didn't get killed and have his brains dashed out and scattered over the stage, as I recall happened on the original Powerslave tour (causing much controversy), but the band still gets top marks for the fantastic fight choreography:



    Once the band finally finished, drained, we made our way back to the campsite, along with the rest of the horde. We collected our belongings from the locker on the way (always a worthwhile investment), and played the old game/trick of walking fast to get through a crowd. I've never understood people walking slowly if they have somewhere they want to be in a hurry, and always enjoy darting through a walking crowd to get to wherever we're all walking that little bit faster. At night this game is a lot more engaging, particularly on congested roads. We passed well over a thousand people on our walk back to the campsite. Greg's fast walking was to be his downfall when we got back to the campsite, as a pair of guys in back sleeping bags were lurking to ambush unwary walkers, and toppled him right over. Thankfully his reflexes were up to the job of protecting his face, if not his dignity.

    The journey home, and my closing thoughts and contemplations on the festival, will be presented in the next journal. I'll also check through all the previous posts for any glaring errors that didn't get caught by my tired proof-reads.
  • Graspop 2008: day two. And a short rant about narrow-mindedness, Foucault and the…

    Jul 6 2008, 18h58

    After a long doze, we got out of our tents, secured food, restocked on water, lazed around chatting for a few hours, before heading off to check out the clothing vendors at the festival site, as none of the bands we wanted to see started before 15:00. Whilst Greg was unable to find a suitable new belt, I managed to track down a couple of Burzum T shirts (always worth doing in person due to the quantities of text on the back, which online vendors are naturally unwilling to explain to you, but which need assessing), and Duncan found the Operation Mindcrime T shirt.

    Having briefly checked out their myspace page, I have to say that out of Alestorm's material, I only liked Captain Morgan's Revenge. I was very impressed with what I saw of their set (between a half and two-thirds of it): they get top marks for having keyboard-guitar duels, the crowd interaction made a lot of what was musically uninspiring in the studio good fun live Set Sail and Conquer. There was also a guy crowdsurfing in an inflatable pirate boat, which I was delighted to see as I had half-seriously predicted that there'd be one. The following video gives a fair idea of their set (the banter, the bobbing, nautical riffs, the accordion synth, melodic hooks, and pirate lyrical themes):



    As soon as Alestorm finished, we raced over to get a good position for Sonata Arctica, the band that got me into what metal has to offer beyond Iron Maiden. It hardly needs saying that Tony's vocals were fantastic, and that Elias filled Jani's boots excellently and had some great strutting and posturing and a lovely tone (and a couple of new Sonata-branded custom Ibanez guitars). If my scrawlings taken during the day are to be believed, they played a sped up introduction to Replica, which was fantastic. (I may have mixed up the song, but the dynamic worked excellently, whichever one it was for). More importantly, they played Gravenimage in full, a track which may well be my favourite Sonata track nowadays. It really hit the spot.

    Korpiklaani were fun folk metal with happy live beats and a few inexcusably juvenile/lame track names and lyrical themes. Whilst much of my power and black metal collection quietly screams for me to stop throwing stones from atop my glass house, I'd rather have a grim and frostbitten kingdom or an Emerald Sword Saga, or hear about a fantastically apocalpytic scenario requiring great valour to overcome it, over tracks like Happy Little Boozer. But, then again, I was just bitter as the drinks at the festival were so overpriced and unappealing (to me, anyway) and not entering into the spirit of it. Whilst Duncan and I were watching Korpiklaani, Greg saw 36 Crazy Fists, who he said played most of their hits and had an energetic crowd and set.

    I queued for an hour or so but I hadn't accounted for the length or speed of the queue, and as such missed out on a chance to meet the members of SA. Still, I didn't have to miss Iced Earth for the privilege, as the queue provided an excellent view of the main stage. It was awesome to see Matt Barlow back with Iced Earth, even though I was also impressed by his replacement, Tim Owens, when I saw him played with Iced Earth a year back in Wacken. The setlist was very much to my liking, with A Question Of Heaven being the only one I'd have really wanted included that wasn't. Whatever the setlist, it was delivered excellently by Barlow, and Jon Schaffer's rhythm guitar cut through the air fantastically, with delicious palm-muting.

    The following (short) video gives you an idea of the above:



    I couldn't help but (somewhat unfairly compare) the standard of vocal delivery to that of Rob Halford the night before. Just as the eponymous Iced Earth started, I left to join Duncan and Greg who'd gone off to get placed near the front of Immortal. They'd done an astoundingly good job, and I soon found myself about 4 rows from the front.

    Immortal were a band I couldn't appreciate this time last year. Before Wacken 2007, I was almost entirely unaware of the black metal genre, let alone its complexities, achievements and curious backstory (not to say that I am now ;)), but after a weekend of near-continual, probably near-torture, exposure to the stuff on the campsite, I became interested in investigating it, if only to hear some more of that super-fast drumming. I'd heard so much of it that I could hear blast-beats in ambient sounds for a week or so afterwards. I was in Prague a few days later, and really enjoyed the noise of a freewheeling bicycle chain. I especially grew to love the clicking at traffic lights to let blind people know when to cross. Of course, now I listen to the stuff regularly, I have a permanent appreciation of such things. Hopefully this explains why I missed Immortal last year. I had another engagement as well, at any rate, seeing Kai Hansen perform the Walls Of Jericho album with Stormwarrior. If I'd known Immortal back then, I'd have had a very tough choice between the two. Anyway.

    Immortal were astounding. I had been massively looking forward to them, having been eased into the black metal genre by their brilliant At the Heart of Winter album, purchased the majority of their discography, and become rather well versed on it before this show. They did not disappoint: fantastic setlist, brilliant use of pyrotechnics (to emphasize key moments in Withstand the Fall of Time and to shock the audience with loud bangs at a couple of opportune moments, including one that ended the set), and, far more importantly, brilliant musicianship and crowd-management. The pit was rather intense behind me, but I was, by and large, able to focus on the music rather than self-defence.

    The relationship of the band to the crowd was an interesting one, which I hadn't come across before. Whilst they were energetically running around the stage, playing to all parts of the crowd, there was a strong deferential, devotional quality to the relationship, rather than one of reciprocal playfulness and enjoyment (like you'd have with, say Sonata Arctica). This extolled the crowd to greater acts of devotion (read: shouting and stuff), and made the moment that Horgh gave us all the horns a moment of genuine achievement and pride. Their use of corpsepaint helped this relationship a lot: Horgh could be seen as coldly surveying the audience from the vantage point of his mighty drums, and Apollyon seemed to have a constant look of angry disappointment. Of course, with both band and audience giving their all to the other party, mutual sincere affection was achieved (and recognised) in the end, but the way this stage was reached was exciting and new (for me at least). The band's news item on this gig is worth noting: "Mighty hails to you all, thanks to the Belgium and international hordes at Graspop for creating another victory with us, you were a brilliant audience!" They clearly know how to foster such audiences.

    The track Tyrants, one of Duncan's favourites, follows, at least in part. Sadly, it doesn't convey the punch that all those riffs have live. (Last.fm has the track available for free, if you're interested, although I don't enjoy it anywhere near as much as One By One or Sons of Northern Darkness which both live in the first half of the same album and were both played at this gig):



    They closed with Blashyrkh (Mighty Ravendark), the final section of which follows:



    My only complaint was that the drums were a little too quiet, but this didn't stop me enjoying the fantastic fill introduction to Sons of Northern Darkness. To give you an idea of the awesomeness of the drumming, have a look at the following drum cover of this track:



    Having grabbed some pizza and had a much-needed sit down, we headed off to get to near the front for Kiss.

    I know next to nothing about Kiss. What little I do comes from a television show a few years back with Gene Simmons in it which had a few clips at the start of each episode, and from a Family Guy episode, neither of which suggested to my mind that Kiss were going to be particularly awesome. But Duncan, Greg and I decided to take this chance see them (especially as we'd already paid, effectively), and decided that trying to 'become' Kiss fans for the evening would help our enjoyment immeasurably.
    Thus we entered into the spirit of it, delighted by every gratuitous explosion or tired crotch-thrust, tongue sticking-out or fantastically-cheesily choreographed syncyronised guitar-rocking (see 3:35 onwards on the following video for an example of such fantastic fan-service). The songs took a little more work, but were incredibly easy to get into, even if that was in the sense of a swimmer diving innocently into a bathtub. But whilst they didn't have depth, they did have guitar solos, even if didn't have anything special to say with them.
    Anyway, as the visual spectacle is what I'll remember most about their gig, it's what I should ensure that I convey to you. Again, Other People and The Internet have come to my aid.
    Here's a video of their entrance. You don't want to know how much I was laughing and cheering in reaction to this (keep an eye out for the incessant use of a small repertoire of crowd-pleasing 'tricks'):



    Watch the first 30 seconds of the next vid (or all, if you're a Kiss fan), and note the Kiss Alive plug. There were many of these over the evening, which seemed a bit cynical, or perhaps a contrast to the naïveté of the rest of the metal scene, in which open album promotion seems restricted to the opening and end of a set at most, and will often be neglected entirely.

    They had the 'sway and play' down so well that I hardly minded seeing it used many times over the evening. Here it is over a guitar solo:



    I Was Made for Lovin' You was one of the tracks the crowd enjoyed most. Very quick to grasp, I can see why wikipedia cites Paul Stanley as calling it an effort to show how easy it was to create a hit disco song (I won't quibble about genres, as I'm a long way from home here...).



    A lot must've been spent on the pyrotechnics, and it certainly made the set a lot more fun. It was pretty neat that they'd set up the guitar so that it looked like it was launching fireworks. (During this section I marveled afresh at this guy's ridiculous costume. I always thought that they had armed guards at the end of the 1980s to stop such monstrosities reaching modern times, but the lamentable state of fashion in our own times suggests that I have no right to judge):



    Another fun moment was the zipwire flyby, which entailed a rather perilous journey for Paul Stanley to above the sound desk. His patter didn't really make sense, as he says that he "would love to come out there and see you", but then questions whether he wants to. Apologies for the sound going horrible as soon as the song starts:



    I feel obliged to admit that I had no clue what his name was. Anyway. The more eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that something hit him during his flight. This seems confirmed by what Duncan says he saw, and by the following video:



    I guess he was just lucky being able to avoid something like this:



    Kiss had a sound problem which started during the drum solo section, and which plagued the band for a good few minutes (perhaps 20 minutes in all?). This entailed a total loss of sound, which was a shame. I must admit that I had a chuckle to myself as their drummer valiantly continued with his near-inaudible solo, perhaps completely unaware that they had lost sound.

    When the Kiss finale finally came (40 minutes after they were supposed to finish), they did so with a bang:



    I must say that I admired Paul Stanley a lot for the heartfelt positive messages interspaced between plugs. He seemed genuinely interested in the welfare of his audience, even if he probably thought it best secured by them checking out the new Kiss Alive cd. As for my experience of Kiss as a band, it was a positive one, if not perhaps in the way that die-hard Kiss fans would have enjoyed it. I loved the ridiculous, farcical, un-self-conscious, over-the-top aspects of the performance, a lot more than the less-than-exciting music.

    I must say that I did resent the audience being referred to as "metal freaks", even if we put aside the irony of Kiss delivering such a statement. It is the kind of self-branding that I hate to see held by the metal community. Metal isn't a silly deviancy from the serious business of mainstream music, nor is it a delinquency. I hope no-one took pride in being labelled a "freak", and plays to such a tired identity. Apologies if my post-modernism keeps me incoherently ranting, but the perceptions held of the metal community do often frustrate me, particularly when I am trying to show the worth of the genre to those unversed in it, who are held back by certain aspects of its image that cause unnecessary prejudices and an all-too-easy excuse to play it safe and dismiss the genre.
    Metal doesn't need to define itself against an 'other': it's awesome enough on its own. I'm tired of people I see at metal gigs/festivals wearing T shirts complaining about emos, or bitching about hip-hop. Perhaps the music in those scenes is as misrepresented and sanitised by the media as much as we feel metal is (although I'm not saying I'm above such prejudices, or that informed dislike isn't an option). If we stopped bitching about each other, maybe we'd all be better at doing what we think we do so well. And maybe we'd tentatively have a little peek over the safe walls we've erected, and loosen our blinkers to see if there's any other music out there worth a listen. I'm currently tentatively doing so with some UK rap/hip-hop.

    Live metal performances tend to be more focused on the music and the technical merits of the performance given by the musicians, rather than using anything flashy or rehearsed to wow the crowd, so Kiss were an interesting change of pace. Obviously, I'd never choose to see a band with a cool explosion or a (really lame) bass solo in which the bass player (kinda) spits blood, over one that hits you so much harder by just playing its own fantastic music, but I certainly don't regret having seen them, and will look back with fond, tongue-in-cheek, memories of the time I saw Kiss.
  • Graspop 2008 - day one

    Jul 3 2008, 16h33

    For us, Yngwie Malmsteen was the first act of the festival. His prancing was on top form, his keyplayer had a great costume (even if his solos were pretty much inaudible), and he played lots of gratuitous neoclassical metal, which is exactly what I was hoping for. He should've ditched the singer earlier on in the set, and played Black Star, a track whose omission was unforgivable.

    Next up was Moonspell, a band I was keen to check out having heard them variously described as (gothic/doom/black) in various corners of the internet. I was taken aback by the quality of their performance: they were fantastically thrashy in parts, powerful, with great vocals, and moved aptly through various lovely musical spaces in their songs. The video quality of the following amalgamation of clips isn't great, but the sound is, and gives you a good idea of what they were about:



    At one point Anneke van Giersbergen (ex-The Gathering) appeared on stage for guest vocals, and I literally could not believe my eyes. Once she got singing and moving about I was certain that it was her, and I had a stupid delighted grin on my face for a long while afterwards. Needless to say, her performance was top notch and I was thrilled to see her live, especially as I had thought that I would never have the chance to. If I'd have known anything about her collaboration with Moonspell I'd have not been surprised, so I suppose my shocked delight marked me out as a first-time listener ;). A clip of her performance follows:



    I'll certainly be looking into Moonspell, so if anyone can recommend me anything by them, please do so.

    We then waited around in the same marquee for Symphony X, who were to start just over an hour later, in order to get right to the front. I decided to head for the left, as that seems to be the default lead guitarist position, and had been in the Symphony X videos I had seen, and was vindicated when Michael Romeo came out for his (wonderfully playful) soundcheck. I had a great chat with an Australian girl, Chriss, who was traveling through Europe and taking in an impressive number of festivals on the way. We obviously talked about Symphony X, and exchanged a few travel tips and some progressive band recommendations. I'll send her an email sometime soonto get the names of the progressive bands that she was very into but that I had never heard of. Given her taste they must be very much worth hearing.

    When Symphony X started, I was blown away by their fantastic set. The sound was fantastic, all musicians on top form (apologies for this being something of a cliché, but it must be said), and we generally made it clear to Michael's how great his guitar playing was, and judging by the eye contact we had with him, I think he appreciated it. Such fanboy appreciation/harassment sadly couldn't be extended to Russell Allen, as he was a little too far away to our right, but his vocal performance was stellar, and the crowd made it pretty clear that they knew this. The setlist was fantastically energetic, naturally mainly based around their (brilliant) new album: Set The World On Fire, Domination, Serpent's Kiss, the touchingly-dedicated and delivered Paradise Lost, and Eve Of Seduction. A video of Paradise Lost is below (very good quality for an amateur live video):



    The Walls Of Babylon took me completely by surprise. The excellent sound meant that I could hear the awesome key solos perfectly, and I really appreciated the chance to hear it live. Again, a video follows. It's incomplete and a little noisy, but has the awesome initial riffing and keysolo:



    They also played Inferno, and Of Sins And Shadows to finish.

    After Symphony X finished, I decided to miss all but the first few songs of Def Leppard's set to return to my tent to get cds to meet Symphony X and get a couple of things signed by them. This meant skipping Testament, who I felt obliged to see but wasn't particularly excited about. At any rate, I could hear much of Testament's set as the signing area was pretty close to the Marquee. After forty minutes or so of queuing, I was able to meet the band, and thanked each of them for something specific I thought was awesome about their musicianship, if possible relating to their latest album, passed on some of my (probably incoherent) praises about the band in general, and shook each of their hands in turn.

    A little dazed, I met up with Greg and Duncan for Whitesnake, who I can't really remember much about, except that their lead singer looked a little bit like a waxwork, that they had some surprisingly excellent guitar solo moments, and that they had a disproportionate number of songs about love (I wonder if you can judge a band simply by how much, and in what ways, it dwells on the subject).

    Ministry followed, who had some fantastic beats and synths, along with some intriguing vocals. They were worth a second listen, but weren't anywhere near as grabbing as Moonspell, probably suffered unfairly in my mind for not being VNV Nation, and didn't discourage us leaving early for pre-Priest food. I ended up with a 4-euro pizza-slice, which was tasty and pretty filling, although inevitably not worth the price. To stave off scurvy for a little while, I grabbed an apple, as did Greg, before taking our place near the front of the crowd for Judas Priest.
    Whilst waiting, I noted with great appreciation the considered employment of the information screens, showing cancellations, signing session timings, timings of last trains and the running order. All common sense, but it's always nice to see it enacted.

    Judas Priest were very good. Sadly (the fantastically luridly-attired and strange-acting) Rob Halford couldn't hit the harsher vocals, which made listening to tracks like Painkiller an anticlimax. The solos were great, and the setlist pretty good (if not amazing: I wanted a lot more from Painkiller and would have loved to hear Judas Rising). They opened with the following track (Prophecy) and outfit:



    Of course, they also played Breaking the Law, which is pretty well summarised by the following short video. Love that sweet intro riff; and top marks for the accent at the start.

    Incredibly pleased at how the festival had gone so far, we returned to our tents and fell asleep almost at once.
  • Graspop 2008 - day zero.

    Jul 2 2008, 20h42

    Firstly, the traditional apology, this time disguised as a request: if anyone can let me know of a good image hosting site I'd greatly appreciate it, as my laziness/ the internet's lack of decent provision has disincentivized me from typing up my journal of last summer's trip. The journal itself very much exists, but in its current paper scrawl, it's not even of much use to me. Thankfully, I took no photos at Graspop, so writing it up should be a much quicker affair, if less visually arresting for the reader (I'll try to obtain some links to photos taken by others as and when they become available)
    Anyway; on with the journal.

    I quickly forgot the shock of the 05:00 rise when I considered the ease with which we (particularly those of us on the Metropolitan Line in London) can access Europe. The journey was incredibly smooth right through to Brussels thanks to the tube service and the Eurostar.
    We arrived in Brussels at about 10:00, and in the mood for something to eat, and wanted to store our bags to give us freedom of movement in the city (the festival site was only around two hours away, and only opened at 18:00).
    Farcically, the electronic lockers were the first difficulty of our trip. A good percentage of them were non-functioning for a reason known only to the machines themselves, but after some light to medium hassle, we managed to fit our bags into smaller lockers and headed out to track down an eatery that Duncan and I had enjoyed on our previous trip to Brussels. I should now introduce the final member of our group: Greg, a school friend of ours who combines a knowledge of metal with a suspiciously well-rounded knowledge of popular music.
    Having tracked down the locally-run, community-serving food outlet, named 'Shadi', we clambered over the language barrier and ordered some baguettes with all of the available sauces (whatever they were, exactly).
    Our appetites sated by the fantastic spicy chicken baguettes, we strolled into the centre of Brussels, arriving in the beautiful main square with its fantastically ornate buildings.
    The following panorama suggests that it would look stunning at night (not embedded here due to its high resolution):

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0e/Grand_Place_panorama.jpg

    The seemingly-omniscient German rail website Bahn.de had more information on the trains coming out of Brussels than the departure board in the Midi station, leading to a little confusion, but soon we were on a lovely air-conditioned train on our way to Antwerp, for our connection to Mol, where a shuttle bus would take us to the festival site in Dessel. (Seriously, bahn.de even works for England) We accidentally ended up in the lightly signposted first-class area, but the ticket inspectors were polite and efficient. We changed at Antwerp with no difficulty and had a chat with a local metal fan about the festival, and with a random local woman who was very polite, even if we exchanged only a few words. Our journey whisked us through some beautiful sun-drenched countryside, of sleepy rural settlements, and trees mingling happily with fields.
    The train was pretty quiet, as we were arriving a day before the music started, in the hope of getting a good campsite. (At Wacken in 2007 we were only saved by the wonderfully friendly and helpful Germans we met on the train who offered us a place on their group area, and didn't want to end up camping in a few inches of water like some people at Wacken ended up doing.)
    Arriving at Mol station, we were all mentally prepared for a few hours of waiting; indeed, I had factored this in in our train timings. Staggeringly, we wandered straight out, herded by signs and barriers, and were ushered by two policemen into the complimentary shuttle bus just before it left for Mol. We actually arrived there before the gates to the campsite were due to open, and noticed that the queue to get in was moving steadily, if very slowly. We got inside about half an hour later, and our two tents were among the first hundred or so up. The ground was a dream for our tent pegs, and there was nowhere that looked like it would become especially waterlogged if it rained.

    We next decided to sort out provisions. There was a cunning system whereby all food was paid for using multiple food tickets, each one costing a Euro each. You wouldn't think that this one-to-one exchange rate would fool people into buying the more outlandishly expensive food on offer, but the number of people I spotted eating the 7 Euro Thai vegetable offering suggested that perhaps this was the case. Drinks were a more complicated system, with an exchange rate I never really understood. But as the drinks on offer were of a limited and disappointing selection (beer, tiny bottles of coke or water, and shots of whiskey) we stuck to refilling our own water bottles at the excellent washbasin area of the campsite, which never ran out of water. We had a 1.5 litre one each for the campsite, and a smaller one to smuggle into the festival area (alas, mine was discovered on the last day). Water infrastructure was to be pretty important later on.
    Anyway, we got some tasty chips, which somehow filled me up completely, so I didn't begrudge the 3 euros (sorry, 3 food tokens) I spent on them. Maybe this was because of the fat in the liberally-served mayonnaise.
    The toilets were of an excellent standard, in centralised blocks, which was better than having an unusable one right near to your tent.
    For the rest of the evening we lazed around in our tents, and on the tarpaulin linking them that Greg set up, listening to music (particularly getting up to speed on Judas Priest who were the headliners the next day), chatting, and working my way through the (very good) Ghost in the Shell manga.
    We went for a border patrol a couple of times in the evening, noticing the impressive speed with which people were arriving. In the mid-afternoon, when we first surveyed the site, the tents only extended for a few hundred metres further away from the entrance than our own, but by the late evening, they had seemingly the vast majority of the campsite. Our plan of coming early seemed vindicated. We were located next to point 'A', and the campsite seemed to be destined to have filled up to point 'E', or however far it went exactly, by morning, given the streams of people arriving, even after midnight.
    Waves of excited roars and screams rippled infectiously through the campsite. This was certainly going to be an eager crowd.