Metalcamp 2012: An American's Odyssey Into A European "Hell Over Paradise" - Part I
Band Photo: Testament (?)
6:00am. YOU’VE KNOCKED A SCREW LOOSE, a taunting Protestant voice rattles my inner skull in a booze-muddled echo as I lope across a bed of sharp stones and plunge into the frigid river just this side of bare-assed.
The full immersion drowns that pesky voice mid-sentence. Eyes open under water; I find peaceful seclusion for a few precious, bone-chilling seconds.
Confirming the diagnosis as I breach the surface and hoist myself to my feet, waist-deep, skin already tightening from the abrupt system shock, a guy on the beach mutters something to his friend, shoots me a strange glare – did I somehow manage to insult his mom? – and twirls his finger near his temple. Yep.
Whatever. I reinforce the diagnosis and thrust double horns skyward, hoping to give the appearance of a calculated, decisive, tough, metal-inspired action and not the clumsy result of a dare, drowned brain cells, and a liquid blanket.
In either case, this is Metalcamp, and what happens at Metalcamp… gets reproduced (and photographed) on Metalunderground.com.
SUNDAY 8/5 – SIX DAYS AGO
4:00pm. Carsickness looms as I struggle to admire the dizzying, vertical alpine landscape from the backseat and my fearless colleague Kay Smoljak – a.k.a. “goatlady” – negotiates an endless string of descending hairpin turns.
We’re settling into Slovenia’s Upper Soca Valley, nearing Tolmin, its largest settlement – though size can be relative around here – and the playground for the week’s festivities. With enough scenery digested on top of my lunch, I mercifully pass out.
8:00pm. Campground #3. Three tents, pitched in strategic formation around our temporary gazebo, in spots where (we hope) the polyester canopy will shield tomorrow morning’s sun.
I’m outnumbered two to one; the Australian flag flies freely from a crossbeam, for Kay and our other campmate Alex Hall – “Lexy.” Two Aussie expats living in Poland and Germany, respectively, the girls met on the summer festival circuit (was it Wacken?). The very phrase sounds foreign to my Yank ears, at least when associated with metal.
I briefly wish I had a Stars & Stripes to fly, but then think better of it. Upon stating my origins, I’ve already received tongue-in-cheek condolences and seemingly sincere questions about how many firearms I own (thanks to one orange-haired human cockroach, guns are in the news again).
In an age where even the amount of toilet paper one uses to wipe his ass is a political issue, I decide it best not to rock the boat.
And in the metal sphere, what do I have to brag about? The watered-down, Jersey Shored-up Mayhem Fest? The twitching corpse of Ozzfest? Good grief, I’m about as rookie as they come, and a long way from home.
We’ve given ourselves a quick and dirty tour of our surroundings, including a tentative dip in the 40-something degree Soca River (I’ve given up trying to make sense of the very sensible Celsius system, but at least everyone agrees: “the water’s fucking cold”).
We’re on a stretch of land between the Soca and the nearby Tolminka, and before us lies a narrower, partially wooded peninsula, at the tip of which the two rivers converge. Starting tomorrow, this site will host five straight evenings of live metal on two stages. Tonight, though, in Kay’s words, is reserved for “drinking, smoking, screwing, and just finding your way around.”
Makes sense. However, we settle for a cooked dinner and fireside chat, minus the fire – unless our very convenient portable gas stove counts. The rental car is stuffed to the gills with supplies, in accordance with Kay’s festival-seasoned wisdom: “It’s hard to last a whole week on pizza and kebabs.”
I return from an outhouse jaunt to find a random, inebriated Austrian has claimed my lawn chair, but his slurred, repeated commentary on our side of refried beans – “It looks like food for the dog. It looks like shit” – fails to faze me. It’s been a long day, I’ve lost a couple pounds in perspiration, and I’m going to eat with or without a seat.
The incessant hollering, cheering, and singing from the neighboring Austrian camp provides some entertainment. The spontaneous drinking anthems have already started. From somewhere nearby – portable speakers, a car stereo – Eluveitie’s “Slania” album makes for a folky mead-chugging soundtrack.
1:00pm. BEER. Mountains of cases, cases, and cases of beer, all around me. Everyone’s first errand at the modest supermarket (why do people call it that when there’s nothing “super” about it, size-wise?), and the cashiers are breaking their backs with a smile. Annually since 2004, Tolmin’s population of 3,000 quadruples for nearly a full week – a boon to this establishment in particular. We stock up.
Mainly Laško, the festival favorite, named for the town that’s home to Slovenia’s largest brewery. I notice a lot of people calling it one of the two “local” beers (along with the tasty Union). In a country of barely two million, most things are “local,” I suppose.
I snag four cans – no glass allowed on the festival grounds, lest the inevitable cleanup crew has a means to slit its collective wrists over the destructive inconsideration of others – of some stronger, dark ale whose brand name I barely register.
Brief memory flash of planning this trip, already a lifetime ago, during which I must’ve quietly assumed I could participate in everything but the drinking. The eight dry months under my belt kept me clinging to that assumption throughout the six-hour transatlantic crossing, the restless seven-hour layover in Frankfurt, and the final puddle jump to the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana. I arrived in a weary daze at approximately “fuck this shit o’ clock.”
5:30pm. Backstage entrance. Every map I’ve consulted, every person I’ve asked, has offered me a different tentative location of the vaguely defined “press area,” or “press tent” – no one seems to know.
Granted, putting on such a festival is a monumental task, and organizational kinks are inevitable on the first official day, so I’m not about to hold it against the security guy who now tells me that my blue “press” wristband – along with the green pass around my neck – is not adequate clearance to the backstage area… where, in the same breath, I’m told the press tent resides. I scratch my head.
6:00pm. Getting in some exercise, growing slick with sweat, and killing a nice buzz as I power-walk the half-mile (my head is still an English System haven) back down the narrow service road, toward the backstage entrance yet again.
Another consultation at the media and VIP check-in kiosk, and a brief (but civil) haggling session with the Gate Lady, has awarded me a coveted white AAA – Access All Areas – wristband. Not sure if I’m meant to have it, or if they were right to give it to me, but hey, I didn’t exactly ASK for it… it went something like, “If the press tent is back there, and that’s where I should be, what do I need to gain access?” I’m just stumbling my way through this learning curve.
Reminds me of my favorite quote about Hollywood, from writer William Goldman: “Nobody knows anything.”
I’m missing Gorguts. If not for thick groves of trees lining the gentle downward slope to my right – there is very little flat land in these parts – I could see them tearing it up on the main stage as I descend from my elevated perch. Alas, I can only listen as I hustle up.
6:15pm. Gorguts have wrapped. I try the backstage entrance again, and this time, the bracelet gets me through. Now what? A few white tents, lined up in a row on the grass beside a narrow blacktop. The rear of the stage, the dark side of the moon to most festivalgoers. A cluster of vehicles. Not many people.
What, and where, exactly is this press tent, and what do I even do there? Did I miss an important email briefing me, or am I missing out on some taken-for-granted European festival truth?
I can feel my journalist’s compulsion to plan, schedule, and organize – easy by comparison in my normal small-club-going American life – starting to erode already.
I wander into a tent exhibiting signs of life. Snacks, sodas, bottled water. A (sort of) bar, with a single beer tap. I want one. I need some fluids back. I ask for one; it’s poured and plunked before me. I ask how much I owe, fishing absentmindedly in my pocket for a few Euros.
Aha. Now, how do I get comfortably used to this without taking advantage of it like a freeloading sonofabitch?
6:30pm. Sanctuary on the main stage. They’re the first band whose set I’ve watched front to back – not a bad start. After last year’s implosion of Nevermore, it’s slightly disorienting to see frontman Warrel Dane with the resurrected band that originally launched his career, but change must happen. At least everyone looks happy to be playing music, and Sanctuary DID write some great songs.
The sun is descending to our west behind the trees, but it’s still hot as balls, and I’m skeptical about Warrel. Clad in black from head to toe – longs and longs – he’s spending a ton of energy. But no, the guy is a machine, and stays upright. Aside from a few seated moments atop an amp while singing, he betrays no signs of exhaustion.
6:30pm. Sanctuary just wrapped. I slip past a growing crowd of photographers gearing up to shoot Napalm Death – Kay’s in there somewhere – through the narrow gate, and into the backstage lot. I encounter bassist Jim Sheppard (also a Nevermore veteran); we shoot the breeze for a couple minutes. A pretty relaxed, humble guy.
I explain that I interviewed Warrel a couple years back during one of Nevermore’s last North American tours (for a different website) and wanted to say hello. Jim points me in the right direction, and I wind up directly behind the stage at a small row of picnic tables.
Guitarist Lenny Rutledge is there with his girlfriend Kendra. We say our hellos, and I look down at the prostrate figure beneath me, perched on the edge of the picnic seat, hunched over in severe discomfort.
Warrel lifts his head. Face white as a sheet, wheezing for breath, barely able to utter a word. Kendra keeps trying to shove a glass of ice water his way, explaining his near-brush with heatstroke.
I head to the “bar” and replenish his water, return, sit down, and slide it across the table. Warrel nods. Before he gets a chance to sip, he retches, head dropping between his legs, christening the ground with the first glass of water and whatever he had for lunch.
That could’ve been me yesterday in the car, I think. As Warrel pulls himself together, someone walks by, a little too close to the christened ground. “Don’t, don’t, don’t! You’ll step in it!” he wails.
“You’re literally suffering for your art,” I tell him. “You’re bleeding for rock and roll.” He laughs. He’s not so sure about his performance. I shake my head. “You pretty much fooled me,” I add, “But I noticed you did have to sit down a couple times.”
“Nah, I just did that to be dramatic,” he shrugs. “Man. Wearing all black was pretty stupid, wasn’t it?”
He remembers our previous interview, which is cool. We pick up where we left off on a couple topics – artificial intelligence, the mad scientists working feverishly to give machines cognizance, and mankind’s future state of fucked-ness if some of this stuff comes to fruition – uplifting, vintage Dane – but take an inevitable cinematic detour when “Prometheus” comes up. I get a thumbs-up recommendation for “We Need To Talk About Kevin.”
I’m surprised at myself. Napalm Death is playing the main stage, we can hear them, I’m a fan, and somehow don’t feel moved to leap up and properly catch the set. That’s a thing with festivals, I’m noticing – there’s so much metal in the air, the ambience, that you soak it up through all five senses whether or not you’re actually watching a band perform.
9:00pm. Testament is on soon, and I still haven’t discerned my purpose back here. I see other green press passes floating about, so clearly I’m not alone, but it feels like I’m missing something…
Then again, am I taking this too seriously? Like the insufferable asshole at the front of the classroom that, on Friday afternoon, insists on reminding the teacher she didn’t assign any homework?
Whatever. I need to catch some live music; that’s the whole damn point anyway. A quick nod to Chuck Billy and a brief introduction to Alex Skolnick – neither of whom I’ve met – and an in-person hello to Eric Peterson (I interviewed him on the phone last fall), and I slip back through the gate, around the stage, and into the crowd proper.
9:30pm. Testament is crushing it. “Dark Roots Of Earth” finally surfaced barely a week ago, and I like their devotion to their new material. The title track, “Rise Up,” “Native Blood,” and “True American Hate” sound monstrous.
I don’t have “pet” peeves (that suggests they are few, and I am not a content person by disposition), just peeves, and one of them is the typical “80s” metal band that makes every setlist a celebration of proven “classic” material, by and large (in the meantime, they’ll release a new album, it’ll be well-received, fans will say “Oh, that’s cute,” and then go back to worshipping the safe old stuff). Fuck that, and Testament does. They’ve proven themselves timeless – a perpetually MODERN METAL BAND.
They skip over “Demonic,” “Low,” and “The Ritual” completely, which is too bad, because as terrific as that 1987-1990 song selection is, I’m always up for a few curveballs. They do keep their “current” vibe alive, though, with “More Than Meets The Eye” and “The Formation Of Damnation.”
Possible Top Ten Metal Moments Ever contender: stage is vacant, darkened, pre-encore, “We want more” chanting, et cetera. Crew rolls in two identical signs on either side of Gene Hoglan’s kit: “FREE RANDY.” The band’s been touring with them, obviously, as Lamb Of God frontman Randy Blythe rotted the summer away in a Czech jail on dubious manslaughter charges bolstered by ethically questionable bail shenanigans. But now… he’s out. Are these signs still relevant?
Testament emerges again, to a haunting – and familiar – backing track. A synthesized, hair-raising crescendo. Chuck grips his air-shredding mic half-stand and looses a guttural, booming bellow: “RANDY’S FREE!!!” Enter “D.N.R. (Do Not Resuscitate).” Chills.
11:00pm. Machine Fucking Head. What can I say – I love these guys. Another band with a lengthy legacy that’s managed to stay current and relevant, and isn’t afraid to press forward with new stuff. Enough has been written about their daunting live shows to fill a Bible, but I should say that not only is “Unto The Locust” their best album – this is a fact – but its songs translate better to a live performance than anyone expected, better than they even deserve to.
“This is the time to let it all out,” frontman Robb Flynn informs us. “Every ounce of pain, anger, sadness, heartache, and loss – to sing and scream it all away, here together, with this music, with this song. We’re here because we love music.” Of course, that song is “Darkness Within.” More chills.
Robb has his dates mixed up. He repeatedly congratulates us for turning up and rocking out after partying for five straight days of metal. “Dude, this is Day One!” some of us holler, holding up index fingers. I don’t think he hears. In the end, I don’t think anyone cares. Why should we?
1:00am. I shortcut my way through the backstage lot to a woodsy grove containing a carnival-worthy row of miscellaneous merch tents – the “Metal Market” – some food and beer stands – the “Heaven & Hell Grill” – and the quaint second stage.
Turns out I JUST missed Dark Funeral. Can’t catch ‘em all, but still… it’d be nice to have the energy and stamina to hop around and see every band in a timely fashion.
Then again, the world would also be a far better place if shit smelled nice. Some things you just have to accept.
I don’t know any Krampus songs, but their folky-metal sound is familiar enough, and I can hear them finishing the evening over yonder. I can tell the main stage crowd has thinned after Machine Head – streams of metalheads are making their way through the market and down the narrow path to the beach – and I imagine it must feel strange to close out the show AFTER the advertised “headliner,” as a buffer act to an imminent late night of partying. Which reminds me…
1:30am. Ah, the fabled Beach Bar. THIS is what everyone’s been talking about. Another row of concessions – food, booze, coupons (no cash accepted on the festival grounds) – and an airy, roofed wooden deck, ringing the narrow curve of steep land jutting up from the meeting of the Tolminka and Soca Rivers. A gravelly, pebbly stretch of beach laid out before all this. Beyond that, blackness. Must look prettier in the daytime. I doubt it’s this packed and rowdy, though, even with all the swimming.
I suspect that for crowds, strippers beat swimming every time.
At the “Beach Bar Stage,” a tiny square 10x10 platform dressed up like a miniature of the real thing, speakers and all, and a DJ on hand for 24/7 metal. It’s not every day you see porcelain-doll blondes disrobing and dancing erotically to Slayer songs, so I might as well… take it in.
Everyone has his limits, and I reach mine when I realize I’m smack in the middle of a man-crush – a frequent natural occurrence at dance clubs when a glut of douchey dudes, each certain his moves will get him magically laid, wind up occupying the same square foot of floor before anyone detects an absence of estrogen.
4-something-or-rather-am. Not sure how all that time flew by. I remember ordering beers with a random Finn who, he casually mentioned, happened to be Mathias “Vreth” Lillmåns of Finntroll (never seen them live). They perform tomorrow, so he’s partying tonight. I like this kind of camouflaged mingling.
I remember Cody, a stocky but soft-spoken New Yorker (meeting an American is a rare event here) bearing a suspicious resemblance to Mikael Akerfeldt of Opeth, and Sam, an English underground music promoter in full-on “pub mode” that slipped me a promo CD (of course) amid giant swigs.
The most interesting, and sharply defined in my hazy brain, encounter was with Marta, a study in seeming contradictions. Slovenian-born, but UK-educated. Blonde and pretty enough to party all night without paying for a single drink, but allegedly dead sober. Geared up to headbang in black (the giant logo on her shirt: “Parental Advisory: I Say FUCK A Lot”) but taking a reverse-subversive, erudite, Sam Dunn-like approach to metal fanhood: she’s pursuing an MA in Creative and Media Enterprises at Warwick University’s department for Cultural Policy Studies. The self-styled subject of her thesis: “Metal Studies.”
“I’m studying and analyzing metal as a cultural phenomenon,” she told me, “and how that affects how it behaves as a business.” Her research is observational, particularly regarding the behavior of metal fans and the generation of the extreme loyalty you see. “In some cases in Scandinavia, individuals are classified as disabled and receive social support for being clinically addicted to metal.” Enslavement is about as loyal as it gets.
This is something I wish I’D done in school. I’ve come away fascinated, but at long last, a little unsettled. A dubious but disturbing rumor, echoed by Marta, about the future of Metalcamp has been bouncing around.
Allegedly, word is spreading that this year is to be its last.
Reluctant to speculate too much, she nonetheless observed what I already suspected: “Lots of established festivals aren’t happening in 2013 because of various funding issues and poor ticket sales. The festival market is saturated, and there are next to no ticket sale revenues.” Could Metalcamp be the next victim?
The sky has grayed out; the cloak of night is slipping. I’m exhausted, pre-hung over, and… starving. I haven’t eaten since breakfast. I unsuspectingly order what’s advertised as a hamburger – that’s a relative term – from one of the stands, and I sit back and witness the creation of a monster.
An oversized patty, closer to a pancake, of pljeskavica, a Balkan mixture of savory ground meats. Smeared with ajvar, a sweet relish from red bell peppers (I realize we dumped this stuff on our breakfast eggs back at camp this morning). Topped with a mountain of diced onions and sandwiched between two gigantic round slabs of pita. The cook hands it to me and it weighs something like a ton. I almost drop it.
I stumble back toward our Australian Embassy, struggling to eat at the same time without faceplanting, traveling the wooded path connecting the main box office to the campgrounds, passing dozens of people in stages ranging from tipsy to already-hung-over.
I wolf down the last bite and feel the fucker lounging in the pit of my stomach like a brick.
5:00am. I emerge from the woods to find a lightened, purplish sky, the day encroaching without regard to one’s feelings, the sun – that cursed sun – creeping without a shred of mercy, the earth rotating without reservation.
So it’s only natural that I prolong my walk and delay my needed rest by getting clumsily pulled into a conversation with a pair of half-in-the-bag Germans.
By this time, most people are either in their tents or passed out on the beach, and the still-standing gravitate toward each other like survivors of a medieval battle.
5:30am. Tent. Sleeping bag. Somehow, I seized my last shred of energy to brush my teeth (using mineral water, which made things interesting). Now, I’d better savor this sacred window of remaining dawn before that ball of fire peeks over the horizon. That shit gets brutal.
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