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Introduction

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ne of the most amazing things about going to metal festivals in Europe is the attitude of those who encounter the metalhead. While in other places the mere sight of this all-black, hairy and often unkempt  specimen generates a clear rejection from the rest of the population (particularly when the metalhead is found in packs) here he or she is able to roam free and in peace. True, sometimes they push it and probably get some snickering behind their backs (as I write this there is a nerdy kid in my train, also heading to the festival, wearing a leather trenchcoat, “metal” pants full of chains, a t-shirt  and a top-hat) but it’s still nice to see that those around you don’t give a crap about what you are doing. 1) It should be noted that, sadly, this situation is slowly changing. Reports of attacks (yes, ATTACKS) against members of the “alternative community”, whatever the hell that is, are increasing all across Europe. While the case of Sophie Lancaster and her boyfriend is perhaps the best known, it was hardly an isolated case.

Although it has been a while since the last time I actively and consciously tried to look “metal” (a look that, as I’ve said before, often coincides with several others… Imagine a Venn diagram in which “hobo”, “metalhead”, “nerd” and “sociopath” are all interconnected, and you’ll get what I mean.) nowadays limiting myself to just wearing my concert and band t-shirts (even when I’m working at the faculty of law because fuck you, you’re not my real dad!) I still feel a sense of comradeship when I see others that flaunt their “metalness”. A few years ago I was walking down  the street with a bag that had a Thor’s Hammer 2) It is safe to say that the chances of me having any ancestor who actually worshipped nordic gods are akin to those of me shooting butterflies and rainbows out of my ass and an Iron Maiden patch embroidered on it, when I crossed paths with a metalhead; there were no words, just a look and a nod. My girlfriend found it funny and amusing. I found it fucking awesome.

My approach to Mons, and the PPM, is not any different. They are all around me, and even though we don’t say a word to each other (because chances are we are all fucking spazzes who suck at social interaction anyway) we know we’re there, part of an awkward brotherhood. And while we will always be the minority (we will never be nearly as commonplace as the imbeciles who think that the Black Eyed Peas are “really fucking talented bro”) we are not intimidated by it, and actually embrace this status.

While I am definitely being overly dramatic here, Shakespeare said (in an absolutely different context, which sort of invalidates my citation) “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother, be he ne’er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition”. We are few, but we are brothers (and sisters!) united by a passion that binds us together and that is unique in the music world.

But enough of this. Let’s go to that fucking festival!

You can see our photographic coverage here

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Day I

             Mons greeted me, as it is to be expected, with rain and hail. A few years ago, when I was staying with my Belgian ex, I saw t-shirts at souvenir shops with the phrase “Belgium: Where Rain is Typical” stamped on them. I assure you, that’s fairly accurate.

            After checking in at my hotel (having been thoroughly fucked by the taxi that brought me there) I started walking towards the Mons Expo. While the venue isn’t far from the city, you can only get there through a bridge that is located a bit far from the center. While this is not so much of a problem during the day, since you can take a free bus from the Central Station (although not on Sunday) this is not in service during  night, and having to walk back to the city after a day of headbanging, jumping and enough alcohol to put a small horse to sleep, can be a real pain.

            I was very excited about this first day. Avantasiais one of my all-time favorite bands (I consider Tobias Sammet to be one of the most talented and versatile musicians that are currently in operation) and was looking forward to see how their newest release, “The Mystery of Time” would work live. But, of course, this first day was much more that “just” Avantasia.

            Although I really wanted to see Fireforce, since I’m a big fan of flowercore, I mean power metal, I had to skip it to do my interview with DGM. If I may spoil it a bit, let me assure you that these Italians are just the coolest guys, and went out of their way to make the interview fun and memorable (hell, Simone Mularoni, the guitar player, fucking moonwalked for me!).

Metal Blast: A footnote like no other!
Metal Blast: A footnote like no other!

          Drakkar, the first band I was actually able to see, really surprised me, showcasing a great sound and a very entertaining performance that defied their age. Max Pie (the band of one of the organizers) did the same, proving that the their relative obscurity does not, in any way, affect their musical skills and overall quality.

         DGM had the very hard mission of preceding Avantasia, a position that few bands would like. As it often happens, if you’re nothing more than an introduction to something bigger, the crowd will make it clear that they want you to get the fuck out of there. Somehow, however, DGM still managed to shine on their own and offer a really terrific show, even if they knew that a big chunk of the audience that was gathering in front of them were just waiting for Tobi to come out.

            As I entered the pit to photograph Avantasia, I could feel my heart beating fast. The lights went down as the band, headed by Oli Hartmann, entered the stage and assume their positions.

            Spectres, the opening song of “The Mystery of Time”, opened a concert that, without a doubt, is one of the best I have ever seen. I had to make a conscious and constant effort to not simply put the camera down and join the thousands of metal fans that sang and headbanged to every note of Avantasia’s music.

            While for those witnessing this massive show everything was magical, for the band it was, I’m sure, a source of some nervousness. As it was the first show of the tour, there was always the fear of mistakes being made, especially considering the complexity and larger-than-life show that Avantasia puts up. Let me assure you, however, that while there were a couple of errors with the lyrics (which would have gone unnoticed if it wasn’t for how much of a fanboy I am) and a couple of small timing errors, the show was almost perfect; if anything, these little issues just made the concert better, as they gave it a more intimate feeling than what you would get from a perfectly scripted performance.

            Special treats were performances, in their entirety, of “Sign of the Cross” and “Seven Angels”, two songs that up until now had always been combined in a medley used to close the show. The same happened with “Breaking Away” and “Farewell”, huge surprises and massive hits for the audience.

            As the show was drawing to a close, Tobias went into a little rant about how metal journalists had complained about how his introduction of the band took too long, adding that we can fuck ourselves if we think that, since it’s the band that allows Avantasia to happen. I agree. In my opinion, it is nice to see that despite the fact that Avantasia is Tobias’  baby (hell, the full name is Tobias Sammet’s Avantasia) he goes out of his way to give credit to the musicians that, in the end, make Avantasia possible, and it would be a huge mistake to expect him to act in any other way.

There are some perks to my job. Not pictured: My fanboy face.

            Frank Zappa said that rock journalism is “people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.” In a way, he was right. On the one hand we often make the mistake of expecting wisdom from every musician, forgetting that they’re just as dumb or smart as the rest of us are and, on the other, we act like royal assholes thinking that they owe us something, and gloat on the possibility of writing scathing reviews criticizing and ridiculing every small thing. In the movie Ratatouille (I know, I know, I’m all about citing deep philosophical works) there is this great quote which, mutatis mutandis,  perfectly applies to our brand of journalism:

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”

            Perhaps we should try to remember this.

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Day 2

Tired, and regretting the combination of fast food and Jagërmeister from the previous night, I was ready (and excited) to experience the second day of PPM.

I had big expectations for Behemoth. Having seen them play twice already, once at Neurotic Deathfestand once at Bloodstock Open Air, both in 2012, I knew that the Polish kings of Death Metal would put an awesome show. But before we got to that, there was still a lot to see.

I started my day with Rotting Christ, a band of which I became a fan back in 2007 after listening to the first notes of “The Sign of Prime Creation”. The band experienced big changes before the release of their latest album, “kata ton daimona eaytoy”, maintaining only the Tolis brothers as part of the band, and bringing along a couple of session musicians (although with the promise of maybe one day becoming a permanent part of the band). While the show was excellent, the fact that “The Sign of Prime Creation” was not included in the set hurt me.

The PPM 2013 offered many things, all of which deserve plenty of praise. Besides the obvious one, namely the great selection of bands, the organizers set up a great liaison office for the press, which was working constantly to make sure that we could do our job as easily and comfortably as possible; while this may sound like nothing special, the truth is that this is the only festival in which I have seen such a concern for the press. Also, they made sure that the fans were able to get a bit closer to the artists, setting up plenty of signing sessions with all of the most important bands, with the exception of Avantasia. 

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To me, the signing sessions also offered something more, which was to witness the wide array of styles and looks that the metal fans were sporting. On the one hand you had the pirates, who were here to watch Alestorm, the Caucasian middle eastern crowd waiting for Orphaned Land (keffiyehs, keffiyehs everywhere), the “I’m so evil I shit bats” kids, here to stick to their moms (trenchcoats, leather, fingerless gloves with spikes, etc.) and the ocassional girl who was really going out of her way to slut it up. 3) There were also a couple of furries, but I refuse to acknowledge those freaks’ existence.

I know that the above is going to sound chauvinistic (I think the expression is “slut shaming) but, then again, I could not give less of a fuck about that. The sexual distribution and behavior in the metal crowd is quite interesting. On the one hand, the presence of each gender is absolutely disproportionate, with a male presence that greatly surpasses that of the women; on the other hand, you also see an interesting phenomenon in terms of behavior (although this is, of course, far from universal). While men tend to go out of their way to look as “badass” as possible (most of the time failing miserably) acting in primitive ways to show their “masculinity” (farts and pissing in public… I’m sure every girl reading this is in need of new underwear at the mere thought of that) some girls will use metal concerts to, quite honestly, look as slutty as possible.

In the case of the men who act in this manner, the reason for their behavior might simply be an attempt to compensate a life in which they are at the bottom of the pile and part of a minority that is not exactly known for its popularity. If you are treated like an outcast or a nerd (and, let’s be honest, if you wear a trenchcoat and a tophat, especially indoors, you pretty much have it coming) then you crave for a place in which you can be the alpha male that you never managed to be. As for the girls’ behavior, I honestly don’t know; I even have friends that will openly admit that when they go to a metal concert they dress up in ways that they would never, ever, ever do in any other environment, because of how absolutely slutty (their words) they look.

While there is always the chance that a girl will dress in a revealing way to get the attention of the male crowd, they should be careful: True, as a girl in a metal concert the odds are good, but the goods are pretty odd.

But let’s get back to the bands.

Keffiyehs,Keffiyehs everywhere.
Keffiyehs,Keffiyehs everywhere.

Orphaned Land was just great (and so was my interview with Kobi, the lead singer) both because of the music and the stage show. The mixture of middle-eastern ethnic sounds, be it Jewish or Arabic, and different brands of metal rendered an unexpectedly good result. Their show, including the performance of a belly dancer from Lebanon, was also good for political reasons, as it showed the role of music in the world as a tool to bring harmony and peace.

Amaranthe presented an entertaining show that has been described as “Spice Girls meet Children of Bodom”, and which has even been stomped to death by some reviewers. Without going too much into their music (which I don’t like at all) and just as it happens in the case of Alestorm, it should be recognized that they are able to get the audience going. While I can’t, in good conscience, say that I am a fan, or even fond, of Amaranthe’s music, they did provide a good entertainment for the audience at the festival and, who knows, perhaps that’s the only thing that matters in the end.

No matter what festival I go to, Alestorm is always playing. I’m not sure if there’s a very expensive hooker/gambling/cocaine issue involved, but their tours really seem neverending. As I’ve said every time I’ve seen them, they basically play the same concert over and over, down to the jokes they use (although this time Christopher seems to have increased his repertoire a little a bit) which, in my opinion, comes off as boring. Having said this, however, it is undeniable that I seem to be in the minority on this point, since they sure as hell move the crowd, entertain people and sell a shitload of merchandise.

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This is the coolest kid in the fucking world.

As a huge fan of Stratovarius, I was very eager to see them. I had only seen them once before, opening for Helloween in the Netherlands back in 2011, and expected nothing short of a great show. While I was not disappointed with their performance (although they didn’t play Father Time or Forever which they should have) Kotipelto seemed tired and lacking some of the energy that made him famous. Then again, this man is 44 and it definitely shows. Now, don’t get me wrong; the show was by no means bad, but it simply lacked some of the energy that I have always associated with Stratovarius.

Behemoth is a band that I definitely admire. While I find the whole Satanism bullshit childish and annoying, to see the way in which Nergal got over his leukemia and continued with his passion for music is something truly inspiring (even if he has become a bit of a douche with his trailers for his book and crap like that). As a person whose father died of a cancer, it is always nice to see when some of those affected by this horrible disease are able to move forward.

Sadly, the audience did not seem to be as interested in Behemoth as I was. Although the name of the festival is Power, Progressive and Metal, perhaps too many of the people there were only interested in the first two genres, and were not at all interested in Behemoth. Although it is hard to tell due to his constant rage face, it seemed like Nergal was not very happy with the way the audience was reacting, something that might explain why there was no encore in the show. This, of course, is just my theory, so I could be completely wrong.

Having walked to the city center on the night before, this time we opted to call a taxi to take us to the hotel. After standing up all day, jumping and headbanging, the last thing you want to do is to walk a couple of kilometers at 1 in the morning.

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Day 3

Even though we were staying in a hotel, the truth is that by Sunday morning I was completely wrecked. My back was killing me, I was getting tired of sleeping in a tiny room with 2 other colleagues, spending all night waking each other up thanks to our snoring, and missing having meals that actually had some vegetables in them.

Still, the last days of a festival are always bittersweet. You want to leave… but not really.

Sunday had it all. From the power metal of Firewind to the progressive style of Queensryche and the folk/ethnic Myrath. All crowned, of course, with Gamma Ray and Helloween, the stars of the night.

Nightmare was a big surprise. While none of us were familiar with them, our minds were completely blown away by the quality of their music and their great stage presence. Firewind did the same, with Gus G, current guitarist for Ozzy, demonstrating why he was chosen as the replacement for the one and only Zakk Wylde.

My knowledge of Turisas was not too great, being mostly limited to their warpaint and pelts, as well as to a couple of songs (i.e. “Battle Metal” and “Holmgard and Beyond”). Although their show was as good as it can be expected, my attention was placed somewhere else: Standing in the front row was a girl who could barely hide her excitement to see the band, and who actually started crying out of happiness by the time the first song was over. It wasn’t just the fact that Turisas was not the type of band I’d associate with this type of reaction, but also that it was my first exposure to the kind of hysterics that you see in shitty glam-metal videos. Regardless, it was really beautiful to see someone so obviously happy and who enjoyed music so much.

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Unlike most people, Gamma Ray was my first exposure to “classic” power metal, and not Helloween. Even after I found out the history of these bands, Gamma Ray continued to have a special place in my heart, despite being generally seen as the “little brother” of Helloween, so, I was absolutely pumped to see them hit the stage, having seen them only once before, during the first part of the Hellish Rock Tour, back in 2008.

There is something about Kai Hansen that just makes him fucking amazing. The dude is 50 and yet has the overall demeanor of Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski (also known as “Jeff Bridges being Jeff Bridges”) and a constant appearance of not giving any fucks about what’s going on around him. So it wasn’t surprising to see that he’s on stage smoking and keeping a glass of beer on his mic stand. Why? Because that’s just what Kai can fucking do.

While Gamma Ray‘s setlist focused mostly on Skeletons and Majesties, meaning that songs like “Gardens of the Sinner”, “Heaven Can Wait”, “The Silence” or “Tribute to the Past” were omitted, the concert still packs enough energy to make everyone scream, jump and sing.

Although the metal world tends to be free of gossip, the Queensryche trainwreck is not really a secret. Even though Geoff Tate seems to be so absolutely batshit insane and completely self-centered that nobody would really question his band members telling him to go fuck himself with a cactus, the breakup of a band with such a long history was sure to gather a lot of attention. Because of this, the performance of this incarnation of the band, fronted by Todd LaTorre, generated a lot of interest.

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Not a single fuck was given that day.

While some Queensryche fans might have been, understandably, skeptic of LaTorre‘s qualifications to fill the shoes of Tate (just like they were skeptic when he was selected to front Crimson Glory, as the replacement for Midnight) they can rest assured that the band is in good hands. It’s not that they are able to do “just as well” as when Tate was involved, but that they can actually go ahead and surpass that.

The festival closed with the one and only Helloween, and the show was just as good as you’d expect. Helloween is one of those bands that simply can’t do any wrong, and would actually require a conscious effort to fuck up. The set was comprised of a wide selection of hits which, although focused on “Straight Out of Hell”, the latest album, managed to showcase the whole of the band’s career.

Of course, the highest point came at the end, when Gamma Ray and Helloween met on stage and performed a medley of Halloween, How Many Tears and Heavy Metal (Is The Law), followed by a joint rendition of “I Want Out”.

As the Germans abandoned the stage I looked around me and saw the faces of my fellow metalheads. We all looked tired as hell, and even more so at the perspective of having to go to work or school in the morning, knowing quite well that many would make some bullshit excuse to skip it altogether.

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Turisas and the PPM team.
…And me. (Photo: Pierre Bauduin)

I left the festival with the bittersweet sentiments that usually accompany my summer pilgrimages. Happy to go back to a normal bed, a normal diet and a normal toilet, but sad to see that I had to abandon my little microcosm and go back to my normal life. It had been three days of exhaustion, of running around between the photo pit, the press area, the concert hall, the hotel, the bus, the train; three days of meeting a hundred different faces, some of whom I’d never see again, and of paying obscene roaming charges to arrange interviews and make sure everything was on track.

But, fuck it, it was three days of metal, three days of emotion, three days of passion and love for these, my people. And I loved every fucking minute of it.

Mons, see you next year!

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References   [ + ]

1. It should be noted that, sadly, this situation is slowly changing. Reports of attacks (yes, ATTACKS) against members of the “alternative community”, whatever the hell that is, are increasing all across Europe. While the case of Sophie Lancaster and her boyfriend is perhaps the best known, it was hardly an isolated case.
2. It is safe to say that the chances of me having any ancestor who actually worshipped nordic gods are akin to those of me shooting butterflies and rainbows out of my ass
3. There were also a couple of furries, but I refuse to acknowledge those freaks’ existence.