A nearly invi(n)sible foe turned the world upside-down in a whiff. After a wave of cancellations in spring, some in the event industries tried fighting their way back into life, or rather, ‘live’. Brave managers and musicians carefully designed concepts for concerts and even smaller festivals that enabled people to experience live shows with in-venue audiences again. Those took place despite the once more rising infection numbers, to which mankind can still only reply with social distance and hygiene concepts. Apparently, we will have to learn to live with this particular situation. While the apparent consequences for the event industries have often been discussed, the metal community as a whole is also sacrificing a lot. Instead of circle pit and socializing, we got ‘bench banging’ and ‘couch concerts’ before one country after another went into lockdown again. What can we hope to get in 2021?
Once upon a time in a faraway promised land of metal a band of beautiful metal queens ruled the stages of the metal kingdom. The Wild Beauties, six most talented musicians, spoiled their audience with the greatest tunes and wildest shows.
Cultural Castration – Consequences
Since early March 2020, most of the metal events had to be canceled, or more optimistically put on rest with Sleeping Beauty. While back in spring, we all had the hope to be back to normal after a couple of weeks or months, the SARS-Cov2 proved to be way more resilient. It has kept most venues locked and metalheads two meters apart ever since. Bands and managers tried to fill the silent festival season with live streamed shows to watch from your cozy couch, and later some small mostly outdoor events with an audience sitting on benches. Beyond the economic hardships this caused to everybody in the event industries, we all made our manifold sacrifices to the virus, or the evil witch’s curse.
Princess shred her guitar like no other. So to honour her the king had set a party for her birthday. All the big names were invited and partied heavily. Suddenly an evil witch appeared and gave a curse as the present for Princess. She would prick her finger on splinter of a drum stick and die.
Merely one year ago, it was perfectly normal to gather in crowds, shoulder to shoulder and welcome your fellows with a warm hug; whisper (or shout during the show) in your fellow’s ear, excessively bang your heads together, and surrender your frustrations to the music in wild moshpit. Some drops of sweat from stage or a fellow metalhead in the pit were perhaps not exactly pleasant, but certainly not considered a threat. Back then, joining the vocalist in his/her growls and screams or sing along with the whole crowd was our form of celebration. Yes, we have all painfully missed our concerts, because those have always been our favorite form of socializing, precious opportunities for joint and individual self-expression and our cherished celebration of joy and life – even in Black and Doom Metal!
Sacrificing the Moshpit
In addition to sacrificing our social events in general, the invisi(n)ble foe forced us to reconsider our forms of self-expression by turning headbanging into ‘irresponsible virus-spreading’. Yes, of course we can still run wild and bang our heads to our favorite music, but only when home alone. The shared experience with our peer group is on hold (again).
The circle pit, the moshpit and the wall of death are fun experiences and celebrations of the joy of life. It is a joint activity channeling aggression, frustration or simply an abundance of energy, turning it into a positive communal experience. Even more, it is a symbol of the respect we have for each other displayed publicly, such as when helping hands crowd over a stumbled person. This is an achievement beyond words and sacrificing it is a true loss! Although the metal community is largely formed by individualists, outcasts and part-time hermits, we are human beings and as such, each of us is a gregarious animal, saddened by being deprived of communal experiences.
But as the evil witch disappeared, the black fairy climbed on the table, saying: ”Princess won’t die. But she will sleep for a hundred years. The whole metal kingdom will sleep with her.”
Sacrificing Stage Time – The Essence Of Being A Band
Being stripped of playing shows, for a band, is a lot more than a financial loss. Sebastian, drummer of Ghost Iris texts me: “Playing music live is what we live and breathe for.” Shy and reserved persons grow on stage into a most expressive vocalist, shred their pain out their souls or hammer their aggressions on their drum skins. Each show has its own flow even after decades of touring, as Anneke van Giersbergen told me once. And Eugene Abdukhanov (Jinjer, bass player and spokesman)texts me: ”Well, first of all – we do believe that playing live is essential for any band. This is what makes a group of people a real band. For us after being on tour for years and years and years, the last six months was painful. Live shows turned to be our special sort of a drug and we really suffered on a lock-down. In fact, live shows have been always driving us forward, giving us the inspiration to move on.”
When Princess pricked her finger she fell asleep immediately, and with her everybody in the whole metal kingdom. A thick thorny forest grew around the castle.
So what good is a band at all if there is no opportunity to do what they live and breathe for? Many bands come up with new music these days. They try to make the best of the pandemic break, prepare for the (whenever) time after, and most of all, try to keep their bands alive! The pandemic affects each of us and thus the dynamics within all kinds of groups. A private conversation with Mikko Heikkilä (Kaunis Kuolematon, Dawn Of Solace, etc.) draws my attention in this with regard to bands. How we deal with hardships is highly individual. The band members carry their own pressures (job, family, isolation) into bands, where they crash into those challenging the band as an entity (no shows, at least temporarily no joint rehearsals). Again, each band will address this situation in their own fashion. Some bands will grow even closer together, perhaps more than ever before. But the virus might also feed cracks and gaps and thus break the bonds within other bands. Not all bands will be able to make it through such a crisis together. Just to be clear, we are not speaking of any particular band here! Still, the ‘virus-induced’ economic issues may not be the only reason for bands to surrender to the disease.
Waking Sleeping Beauty
Many brave pagan metal warriors with their battle axes came one after another to chopping down the thorny hedge around the castle. But they all failed. The thorns regrew the very minute they chopped them down.
‘Couch Concerts’: Streaming Shows And Online Festivals
The wave of lockdowns in spring was followed by a wave of cancellations, and that by one of streaming concerts. Doing your dishes, practicing a one-person-circle-pit around your dinner table, or hanging comfy in your armchair at home while a band shreds in front of a camera somewhere else on the globe became normal. This seemed to be the only way to play shows under the given circumstances. But how does it feel to play in front of no more than a couple of techies? “Our stream show was ok too … even little bit weird for having any audience. I was nervous as hell at the beginning. It was also very strange to talk to a camera … and I assume that was kinda obvious. But think it went otherwise pretty well after all”, sums Mikko his experience up.
‘Bench Banging’: A Crowd Nailed To Their Seats
While it is perfectly normal for the virtually present crowd to enjoy a concert as a couch potato, a normal metal concert can hardly be imagined to be fun when sitting is mandatory, right?
I remember Apocalyptica touring with the Avanti chamber orchestra in spring 2014. I attended their show in a theater-like venue in Hamburg. It became an experience of its own. There was a remarkable share of dressed-up people, apparently attracted by the term ‘chamber orchestra’. They kept sitting as if glued to the seats and would not accept metalheads standing while the band played! Any attempt to remain standing was answered by swears from the classic fans. When I did not mind that anymore, it got me a band of smiling musicians and a kiss blown from Paavo Lötjönen! A small group of metalheads filled the gap between the stage and first row after the break, and saved Apocalyptica from being bored by their own crowd.
Luckily, Lord Of The Lost experienced the opposite when they toured with the Swan Song Chamber Orchestra in 2018. The sitting crowd was just the fudge on the cake to make the concerts perfect, as I learnt from their fans Gernot and Basti!
The thorny bushes regrew as soon as anybody tried to cut them down for many, many years. Then a shining symphonic metal knight came to cut down the thorny forest, eagerly determined to wake the sleeping beauty.
Finland: A Late Summer Night’s Dream
Finland has a bit of a unique position in all this compared to continental Europe. The population density is very low and traditionally, Finns request more individual distance, and not just spatially. It is perfectly normal not to shake hands or hug, even when encountering close friends. A typical form of holiday is spending one or two weeks in a remote cabin or even a tent in the woods, often all alone. So not surprisingly, the main centers of infection have been the wider Helsinki metropolitan area and a couple of skiing resorts.
A pile of new measures enabled first, the managing crews to run their festivals (such as Saarihelvetti and the Dark River Festival) and second, the administrations to permit them: a limited number of visitors, strict hygiene protocols, and plenty of space in the outdoor venues. Traditionally there are wide areas with benches and tables in many Finnish outdoor festivals. Standing in front of the stage was permitted as normal, but with some distance between fans. “Hand sanitizers were all over, there was more space and the bands on stage reminded us to stick to the rules”, says Raisa Krogerus (Krogography), concert photographer who attended both festivals.
But one last-minute sacrifice to the witch’s pandemic curse in late July cannot be omitted. Bands from Sweden had to cancel and Finnish bands stepped in. This, however, meant no international participation!
Central Europe: Bench Banging
Around this time, Jinjer announced a couple of shows in Germany and Switzerland. Eugeneremembers: “Then in the middle of the summer our booker told us that concerts are back, different, under new regulations provided by health authorities, but those are real concerts with real people (not online streams) and some big bands played here and there in Germany. If this is safe for both the band and fans why won’t we play!” Allen R. Wright Jr (GDB Management) comments:“I am super proud of not only JINJER but also the supports that played with us as well: Sickret, Ghost Iris, Aeries and Dust In Mind.”
Jinjer’s tour and some more shows were taking place mostly at outdoor venues. The number of tickets was limited, and the crowd was divided in small groups sitting in assigned spots. Leaving the seat was allowed for only a short time and everyone was required to wear a mouth-and-nose-covering mask, even outside. Additionally, when entering the Backstage club in Munich to attend Haggard’s show, checking each visitor’s body temperature was mandatory, Pendi texts me from the audience.
“Playing music live is what we live and breathe for” (Sebastian Linnet)
As the witch’s curse could easily turn any show into a super spreader event, it took some rather brave princes to cope with this special sort of responsibility. How do the musicians cope with it? Sebastian replies after the tour: ”… we are willing to do about anything to do it. Of course we would never risk the safety and health of the fans and ourselves.”
Accepting The Impossible
Preparing concerts under these circumstances was different, Allen confirms: “Haha you have no idea how different and almost scary it was! Every few days there were changes in local infection rates – Health rules, people doubting that we would actually make it and on on on … the biggest challenge was the day they travelled to Germany. For around 12 hours, I was not sure if they would be allowed to enter Europe – but thanks to the Covid Gods they made it in.”
By early August, it became obvious that the infection had spread more dynamically, and as a result, cancellations by the authorities grew more likely once again. Sebastian illustrates: “The biggest challenge was definitely preparing for cancellations. That’s a tough thing to do, because when you prepare for a show, you prepare for it to happen. But we all put our minds at ease and kind of just gave in to the fact that there was a chance of being cancelled due to restrictions. Preparing for that was mentally challenging, since we are incredibly hungry to get back on stage by now.”
“Show the whole world that the music is still alive” (Eugene Abdukhanov)
And this is exactly the point. We are all deprived of normality. Each of us desperately longs for anything that resembles what we knew to be normal anyhow. “It was important for us as a band to go on that tour, as musicians we needed it so much”, explains Eugene, “and judging by the fans’ reaction and feedback they also needed it a lot because Covid is as harmful mentally as physically. The urge and need was that somebody had to show the whole world that the music is still alive, somebody had to help so many people fight the depression caused by lockdown, bring back at least a bit of normality to this grey daily routine during or after the quarantine. And we as individuals needed that normality too!” Then again, ‘Normality’ is the new word for what we became!
His sword was sharp, and his scream loud. The shining symphonic metal knight really made it through the thick into the castle. He found Sleeping Beauty in her room and kissed her.
Writing Metal History
November has come and the concerts scheduled for the rest of the year soon need to be canceled due to recently exploding case numbers. This sheds a new light on the shows that actually took place. “ALL of them … saw this a chance to be a part Corona Metal History”, Allen points out!And Sebastianexplains: “It wasn’t until we were driving home to Denmark that it really occurred to us that what we had just been a part of was truly something special – being one of the very first bands in the world to cross borders to play shows in these times.” From today’s point of view they were the only ones, as the live event industries are locked down again nearly everywhere.
The princess opened her eyes but only for a blink, and then fell asleep! Both. Roses grew quickly to close the gap he had cut as if no one had ever cut a single branch.
(Image by Dortoise & Ms Cesar Little)
New Recipes To Get Sleeping Beauty Back On Stage
I admit, thinking right now of which other precautions could be taken to get metal bands on stage again is bizarre.
But sooner or later, Sleeping Beauty will jump from her bed and grab her guitar to shred it again – on stage with all of us watching her!
Eugeneconcludes: ”I think it is important to understand that being a conscientious individual nowadays helping to stop the spread doesn’t mean locking oneself in a shell.” It was more than naive to think, once the situation eases again, venues will simply open and bands will return to play normal shows as if nothing happened. No. There will be a ‘new normal’, and for this setting more ideas are needed. “We all can have a bit of normal life and follow the heath current regulations at the same time”, says Eugene.
The largest share of shows in 2020 have been live streamed concerts. However, in addition to ‘bench-banging’ shows throughout the pandemic summer, several more alternative formats have been tried by musicians from all genres. Bands toured through Bavarian beer gardens, while others played unannounced on market squares or house yards, sometimes even for free. On top of that new agencies popped up arranging highly exclusive living-room concerts, and naturally the break allowed bands to work on new releases.
Outdoor Shows, The New Normal?
“Could those ‘bench-banging’ shows provide a way to get Sleeping Beauty back on stage?” I ask Allen.“YES PLEASE! If local the local health situation allows it”, Allen texts me. “and get out there and play … If Jinjer and our supports can do it safely then so can everyone else. Or at least they should try it …” – Well, not right now apparently but hopefully soon again!
Then again ‘bench-banging’ cannot be seen as the remedy for all, as Sebastian points out: “Smaller venues will probably going to close down eventually since it won’t be financially doable for them to do seated and distanced shows like this. But again, I think we need to settle in for this new reality for a long time. But what we all need to do is take our precautions at all times.”
November has dawned with sunny days and mild temperatures. Metalheads have a reputation of being tough. So how about playing outdoor show in central European winter? As events like Rock am Ring (Germany)or Nummirock (Finland) have a reputation of taking place in hard rain and cold nights, even with snow. Can you imagine that would work? Allen: “of course I can! I just think that people will be freaking come winter time … the flu season will hit and every one will be afraid to do anything. I do understand this but I really hope that things will get under control and we can actually have fun. Safely ….” But Sebastian concludes: “Outdoor events in northern Europe during the winter is probably too big of a risk in terms of weather.”