Spanish version (translated by Raúl Cárdenas) can be found here.
This was my 6th Graspop, and once again, I had a great time. Before I start talking about the bands I saw I do want to say something about the fantastic organization. I’ve been to a fair amount of large metal fests in Europe, and Graspop is definitely the most well-organized. That might not be as important as the bands that play, but I do feel like it’s an important aspect, and Graspop deserves some credit for their stellar work put into planning and organization.
Now, on to the bands.
The first band I saw on Friday was Heathen. Lee Altus is probably most well-known for his work with Exodus the past eight years, but he’s also the driving force behind Heathen, one of the most underrated bay area thrash bands. Heathen are known for their ability to mix their technical prowess (especially in the guitar department) with some absolutely fantastic songwriting, which translates into a great live show. Their songs, though quite long, remain interesting throughout, taking many unexpected twists and turns, and sporting many razor-sharp riffs and mesmerizing solos. Seeing Lee Altus and Kragen Lum nail absolutely every single part.
Their setlist was heavily focused on their new album (4 of the 5 songs came from The Evolution of Chaos), and Heathen is one of the few bands that could pull that off. Heathen’s comeback album is by far one of the best comeback albums I’ve heard in thrash, and the band clearly believe in what they’re doing. Add to that a rock solid rhythm section (with Jon Dette filling in fairly last-minute if I’m not mistaken) and a fantastic frontman and you have a great first show. I hope to see Heathen return with a longer set, because they really deserve it.
Next up was Grave Digger. Even though I wasn’t really familiar with their studio work, I was pretty excited for their show. Grave Digger, along with bands like Running Wild and Rage, play a form of heavy/power metal that could be seen as some sort of ‘missing link’ between Maiden’s Powerslave and Helloween’s Keeper albums, and I happen to love that style of power metal. And I was not let down. There were some minor issues with the guitar sound during the first song, but aside from that, I have no complaints. Great performances and great crowd reaction (despite the shitty weather), and rarely have I seen a musician as happy as Axel Ritt. On his knees, in the rain, shredding like a madman, with one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen.
For a band that has been active for over 30 years, you’d expect that the early timeslot could be demotivating, but really, you’d be hard pressed to find a band that loves what they’re doing more than Grave Digger. This show really made me want to check out some Grave Digger, which is really all I can ask from a band I don’t really know. Plus, it was an awesome bonus to see Jens Becker perform live, his work with Running Wild is some of my favourite metal ever.
After Grave Digger I hurried to one of the marquees to see Unleashed. Now, if you’ve never seen Unleashed it’s a little hard to explain just what makes them such a fantastic live band. It was my third time seeing them, and again, it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. They don’t have a flashy live show or an elaborate stage act, they just get on stage and blow the entire audience away. Johnny Hedlund getting kicked out of Entombed (they actually split up as Nihilist and reformed as Entombed to avoid firing him directly) might’ve been one of the best things to ever happen to him and the scene in general, because Unleashed is one of the best and most consistent death metal bands in the Swedish scene, which is a very strong scene to begin with.
This consistency goes for both studio work and live shows, which makes for a strong setlist with old classics and strong new material. Every single song they play inspires manic headbanging, even if you’ve never heard the songs beforehand. If you’re trying to get a friend into death metal, take him to an Unleashed show, the incredible energy should be enough to get almost anyone interested in the genre.
The next band playing the mainstage was Helloween. I’m not the biggest Helloween fan, but I can’t deny their influence in the power metal genre. Their Keeper of The Seven Keys albums were two of the most influential albums in the development of the European style of power metal, and while I’m not the biggest fan of that particular style, Helloween are one of the bands I can enjoy on occasion (and Walls of Jericho is just an awesome album all-around). That said, I went in with very little of their studio work post-Walls (which they didn’t play anything of, unfortunately), but despite that, I did enjoy myself. The band are still very passionate about the music they’re making and it translates very well into a live setting.
Infectious vocal melodies, catchy riffs and a pounding rhythm section, it all came together into one rock-solid performance. If you’re just looking for a fun time, a Helloween show is a pretty good way to spend your time. And that’s coming from someone who’s generally not the biggest fan of their style of power metal.
The next band I saw was none other than the legendary Entombed. Their former bandmate Johnny had left some pretty big shoes to fill with his fantastic performance earlier that day, so they had quite something to live up to. And they did well. Not quite as good, but nowhere near as bad as some of the rumours had led me to believe. The main problem I had with their show was the shifting quality of their setlist. After Clandestine Entombed started incorporating more overt rock ‘n’ roll-y aspects into their music, and while some of that stuff is okay in its own right (Wolverine Blues in particular) it really pales next to the first two albums.
And that’s what led to some jarring moments during their set. I mean, following a classic like Stranger Aeons with Damn Deal Done kind of breaks the flow of the show, in my opinion at least. Still a good performance, and worth seeing even if you’re only really into the first two/three albums (like myself), just not quite up to par with what their former bass player is doing with Unleashed.
The next show was Mayhem, Norwegian black metal legends. I’ll admit to not being the biggest black metal fan around, but it’s hard to deny just how much of a classic De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas is. I’m not very familiar with their work beyond that other than a few songs, but still, I was looking forward to seeing a legendary band like Mayhem doing their thing. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed. Like I said, I’m not really familiar with their stuff post-1994, but the guitar tone didn’t sound appropriate for their earlier material. Part of what made it great was the production. The guitar tone sounded more ‘distant’ and (this sounds so terribly clichéd) ‘colder’. It’s hard to describe it, but when you compare the Live in Leipzig versions to what they played last Friday, it simply sounds too modern and professional. That sounds like a bizarre complaint, and I guess it is, but to me, those songs work better with the sound they had on Live in Leipzig/Mysteriis.
That aside, the individual performances were good. Attila’s theatrical streak and Hellhammer’s divine drumming were the highlights for me, but that’s not to say the other band members did bad. They were perfectly competent musicians, it’s just that the guitar tone didn’t do the material justice. Not a horrible show by any means, but I don’t think I’ll ever be seeing them again. The fact I’m not overly familiar with them might’ve contributed to that, but even my friends who are more familiar with them admitted that it was one of the weaker shows on Friday.
Next up: Kreator. Now, Pleasure to Kill was one of the albums that got me into extreme metal. I absolutely adore early Kreator, and those five first albums are among my all-time favourites. Some of their newer stuff is decent, but I’ve never been a huge fan. I had seen them a few months earlier on their tour with Morbid Angel and Nile, and had left with mixed feelings. On Graspop however, they completely blew me away. I had NOT seen that coming. It’s weird really, because now they played even fewer old songs (no People of The Lie, or anything from Extreme Aggression), but almost everything they did just felt right. They got me really pumped up, even for the songs whose studio version I don’t really care about, which is in my opinion one of the hallmarks of a great live band.
Add to that some absolutely ripping thrash classics (and even I can’t deny the force of destruction that is Enemy of God) and you got yourself a fantastic live show. I don’t know what was off the first time I saw them, but they totally convinced me this time. Even if you’re only really into old school Kreator like myself, don’t turn down the opportunity to see them if you can.
And finally, Friday’s climax, the headliner: Twisted fuckin’ Sister! After their absolutely brilliant performance in 2012, Twisted Sister were booked as a headliner this year, and rightfully so. Now before I get into their performance, allow me this little rant. Twisted Sister often gets thrown in with the glam metal movement, and I just need to know, why? Out of their five studio albums, there’s only one you can really put under the ‘glam’ moniker, and image-wise they’re much closer to shock rock than anything else. I don’t really see Cinderella or Tigertailz writing something like Under The Blade, Horror-Teria or Burn in Hell. Whatever.
All that nonsense aside, they, once again, kicked major ass. Dee Snider once said that back in the 80s he was sickened by bands who could go out and party like crazy after their shows. According to him, you owe it to your audience to give everything you have, and they clearly still adhere to that. They are getting older, but they’ll be damned if they let that affect their performance. Dee Snider is a legendary frontman, and he did not disappoint. Leave it to Dee to call mother nature a cunting whore (it was raining the entire time during their performance) and get thousands of people to flip mother nature off during the chorus of We’re Not Gonna Take It.
The legendary performances aside, some other interesting things happened during their show. The first one was someone proposing to his girlfriend on the mainstage in between songs, which is one of the most brilliant ways to propose. She’s under so much pressure she basically has to say yes, and even if she doesn’t, you’ll get free beer the entire weekend and she won’t be able to leave her tent without getting harassed. Well played Guus, well played.
The other thing, and probably one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen happen was during I Wanna Rock. Dee said they were going to bring out another band to play the song along with them. Many bands played that day, a lot of possibilities. I was assuming they were going to announce one of the bands that played the mainstage right before them, what I absolutely didn’t expect was the band that actually came out: Asking Alexandria. Even if you like Asking Alexandria, you have to admit this is a pretty jarring mix. My fears proved to be ungrounded though, they didn’t ruin the song. The only thing that really happened was that I Wanna Rock sounded louder and heavier than the other songs, because, you know, there were 10 people playing it rather than 5.
All things considered, Twisted Sister did not disappoint. Great performances, good setlist, incredible energy and a few unexpected surprises that caught everyone off guard. Basically everything you could ask for, they delivered.
As Dee would say, You Can’t Stop Rock ‘n’ Roll.
This concluded Friday, by far the busiest day for me. Absolutely drenched, I threw myself in my tent and went to sleep almost immediately.
Saturday was a lot less busy. Due to bands cancelling (Overkill and W.A.S.P.) and time clashes (Saxon/Absu) I only ended up seeing three bands on Saturday. But they were all three great shows, so it’s not all bad.
First up: Tankard. As a studio band, they were never able to really convince me. They have their fair share of good songs, but I always thought they paled in comparison to most other big thrash acts out of Germany. Live however, the tables are turned. Tankard’s live act is amazing, and completely embodies the fun side of thrash. The fact that Gerre isn’t held down by an instrument, has a ton of energy, and lacks any form of shame makes for one extremely entertaining frontman. You could literally just watch him the entire show and never be bored. Fortunately that isn’t necessary, as they also have a plethora of great thrashers to play.
Their setlist has a good balance of classics, as well as some songs from their newer work. Their 90s stuff gets forgotten, which is a shame as Tankard’s one of the few major thrash acts that kept making respectable albums in the 90s, but a 45-minute set understandably limits your options. Not a whole lot else to say, if you like thrash shows as much as I do, Tankard is a band you simply must see, even if you’re not that into their studio material.
The next band I saw was Aura Noir. Easily one of my favourite active thrash metal bands, I was pretty excited so see them, considering I had heard many good things about their performance at Hellfest a week earlier. From the moment they entered the stage until the last note of the last song, I was simply in awe. For those of you who don’t know, Aura Noir’s brand of thrash has a strong black metal edge, and this really adds to the intensity of their music. When you couple the excellent source material with eager, energetic performances, you have a winning formula.
Add to that some amusing stage banter, a few shots at Bullet For My Valentine who were playing the main stage at the same time (no offense to the fans, it were just a few harmless jokes) and you have a real winner all-around. Aura Noir don’t get the credit they deserve, and this performance was simply reaffirming that.
While the headliner of the day didn’t really interest me (again, no offense to any Slipknot fans, it simply isn’t my cup of tea) I was pretty excited to see the band that would play the main stage before them, Saxon.
The NWOBHM was an exciting time, and produced a lot of fantastic music. Saxon are one of the biggest names to emerge from that scene, and with good reason. Saxon have been going strong for decades now, and other than an admittedly questionable stint with glam in the late 80s most of their material has been quite solid. While there’s no beating the classics from their first few albums, the newer material doesn’t absolutely pale in comparison, which is saying something, considering just how strong songs like Princess of The Night and Heavy Metal Thunder are.
This show was advertised as a special ‘eagleshow’, and this was indeed the most theatrical Saxon show I’ve seen so far. Not quite to the point where they were shooting fireworks from their guitars, but the giant eagle, nifty light effects and rising drum platform were all nice extras that added to the rest of the show.
The rest of the show, which was quite excellent. Biff Byford has more than 40 years’ worth of experience, and it shows. He knows how to handle an audience, how to play them out against each other and how to just increase overall excitement. When you add that to an extremely eager band (Nibbs Carter was nearly as enthusiastic as Grave Digger’s Axel) and several heavy metal anthems, very little can go wrong.
After hanging around the campsite for a few more hours I went to bed, as Sunday still had some fantastic bands I definitely wanted to see.
The first band I saw Sunday was Red Fang. I actually didn’t plan on seeing them. I went to the festival terrain to meet some friends, but they wanted to see Parkway Drive who were playing the same time slot. So I figured I might as well give these guys a shot. I’ve never actually been that big on stoner metal. I do thoroughly enjoy the more traditional strains of doom metal, but something about stoner rock/metal just rubs me the wrong way. But, to be fair, I wanted to check out how the experience was live, seeing as how live performances can really enhance a certain type of music.
And as it turns out, I had a pretty good time. Red Fang is a band that really shines live, and some of the riffs are downright excellent. These guys made me want to give the genre another shot, which is pretty impressive in my book. A nice little surprise.
The first band I was planning to see that day was Ghost. When you’re reviewing a band like Ghost, the theatrics are obviously a crucial part. The Nameless Ghouls lack any means of expression, so the center of attention will obviously be Papa Emeritus. His elaborate outfit limits him in some ways (you won’t see him flying over the stage like Tankard’s Gerre), but the atmosphere and his presence make it so that simple hand gestures are enough to command the entire audience. Quite impressive.
Emeritus aside, the Nameless Ghouls did do a great job. They all nailed their studio parts, and I like to think it seemed like they were having a good time, but that’s kind of impossible to tell. The setlist was good as well, which may not be that impressive when you only have two albums out, but they played Ritual, by far my favourite Ghost song, so I’m still adding it as a pluspoint.
Next up was In Flames, playing the main stage. I don’t listen to In Flames these days, old or new stuff, but I can’t deny that I was pretty into them when I was younger, and I’m a sucker for nostalgia. I probably would’ve seen some other old favourites if the time schedule had allowed it, but as it was, In Flames was pretty much the only one. Unfortunately for me, their setlist focused heavily on Sounds of a Playground Fading and A Sense of Purpose (released right after I stopped caring), but I did get to hear some old favourites.
During the songs I didn’t care for I did try to detach myself from my personal bias and view the performance as objectively as I could and I couldn’t help but come to the conclusion that they were a pretty good live band. A band like In Flames doesn’t have to prove itself any more, but the members did seem like they gave it their all. Anders has grown into a pretty solid frontman with an impressive beard. Really, as much as I personally don’t really care for the music they’ve been making these past few years, I can’t deny that they’re a good live band. I could see this being a highlight of the festival for someone into their music.
The last band I’d see before Sunday’s headliner was Newsted. I hadn’t listened to their EP beforehand, but I decided to go, mostly because I do respect Jason Newsted. When Metallica asked him to choose between Metallica and his side projects he told Metallica to go blow it out of their ass, which is pretty awesome in my book. Add to that his work with several other classic metal bands (mostly Flotsam & Jetsam and Voivod), and I was pretty interested in seeing what he could do.
The good thing about the show, those guys are really into what they’re doing. They clearly love metal and will try their hardest to make you love it too. The problem was that I thought most of their songs just weren’t that good. To me it feels like they rushed to put the EP so they could do a summer tour in 2013, which is a shame. If they had taken their time and put some more time into developing the songs, who knows what could’ve happened? The Whiplash cover at the end was pretty cool though.
And here we go. The headliner on Sunday (but not the last act of the day, more on that later): Iron Maiden, on the Maiden England tour.
I was really looking forward to Maiden, it had been five years since I had last seen them (again, at Graspop), and the fact that they’d be focusing on the Seventh Son album made it even better. There were some problems with the sound at the very beginning of their set, but by the time The Prisoner (great to see this one live) came along, everything sounded pretty much perfect.
The setlist was absolutely divine. The lack of Hallowed Be Thy Name, Powerslave and Rime of The Ancient Mariner was compensated by the copious amount of Seventh Son songs and Phantom of The Opera, and other than that, it was pretty much perfect. Maybe a song or two from Killers would’ve been nice but that’s really just me nitpicking. The flawless performances by everyone were quite something to behold too.
As I was watching Adrian, Dave and Janick nail solo after solo I couldn’t help but think how most bands would kill for just one guitarist of that caliber, and Maiden just happened to have landed three of them. Bruce still sounds fantastic as well, he’s nearing his mid-50s but he can still nail every note, which makes him one of the best singers and one of the best frontmen in the genre by quite a bit.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, Maiden also had a very impressive stage set-up. A different backdrop for nearly every individual song, and several different Eddies all guaranteed that the visuals kept up with the music.
All things considered, one of the best headliners I’ve seen perform at Graspop so far.
But, as I said earlier, Maiden was not the last band I saw this Graspop. On Sunday, the marquee headliners played after the main headliner. This left me with the choice between King Diamond and Testament. I went with King Diamond.
Following Maiden is a tall order, but the King delivered. I was praising Dickinson and the Maiden guitarists earlier, and let me tell you, King Diamond and Andy LaRocque/Mike Wead deserve the exact same praise. The King is 57 now, but you couldn’t tell from his live performance, he absolutely nailed the high notes. I went to see him with a friend who didn’t really know him beforehand, and when I revealed the King’s age afterwards, it blew his mind. King Diamond is basically the only singer who relies heavily on crazy high falsettos I’ve seen who has no trouble nailing songs written 30 years ago (Dickinson is still fantastic, but he doesn’t use falsetto as heavily as guys like King Diamond and say, Rob Halford do).
As mentioned before, Andy LaRocque and Mike Wead were fantastic as a guitar duo. Just like the guys from Maiden, they could nail pretty much every single note of every single song. This goes for their electric guitar parts (the majority of the performance), but also acoustic guitar parts during interludes or intros, I seriously didn’t hear a single mistake. Same goes for Hal Patino and Matt Thompson by the way, not a single fuck-up to be heard. Truly, a group of fantastic musicians supporting one of the greatest icons in metal.
The theatrical aspect was simply the icing on the already incredible cake. It was too elaborate for me to properly describe, so here’s a few videos on youtube:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T1K7FfWOYTk (The Candle)
I won’t say that it was better than Maiden, but it definitely wasn’t any worse either.
That basically concluded my Graspop, so let me sign off with one last round of ass-kissing:
First and foremost, I’d like to thank El Cuartel Del Metal for giving me the opportunity to this. Secondly, I’d like to thank the fantastic organization of Graspop for making this happen, and the bands for playing such fantastic sets. And lastly, I’d like to thank the people who attended. This goes for the great crowds which really do enhance the experience, as well as my friends and other people who I hung out and had fun with in between bands.
I’ll definitely be going again next year.