Being in a metal band (or any band, for that matter) has not been easy in 2020 and 2021. Many industries were hit hard in the past two years marred by the Covid-19 pandemic. But, I daresay few as hard as the music industry, in a time when physical and even digital sales are only a fraction of what they used to be in the eighties and nineties. With music streaming unable to fill the void left by dwindling record sales sufficiently, live music has become the central source of income. This has been both been a blessing and a curse for fans. While this means more of their favorite artists would be touring more frequently, it also means tickets to concerts and festivals have been increasing on a swift basis, as artists have to compensate for missing revenues through the sale of their music. Within the past two years, touring has been derailed and ultimately stopped in certain territories due to the pandemic. Tours and festivals have been rescheduled, then rescheduled again, and at this point, many tickets originally purchased for events planned for 2020 are now valid for shows scheduled well into 2022.
With my band Dragony, I am in the somewhat (ironically) lucky situation that none of us are full-time musicians. None of us need to make a living through music, let alone a funny little power metal band singing about faux history, video games, books, movies, and other pop culture themes. So while the almost complete shutdown of live touring activities has not impacted us gravely, it has done so for countless other artists who, unlike us, make music for a living and have dedicated their entire existence to their art. It was, therefore, still a most welcome glimmer of hope that at least a handful of summer festivals could, after all, take place over the summer here in Europe. Events, such as Alcatraz festival in Belgium, or Metal on the Hill in Austria, which I was lucky to attend as well. Events like these allowed artists to do what they do for a living and also gave fans the opportunity to enjoy what many of them have sorely missed for over a. year and a half.
One of these shows that could luckily occur was the newly minted Rock Castle festival in Moravsky Krumlov, Czechia. In previous years, a similar festival took place on the picturesque castle grounds near the medieval castle in the small Czech village, located in the south of Czechia, close to the Austrian border. After a re-branding by new promoter Pragokoncert, the former Rock Heart festival has now turned into Rock Castle festival. I was fortunate to perform at this year’s inaugural edition with my band Dragony. Organizing this festival was not exactly a walk in the park for the promoter either in these difficult times. Several bands had to pull out due to changing their touring plans altogether. Originally planned headliners Guano Apes from Germany and others could not make it due to travel restrictions. Bands from Russia weren’t allowed into the country without a two-week quarantine due to Russia being listed as an extreme-risk country for Covid-19 only a few weeks before the festival. However, thanks to the perseverance of head promoter George Daron and his team, the empty slots could quickly be filled, with some high-quality replacements taking the spots of those bands that had to pull out from the festival.
Despite the festival’s second day having arguably the biggest headliner, Sabaton, the first day was the most exciting for me. For one obvious reason, after all, we would get to perform with Dragony on that day in front of about five thousand excited and concert-hungry fans. However, upon arrival, we were first treated to what could be described as the most exclusive and bombastic backstage area ever, as the artists’ dressing rooms were located right on the castle grounds and inside the castle itself. Even as a touring artist, that has played a bunch of festivals over the years, I can certainly say: that is not a sight you get to behold very often! Thankfully, this fantastic first impression would only be confirmed by the bands’ performances and the crowd reactions over the three festival days.
There was no rest for the wicked as our stage time at 6 p.m. was fast approaching. We had the honor of being the first “international” band performing at the festival after several Czech acts, such as Alia Tempora and Fleret, which traditionally serve as openers and special guests at festivals in the Czech Republic. Naturally, we were ever so slightly nervous in the moments before hitting the stage. This was our first major festival appearance since 2019’s Wacken Open Air; stage fright didn’t last long. It was gone as soon as we played the first few notes of our opening track “Gods of War” from our most recent album, Viribus Unitis. Despite needing some on-the-fly readjustment of my in-ear monitoring mix during the opening track, the crowd was immediately into the show. Concertgoers continued to clap and sing along to our new songs like “Golden Dawn,” “Battle Royale,” and “Legends Never Die,” as well as older classics, such as “Lords of the Hunt” and “If It Bleeds We Can Kill It.” I would argue that the rendition of our song “Made of Metal” got the best audience reaction, as it featured guest singer Maria Nesh from the prog-rock band Red Eye Temple, which gave the song an exciting extra layer. Our allotted performance time of one hour went by way too fast. We left the stage exhausted but happy, and hopefully, the people in the audience were left with a similar feeling.
After our set, the billing went in a quieter direction, as Freedom Call mastermind Chris Bay hit the stage for an acoustic solo performance. Armed only with an acoustic guitar and a broad selection of songs ranging from his own band’s classics including, “Warriors” to immortal evergreens like Iron Maiden’s “Run To The Hills” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the audience seemed to love every bit of the show. Even though it was technically about as far removed from a traditional “metal” show as you can be. Nevertheless, it was certainly proof of Chris Bay’s qualities as an entertainer – and it would not be the last the Czech fans would see of him on this festival. Not by a long shot. However, the quiet times ended abruptly when the Finnish industrial metal act Turmion Kätilöt entered the stage next. The unusual band name translates to “The Midwives of Perdition,” and well, I guess you can’t be more “metal” than that! Unfortunately, I did not catch much of their show. We had our autograph signing session during their performance, but the Czech audience received the band very well!
The headliners of the day also hailed from Finland, and they were none other than famous folk metallers Korpiklaani. The audience still seemed excited about the show. However, the band (or rather, the band’s sound engineer) appeared to be struggling considerably with the live sound that day. The drums and bass were almost constantly drowning out the other instruments. There also seemed to be some connectivity issues with lead vocalist Jonne Järvela’s microphone from time to time. So while the band gave it their all and played through an interesting set of their trademark Nordic folk metal, the spark didn’t seem to quite jump over to the audience as well as it could have, which I personally attributed in large part to the difficult sound situation. As hinted earlier, Freedom Call’s Chris Bay made a spontaneous guest appearance during Korpiklaani’s set, joining the band for an amusing rendition of “Leväluhta.”
As is virtually customary for folk metal acts, the band has numerous songs named after alcoholic beverages in their repertoire. After a triplet of classics in “Tequila,” “Beer Beer,” and “Vodka” (for the latter two joined by Czech band Fleret on stage), the first headliner show of Rock Castle 2021 came to its conclusion. However, the first festival day would not yet be over, as Slovak symphonic metallers Symphobia performed the late-night slot. The group filled in for Rhemorha from Russia; one of the bands, unfortunately, could not make the trip to Czechia due to the aforementioned Covid-related travel restrictions.
The second day started with some long-serving Czech rock bands in Forrest Jump and Gate Crasher. The first international highlight came in the shape of the Swiss-German symphonic metal act Ad Infinitum, fronted by the multi-talented Melissa Bonny (who recently was featured in songs of Warkings and Feuerschwanz, among others). Incidentally, the band played their first “real” live show in front of an audience at this festival, despite releasing their debut album Chapter I: Monarchy in early 2020. With only one album under their belt, the band needed to rely on material from that album almost exclusively for obvious reasons. I am saying “almost exclusively,” as they also performed “Unstoppable” from their upcoming second album. The new song worked beautifully in the live situation, just as other tracks like “Marching on Versailles” and “See you in Hell” did. Melissa’s unique singing style incorporates rapid switches from melodic, clean, to death metal growls is always an eye- and ear-catcher. It is safe to say, Ad Infinitum delivered a triumphant debut festival performance.
Things took a turn for the weird with the next bunch of crazy Finns: Waltari from Helsinki was up next. Fronted by eccentric singer and bassist Kärtsy Hatakka, the band is one of Finland’s longest-serving and most influential rock and metal acts. Their music is characterized by being stylistically very diverse, and Kärtsy’s vocal prowess shone throughout their entire performance that featured songs like “Boots,” “So Fine,” “Broken Bizarre,” “Helsinki” and “One Day.” Sure, Waltari’s music might not be for everyone, but their performance was beyond a doubt one of the best of the entire festival. Russian folk metallers Arkona were another victim of the travel band from Russia due to Covid-19 restrictions in Czechia. So Winterstorm from Germany filled in as a last-minute replacement delivering their unique brand of power metal instead. Greek extreme metal band Septicflesh suffered a similar fate. However, they had to cancel due to a sickness of one of their band members. So the promoter opted for some logistic changes. one of Czechia’s longest-serving bands in Citron took over the spot even though the band had initially been scheduled to perform on the third day of the festival instead of the second. This change would also lead to the final surprise entry to the billing, but more on that later.
Meanwhile, the lights went dim, and so did the music, as Finnish goth rockers The 69 Eyes were getting the crowd ready for the headliner of the day (and arguably the entire festival), Sabaton. The Swedish power metal battalion finally hit the stage at about quarter past eleven. They were taking no prisoners: the band, spearheaded by singer Joakim Broden and bassist Pär Sundström, brought almost their full stage production to the Czech Republic, which included the now-traditional tank on stage, which serves as both a launching pad for the countless pyros the band had on display, as well as a drum riser for drummer Hannes Van Dahl. After the traditional opener of “Ghost Division,” other highlights of the show included “Attack of the Dead Men” performed by singer Joakim in full riot gear and gas mask (with a microphone built into the mask itself). The group went into the new single “Defence of Moscow,” along with epic renditions of “Night Witches,” “Carolus Rex,” and “Bismarck.” This led to the spectacular encores in the shape of the inevitable “Primo Victoria,” followed by “Swedish Pagans” with guitarist Tommy Johansson on lead vocals, who was coincidentally celebrating his fifth anniversary with the band on this night, and “To Hell and Back” as a closing track. A headliner-worthy show and performance by Sabaton on this night.
On the third day, we could already feel a little bit of the typical festival wear-and-tear, especially in light of the previous day’s party atmosphere. So we arrived at the sounds of Czech opening acts for the day, Solar System and Bastard, and it took us a little while to get our energy levels back up and into full-on festival gear. What helped was undoubtedly the performance by Czech band Surma, which is the new project by Tyr mastermind Heri Joensen and Czech singer Viktorie Surmova. Contrary to Heri’s main band, the music of Surma is more rooted in classic symphonic metal, with traces of progressiveness sprinkled in. Highlights of the performance were the harmonized vocals between Heri and Viktorie during songs such as “Reveal the Light within,” “The Skelkie,” or “Until it rains again,” as well as Viktorie’s absolute eye-catching outfit, that conjured comparisons to sci-fi-movie outfits of the 1960s and 70s.
Female-fronted metal continued to dominate the early part of the final day. Our fellow Austrians from Autumn Bride took to the stage next to perform some tracks from their recently released debut album “Undying.” And Moonlight Haze from Italy, fronted by charming redhead Chiara Tricarico, whose setlist included tracks such as “To the Moon and Back,” “The Butterfly Effect,” and “Lunaris.” However, the final part of the festival would be firmly in German hands, as not only Brainstorm, fronted by the ever-charismatic Andy B. Franck, would rock the castle in Moravsky Krumlov. But also Chris Bay would return to the stage one more time, this time however fully supported by his main band Freedom Call, who were the final surprise entrant, filling in for Septicflesh after their cancellation the previous day. Thus, it was time for some more “Happy Metal” in Czechia on that day, and you have to know, the Czech audience loves their Freedom Call. Songs like “Union of the Strong,” “M.E.T.A.L.,” “Metal is for Everyone,” and of course the inevitable “Warriors” and “Land of Light” provided ample opportunity for the crowd to go nuts, and sing, clap and jump along to the uber-catchy choruses of the Germans.
However, the headliners of the day would approach their craft with a tad more seriousness in their step. The beloved original voice of the legendary Accept, Udo Dirkschneider, reminded everyone once again of his status as an absolute genre legend. He was barking cult classics such as “Midnight Mover,” “Restless and Wild,” “Princess of the Dawn,” and the immortal “Metal Heart” into the cool Czech night skies. An excellent choice for a closing headliner for a festival, and thousands of people yelling along to all-time greats like “Fast as a Shark” and “Balls to the Wall” never gets old. And if that wasn’t enough, the last act of the day came in the shape of more German melodic metal with Axxis, who were up next. The group delivered some more of that highly captivating and entertaining metal that the band fronted by Bernhard Weiß is known for. Though closer in style to Freedom Call than Udo and Accept, the band’s songs like “Heaven Black,” “My little Princess,” or “Living in a World” are bona fide classics of their own by this time and serve well as lighthearted and enjoyable ways to send the Rock Castle 2021 crowd home happy.
Thus concludes my personal report and review from this year’s Rock Castle festival in Moravsky Krumlov with an absolute recommendation of the festival: a fantastic location in front of a beautiful medieval castle, very affordable prices (a pint of beer costs approximately 2,30 USD on the festival grounds). A more than solid line-up, especially in light of all the difficulties for promoters caused by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, underlines the quality and heart of the organization. If you get the chance, make sure to visit one of the big summer festivals, Metalfest, Masters of Rock, or the new Rock Castle festival at least once!