Metaldays – formerly known as Metalcamp – is a festival that I’ve been meaning to get to for some time, ever since a friend of mine came back from it in 2011 and told me that the valley it’s in is so pretty that “if it were a girl, I’d be jealous”. She wasn’t wrong – before the arena even opened I was starting to think 12,000 greasy, beery metalheads being allowed in the beautiful river that outlines the campsite must have been some kind of mistake. With bands not starting till the mid-afternoon every day, having a crystal-clear snowmelt river to chill your beers in was definitely what made the prospect of a long 30-degree morning (you’ll be cooked out of your tent by 9am unless you camp in the woods) one of the festival’s highlights instead of a huge drag, and the sight of metalheads in Hawaiian shirts chasing their dropped beer cans down the river to the sound of black metal from someone’s tinny speakers doesn’t stop being funny.
Although a special mention goes to symphonic death metallers Fleshgod Apocalypse for always being visually stunning, Testament‘s headline act was the only thing that really stood out about Monday. That’s not to say it was a bad day, though, because Testament were a bloody good time – the exact kind of solid, energetic thrash you expect from a band that has been doing this forever and isn’t even close to getting tired. A good range of old and new, all of it well received by a crowd feeding off on how clearly stoked Chuck Billy was to be there – “Look at this place, man!”
His comments about how amazing it was to play a gig in such natural beauty were echoed by a few bands on the Tuesday, which warmed up far earlier with Skálmöld and Cattle Decapitation in the mid-afternoon. The cheerfully ridiculous tone of the day was set by Gloryhammer‘s unfortunate set before Skálmöld , which drew an eager crowd of power metal fans brandishing homemade “astral hammers” but was dramatically rained off complete with sparking electrical equipment. Fortunately the sky cleared for Skálmöld and they were their usual selves – delivering their heavy, intricate, catchy musical take on the Icelandic sagas with tight musicianship and a chorus of beaming faces. Skálmöld ‘s ability to combine almost businesslike consistency with projecting real love for the music and crowd has always been impressive, and they were on form.
By the time Skálmöld ‘s pit was done with it, the thunderstorm-soaked ground had been churned into a mudbath and chronic extremists Cattle Decapitation were loving it, goading the moshers into more “disgusting” behaviour while providing the perfect soundtrack. The last standout band of the day was Arkona, who I find struggle in some venues but were perfectly suited to the craggy silhouetted hills and slick mud of a rainy Slovenian summer night. Compared to how they are under a roof in London, Arkona may as well have been a completely different band, and with a little help from the delicious local mead sold onsite, their snarling, uplifting folk metal brought the Slavic myths to life.
Wednesday evening, with Napalm Death being quickly followed by Kreator, was the point where the festival proved being small and beach-based didn’t stop it from kicking your head in. Napalm Death get better every time I see them and this was no exception, with their message of peace, love and digit-smashing whipping the crowd up into a friendly frenzy – lots of happy faces at Barney’s standard-yet-sincere “let’s all love each other” speech, and lots of laughter as people crowdsurfed around sharing their smokes and beer.
As for Kreator – thrash metal is always made or broken by how much the crowd can suspend critical faculties and act out of pure love for the genre, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that at a festival where there’s always someone speaking German within earshot, veteran Teutonic thrashers Kreator blessed us with one of the best pits I’ve ever seen. People moshed with total earnestness and the band smacked that energy back into their face again and again. Warming down with the dramatic (and somewhat hard-to-categorise!) Die Apokalyptischen Reiter – a new discovery for me, who I wouldn’t had gone to see had a friendly German lad on the train down not begged me to – capped off an essentially perfect evening.
With all credit to the headliners, I’d have to say some of the second stage bands on Thursday truly made the festival. Skipping Electric Wizard for Nine Treasures and Gama Bomb was a tough decision, but it turned out to be an excellent one, as Mongolian folk metallers Nine Treasures were welcomed to Europe like heroes with a conveyer belt of crowdsurfers and a party vibe that you could probably feel from the moon. Judging by how visibly surprised the two security guys were before calling for backup mid-show, I don’t think anyone expected them to put on a show as good as they did and many other punters said the same.
Gama Bomb ended up with a really hard act to follow and were I not so fond of them, I’d be tempted to say they didn’t light the place up as much as Nine Treasures did. I do love Gama Bomb though, and for me their commitment to good, honest thrash metal was as endearing and mood-lifting as ever. After a fantastic show inclding them leading a crowd chant of “Beer and spliffs! Beer and spliffs!”, the band let us drag them down to the beach bar to make good on it. Maybe I’m biased – I’m definitely biased – but I’m gonna go out on a limb and say singing about ninja movies, giving everyone a great time, then bringing out whisky for your fans to drink on the beach are some things that make you a very good band.
I woke up on Friday morning to the sound of excited conversation from the camps on either side of me, both in languages I understand poorly or not at all, but clearly about Blind Guardian. Pretty much everyone I ran into was spending the long, hot morning and afternoon working up to a good time with some classic power metal. I missed a lot of bands that day, opting to enjoy the last of the daily beach yoga sessions and to jam a bit with the friendly neighbour camp who had brought a stash of folk instruments. People were winding down, sharing out the last of everything they’d brought to the festival with friends and strangers, putting up signs naming what they could exchange for a ride to Ljubljana or Budapest. A friend who’d come from America was amazed to see for the first time how well-loved they are, and while I don’t feel the Guardian love in the way a lot of the crowd seemed to, we got to appreciate the unique effect of the hills one last time as lighters and voices were raised for the Bard’s Song.
It might have been best if the festival ended on that note, as Dragonforce were meant to be the final headliner and it’s unfortunately the case that my being nearly passed out on the hill at this point was a blessing. In contrast to Blind Guardian’s predictable performance, Dragonforce turned up 40 minutes late without their usual vocalist. Of course, illness isn’t their fault, they sent Herman Li out to make a sincere apology, and they did well to find a good vocalist at short notice, but getting through four songs then leaving without ceremony was really a bit of a let-down for the headliner of a week-long festival.
In general, I’d say Metaldays’ branding as a beach holiday and metal festival all in one is pretty accurate. Usually when any event tries to be two radically different things at once, it fails to execute either very well, but the friendly, safe atmosphere and natural beauty carry the “beach holiday” side of things so well that they really can put on a good metal festival without compromising it. Granted, it feels a little weird to go from morning beach yoga to forming a wall of death, but it’s refreshing rather than off-putting. With ticket prices (increasing this coming year to 150 euros) rivalling those of a 3-day festival, the only thing that threatens its amazing value for money is the expense of actually getting to Slovenia. No wonder so many people seem to arrange next year’s visit the moment they leave.