Fortarock 2018 – Nijmegen, Netherlands

Having a thriving metal scene and more gigs on an area the size of a pinprick on a globe, it’s surprising that the Netherlands doesn’t really have any big outdoor summer metal festivals, like Wacken, Hellfest and Graspop, ever since Dynamo Metalfest called it quits and recently revived in super small-scale all we’ve had is Fortarock. With its three stages and two-day lineup, it’s still charmingly small for the big boys, but it manages to pull impressive headliners and after having taken a break for one year, it sure is back in 2018.

I begin my romp with Death Angel, one of the most fun and charming bands to watch. Prescribing to the early 80’s style of thrash their no-nonsense punch in the face and simply joyous performance gets the blood pumping, which with the dreary weather today we surely need. In high tempo and excellent form, they smash their way through their set, smiling and rocking out as they go.

After a short break to get my bearings and some food, I return to the main stage for Body Count. It’s still odd to me to see Ice-T on a stage, but he and his band clearly enjoy themselves. Their best work tends to be socially provocative and always aggressive, and while the crowd definitely waits for the biggest hit moment, in general, the band has a nice punky punch that’s enjoyable.

Next, I hurry to the tent stage where Watain are due to play, just as a thunderstorm is due to pass over Neimegen’s Goffert Park. Maybe it”s the rain that drives people into the tent but it sure is busy for Watain, and most of the crowd aren’t the band’s core audience. Many barely know what to expect and are a little blown away by the intimidating presence and sincere chaos of fire and screams tossed at them by the now very road-tested band, and they retain most of the crowd that wandered in to see them on this relatively quiet day for Fortarock.

After Watain the rains clear up a little, though the weather is still treacherous as Arch Enemy mount the main stage. Oh boy, the things I’ve heard about this band in the past were not great, but today the band really deliver. Clearly, with singer Alissa White-Gluz, past tensions have cleared from the stage and though some technical difficulties plague the set, the band battle through in a cohesive manner. An excellent revival for a band once scoffed at, that is really delivering now.

Finally, on this first taster day we wait for Parkway Drive as the night falls. Core isn’t my thang, but the younger crowd anticipate the band a lot and go bonkers for the backlit drama unfolding before their eyes. For core vocals, which usually sound like nails on a chalkboard to my ears, these guys do pretty well, the songs have an interesting structure and are more complex than you’d expect and the clean vocal parts are more than passable. All in all a solid performance for a band of a genre that isn’t my cup of tea. Well done lads.

After a slug back and forth from home to Nijmegen. As the festival lacks a campground, I arrive back at Goffert Park a few minutes too late to catch the photo pit time for Vuur. Anneke van Giersbergen‘s new project sure is a return to form for the angelic voice of the Gathering, and I’m still of the opinion that her sweet sweet voice pairs best with some heavy rock music with balls in. Joined by members of Stream of Passion and Ayreon, we’ve got a serious new prog metal beast to contend with here and boy does it roar. If you haven’t checked them out yet, I use as hell would, because this is probably gonna fly soon.

After Vuur we go to the tent stage to see much talked about band Týr. From the Faroe islands and with bare-chested ripped visuals in the promo, one expects either genuine Vikings or folk metal cheese on steroids from these guys, sadly they really don’t deliver on either. Taking themselves too seriously to go full on cheese and have some fun with their bare-chested ripped long-haired he man aesthetic, yet not seriously enough to go full reverence for the source material like Wardruna and Heilung do, we’re left in a somewhat bland forgettable limbo of passable power metal but nothing to remember them by. Tis a pity.

Back on the main stage, we have Dragonforce. I remember when i, as a late 20’s something now, was a mid-teen and my metal buddies were all in love with Dragonforce. The fact they drank on stage and STILL played those crazy widdly guitar bits was actually an extra selling point and boy were they impressive according to my mates. However drinking on stage does not lead to good things, as Dragonforce ala 2018 clearly shows. Sam Totman is so out of it he eventually forgets to play whilst having a sip of his beer, prompting the very capable and trying his darnedest to deliver a great show vocalist Marc Hudson to prod him and gesture to his guitar. The drummer also seems to suffer from timing problems as he just can’t keep up the speed that is demanded of him and he drops off mid bar, slowly slowing a bit. The set is also plagued by guitar issues for Herman Li, and then a very unfortunate medley happened, where eventually it seemed like every person in the band was playing at a different speed and in a different key than the next. Impressive it sure ain’t anymore.

IGORRR, roll those r’s, is a bit like mar-mite, super divisive and you either love them like it’s crack, or utterly can’t stand their eclectic wtf mishmash of genres. Combining breakcore, baroque, black metal, djent, traditional French accordion music and a whole lot more on paper it shouldn’t work. Yet it does, it so does. Somehow this insane mix of blended sounds all comes together to form cohesive, if eclectic and strange, songs that can seriously ramp you up. Combine this with an impressive lives how, sadly without a full band, but with live vocals, drums and uhm, a guy (Gautier Serre himself) with a laptop, and you’ve got one hell of a show. Hell the laptop is hidden behind an intense light show and you’ll be watching the otherworldly vocalist Laurent Lunoir and his partner in vocals Laure Le Prunenec the entire time anyhow. Go see them, see which side of the fence you fall on.

Sometimes you need to sneak away to the smaller stages, and today I’ve tried to do that where I could to the Buma Rocks stage, where up and coming Dutch bands present themselves to a larger crowd in a charming outdoor amphitheater. The first of these I went to catch is Death Alley. Packing some serious star-power with members of The Devils Blood, Gewapend Beton and In Solitude in their midst, the dirty sleazy psyched out rockers have never managed to dissapoint me yet live, but since the dramatic split with their original bassist, I was curious how they held up. The band are still excellent and Uno Bruniusson‘s drumming definitely adds something to the sound of the newer songs but the new bassist is a bit beige and flat. He just doesn’t have the personality and sleaze the original one had and, while he may develop personality and style as the band grows, i somehow feel like the band have lost some of their steamy, sticky sweaty sex appeal in the music, no matter how much singer Douwe Truijens still gyrates his hips.

Speaking of silly over the top campiness; Avatar! This particular circus may have gone a little bit too far for me personally since last time I saw the already far over the top band at Fortarock in 2015, but the music is still excellent, and they sure as hell are entertaining to watch and know how to put on a show. The delivery is also flawless, and the band clearly know how to play a crowd, leaning heavily on frontman Johannes Eckerström‘s antics to sell it. His fluctuation between a warm clean vocal style and pretty gravely gutterals definitely works with the insane circus or depravity they portray on their visuals. It’s a great summer festival band with solid tunes and a through the roof entertainment value.

In the smaller tent, we get treated to Baroness. Anyone who has looked into the doom and stoner side of things will definitely know this band with its mix of doom metal, epic guitar lines, multi-vocals and bluegrass influences. The band has gone through major line-up changed, to the point the only original member left is vocalist and artist John Dyer Baizley, with the most recent swap out having been guitarist and backing vocalist Pete Adams for Gina Gleason, who doesn’t let these big shoes intimidate her though, and seriously holds up live, especially her air-tight guitar parts delivered with fire, passion, and virtuosity, whilst headbanging are impressive. Sadly though in the vocal department, her voice is a little thinner and less deep than Adams’ was, and this leaves a little bit of a hole, but in general, the band is still alive, kicking and in good form.

Next on the main stage are pirate metal band Alestorm. As silly as they are the band is excellent fun and I don’t even think I need to say more than this: pirates, booty, songs about booze, keytars and a giant inflatable ducky that is set loose on the audience. If that doesn’t sell you on them, nothing will.

As a stark contrast to the sillies on the main stage just now, we go over to the Tent stage where Satyricon are due to play. Commanding the stage with a presence and ease that is nearly unheard of in metal, and especially rare in black metal, you may feel Satyr is an arrogant bastard, but boy is he a talented one. They are catchier, less dense style of blackmetal is excellent for a festival crowd that isn’t necessarily into blood and Satan, like Watain offer, and manages to land very well with even a casual observer of the black metal phenomenon. Being catchier and more stripped down than most black metal, however, doesn’t mean that the genre loses any of its menace, and a dark and haughty disregard for your opinion and your very existence flows out from the stage as the band plays.

On the main stage however we’re offered the dreamy and otherworldly prog metal of Opeth. Being one of those prog-metal bands who prescribe to substance over style the band plays and sounds excellent…. but are just an utter bore to watch. Don’t get me wrong, Mikael Äkerfeldt‘s dry banter is still hilarious, but I can’t shake the feeling I’d rather be in a beanbag somewhere letting their music float over me as I close my eyes to be taken to whatever world they conjure up, rather than looking at them play it.

So we’re on the final stretch of the day, with just a few bands left on the bill, all of whom I’d like to give a cursory glance at.

First up Meshuggah, or my sugar as they’re called in my head. being the progenitors of an entire genre, the djentmasters make complex music for simple souls. It crushes, the bass bounces and does that strange thing djent does, the vocals feel like an angry man in a power fantasy and the crowd chomps and breaks to the chugs. It’s all good stuff if that’s your cup of tea. But for me it never was, and Djent, with it rush to prominence a few years past, and the stylistic sound of it having been omnipresent in those years, now just sounds incredibly dated to my ears. So I duck out quickly to let the fans enjoy this excellent show of a band that’s just not for me and go see Dool.

Possibly the most interesting relatively new band to come out of the Netherlands for a while, Dool is dark and sticky. There’s no brutal screams or really any of the usual metal scenery, and I’d have to categorize the band as heavy rock, possibly dark rock. Because boy are they dark. Naming their album Vantablack was the right choice as a deep despairing empty bleakness is pervasive in the band’s sound and feel and a bluesy soulful sound gets interspaced with heavy chugs and the unique vocal sound of Ryanne van Dorst which doesn’t let itself be captured well in words. The band has a haunting presence that doesn’t let you go easily.

At last we have Nightwish; One of the most successful metal bands on our little globe, with rabid and raving fans just about everywhere, they rarely if ever play in the Netherlands, even though their latest singer is from here. Symphonic Metal is still defined by Nightwish in many ways, and it’s refreshing to hear a deeper timbre in vocals than the usual sky-high crystal soprano we’re used to of the genre. Floor Jansen owns her stage, but the biggest change is that the band feel like they’re a band, and there’s no separation between vocalist and musicians anymore. The band clearly enjoy playing live and all get caught up in this, where in the past this was a different story. Impressive pyro, strong visuals and commanding stage performances by all involved, plus songs that are surprisingly hummable, even if you don’t know them offer an experience best described as epic, and that, unless you think girls have cooties and falsetto vocals will make you blind, you’ll find something to enjoy.

Hopefully, Fortarock repeats this excellent performance next year, because while modest for an outdoor summer metal fest, it’s the biggest one we have in this little country, and it sure is charming for a “big” boy.

WORDS AND PHOTOS BY SUSANNE A. MAATHUIS