Approaching Refshaleøen from Nørrebro, a procession of the weird and the wonderful slowly gathered strength. Like an apocalyptic vision, droves of leather and denim left the shadows to shuffle towards the sea under a mist-covered sun. Top hats, shaved heads, and the pierced and the inked of every description were answering the call – to gather. At the most eastern part of our city, a giant wooden effigy was waiting to welcome them to the fiery furnace of Copenhagen’s third annual metal festival, Copenhell.
Greeted by the blast of two giant plumes of fire, intermittently shot towards the heavens throughout the festival, we were welcomed by an energetic but vocally-stretched performance from Jesse Leachs of Killswitch Engage. The legendary Anthrax followed.
Despite the lean, spritely appearance of its Native American frontman, there was a sense that Joey Belladonna was not quite being in his own skin – although, he can be credited with waking a slovenly crowd with the hit ‘Indians’, and whipping the crowd into a war dance with cries of “Come on Copenhagen, show me what you muthaf**kers got!”. Nothing gets a crowd warmed up like screamed expletives.
American metalists Mastodon have built a solid following over the last decade, supporting names like Metallica and earning solid critical acclaim. Now a huge name themselves, many fans at Copenhell felt they didn’t raise hell to the heights achieved during their climb. Perhaps it was the rain shower halfway through the set that extinguished their fire. With albums like ‘Leviathan’ (concept album based on Moby Dick) and ‘The Hunter’, Mastodon deserve their addition to metal’s elite.
However, despite their obvious ingenuity, this performance left me with the sense that they lack some defining quality. Anthrax, for instance, have carried tracks like ‘Anti-social’ with them since ‘88 and still trumpet them with pride (despite ‘Anti-social’ being a cover). While it might sound simplistic, an anthem like that gives a band its anchor – an identity from which they can expand, deviate from or go completely against.
In the unlikely event that you became bored with music or were simply seeking shelter from the rain, DOX:HELL and HELL Bio provided welcome entertainment (there was also Openhell: Metal Karaoke). ‘God Bless Ozzy Osbourne’ offered a deeper understanding of Black Sabbath, beyond the decapitation of doves, bats and the like. This closer look revealed how Osbourne actually attempted to kill his second wife Sharon and severely beat her on several occasions.
While there are some critics of Britain’s ‘The X Factor’ who given the opportunity might wish to attempt the same, Osbourne’s life begins to lose its cartoon sheen. The film managed to present a much more complex portrait than the MTV/tabloid image of a man widely considered to be one of the founders of metal.
Arriving on the main stage at midnight on the first day, thrash metalists Slayer were every inch the headliners you’d expect them to be. While Anthrax and Slayer are both legendary names, Tom Araya proved he has a gravitas Belladonna doesn’t. Most bands will put on a show, but Araya isn’t putting on anything. He just is. There’s no pretence with Slayer. They’ve nothing to pretend at.
The members of Slayer are made of immovable stuff. Araya is a mountain of metal. Expectations were impossibly high and, following the set, there were the predictable murmurs of discontent. To my mind it was a full-blooded set, forging a path from ‘South of Heaven’ to the harrowing ‘Angel of Death’ and returning for ‘Raining Blood’ as an encore.
Immortal, who have been around for two decades now, belong to the black metal sub-genre, which is more closely associated with the darker elements in nature. Bands have been accused of ritualistic murder and Satanism, and Immortal got their fair share of bad press in native Norway when many churches were burnt to the ground between 1992 and 96. It all adds to the allure and helps to shift records. To the uninitiated they might appear to be a Kiss tribute band – that is, until they start playing.
The guitars have an undeniable power and Abbath Doom Occulta’s vocals closely resemble Linda Blair’s in ‘The Exorcist’, only much louder. They were a treat to behold – the corpsepaint make-up coupled with the inherent seriousness of execution further cemented their comic potential, although it was difficult to detect even a whiff of self-irony. This was in sharp contrast with The Kandidate – a Danish act who played on Pandemonium, the smaller of the three stages reserved for up and comers. They sustained a ferocious energy level for the entire set, openly enjoying themselves.
The crowds were bigger on Saturday, and following a crowd-rousing turn by Lamb of God, a decidedly younger audience, dressed mostly in black, started to emerge from the night. As we approached the witching hour there was palpable excitement in anticipation of the second big headliner: Marilyn Manson.
Prior to this a 20-year-old Dane had reprimanded my taste, informing me that he thought it strange that I, being comparatively ancient, was interested in Manson. He wasn’t a fan, though. He preferred the complexity of Korpiklaani, a band I’d missed, who incorporate Finnish folk music into their sound. Many metal purists look down on Manson, possibly because he so often veers into the mainstream, straddling several musical genres.
Perhaps in recognition of his fan-base, Manson followed ‘Hey Cruel World’ with ‘Disposable Teens’. With only two tracks from his latest record ‘Born Villain’, the robust set-list was a comprehensive journey through Manson’s recording history, rather than just a promo for his new work. Hits such as his career-propelling covers of Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams’ and Depeche Mode’s ‘Personal Jesus’ were enthusiastically received alongside his own anthemic ‘Beautiful People’ and ‘The Nobodies’. All this ensured that the tired crowd, sodden from a heavy downpour, remained energised throughout.
To be honest, it was Manson who betrayed signs of fatigue: a hint he was just going through the motions. Still, even half a Manson live is more entertaining than a slew of many other acts combined. He’s a pantomimic master of physical performance, using a plethora of props, including a giant knife for a mic and a dry ice gun. During ‘Antichrist Superstar’, he flopped about dementedly on top of a kind of rostrum/pulpit, draping himself over the sides like a Dali clockface.
Organisers report their best attendance figures yet. That’s interesting because the turnout appeared to be much less than capacity for the majority of the weekend. From a selfish standpoint, that meant you didn’t need to queue for hours to buy beer or use the loo and no-one was stepping on anyone else’s toes.
On the whole, when one considers the enormity of the names involved, the festival managed to keep an intimate atmosphere. The event was thoroughly thought out, with every possible diversion a metal fan could wish for. Furthermore, the organisers are unlikely to rest on their laurels – every year has seen a marked improvement on the last and they’ll most likely be looking at how to turn things up to eleven next year.