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Rockharz Open Air 2016 @ Ballenstedt (Germany)

Saxon, Avantasia, Children of Bodom, Powerwolf, ASP, Gamma Ray, Saltation Mortis, Subway to Sally, Sonata Arctica, Satyricon, Ensiferum, Soilwork, Annihilator, Finntroll, Kärbholz, Knorkator, Hämatom, Glory Hammer, Enslaved, Spiritual Beggars, Primordial, & Various other bands
in Thursday, 7 July 2016 at Ballenstedt
by Erika Kuenstler

I'm always slightly wary of advertising slogans; so often what the packaging claims to be the most amazing product you'll ever have in your life turns out to be so disappointingly bland and generic your grandmother would go nuts over it. So it was with mild disbelief that I read claims about Rockharz Open Air being one of the most scenic in Germany, having never had the opportunity of visiting the festival myself. However, after having heard innumerable recommendations from friends, I finally decided 2016 was the year to check out what all the hype was about. And to my pleasant surprise, all the claims had not been exaggerated.
Set in a picturesque part of Germany, Rockharz Open Air is set on the grounds of a small airport. Encircled by a ring of faraway mountains, the location has a rustic feel to it, enhanced all the more by a log-cabin style drinking house complete with beer garden. Overlooked by a majestic rock formation, named the "Devil's Wall", rolling fields stretch all the way to the distant blue-hued mountain ranges. The campsite spreads out away from the stage, making an early arrival necessary to avoid daily treks to the festival grounds, with the furthest camping spots being a good 20 minutes walk away. Although considering the distances you have to walk at larger festivals, this is still pretty luxurious. The weather was also absolutely perfect for a festival: neither too hot nor too cold, with plenty of sunshine and cool breezes. With so many festivals earlier this year having been inundated by a deluge of stormy rain, this was a very welcome change to what has been the status quo of 2016.
Kicking off the festival on Wednesday was the label night. I unfortunately missed the first three bands, but got there just in time to see J.B.O., renown for their infectious party-like shows. Indeed, within minutes they had crowdsurfers galore, with the packed audience cheerfully singing along. There are few bands who could have set such a jovial atmosphere on the very first day of the festival. Whilst a considerable chunk of the crowd headed back to the campsites to carry on the party, those who stayed had the chance to catch ONSLAUGHT and ASENBLUT, who took the festival by storm with their thunderous setlists.
The festival proper started on Thursday, with two stages annexed together to provide back-to-back performances. This is absolutely fantastic, as this gives fans the chance to see every band they want to, without having to miss bands due to scheduling conflicts. It's hard to point out highlights of Thursday, as there were so many top-notch performances, with ENTOMBED A.D., SOILWORK, ANNIHILATOR, GAMMA RAY, ASP, and SAXON, amongst others, setting the stage aflame. And the crowds really did the bands justice, headbanging and moshing with reckless abandon. ENSLAVED were the perfect closing band for the day, lulling the audience with a back catalogue of their music, bringing the crowd gently down after an epic day of moshing madness.

Friday proved to be no less spectacular. Fantasy Metallers TWILIGHT FORCE already had fans queuing before the stage long before their set, and despite their early slot. The elvish soon had the sword-wielding audience completely captivated. One of the bands I always look forward to seeing is KAMPFAR. Veterans of the Norwegian Black Metal scene, they have a unique brand of music that is completely unrivalled. Their performances never fail to sweep you away with their overwhelming and irresistible melodies, infused with a majestic power. COPPELLIUS, KNORKATOR, and SALTATIO MORTIS ensured that the lighter and more humorous side of the festival was well covered, whilst bands such as BEHEMOTH and PRIMORDIAL covered the darker and perhaps more philosophical ends of the spectrum. SATYRICON were also a welcome treat, what with all the recent concerns about Satyr’s health. This is perhaps another one of metal’s triumph stories of musicians battling the odds and showing the world what they are made of. Headlining the evening was AVANTASIA, whose dramatic and performance was quite spectacle to behold. Perhaps the perfect follow-on to this was FLESHGOD APOCALYPSE, whose classical influenced songs have a hard-hitting power behind them, tempered by an opera singer. Unfortunately, some of these performances were marred by a bad sound, but then again, festivals are notoriously difficult to set up well.

And with astounding speed, Saturday had already dawned, heralding in the last day of the festival. This day was perhaps the highlight of the festival for me.  Bands such as GLORY HAMMER, ENSIFERUM, and FINNTROLL made sure that the festival had its dose of Folky fun. OMNIUM GATHERUM and CHILDREN OF BODOM gave the festival its fuel injected share of furious speed and technically driven mayhem. Picking up the baton were SUBWAY TO SALLY, perhaps the perfect openers for the headliners of the night, POWERWOLF. And how to class POWERWOLF? Their performances are always in a league of their own, with their larger-than-life stage-show, catchy lyrics, and backwards "satanic" circle pits. With this being the last night, no less than two bands closed off the festival after POWERWOLF's infernal set, with TANZWUT and VERSENGOLD ending the night off on a joyous note.

What I really liked about this festival is that it featured a whole host of outstanding international bands whilst still retaining a familial feeling. The bands were also carefully chosen so that there was a wide, balanced mix of genres, ensuring that there was highlights for everyone there. Not only were the bands fantastic, but I also had the feeling that the people were more friendly and open than you typically find at the bigger festivals. Days were spent in comfortable company, playing Twister, and drinking copious amounts of alcohol, or hiking up to the Devil's Wall to take in the panoramic scenery, whilst the evenings were spent watching spectacular bands. Who could ask for more?
Another cool idea was the free poster depicting an aerial vantage point of the festival, which had been taken on Thursday. These posters were handed out together with a small refund on full trash bags, in an effort to keep the camp-grounds as clean as possible. One of the only gripes I had about the festival was the massive queues on Sunday morning trying to leave the festival. Due the the setup of the festival grounds, all roads through the campsite were severely grid-locked, with some people having to wait for over an hour just to get to the main road.  But other than that, the portaloos were kept clean throughout the festival, there were plenty of stalls with fairly priced food and drinks available, and in general everything seemed to be well organised.
For those of you who are tired of the throngs of people and the chaotic anonymity of larger festivals, but still want to see a star-studded lineup of excellent bands, I'd highly recommend checking out Rockharz Open Air. The festival certainly is a strong contender for the "Best German festivals of 2016" list; let's just see if the other festivals can match their standards!
For more photos, check out Valkyrian Photography!

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Edited 13 July 2020

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