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Witchfest @ Bassline, Johannesburg, South Africa

Various Artists
in Friday, 3 April 2015 at Bassline
by

 
Against an unexpected backdrop of almost shabby-chique in the back-alleys of down-town Johannesburg, Metal Temple recently got the chance of spending Easter weekend covering Witchfest, South Africa’s biggest Metal festival, hosted by Witchdoctor Productions. Located in the unique surrounds of Newtown, a down-trodden part of the ever-bustling metropolis of Johannesburg, this area in particular has been part of intensive urban revival efforts in recent times, providing one of the most distinctive festival experiences I’ve ever witnessed.

One of the most astounding parts of Witchfest is that it actually happened. With wave after wave of religious protests forcing one venue change after the next, and sponsors pulling out in droves, it is a testament to the sheer determination of the organisers that the event took place at all. Featuring a multitude of prominent international bands (almost all of whom will later this year play at the renowned Summer Breeze Festival in Germany), this really was a much appreciated chance for the local scene to catch bands that don’t typically tour South Africa, as well as giving local bands a chance to gain some international recognition, with numerous festival goers coming in from abroad.

The latest change in venue, pulled off miraculously at the very last moment by Witchdoctor Productions, saw the festival being held at Bassline in Newtown. This led to the introduction of an “urban camping” theme (a set-up fairly similar to that of the Metal Invasion Festival in Germany before that festival too was shut down by protestors), with campers taking to the lawns of a council park just opposite the venue housing the stage. Arriving an hour after gate were supposed to officially open on the first day, many getting there that early were disappointed by tardiness of the setting up of all the infrastructure. Fences were still being set up around the perimeter, a task that was only completed much later that night, thereby allowing beggars to come into the campsite and harass the campers for almost an entire day, and security was also conspicuous by their absence. In addition to this, the vendors from the various food-stalls had also been instructed not to set up before 3pm. This coupled with the ban on bringing alcohol and speakers to the venue meant that those who arrived early sat around with nothing much to do. Nevertheless, this provided people with an opportunity to catch up with old friends and to make new ones as crate after crate of beer was smuggled into the campsite over the fence. However, given how quickly Witchdoctor had to replan the entire festival after the latest venue change, it is not unexpected that things many not have gone as smoothly as they hopefully will next year. The portable toilets and showers were also a very pleasant surprise, by far more enjoyable that the usual port-a-loos that are typically found at festivals, although these too could have been kept cleaner over the course of the festival.

However, once the stalls had set up, they provided everything that a metalhead could desire, ranging from healthy fruit smoothies to breakfast rolls so decadent they consisted almost solely of bacon. One of the parts of the festival I enjoyed the most was a lovely grove of trees shading a lane lined by all the food and clothing stalls. This had benches and tables all down the centre, providing a perfect shady spot to sit with friends and enjoy one of Witchdoctor’s own craft beers (although these unfortunately ran out far too early in the festival). The need for such chill areas are all too often overlooked, even by large international festivals, so it was fantastic to see how much forethought the organisers evidently put into planning the entire setup. And just a few meters away from this chill area was the entrance to the music venue: in addition to multiple bars and well-kept bathroom facilities, the stage was also perfectly suited to an indoor festival, with a balcony and tiers along the sides ensuring that everyone could have a good view of the stage.

The music itself was blew the minds of the majority of people there, with social media still being flooded with one glowing comment after the next. One thing that many of the international acts must be commended on is their efforts to meet and hang out with their South African fans, something that isn’t typically seen in the larger European festivals. And as much of a dream come true it was for many South African fans to meet their Metal heroes, I think it was also an eye-opening experience for bands of such calibres to see that they have such a strong gathering of fans in such relatively far-flung corners of the world. The lineup covered a variety of genres, ensuring that everyone had something for everyone: for those who wanted a drunken raucous party, ALESTORM more than delivered the goods, whilst those who just wanted to mosh their hearts out had a variety of bands such as CANNIBAL CORPSE and DECAPITATED to go absolutely mental to. One of the best received performances was that put on by FLESHGOD APOCALYPSE; having toured South Africa about 3 years ago, this Italian band returned once more to African shores, captivating audiences with their theatrical stage show and tumultuous melodies. Bands such as SEPTIC FLESH and BELPHEGOR were also unforgettable, leaving fans with memories that will be cherished for a lifetime, whilst KATAKLYSM’s return to South African soil was also a resounding success, with the performance being filmed for their upcoming DVD. I can also imagine that it must have been quite the experience for bands, as skull-toting ravenous fans are not a typical occurrence in other parts of the world, and the level of dedication shown by the audience was something quite phenomenal to witness. Of course, a special mention must also be made of all the support bands who put on such amazing shows; they really drove home the point that South Africa may not have bands as famous as those from other countries, but they are by no means second rate. It was absolutely fantastic to not only see how excellent the showmanship of some of these bands was, but also to see the diversity of the performances and the genres.
 














 
However, no festival is without its flaws, and it must be said that security was rather lax, especially on the first day. Security was an especially important issue given the festival’s location in one of the less savoury areas of Johannesburg, and whilst incidences like being mugged at gun-point outside of the venue is clearly beyond the control of the organisers, there were a slew of thefts that occurred each day within the guarded perimeter of the festival. This ranged from tents being slashed and plundered or even disappearing completely, to windows of cars in the “secure” day parking being smashed. What was amazing to see with regard to security though was how the campers took things into their own hands. At one point, two thieves attempted to break in, and were promptly hauled into the campsite and beaten by a bunch of vigilantes. However, in fairness to Witchdoctor, they are reportedly already planning on how to make next year’s campsite not only safer and cleaner, but also more entertaining, so this year has hopefully been a learning curve.
 




 
All round, a huge thumbs up must go to the organisers for not only managing to pull off a gig of such magnitude despite all the opposition, but also for making the festival so enjoyable for all, at a huge financial cost to themselves. If you were there or just want to help support the people who are helping to bring world-class acts to South Africa, check out their fund-raising campaign at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-show-must-go-on--10. More pictures can also be found at https://www.facebook.com/ValkyrianPhotography.

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