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Rockharz Open Air 2018 @ Ballenstedt (Germany)

in Wednesday, 4 July 2018 at Ballenstedt
by Erika Kuenstler and Sarunas Dreseris

The beginning of July saw a momentous occasion: ROCKHARZ OPEN AIR, one of the best open air festivals in Germany, celebrated its 25th anniversary, with the event being commemorated by a massive party.

For those who haven’t heard of this festival, ROCKHARZ is a fairly sizable open air festival which delivers top calibre bands minus the annoying thronging masses, and can top many of the contenders in other ways. Not only is this a very picturesque festival, but it also offers a very diverse lineup, and all in a friendly atmosphere. Thanks to this, ROCKHARZ is ever-increasing in popularity, with a rapidly growing fanbase. This year alone saw several thousand more tickets being sold. However, despite organisers trying to accomodate more metal-hungry people, festival tickets were completely sold out well in advance, with many lost souls banking their luck on someone's inability to come to acquire a ticket. So if you are one of the unlucky ones that did not get a chance to visit or are planning to visit for the first time next year, an obvious bit of advice would be to get your tickets as soon as possible.

As mentioned, another advantage of ROCKHARZ is the jaw-dropping scenery surrounding the airstrip. Located in the heart of Germany’s beautiful Harz region, this area is nature galore, with the festival providing an unparalleled panoramic view. As you get closer to the festival, you’re greeted by rolling hills and endless fields, as you gradually leave the bustle of everyday life behind. The complete view unravels itself when you reach the festival grounds. A 20 km long rock formation called the Teufelsmauer, which literally translates to the “Devil’s Wall”, looms above the festival, at this point made up of the Großer Gegenstein and Kleiner Gegenstein. This gives the whole territory a feeling like the tower of Barad-dur calling for a great journey to destroy The one ring (or a pallet of beer, to each their own preference). Regardless of what floats your boat, the rock formation is an indirect part of the festival that you must visit at least once, with pilgrims heading up to the Devil’s Wall throughout the day. But enough about flowers and views, let’s get to the festival itself.

After arriving on Wednesday evening the festival grounds were already packed, with the party mood already in full-swing. Although the festival officially only started on Thursday, many people had already arrived as early as Tuesday to get the best possible camping spots. But even for those camped further away, rickshaws were available throughout the festival to whisk you back to your tent if you didn’t feel like walking. Wednesday also saw the opening night, with a slew of bands already starting off the party, featuring the likes of BANNKREIS, MONUMENT, WINTERSTORM, and ROSS THE BOSS, with the night being headlined by none other than the legendary KREATOR.  Cue massive ritual of headbanging here, with plenty of good times, meeting old and new friends alike, until the early morning. And this was just the tip of the iceberg. After such a debaucherous opening night the following three days saw almost 50 bands play on the two open air stages. Which brings me to the next awesome feature of ROCKHARZ: two main stages right next to each other, with band alternating on both of them. So there are no overlaps between sets, meaning you get to see entire performances of every act you want to see.
After a heavy first evening came a lazy first morning. This was made even more lazy by the sweltering weather, which immobilised all but the most avid flunky-ball players, steadfastly chugging down their already piss-warm beer. One of the best ways to beat the heat was with personal inflatable pools that many festival goers had brought with them, and by drinking plenty to stay hydrated. However, whilst there was cold drinking water available in the campsite, this came out of the taps in a miniscule trickle, resulting in massive queues of people waiting in the scorching sun, sometimes for several hours, just to fill up their water bottles. Even as the headliners were playing later in the evening, getting water was still fraught with long waits in line. However, many had come prepared, equipped with massive water canisters and wheelbarrows. If you went to get water at about 2am, you were not only guaranteed no queues, but also better water pressure, leading to many people stocking up on water in the wee hours of the morning.

As for the most important topic: the bands. The day started off with BLIND CHANNEL, a Finnish band who label themselves as a “Violent Pop”, which was, needless to say, not everyone’s cup of tea. This was followed by CELLAR DARLING, the offshoot of the big line-up change that ELUVEITIE went through a while back. Again, this was a band that didn’t pull such a huge crowd, being relatively unknown. However, as the day progressed, things gradually got ramped up on the stages, with the likes of NOTHGARD, SKALMOLD, and DIABLO BLVD. steadily getting the crowds more and more into the swing of things. One band which is always worth catching at a festival is GRAILKNIGHTS, a German band whose entire stage show consists of them, the lovable albeit nerdy superheroes who fight the evil villain, Dr. Skull, reliably playing their song “Superhero Medley”. This is a total must see for fans of superhero cartoons of the 90s, bringing back a veritable blast of nostalgia and memories. Another highlight of the day was EQUILIBRIUM, who delivered a catchy show, with anthems like “Blut Im Auge” echoing all across the campsite. Soon it was time for the bigger guns to come out, with SODOM, AMORPHIS, and SCHANDMAUL each delivering a fiery set in their own particular genre. And that was one of the things that stood out most about the lineup: the sheer amount of diversity, which ensured that there was something for everyone. Although POWERWOLF were the headliners of Thursday night, delivering the finest of their unholy mass, MR HURLEY UND DIE PULVERAFFEN almost managed to steal the show, and attracted a crowd that was almost as big. However, the field got emptier quite fast, with many being unimpressed by the new bassist. Having formerly danced for MR HURLEY, Peg-leg Peggy has been playing the bass only since the beginning of the year, and many fans question whether she really was the best choice for a band as well known as MR HURLEY. But regardless of this, Thursday got the anniversary celebrations off to a good start indeed.

With cords of “Resurrection by Erection” (POWERWOLF) still echoing in my ears, getting back to life on Friday morning had the typical festival zombie feel to it. Emerging from the tent while cursing and smoldering like a vampire, the first port of call was the breakfast tent for some much needed coffee and breakfast rolls. This tent was doing a brisk trade, dishing out good breakfasts for decent prices and giving you a good start for the day ahead. Just like the day before, Friday also eased the crowd back into things slowly, with several lighter bands starting off the day’s festivities. I’LL BE DAMNED, ONI, and NANOWAR OF STEEL were there, catering to the lighter and more whimsical side of the Metal spectrum. Thanks to the relentless heat the day before, clouds of dust hung over the entire festival. Needless to say, the queues for the shower were probably at their longest so far, resulting in many people opting for the chinchilla version of a shower: taking a natural dust bath, after which a cold refreshing beer from the Beer Garden was in order. This is perhaps one of the best spots to enjoy the festival from when you’re don’t feel like staying in front of the stage. This Alps-inspired beer garden had ample amount of benches and tables to kick back and mostly listen the rest of the festival, or if tickles your fancy - enjoy a meal from one of the many diverse food stalls which were on offer at the grounds.

After this small reprieve, it was time for some heavier music. First of all OBSCURITY with their rough paganism kicked me out of any lazynes that was still lingering. Combined with the next act ANNISOKAY full of youthful glee and happiness, complete with the singer going crowd-surfing on his knees, the energy surge was through the roof. THE OTHER perhaps didn’t get the most suitable time slot, as horror tinted stage performances tend to look a bit silly in broad daylight, but their show was enjoyable nonetheless. EVERGREY on the other hand brought the level of Metal to more dreamy and cleaner levels, bringing you into a journey of sorts. Coming back from the trip and it was time for the ladies to set the stage on fire, with two very different female-fronted bands. Where AMARANTHE shows off the more delicate and melodious side of Metal, BATTLE BEAST is completely kick-ass, with a performance that goes straight for the jugular. Following on from this was one of my personal favourites, namely FINNTROLL. Their performances are always captivating, filled with sheer exuberance and catchy melodies that go straight to your feet and just make you want to dance. Whilst FINNTROLL are a tough act to follow, ENSIFERUM were scheduled to carry on the torch of Folk Metal. However, due to ENSIFERUM being delayed at the airport, the show was picked up by the pirates of ALESTORM after a short interval, rife with infectious songs about drinking and a strange optimism about criminal life, leaving behind the urge to shove certain part of ships up peoples bums. Finally it was time for the bigger acts to take to the stage. EISBRECHER, a Neue Deutsche Härte band, really got the crowd going, with masses singing along. Cue Sweden’s very own HAMMERFALL, who then completely shredded the stage with their powerful songs, and stunning stage show full of fiery flare. Lastly, VERSENGOLD, a very well known German modern Folk Rock band took the night to an all-time high, delivering one crowd favourite after the other. This was then the perfect moment for ENSIFERUM to take over, putting on a lively and completely energetic show, despite their stressful journey to the festival. And to wrap it all up was EISREGEN, placing the final cherry on the cake.

Before you know what hit you, the last day was already upon us. Starting off with bands like WALKING DEAD ON BROADWAY, ERDLING, and AHAB. Again, what stood out is the variety of bands from all kinds of different genres: just within the first three bands we already saw everything ranging from Deathcore to Dark Rock to Funeral Doom, with bands like SERENITY, SKYCLAD, and AVATARIUM only adding to the diversity. Bringing out more of the comic side of Metal on Saturday were TROLLFEST and GLORYHAMMER. Whilst TROLLFEST is pure chaotic fun, with probably the largest Conga line that ROCKHARZ has ever seen, GLORYHAMMER veer towards the more epic side. This Fantasy Metal band, which is the side-project of ALESTORM’s Christopher Bowes, delivers true epic fantasy ballards with a humorous twist which had fans singing along in no time. GOITZSCHE FRONT picked up from here, belting out their Rock anthems, before things took a turn for the heavier. This time, Americans were here to show us how heavy they could be, with Thrashers EXODUS and Death Metallers CANNIBAL CORPSE providing ROCKHARZ with a pure aural onslaught of music. Next up were the Thuringian band DIE APOKALYPTISCHEN REITER, another crowd favourite in Germany, putting on a riveting set that showcased the best of their discography. Moving further into the day it was finally dark enough for the goths to put in an appearance, in the guise of Doom/Gothic pioneers PARADISE LOST. And with a heavy heart, it was already time for the headliners of Saturday night, the Swedish Metal giants - IN FLAMES. They put on a dazzling set, not only acoustically, but also with all the visuals they had on stage. Their setlist was a real treat for fans, delivering a true Smörgåsbord of songs from their discography, not only including pieces from their 2016 album “Battles”, but also featuring a whole host of old favourites such as “Cloud Connected”, “Pinball Map”, and “Only for the Weak”. Their stage appearance was phenomena, which seemed to be over much too quickly, much like the whole ROCKHARZ festival. This was high time to realise the nearing end of fun and just enjoy the closing act of the festival - MANTRA. However, leaving ROCKHARZ festival on Sunday can be fraught with traffic jams, with thousands of cars trying to leave via one narrow road. As a result of this, more and more people leave early each year. And whilst the campground had been gradually emptying throughout the day (sounds of a playground fading, anyone?), most of the fans leaving early left directly after IN FLAMES. As a result, the crowd did get considerably smaller very quickly. But despite this MANTRA’s Alternative Rock music slowed things down again, adding a nice farewell touch to the night

Overall, ROCKHARZ  is the Goldilocks Mamma Bear of festivals: everything is just right. The festival is big enough to have the big guns headlining it, but also small enough to avoid the gigantic crowds you find at the titan festivals. It has a huge variety of stalls, but everything is still within walking distance. Sure, there are a few things that could have been done better, such as more water access points or showers, but pretty much every festival has some room for improvement. As with several other big festivals, there seems to have been professional thieves on the prowl again. So if you’re planning on coming next year, be sure to leave any unnecessary valuables at home. And if you do have to bring valuables with you, be sure to keep them safe! This is a problem that all larger festivals face, and is one that can’t really be controlled.
Despite this, ROCKHARZ is still more than worth a visit, with the lineup for next year already shaping up nicely. Planned for the 3rd to 6th July 2019, next year is already off to a promising start. Bands such as CHILDREN OF BODOM, CRADLE OF FILTH, DRAGONFORCE, OVERKILL, MONO INC, GRAND MAGUS, NAILED TO OBSCURITY and NERVOSA have already been confirmed, with many more to come in the next few months. As an extra treat, WINTERSUN have also committed to playing ROCKHARZ 2019. To celebrate the 15th anniversary of their first album, they will be playing their self-titled debut album in its entirety. Definitely not something you want to miss out on! Another special highlight to look out for will be EPICA, whose only open air performance in Germany next year will be at ROCKHARZ. Be sure not to miss this spectacular occasion!
Metal Temple looks forward to seeing you there!
Many thanks to Stefan Bollmann for being a lifesaver and coming to the rescue with the photos! For more photos and copyright licensing, click here. Also check out this cool video by OrkhaftOnAir.


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Edited 13 August 2020

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Yiannis Mitsakos

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