Words by Alan Daly
© Olga Kuzmenko
Photos by Olga Kuzmenko
Having faithfully supported and attended the Bloodstock Festival in Derby for several years, we decided early this year that it would be a good idea to spread our wings and attend a European Festival where the Summer weather was a bit more, well, Summery. Falling on the same weekend as Bloodstock, 1,245km away, another metal festival, similar in size and vintage is taking place…
Brutal Assault is said to be the biggest extreme metal festival in central Europe and is now in its 21st year. It is held amongst the historic ruins of Josefov Fortress, an 18th century military compound near Jaromer in the Czech Republic, about 100km east of Prague. Spread out over four full days, more than one hundred bands are scheduled to perform on four stages.
Tickets for the event are a bargain compared to UK festivals at just €80 for the entire four days. Camping on nearby grassy meadows, village greens or random hilly banks is free of charge, but does come with fair warning of petty theft. For about 33c per use you can avail of security lockers to store valuables, or for an extra €15 you can grab a spot in the VIP campsite which promises 24-hour security. Travelling from Dublin, we opt against camping and decide to avail of one of the hostels endorsed and affiliated with the festival for €25 per person per night. Included in the price are daily return bus transfers to and from the arena which is 20km away.
Unfortunately, our first impressions of the festival itself were not positive. We arrive by shuttle bus at Josefov Fortress, which is now mostly a residential district, early on a drizzly Wednesday afternoon, and amble between the pop-up food-stalls and beer vendors towards the arena entrance. Quickly we encounter two very long parallel queues. We have no idea what the distinct queues are for, and are amazed by how vigilantly and patiently the soon-to-be festival-goers wait, despite lack of barriers or staff. We walk the length of the queue to try to figure out what each one is for and where to get our press passes. To give an idea of the length, we later find out that some punters queued for over five hours to collect their wristbands. We find the press/guestlist queue and are relieved to see only about one hundred people ahead of us. Our relief is short-lived however, when we realise that only walking backwards would be slower than our forward progress, and we wait in excess of three hours in the now heavy rain, before we get our coveted wristbands. From this we ascertain that the event is either woefully understaffed or there is some sort of technical glitch. It turns out that it’s a bit of both. The upshot is that we miss several of the bands we had been looking forward to on the first day, barely able to make out the muffled bass and drum sounds of familiar songs by Vektor, Tribulation and the mighty DevilDriver.
We finally make our way to the main gate where we are quickly searched for weapons and bottles, and eventually get to hear the reassuring beep as we scan our RFID tags and our Brutal Assault cherry is popped. We spend some time getting our bearings and exploring the festival arena now that the rain has eased off. The atmosphere is foreboding in the confines of the fortress, and as dusk begins to fall, we spy bats flying around overhead, their ultrasonic sensory system probably overloaded with the deafening thunder of heavy metal blaring from nearby speaker stacks. Four hooded and beaked figures echoing the official festival mascot eerily patrol the high walled boundary, and fire belches from pentagram shaped metal gates within the walls. Much effort has gone into creating the dark atmosphere at the festival and it definitely adds to the overall experience.
With a fresh Czech dark beer in hand, we head to the Jägermeister stage to see death metal trio Dying Fetus tearing the swelling crowd a new one. Over their 25 year career, the ostensibly offensive Maryland metal trio have amassed a significant following and many fans are seen to grunt along with the words from recent tracks like ‘From Womb to Waste’ and ‘Subjected to a Beating’ to older tracks like the set closer, the title track from their 1998 album Killing on Adrenaline.
Thanks to the convenient layout of the twin main stages, we don’t have to shuffle far to the Metalshop stage to see Mastodon. Even better, we don’t have long to wait, as the band has already set up and sound-checked while we were transfixed on the neighboring stage. Within minutes, they are in full flight, kicking off with ‘Tread Lightly’, the opening track from their latest 2014 album Once More ‘Round the Sun. The setlist continues, stepping back in time through their discography, omitting only their debut album. The progressive sludge doesn’t evoke the rowdiest reaction from the crowd, but by the finale of Leviathan track ‘Blood and Thunder’, the atmosphere is electric and the earlier queuing in the rain is but a distant faded memory.
Next up on the Jägermeister stage is Abbath Doom Occulta (or just Abbath to his mates), former and founding member of Norwegian black metal group Immortal. His iconic black and white face paints are proudly replicated by a slew of dedicated fans in attendance tonight. Despite producing an eight-track album earlier this year, Abbath perform just two tracks from the eponymous release. Opening with ‘To War!’ and following immediately with ‘Winterbane’ echoing the album running order, they finish out the set with Immortal and I tracks. After a long day of travelling and standing in line, we think it prudent to find our shuttle bus and save our energy for the three long days ahead.
Our second day of Brutal Assault starts with Belgian death metal/grindcore favourites Aborted. As usual, frontman Sven de Caluwé looks as if he’s about to burst a blood vessel as he aggressively spits vulgar vocals at the sycophantic audience. He taunts and mimics their timid behaviour before launching into ‘Coffin Upon Coffin’, triggering a defiant display of circle pits and crowd surfing. Introducing the title track from their Termination Redux EP released earlier this year, he explains that the song is about Pokémon (referring to the current Pokémon Go craze) in the way that it’s about killing everybody – You gotta get ’em all. Starting the day with Aborted is like being woken by a kick in the face. And we liked it.
On our way to get lunch we catch some of American hardcore punk band H2O on the Jägermeister stage beneath the blue sky and the substantial crowd are lapping up their up-tempo sound. A nice feature of the beer and food tents at the festival is the provision of big screen TVs and speakers so that punters can enjoy a drink or a bite to eat in the shelter from the sun/rain (delete as appropriate). While enjoying a particularly delicious sausage-in-dark-beer dish, an interesting mix of Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs’ and H2O’s own ‘5 Year Plan’ catches our attention, and we can see the crowd sharing our approval on the big screens. On the topic of food, it’s worth pointing out that the price of food at the festival is very reasonable; at least by Irish and British standards. You will pay well over five euro for a beer at Download or Bloodstock, but you’ll get a pretty decent meal to go with your beer here in Jaromer for the equivalent price in local currency (but more about that later).
When we return to the main arena, melodic death metallers The Black Dahlia Murder have already started on the Metalshop stage. Bare-chested frontman Trevor Strmad’s light-hearted banter between tracks is in stark contrast to the gory artwork featuring bloody impaled bodies adorning the stage. He points out that, until now, he has never looked into the eyes of another man from the stage as he pissed, referring to the banks of urinals conveniently lined up at either side of the main arena. Undoubtedly a plus for the male metallers in attendance, but no such conveniences for the ladies. An attempt to promote the largest circle pit of the festival, encircling the sound desk is not entirely successful, but the energetic crowd are definitely engaged and enjoying the entertainment.
Former frontman of Emperor, Norse legend Ihsahn is set up with his session musicians close to the front of the Jägermeister stage when we get there. Apparently, their instruments got lost at the airport, but luckily some fellow artists and festival organisers sorted them out with borrowed gear and the crowd would have been none the wiser. The setlist varies in pace, but never reaching the frenetic speeds of the earlier bands. That’s not to say the performance wasn’t enjoyed by the admiring audience. Opening with ‘Pressure’, they play at least three others from his new album Arktis, but steer clear of any Emperor material as far as we could tell.
By the time Exodus take to the stage at 8pm, the arena is heaving with elated fans, already overwhelmed by the sheer calibre of the bands already seen and still to come. The Bay Area thrashers call for, and receive, the biggest wall of death of the festival so far, and the energy levels on and off the stage are through the roof.
And French progressive metal quartet Gojira keep the ball rolling with a crowd-pleasing performance of a wide selection of tracks cherry-picked from each of their alums. Unsurprisingly, we are treated to three awesome new tracks from their brand new album Magma; namely ‘Silvera’, ‘Stranded’ and ‘Only Pain’. As usual, bassist Jean-Michel Labadie bounces around the stage while brothers Joe and Mario Duplantier and guitarist Christian Andreu round up the unstoppable force that is Gojira.
With a tough act to follow, Ministry have plenty of tricks up their sleeve to wow their fans, with satirical video displays, stage props and the ever outrageous Al Jourgensen at the helm. As on the opening night of the festival, fire spews from walls and hillcrests around the fortress between songs and bands, really adding to the atmosphere of the Ministry set. The setlist focuses mostly on three albums; The Land of Rape and Honey (1988), Rio Grande Blood (2006) and their previously self-declared last album From Beer to Eternity (2013).
Our last band for the night are Australian metalcore five-piece Parkway Drive. Before they start, the stage is draped with a huge curtain bearing the letters “IRE” (No, not a nod to my home country, but the name of their latest 2015 album). The shadows of the band members are briefly visible cast upon the curtain before it drops amid cascading streamers accompanying the thunderous start to the opening track of Ire, ‘Destroyer’. Although initially surprised to see them as a “headline” slot at the festival, they do indeed put on an impressively energetic and engaging show, complete with enough pyro to scorch eyebrows all the way to the urinals (yes, I said eyebrows). There are plenty of dedicated fans in attendance as is evident by the sing-along moments including during ‘Vice Grip’ and ‘Devil’s Calling’. Thus marked the end of day two for us as we make our way back to the hostel via shuttle bus. It’s hard to believe we’re still only half way through…
Our third day starts off cloudy, as Bury Tomorrow set the scene on the Metalshop stage. Their first time at Brutal Assault, vocalist Daniel Winter-Bates comments on “the diversity of the metal genres on the bill, giving a big middle finger to pop and dance and all the processed bullshit”. Before launching into ‘301’ from their new album Earthbound, he adds that Brutal Assault is the home of the circle pit and prompts another massive effort, this one made notable by the girl in the fluffy pink unicorn onesie on her boyfriend’s shoulders in the midst of it all. A nice touch is Daniel’s stance on paid VIP tickets and meet & greets; figuring that it’s they who should be wanting to meet the fans, and not the other way around. On that note, he offers to climb offstage immediately after their set which finished with the title track from Earthbound, to hang out with any interested fans, and holds true to his word. A nice touch.
We take some time out to explore some of the off-stage attractions at the venue which include a self-guided tour of a labyrinth of underground military tunnels with art installations scattered throughout. Other than the illumination offered by literally thousands of tea-lights and candles, the maze is pitch dark and surprisingly cold. At the entrance you can even buy some freshly cooked worms to eat! There is also another art exhibition near the press area, underground shrine to Lemmy, and several bars built into the fortress. And of course there are the usual selection of merchandise and snack stands. Every day at 7 pm there is a ceremonious firing of deafening canons for several minutes beside the Oriental stage, the significance of which is still a mystery to us.
Later in the afternoon, a large active crowd gather at the Jägermeister stage for Septicflesh, the symphonic death metal four-piece from Athens. They seem to focus their set entirely on tracks recorded since their reunion in 2007 and receive plenty of appreciation from the eager crowd in return.
The gathering is a bit thinner for Swedish hardcore act Raised Fist on the adjoining stage, but those present certainly make up for the shortfall. Referring to the recent passing of their former drummer Oskar Karlsson, frontman Alexander Hagman dedicates the track ‘Wounds’ from their 2009 album Veil of Ignorance to his memory “and our friends who went to sleep”.
Following immediately back on the Jägerstage, and a likely explanation for the low numbers in front of Raised Fist’s performance, are genre-defining legends of death metal, Obituary. They open with the heavy grooving instrumental track ‘Redneck Stomp’ from Frozen in Time before vocalist John Tardy takes to the stage to assume his duties for ‘Centuries of Lies’. Later, Tardy announces “It’s always good to be in the Czech Republic and intoxicated!” before (unsurprisingly) performing ‘Intoxicated’ from Slowly We Rot. Their set is a personal highlight and a definite crowd pleaser.
Portuguese dark metal quintet Moonspell start their show with ‘Breathe (Until we are no More)’ from their latest album Extinct, but focus more on their twenty year old album Irreligious and debut album Wolfheart for the majority of their set. In his darkest voice, singer Fernando Ribeiro considers the following acts Satyricon and Arch Enemy, and declares “it’s a feast, and you shall dine tonight”. And it’s not long before the next course as Norwegian black metallers Satyricon take to the Metalshop stage. They serve an extra large portion of Nemesis Divina, playing the 1996 album in its entirety, much to the delight of the elated audience.
Some melodic death metal is next on the menu from Arch Enemy, one of the most famous female-fronted metal bands in the business. Relatively new vocalist Alissa White-Gluz proves her worth with an incredibly powerful performance, appearing totally comfortable and confident taking the spotlight in such an established group little over two years ago. While they do perform a handful of tracks from their most recent 2014 album War Eternal, they draw the rest of their setlist from albums back as far as their fourth studio album Wages of Sin for ‘Ravenous’ and ‘Dead Bury Their Dead’.
Finishing our penultimate night on a personal high note, we enjoy the Boston metalcore maestros Unearth delivering a barrage of breakdowns to the indefatigable crowd despite the onset of more rain. Joined by temporary drummer Jordan Mancino while regular sticksman Nick Pierce deals with a surgical procedure, it doesn’t hinder their impeccable performance or sway the fans from headbanging and moshing relentlessly.
It’s now the final day of the festival and to our pleasant surprise, our initial wristband top-up of approximately €90 is still going strong. The cashless payment system enabled by the RFID tag on our wrists has proved to be a safe and convenient way to buy food, drink and merch at the festival and despite complaints about the compulsory one-off charges for using the tags and to later refund unspent money, it has been completely reliable in our experience. The only puzzle is why they chose a seemingly arbitrary currency called the JET for the system, where 1 JET = 32 CZK (Czech Koruna), which is approximately €1.18. So there was a bit of mental maths needed to get used to two new currencies in and around the arena. But seeing as a beer only cost 1 JET (or 1.5 JET for a much nicer dark beer), we didn’t really need to watch our spending habits too closely.
Goats gently graze on the hills behind the Jägermeister stage as we arrive to check out Californian hardcore band Stick to your Guns, who are bursting with energy onstage despite a thin and tired-looking audience in front of them. It’s not long though before their enthusiasm spreads to the pit and normal service resumes. Showing awareness for life outside the metal microcosm, sole remaining original member and outspoken frontman Jesse Barnett dedicates ‘What Choice Did You Give Us?’ to all the people in Turkey.
Despite having formed in 1980, Holy Moses is not a band that had ever been on my own radar. The German thrashers are unusually fronted by long-time female vocalist Sabina Classen who delivers coarse growls better than many male counterparts. Apparently all of their instruments and equipment got lost in Spain, but once again, other bands and festival staff step up to save the day. Their setlist is dominated by tracks from their early career, and features just two canine-themed tracks, ‘Hellhound’ and ‘Undead Dogs’, from their 2014 album Redefined Mayhem, the only album to be recorded with the current line-up. They wrap up their set with a cover of Dead Kennedys’ ‘Too Drunk to Fuck’.
As night falls, fans of pagan and black metal are in for a treat as Finnish Moonsorrow darken the arena from the Metalshop stage, although the Sorvali cousins warn that if the crowd shout song requests, the band will not play them; “We are Moonsorrow and we do what we want”, they clarify. Nonetheless, the audience bathe in the darkness of the ominous tracks, many who have clearly secured their places for the mighty Behemoth who are scheduled to perform on this very podium in little over an hour.
As Agnostic Front rip it up on the Jägermeister stage, thousands join us in the wait for the Polish blackened death metal behemoths, eh, Behemoth. The excitement is palpable for what is clearly the festival highlight for many. A ceremonious and fiery entrance gives way to the emotive instant classic that is ‘Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel’ as the crowd go insane. And as anticipated, we are treated to their highly acclaimed 2014 album The Satanist in its entirety, from start to finish, which consumes most of their 65 minute set. The performance is peppered with plenty of scorching pyro, billowing smoke, pungent incense and clouds of confetti, creating a dramatic atmosphere and the perfect finale to an incredible four day festival. But of course, the night is not over yet and any insatiable gluttons for punishment have a few more bands to see them through until next year.
Another sixty minutes of German thrash metal are on offer on the Jägermeister stage courtesy of Destruction. The fire and pyrotechnics continue, and the metal is so explosive that they even blow a guitar amp midway through their set. Singer/bassist Marcel Schirmer (or Schmier) shrugs, “Shit happens, right?” There are plenty of theatrics during their show including a bald fat butcher chasing a buxom blonde nurse around the stage before cutting her throat and dragging her away during the title track from their 1987 Mad Butcher EP. The crowd seem really into the performance, and everyone is on high as the end draws nearer.
The final band of the festival for us is Mgla, another Polish black metal band. I’m never really sure how to pronounce the name of this band, but have been reliably informed that the letter that looks like an “L” with a line through it is pronounced more like a “W” and that the word is roughly translated as a mist or fog, but not in a meteorological sense. The band’s appearance is as enigmatic as their name, performing hooded, with their faces fully covered in black nylon, their identity is completely hidden. The music is brutal and heavy and the crowd surfing is relentless as gig-goers try to release any final energy before calling it a day.
Overall, our first experience of the Brutal Assault festival was very positive. The significant hiccups in the first day causing us to miss some great bands were unfortunate (and the festival organisers did eventually offer an explanation and apology), but with so many other fantastic bands on the line-up and such affordable and relaxed surroundings, it does not sway us from the thoughts of returning. If you’re looking for a European Metal Festival with a massive line-up and an incredible location, we highly recommend Brutal Assault. See you there next year!
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