Last summer 2018 I’d planned a road trip to the north of Germany to see Manilla Road, dropping in on fellow bandmate Morten from pagan metal band Herne, but what with the heatwave and various work hassles, things didn’t map out. Unfortunately the gig at Headbangers Open Air was the last that Manilla Road played, as Mark Shelton very sadly passed away the next day. Was I gutted, or what?
But, this spring of 2019, Keep It True festival in Bavaria was to host a Mark Shelton tribute, and I was determined to pay homage to the guy. I also of course wanted to go to Kiel at the other end of Germany, to see Morten and his wife’s twin babies, who were now one year old. I was looking forward to talking to them in German baby language, and confusing them with my Ozzy Osbourne accent.
So, a plan was necessary – fly to Hamburg, hire a car, go to Kiel, go to Bavaria, go back to Hamburg, fly home.
Day One – Nervosa
For an eco-fascist ( non-practicing ), I dislike flying on principle, but it had to be done in this case. No way was the old Volvo, or my wallet, going to cope with a 2350 mile round trip at twenty five mpg, so I caught a plane for the first time in eighteen years thinking I wouldn’t still hate it, but believe me I will never get used to being up in the air in one of those tiny budget tin cans, freaking out at changes in pitch from the engines, whilst paradoxically trying to look incredible relaxed. But it does get you places quickly, I’ll give you that.
First impressions of Hamburg at four pm on a Tuesday is that it’s a nice place but very quickly I wished I’d learned the kinds of German words written on train ticket machines ( and later in the week, the small print on car park signs ) rather than ‘Hier kommt die Sonne, Sie ist der helsste Stern von allen’. Anyway, a short walk and we got to our posh, yet cheaper-than-England hotel room on the 25th floor of Radisson Blu, ate the shiny complimentary apple, which in years gone by might have been polished by a bell boy, grabbed a bit of sleep, and prepared to walk the paltry four hundred metres to the first night’s entertainment; Brazilian thrash femmes NERVOSA live at Logo. You think I can’t organise an itinerary?
Logo Hamburg is a dark rectangular venue, with the stage down the length of it, which is a bit weird, but it’s an interesting place. It was full when we arrived. It seems that people get to gigs early to claim their territory, so if you arrive later, don’t expect to find a good spot. And don’t expect them to move. I mentioned this to Wartooth, and he actually commends this behaviour, citing the amount of times he’s wished ill upon someone at a gig for obscuring his view, or daring to be in his peripheral vision. So, it was not going to be easy to get close to get a photo of Nervosa, and when I did, a man who looked like he ate pies for a living made sure I was aware of my crime!
We got a couple of beers – I just pointed at some bottles, held up two fingers and handed over twenty Euros. The support act was a local young true metal band called Rezet. They were pretty good.
We got a spot at the back and watched the kids have a good time in the rather polite mosh area. Now, it turns out that Holsten Pils is really easy to drink, so we got two more bottles right away. By the time Rezet had finished I noticed a man looking very happy with a big glass of beer, and just like ‘monkey see, monkey do‘, I wanted to be that happy too. I went back to the barmaid and pointed to the pump and said ‘Wie heisse’ and she said, ‘huh?’, and after some more pointing, ‘Bier vom fass’. I said ‘zwei bier vom fass bitte’, and with a look somewhere between pity and contempt, she dispensed me two bigguns!
I’ve seen NERVOSA in Brum in 2018 supporting VENOM – they are definitely a hard working band and you have got to respect them for their work ethic. I don’t think I’d ever buy one of their albums, because to my old ears, thrash ( and grindcore) suffers a massive disservice in the drum department when recorded with modern production values, but I would always see them live. They are strong and quite impressive aesthetically. Their dads should be proud! I began to think, ‘You know what, beer and thrash is so relaxing. I could do this all day long’. The drummer, who always looks happy, is especially good at downblasting ( is that a real term? ), you know – when the snare is hit on every eighth beat at about 190bpm for four bars at a time. A very clever person I know once told me that kind of thing requires good muscle twitch response, something young people apparently have in abundance. The guitarist looks like she wants to kick someone’s face in when she’s playing, but I bet she’s lovely really.
The night finished early and everyone seemed to be leaving by ten o’clock. Whaaaat – we’d only had three and a half pints! We went back to our hotel, dodging the students on their bicycles, and fell pretty much unconscious right away.
Day Two – Babies
The next morning I suspected, but did not have total proof, that even in relatively small amounts, Holsten Pils is one of those beers that gives you a headache. We sat and had breakfast with a gaggle of rich German ‘normies’ – sigh – and then headed back to the airport to get our hire car.
As I had not taken out insurance, my wallet was ravaged at the hire car desk with an elaborate charade of lies that one has to endure when ‘bent over a barrel’, I just nodded and went along with it, and in the end we drove away in a big Renault Trafic van ( see top pic ) rather than the much cheaper Passat, the silver lining being we could, theoretically at least, sleep in it.
Danke Gott for the built in satnav! We got to Kiel in one piece and spent a great afternoon and evening with Morten and his lovely family, eating chilli and drinking beers in the garden. Mate, I love you!
Day Three – Pagan Metal Night
The next day we went north, because I wanted to taste the Baltic Ocean. Another very clever person I know called Wiebke told me it was not salty, and I simply had to check. So, we hit pensioner paradise Schilksee just up by the Danish border. It has an impressive concrete construction on the seafront that looks a bit like the Alexander Road estate in London, but seems to have no architectural connection.
The sea is not very salty, it’s true. After a bit of a paddle, a fish sandwich from the local fish sandwich booth, and a wander around the residential area looking for vintage cars to steal ( Ha ha! I love your English sense of humour! ) we headed back to Hamburg for the next instalment – pagan metal night!
Jesus christ, how would we have ever got to our hotel in Hamburg without sat-nav? The city is huge – as big as London. Apparently this is because Germans are wise enough to spread the wealth around the country, and so they have several big cities. In contrast, the AngloSaxon economic model means we just have one main city, and everyone else can go fuck themselves for having the audacity to come from the wrong part of the Empire. Genius!
We found one of those massive sports shops that sold sleeping bags ( for camping the following day ), and then spent another half hour trying to find a parking spot for the hotel. We eventually settled on Aldi, by the river. What a great shop Aldi is, although the staff look just as unhappy as do those in England. Krombacher for instance is a fine beer – I’m most impressed. We checked into our overpriced hotel room with ‘harbour view’ ( mostly a screeching railway line, and a walkway full of drunks, but I like urban noise and could pretend to be John Cage as I sat on the balcony ), downed a couple of cans, ate some ready meals that caused me to feel briefly guilty about the un-recyclable plastic, and then began the trek to the Indra club, where we were going to see Dalriada, Heidevolk and Tyr.
I like Hamburg, and the Reeperbahn area by the river has a great feel. In the doorways, there seemed to be lots of young attractive women trying to catch my eye. ‘Funny’, I thought. The Indra club was hot; really, really hot. Apparently, if you went out, you couldn’t get back in. I didn’t argue. It was absolutely rammed, but then I am not entirely convinced that the way people arrange themselves at gigs in Germany makes best use of the available space. Why do people at the front insist on eighteen inches of space around them? In a fair and just society these people should be getting crushed against the stage, eyes bulging, begging for oxygen. Anyway, it has stuck in my mind that the people running the bar were really nice and this was my first try of Astra beer, which is great. Actually, all German beer tasted great so far. Top marks for beer Germany!
Pagan metal is something I was involved with as an artist ( not really a functioning musician at that point ) around 2002/3 and so I will always have a soft spot for the best bands, even if it became an at times horrendous oompah cheese-fest, or got bogged down in dull-as-ditch-water landscape black metal with blokes cacking on about their national soul. Anyway, this is fifteen years later – almost time for a revival of the early stuff! We got as close as we could for Dalriada and watched the last three songs of their set. They are Hungarian and play really good eastern / central European pagan metal, a genre which has always had the most interesting vocal styles. For those of you not au fait with pagan metal from those areas, the best explanation of how Dalriada sound would be if you imagine the folk music acts from the Eurovision Song Contests in the 1980s – when it was still at least pretending to be cute and naive ( and not an OTT gay fest ) – crossed with the sounds generated in the possession scenes in The Omen. Check this out!
Thankfully there was a beer garden where you could get some air, whilst Heidevolk prepared to take the stage. So after fifteen minutes of cooling down we braved the inside again, but it seemed even more rammed than before. Our new spot was pinned by the PA desk.
Heidevolk are Dutch, which means they eat pinderkaas and frites, have traffic lights for bicycles, and grow lots of hyacinth bulbs ( don’t ask how I know ). Genrewise, I think there were a few bands trying the clean vocal style in the old days, but Heidevolk used two voices, singing more-or-less parallel harmony, with the main tune buried in the lowest register. They went on to develop the style perfectly, so hats off to them. I used to email one of the band members back in the days before social media ruined everything, around 2004 ( for younger readers, emails were a bit like telegrams ) but I cannot remember which one it was, or if he’s even still in the band. They were always good from what I remember, although I can’t remember that much other than owning the first album. But they did play the track Volkslied ( I think that’s the one), which I managed to capture from my very tight spot, in which lifting your hand up to video the stage meant someone’s body part oozed into the space vacated by your hand, and then you couldn’t put it back down again afterwards.
Anyway, they were really good at what they did, and the crowd loved them.
By the end of the set I was really pissed off with standing like a sentry, crushed against the PA booth, absorbing the sweat from the guy in front of me, so we went and sat at the back of the venue and checked out the pictures of the Beatles on the wall. Apparently in 1960 they’d played at the Indra club 48 days on the trot, and lived behind a curtain somewhere nearby. George Harrison only looked about 14. A tough life – no wonder they had a reputation for being as hard as nails!
On came Tyr. I have a lot of respect for the band, especially Heri Joensen ( yes, even with his whaling antics ), although must admit to skimming over a lot of their albums, as prog gets a bit boring after a while, so I didn’t recognise everything they played, but did catch ‘Hold The Heathen Hammer High’, ‘Shadow of the Swastika’, ‘Regin Smidr’ and of course ‘Hail to the Hammer‘, and even if they did lower themselves to some interactive crowd pleasing nonsense on that one, after a few beers they are a really good band to see.
If you didn’t know already, at German metal gigs people like to do this ‘Hey!’ thing with their fists. Sometimes it is spontaneous, sometimes it is on demand. It is actually rather endearing, I must say. It’s nice to be somewhere where it goes to plan. It never really works when touring metal bands try it in England, though we sometimes have a half-hearted go, just so the bands don’t feel so bad. But, when English acts try it – I mean, come on, you seriously think we’re going to follow your orders to ‘put your hands in the air’, you total scum?
On the way back to the hotel it would have been the easiest thing in the world to fall into any of the bars in the Reeperbahn and drink ourselves to death, but no – tomorrow was a five hour trip to Bavaria for Keep It True!
Day Four – KEEP IT TRUE for Mark Shelton Tribute
Astra beer did not seem to give me a headache. Great! Onwards then to the excitement of the German autobahn. Freedom and fast driving! ( in the designated zones of course ).
Imagine our surprise, then, at driving for ten miles out of Hamburg, and crawling along in second gear for three hours in one of the worst traffic jams I’ve witnessed since the ones on the A30 after summer holidays in Cornwall. You know the drill; a crawl, punctuated by sudden enthusiastic bursts of movement, and then noooooooo….we’re back to a crawl. To make it worse, 50% of the time when changing gear I was fumbling with the door looking for a gearstick that wasn’t there. I did get used to being the wrong side of the cab eventually. And then, it started lashing it down with rain. But, we remembered that the van stereo had good old Harald Bluetooth, so we listened to Satan, Fates Warning, Candlemass, and Manilla Road albums from my phone, which was much better than Radio Bob. With all the stops and roadworks, it was nine and half hours of driving before we got to Keep It True. But who cares? We made it, and it had finally stopped raining.
Maybe I shouldn’t even be telling you this, in case your unworthy untrue presence is encouraged next year, but Keep It True festival is for people who are in the scene. So there are no signs anywhere telling you what to do ( or even that you’ve arrived ). This is an inconvenience for someone like me who has no connections in this genre, but I suppose it does keep the event free of the kind of arseholes who go to bigger festivals. Having said that, the campsite next to the venue looked like a zombie apocalypse movie by 7pm, with drunken battle-jacketed youths staggering around in aviator sunglasses, weeing on each others’ tents, already sagging beneath the weight of the rain, so we reversed off it in a wheelspin of mud and slurry, took a chance on the half empty field opposite and parked up.
This True Metal thing reminds me of the UK Northern Soul scene, in that it has the same obsession with celebrating the least popular releases from the genre’s supposed golden years, sometimes as if they really were actual undiscovered gold or something. For true metal those golden years are the 1980s ( for those of us who actually lived then, let us assure you that that decade was not a good time to be young ). The 90s didn’t exist – that’s when groove and funk contaminated the metal scene. Syncopated chugging? No thanks – bleurgh!
I need to lay my cards on the table here. I hated traditional heavy metal when I was young. Celtic Frost, Slayer, Sabbath – all that was fine. But not the middle of the road stuff, nooooo! The only people who listened to that were the rich kids with highlights and Jason Donovan mullets! It was only after studying music in my 30s that I began to listen to heavy metal with a different attitude, and discovered to my surprise that actually it is some of the best music on the planet. How could I have got it so wrong? But still, some bands are good at it, and some not so much. The best bands present themselves as plain heavy metal, but actually have something else under the hood. The other bands can best be described as well played, but ‘a little bit boring’, a quality which, due to its frequent occurrence in true metal, I will hereby abbreviate to WPBALBB.
One band who definitely aren’t ALBB are Manilla Road. Their structures under the hood are almost mystical, so they will always stand out as different, even when they were trying to be straight ahead heavy metal. We had an hour before the Mark Shelton Tribute came onto play all those old Manilla Road songs, so we drank as much as we could fit in our stomachs and then headed for the sports hall, skirting around an ambulance that was just closing its door on a casualty of the festival, presumably a complete drunk!
It’s ace inside the hall, and the sound is fantastic. There are about 1500 people at this time. 80% of the people have long hair, or bald with a massive beard ( the blokes ), and classic heavy metal attire. The other 20% have short hair, look like they work in a bank, and have a battle jacket hanging in the wardrobe for these events. But regardless, they all definitely love the music.
We go to the bar. The beer at KIT tastes like slops from the mild tray in a backstreet English boozer, it comes in a small cup, and it’s expensive. You have to buy a prepaid card and then hope you have enough money on it, and of course everyone loses track and forgets, and teenage German girls then have to explain to drunken fifty year olds that they haven’t got enough money for beer. Other than that, a great system.
We catch the end of Aria who are WPBALBB – sorry, I’ll have to delve into their recordings and see if I missed something – and then move to centre left to get a good view.
The Mark Shelton Tribute is arranged by Bryan ‘Hellroadie’ Patrick, and seriously this bloke should have got a medal because he managed to pull off a fantastic show to honour his departed friend. Humble to the very end. Anyone who has organised an event with artists and their idiosyncracies will know what qualities you need, and this guy has them all.
Things begin with a strummed introduction to Necropolis, with Randy Foxe ( I think ) trying to get 2000 people to sing along, which is confusing for the audience, because he’s perhaps not addressed that many people with a microphone for a while, forgetting about the ‘proximity effect’ of dynamic capsules, so we can’t hear him, and anyway Randy, we all know Manilla Road never played that song first!
But regardless, launch into it they do! It’s a little bit of a mess while the sound desk gets to grips with what is going in, but everyone is singing. Great! And then into The Riddle Master and The Veils of Negative Existence. I feel like throwing my empty beer cup into the air at several points, but this is Germany, and recycling is taken very seriously, so I just shake it in the air.
At this point, Leif Edling is on the bass, doing it like a pro, and I guess it’s Rick Fisher on drums. I don’t know the guitarist or the singer, but they are apparently Kostas Tzortzis, and Jake Rogers of Visigoth. Mark Shelton was always at the understated end of stage presence, but this is foot on the monitor, guitar necks to the sky stuff.
We get two tracks from Metal – Queen Of The Black Coast, and Metal – before embarking on Mystification, probably my second favourite Manilla Road track, and Dragonstar. The Ninth Wave from Open the Gates has Phil on bass and some long haired guy on vocals I don’t know, and is pretty epic, although modern super-compressed drums makes that beat sit awkwardly with the back line. How will they follow it? How about a track from Courts of Chaos – Into the Courts of Chaos? I was surprised to hear them play this, and likewise The Prophecy – I’m not sure they played COC songs on many recent tours. Let’s hope if there are any further shows this COC material gets an airing along with the later couple of albums. Chronologically, that’s as far as they get through their album discography for this show, which is all early stuff.
A girl singer I don’t know called Marta Gabriel appears ( from Crystal Viper apparently – I’m out of the loop, I know ) and we go back to Crystal Logic for a mental rendition of Flaming Metal Systems, and then back to Mystification for my favourite MR song, Masque of the Red Death. How can anyone stand still after that opening guitar riff? In my excitement to capture it on video, my phone gets punched mid air by a pumping metal fist in front of me.
It was on this song that I actually DID throw my empty beer cup in the air, so apologies to whoever that landed on, And then Death By The Hammer, and Hammer of the Witches from The Deluge….excellent stuff. At this point I was forgetting who was onstage but was seeing a lot more of the recent line up ( I think ). At some point Mark’s mum hobbles on, says something to the effect of ‘Thank you for what you’ve done for my son’, and then hobbles off again. Great to see her go all the way to Germany!
After the slow anthem of Witches Brew from Open The Gates, the Road of Kings lifts the spirits once more. One thing I always liked about this band was their optimism and positivity, although I could be completely wrong about the lyrics for that song and it’s just a Robert E Howard tale I haven’t read. There’s far too much negativity in metal music these days.
They hit us with Divine Victim from The Deluge next, and then Fires of Mars, Open the Gates, and Astronomica from Open The Gates, before three strong tracks from Crystal Logic – The Ram, Crystal Logic and Dreams of Eschaton.
After two and a half hours they finish on Heavy Metal to the World from Open The Gates – a fitting end to the show. The crowd goes nuts. I’m the happiest I’ve been in ages. Did that really just happen?
The guys come on and take a bow. Bryan Patrick looks like he’s going to cry – mate, I’d have been blubbing throughout the entire event if it was me – but they all hold it together. A fantastic show and every minute of it was worth the journey to Germany. A sad goodbye to one of the best heavy metal guitarists and songwriters on the planet. Rest easy brother Shelton! Up the hammers, down the nails!
I can’t remember much after that, but we wandered out into the dark and ended up back on the field with a couple of cans of Krombacher, and then tried to get some sleep on the bench seats in the back of the van. People under 5′ 5″ will of course find sleeping across a vehicle a breeze. People 6′ and above – it’s not quite so much fun is it? Haha! But somehow, the day had worn us out so much that before I knew it, it was morning, day four of our Germany trip, and day two of Keep It True!
The whole video of the show has since been uploaded here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m_Vft6q8DTY