»» Flick Through Our Graspop Metal Meeting Photos Above ««
While other members of Team BLUNT ventured to France for Hellfest, on the same weekend (June 17-19), your humble scribe trekked to Belgium’s Graspop Metal Meeting. Established in 1996, the Dessel festival is a fixture of the European circuit, and as you’ll learn is impervious to the factionalism which often undermines heavy music in many other markets throughout the world. Traditional metal, extreme metal, thrash, classic rock, punk, prog and more all co-exist within this environment.
Bars, merchandising, market and food stalls did a roaring trade, assorted tribute bands played throughout the weekend and even pro-wrestling displays were presented. A cigar store proved a popular spot, as did, somewhat surprisingly, the barber. Euro 2016 matches also proved a must-see for many, with giant screens on-site highly populated during Belgian games.
Priorities largely seemed to consist of attendees staking out prime camping spots and cracking their first beers. New friends were made and acquaintances renewed, attributable to the kinship which heavy music affords. In the case of your reviewer and fellow Australian Allen, this even included likeable neighbours allowing us to sit under their marquee, and even feeding us. A huge thanks to them for the hospitality.
A heavy, hour-long afternoon downpour spawned a muddy trail. Inclement weather at such events is commonplace, and occurred intermittently at Graspop prior to the Sunday. Although frustrating initially, you could only embrace it. The sheer quality of acts ensured any momentary discomfort was certainly worth it. The only viable solution was to grab a hoodie, poncho and gumboots, and get ready. Oh, and buy some baby wipes and be prepared to take a holiday from hygiene.
Although the festival proper wasn’t due to begin until Friday, often such events feature music on the Thursday evening. This time around it incorporated a “surprise act”, which ultimately was Trivium, who were scheduled to appear again later in the weekend. Unfortunately this reviewer missed said performance due to collecting a media pass, but reportedly the set-list differed from that of their Sunday performance.
BLUNT arrived in time to catch German power metallers Primal Fear, just days removed from a brief Australian jaunt. The disparity between clubs Down Under and thousands at a festival could have been jarring, but the band didn’t let on. Vocalist Ralf Scheepers was an experienced ringleader for the well-received Judas Priest worship.
Continuing the German theme was legendary ex-Accept screamer Udo Dirkschneider, on a tour billed as the final time he would perform material from said band. Accept’s catalogue is stuffed with songs of considerable cache among those whose battle jackets overflowed with patches. It culminated in stone-cold classics “Fast As A Shark” and “Balls To The Wall”. The singer’s age was understandably telling on selected tracks, but the fans weren’t fazed, throwing more shapes than the efficient band members themselves.
These festivals are a scenario whereby it apparently instantly becomes socially acceptable to be downing beers well before midday. Thus, some had already sunk a few in time for power metal heroes Firewind. Exhibiting numerous fleet-fingered solos and more poses than a Mr Universe contest, they were an appropriate manner for all and sundry to warm up their voices and necks. Myrkur, the one-woman black metal project spearheaded by classically-trained Danish multi-instrumentalist Amalie Bruun, proved an early highlight. Aided by a slew of well-honed players, folk-infused, frostbitten cuts from last year’s excellent M record wowed within the indoor environment.
Back at the main stage were aptly monikered Canucks Monster Truck, their riffage carrying more weight than a busload of Sumo wrestlers. The no-frills, pretension-free ethos resonated with large sections of the audience. Then it was time for a melodic death master-class from Sweden’s Soilwork. Crushing yet melodic gems à la “Rejection Role” and “Stabbing The Drama” were cornerstones. Few metal singers execute the bipolar vocal caper with such panache and conviction as Bjorn ‘Speed’ Strid.
It was a return indoors for the none-more-metal Grand Magus. This was likely the set of the day. The true metal warriors clearly revelled in the widespread appreciation, and mammoth-sized tunes “Iron Will” and “Hammer Of The North” redefined the term “power trio”. Hopefully they can make their maiden trek Down Under soon enough for additional commanding performances.
Mötley Crüe may be done and dusted, but former bassist Nikki Sixx still carries himself with a rock star aura. It’s a shame then that, despite admirable energy, much of Sixx:A.M‘s material doesn’t really stack up to that legacy. Instead, tracks such as “Rise” felt like middling radio-rock full of lyrics pilfered from self-help books. James Michael’s tired banter didn’t help matters.
European festivals are a lifeblood for outfits like Foreigner, whose volley of classic rock hits introduced the sing-a-long factor in spades. Guitarist Mick Jones is the sole remaining original member, but vocalist Kelly Hansen’s enthusiasm compensated. The sight of thousands of metal-heads embracing and belting out the lyrics to “I Want To Know What Love Is” with gusto was a memorable, feel-good festival moment you’ll only really witness at events like Graspop.
Hard rock titans Disturbed possessed more than their share of immediate, festival-friendly cuts too, airing “Ten Thousand Fists”, “Stupify” and mainstream-baiting cover of “The Sound Of Silence” within the first half of the set. Vocalist David Draiman was adept at working main stage crowds, albeit without seeming particularly impassioned, and there was a tangible air of going through the motions. Nikki Sixx and Sixx:A.M cohort DJ Ashba appearing for a take on the Crüe’s “Shout At The Devil” was the standout.
“I have the fucking greatest job in the world”. Megadeth main-man Dave Mustaine was evidently in positive spirits, and opening with a searing “Hangar 18” meant the feeling was mutual within the audience. If only everyone’s occupation entailed hammering out classic thrash. The fervour was punctuated by new shredder Kiko Loureiro’s presence, and Soilwork’s Dirk Verbeuren exuberantly substituting behind the kit. A few tracks from strong latest disc Dystopia slotted in effortlessly among the usual suspects.
It was then back indoors to witness guitar hero Zakk Wylde in solo mode, performing material from both Book Of Shadows records. Those seeking a healthy dose of axe pyrotechnics and dashes of piano certainly got their fill too, although sometimes the showmanship veered a little too much into wankery and lost the attention of some onlookers. A sublime “Between Heaven And Hell” ensued, however.
I’m sure Zakk would have given BLUNT a pass for leaving his set a few minutes early in order to catch his former “boss” in action. After frontman Ozzy Osbourne egged on the masses pre-set in typical fashion, Black Sabbath‘s set-list featured few curveballs, but was crowd-pleasing. “Snowblind”, “War Pigs” and “Iron Man” still resonated with metallers of all ages. Tommy Clufetos’ extended drum solo threatened to derail interest, but was likely incorporated to afford respite to his more seasoned colleagues. Osbourne’s delivery was often off-key, but that’s seemingly part of the charm nowadays, and when you have Iommian riffs like “Children Of The Grave” in the arsenal, such concerns were rendered insignificant.
The end appears nigh for Sabbath in early 2017; this was a fitting farewell that left diehard and casual fans satisfied. Except perhaps for the female punter observed by BLUNT, who unsuccessfully attempted to crowd-surf before landing in seemingly the muddiest section of the main arena.
After health scares a few years back, falsetto-spouting metal mainstay King Diamond only tours selectively nowadays. It’s a show built on at times hokey presentation, sure, but rockers still turn up in their droves to see Alice Cooper decades after he was actually dangerous. That’s because it’s highly entertaining. Thus, cue many fans clutching at invisible oranges and imitating the Danish veteran’s vocal style throughout a set which aired 1987’s beloved horror concept record Abigail in its entirety, preceded by a few other King favourites and small doses of Mercyful Fate. Macabre, cartoonish, yet undeniably atmospheric and great fun.
Crossover thrash kings and serial teetotallers Municipal Waste blasted away anyone’s hangover, inciting the day’s first circle pits and re-tooling “I Want To Kill The President” in honour of Donald Trump. They soldiered on despite some scattering due to the rain.
Halestorm frontwoman Lzzy Hale’s charisma was impressive, her voice formidable. Brother Arejay was also a showman behind the kit, as they expertly walked the delicate tightrope between pop hooks catchier than Ebola and crunchy hard rock riffs. Many pundits have pondered who will top major festival bills when the current crop of veteran heavyweight headliners retire. Although not part of that conversation yet, performances of this ilk indicate Halestorm should be soon enough.
For more than 20 years, Pennywise have been the punk band metal fans could also wholeheartedly embrace. The Californians were well-schooled in the art of being festival party-starters, even working Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)” in jest among anthems such as “Fuck Authority” and “Society”.
Killswitch Engage‘s ability to induce metalcore-gasms and a frenzied mosh among their faithful remained undiminished. The Mass-holes tore through a greatest hits-style set with zeal, also littering it with a few new tunes. Guitarist Adam Dutkiewicz’s usual hijinks and wisecracks were the ideal foil for vocalist Jesse Leach’s soulful, wholehearted presence.
Now well into their third decade of being arguably metal’s favourite misery guts, Paradise Lost and their melancholic gothic/death/doom seemed an appropriate fit for a late afternoon indoors affair amid the dreary conditions. The Englishmen have experienced somewhat of a career second wind recently, and judging by the turnout, misery sure loves company.
Opening with a bludgeoning “Redneck Stomp” – a track with a groove wider than the Grand Canyon – perfectly set the tone for Obituary. The Floridian death metal mainstays’ swamp-laden riffs have been imitated by many, but rarely replicated with such intent. Leaning heavily on their first two LPs was a deft move, and John Tardy’s distinctive gurgle stayed intact.
Welsh melodic metal mega-stars Bullet for My Valentine are not always an entirely convincing prospect on disc, but put them in front of a main stage crowd and it makes greater sense. Frontman Matt Tuck led his charges through “Your Betrayal, Scream Aim Fire” and “Waking The Demon”. This reviewer still wasn’t entirely won over – the banter a tad cringe-inducing, the more radio-oriented songs contrived – but there’s no questioning their appeal among younger audiences.
“Let’s say that rock’n’roll is the devil’s music, and we know it for a fact to be absolutely, unequivocally true,” late comedian Bill Hicks once suggested. “At least he fuckin’ jams!” Such a sentiment applies to occult Swedish collective Ghost. Flanked by anonymous cohorts the Nameless Ghouls, vocalist/mock Satanic priest Papa Emeritus III commanded his congregation with the simplest hand gesture, imploring them to “come together, for Lucifer’s son”; earnestly sung in unison during closer “Monstrance Clock”. A modicum of mystique and theatricality in 2016 is refreshing.
There has been endless debate as to whether Slayer‘s current incarnation truly maintains the thrashers’ illustrious legacy. Irrespective, any crew with so many genre-defining cuts (you name it, they probably played it) up their sleeves was tailor-made for easily one of the weekend’s largest attendances. Frontman Tom Araya’s charisma and axeman Gary Holt’s sheer energy was invaluable despite an uneven mix. Hardly life-changing for anyone who had previously witnessed Slayer live (the only noticeable difference a couple of tracks from latest disc Repentless) but many necks surely felt the effects the next morning.
It was then a quick dash to the indoor marquee stage for prog-metal masters Gojira. Just a day removed from issuing killer new platter Magma, the environmentally-conscious Frenchmen were sufficiently road-hardened to unleash a sonic pummelling to the full room. Intensity didn’t relent during the hour; newer cuts “Stranded” and “Silvera” meshing with crushing favourites “The Heaviest Matter Of The Universe” and “Flying Whales”. Hypnotic lighting and their attack reverberating through the floor only enhanced the visceral effect. Stay tuned for BLUNT’s interview with the band from the festival.
The improved weather conditions were a significant plus, as was this reviewer locating an extra pair of clean socks and underwear that had previously gone undetected. A 32-year-old really shouldn’t be so thrilled by such a discovery, but that’s the habitat we were residing in. It also made the ride home the next day decidedly more comfortable.
English tech-metal mob and djent progenitors SikTh were first cab off the rank. Although performing to a modest crowd at the marquee stage, they applied themselves to the task with aplomb. The unique two-pronged vocal dynamic provided a welcome point of difference.
You couldn’t have wiped the smile off Delain vocalist Charlotte Wessels’ face with a sand-blaster. The Dutch symphonic metal crew are celebrating a decade of existence, and their energy was palpable. A somewhat bland proposition on record at times, but emanating a vibe of actually wanting to be there can be half the battle when vying to score converts in such a situation. They succeeded in that department.
Architects’ last-minute withdrawal meant a timetable reshuffle on the main stages, and Sick Of It All‘s inclusion on their day off. This proved a masterstroke; opening with “Take The Night Off” was akin to Red Bull being tapped directly into the veins of every weary punter. The NYHC OGs spawned considerable audience involvement for “Step Down” and “Scratch The Surface”. The quartet may be marking their 30th anniversary, but unbridled ebullience made far younger bands seem lazy by comparison.
From long-time hardcore heroes to thrash veterans Overkill. The creative resurgence of many of thrash’s forebears of late was reflected in the New Jersey band’s song selection, which veered between their ’80s era and latter day records, while ignoring the couple of decades in between. They clearly knew where there proverbial bread was buttered, and the gathering accordingly acknowledged their aggression.
Over at the Jupiler stage, Thy Art Is Murder produced more breakdowns than a fourth-hand car. Touring frontman and JJJ host Lochlan Watt was visibly humbled by the violence offered up during “The Purest Strain Of Hate” and “Doomed From Birth”. The packed stage would suggest the Aussie deathcore mob are making considerable inroads within European markets.
It’s true – the guy who co-wrote “With Arms Wide Open” is a life-long thrash devotee. Many were already in the know, but for those unaware of his pedigree, Mark Tremonti (Alter Bridge, Creed) soon set them straight. A virtuoso guitar player still adapting to life as a frontman within this solo endeavour, he nonetheless cranked out turbo-charged heavy rockers from opener “Another Heart” through to closer “Wish You Well”.
Packing more hits than your local pub’s jukebox, the crowd-surfing activity also seemed to increase en masse for Anthrax. “Fight ‘Em ‘Til You Can’t” delivered a sizeable punch, while the pit (naturally) raised its game for “Caught In A Mosh”. Despite the truncated affair seeming to end a tad abruptly, most would have got their fill.
Trivium‘s experience as a main stage band seemingly belied their relative youth. It feels like they’ve been kicking about for eons, but it’s only been marginally over a decade since Ascendancy broke them worldwide. Vocalist/guitarist Matt Heafy was a consumate performer, albeit too fond of cliched repartee between each song. “Pull Harder On The Strings Of Your Martyr” and “In Waves” sent their devotees home satiated.
Aside from retrospective-themed tours, Iron Maiden have typically displayed great credence towards fresh output in the live environment. “Loud and proud, new material… It’s not because we’re a bunch of old codgers playing karaoke stuff,” effervescent frontman Bruce Dickinson told this writer last year. The English sextet’s double effort The Book Of Souls was therefore a key focus, both in terms of set-list and lavish Mayan-themed set. Their stock in new songs like the Robin Williams-dedicated “Tears Of A Clown” paid dividends; off-set by plentiful references to the back catalogue. Now cancer-free and in fine form, the singer revelled in being on-stage, teaching the audience the amusing, dad-like “climbing like a monkey” manoeuvre. By the time a rousing “Wasted Years” capped things off, enraptured fans of all ages were reminded that no one does stadium-sized metal bombast better.
Like Sabbath, another band currently enjoying their final victory lap was Twisted Sister, who began with a montage of band photographs. “This is fucking for real,” vocalist and motormouth Dee Snider remarked of their impending calling it a day, referencing past faux retirements of Ozzy and Scorpions. It was one of many profanity-filled rants from the vocalist, which although entertaining initially soon became somewhat tiresome throughout 90 minutes. The impromptu extended sing-a-long of “We’re Not Gonna Take It” was something to behold though; dedicating “The Price” to late drummer AJ Pero and other fallen rockers a classy touch.
The European festival circuit is a must for any bona fide heavy music fan, and Graspop certainly lived up to the reputation as a premier event of its kind. The message to Australian metal fans is simple – save your cash and take the plunge, because it’s an experience like no other. Tickets would also make for a great Christmas present for that metal-head in your life. You could try a festival like Graspop as an introduction before tackling a larger event such as Wacken or Download. Meanwhile, regular visitors to the summer scene should add Graspop to their itinerary. Just allow yourself a few days’ recovery time afterwards – BLUNT certainly needed it.