Tips For Exploring The European Metal Festival Circuit
Europeans love their metal, that's for sure. Over the Northern Hemisphere summer months, there are over sixty metal festivals staged - most of them open air, multi-day and multi-stage. That's a lot of bands, beer, dodgy kebabs, and horns in the air! Forget "this band is better than that band" or "that genre sucks" or "those people are posers" - at a metal festival, everyone is your metal brother (or sister) and as long as the music is loud, pretty much anything goes.
Increasing numbers of metalheads from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other parts of the globe are making the trek to the old continent every year to be part of the experience. But with so many festivals to choose from, which ones should you go to?
Obviously everyone has different tastes, but here's some pointers from a four-year veteran that might help you plan the metal trip of a lifetime.
Everybody Needs Somebody
I truly believe that enjoyment of a metal festival comes down to about one quarter the bands, one quarter the location, organization and facilities, and one half the people that you hang out with. If you've got a great group of mates, you'll have fun no matter where you go. In my experience, the more people you have in your group the more fun you can have.
If you don't know any people going to the same festival as you, it's time to meet some! Metalheads in Europe tend to be very friendly when it comes to their own - we met people at a Hamburg nightclub "warm up" party for Wacken in 2008 that we've camped with every year since, and more people have joined our entourage each year. Go to the bar with your favorite metal t-shirt on and don't be shy - chances are you'll meet people with the same tastes as you before too long. If the festival web site has online forums, you might be able to meet people there. We always put an Australian flag up at our campground - and we've met some great people who've seen that and come up to talk to us - and not only Australians either.
The All-Important Line-Up
It goes without saying that this is a very important factor and probably the first that most people consider. The larger festivals tend to cater to a wide variety of genres but many of the smaller festivals will be dedicated to one style or scene. For example, Wacken is the great-granddaddy of all metal festivals, and the line-up in recent years has included big popular names like Ozzy Osbourne, Motorhead, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and other quite mainstream headliners. But go to a small festival like Deathfeast (death metal), Hell's Pleasure (mostly black and death metal), or Headbanger's Open Air (thrash and NWOBHM), and you're more likely to find obscure, up-and-coming, retro and underground acts.
There is definitely a festival "circuit" and it's not uncommon to see the same bands in multiple line-ups. For example in 2010 I saw Cannibal Corpse play the same set (with the same between-song banter and with Corpsegrinder even wearing the same t-shirt) at no fewer than three festivals. As a fan of the band, it was fantastic every time! If there's a band that you adore, you might want to follow them around from event to event - but conversely, compare the line-ups of several festivals and you might find that with the same bands at each, there's little point going to all of them.
The other problem with relying too much on line-ups is that inevitably, there will be scheduling clashes with bands you really want to see. At Hellfest this year, a lot of people complained about the reunited Coroner being on at the same time as thrash legends Bolt Thrower. Recognizing this, the festival organizers made a last minute change – so that Coroner was on at the same time as Tom G. Warrior’s Triptykon. Pitting two such legendary acts – and countrymen - against each other was a far worse clash in my estimation. I ended up watching about half of Coroner’s set, which I thought was a actually a bit flat, and then dashing over to see the end of Triptykon, which was amazing.
Size and Facilities
It's kind of stating the obvious, but the difference between a festival with 70,000 people and one with 1,000 goes well beyond the number of people you have to fight past to get to the front of the stage. The facilities at the grounds - from the number and quality of toilets to the range of food, beer and merch available - will be more limited at a smaller festival. Having said that, I actually prefer the smaller events. Wacken is amazing and something that has to be seen to be believed, but after four years in a row they would have to put on an amazing line-up to get me back there battling for position in those crowds again. Luckily, festivals come in a range of sizes to suit everyone.
There's also the issue of how well-organized the event is. The Germans have a reputation for running everything with ruthless military precision and I've seen this borne out again and again - bands play on time, the toilets are regularly cleaned, there's enough beer and food for everyone, security staff are friendly and efficient at getting people through the checkpoints. That's not to say all German festivals will be as well-run. In general, it's a good idea to read people's comments on various forums and message boards to see what they say about the event. For example, I was considering Brutal Assault in the Czech Republic in 2008, but decided against it when I read about some problems with theft due to the campground not being inside a secure area for ticket-holders only. I would still like to go to this festival at some time in the future, but will check what other people have said about it carefully beforehand.
For multi-day events you'll need to think about accommodation. The bulk of punters will camp in the facilities provided. Many people say that the campground party is part of the festival experience, but it's not for everyone. As a New Zealand writer I know put it - don't go camping at Wacken if you value hygiene or sleep!
If camping doesn't suit your constitution, there are often other options. You might consider hiring a campervan, caravan or bus, which is a bit more expensive but can be great if you're traveling in a group, especially to multiple events - plus you still get to take part in the campground shenanigans. Hotels may be available in the nearest town - but will need to be booked well in advance and it's a good idea to check what the transport options are like. If the festival ground is not walking distance, larger festivals might have a shuttle bus, or there may be a local bus service that can get you back and forth.
While the vast majority of festivals are held in Germany, there are also events in other European countries. Hellfest in France, MetalCamp in Slovenia, Brutal Assault in the Czech Republic, Roadburn in The Netherlands, Bloodstock in the UK, Tuska Open Air in Finland - and that's just some of the better-known ones. New festivals are popping up all the time.
When you're planning your trip, not only take into account how far the festivals are apart and how long it will take you to travel from one to the next, but factor in time for metal mayhem between festivals as well. There are lots of opportunities in the lead up to each festival as well as in the days following - in the days surrounding Wacken, the St Pauli district of Hamburg is full of long-haired, black-clad visitors, for example, and local bars are more than happy to cater to them. Some of the bands (especially the smaller bands) might play club shows in between festivals too, and it's worth checking Metal Travel Guide to find metal-friendly venues in places that you're going to visit.
With location comes weather. Europeans summers are generally mild but can be quite rainy, but of course it varies by location. Metalcamp in Slovenia has a reputation for very hot weather over the entire festival, which is offset by the fact that the campground is next to a gorgeous river and the bands are only on after dark (Metalcamp is on my “must-attend” list for 2012). In 2010, I went to Party.San in central Germany and it rained fairly solidly for three days straight, turning the entire festival ground into an ocean of mud. Foul weather didn't stop me enjoying an awesome line-up of black metal and death metal, including one of the first shows for the reunited Autopsy and a rare Sarke live show, but it did make camping a rather trying experience. Summer Breeze, in southern Germany, tends to have warmer and drier weather (this year the weather was almost perfect, save for an early morning thunderstorm with winds that destroyed our camp’s gazebo). Some of the Scandinavian festivals might be very cold indeed, especially if they're held early in the year. It pays to do some research and pack accordingly.
Don't Overdo It!
If you're traveling a long way just for the metal, attending just one festival seems like a bit of a waste. With so many festivals over just a couple of months in such close proximity, it's tempting to go for broke and cram as much metal into your trip as you possibly can.
That's an admirable goal, but you need to be aware of "festival burnout" - having done three camping festivals in three weeks two years running, I can attest that this is a real and serious condition. Junk food, an excess of beer, and no sleep takes its toll on your body and there is nothing worse than getting sick on holiday. At Hellfest this year, I was too ill to watch Ghost, and while I got the opportunity to make up for that at Wacken, I still would rather have seen the band twice than lie in my tent with a stuffed up head. Having a weekend off between festivals is a good idea for your sanity and your health.
The Last Word
Metal festivals are cool because metalheads are generally very chilled out people. Planning ahead is important, but sometimes you have to just go with the flow - it's all part of the adventure.
In 2011 alone I got to see Sal Abruscato’s A Pale Horse Named Death play their first festival set to the largest crowd they'd ever played in front of (and totally win the audience over), the enigma that is Ghost (a band that seemingly only plays after midnight), and the last ever show for God Dethroned. I found out first hand that Kvelertak are worthy of the hype they've been given and more, and that The Ocean and Obscura are both excellent live bands. I found out what Ski’s Country Trash was all about. I headbanged along with Vader, Malevolent Creation, Decapitated, and Krisiun.
I bore witness to the brilliance of Judas Priest in front of 60,000 adoring fans not once but twice on their final Epitaph tour, and on the other end of the scale, I watched a German Bon Scott-era AC/DC tribute band get a tiny crowd of punters almost universally head-banging and singing along on a sunny afternoon. I wouldn't trade these experiences for anything.
See you somewhere in Europe next summer – I’ll be the one down the front in the black t-shirt.
Kay Smoljak is an Aussie photographer, geek, metalhead and goat aficioado who is currently hiding out in Berlin. She blogs sometimes at enter the goatlady.
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