Where do I begin? It has been the better part of a year since I last posted anything on this website. It seemed fitting that my final act was to review the new Evergrey record, ‘The Atlantic’ back in January because I can’t really see it being beaten as the year’s best. But the ensuing break following that review was necessary.
At first, I lost all interest in music. Suddenly, my life took a drastic turn and my priorities changed. Many of you seem to like my reviews and my views on heavy music, which I find bizarre but for which I am incredibly grateful. But, what I’m best at is being a Dad. And at this point in my life, this became the single most important thing. Not website stats, not likes on social media, not keeping up with the constant stream of new music to review. No, I had two confused little girls in need of my love, support and attention. So I gave it to them at the expense of everything else bar my day job.
As time has marched on, things have improved and instead of having no interest in music, I instead felt daunted by what I’d missed. How would I catch up? Will I upset one artist if I don’t review their record but review something else instead? So I did what any perfectly rational person would do: I buried my head in the sand and didn’t review anything.
And so here we are, several months later…
I last went to ProgPower Europe in 2011, a weekend of wonderful memories and a tragic ending. I wanted to return the following year to lay the ghosts to rest but my eldest child was born a month before, so there was no way I was going to travel and be away from her. The years then drifted by – a lack of money, a second child two years later and a strong desire to stay at home with my children – until eight years later, I was ready to return. And with it, was to return my love of writing. Allow me to explain…
The alarm went off inhumanely early on the Friday morning but I was taken to the airport in luxury and dropped off outside the terminal to join the fellow zombies at the security gate. For once, the entire journey was smooth and hassle free, despite the early hour and the fact that I had to negotiate a bus, a train and another bus having already had to walk nearly five miles across the airport tarmac to the terminal (thanks Ryanair!) in the pouring rain. Consequently, the familiar walk up the long drive to the Kasteel de Berckt coincided exactly with the check-in time.
However, if I was ever to doubt the atmosphere and friendship of this festival after nearly a decade away, it was dispelled in moments. I didn’t even reach the front door before I was welcomed with a bear hug from Marcel, one of the nicest guys I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.
Those who know a little about me will know that I suffer with a fair amount of social anxiety. I can stand up and deliver a speech in front of hundreds of people. But thrust me into a social gathering and I inwardly freak out and want to run away. And so this one simple act of kindness ensured that I felt better prepared to propel myself into the festival experience and not blend into the background too much as the weekend developed.
As the day matured, it became a surreal experience as my Facebook friends list came to life in front of my eyes. People I had met eight years ago assaulted my senses alongside those who, until now, had only been a series of still photos and posts on my social media timeline.
Within a couple of hours, it was like I’d never been away. Meeting Mattias and Van from The ProgSpace, Tom de Wit, Mattias Noren, Dario, Patrick, Francesca, the irrepressible Jonathan and many more…it was fantastic!
But nothing could prepare me for the welcome I received from my Norwegian friends, Kim, Havar and Lene. All of us were newbies in 2010 and, accidentally thrown together at the traditional Chinese buffet that year, we established a firm friendship and have remained in close contact ever since. Kim and Lene even joined me in the UK for a Haken gig soon after the festival. Bear hugs from Havar and a beaming Kim were followed by an emotional embrace with Lene. Tears flowed as Lene clung to me and I to her, whispering for her not to cry. This was the greeting of true friends who have clearly worried about me and missed me over the years. Feeling overcome and with mind blown – I mean, it’s just little old me after all – we sauntered down to the venue in the nearby town of Baarlo for food and the first night of music. I chatted for much of the walk with my new-found pal Rune, an integral cog this year in the Norwegian touring party machine.
Reviews of the bands will come in Part 2 of this series but for now, I want to pick out some of the weekend away from the stage shows, to try to offer a sense of the atmosphere for this both familiar and unfamiliar with easily the best music festival on the planet.
Eating pizza with my Norwegian buddies; bumping into two of the Teramaze guys in the local grocery shop; walking in the rain with Chris, the drummer with Lost in Thought to find a cash machine only to end up talking about mortgages; being told by people (plural!!) who came up to me that they liked my writing on the website and really missed it; these immediately sprung to mind but for very different reasons.
Then there was a reunion chat with Andy, he of Pois Chic and formally of Powerplay fame, chewing the cud with fellow Brits Matt (we won’t mention Spurs), Duncan and Suzanne, as well as a fun conversation with Voyager’s Ashley who hilariously nailed the English’s use of the language, an observation that once heard will never be forgotten. The phrase ‘I’m not too bad’ will never be the same again!
There was a sad and poignant moment as I was kindly asked to light a candle on the plaque erected for Mikko Laine of Sole Remedy, who tragically lost his life at the end of the 2011 festival in a freak accident. But the hugs from all sides made it a very therapeutic and important thing to do to pay my respects and confront those feelings that came back when seeing the venue for the first time since that fateful night eight years ago.
Hearing many of the bands tell the crowd that we are the nicest, warmest, friendliest crowd ever – that never gets old either.
The famous after parties in the basement bar were also a cornerstone of the weekend- I promised myself I wouldn’t get carried away this year but every night ended in a 2am (or later) stagger back to the Castle, chatting rubbish for the most part, often ending in extended toilet humour – eh Havar, Rune?!
After a standard first night, Saturday was dominated by a top 25 countdown of epics as voted for my the festival goers. Controversy loomed large due to some late tinkering with the choices though – the Norwegians did not like the lack of Communic in the list and I missed Vanden Plas. Damnit! The final night was then time for the ‘metal’ karaoke which began well with Teramaze’s Nathan Peachey belting out Dream Theater’s most overrated track of all time, ‘Pull Me Under’. It got even better with Jonathan’s killer rendition of ‘Three Little Pigs’, as well as an intricate prog re-working of the classic ‘Tequila’ which tested even the very best minds due to the complexity of the lyrics.
As the parties continued, the stocks of Leffe Blond beer took a serious pounding, as did my neck as the tunes flowed, covering everything from Savatage and Queensryche to Accept’s ‘Balls to the Wall’, accompanied by the ubiquitous sight of revellers thrust up against the walls & lockers in homage the classic track.
Even the sober walks to the Castle in the ever-present gloom provided mirth and entertainment, thanks to the pungent countryside smell of pig manure emanating from a nearby farm, not to mention gatecrashing a bicycle race in the town, with Kim crossing the line whilst being commentated upon by the announcer.
As the inevitable end arrived along with the rising sun of Monday morning, I was shattered; physically, I was the broken shell of the man I was on the Friday. My feet hurt, I had cramp, my lower back screamed every time I stood still and I will admit to a fuzzy head after three days of hardcore drinking.
But, crucially, the festival and those around me, had managed to do something incredible; here I was, in the courtyard, feeling a stronger, more confident person, with a powerful urge to do something I hadn’t done for over eight months – write again.
I couldn’t bring myself to say my goodbyes in person, so I slunk quietly away from the Castle without fanfare or ceremony. I hope this post will do the job instead and those that shared a special weekend with me will now know just how much I value their warm friendship.
And I haven’t even mentioned the music yet! That will come in Part 2 very soon…