KNOCKOUT FESTIVAL - HAMMERFALL, DORO, BRAINSTORM & More...

December 15, 2022, a month ago

By Mark Gromen

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As the fall 2021 Covid surge picked up steam, the largest indoor metal fest in Germany was forced to cancel, just a few weeks before its scheduled date. An emotional roller coaster, as it’s been since December '19 that fans could attend and when it looked like last year was a go, until the eleventh hour, the crash of disappointment was even harsher. So with a clean bill of health (so to speak), it was a glorious return the Black Forest hall, in Karlsruhe, with an all-star line-up of European talent. 

Case in point, Brainstorm. They are not your typical opening act, having completed a headlining tour of their own, in November. Wise move putting these veterans in the lead-off slot, as the line outside the venue stretched a city block, prior to their 5 PM show time. An intro tape of Barry White ("Let The Music Play") saw frontman Andy B. Franck dancing in the wings, between gulps of pre-game wine, straight from the bottle. Hitting the stage, they opened with "Where Ravens Fly", punctuated by volcanic puffs of smoke, simultaneously erupting at four points across the lip of the stage. Andy was extremely animated, whipping the crowd to action throughout "Worlds Are Comin Through". Risers either end of the stage, the singer was up/down, prodding the fans to sing, clap, throw fists, etc., as was the situation for green lit "Shiva's Tears", complete with a blitzkrieg of strobes. The guitar tandem, of Todde Ihlenfeld and Milan Loncaric (stationed at opposite sides of the playing field), also provide backing vocals. Slowed the pace for emotive sing-along "Glory Disappears" (off the excellent Wall Of Skulls CD), during which Milan was spotlighted by triple white lights for the solo/break. 

Was hoping there'd be some cross-pollination of the Knockout live sets, Franck having helped out Orden Ogan and vice versa, but sadly it was not to be. That said, red illuminated, with yellow accents, "Escape The Silence" (studio version includes a guest appearance by Rage mainman Peavy Wagner) saw a return of the fast/heavy side of the band, easily locking into a sound they have seemingly perfected. Not top end, but chugging nevertheless, the clickety-clack locomotion of "Turn Off The Light" recalls both Judas Priest and Teutonic countrymen Primal Fear. Good stuff. Red lit, with Franck singing in his hunched stance, Milan headbangs franticly. Four stage front plumes of smoke introduce "All Those Words", another chance to get the fans engaged. Fragmented yellow spots sweep atop the crowd. After singing the song, music done, the audience breaks into repeated, spontaneous a cappella renditions of the titular chorus, much to the wonder/dismay of the musicians. Overseas festivals are defined by goose-bump inducing moments like this. 

For the uninitiated, Eclipse seek to create infectious, high energy poppy/hard rock. There's a similar vibe to D.A.D. material like "Sleeping My Day Away" or "Jihad": pounding, pumping, sing along anthems, with plenty of guitar. Opening with a declaration of what was in store, "Roses On Your Grave" set the stage: a simple, fun, punch the air melody (hints of pop-punk, and likewise a vein of stripper strut), they were off. Erik Mårtensson wore a marching band uniform top, sporting a white hollow body guitar and there was minimal staging. They came to rock, especially drummer Philip Crusner, frequently swirling/flipping his sticks (as he played), displaying all kinds of cross-over, overhead maneuvers. Next up, "Saturday Night (Hallelujah)", another slice of high octane party music. For a stretch, Erik ditched the six-string, acting solely as frontman. When not running about the stage, for "Runaways", he frequently pointed to the crowd, asking for them to sing along. No worries, most complied. At another point, he brought out an acoustic guitar for "Battlegrounds". The drummer took the whole song off. Red lit, with white highlights, it was a mobile phone moment for some, the crowd singing "whoa whoa" to the Celtic highlands melody. Blue hued "Downfall Of Eden" was prefaced as one of the singer's favorites. More than a few in the crowd share his feelings. "Twilight" is a step back in time, for those of us old enough to remember the ‘80s, before the Swedes end with "Viva La Victoria". A red lit clap-along, when they turn on the overhead lights, to acknowledge the crowd, the fans respond with another unscheduled serenade (much like they'd done for Brainstorm). 

Apologies to The New Roses, who played next, but was in the midst of conversations with foreign friends as well as catching up (post-pandemic re-introducing myself) to the members of Brainstorm, in the VIP area, as well Doro drummer and fellow Philadelphia/south Jersey native) Johnny Dee. Despite an almost 15 year recording career, Orden Ogan are only starting to get the recognition they deserve outside Germany. Still the province of musician/producer Sebastian "Seeb" Levermann, the twin guitar outfit has a repertoire of festival friendly material. In between best known tracks, like "F.E.V.E.R." (many shouting back lyrics, at the stage) and "We Are Pirates", guys had the crowd sing "Happy Birthday" to one of their crew guys. More mid-paced, "Inferno" is red, with a swirling halo of intense yellows, center stage. Crowd vehemently intones, "Burn it down!" Green lit "Gunman" starts with Seeb asking all to swing a fist overhead, in time to the music. With a sudden explosion, the music takes off in a heavier direction, as those smoke pots erupt across the stage. More reds, for "The Things We Believe In", with yellow streaks, as Seeb strolls about in his pointy shoulder outer space suit, pointing the mic into the crowd, who respond in kind.

When it comes to the Metal Queen, I could have barely picked a more definitive Doro setlist, dominated by fast/heavy old school gems. Usually we only get a few, peppered between the new millennium content, but this time around, it featured the whole vintage batch, as well as a couple newer ones. The intensity was pumping, from jump, with speedy "I Rule The Ruins". Head-to-toe in studded black (PETA approved) fake leather, plus two belts and skull t-shirt) Doro herself, was out front, punching the air, headbanging, the famous blonde mane draped across her face, throwing the horns and imploring fans to do something similar, and/or sing along. By aptly entitled follow-up "Earthshaker Rock", it was obvious why Bill Hudson has been drafted into the line-up, as guitarist. Hudson is a dynamic player, heavy on flashy, over-the-top histrionics and gives the band a visual shot in the arm (especially since the absence of long-standing bassist Nick Douglas, always an onstage focal point). Undoubtedly Doro see Hudson as a younger, but no less vibrant Tommy Bolan, the ex-Warlock guitarist who has joined her, on different occasions, the last few years (especially in the States). There's no let-up in "Rock Till Death", leading to a red lit "Burning The Witches", which in turn directly segued to blue illuminated "Fight For Rock". Always love "Metal Racer", but only seems to be inserted into the set in her homeland. Slight dip, come copper lit "Raise Your Fist In The Air". There's a little riser on which the singer perches atop, at various points. While the speed might decelerate, come purple draped "Für Immer", the lone true ballad of the night certainly lacks nothing, in terms of intensity. Used to be cigarette lighters, swaying to & fro. Instead, it's plenty of mobile phones (or "handy" as Deutschland refers to each unit) illuminating the way, as the gathering sings virtually every word (helps that the lyrics, apart from the chorus, are entirely in German). For that one, Johnny Dee actually plays, from a standing position, behind his kit. 

Under red lights, with yellow streaks, Hudson appears, shirtless, for "Blood, Sweat And Rock ’n’ Roll" blazing on guitar and playing center stage alongside Doro. The titular chorus becomes a rallying cry for the Karlsruhe faithful. For of a pair with 'all" in the title, bathed in blue, "All For Metal" saw Doro fool around with Bas Maas, as Hudson once again worked himself a center stage spot, next to the starring lady. After repeatedly voicing the opening lyrics to "All We Are", Doro let the fans take over. A simple call & response, the assemblage was more than willing to mimic back the words, despite late hour. Maas took a brief turn, center stage, as the virtually a cappella choir, almost 4500 voices strong, joined in. Know it only takes a couple of minutes and guess it's too difficult to top such an all-encompassing fan moment, but why she still feels the need to end with an "encore" of Judas Priest's "Breaking The Law" (a song most bar bands can play in their sleep) is beyond me, as she repeatedly proved throughout the one hour set, she connects so well with her own material. So why not arrange the set to include another original? 

Still part of the Helloween tour (a package that will see its way to North America, for a select handful of dates, next spring), Hammerfall headlined a one-off (as they'll also do on the 2023 run), as part of Knockout. Like many in the crowd it was not the Swedes' first time at the annual December event. Beneath a backdrop sporting the recent Hammer Of Dawn artwork, as well as a pair of raised platforms, either side of the elevated drums: one adorned with the HF shield logo, the other, a motif of crossed chains and (mascot) Hector's hammer. The lanky blonde guitarist, Oscar Dronjak, in particular, made great use of venturing between the stage front and the more reserved riser, at the back of the stage. Both the guitarist and singer made costume changes during the course of the evening. Oscar began shirtless beneath a leather vest, eventually investing a sleeveless skin-tight black -shirt, while singer Joacim Cans began the night is a more stylist black motorcycle jacket, then switched to the denim model (red stars on fields of black leather), that he's used on previous tours. 

After a pre-recorded build-up, the band launch into "Brotherhood", under a deep blue stage (propagated by white strobes). As it gallops along, each musico sways back and forth, in place. "Any Means Necessary", draped in red, comes next. After a quarter of a century, there's a dozen albums in the canon, but the first of only three selections from the initial pair of albums (Hell, they don't even play their signature tune anymore!), "The Metal Age" still packs a punch, as well as rabid fan reaction. Don't forget those classic chestnuts boys. "Blood Bound" sees Joacim on the riser, while fans add volume to the chorus, while a revving motorcycle engine still kickstarts "Renegade. A bit of synchronized headbanging for "Venerate Me", between Fredrik (Larsson, bass), Pontus (Norgren, guitar) and Oscar, as Cans is perched on the riser overhead, his voice literally soaring above the instruments. He also mockingly deadpans, "Are you glad you stayed around to see Hammerfall?" Cue large roar. Part singer, part conductor, purple/blue colored "Last Man Standing" sees Joacim waving arms/hands, getting the crowd to mimic his lyrics. The Crimson Medley (as it's billed on the printed setlist, in front of each player) strings together abbreviated versions of several tunes, including appropriately lit "Crimson Thunder", Cans pogoing in place, as well as "Riders Of The Storm". It's red, with yellow accents, for the "Let The Hammer Fall" sing-along. The guitarists venture to opposite sides of the stage, Dronjak wielding a square guitar, constructed to resemble the mythical hammer. The ballad, "Glory To The Brave" is almost a pre-recorded playback, but showcases Cans voice, so an important moment nevertheless. 

Certainly hopes there's some running order juggling prior to visiting North America, as the final three numbers mean a lot more overseas than they do here. Beginning with "(We Make) Sweden Rock", the ode to rock/metal publication and its summer festival spin-off, from their homeland, is appropriately lit in their flag's national colors, blue & yellow. "Hearts On Fire" later adopted by the women's curling team, for the Winter Olympics actually closes the show. Got to be a more fitting send-off? maybe the return of the aforementioned signature tune? Just saying. 

Knockout and Karlsruhe are an easy destination for travelers, an hour train ride from major international German airports in Frankfurt, or Stuttgart. There's more and more of us coming from outside the country, every year. Maybe we'll see you there, next year? Próst.

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