Germany's Knockout Festival - Yuletide Presents From HELLOWEEN, PRIMAL FEAR, PRETTY MAIDS And More

December 20, 2018, a month ago

By Mark Gromen

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For eight of the last ten years (missed '16 and there was no show in 2010), have ventured to Karlsruhe, each December, for a self-rewarding gift: the one-day Knockout Festival, which typically offers an array of the traditional-minded and/or power metal elite. Case in point, this go-round featured the headlining trio mentioned in the story byline, as well as CoreLeoni (comprised of Rainbow/Lords Of Black singer Ronnie Romero and Gotthard guitarist Leo Leoni). long running Teutonic act Freedom Call and local openers Sons Of Sounds. Several thousand fans, in a round venue, plenty of German beer: heavenly Christmas on Earth, little more than a week early!

Although a decade into their five album career, homegrown Sons Of Sounds is actually three brothers, adorned in the trademarks of Indian lore (calling them by the more politically correct monikers, indigenous people and/or Native Americans seems inaccurate, since they are neither, just German): war paint smeared across the face, two lone feathers in the hair, bones around the neck, ornamental woven dream catchers dangling from the mic stand, even a headdress draped across the drum kit. Temporarily thought about the cultural appropriation debate raging in the USA, but just as quickly, focused solely on the music, a moody, groove laden hard rock, noticeably different from the rest of the evening's program. Two part vocal harmonies and as a trio, singer/bassist Roman Beselt, who handles the majority of the lyrics, is tethered to the mic, so they seemed a bit shorthanded, on such a massive stage. Little in the way of movement, nevertheless, the Karlsruhe natives enjoyed what surely must have been the biggest gig of their lives. As if to document the moment, cameras and video recorders were all over the stage. Three of the five tracks aired were from their '17 Into The Sun release, including the "Blood Of The Shamans" closer.

Charismatic frontman/guitarist Chris Bay IS Freedom Call. Set to celebrate twenty years as a recording act, outside Germany, they're still best known for contributing Sascha Gerstner to Helloween, a position the towering guitarist retains, to this day. Some use the oft ill-fitting moniker "Happy Metal" as a derisive term for all power metal, but Bay and Co. not only embrace the tag (using it throughout their social media platforms), but truly embody the sound. The melodies are infectious, with easy to sing-along lyrics, typically populated with liberal use of the word(s) "(heavy) metal." Vertical hanging banners, emblazoned with FC, frame either side of the centrally positioned drum kit. Speaking of the skins, Ramy Ali played standing up, during the bouncy "Tears Of Babylon" opener, a shirtless, but vested Bay pogoing in place. Red lit "Union Of The Strong" provided the first, of many, opportunities for the crowd to sing and clap along, hands overhead. Throughout the night, recorded keyboards were piped in. Bay pumps his fist and moves about. Their signature tune proved more aggressive, thanks to heavy cannonade of drums. Plenty of clapping and flashing lights on "Metal Is For Everyone". The collective waves arms back & forth, overhead, as horn/bag pipes for "Power & Glory" (with it's chorus of "tonight's a happy metal party"), one of the biggest responses of the set. Blue lit "Warriors" sees streaks of white cross one another onstage. Yellow and reds alternate during "Land Of Light", with added emphasis courtesy of invisible keys. It ends the show, ultimately with Bay, guitar raised above his head, in both hands.

My unofficial winner of the most out-of-place T-shirt award goes to the woman sporting a white Wham tee! Really?

While CoreLeoni is a new name (for most), its component parts are better known: cleverly chosen namesake Leoni, from the Swiss hard rockers who played Knockout in 2014, and the higher profile (given his tenure with Ritchie Blackmore), visibly tattooed singer, Romero. Strangely, they perform, almost exclusively, Gotthard tunes. Tonight's lone exception being "Walk On Water", the only newbie on the coyly entitled Greatest Hits debut. Stripper strut hard rocker "Downtown" was up early and following the aforementioned original, a yellow/red lit "Firedance" saw Leoni's guitar partner, alone, center stage, under the focus of a dozen pinpointed white spotlights. More mid-tempo "In The Name" is followed by red lit "Make My Day", although "Mountain Mama" gets a big ovation. "Here Comes The Heat" closed a pleasurable, (generally) high energy hour.

Changeover, between bands, is swift, 15 to 20 minutes, providing time for a refill or quick snack. Primal Fear had a stainless steel scrims, one either side of the drums. Lefty guitarist Tom Naumann and bassist/backing vocalist Mat Sinner, to stage right, guitar wizard Alex Beyrodt, stage left and the muscular frontman Ralf Scheepers center, but mobile. In fact, most of the guys moved off their prescribed marks, the exception being Beyrodt, content to showcase his dexterous digits from all sorts of contorted rock star poses. Paradoxically, "Final Embrace" kicked things off, quickly followed by old favorite "Chainbreaker".

Cut and toned, Scheepers presents an imposing figure (his band logo tattooed bicep larger in girth than most peoples' leg), thankfully he's such a nice guy. Hard to believe the stick figure he came to fame as, fronting Gamma Ray! Don't expect to see much footage from any of these bands online, as there were only a few people, in a (by this time) virtually packed arena, filming the performances: one hand for beer mug, 50% less chance of using a steady cellphone, so why try? "Blood Sweat & Fear", the first of a trio off this Fall's excellent Apocalypse CD, came next, the singer climbing onto the drum riser and spinning the mounted cymbals. the blue/green aqua lit "Under Your Spell" sees the crowd join the titular chorus and pulsating yellows punctuated the speedy bombast of "Nuclear Fire". Beginning a back-to-back pair of newbies, blue and white hued "Hounds Of Justice" sees Naumann (a bit of joker!) bouncing from one side of the stage, to the other. Later, under purple/blue lighting, both singer and Sinner share the vocals. It segues into the bassist being the lone voice, to start, "King Of Madness". For yellow/green lit "The End Is Near" (much more truthful/prophetic than opening title, since there was but two songs to follow), Naumann and Sinner share the mic, but "Metal Is Forever" is Scheepers calling card, the soaring highs never fail to impress! Afterwards, the two guitarists were milling around in the crowd and VIP bar. Hope it's not too long before we all meet again.

Only the true diehards recognize the pre-recorded intro that heralds "Sin Decade", the title track from Pretty Maids' '92 album that was virtually impossible to find in North America (having been "dropped" after Jump The Gun, aka Lethal Heroes) and thus ushered in an era of expensive Japanese imports, to remain a fan (at least on these shores). Half a dozen white guitar cabinets ran horizontally, behind Ken Hammer, he of the cowboy hat. Out front, ageless teenager, in ripped jeans, is frontman Ronnie Atkins. Classic tunes bookended a mid-section of the running order comprised exclusively of newer material. So after "Rodeo" (up second in the sequence) and "We Came To Rock", it wasn't until the closing trio that the music dipped back into the 80s (and somewhat surprisingly, no "Red, Hot & Heavy" to boot!). Thankfully the last 10+ years have seen the Danes reestablish a firm foothold on metal (following a sometimes tenuous 90s-early 2000 wandering), so even the piped in keyboards on "Pandemonium" (top hat wielding bassist spins in circles) and cuts like "Kingmaker" resonate with old rock dogs, as well as those appreciating slower ballads, like "Little Drops Of Heaven". A look at the close-up photos of Atkins shows how much effort he puts into each song. Following the Van Halen stylings of "Bull's Eye". it was back to the Eighties, beginning with "Future World" (oddly,the first of two different numbers with that title, tonight). Red lights match the red lining intensity of "Back To Back", with Atkins skipping across the stage. The crowd sings the titular phrase, ultimately providing a huge ovation. Under purple hues, a more sedate "Love Games" is the final Maids offering of the night and not the oldie/original most are craving. However, it segues neatly into a "Wish You A Merry Christmas"/"Jingle Bells" medley (aka "A Merry Jingle", Atkins leaving the stage as he wishes all a good holiday.

Seen it twice now and still amazed not only how the expanded line-up of Helloween have been able to keep any egos/disagreements/old rivalries in check (witness plans to continue, record new material) but stage a show that sees all three vocalists sing just two complete songs together (new creation "Pumpkins United", about midway through and aggressive, proper set closer "How Many Tears"), entering and leaving the stage seamlessly. The massive length "Halloween" opener wisely gives photographers plenty of time to get shots of all the particulars. "Dr. Stein", with comical video of the demented doc (as depicted, in cartoon, on the single) playing on the jumbo screen behind the band, is a fan favorite. It's early inclusion saw the crowd "getting into it" right away. Andi Deris often with tongue wagging out of his mouth (or toying with bassist Markus Grosskopf) wore a distressed, Pumpkin related leather jacket and band tee. Michael Kiske donned a studded, black biker jacket and original singer/guitarist Kai Hansen, asymmetric haircut exposing just one eye (similar to the paint job on his pink guitar), had to wait for his vocal showcase, content to play off founder/guitar Michael Weikath, omnipresent, stage left. It was just Kiske, for "I'm Alive", the speed metal anthem requiring the now hairless vocalist to scream his lungs off. Grosskopf, still with a full head of frizzy hair, had limitless roam, side to side and up & down Dani Löble's drum riser.

"Are You Metal?" has Deris' back onstage, for his initial spotlight (the title spread across the video screen). Both Kiske & Deris trade off vocal lines for "Perfect Gentleman", each of the pair seemingly attempting to one-up and comically accuse the other. "Starlight", the first of an old school medley (from the days when Hansen was the lone vocalist) has the guitarist storm through high pitched, speed metal classics "Ride The Sky" and "Judas" one after another. With the other singers offstage, the musicians are afforded more room (amongst the pumpkin slices props), so at one point it's four stringed instruments across teh front of the stage, another, Grosskopf and third guitarist Gerstner (also with spiked asymmetric hairdo) headbanging, to Kai's right. The final Hansen option (signifying the first era of the band, for some), a quick run-through "Heavy Metal (Is The Law)" gives way to Kiske and Deris' return, for a more poppy "A Tale That Wasn't Right". An all hands on deck extravaganza, "Pumpkins United" feels like the end of the first act. From there, it's Löble's solo, complete with an onscreen tribute to former drummer/suicide victim Ingo Schwichtenberg.

Next, a focus on Kiske (three songs) and then a pair of (sadly) forgotten mid-90s Deris gems (when he helped resurrect the band's sagging fortunes): "Sole Survivor" and "Power". Another natural demarcation (ending the proper set), "How Many Tears" trots out all three singers, simultaneously. Returning for the first (of what will be two encores), pre-recorded "invitation" leads to the band walking back on for Kiske's "Eagle Fly Free", the trademark bird soaring through otherworldly settings on the video wall. An abbreviated version of "Keeper Of The Seven Keys" ends the first extra session. After a brief Hansen solo (with a bit of Grieg's "Hall Of The Mountain King"), the final encore sees confetti cannons launch bits of paper like its New Year's Eve in Time Square, as several oversize inflatable jack o'lanterns bound atop the crowd. Weiki and Kai trade guitar licks, shoulder-to-shoulder as "Future World" commences. Not too long before they transition to "I Want Out", the video screen showing more animation, utilizing the cartoons which accompanied the original vinyl releases. Perhaps sensing the impending end of the show (or maybe just two of their best known songs), those still with voice (and even those who lost them a while ago) sing along at the highest volume yet. Will be hard (impossible?) to live up to this initial reunion. Look forward to seeing/hearing what they come up with and hope to be in the photo pit the next time it happens. In the meantime, if you get the chance, don't miss this spectacle. It's a real Knockout!

A separate, Helloween-exclusive photo gallery can be seen here.

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