But what, as an online zine, do you do, if you aren't allowed to fly or to attend to cover the event with a review? Well, you reach out to some friends, brothers and sisters in crime to ask them about their experience to give our readers a least a short glimpse of one of the only metal festivals happening in 2020.
Review and text by Veiko Mölder and comments by Laura Künnap, Hardo Pajus and Kaido Haavandi. Pictures by Sergej Drobyshev
Veiko Mölder: When I was given the idea to write an article, I thought I'd completely ignore the virus topic. However, as the words in the head began to form into text, it became clear that it could not quite be ruled out in the context of this summer's festivals. There were limitations, but nevertheless, what happened with a thousand tickets sold to the event, could be boldly labelled European, if not the World's, first and the biggest post-virus outdoor music festival. An we were the happy Estonians, who, in the first days of July, were able to visit the festival in their spirit towards heavier music. The face-masks were also at the place, albeit purchased as the special outfit from the merch section, with the text "Stronger Than The Plague" on it. There was much more space than usual because of the smaller number of audience and again - the metal family who "enjoyed" the life between four walls for over than three months, did not care, and the joy of meeting was inversely proportional to the recommended distance kept between each other. In hindsight, as far as I know, no new virus cases were registered because of the event afterwards. For the local scene, the (19th) Hard Rock Laager is one way or another largely a traditional meeting place known as the "Summer Days for Metalheads" and these people were mostly able to buy tickets that had been sold out quickly. Moreover, when interacting with the comrades in retrospect, the event with a limited number of guests was considered the most comfortable and homely of all time.
There were other exceptions: a festival which list of artists over the years consists of for example, Dismember, Satyricon, Cathedral, Enslaved, Vader, Mayhem, Cryptopsy, Phil Anselmo etc., was represented for the first time only by local bands and performers. So, 2 days, 2 stages, 22 bands and all from Estonia. The evilest music in Estonia is living quite well at the moment, and there was no need to expect any reductions in terms of quality and sound. The signed bands, therefore decided to devote more time than usual to communication and most of the performers were mostly seen repeatingly and all had suffered from the lack of common beer consumption with the comrades. As a side note, on both days there were some bands with no ambition for any international recognition and who did not go unnoticed nevertheless. And of course some groups that were invited to diversify the list of performers every year and do not classify under metal in any way by genre.
Laura Künnap: "Even the fact, that there were no foreign bands, did not make the festival any different. For us, Hard Rock Laager is mostly about seeing your friends and the overall feeling with the added bonus of bands - and this year wasn't any different. We even got to Vana-Vigala a bit earlier just to get the festival feeling going and enjoyed the quite typical weather. A bit of rain, a bit of sun and everything in between. For us, the second festival day consisted mostly of walking around and exploring the graves of "Von Uexkülls" which is another great thing about Vana-Vigala: You can enjoy the bands but also enjoy a little sightseeing of the surrounding area with a graveyard and old buildings as well as beautiful nature. Overall, the festival spirit was there, and although there were less people than previous years (due to COVID-19), everything was as usual. You get a glimpse of the spirit at the situation that the special shirts, I could design this year, basically a cat wearing a plague doctors mask and the text: "KATKUST KÕVEM" meaning "stronger than the plague" were sold out the first day. It was a special year in a way though - the Festival beat the "plague", so to speak.
Veiko Mölder: The opening day was started by a band called Sküllfükk S(atanic) S(luts), who with their style like "Venom-is-playing-Motörhead-is-playing-a-mix-of-punk-and-metal" attracted the audience neatly. The three-piece collective, with the stage names Vödkamizer, Motörbreath, and Beerhämmer, managed to prove that life is rock 'n' roll persuasively. The second band on the main stage was Intrepid, who had no problems to put together a setlist fromt their first full-length album with an exciting name "Unused Imaginative Capacity", which was just released and performed almost in its entirety. Additionally one cover song and title song of their EP from 2017. An aggressive quintet with the interestingly diverse structure of songs makes warmed the hearts of the crowd with its old-school death metal genre selection and technique. Why is this a surprise? Because the total age of five young men is less than the age of John Tardy (Obituary) and Nicke Andersson (Entombed) if combined. Yet there is no way to tell, that what is heard, belongs to a category where everything new is like a long-forgotten old one. Perhaps it is also referred to by a somewhat pretentious album name.
For Estonian pagan metal legend Tharaphita, everything seems to have been seen, heard and written over the years, which could seem to make them boring for bystanders. Boredom, however, is not attracting people to the stage, and Tharaphita should not have felt the lack of the audience. Powerful and militant in both content and form, Tharaphita can still put up a proper pagan act on a festival after 25 years of action. Everyone knows the lyrics by heart, which allows always to organize a proper mass chanting. The band knows what people like in front of the stage and they obviously enjoyed their performance.
But let's talk about a smaller stage a bit, too. Though smaller, I always personally feel homier and more at ease with at the B-stage. It's a permanent construction for various cultural events throughout the year, and built to get close contact for everyone, even from the back rows. And the most powerful performance of the opening day, offered by Thou Shell of Death, took place on this stage. TSoD is undoubtedly not a band whose performance could be easily described - it must be seen. By the time of the evening, it had gone darker outside and honestly, I can't even imagine a working show of this band in the daylight - all the stage covered by candles and a gorgeous light & fire show just does not work. The group introduced their last album "Witchery " (2019). TSoD, traditionally, uses the poetry of Madison Julius Cawein (American poet, 1865-1914) in their lyrics, who was known with his love of nature and mythology. By knowing this fact, it might be easier to understand the composing – it can be raw and cruel and at the same time, hypnotically calming. TSoD's dark, ambient black metal sounds massive and binds the audience with cohesive force. They are not performing too often and it's definitely worse to not lose the opportunity to see their live shows.
Doomy, sludgy, instrumental post-metal band Destroy Uranus helped people to wake up on the second day, but I'm not sure that their heavy riffing helped to cope with the headache of most of the audience at all. Anyways, I have always respected the band and was ready to follow them again on a more comfortable time of the day.
I managed to start my day with pop-rock band Sibyl Vane, who surprised with the fourth member on the stage. "Pop" is still a relative definition for the band – in general line melancholic, the group manages to combine enough snappy attitude to the mix of alternative-indie-post music to be taken seriously at least for the part of the audience of a hard rock festival. Female vocals are always a great addition to generally masculine performers. Tapper can be taken as the most local band at the festival. Founded at the same village where Hard Rock Laager takes place, Tapper plays grotesque fantasy pagan metal. Enough evil, but somehow funny at the same time. Pime on the opposite presented a more melodic, but still fast and angry version of black metal. The set consisted mostly their demo from 2010 with added cover versions from Must Rannik, Kalm and Assamalla. The show was the last one for live-guitarist and drummer, and therefor remarkable for the fans to enjoy this last gathering in the old lineup.
Rattler was most likely one of the oldest acts and exist since 1991. They play extremely fast and technically exciting death metal. Or Northern Shamanic Metal, as they've defined their genre by themselves. Shamanism is the main topic of the lyrics as well and it gave us the possibility to see the different rituals, attributes, instruments and costumes on the stage — an interesting and by my thoughts, unjustifiedly neglected group in the Estonian metal-scene. The founding member (Creator – vocals, guitars) has asked interesting musicians to join the band for this performance: Simo from Loits, Intrepid and Tankist on guitars, Madis from Intrepid and Nihilistikrypt on drums and Daniil from Riser on the bass. Rattler released their new album "Alien Mind Order "in May – still clearly death metal, but with this shamanic theme, I found some black metal components in it here and there.
The same happened again on the second day: the most powerful performance happened by the last band on the B-stage – Forgotten Sunrise. Undoubtedly a unique group. I found the word "outdustrial "on their Facebook page. It was a hysteric experience, so dark, so ambient, so schizophrenic, that sounded more metal than most metal bands. A fitting soundtrack for a modern version of "Exorcist "movie. The setlist included six unreleased new tracks and therefore was completely incomparable with the shows I've seen previously and the crowd also got to hear "(Life) 24 H", that was played the first time on the same stage 20 years ago. The show ended with the firing and demolishing of the bass guitar and you might think that it's not the first time on the history of metal festivals. Correct, but just believe me - it was possessed by a demon and player Anders Melts! The last band was Metsatöll on the main stage – unfortunately, I was tired enough that my festival came to an end without this metal/folk performance and as an Estonian, it was quite like Tharaphita - been there, seen that and their performance was again one of the most professional and beautiful. In a nutshell, it was extremely nice to be again at the festival. Hopefully, next year, at the 20th edition, we can manage without any restrictions and the event will be appropriate for the anniversary event.
Kaido Haavandi: "It goes without saying, that this is a historical year for everybody in the music scene. The ever-shifting situation and news, that could in one instant destroy what you have been working for over a year, put every organizer under a lot of pressure and we still don't know what's gonna happen in the Autumn with the club scene. In March, when festivals started a wave of cancellation we decided to wait for the first panic to settle and hope that in the following weeks we would have at least some sort of idea what we're dealing with and plan our moves accordingly. Luckily that patience paid off and as the first wave had been suppressed by June we knew that we can go forward with a scaled down plan - limit the number of visitors to 1000 people and put only local bands on the bill. In that frameset I can definitely call the festival a success. The crowd was happy and local bands delivered an excellent program. It was only after the last headliner went on stage that it sort of kicked in - with all the effort and work this should have been a much bigger festival with an international dimension. But given the circumstances one really cannot complain. We preserved continuity, we're still an annual festival and we are going to celebrate the 20th anniversary next year. Not a bad thought in these times of the plague!"