Germany's Knockout Festival Celebrates Christmas - BLIND GUARDIAN, RAGE, D.A.D, And More!
December 22, 2015, 2 years ago
Rest of the world was waiting in line to see the opening weekend of the new Star Wars film, I was on a plane for yet another German metal festival. Knockout, in Karlsruhe, has been my December destination since 2009, the one day, multi-band event something of a Christmas gift to myself (Alvin!). After government inspectors deemed the Europahalle arena structurally unsafe, last year saw a return to the semi-circular Schwarzwaldhalle, where the event originally began, back in '05. This year, the headliner was Blind Guardian (fresh off an extensive North American tour), as well as Geoff Tate's Operation: Mindcrime, D.A.D., an intriguing one-night only mix of Rage/Refuge (bassist/singer Peavy Wagner joined onstage by members of both outfits), Axxis and Orphaned Land. Having seen all but Axxis before this night, well aware of the respective careers, but honestly can only admit to being a (longstanding) fan of the Guardians.
Day before, took in a supposed Goth night at Karlsruhe's ruling rock club. Guess it's the product of too much hype, but was expecting wall-to-wall blackness, populated with splashed of fish nets, spiked dog collars and corset/bustier cleavage. Surprise, just a lot of Wacken t-shirts! At least I knew what the dress code would be for Knockout. With issues in 2015, noticeable improvements included opening an additional food room (with greater selection of eats), foregoing the usual "bons", token exchange economy, in lieu of good old cash and roving/wheeled beer vendors on the concert floor. Nice touch!
First up, at 5 pm was Orphaned Land, whose progressive, Middle Eastern flavored sounds seem a bit at odds with the drinking, German festival vibe. Undeterred, they've dealt with more ominous situations, as singer Kobi Farhi expressed from the stage, "We are Israelis. We come from where people fight each other. We have a Muslim fanbase, but we can't play for them, because of politics. We share the same religion, heavy metal!" Onstage, Farhi is a shamanistic figure, spinning, dancing and playing with the mic stand. On the opening “All Is One”, complete with trademark Middle Eastern melodies While stationary, he waved his arms, accentuating with expressive hand motions. Later, they bring out the traditional instrument, bouzouki. A dozen white search lights randomly scan the stage. They attempt to get the early attendees to sing along to "Na na na" as sackbut (or other whiny horn) is sampled. Hats off to expressive drummer Matan Shmuely, who plays with such passion, he almost flies off the drum stool. “A Simple Man” is a slower moment in the set, before concluding with “Norra el Norra (Entering the Ark)”.
Bernhard Weiss has served as MC for the Knockout Festival forever. Today, his band Axxis was actually part of the running order, the first return since the inaugural event, back in '05. Celebrating 25 years, the band opened with “Living In A Dream”. A single guitar five some (with keyboards and big German double bass drum kit), Weiss is a whirlwind, between ska dancing and moshing around the stage and playing off the other musicians. Rob Schomaker belongs to the Teutonic heritage of mouth agape, dopey persona bass players (Grosskopf / Hellowen, Eggi / Edguy). As opposed to the earlier foreigners, the fans greet the locals immediately, clapping along and chanting the band name, prior to the start of “Tales Of Glory Island”. The keys introduce “Heavy Rain”, two columns of smoke arise either side of the singer, center stage. The short, simple repetitive lyrics to “Hall Of Fame” is a textbook on how to capture a German crowd. For “Touch The Rainbow”, seats, acoustic guitars and drum line are brought onstage, as well as an 8 year old boy from the crowd (complete with airport ground crew headphone/ear protection). The youngster was given a tambourine to play along and later, he joined the entire band, stage front, banging a tom-tom. The extended segment lasted as long as two songs, but won them points with the fans, helping raise another German metalhead. “A Little War” proved a fan favorite (what didn't?), before closing with a strong “Kingdom Of The Night”.
Wasn't sure what to expect from Rage Meets Refuge, knowing that Peavy would be combining both trios at some point. The hulking bassist walked onstage with diminutive Rage guitarist Marcos Rodriguez, while Refuge (aka classic Rage line-up) drummer Christos Efthimiadis was behind the skins for “Black In Mind”, “Over & Over” and “Sent By The Devil”. “End Of All Days” sees two drummers, one hand pounding, seated on the side of the riser and Manni Schmidt adding a second guitar to the mix. “Solitary Man” sees the band back to a trio, Schmidt the lone string-bender. However, a major promotional opportunity was missed, as photographers were dismissed (as is usual) after three songs, missing much of the "special" shots: Rage with two guitars? A barrage of strobes threatens to reenact “Firestorm”, which ended with red lights, Manni and Peavy center stage together. The ubiquitous “Don't Fear The Winter” and new signature tune “Refuge” followed, before it was all hands on deck, twin guitars and two drummers sharing the same kit, for a blue lit “Higher Than The Sky” finale. Unprovoked, the fans broke into the chorus.
D.A.D., playing under a backdrop of their original Disneyland After Dark moniker, complete with cow skull logo. Never would have imagined, in 2015, that I'd see D.A.D. three times in the same year, but thanks to 70,000 Tons Of Metal (where they performed twice, as did Refuge), it's a fact. During “Jihad”, which kicked things off, there was curly haired Stig Pedersen, he of the blue lit translucent bas, with two pink strings, teetering atop the single kick drum, a loft he'd return to throughout the night. Front and center, in cardigan sweater, was Jesper Binzer (vocals/second guitar), while his guitarist brother, Jacob, in top hat, keeps to himself. “Makin Fun Of Money” was up early in the setlist, followed by the campy lyrics to “Girl Nation”. By “A New Age Moving In” Pedersen had opted for his Iron Cross bass, the headstock topped with a small replica of the Red Baron's bi-plane. Despite the unwieldy instrument, he returned to the drum perch, under purple lights. He even took a turn at the mic, for the punky “Riding With Sue” which also saw the guitarist break into staccato rendition of the Rawhide theme(?). Warned they had just five minutes left, they tore into “Sleeping My Day Away”, the crazy bassist playing his instrument upside down (headstock pointed to the floor), yes, while balanced on that lone kick. Quite the visual presentation, all around.
Former Queensryche singer Geoff Tate has been playing to some small crowds (less than a hundred) on the European tour, so he certainly should have been happy to see 3000 or so in Karlsruhe. With odd spiked tuft of hair and strange sunglasses, couldn't help but think the portly, dress vested singer looked like, at best, Kim Jong-un or worse, the original North Korean dictator, as betrayed by a puppet in Team America. He ran through the entire Operation Mindcrime album, chronologically, before closing with “Empire”. Blind allegiance to "The Voice" of the Ryche's pinnacle release: do we care? Should we care? In a word, boring, although there are plenty of "acts" touring with just one (or fewer) original members, playing the hits, so why not Geoff Tate. “Don't Believe In Love” is still one of the strongest songs on that album and always great to hear, but honestly, had already checked out of Queensryche fandom by this point in their career (actually The Warning was my departure point, disappointing, after the EP). Without those landmark songs, really not much in it for me.
As previously mentioned, saw Blind Guardian onboard the 70,000 cruise, but also saw them twice on their North American trek (alongside Grave Digger), where they thankfully changed the setlist nightly, in preparation for recording a live CD. What was different about the Knockout show was the scale: not a club show and production values. Both Hansi Kürsch and guitarist André Olbrich were surprised to see my in the photo pit, once again. Much of the set mimicked what was aired this fall. Of course, most songs saw the fans break into song, without any prodding. The one-two old school punch of “Banish From Sanctuary” and red lit “Nightfall” tested those voices, equally split between sipping beer and joining the fun. Attention to details, “Fly” saw the three letters flashing repeatedly, spelled out on the lighting rig. “Tanelorn (Into The Void)”, blue/gold lit “Lost In The Twilight Hall” (which received a huge ovation!) and “Valhalla” were highlights of the mid-section. At home, speaking in native tongue, Kürsch was the consummate frontman, needling the crowd and also knowing when to sit back and soak up the adulation. The final third of the evening, including “Imaginations From The Other Side”, “Bard's Song” and closing “Mirror Mirror” showcase the magic that originally made us fans of the band. Returning for the rousing “Majesty” was just icing on the cake. Much like the Grinch, a jaded journalist's heart grew bigger today.
Plans are afoot for a return to Karlsruhe, a one hour train ride from Frankfurt airport, next December. What do you want for Christmas?