This year for my annual dose of Metal festival awesomeness I headed to that most Metal of countries, Belgium, for a festival called the most metal of names, Graspop. It was a festival which had come highly recommended from those I knew who had been before, and despite the long day I had getting there, the layout and organisation (and actually clean toilets) of the festival alone suggested that these recommendations were not without foundation. And that’s without even mentioning the line-up!
So despite the lack of sleep and high levels of stress from the day before, I was up bright and early on Friday morning to head down to the Main Stages for the festival openers Firewind. Friday opening slot is one which I doubt a lot of bands look upon favourably, but Firewind rose admirably to the task of waking up a very sleepy and mostly hungover Graspop. Gus G and co were able to up the energy and deliver a dynamic performance which was clearly able to convert even those who turned up not really caring about them. It wasn’t just the dynamism which deserves praise, but the musicianship too. Most Metalheads don’t need convincing about lead guitarist Gus G’s prowess, but the rest of the band were clearly able to hold their own too and in Henning Basse, they have a frontman who can hold the audience’s attention when he has to, but also is humble enough not to upstage his band-mates when they’re showing off. 7/10
Up next were Canadian Southern Rock outfit Monster Truck. I went in knowing absolutely nothing about them (save for the fact that they’re clearly Southern Rock because they’re called Monster Truck), but they certainly did a good job of winning me over. They encapsulated everything good about the genre with catchy riffs, big choruses and a powerful rhythm section which lent itself perfectly to a festival setting and they were able to get us involved singing along to the easier parts of their songs. The only slight trouble with them was that when these choral parts weren’t present, they didn’t offer anything original enough to prevent people’s attentions from wandering. Still, as a relatively unheard of act, they certainly exceeded my expectations. 7/10
Melodic Death Metal veterans Soilwork provided the next instalment and continued on the already high standard which had been set for the start of the day. The six members made full use of the stage and got the first pits of the day started in no time. Somehow Soilwork were another band missing off of my radar before going to Graspop, which is a shame because they’re the sort of band whose songs do all sound very similar if you’re not familiar with them, which probably prevented me from enjoying them as much as I potentially could have done. Soilwork’s nine song set-list did lose novelty quickly, but thankfully the band were more than able to compensate through their terrific sound. They definitely cemented themselves in the “go away, listen to them properly and go see them again” category. 7/10
The first band of the day I actually knew well, were sadly the first disappointment. As a lover of all things arsey and technical, I made sure I got myself a very good spot for The Winery Dogs; but sadly they weren’t really worth the effort. It wasn’t really their fault though, to be fair. The supergroup trio of Ritchie Kotzen, Billy Shehan and Mike Portnoy were as ridiculous with their respective instruments as ever, but the sound configuration killed their set. The vocals of all three members were inexplicably inaudible throughout and even more inexplicable was that no-one managed to fix it in the 40 minutes they were on-stage. This wasn’t helped by the fact that most people were probably only there because they’d heard of the band members and didn’t actually know any of their songs, so the crowd had absolutely no hope of saving the set either. The fact that their songs involve such a high ratio of instrumental parts helped, but still it was a real shame that The Winery Dogs were held back by something so utterly avoidable. 5/10
I decided to watch Sixx:AM from the other side of the central barrier, and I’m glad I did because they weren’t a huge amount better either. Nikki Sixx, the former Mötley Crüe bassplayer’s side-project-turned-main-project didn’t even have technical problems as an excuse though, which was the troubling thing. As a live act there isn’t actually an awful lot wrong with Sixx:AM. in fairness. They’ve got decent experienced musicians and a frontman who clearly knows what he’s doing, plus all the ridiculous wardrobe and make-up that you would expect from someone who found fame in the 80’s and wasn’t in a Thrash band. The problem is, their songs just aren’t very good. It’s almost as if a really famous band decided to cover songs from bands who never made it and it shows in a festival setting especially when half the crowd need to be won over and just aren’t. It really is a shame because again, it really was only the one thing but it massively held them back. 6/10
Not changing stages meant that I had a prime spot for a band I’ve been wanting to see for years. Bad Religion were a big factor in choosing Graspop over other festivals, as I never got the chance to see them during my angry students days so I thought I really had better make sure I see them before my equally angry graduate days are done. “We are the least theatrical band here”, announced lead singer Greg Graffin to the crowd. I was apprehensive at first as to how a punk band would be received at a very Metal-orientated festival; but the fact is Bad Religion really didn’t need to be at a festival catered for them, nor did they need to be theatrical. They just needed to do what they’ve been doing for over 30 years and play good music very well, and it turns out it really doesn’t matter if you have a lead singer who looks like a middle-class dad filling in in his son’s band. Bad Religion used their time well and powered through 21 songs in total drawing from all of their rich back catalogue, winning over the people I was worried would react badly to them. If they can put in that kind of show with a largely indifferent crowd, I’d love to see what a show in front of die-hard fans would be like. 8/10
Heaven Shall Burn were the unfortunate band I had to watch mostly from a distance because food is a necessary requirement for human beings to survive, and because I knew basically nothing about them before the festival. They seemed to be pretty good at what they did however, being the first band to bring a real stage show to proceedings, which was good to watch if nothing else. Sadly, they really do not suit long-distance viewing, as their intense style and reliance solely on guttural vocals meant that they very much struggled to get any of the crowd past the main bulk of fans into anything they were doing. They were probably great if you were one of those who got close, but for me they ended up leaving me fairly cold. Not only that, but I’d waited ages for my noodles and it turned out they weren’t even the ones I’d actually bloody ordered! That’s not Heaven Shall Burn‘s fault of course….but I was still annoyed! 6/10
I know it may come as a shock to some that Foreigner have actually a very good back catalogue, but having done my research into this band beforehand I was actually very much looking forward to the non-obvious parts of the set-list that were to come. Unfortunately, this is where Foreigner proved to be a disappointment as their seven members did so much faffing about between songs and their lead singer liked the sound of his own voice way too much that they only managed to fit nine songs into an hour-long set. That’s fine if you’re a Prog band, but not if you’re a Classic Rock band. The songs they played were done well, but I just wish they’d taken a more Bad Religion approach to things and gotten on with it. It didn’t help that several members were clearly past their best as well, but that was more to be expected from a band who are celebrating their 40th anniversary. I just wish that somebody could have reminded them beforehand that this wasn’t actually their own gig! They even managed to have an encore, despite the fact that they weren’t even close to being the headliners. Bloody Foreigner… 6/10
I certainly wish that the slightly longer set-list had been given to Disturbed, because quite frankly they were excellent and the one thing which unfortunately prevented them from being exceptional was the fact that they had to rush through things slightly and miss out a fair few killer songs. It had been five whole years since I had seen one of my favourite Nu-Metal bands (yes, I like Nu-Metal, deal with it!) and I had forgotten just how many great songs they have and judging by the massive levels of participation from the crowd, I wasn’t the only one in that boat. I was particularly pleased too, because the only time I had seen Disturbed before they were awful; so I was relieved to see that it was just a bad day at the office and they can deliver the kind of performance their songs deserve. Although it took a little while to set-up which ate into their precious time, I was so glad they chose to do their version of The Sound of Silence because it was far and away the highlight of the day, sending shivers down my spine all the way through. Getting Nikki Sixx on to do Shout At The Devil was a less expected cover, but definitely one I’m glad I was there to witness as well. Much as I love Disturbed though, I do wish they hadn’t played Down With The Sickness, because is there anyone in the Metal world who isn’t thoroughly sick of that song? 8/10
My failure to get the Graspop crowd chanting “Megadave! Megadave!” as we were waiting for Megadeth‘s arrival was pretty disappointing, but this was nothing compared with the disappointment that Megadeth themselves actually were. They blundered into their opener Hangar 18 which should have gotten the crowd going pretty much instantly but it was so badly done that it was actually pretty unrecognisable for much of the intro. Really the only thing resembling a saving grace for Megadeth was that they played Megadeth songs which people like, but even this was ruined somewhat thanks to them playing four songs from their most recent album Dystopia; which I guess you can’t really blame them for, but in all honesty it isn’t a great album and it was clear that most of the audience didn’t know the songs. Plus, there was no way the band’s performance was going to make up for this as none of them looked especially bothered by proceedings and Megadave himself was particularly poor, especially with his vocals which were just mumbled incoherently throughout. It looks as though years of people telling him to keep his mouth shut have taken their toll and he’s become physically incapable of opening it so he can actually sing properly. 5/10
After spending all day at the main stages, I finally departed the open air and headed into a tent to see the man with beard, Zakk Wylde. I must say, I was interested to see what kind of set he would put on because I imagine I was one of the few there who actually owns a (totally legal, I might add) copy of his latest solo album, but I do love pretty much everything he’s done and I felt he may revert back to some Black Label Society stuff rather than try to win over a Metal crowd with acoustic songs from two albums no-one’s heard of. To my delight, he did go for songs from the two Book of Shadows albums, but he made a big mistake in my view of making them much heavier than they sound on record, clearly in an attempt to appease the Graspop faithful. It worked great for the opening song Sold My Soul, as it’s already fairly heavy to begin with and it gave Zakk an opportunity to show off his utterly ridiculous guitar skills, but it didn’t work for the others because as good as the songs are, they were never written to be heavy. The songs were played very well, and Zakk was clearly on form, but to someone who knows the recorded versions of the songs well, it just sounded like he was doing a whole set of poorly considered covers. 6/10
I managed to catch the last song of Amon Amarth’s set from the other side of the main stage as I rushed over to get as good a spot for Sabbath as was possible, but thankfully it was their song I actually like, so that’s something. They had a cool stage show set up and they seemed like they would be a really fun band to see, despite the fact that I don’t actually think much of their music. I can’t exactly give them a rating based on one song viewed from miles away though. I should also mention that after Sabbath I didn’t stick around for the only post-midnight act on that evening, King Diamond, because quite frankly I have no wish to stand around on a cold evening listening to someone who sounds like a cat being neutered without an anaesthetic.
Now Black Sabbath have been one of my favourite bands for years and definitely the top one on this line-up for me, but I don’t think I’ve ever been happier that a band is on their final tour. When I saw them at Download in 2012 it was one of the best live experiences of my life, but they’ve fallen a long way since then and really should have called it a day before now. They can’t do it anymore! Or perhaps, more accurately, Ozzy just can’t do it anymore! The man could barely string two words together and it was so obvious that they had tailored the set to make things easier for him, playing slower songs with larger instrumental sections which would almost certainly never have made it onto a Black Sabbath set otherwise. Everything was very noticeably slowed down as well (which, for Sabbath is really saying something). I’m sorry but if you can’t actually play your own songs live then don’t. The audience somewhat saved the show for them on this occasion making sure they responded as they should to the last Belgian show of Black Sabbath’s career. Thankfully this still made it worth seeing, but for Black Sabbath, The End really cannot come quickly enough. 5/10