Have passport, will rock: Europe’s big summer metal festivals

Download, Bloodstock, Wacken, Sonisphere, NSX: Ronan McGreevy has the lowdown on the heaviest Euro thrash fests around

Are you ready, Eddie? Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden rocks out

For two generations of heavy metal fans, Donington Park in England's East Midlands was synonymous with an annual rock pilgrimage.

The appropriately named Monsters of Rock festival ran from 1980 to 1996. A one-day festival held at Castle Donington race course, it attracted everyone who was anyone in metal music.

The festival was revived in 2003 under its current moniker, Download (at the time the spat between Metallica and Napster over illegal downloading was still current) .

It is now a three-day affair and next week (June 14th-16th) it boasts a trio of headliners who are, visually and sonically, three of the greatest live acts in the world: Slipknot, Iron Maiden and Rammstein.


"Take Glastonbury out of the equation, we're the biggest rock festival in the world. Name another festival that can do 105,000 people," says Download Festival promoter Andy Copping.

“Rock is still perceived in the mainstream press as a dirty word. It is cool to write about Glastonbury. It is not cool to write about Download. This is rock music, yet we can’t get on mainstream TV,” he says adding that smaller festivals such as Bestival and the Isle of Wight get disproportionate coverage for the size of their audiences.

Download has had a number of coups. In 2010 AC/DC played their only festival date for two decades at the event – though the demands they made were heavy.

They brought their own stage, insisted no other band play during their slot and refused to allow their names to go on the festival T-shirts.

“There were a number of demands for AC/DC. I’d defy anybody not to roll over when they ask for something,” admitted Copping.

The other recent highlight was Black Sabbath's comeback concert last year. It nearly didn't happen because guitarist Tony Iommi was diagnosed with lymphoma. The band carried on regardless.

“The man is a giant not just in musical circles but just as a human being to be able to go out and do that,” says Copping.

“This guy was having chemo, radiation and everything, but still was able to step out there and deliver the performance of a lifeline.”

Strictly speaking, Download is not a metal festival, but a rock festival. Bands such as The Prodigy, Chase and Status and Pendulum have been added to the bill at different stages to broaden the appeal.

“I think in the past four or five years rock fans have really opened their hearts and their minds to what is really good and what fits in and does not fit in,” explains Copping.

“Am I going to book Emile Sandé? Of course not. Might I book The Kings of Leon? Quite possibly. You’ve got to get a fine line really.”

For those who like their metal pure and heavy there is always Bloodstock in Catton Park, Derbyshire between August 8th and 11th with King Diamond, Lamb of God and Slayer as headliners.

Northern Ireland’s finest thrash exports Gama Bomb and Dublin doom/folk merchants Mael Mórdha are also on the bill.

Continental Europe's biggest hard rock festival is Wacken Open Air (WOA) between August 1st and August 3rd. Every year, 80,000 metal fans descend on the small northern German village of Wacken for a festival which usually sells out within days of tickets going on sale. It also features the heavy metal equivalent of the Eurovision. The Wacken Metal Battle had bands from 34 countries participating last year. Ireland's entrant this year will be Overoth from Belfast.

This weekend Europe's biggest travelling festival, Sonisphere, wraps up following dates in Barcelona and Madrid over the past fortnight. Sonisphere France takes place at Snowhall Park in Amnéville on Saturday and Sunday and Sonisphere Italy takes place in Milan tomorrow. Iron Maiden and Limp Bizkit are the big acts.

Other notable European festivals include Graspop Metal Meeting in Dessel, Belgium, between June 28th and 30th and Hellfest which takes place in Clisson, eastern France, between June 21st and 23rd.

Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman was never expected to take part in the band's European tour which includes two sold-out nights at the Academy this Monday and Tuesday night.

The necrotizing fasciitis which he got from a spider bite had left his arm so weak that he simply couldn’t play the guitar with the intensity demanded.

Nevertheless, his tragic and premature death at the age of 49 from alcoholism last month has added a poignancy to these dates. If Hanneman had only written one song, Angel of Death, his place in the metal pantheon would have been assured, but it has become clear since his death that he was behind nearly everything great that the band has done, from Raining Blood to Seasons in the Abyss.

Fans who had hoped his death would encourage drummer Dave Lombardo to return to the fold have been left disappointed and he has been replaced on a permanent basis by Paul Bostaph.

Tomorrow, another metal legend, Scott Ian from Anthrax (who featured on a recent Ticket cover), will hold court during his speaking tour in the Button Factory.

Along with Mastodon on Wednesday and Thursday night, Walking Papers, the new supergroup featuring Guns N’Roses bass player Duff McKagan will play The Pint on Tuesday night.

Later in the summer the obvious gap in the Irish festival calender for an Irish hard rock festival will be filled by the first ever NSX festival which takes place in the Ravensdale Lodge Equestrian & Trekking Centre in Dundalk, Co Louth on August 3rd and 4th. More details on nsxfestival.com.