Copenhell Festival, Refshaleøen, Copenhagen, Denmark – June 14-17, 2023

Thirteen years after the inaugural festival, Copenhell now brings with it 4 stages, a Copenhell Con with a full 4-day programme and the sort of food and drink that...

 

Words and Pictures: Adrian Hextall \ MindHex Media

 

Thirteen years after the inaugural festival, Copenhell now brings with it 4 stages, a Copenhell Con with a full 4-day programme and the sort of food and drink that makes you think that maybe, just maybe, the Vikings got it spot on. The Scandinavian vibe is strong (unsurprisingly) and Copenhell gave us the true Danish experience for our time on site.

From its inception, the festival has grown from a 2-day affair with just 17 bands on the bill to a fully fledged 4-day event with almost 80 artists performing across 4 stages. The layout is perfect, and for those in the know [keep it to yourselves please], the win is the crowd size. With around 30,000-35,000 people in attendance each day, the opportunity to see artists on the same stage like Slipknot, Guns N’ Roses, Def Leppard, Pantera and more up close rather than in the middle of a sea of upwards of 80-100,000 is something to be treasured. Whilst the desire to grow is at the forefront of the organisers mind, the setup, atmosphere, and friendliness of Copenhell makes it the perfect event. Let’s hope the Danes see it the same way as we do and keep this for the fans.

The staging and timing allow people the opportunity to travel between acts without too many clashes and most importantly without the need to go through that painful exercise of elimination when two of your favourites are on stage at the same time. A few of those moments still occur and the odd agonising decision to watch one band or another still happens but, thankfully it is rare.

 

 

Let’s rewind though to Day One and Wednesday June 14th.

Up at 3:30am, out of the door by 4:00am and at Stansted Airport by 5am for a Ryanair flight to Copenhagen. Whatever people say about Ryanair, and they definitely have their detractors, I’ve zero complaints about the service both there and back. Timely, efficient, and friendly, everything we should be able to expect but always fear the worst. Very impressed.

Once at the venue with wristbands and jovial introductions completed, we headed out to the area where the main two stages Hades and Helviti stand side by side. Our festival commenced with an artist I’d wanted to see for some time, Ville Valo.

 The Finnish artist made his name with HIM and we’re very glad that even though the band is no longer performing VV is back with a debut album that came out earlier this year. Valo’s particular brand of gothic love-infused rock still features and judging by the look on his and the audiences faces, everyone was into his new music. Dark, dreamy and a voice to die for, oozing power and energy. What more could we ask for to kick start the festival?

A trip to the Gehenna stage then followed, through the woods until we reached a nice opening covered in chip bark to keep the area as dry as possible should the rain come down at any point. First up on the stage, Riverhead, the supergroup who released their second album ‘Cancer’ earlier this year gave us a masterclass in performing that managed to mix hardcore and metal but wrap it in a dark blanket of progressive death metal. How did it work? I’m not sure but it was pretty impressive.

From Riverhead to… and we knew it as soon as we heard them, the band of the weekend, Sweden’s Enforcer. There is no other phrase to use other than “Holy Shit” these guys were amazing. Originally an experimental one-man project from Swedish thrash veteran Olof Wikstrand, the band has grown in style and stature, and we got a set filled to the brim (and then some) with classic speed metal interspersed with lots of glam, groove and an atmosphere and image that hit the 80s sweet spot perfectly. If only all bands played with this much energy and enthusiasm. Absolutely brilliant. Look out for latest album ‘Nostalgia’ that came out earlier this year.

A couple of Tuborg’s later, because it’s only right to sample the local brews, and we headed back to the main Helviti stage for Maryland quartet, Clutch. If timing is everything, then going to watch the dirty-blues-rock of Clutch immediately after watching Enforcer was perhaps not my best move. The power and energy of speed metal compared to the (admittedly) infectious groove laden rock of Clutch left me feeling that something was missing from the American outfits set but the reality was probably just down to the buzz of the former and wanting to hear more. I need to see Clutch as a headliner and their European tour is in progress as I type with Nate Bergman in support.

Sick Of It All brought their old-school hardcore punk sound to the Hades stage with brothers Lou and Pete Koller doing what they do best. Lou tearing a strip out of reality with his sandpaper grain vocals and Pete every inch the purest punk rock guitarist you’re ever likely to see. The circle pits, crowd surfers and extremely overworked security detail suggested that the band captured the mood and vibe of the fans in front of the stage perfectly.

The first of the festival’s main headliners then followed. It’s a solid testament to the organisers of Copenhell when each night has essentially got 3 headliners on the bill. Wednesday saw Mötley Crüe, Def Leppard and Parkway Drive in the early evening, night-time and late-night slots and the same approach followed for the remainder of the festival as well.

Mötley Crüe got the ball rolling with their L.A. brand metal and it gave us an interesting moment for reflection and discussion with a number of people in the audience. For those of us nudging or the wrong side of 50 years old, Mötley Crüe were a band we grew up with and spawned a generation of acts that tried to follow in their admittedly hedonistic footsteps. Some 30 years however after the chart topping ‘Dr Feelgood’ was released, how relevant are a band that supposedly retired from touring on December 31st, 2015?

Movie ‘The Dirt’ based on the bestselling autobiography from the band has played a part in the Crüe’s resurgence in recent years. There were no shortage of late teens and twenty-somethings that had never had the chance to see the band play live so whether or not you have kind words to say about the 4-piece, with John 5 replacing long timer Mick Mars on guitar, it was clear that people were desperate to hear the band and ‘those songs’ at least once in the live arena. Was it a perfect show? No… Was it a trainwreck? Not at all… Was it enjoyable? Judging by the smiles and the fists in the air as Vince Neil encouraged the crowd to sing-along, join in, paper over any cracks etc… I would say it was a definite win. Can they keep this going… time will tell.

From LA Sleaze to a John Carpenter inspired set from Dance With The Dead which felt right at home in the middle of the woods on the Gehenna stage. The band played heavy synthwave instrumental music. Imagine an ’80s soundtrack driven, nostalgia fuelled foray with solid headbanging metal and you’re there.

Now it’s worth mentioning that, when one is at a festival, the first pint is and always will be the finest of the weekend. Imagine then if you will, combining this fine nectar with a small black test tube filled with the sweetest and most addictive potion known to humankind. The tube is adorned with a picture of / and the word… SKULL. It is seemingly only available at Copenhell and is filled with a black liquid that sits somewhere between coffee, chocolate and liquorice and is to die for. The drinks bill took a hammering from the off and there were cheers all round when we discovered the main bars were once again selling it. A case of 50, to bring home you say? Hmmmm… maybe!

By the time Def Leppard walked on to the stage and delivered one of the slickest, most professional headline sets of the weekend, the bar had had to restock on Skull and my wallet was less than impressed with me. No matter though because the lads from Sheffield (ish… these days) brought with them the Stadium Tour experience from trekking round the US with Mötley Crüe and Poison. The result as you might imagine was nothing short of spectacular and with all the hits and more flowing over a very willing and receptive crowd, it went without saying that the slot flew by. The band seem to get better, tighter and slicker as the years go by and for anyone who during the latter ‘Hysteria:30’ shows, stated that “Joe’s voice can’t cut it” or “Time to retire”, I for one can attest to seeing over 30,000 people, myself included who would wholly disagree with that assessment. Joe Elliott sounds as good as ever and on tracks like ‘Bringin’ On The Heartbreak’, he showed not only the youngsters but his fellow peers as well, just how it should be done.

Our last band of the first day was the ‘late-night’ headliner. I’d first seen Parkway Drive ten years ago at a festival in Helsinki and dismissed them out of hand. “Shouty bollocks” may have been the assessment at the time but like all good acts, the band have gone from strength to strength and having seen them at Bloodstock a few years ago and also in front of the Copenhell crowd, my viewpoint and love affair with this band has had to be revisited. Parkway Drive sounded huge. They put on a show and a half, got the crowd worked up into a frenzy and when ‘Prey’ began to thunder out of the speakers, had me dancing in the pit without a care in the world when I really should have been taking pictures. After a quick word with myself, I settled down, picked up the metal notepad again and carried on shooting. The band gave us the perfect end to the first day and we really couldn’t ask for more than that. All that remained was a parking ticket (sigh) from overzealous meter maids and a drive back to the Air BnB to prep for the next day.

Thursday June 15th opened with Black Gold on the Pandemonium stage. The British act, dipping into the current trend of masking their identities definitely looked the part and delivered a rousing set of nu-metal giving me hope for the genre that gave us so much yet seems to have largely been ignored in recent years. Definitely one to watch out for in the coming months.

A cursory drift past the Hades stage gave us some music from American outfit Vended who are starting to carve out their own niche style, moving away from the old comparisons to Slipknot given the lead vocalists of both bands are son and father.

Testament and Aborted did exactly what it says on their respective tins and the thrash and death metal fans lapped up their sets with aplomb. It’s great to see Testament getting the reception they do these days as thrash definitely seems to be making a comeback and many a friend of mine will say that’s a good thing!

For me, the next band of importance was Sleep Token. From zero to hero in what feels like less than five minutes, Sleep Token have achieved the impossible. Their career essentially powered through the pandemic, unlike many other artists, and whilst they may not have been able to tour, they’ve made up for it since life returned to normal with some brilliant festival support slots and presenting themselves as a complete mystery. Whilst the mystery surrounding Ghost may have diminished somewhat, the aura of mystique surrounding Sleep Token continues to evolve and the band are using it to their advantage. The hype feels the same as it did when ‘The Blair Witch Project Came Out’. Is it real, is it fake, ‘we have to see it’. That approach is working for them and as a result, the Pandemonium stage was heaving for the British act. The response from the crowd was immense and, like Skynd would also find out later in the week, this was a moment that should have been captured on one of the two main stages. If they can sell out Wembley Arena in 10 minutes, then it won’t be long before we see Sleep Token high on the bill with the stage size and set to match their impressive vision.

If up and coming bands are your thing, then Electric Callboy must be on your radar. Another act that is destined for greatness, their latest album ‘Tekkno’ does exactly what it says on the tin. Blending techno driven dance beats behind clean RnB style vocals with metalcore influences liberally scattered throughout each and every track, Electric Callboy have taken everything we love about industrial music and given us songs that fit the metal scene as much as they do the Ibiza club circuit. No mean feat but as the circle pits and swirling dust clouds proved, the crowd at Copenhell gave it their all-in appreciation for the duration of the set. If you need proof, check out ‘Pump It’ and ‘We Got The Moves’. Disco metal baby!

A couple of Skulls later and some pig’s head (because… when in Denmark) for dinner and then we made it back to the main stages to watch Halestorm win over the crowd with ease. The four-piece are so so slick it’s almost painful. Somehow, they held the raw energy that brought them to our attention over a decade ago whilst delivering a set that belies their still young age.

Day 2 for me closed with Pantera. Now I’ll be honest, I’ve never been a fan of the brutal, punch to your face metal that Pantera brings to the table. It’s not my thing, hence band of the weekend going to Enforcer (in case it’s not been mentioned). The crowd though are the litmus paper, the test as to whether or not the band can come back following the untimely deaths of two of their core members. Vinnie Paul and Dimebag are of course no longer with us but in their stead, we get the man known for his time as Anthrax’s drummer, Charlie Benante and on guitar, the one and only Zakk Wylde. If you’re looking for pedigree it doesn’t get better than that and the set that Phil Anselmo and Rex Brown present to the crowd is eagerly lapped up. Again, like those fans wanting to watch Mötley Crüe, you have to remember that Pantera disbanded in 2003. It’s 20 years further down the line and there were people present in the crowd who hadn’t been born when the band split. We need to remember that. For every ‘Please just give it up’, there’s a horde of fans saying, ‘Reform and play my city’. Play they did and it was definitely well received.

Friday June 16th saw us return to the site early to see Steel Inferno. Billed as Danish-French-Polish, Steel Inferno played classic thrashy speed metal and with its 80’s slant, made for the perfect start to the day. We then wandered off to the Copenhell Con to listen to a piece with Florence McLean about ‘Serial Killers: Criminal Profiling and Metal Music’. With singer Skynd also present to offer her views and why she writes solely about serial killers in her music, we got to hear how serial killers are very often insecure, loners, few friends, living alone or at home with elderly relatives….. of course, when the realisation hit that this could relate to half of the crowd present at Copenhell Con, we made our excuses and headed out into the sunlight!

The main stage played host to the renowned ’Troldspejlet’ TV host Jacob Stegelmann who, along with Aarhus Symphony Orchestra, spent an hour entertaining use with stories and orchestral scores from ‘Star Wars’, ‘Terminator’ and more. The response from the crowd suggests that this man is a king amongst kings when it comes to ‘getting’ youth culture. A really interesting and fun hour in the sun.

With Helviti playing host to Brazilian outfit Angra, it was great to get some solid power metal under our belts and for a band who don’t tour very often it was a welcome opportunity to watch and hear one of the true masters of the genre.

Back in the woods, Haliphron gave us some growling horror metal as a result of the combination of former members of Dutch bands Izegrim and Bleeding Gods. Not for the faint hearted but a crowd that may or may not have included serial killers, really took to it (and probably took notes).

Speaking of Gods, Danish occult death metal quintet Defacing God brought some symphonic witchcraft to the Pandemonium stage with Sandie The Lillith spitting and cursing everything and everyone before drinking a goblet full of blood and regurgitating it over the front few rows…. I think I’m in love.

A dash of Napalm Death caused the heavens to open and the winds to turn so vicious that they tore one of the video screens off the Pandemonium stage. The grass bank opposite the main stages was closed (for fear of people getting hit by lightning) and so was the main Helviti stage which sadly resulted in the biggest disappointment of the weekend, Architects set being cancelled.

Miraculously the clouds soon parted, the sun came out and Skynd took to the Pandemonium stage, complete with repaired and reinstated video screen as if nothing untoward had happened. Like Sleep Token before, Skynd deserve better and come next year, it’s likely the singer \ band will be gracing much larger stages. The Australian trio play a mix of heavy electro-industrial music with true-crime inspired lyrics over the top. The singer (also called Skynd) has a vocal range that has to be heard to be believed. We’re not talking soprano soloist vocals here, more that she can go low when she needs to, high when required and then something otherworldly when needed to pour the horror element into the vocal delivery. A band that needs to be seen and heard as soon as possible.

That then brings us to the end of Day 3. With Slipknot all but guaranteeing a full house, they remain one of the few bands to emerge from the nu-metal era with the following and unique style intact, headlining enormo-domes and festivals with ease. Book Slipknot and you guarantee a crowd. Whether they are your thing or not, and I accept it’s an acquired taste for some, there’s no denying the following that the band have with their ‘maggots’. They were in fine form, singing along, surfing the crowd, keeping security as busy as ever and ensuring, of course, that the concrete dust floor of Copenhell was churning into a huge grey cloud above us all.

And so, to the Saturday (June 17th). The end of the festival and fewer bands on the main stages because one of the headliners had opted to perform a 3-hour set. What we would lose in artists, we would hopefully gain in hits from the well-known and globally renowned Guns n’ Roses.

Before then, a day’s worth of music. Something old, something new, something borrowed and something blues would feature throughout the day, and all be gratefully received by a crowd (including me) not wanting the festival to end.

To get the ball rolling, Mammoth WVH (and I sense he really wants to drop the WVH) hit the Hades stage in the early afternoon and gave us a solid modern set of hard rock songs. Not only can the boy play (that was kind of a given) but he’s got a good set of pipes on him as well. Whilst Wolfie might have recorded everything on his debut album, playing everything live is a little trickier and as a result, we got Frank Sidoris bringing his guitar skills to the table, Jon Jourdan playing rhythm guitar on the other side of the stage, Ronnie Ficarro bouncing with energy on bass and Garrett Whitlock on drums. It’s got the making of a band that could become as big and popular as Foo Fighters. Time will tell but this could be the birth of a new headliner.

By contrast, Spectral Wound brought some of the purest black metal to Gehenna. Decked out in black, covered in black and grey makeup to up the visual impact they roared their way through a set that felt like it was communicating with the souls of the dead. They differ from other acts both with the visuals and the fact that Jonah’s brutal vocal delivery is offset with some seriously impressively technical guitar wizardry from A.A. and Patrick. Definitely worth the trip for the impressive Canadians.

Local band Forever Still gave us a slice of dystopic science fiction driven metal before our ‘something blues’ Billy F Gibbons presented his solo show on Helviti. Looking like they were filming a musical version of ‘Ghostbusters’ the trio powered their way through a groove laden shuffle-blues set. Billy is so experienced, so comfortable with what he’s doing these days that his show felt effortless although that’s not to say he didn’t put the effort in, he did, and it was a great set.

Fishbone and Angus McSix proved to be my one and only agonising clash. Fishbone were my something old, harking back to my school days whereas my something new came in the form of the former Gloryhammer singer and now-reborn Angus McSix. A dilemma for sure and one that caused me to pause and take stock. Both sets would be immense, both meant something to me but ultimately, the ‘Master of The Universe’ and the wielder of ‘Sixcalibur’ won out because, in his own words, he is “one-better”.

An Angus McSix show has to be seen to be believed. If you thought a Gloryhammer show tested the boundaries of incredulity then we’ve gone ‘one-better’ here as well. Lasers, swords, a guitarist who looks like a modern version of Skeletor, inflatable dinosaurs and more appeared and left me in no doubt that I’d made the right decision. Loud, anthemic, memorable and judging by the smile on Thomas Winkler’s face as Angus…. an absolute triumph.

The headliner of the day for me followed. As noted before, each day had three headline slots and the early evening slot was taken by Swedish powerhouse Ghost. With the Danes and the Swedes separated by just a bridge, this felt like a homecoming show for the band and the crowd responded in kind as well. A flawless delivery (although we expect nothing less), I’d expect to see them in the 9:30pm slot in the next couple of years. Their music is loved my many, they appeal to fans of all genres and carry in Tobias Forge someone with a wicked sense of humour which is portrayed perfectly through his characterisations.

Spiritbox were a must see for me and are yet another band on the cusp of greatness. The Canadian outfit seemed genuinely happy to be there (aren’t all Canadians happy?) with Courtney LaPlante somehow managing to roar with terror inducing vocals whilst remaining just the friendliest person when speaking to the crowd. Polite and angry all at the same time. That’s Canada for you.

The night and the festival closed with the juggernaut that is Guns n’ Roses. A beast of a band and a beast of a setlist to finish off the four-day event. The ‘Not In This Lifetime’ Tour that the band undertook a few years ago has become dan unstoppable force and the 29-song set which included a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday to You’ to Dizzy Reed meant the band didn’t leave the stage till almost 1am.

Highlights included ‘Chinese Democracy’, ‘Live & Let Die’, ‘Coma’ (being played I believe for the first time on the tour) and of course a  rousing and crowd friendly back to back trio of ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’, ‘November Rain’, and ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’. Like the other ‘old’ acts on the festival bill, many people present were never able to see G’ N’ fuckin’ R live back in the day. It’s no wonder therefore the appetite for entertainment still exists both within the fans and the band.

2 weeks later and I’m dealing with Copenhell withdrawal by playing Enforcer at full blast…. Roll on 2024!

 

https://www.copenhell.dk/

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