Fortarock 2019 Review

The BeNeLux aren’t exactly what you’d call a warm-and-dry area. On the contrary; it often feels like not a week goes by without at least some rain. Because of this, open air festivals are always a bit of gamble, since you never know whether you’ll manage to stay dry throughout the whole thing.

As luck would have it, most of the 2019 edition of Fortarock managed to stay free of rain… although at the cost of a relentless, blistering heat.

One of the good things about Fortarock is that it actually takes place within the city. This means that it is very well connected through public transport, so that you don’t need to just rely special shuttles or hitchhiking. This allowed me to go from the Nijmegen central station to Fortarock simply by taking a regular bus line, and then walking just a few minutes until the festival gates.

As soon as I got my accreditation credentials sorted out, I made my way to see Enslaved, who were playing at the tent stage. As soon as I made it to the tent I realized that there have been some pretty noticeable improvements since last year, particularly in the sound and lighting there. Lighting of small stages is often overlooked by organizers, so it was fantastic to see that Fortarock didn’t make that mistake.

Because of how hot it was outside, as well as how many people were inside, the whole tent felt like a sauna, with my shirt immediately feeling glued to my body because of the humidity. It must not have been easy for Enslaved to deliver such an energetic performance with this temperature and humidity, but they still managed to do it flawlessly. It was my first time seeing them live, and I sincerely hope it won’t be the last.

Speaking of defying tough conditions, Myrkur certainly demonstrated her strength by braving the hot day while being halfway through her pregnancy (a feat she couldn’t repeat at Hellfest, where it was simply too much!). Her performance was as poignant as always, showing exactly why she has achieved such commercial and critical acclaim. The mixture of her voice with the doom and black metal instrumentation is out of this world, and she certainly managed to make her presence known.

As a big fan of stoner music, I was pretty happy to finally see Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, a band that in just a decade has become a true staple of the stoner genre. The tent stage was very hot, and so I watched most of the show from a distance after shooting the band, avoiding the excessive moisture that seemed to cover everything in there. This isn’t a criticism to Fortarock, since there’s nothing that can actually be done to prevent this from happening, short of sealing the tents and installing prohibitively expensive A/C systems, an obvious impossibility.

Although I’m well aware of the fact that Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats aren’t really meant to be seen while fully sober, I still managed to enjoy their show despite my absolute sobriety.

I first discovered Amorphis when they were opening for Children of Bodom about a decade ago, and have seen them countless of times since then. Still, I was pretty excited to see them once again. Since Tomi Joutsen joined them back in 2005 they have been able to develop their own style of metal, heavily influenced not only by Nordic mythology, but also by other musical genres. As demonstrated in Queen of Time, their latest album, they remain very much interested in continuing to develop their sound in new ways, even at the expense of alienating the most hardcore purists (as Opeth have certainly experienced).

Aware of how many changes their music has gone through, the band really seemed to try to highlight their musical evolution. Mixing in classics like Silver Bride and House of Sleep, next to newer tracks like The Bee, Amorphis definitely tried to satisfy everyone.

I went to check out Cult of Luna not really knowing much about them. Although their reputation certainly precedes them, their own flavor of sludge and doom was not something that I felt particularly interested in. Because of this, after shooting them and checking out a couple of songs (which, to be frank, left me pleasantly surprised), I took off to get something to eat.

I had to use the time to get something to eat and, especially, to get some much-needed water. Covering festivals always involves the difficulty of carrying your gear around, no matter how hot everything is, so pretty soon you find yourself drenched in sweat, wondering if you’re inadvertently damaging everything you own.

After getting some much needed hydration and resting in the shade for a bit, I went back to the main stage to catch Children of Bodom. Promoting their new album Hexed, CoB are back on the festival circuit (last year I encountered them at Hellfest and Into the Grave) to the great pleasure of their fans.

Although CoB definitely seem to cater to a younger audience (their message of “fuck you mom and dad” certainly resonates more with teenagers than with adults) none of that takes anything away from their skills. Plus, few things work as well as “In Your Face” to get an audience going, and Children of Bodom know it. It only took a hint of the opening riff to bring the house down, as moshpits opened up and crowdsurfers got ready for the flight of their life.

Originally featuring Michael Akerfeldt at the helm, nowadays replaced by no other than Nick Holmes, Bloodbath are nothing if not legendary. Featuring musicians from bands like Katatonia, Paradise Lost, and Opeth, Bloodbath is a true labor of love by musicians that, surely, don’t exactly need to be doing it. It’s perhaps that freedom, the knowledge that their main bands are always there if they need them, that gives them the opportunity to explore this much darker and heavier side. Covering yourself in blood (whether fake or not) and performing under insane alter egos is something that very few people are able to pull off (particularly in the heat of a tent) but Bloodbath do it very well.

Despite loving the show as a fan, I hated it as a photographer. The light tech relied so much on red lights and smoke that, in the end, it was a pretty tough show to shoot adequately… and the results make this evident.

The closing of the first night of Fortarock was given to Behemoth a band that, honestly, are always a great pick to headline a festival. Nergal and Co. have definitely struck gold by putting more emphasis in the visual aspects of the band, following the interest that bands like Watain and (to an extent) Ghost, have created for this type of material. The exploitation of that style really works well for live shows, making Behemoth an extremely entertaining band to watch. Of course, it’s not just about the visuals, as there’s very little to complain about their musical output. On the contrary, they’ve become a very well-oiled machine, and their shows are nothing if not a constant demonstration of technical prowess.

Drenched in sweat, and still feeling the heat from Behemoth‘s pyros, I finally called it a day.

Sunday

Still a bit tired from the previous day, I made it to Fortarock just in time to catch Gloryhammer hitting the main stage. Having just released one of the best power metal albums I’ve heard in a while (which I had been listening to non-stop already, as one of the perks of getting advanced promos) I knew that I couldn’t possibly miss them,

Gloryhammer are not a band that shies away from being corny and cheesy. On the contrary, they embraced those traits and pushed them all the way up. having come up with the a crazy fantasy story that would make a D&D player blush, they do their best to act out the whole thing (as much as space and props allow) and to interact with the audience. Their show is a true party and, honestly, you should not miss the opportunity to join if you ever have a chance.

Continuing to demonstrate that Poland is producing some of the best artists out there, Decapitated unleashed a relentless death metal attack upon the tent stage. Rasta Piotrowski is a terrific frontman, and he really put up a great show that just exuded energy.

I was really waiting to see Kadavar. I’ve been following them since their first release and, goddamn, they keep getting better and better. The band’s whole dynamic is completely unique, placing the drums front and center in their show, sharing the spotlight between all the members. Tiger and Dragon are excellent at driving forward the heart of the band, keeping the rhythm going, while Lupus drives the melodies and the vocals. It’s pretty clear that I simply can’t get tired of seeing Kadavar perform, so I’m really happy that Fortarock included them in their lineup this year.

It seems like most fascinating artists are coming out of there, be it visual artists like the late Beksinski or Zbyszek Bielak, or bands like Batushka. There was so much buzz around these guys that I knew that I had to make it to the tent to see them perform.

Full disclosure: This is not Krzysztof Drabikowski‘s Batushka but, instead, the version of Batushka that was started by Bartomiej Krysiuk. As far as I know, the IP dispute about the band’s name and music continues to make its way through the Polish courts, although that doesn’t seem to get in the way of Krysiuk‘s Batushka releasing a new album through Metal Blade… meanwhile, Krzysztof‘s Batushka has independently released an album on BandCamp.

It’s a clusterfuck.

Legal issues notwithstanding, the imagery of Batushka is really mindblowing. As the band slowly sets up the stage to mimic an Eastern orthodox church, more and more details start to become evident. With defaced icons, symbols of death and suffering scattered everywhere, the stage seems ready to hold the ultimate black mass. Of course, they’re not just visually interesting, as they deliver their music (taken from their new album, Hospodi) with full force.

A fantastic and unexpected addition to Fortarock that, without a doubt, was well worth the heat of that tent (which I really don’t know how they managed inside of their costumes).

Back on the main stage, the other big American prog band was taking the stage. Symphony X were ready to prove that technical prowess can survive even under a burning sun and intolerable heat. Michael Romeo once again demonstrated his explosive abilities on the guitar, while Russell Allen delivered his vocals flawlessly (despite chugging down at least one bottle of whiskey through his performance).

Jonas Renkse stuck around after his fantastic show with Bloodbath the day prior, performing on the second day with his very own Katatonia. Despite the music being quite dark and melancholy, Jonas is always happy to engage in some funny banter with the audience, as well as some good old fashion self deprecation. That contrast really makes Katatonia shows really fun to attend, and Fortarock was no exception.

As if Gloryhammer hadn’t been enough in the power metal department, it was now Hammerfall‘s turn on the main stage. No matter how many times I see these Swedes, I can never get enough of “The Dragon Lies Bleeding” or “Let the Hammer Fall”, so I was happy to see them deliver on those fronts.

After taking my photos, I went under a nearby tree and watched the show from afar. I needed a break!

I came to the Animals As Leaders show really not knowing anything about them. Based on their name alone, I had expected a metalcore Band. Instead, I was pleased to see that I was completely wrong in my expectations, as I was welcomed by a fantastic progressive metal performance.

It’s always great to discover new music, and AAL‘s was really like that for me. I had expected to shoot just three songs and go get a drink, but instead I stuck around and was just blown away by their talents.

The duty of closing down the festival was bestowed upon Amon Amarth. Riding high on the success of their new album Berserker, and featuring some cool stage props, Amon Amarth were clearly ready to unleash their viking raid upon Nijmegen.

As the concert continued, an unexpected storm unleashed over the city. For the most part, the crowd didn’t care, being more than willing to withstand the rain while headbanging to Amon Amarth. As the storm worsened, however, the police made the decision to pull the plug, as the possibility of lightning strikes was too high.

With the god of thunder himself having closed their show (after performing only 12 songs), it was very clear that Amon Amarth had earned their position as headliners.

It’s very clear that Fortarock continues to improve and to establish itself as an important European heavy metal event. I can only hope that the next edition will be even better. Because you can bet your ass I’ll be there.

 

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