Chania Rock Festival – Beach Holiday? Metal? Crete Has Both!
July 14, 2019, a month ago
While Paradise Island might be trademarked and synonymous with the Bahamas, doubtful many would find fault in my premise that for one weekend, in July, metalheads should award that moniker to Crete. Directly accessible from most European airports (typically via budget carriers like Easyjet, Ryanair or Norwegian), especially if you've already experienced the hustle & bustle of Athens, including the must-see history surrounding the Parthenon, skip the hydrofoil water taxi/ferry and opt to arrive by plane. For thousands of years, the people of Crete have made a home on this dry, inhospitable soil, including the meandering old town section of Chania (the C is silent, pronounced: HAN, like man's name, E, AH), with its picturesque 14th century Venetian harbor, now lined with cafes/restaurants. Browse the maze of narrow streets, festooned with bars and shops (Old World and new), but like any labyrinth, some ways lead to a dead end! Barely wide enough for a Smart car, intrepid (foolish?) Greek drivers somehow navigate mini-trucks through these routes, without regard for pedestrians, or other vehicles (sometimes having to back-up, to allow another to pass). However, everyone seems to watch out for the plethora of feral cats. Whether on the mainland, or various Greek isles, cats are not kept as house pets, but it's common for people to leave food on doorsteps, thereby inadvertently "adopting" a stray. There's rubble (not always ancient) amongst the more modern structures, the recent economic downturn having invaded the island hideaway too. As a result, anarchist graffiti and communist campaign posters are not unusual, especially with a national election the day after the concert. Still, the water is crystal clear on the rocky shoreline. More pristine, sandy beaches are on the opposite side of the isle, a day trip by either car or bus. The population is hospitable, especially to foreigners (tourism being a big money maker), ready to enjoy food and drink, of which there is plenty. The inhabitants are nearly as warm as the weather, each day virtually a carbon copy: cloud-less, temperatures a few degrees either side of 90 Fahrenheit.
The two day, outdoor festival takes place atop the ramparts of the historic San Salvatore (aka San Salvador) fortress, a precipice overlooking the Cretan Sea. There's also a free day/warm-up show with ten bands the night before the actual event. I might be wrong, but amongst the pimple & braces brigade, have the feeling the Death, Mayhem, Gamma Ray and Sepultura t-shirts don't necessarily equate to allegiance, more a requisite accessory, like when the Kardashians don similar apparel. The ultimate desire is to turn Chania Rock Fest into a vacation destination, where music is just one aspect of the trip, after all, it is a long way to go. The aforementioned amenities, experienced firsthand, and countless others (my plane was loaded with families, so there's undoubtedly tons of other options beyond historical sightseeing, beaches and dining/nightlife) might make it happen. Perhaps a try at an outdoor movie theater (offering first run features for just 7 Euros), sort of like a drive-in, for human beings. Of course it has to be after dark, no matinee showings. Tired of drinking Mythos, the ubiquitous mainland beer? Swig the artisan White Mountains, by Lafkas Brewery, made right there, in Chania: a smoothing drinking, caramel-colored, triple hop Pale Ale gleaned from years of living in Belgium. Like music, good beer is universal!
A boutique gathering, similar in nature to Headbangers' Open Air. One stage, nine vendor tents: three serving Amstel beer (and harder liquor), one for procuring the necessary drink tokens, the remainder, food options, merch and CBD oil. Ok? Only place hotter than the straw strewn grounds was the inside of a plastic, unventilated port-o-pottie! It's Friday at 5:30 PM, time to rock. The mid-day siesta, where some businesses close, since most avoid venturing out, in the heat of the day: commerce conducted in the morning, or after sunset. In fact, there's significantly more people, even single-digit aged children, on the streets closer to midnight than six hours earlier. Go figure! The festival sells two half-liter bottles of water, for just one Euro, a necessity, in these temps. Draft beer was 3 Euros.
Decipher had the task of getting early arrivals out of the shadows, people literally camped in whatever shade they could find. For once, won't criticize a band for just standing around onstage. Dressed all in black, jeans & boots (to boot), could give a new meaning to "death" metal if they're not careful. Only concession was 4/5 of the guys had sleeveless t-shirts. Still, there was some headbanging and pin wheeling hair. Seems apt for a song entitled "Of Fire & Brimstone" in this environment. Did I mention it was hot? Was the title track of their just released four-song EP, although they played more songs than that in their time slot. Not a full-on unrepentant delivery, there were some subtleties within the hell spawned approach. Assume not that many tours hit Crete (the logistics of getting on/off the island mean a couple of days, either side of the gig), so fans seemingly adopt an all-for-one philosophy: might not be your favorite band (or even metallic sub-genre) but fans attend anyway. Would explain the In Flames and Sonata Arctica t-shirted fans fervently enjoying the blackened death of Decipher. Until the headliner, quick (15 minute) changeovers, between bands. Hell, even the roadies don't want to be exposed to the sun for very long.
Major step up in level of musicianship, but to be fair, there's more than a few gray hairs on the members of Doomocracy, sort of Greece's answer to Candlemass. English lyrics, from a powerful singer, who soars above the heaviness, there's also a bit of groove in that doom. Visually, they played off one another, especially singer-guitarist and headbang. Middle Eastern flavored "Guardian Within" and bottom end heavy "A Taste Of Absinthe" came across as winners. Sadly, got the impression they don't play live very often, as the conclusion of every song was met with extended silence and quizzical looks between the band members (looking for direction?), punctuated by the drummer shouting something to offstage attendant(s). Their time onstage sailed by.
Sinheresy are a dual-sexed vocal combo, the beauty & the beast format being popular in Italy since Lacuna Coil. At least Cecilia Petrini came dressed for the weather, in shorts and crop top. "My Only Faith" had that syncopated, disco backing soundtrack, asking the crowd to jump, her ponytail swinging in time. For "Paint The World", she valiantly tries to coax the fans, saying, "I know it's hot, but come up to the stage. You will enjoy yourselves." True, was after 7 PM and some hadn't left the little shade they'd found: tent overhang, shadows, etc., since their arrival onsite. The band move about the stage, both singers interchange places and play off one another. "Last week we played Bulgaria. They shout out. What are you going to do Crete?" There is no retort, just deafness. "Stardom" feels like aerobic workout, backing music. In fact, Petrini seems to perform a jazzercise routine: running in place, jazz hands, etc. She again tries to elicit a crowd response, so for "Out Of Connection", they attempt a battle of the sexes. The few female voices in attendance offer a mere murmur, so much so that when the men are asked to respond, but quietly, if dwarfs the earlier effort. "OK, this one is yours," she demurs to her singing partner. Predominantly Petrini sung, it's the first world class track. No surprise it is the title track and video. Prior to the finale, she says, "After the song, you can meet us in the merch zone, or the drinking zone. Is that OK? It's fucking hot!" That's an Italian complaining, mind you!
The understated Uli Jon Roth took the stage and promised a mixed bag, from his 50 years in rock. In a post-gig, backstage conversation, with Tarja Turunen and her daughter, learned his gold-on-black Egyptian print smock had been purchased just the day before. "Indian Dawn" (by Electric Sun) was up second in the running order and indicative of the deep cuts we'd be hearing tonight. This was no Scorpions greatest hits outing. With the sun setting, the crowd doubles in size. "This one's about the healing power of the sun and was the first song I learned to play, in the Scorpions," cue "Sun In My Hand". Appropriate as the sun sunk into the sea and the Sky guitar was ablaze. Uli doesn't sing all the songs, there's a full band alongside, including two additional guitar players. The stage lighting effects now were visible. "Don't Tell The Wind" was written by his brother Zeno, who passed away last year. It features three part vocal harmonies, Roth not in the lead. As he plays, he bends at the waist, emphasizing each note.
Uli steps to the mic for "Just Another Rainbow", which is followed by the lengthy, mostly instrumental "Enola Gay (Hiroshima Today?)". He prefaced the performance, saying "This is a very serious song" (relating to the atomic bombing). It's augmented with triple guitars, for a fuller sound, the histrionic scream of guitar meant to mimic the otherworldly atomic reaction. When finished, a fan yells out for "Need A Million", to which the soft-spoken guitarist tells him, "You'll have to wait for the acoustic set." Instead, it's "We'll Burn The Sky", minus any vocal contributions from Roth. Same scenario with triple guitar break "In Trance", begun by his protégée, stage right. Segues directly into "Pictured Life", Uli center stage, but not singing, content to play off the other guitarist. Only a crescent sliver of the moon is in the sky for "Catch Your Train". The Hendrix-phile that he is, the main man sings "All Along The Watchtower" offering Jimi's version, not Bob Dylan's original. This is what festivals are supposed to be about: feel, vibe, live, not some corporate sales opportunity. He concludes with "The Sails Of Charon", saying, "This is off Taken By Force. It's a Greek story."
Hard act to follow, but the former Nightwish singer had many of her own fans pressed against the barricade. Unlike Roth, who acknowledges his past, but doesn't dwell upon it, Tarja's repertoire almost completely ignores her time in Finland's best known musical export. The band lays down a Primus style intro to "Demons In You" as the woman in leather jumpsuit, with studded shoulders, struts around the stage, stomps, makes fists and punches the air, when not throwing the horns. She announces that she's not been to Crete since she was 18, "many decades ago," by her estimation. They are a one guitar and synth sextet, with electrified cello, ala Apocalyptica (well you can't ignore all the Finnish influences). The likes of "Calling From The Wild" contain more natural singing, less operatic trilling, for which she's renown. The Jumbotron screen plays images and even promotional videos. She debuts an as yet unreleased track (guess the video is online, so that's good enough) in the form of "Dead Promises". The accompanying lyric video isn't synced to the performance (as words onscreen are not what she's singing, at that moment), but since the audience is not native English speakers, perhaps it's not a big deal. The fans go absolutely mental for the pre-recorded intro to "Planet Hell" (the lone paean to her former life if you consider "Over The Hills" a Gary Moore song). When the pink lit song actually begins, they lift their collective voice, the crowd singing every word. Afterwards, she thanked the fans for their continued support of her career. Looking around, could tell it was the highlight of the show for many in the assembly.
Saturday's line-up once again commences promptly at 5:30 PM, with Diamond Signs. Now the premise of a cover band on a festival line-up, even one solely comprised of women, well call me skeptical. At least the gals were smart enough to wear shorts and/or beach attire, apart from the white bell bottoms of the lead singer. The lone guitarist was pretty good too, although did run afoul of Maiden's "Wrathchild". Yeah, not your stereotypical covers set, opening with "Fairies Wear Boots", Thin Lizzy's "Cold Sweat", from Bruce Dickinson's solo days, "Lovers In The Tower", "Holy Diver" and a token Metallica tune. That's a set that most metalheads would want to hear, from any local band (anywhere in the world) on a Saturday night. For a covers band, higher praise you can't receive!
Knew nothing of Carthagods prior to the show, other than they were from Tunisia. While the music was more bombastic, tuneful, but heavier/more aggressive than Brainstorm, the lanky, good humored frontman reminded me of Andy B. Franck. Maybe it was the camo shorts? He billed "Whispers From The Wicked" as "so fast, you'll fall down". After first song the guitarist switched to a hot pink color guitar. There were symphonic backing tapes to the title track from this year's The Monster In Me. How do you ingratiate yourself to your hosts? Probably not by saying, in passable English, even in jest, "Do you have any goats? Beautiful goats. No, not girls. I've seen the girls, some of them are OK." Bet it's only coincidental that the exchange took place before the slower, "Memories Of Never Ending Pains". Essentially a power ballad, with a wash of crescendo building pre-recorded strings and ends with a "whoa whoa" audience sing-along.
Might take three successive days of Glasgow temperatures (in Celsius), added together, to equal what greeted Holocaust, in Chania. Guitarist John Mortimer is the remaining original member, but the trio came prepared, including shirtless bassist in a kilt! After just one song, "Smokin' Valves", the guitarist admitted, "It's much colder (in Scotland). I'm not used to tuning in such hot weather." Shocker, the Metallica covered "The Small Hours" was just #3 in the setlist. The vast majority of the crowd wasn't even alive when the live disc came out, in '81. "Iron Will", off Primal, was an obscure choice, then there was the bottom heavy, titular selection from the debut. The launch of the "Heavy Metal Mania" finale (covered by Gamma Ray) was greeted by the wail of warning sirens. Plenty of singing along, to the "I've got heavy metal music in my blood and I'd like to give it to ya, if I could" chorus. Classic stuff.
A great amount of national pride coursed through the crowd with Rotting Christ (the biggest band in Greece, according to the promoter), playing their homeland and at such a lofty slot on an international bill. Sakis Tolis, who recalls Rasputin, the Mad Monk, hears the cheers of his countrymen, even before he steps onstage. Poised at the mic, he repeats the words "Hallowed be thy name" like a shamanistic chant. Ultimately, they kick into the song of the same name off this year's The Heretics. More ritual than live concert throughout, he'll spew his foreign language (to me, not the vast majority of those in attendance) mantra, eventually achieving musical catharsis. The video board behind the drummer displays images from throughout the band's lengthy career. Trying to compete against Tolis, the rapt point-of-attention focal point, the bullet belted bassist pinwheels his hair. Another newbie, "Fire, God & Fear" follows. Four flashpots ignite in the photo pit, as the singer calls for a circle pit (in vain), for "Apage Satanas". It is after 9 PM and an intriguing mix of smells, charcoal and grilling assortment of meats, fills the air for "King Of A Stellar War". Always special to see a band in their homeland.
So the time that so many waited for had finally arrived. Demons & Wizards. The band was supposed to play Crete years ago and after Blind Guardian played the Chania festival, back in '17, singer Hansi Kürsch was sold. So this time, alongside Jon Schaffer and Iced Earth guitarist Jake Dreyer, the singer brought fellow Guardians Marcus Siepen (but on bass, instead of guitar. "I like the challenge," he told me backstage. "It takes me out of my comfort zone.") and drummer Frederik Ehmke. "Rites Of Passage" opener could have been the subtitle for most concert goers this evening. Kürsch, who was relaxed and in fine form, joked throughout. It was four across the front of the stage for "Crimson King". Since they were headlining, unlike other festival appearances, this was a full blown Demons set, which meant a pair of songs from both Schaffer and Kürsch's main musical endeavors. First up, "Burning Times", played by Iced Guardian, as referred by the frontman. He employed a heavier, echoing voice, for this one. Once completed, he said, "Don't blame me for the ones (songs) that are coming. The best part of the show is over." He insinuated that he should come off the stage and watch. "You buy the drinks!" It was followed by the Guardian's "Welcome To Dying", with a chorus of several hundred voices joining in. Kürsch, arms outstretched, implore everyone to sing, clap along.
The singer recounts that "Beneath The Waves" was inspired by Herman Melville's classic, Moby Dick. It is followed by "The Gunslinger". More Iced Guardian collaborations are on the horizon, namely a moody "I Died For You", with the band backlit and some fog, as the crowd claps to the slower parts. Schaffer and Siepen share the backing mic, stage left. It segues into "Valhalla". Is there a better sing along anthem? It results in crowd continuing, even after the music stops. Kürsch wryly feigns attempts at stopping the unsolicited adulation. "I have to cut you down here. You will go on forever. Chania, you are the fucking best! We'll make sure we'll return to Greece within the next 19 years. That's the promise of an old man." They end, all too early, most would agree, with "Tear Down The Wall". My first, but hopefully not my last, Chania Rock Fest experience is in the books. I recommend this wonderful experience, but if you go, pack some shorts and other warm weather gear.
Additional photos from both days can be seen here.