Six bands, one night, all but the Swiss Blitz natives of Deutschland! On paper, IN EXTREMO, HELLOWEEN and KROKUS (billing from the top down) pales in comparison to last year's upper trio of BLIND GUARDIAN, SAXON and STRATOVARIUS (Hell, the bottom half of the 2011 bill might have even been stronger than this year), not to mention '09, when EDGUY, HAMMERFALL and U.D.O. inhabited the top of the ticket. That said, five thousand fans came to Karlsruhe's indoor sports arena (Europahalle) on Dec.15th, demonstrating the German tradition of attendance supercedes the event's actual line-up. As the region's largest indoor festival, it's proof the Knockout Festival has arrived and a 2013 edition (December 14, with DORO) has already been assured.
BRAINSTORM opened the evening, squeezing five songs into their allotted half hour. From the area, plenty of friends and fans arrived by their 5pm start. On a sparse stage (just a pair of scrims with skull and band logo) their mobile frontman Andy B. Franck worked the crowd, not just perched on the monitors down front, but painstakingly trying to get those who paid a few Euros more, to have a seat ("sitzplaz"), involved as well. A pounding 'Worlds Are Comin Through' kicked things off. Lots of reds, pink and yellow lights, such is the plight of the opening act. 'Shiver' was followed by 'Shiva's Tears', Franck accentuating the nearly a cappella final note, to the delight of all. Pity poor Antonio Leva. Already vertically challenged, when the lanky vocalist (standing atop a stage-front monitor) put his arm around the bassist's shoulder, it was like a basketball player and one of Santa's elves! Hey, tis the season! The 'Highs Without Lows' finale saw the audience take over the vocals, at times without musical accompaniment. Always good to see/hear these guys live (even this abbreviated stint), been too long. Now, about a new album?
Funny enough, was my second time seeing BONFIRE in six months, not that I consider myself much of a fan (sorry Herr Begai). Well, I was definitely "outnumbered" in Karlsruhe, as the 80s hair rockers (closer to BON JOVI than MOTLEY CRUE) still have tons of fans at home, all quite content to sing along to old faves, regradless of what current act was plastered on their T-shirt, or on back of the denim/leather jacket. Still with a good mane, singer Claus Lessmann (didn't pick up on it earlier, but he bears a bit of a resemblance to DECEASED/ OCTOBER 31 drummer/frontman King Fowley), in leather stars & bars vest, led the crowd through pop-metal callisthenics/ aerobics, while the the short-haired guitar tandem behind him laid down favorites like the opening 'Under Blue Skies' and the pairing of 'Hot To Rock' with 'Don't Touch The Light', both off their '86 debut for RCA. This was not, however, exclusively an oldies set, many choices were reprised from Branded, the 2011 live album and different from earlier this year, down the road at the Bang Your Head festival. As throughout the night, all the stage banter was in their native tongue. The ballad 'You Make Me Feel' was played on a pair of acoustic guitars, and for the closing 'Sweet Obsession', everyone but the drummer was center stage, en masse.
Not that many North Americans are familiar with POWERWOLF (pronounced domestically with two Vs: pow-ver-volf), but they are a frequent festival act, which has earned them a large following amongst the young (many of whom dress up). One long-time insider compared their rise to that of SABATON (via a frenetic live show and relentless touring), which is high praise. Their secret? An infectious blend of tongue-in-cheek power metal anthems (everyone saying "Hallelujah" for 'Resurrection By Erection'), with black metal aesthetics. Corpse-painted and priestly vestments, nothing sells quicker than a catchy tune and mocking the church, especially overseas! One of the founding brothers, guitarist Matthew Greywolf has an electrical fan blowing his hair skyward, as he mugs for the the young ladies at the barricade (some ashen faced, in pancake make-up and nun's habit, clutching stuffed toy "wolves"), while mutton-chop sideburns/Fu Manchu sporting frontman Attila Dorn works off those extra beers by repeatedly criss-crossing the stage in a shot out of the cannon fit of activity! 'Sanctified With Dynamite' is not only a fitting opening salvo, but sort of a truth in advertising calling card for what's to follow: a firestorm of lights, including strobes in rapid succession, and for 'Saturday Satan', ominous oranges. When not adding liturgical undercurrents, keyboardist Falk Maria Schlegel runs to the front of the stage to unfurl flags or exhort the faithful (faithless?). This year, after four studio efforts, they released their first live album: Alive In The Night, which might be the best place to start investigating these relative newcomers.
Well, if the Wolves were the new kids on the block, then KROKUS are the elder statesmen. So old school in fact, it was Marshall stacks to the sky and no wirless units, they needed 30+ feet of cable to move towards the front of the stage. Knowing the audience was thousands of vintage loving Germans, most of the set came from their pre-MTV albums! In fact, after beginning the ten selections with a rousing 'Long Stick Goes Boom', only the world premiere of 'Rattlesnake Blues' (from the forthcoming Dirty Dynamite), and recent tracks 'Hoodoo Woman' and 'Fire', plus a head-scratching, closing cover, would be considered outside the classic material. Far too many cover tunes throughout their career, and some would say their 80s success was defined by THE SWEET's 'Ballroom Blitz' and GRAND FUNK's 'American Woman', amongst others, So why end tonight with yet another, an audience sung 'The Mighty Quinn' (BOB DYLAN). Certainly not a major rocker, especially having just returned to the classic triple guitar line-up: Mandy Meyer joining Chris Von Rohr-Fernando Von Arb, cohorts in an on and off tandem since '77! Marc Storace still needs to work on his stage raps ("We're going to take you back to the Hoodoo album..." OK, How long ago was that? Take us back to Pay In Metal or Metal Rendezvous. Hoodoo? No way!) Nit-picking? Maybe, but still great to hear Storace (no longer with untamed mane of grey hair, instead, pulled backed, beneath a ball cap) screaming in the night (no not that one in particular) on 'Winning Man' (good portion of the crowd wasn't even alive when it was originally recorded), 'Heatstrokes' and 'Headhunter'. He lost his leather coat after the first song. On the more commercial end were the likes of 'Bedside Radio' and 'Easy Rocker', which I'll take over the blatant attempts to cash in that filled the 80s airwaves. The last four mentioned titles were strung together, in succession. Killer set apart from that closing thud of a cover. Ah, what might have been!
The announced running order had a cryptically entitled LADY'S VOICE listed for just 10 minutes, after Krokus. Once inside the venue, their merch stall revealed a bunch of women, in white T-shirts, on some sort of charity drive. Later, many of the same flocked the stage, to sing alongside VOODOO CIRCLE / PINK CREAM 69 vocalist David Readman. VIPs on the guestlist were each asked to donate 5 Euros and promoter Bottom Row matched the total, ultimately giving nearly $4000 (USD) to the cause, in this case, Children's Cancer Karlsruhe.
I'm always surprised how ineffective European bands are, when it comes to making money off their merchandise. How many bands come to North America, especially for one off shows, without any shirts? Now I don't know what percentage the promoter and/or venue takes overseas, nor how intertwined merch rights are with record labels, but it would seem that HELLOWEEN, on the verge of releasing Straight Out Of Hell (the artwork already announced) could have printed 500 to a thousand exclusive shirts, emblazoned with something like "Straight Out Of Hell, Right Into Karlsruhe" or worked the name of the festival in, say "Knocked Out Of Hell". They did have a pretty pathetic Burning Sun Ep artwork shirt, but certainly not a one-of-a-kind. Opportunity missed.
The Weenies took the stage to 'Are You Metal?" with Andi Deris in black, Gene Simmons face T-shirt beneath a matching colored overcoat (buttons on both sides), only to be out done by the overdressed Michael Weikath, a cigarette dangling from his lips, yet splendid in a formal outfit that most people don't even wear to church anymore. Weikath played the guitar from different angles, balancing himself precariously at times, but without breaking the lengthening ash on his cig. By contrast, bassist Markus Grosskopf was the picture of metal musician personified, wearing a sleeveless, patched leather vest, his tattoos plainly visible. A speedy 'Eagles Fly Free' gave way to 'Where The Sinners Go', Weiki switching to a blue, almost day-glo, guitar that upon further inspection replicated the band's pumpkin cartoon character. While they opted to debut a pair from the forthcoming album (OK, 'Burning Sun' is also the title of the pre-release Ep), neither are amongst the strongest tracks. Bathed in blue/aqua spotlights, 'Who Is Mr. Madman?' coming on the heels of 'I'm Alive' was almost an afterthought for the audience and surely not a showcase position in the running order. They would have been better served (once again, free promotion) introducing the crowd to the likes of 'Far From The Stars', 'World Of War' or the title track. Check those out! 'Steel Tormentor' was an unexpected surprise, Deris, still in his knee length coat, positioned on the drum riser. Sascha Gerstner 's guitar solo led into 'Future World', then the proper set closing 'I Want Out'. That's a great triple-play and you've not heard anything until witnessing a German crowd clap in unison (after all precision is a national obsession). With a set of four vertical lights either side of the drums, Helloween returned for the 'Dr. Stein' encore, which sent many home/to the bar happy.
IN EXTREMO are definitely a German phenomenon. Like countrymen RAMMSTEIN (although possessing none of the latter's musical tendencies) they are really a visual spectacle, tough to explain and something that makes much more sense live, than on record. Imagine folk influenced metal, through elongated (nearly five foot) Middle Ages horns, played by gents with odd haircuts and period style tunics, as they sing in any of multiple pre-Teutonic languages. Oh yeah, and there's plenty of pyro! Somehow it works, infectious as hell, albeit only for short periods of time to these Anglo ears. Funny enough, Metal Blade released a few of their albums domestically!
Additional photos can be seen here