There’s always something worth celebrating when a festival reaches its twentieth anniversary. This year saw Belgium’s Graspop Metal Meeting achieve that remarkable feat, drawing tens of thousands of people from around the world every year since 1996 to bang heads and, oddly enough, drink alcohol, all while being treated to appropriate noise from the bands that would send spectators into a musical overdrive of sorts.
To mark this milestone the organisers had brought together a truly formidable lineup that boasted the likes of Kiss, Slipknot and Scorpions as headline acts for the Friday, Saturday and Sunday respectively. Needless to say, the decibels came hard and fast and left fans, who never strayed from the successful headbanging, beer-chugging formula that worked so well in the past, with a metallic taste in their mouths after so much heavy metal was churned from the four stages that Graspop had to offer.
Set outside the small village of Dessel, near the Dutch border, Graspop is around four square kilometres of what ended up being beer-soaked grass, with the occasional (and by occasional, I mean legions of) paper plates and wooden forks. Conveniently, though, each stage had plastic boarding to prevent eating mud as well as half-eaten pizza when you stumble in the moshpits.
The festival was already well underway by the time the first bands started hammering out their sets. People were already milling around the charging stations for their mobile devices, presumably because of the amount of selfies taken the previous night. Or rather, pictures of other people drinking beer, which would seem more appropriate for a metal festival. By the time I saw my first band, the aggressive and symphonic Dutch quintet, Epica, people had turned their cameras towards the stages, phones being held up amongst the sea of devil-horn gestures from the die-hard fans at the front. Pyrotechnics were on form with Epica, as was the music itself and their frontwoman, the red-headed Simone Simons, provided the vocal gusto.
As I traversed the field to see God Seed, devil-horns were complimented by corpse paint. The Norwegian black metal band draped the stage in sinister but oddly refreshing reverb and thundering drums. Compared to the next act, Slash (formerly of Guns ‘N’ Roses), featuring Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators, God Seed were seemingly out to raise Satan himself from the pits of hell, instead of Slash’s Sweet Child O’…his. God Seed takes the cake for original sound, while Slash earns himself a badge for awesome guitar work.
Kiss provided the best show of the night with their undeniably busy and spectacular show. Complete with Gene Simmons’ blood/saliva-dripping mouth (note: not actual blood. No Ozzy Osbourne antics here.) and Paul Stanley’s zip line across the crowd to the platform in the middle of the ocean of people, Kiss pulled out all the stops for this one. Fireworks and drum solos included. The same cannot be said of Marilyn Manson, who was, sadly, underwhelming in virtually all aspects.
Best band: Kiss
After fully only-slightly recovering from the aftermath of day one’s onslaught, Sonata Arctica, a Finnish power metal band originally called Tricky Beans, if you can believe that. Whilst their performance was certainly admirable, it was unfortunately drowned out by the awkward sound mix of the double-bass drums that seemed to eat everything the moment they arrived. Issues continued on the main stage for Las Vegas veterans Five Finger Death Punch when their sound cut out altogether due to a blown fuse. Luckily for them, frontman Ivan Moody is rather good at talking to crowds and before long FFDP was off again, cranking out their roaring songs with impressive bravado.
When Alice Cooper appeared as the next act, the number of props used on stage went from 0 to approximately 20 (give or take a few), including a giant Frankenstein-like beast and a guillotine which poor Cooper was beheaded (or was he?). If that doesn’t indicate a show worth watching for pure entertainment alone, I recommend a long, hard look in the mirror. Or just buy some Alice Cooper albums, because the music was top notch too. Meanwhile, Korn had been setting up on the other stage, kicking off shortly after Alice had finished with their trademark oozing nu metal sound, 80% dreadlocks and Jonathan Davis’ signature microphone stand designed by HR Giger himself. Personally, I have always thought Korn’s sound was made for live shows rather than in the studio. This gig only reinforced that belief.
The final two bands to come out were Judas Priest, followed by Slipknot. The sheer energy that erupted from Priest’s sound was astonishing, whether it was Rob Halford’s unreal vocal range or the chugging backbeat of the drum-guitar combination as they moved in unison while Halford scanned the crowd with eye and finger. No extra additions to the show were needed, the sound alone was enough to declare this the best band of the day by a mile, and Slipknot hadn’t even taken the stage yet. Speaking of Slipknot, having to follow an act as good as Judas Priest is always difficult, but they gave it a good shot. Corey Taylor was his usual rebellious self, screaming through the microphone whilst the percussionists thrashed about on their drums at his flanks as fire erupted in the background as the band sonically pummelled the crowd. To be in the middle of that was immensely satisfying as the day closed.
Best band: Judas Priest
With headache and fatigue, the intrepid festival adventurers pressed on into day three. To meet us at the first hurdle was Ensiferum, a folk metal band from Finland that blasted their music from the stage into a horde of fans that included several shirtless, beer-swilling Vikings and one giant moshpit that was too inviting to miss, even when the band played what sounded like 70’s disco/metal. They were definitely one of the most interesting (also good) bands there. Speaking of moshpits, Ozzie rockers Airbourne brought plenty of moshpit material to the table with their somewhat raunchy but hilarious, fast-tempo rock and roll. Everything you need to be a great live band, something that Airboure achieved quite easily, like frontman Joel O’Keeffe’s impressive ability to open beer cans with his head. Must be an Australian thing.
Within Temptation managed to hold their own against the standards raised by Airbourne, fronted by Sharon den Adel. The veil of noise the band provided was highly eloquent but also furious and vigorous. Interestingly enough, they were also the only band there I saw that made the effort to speak Flemish to the crowd. For that they get extra points. Those points likely came from Motorhead after being so startlingly…boring. Lemmy rasped his way through the songs while guitarist Phil Campbell seemed very distant and drummer Mikkey Dee added little to the feel of the music. Sorry, lads, but dull isn’t going to cut it.
German heavy metal act Scorpions provided the headline show with a dazzling array of numbers, even managing to find time for a medley of power ballads, which everyone took out lighters for, and a drum solo featuring as much showmanship as Motley Crue’s Tommy Lee. Guitarist Rudolph Schenker appeared to be having the time of his life on stage while vocalist Klaus Meine delivered in epic style. From where I was stood I could even see Faith No More, the festival’s last act, watching from the adjacent stage. FNM themselves, despite being last, were by no means least, delivering a bruising set that saw the band break into Boz Scaggs’ ‘Low Down’ and a cover of The Commodores’ ‘Easy’. With the stage covered in flowers and showcasing a pulsating light show, FNM supplied that last gasp of live music that Graspop could give us, and they definitely made it worthwhile.
Best band: Faith No More/Ensiferum
I think it’s safe to say that Graspop 2015 was a triumphant success. In terms of organisation the festival was almost flawless and the lineups were excellent, save a few hiccups. The festival rose high above the minor issues that creeped into the weekend, delivering a fantastic atmosphere that I personally crave more of. Next year? Almost certainly.