Metalfest in Pilsen traditionally marks the start of the summer festival season for Czech promoter George Daron and his company Pragokoncert. Thankfully, this year the festival could finally take place again in the picturesque amphitheatre Lochotín in one of the beer-brewing capitals of Europe after a two-year hiatus courtesy of Covid-19.
Due to the rescheduling of the festival over two years, the three-day festival was bumped to a four-day event in 2022. I was thrilled to travel to Pilsen to check out what the festival had in store for fans this year.
THURSDAY, 2 June 2022
We arrived in Pilsen in the early afternoon, just after a dual thrash metal attack by the Greeks Suicidal Angels and Exumer from Germany had rocked the stage. We arrived just in time to catch the set of Swedish melodic metallers Cyhra. Fronted by former Amaranthe vocalist Jake E, Cyhra features an illustrious cast of musicians on (and off!) stage. Including drummer Alex Landenburg (Kamelot, ex-Stratovarius, etc.), guitarist Euge Valovirta, and even the legendary Jesper Strömblad (ex-In Flames), who, however, mainly acts as a songwriter and studio musician these days, and generally does not join the band for their live shows. The highly melodic metal played by the band elicited a solid reception from the hungry festival crowd, as songs like “Closure,” “Bye Bye Forever,” and “Out of My Life” resounded through the arena.
High-class Swedish metal continued to dominate the stage after Cyhra’s show, as Tom Englund’s legendary Evergrey were up next. While their highly atmospheric sound is probably not ideally suited for an open-air festival setting, let alone a late afternoon slot under the brightest daylight, the band nonetheless managed to get fans to sing along to mastermind Tom Englund’s charismatic voice. Unfortunately, the overall sound was not ideal for the band’s material, with lead guitar solos sometimes seeming too loud in the mix. But to be fair – that is nitpicking on a very high level considering the musical class of the band.
My personal highlight of the day would follow now in the shape of (again, Swedish, naturally!) power metallers Bloodbound, who have managed to slowly but steadily climb the ranks of European melodic metal over the past couple of years, thanks to continuously strong releases and a solid live presence (in non-Covid-years, that is). Some might argue that the band jumped a bit too much on the Sabaton bandwagon in recent years and prefer their very early records with singer Urban Breed, which displayed a more proggy side to their music. Still, I’m perfectly fine with the band’s current trajectory and with singer Patrik Selleby, who once again delivered a convincing performance. Setlist-wise, we got a mix of current material like “When Fate Is Calling” and the title track of the band’s most recent album, “Creatures of the Dark Realm.” There were also classics from the back catalog such as “Stormborn,” “Moria,” and the uber-catchy “Rise of the Dragon Empire.” A fine performance, even if the band’s sound struggled at the beginning of their set, with the multi-layered backing vocals provided by the instrumentalists were barely audible at first.
Headliners of the day were Mille Petrozza’s cult thrash commando Kreator, and if one has ever been to a Kreator show, one knows what to expect. Straight up and no-nonsense metal right in your face, opening with “Violent Revolution” accompanied by a solid pyro show, followed quite early in the set by one of their greatest hits, “Phobia,” as only the third song; yet Kreator refused to slow down. “Satan Is Real” was equally part of the setlist as was “Hordes of Chaos,” “Enemy of God,” or “Endless Pain,” and the set found a strong closing segment with tracks such as “Flag of Hate,” “Betrayer” and “Pleasure to Kill.” A great headlining show and a fantastic closer to day one of this year’s Metalfest Pilsen.
FRIDAY, 3 June 2022
While the first day featured a solid dose of thrash metal, the second festival day was more firmly in melodic metal hands. Acts such as Rage, German medieval metallers Saltatio Mortis, Battle Beast, Freedom Call, and Swiss folk metal entourage Eluveitie were on the billing.
Rage, sporting a relatively recently rejuvenated live lineup, delivered a solid mix. The set included newer songs like “End of All Days,” middle-aged songs from the Victor Smolski era of the band like “Straight to Hell.” Of course, some of the all-time old-school classics with “Black in Mind,” “From the Cradle to the Grave,” “Don’t Fear The Winter,” and the inevitable show closer “Higher Than The Sky.” While I am personally still missing the extraordinary presence of Victor Smolski’s guitar in the current Rage sound, the band has never disappointed live, and this show was no exception.
However, the biggest surprise of the day would follow the performance of Saltatio Mortis. Their sound, dominated by primarily German lyrics and plenty of bagpipes and flutes, proved to be a most welcome change of pace for the Metalfest crowd. This was all the more surprising due to the German language focus on the band’s material. However, it certainly helped that a considerable number of German-speaking fans were present at the festival. This made the emphatic reception of songs like “Brot und Spiele,” “Für immer jung,” und “Unsere Zeit” quite understandable, and the closer “Spielmannschwur” elicited an almost frantic response, and minute long ovations for the group.
A tough act to follow, but Finnish melodic metallers Battle Beast, fronted by the ever-amazing Noora Louhimo, managed the task with brilliance. While the band’s admittedly very “pop” musical approach might not be everyone’s cup of tea, it is hard to deny the musicianship and especially the absolute masterclass in vocal performance that is every show by singer Noora. I’d be hard-pressed to find a stronger vocal performance, male or female, on the entire festival billing, and it is, in particular, this astounding singing that raises the level of every Battle Beast show. Whether it’s newer songs like “Circus of Doom” or “Eye of the Storm,” or a bit older tracks like “No More Hollywood Endings,” “Bastard Son of Odin,” or the show closer “Beyond the Burning Skies;” the band’s performance was constantly entertaining. Their set included a pretty impressive rendition of the Disney classic “A Whole New World” by bassist Eero Sipilä and crowned by the immaculate performance of singer Noora. Conspicuous by absence, however, were tracks from the first three albums of the band. I am not sure if this was only due to Noora coming more into her own on the recent releases or whether it had anything to do with the band not wanting to play material that former member Anton Kabanen wrote; who is currently enjoying great success with his follow-up project Beast in Black. However, perhaps the older songs were cut due to the time constraints of a festival show as opposed to a full-length headlining gig. I’ll keep an ear out for some of those band classics at future club shows.
As a die-hard fan (and, I suppose, contributor as well) to somewhat cheesy European power metal, I quite naturally was hugely into the show of German melodic metallers Freedom Call, who could be considered the “secret” headliners of the day. Their infectious “Happy Metal” is not only extremely popular among Czech fans but also because the band was recording material for a potential future live video/BluRay release. I suppose this fact gave the band a little additional edge, and singalong songs like “Tears of Babylon,” “METAL,” the eponymous band hymn “Freedom Call,” as well as the party song “Power & Glory” were delivered with a bit of extra panache. In contrast, a lyrically adapted version of Leonard Cohen’s classic “Hallelujah” added a bit of more somber flavouring to the otherwise happy-go-lucky show. Even after what I consider their ultimate classic in “Warriors,” Chris Bay and his boys were still far from done and followed up with the bangers “Far Away” and “Land of Light” before leaving the stage for Eluveitie. A fantastic performance. However, I suppose you need a bit of love for uber-melodic, happy metal to enjoy and truly appreciate a Freedom Call show.
Headliners of the day Eluveitie, unfortunately, suffered the most tragic fate of all the bands at this year’s Metalfest: for even though clouds had been gathering over the Lochotín amphitheatre all afternoon and evening, it was in the middle of their set that thundergod Thor seemed to have had enough and took the band’s song “Calling the Rain” all too literally, as a heavy thunderstorm and ensuing downpour of rain ultimately ruined their show, as the band’s performance had to be stopped just shy of their final few songs. Nonetheless, there was still a considerable number of determined fans (literally) weathering the storm during its initial phase and still managed to enjoy the band’s folky tunes until the heavy rain finally put an end to the proceedings shortly before 11 pm.
SATURDAY, 4 June 2022
The third festival day’s early hours featured a double thrash attack. Toxik, followed by Heathen, both hit the stage in the early afternoon, following a more melodic start into the day with Hungarian symphonic metallers Dalriada and arguably the most exotic band on the billing, S7N from Mexico.
A personal highlight for me followed as Tommy Johansson (Sabaton) finally managed to bring his own band Majestica (evolved from the previous incarnation ReinXeed), to the stage in Pilsen for a show that had initially been confirmed for Metalfest 2020. The band opened their set with the title track of their debut album “Above the Sky” and mainly focused on material from said album, omitting most of the songs from their sophomore Christmas-themed album “A Christmas Carol.” Admittedly, for a somewhat hot summer festival show, that choice might have been for the better – even though the band ultimately delivered one track from that album in “Ghost of Marley.” The remainder of the set was made up of tracks such as “Night Call Girl,” “The Way to Redemption,” and “Rising Tide,” with the ReinXeed classic “We Must Go Faster” from their album “1912” sprinkled in for good measure. “Alliance Forever” finally closed out a well-received show for the Swedes.
Peter Tägtgren’s Hypocrisy next promised a feast for fans of heavier metal, even though the maestro and his band had to overcome a little gear-related challenge first, as their instruments had not arrived in time at the airport in Czechia. Therefore the band had to borrow instruments and amps from other bands at the festival. This didn’t affect their show in the least. However, tracks like “Fire in the Sky,” “Children of the Gray,” “Impotent God,” and the closing “Roswell 47” were a welcome change of pace from the highly melodic billing of the previous day before the festival would move on to a pair of acts firmly rooted in the classic heavy metal of the 1980s.
Of those acts, the queen of metal, Doro Pesch, was first on stage and delivered what could be considered the best pure stage performance of the entire festival. One day after her 58th birthday and two days after recovering from Covid-19. The lady is a legend for a reason and backed by her superb band featuring, among others, Bill Hudson of Northtale (as well as UDO, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and I Am Morbid) and Bas Maas (ex-After Forever) on guitars, she performed better than most people half her age. She did not show any signs of the just recently overcome health issues. Instead, the fans got a solid dose of Warlock classics like “I Rule the Ruins,” “Burning the Witches,” and “Hellbound.” Alongside some pure Doro tracks such as “Blood, Sweat and Rock’n’Roll,” a Judas Priest cover in “Breaking the Law,” as well as the inevitable “All We Are” and “All for Metal” to close out the show. Overall awe-inspiring performance by both the band and lead singer, and big props to Ms. Pesch for delivering one of the strongest shows of the entire festival.
It’s a tough act to follow, but (the original) pirate metallers from Germany, Running Wild, have the benefit of reaching into a deep treasure chest (har har) of metal classics for their show. After opening the set with a “Fistful of Dynamite,” accompanied by some impressive pyros, fans got to enjoy tracks like “Riding the Storm,” “Bad to the Bone,” and “Under Jolly Roger” alongside some live debuts like “Blood on Blood” and “The Shellback,” before Rock’n’Rolf Kasparek and his boys closed out their headlining set with “Conquistadores” and “Raise Your Fist.” A solid performance, but as someone who was never the biggest fan of Running Wild despite their legendary status, the award for the show of the day has to go to Doro instead. Nonetheless, Running Wild could undoubtedly be considered an absolutely deserving headliner.
SUNDAY, 5 June 2022
Three days of festival and party indeed leave their mark. I was noticeably not quite as fresh and energetic anymore on day number four as we arrived in front of the stage to check out one of our personal highlights for this festival: The Night Flight Orchestra fronted by Björn “Speed” Strid of Soilwork, just after legendary German guitarist Herman Frank (formerly of Accept) had hit the stage twice with shows with both his eponymously named solo project as well as his band Victory for a double dose of classic German Heavy Metal. The Night Flight Orchestra, however, focused more on a blend of AOR and danceable disco music, which became apparent pretty early into their set, as the catchy music managed to revitalize the tired and exhausted festival crowd and prompted them to go not only into one but into two full-blown conga lines throughout the band’s set. Featured tracks like “How Long,” “If Tonight Is Our Only Chance,” “Gemini,” “White Jeans,” and “Satellite,” as well as the uber-catchy “Divinyls.” The band’s biggest strength lies in their old-school approach that doesn’t rely on pre-recorded backing tracks. Instead, they focused on bringing their sound to the stage in an actual live fashion, with two background singers (fashionably clad in retro Pan Am flight attendant’s dresses), extensive use of live keyboards, and a second guitarist that also served as a percussionist on many of the songs. Fronter Björn Strid also delivered a compelling performance as a live vocalist doing clean vocals as opposed to the death metal associated with his original band Soilwork, highly recommended for fans of AOR and classic 80s rock bands like Journey, Asia, or Foreigner!
Next up on the bill would have been Ensiferum. However, the Finnish band had to cancel last minute due to health issues of mastermind Markus Toivonen. Luckily, the promoter found a suitable replacement in Italian folk metallers Elvenking, who happened to be at the festival as guests as they are currently accompanying Gloryhammer, who were already on the festival billing, on a short European tour. Despite having to improvise a full one-hour set instead of the regular tour support set that’s only about half as long, the Italians proved to be a more than worthy replacement. Their catchy tunes like “Silverseal,” “Trows Kind,” “The One We Shall Follow,” and “Elvenlegions” managed to capture the hearts of the enthused Czech crowd.
Their tour buddies of Gloryhammer were up next, and the fan support for the humoristic power metal band from Scotland seems unbroken despite the band having weathered a bit of online controversy after the ousting of original singer Thomas Winkler as well as the surfacing of some less-than-flattering chat conversations the previous year. With new singer Soros Michael (Planeswalker, Eons Enthroned) on board, the band seems to be back stronger than before, though, and the Czech fans also seemed to welcome the new vocalist with open arms. To be fair, that was quite understandable, as the new man behind the microphone did a more than impressive job belting out band classics like the band anthem “Gloryhammer,” “The Hollywood Hootsman,” “Legend of the Astral Hammer,” and, yes, also “Angus McFife” into the Czech evening skies. He fared equally well delivering some more recent material like the brand new single “Fly Away” (which incidentally already featured him as the new vocalist as well) or “Masters of the Galaxy” from the band’s latest album “Legends from Beyond the Galactic Terrorvortex.” It seems the band has made it through the troubling times of 2021 and has come out alive and well on the other side – it will be interesting to see where the journey goes from here with a new album that’s undoubtedly looming somewhere beyond the (galactic terror-)horizon.
Slowly but steadily, Metalfest 2022 was coming to an end, but the fans still had two phenomenal acts to look forward to. Sonata Arctica, one of the pioneers of the European power metal sound, were up next. While the band’s recent material has personally not really been able to capture me, the Finns focused on some of their older classics for their set this time, and that naturally pleased a lot of their fans (myself included). While there were some newer tracks in the set like “The Wolves Die Young,” “The Last Amazing Grays,” and “Closer to an Animal;” the audience also got to enjoy songs such as “Sing in Silence,” “Paid in Full,” the legendary “Kingdom for a Heart,” the (thankfully!) inevitable “Full Moon,” as well as the epic closers “The Cage” and “Don’t Say A Word.” All in all a performance that fans of the band were sure to enjoy.
Finally, despite challenging circumstances, the last highlight was waiting around the corner in the shape of the show of Dutch female-fronted metallers Within Temptation. In spite of initial announcements of the show potentially having to be shortened due to a cold of singer Sharon den Adel and the band therefore also being forced to cancel their signing session, no signs of trouble were on display during the band’s show. Accompanied by a tremendous light show in front of a stylized stage setup. The band delivered some of their more pop-oriented bangers like “Faster,” “And We Run,” and featured several songs from their most recent studio album “Resist” from 2019 in the shape of “Supernova,” “The Reckoning,” and “Raise Your Banner.” As well as some band classics such as “Ice Queen” and the epic closer “Mother Earth.” Sharon later invited two kids from the crowd to join them on stage for a rendition of “Stairway to the Skies.” Despite the again rather rainy weather on this Sunday night, Within Temptation, proved worthy of their status as the festival’s final headliner, bringing Metalfest Pilsen 2022 to an epic close.
As always the case for festivals in Czechia, Metalfest was a blast, and I for one, am looking forward to returning for future editions.