There seems be an exponentially increasing number of festivals to choose from each year, with every conceivable gimmick used to tempt in the discerning metalhead.
Metalfest Open Air has no need for such gimmicks and in some ways could be considered a perfect festival. It is held in a stone amphitheatre with a floor area for those wanting to get involved in festival “floor activities” and a tiered seating area for those more inclined to kick back and relax with a beer while watching the bands and taking in the warm central European summer. Talking of beer, did I mention that thanks to a favourable exchange rate, beer costs 87p per 500ml……and merch is equally attractively priced, as are the tickets, making this one of the most affordable festivals around.
As has become tradition, my journey to Metalfest began with an overnight stay in Prague and the opportunity to take in some culture and sample the local beers (served in litre steins).
The weather had been glorious for the festival in 2015, with a scorching heatwave, but the outlook for 2016 was a little more foreboding with a forecast of heavy thunderstorms and downpours. It was therefore with some trepidation that we caught the train from Prague to Pilsen and watched the skies become more sinister as we got closer to the festival, and sure enough by the time we arrived, the heavens had opened (although not quite “spitting venom” as one of our group had interpreted the forecast!). We duly donned waterproofs and trudged into the festival, only to be removing them for the rest of the weekend as the temperature soon soared and the rain disappeared for good.
Opening the festival were Czech power metallers Eagleheart who played to a small but enthusiastic home crowd providing an energetic introduction to proceedings.
Swedes Entombed A.D followed increasing the intensity with their groovy death metal (Purists may well have a seizure over that description, but that was how they sounded on the day!). A destructive ‘Stranger Aeons’ was placed early in the set, and as the crowd warmed up a small, jovial pit opened up. ‘Wolverine Blues’ and ‘Left Hand Path” brought things to close all to soon, but in their short set Entombed A.D had made new friends.
Continuing the Swedish invasion, Grand Magus were greeted on stage by sweltering heat, and while tracks such as ‘Like The Oar Strikes the Water’ and ‘Iron Will’ were enjoyable enough and got a few heads nodding they didn’t really ignite the crowd. Set closer ‘Hammer of the North’ was dedicated to Entombed A.D, reminding me that it was time to head over to their signing session.
Anglo-Swiss (you don’t get to say that very often in reviews!) epic power metallers Gloryhammer followed, fresh from a tour of the UK with Blind Guardian and their brand of cheesy, over the top power metal worked really well in this environment. The band are clearly talented and knocked out one catchy tune after another, with ‘The Hollywood Hootsman’ particularly sticking in my mind.
More power metal followed in the form of Bloodbound. I had seen them supporting Sabaton earlier in the year, and to be honest hadn’t been particularly impressed so I approached their set with certain amount of ambivalence and apathy. However, I was clearly in a minority and there was an air of anticipation within the crowd as the intro tape began. I have to admit that I was impressed and Bloodbound were far more polished and enjoyable than I remembered. Tracks such as ‘In The Name of Metal’, ‘Bonebreaker’, ‘Nightmares from the Grave’ and ‘Stormborn’ were given a rapturous reception by the gathered throng, and the band were even joined on stage by a be-robed Satan! During the set, the band ventured onto the concrete podium in front of the stage, flirting with the crowd as it became clear that the Czech metal community love power metal, and Bloodbound in particular! As for this grumpy, skeptical old man – Yeah I was won over!
The sound check for Heaven Shall Burn seemed louder than the actual sets of the preceding bands, perhaps giving an indication of the brutality to follow. Labels are often difficult and don’t tell the whole story, but the German’s brand of aggressive death metal (perhaps with a core element) raised the level of aggression and intensity to a level which would not be matched over the weekend. Certainly not to everyone’s taste the crowd thinned as tracks such as ‘Land of the Upright Ones’ battered the faithful hardcore who remained. As an extreme metaller, I was embarrassed when it became clear that there was clearly a body of their work with which I am unfamiliar. I will be rectifying this …….
Belarusian guitarist Victor Smolski certainly has an impressive biography, not least as previous guitarist and songwriter with Rage. His current project takes the form of a triple vocalist symphonic metal project known as Almanac. The calibre and pedigree of every single member of the band was clear as they delivered an extremely polished performance, covering every inch of the stage, interacting well with the big crowd that had gathered. ‘No Regrets’ and ‘Children of the Future’ flew by, with the crowd singing along every word, treating Almanac as long lost friends.
And so to the day’s headliners Nightwish, a band I have grown up with since first seeing them at Bradford Rios in 2004 and being completely blown away. Since then I have seen them numerous times watching them evolve and grow, and I can honestly say I have never been disappointed. As you might imagine I was really looking forward to this performance and had been singing the band’s praises to others in my group who had yet to understand their brilliance. As the lights faded on a stage now bedecked with ramps and other props the atmosphere was dense with anticipation. ‘Shudder Before the Beautiful’ opened things off as expected followed by ‘Yours is an Empty Hope’ and a rousing ‘Storytime’ which was the first point it felt the crowd really got into things, singing back at the band word for word. Unfortunately momentum slowed as they went through newer tracks ‘My Walden’, ‘Elan’, ‘Weak Fantasy’ and ‘Sahara’, as big sections of the crowd appeared to lose interest, with those unfamiliar with them disengaging and those who were familiar yearning for some older material. They were granted this wish with a great double act of ‘I Want My Tears Back’ and ‘Nemo’ which had the biggest reception of the set. ‘Ghost Love Score’ and ‘Last Ride of the Day’ kept the new found momentum going before things slipped again with ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’, before what can only be described as a faltering finish. The band left the stage with those around me speculating about what the encore would consist of, and in my own head I came up with at least three or four songs that I felt they had to play, but when they reappeared it was simply to take a bow. At the time I felt that they must have got the timings wrong and been forced to cut the encore, but having spoken to others who saw Nightwish in other venues, it seems that was in fact the set list as planned.
As always the band were polished and their individual and collective talent was not in doubt, but it seemed that the setlist was wrong tonight, missing out crowd favourites and ignoring earlier work in favour of the latest release, causing inertia from which it was hard to recover. Let’s be clear, there is nothing wrong with the current material, indeed I am a big fan of the latest album, but the balance just felt wrong tonight. Such a shame because Nightwish are a fantastic band, and I know they are capable of so much better.
Review And Photos Andy Pountney