- A report in words, photos and footage by Craig Downes
- Photos and footage supplied by Craig Downes, Sweden Rock and Effie Trikilis with huge thanks to brother Stephen and all at themetalplanet
The European summer has long been a fertile feeding ground for music fans from across the planet. The entire continent comes alive over the warmer months with a plethora of enticing celebrations of the rock ‘n’ roll spirit – the selection of festivals is truly astounding and continually growing with more options for your musical journey to the old world appearing every year. Getting to one of these festival events has become a bucket list moment for an increasing number of rock and metal hungry worldly travelers. Some have termed it a ‘pilgrimage’ , others a ‘rite of passage’, but the main rite of making this journey is that these festival organisers get it right, as these are some of the best run, most crowd-friendly events you could hope to attend and Sweden Rock Festival is one of the very best.
A small seed was planted with the first staging of Sweden Rock in 1992 and with a couple of location changes over the years as the festival outgrew its meager origins the organisers have continually developed and expanded the festival’s lineups and facilities to the current incarnation which sits amongst the top of the list of must-see events for rock and metal fiends the world over. Now onto its 28th year this festival has all the pedigree and hard-learned knowledge to provide an amazing, engaging experience for any punter and always puts together a lineup to tickle the fancy of anyone with even a passing interest in metal, heavy rock or guitar-driven rock and blues.
2019 sees a stellar collection of some of the biggest names in heavy music and promises to be another impressive installment to add to the legacy of this fine event. This year’s heavyweight lineup is packed with an incredible list of bands from across all aspects of what hard and heavy guitar music has to offer – KISS, Def Leppard and Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow take the major headline spots and beneath them is an abundance of awesome acts to ensure a great time for all over the four days of fun in the Swedish sun – Slayer, Dream Theater, ZZ Top, Behemoth, Skid Row, Amon Amarth, Saxon, UFO, Arch Enemy, Death Angel, Styx and Candlemass to name but a few – deep breath … Demons and Wizards, Uli Jon Roth, Disturbed, Joe Lynn Turner, Krokus, At The Gates, Hammerfall, Magnum, Axel Rudi Pell, Blaze Bayley, Powerwolf, Jag Panzer, Gorgoroth and a veritable feast of others will make this a time to remember.
Much has been made lately of the number of high profile founding father artists that are preparing for their inevitable retirement from active duty and this years SRF lineup is littered with acts that have already announced their intentions to wind down their activities and many others that are not far behind.
Everyone is aware that KISS and Slayer are on farewell runarounds and with UFO also on their ‘Last Orders’ tour, Krokus on their ‘Adios Amigos’ shows, ZZ Top celebrating 50 years and a now 74-year-old Ritchie Blackmore only coming out into the sun occasionally for marquee shows such as to headline the closing night of this festival we are indeed in a time of change and passing the baton.
Although there can be a tinge of melancholy when considering the end of some monumental careers I, for one, would rather see my favourite acts go out while on top rather than fade to a lesser version of their previous glories, and a major part of what makes Sweden Rock such an awesome festival is that it allows the opportunity and provides a substantial platform for these original, cornerstone acts to play some of their twilight shows in the type of surroundings and to the huge crowds that they so rightly deserve.
So let’s take the opportunity – four days, five stages, over 80 bands, upward of 35,000 fans each day, loads of bars, great food and a hell of a lot of rock n’ roll. What could be more fun, let the madness begin!
Now, as it’s literally impossible to give you a full run-through of the entire four days the main focus of this review will be on the major marquee acts with quick mention of other notable sets to give the overall vibe of the event.
The kick-off day starts late in the afternoon, allowing arriving fans time to settle in, get reacquainted and the level of excitement and anticipation is tangible.
Hitting the fields and catching the end of Gathering Of Kings is a nice surprise with the new melodic metal supergroup showing potential, but it’s when Joe Lynn Turner hits the stage that things heat up. Rainbow and Deep Purple tracks ‘Difficult to Cure’, ‘King of Dreams’ and others mixed with highlights from his time with Yngwie Malmsteen adds up to a great setlist. Never thought I’d see Joe doing ‘Rising Force’ or ‘Deja Vu’ live; his band is rock solid and this a great showing. Best set for the opening night though must go to a brutally efficient Death Angel, fresh to the road after putting together what’s sounding like a killer new record, they hit the stage with energy and intensity. Frontman Mark Osegueda is in particularly sprightly form, driving the crowd with his infectious energy and with a setlist including ‘Voracious Souls’, ‘Father of Lies’ and newie ‘The Pack’ these guys lay down an impressive benchmark for the later bands to follow.
Skid Row have the closing set for the first night and the massive turnout shows they can still pack ’em in even after several frontman changes and a few lesser profile latter-day releases. Founding guitarist Snake Sabo is strangely absent tonight but they make a solid fist of it with ‘Slave to the Grind’, ‘Piece of Me’, ‘Youth Gone Wild’, ‘18 and Life’ and others. The crowd lap it up and it’s all rocking good fun after a Death Angel set that would be hard for anyone to follow. A great opening to proceedings.
Day 2 kicks off with a workmanlike showing from the ever-likable Blaze Bayley doing the rounds with a set of songs from his time with Iron Maiden. A fairly short set doesn’t quite do justice to the lengthy material but he’s in upbeat mood and songs like ‘Lord of the Flies’, ‘Sign Of The Cross’ and ‘The Clansman’ are classic mid-era Maiden and go over well.
The breezy Skynyrd tinged country-rock of Blackberry Smoke is fun in the lunchtime sun, while the melodic prog of Seventh Wonder is superbly played and these guys possess a talented singer. A quick blast of the dramatic power metal of Powerwolf is entertaining but after quickly checking out Three Days Grace I think I’ll give them at least a four-day head start next time and hurriedly take the opportunity to head to the impressive range of merch tents to snap up some hard to find Euro label releases.
Krokus have been a sturdy hard rock act since the 70s and their current ‘Adios Amigos’ tour sees them bowing out while still in good form, ‘Headhunter’, ‘Bedside Radio’, ‘Heatstrokes’ and others go over great, they seem like they could keep doing this for years to come but if their career is reaching its end they go with integrity.
Arch Enemy are one of the leading lights of the current metal movement and are on the ascendency for good reason – great hooks, two of the best guitar players of modern times and a frontwoman to die for with stage presence and swagger to burn. Any set including killer contemporary metal classics like ‘Ravenous’, ‘The World Is Yours’ and ‘Dead Eyes See No Future’ is a guaranteed winner. The band gel as a vibrant, powerful unit, their presentation is fierce and connects with the enthusiastic crowd who sing along with every riffy refrain. Only problem with this set is it crosses over with a rare chance to see Lucifer and the decision has to be made to race to the Sweden stage to check out some of their 70s imbued strains – part witchy chanteuse, part earthy groove rock, with a heritage in the local scene that has connections to Hellacopters and Entombed and a vibe that is steeped in classic rock. Frontwoman Johanna Sadonis is an enigmatic presence and their tunes as alluring as their name might suggest.
Amon Amarth are another of the all-conquering legion of Swedish metal bands collectively leading the pack for the genre. Amped up classic metal riffage with growling Viking legend themes, their stories of ancient blood and plunder are an obvious fit on the festival’s biggest stage to the howling throng. A fiery visual presentation and setlist dominated by their increasingly popular newer material with ‘Raven’s Flight’ and ‘Raise Your Horns’ while also featuring older gold like ‘Guardians of Asgaard’ and ‘Twilight Of The Thunder God’, this is a powerful showing from this impressive outfit.
Not knowing what to expect but trusting all the contributing elements we head to an outer stage for Deadland Ritual. Matt Sorum has always been a solid drummer, Steve Stevens a fierce guitar player and Geezer Butler – well, enough said. The prospect of the song selection and hearing some new material is intriguing. We get a brace of classic Sabbath tunes,’Symptom of Universe’, ‘Neon Knights’, ‘Sweet Leaf’ along with ‘Slither’, ‘Rebel Yell’ and a couple of new tracks. It’s good fun but time will tell if this develops into something substantial enough to match the sum of its parts.
Tonight’s headliners are Def Leppard, presently with a wind in their sails and coming off their recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the band are in the midst of a purple patch and tonight a setlist of hook-laden hard rock has the crowd eating out of their hands. Well played, great vocal harmonies and enough shreddy guitar interplay for metal fans, these are great hard rock songs with an undeniable pop savvy. Playing a career-spanning setlist with the inevitable reliance on Hysteria album tracks and the added bonus of ‘Foolin’, ‘Let It Go’, ‘Rock 0f Ages’, ‘Switch 625’ et al and with a spectacular visual presentation, Leppard are a perfect big stage festival band.
A road-hardened Slayer coming out after the witching hour to play their ‘last ever show’ in Sweden in front of this massive baying crowd is a mouth-watering prospect. Always a relentless and effective live unit, they come to this show over a year into their final world tour and the combination of this, the last hurrah atmosphere and the fully fueled anticipation of the crowd is a heady mix. The band do not disappoint, a clinical battering with the combination of strobing visuals and a double kick groove that sees them deliver the best set I’ve seen from them after many viewings over the years. ‘Mandatory Suicide’, ‘South Of Heaven’, ‘Raining Blood’, ‘Angel of Death’ – all hit the mark with precision and to see such an influential and defining thrash metal powerhouse going out at the top of their game is a stirring experience for both the crowd and band as evidenced by a clearly emotional Tom Araya taking his final bows. An appropriate tribute to a long and impressive career and a great end to a great day.
Kicking off Day Three are British hard rock stalwarts Magnum. They have close to 50 years experience up their sleeves and after several previous appearances at Sweden Rock the early afternoon turnout for them is impressive and well-founded as they deliver a definitive set of classic rock. ‘How Far Jerusalem’, ‘Vigilante’, ‘Sacred Hour’ have long had their place in my collection and although a couple of favourites are missing from their set it is a real treat to finally see them live.
Axel Rudi Pell comes from an old school, following a template laid out in the 70s with bands like Rainbow where songs often have mythical overtones and guitar heroes rule the day. Epic tales of old with a contemporary edge, a real solid band featuring former Blackmore cohort Bobby Rondinelli on drums and producing one of the vocal highlights of the festival with the earnest Joey Geoli having a blinder with his powerful performance.
For me, the biggest disappointment of the entire festival is the clash of set times between Uli Jon Roth and Candlemass. Love Candlemass, always have, but the opportunity to finally see Uli play a solo set dominated by early Scorpions classics and his Electric Sun solo band material is absolutely unmissable and does not disappoint. ‘In Trance’, ‘Pictured Life’, ‘Enola Gay (Hiroshima Today)’ and all are stunning in their delivery. Well supported by his trusty troupe of cohorts, this is a display of blinding fretwork from a master of the strings. An emphatic tick in a long empty box and it’s only when he brings the set towards its end with a Hendrix cover that we get across to see the end of the ‘Mass.
Early evening, it’s still streaming northern sun and the perfect time to get on down to the boogie blues of ZZ Top. Low slung guitars, synced stage moves, big smiles, ‘Legs’, ‘La Grange’, ‘Sharp Dressed Man’, ‘Gimme All Your Lovin’, ‘Tush’ and the rest of a great setlist have the crowd on their feet.
Next up Disturbed. A hugely popular band but I find them incredibly unchallenging, one dimensional and their reliance on piss-weak cover songs for their crossover appeal is telling. They seem to go over with the willing but you can’t like everything and to the greater portion of the huge crowd this appears to be an opportunity to refresh, catch the killer set from At The Gates or seek a prime position for the impending set from the mammoth headliners.
KISS – welcome to The Big Show. Over a career that has been the definition of explosive bombast and taking the rock show to the extreme, they are about to call time on a monumental and storied career with this tour being ‘The End of the Road’ for the band as a worldwide touring behemoth. They are the major draw this year with their day being the first to sell out and anticipation is high for their set. Never ones to disappoint. they descend to the stage from atop the lighting rig and proceed to blow the living shit out of everything. There are rising platforms, swings out over the crowd, blood and bombs, confetti, pyro and good-time party rock ‘n roll. Ongoing concerns over the strength of Stanley’s vocals appear to have some small basis of truth but he battles like a trooper and puts on a super gutsy and entirety credible performance. He would do well to keep the between-song ‘woo woos’ to a minimum and put all efforts into song delivery but this is a ballsy effort with no sign of trickery. Gene is badass – imposing and imperious, he obviously relishes his dark demeanor and the dual frontman approach helps with the pacing of the show. The unit as a whole are as tight and pounding as at any point in their career and this is a blindingly entertaining spectacle. A setlist featuring ‘Detroit Rock City’, ‘Deuce’, ‘Love Gun’, ‘Cold Gin’, ‘100,000 Years’, ‘Black Diamond’, a couple of ‘80s curve balls and ending with one of the great rock sing-alongs’ in ‘Rock n Roll All Nite’ cannot miss and the entire crowd are enthralled for the whole show. This is an exercise in how the big boys do it, great songs, visually thrilling and just damn good fun.
A thunderous day of rock n’ roll is brought to an end with a clinical exhibition of precision prog from Dream Theater. With a fiery set dominated by material from their excellent new album and with classics like ‘Lie’ from the Awake album and ‘As I Am’ from Train of Thought, they leave all in no doubt of their incredible chops and superlative musical abilities with a pummelling display that brings a very satisfying end to the days’ proceedings.
By Day Four sometimes the decision to have a little extra sleep, a bracing dip in the nearby Baltic Sea or a leisurely brunch is required and we hit the fields in time to catch a vigorous Styx put in a surprisingly muscular guitar-driven performance with James ‘JY’ Young and the evergreen Tommy Shaw ripping it up out front and the spirited Lawrence Gowan putting on a display that gives their material a vital energy. When ‘Blue Collar Man’, ‘The Grand Illusion’ and ‘Come Sail Away’ is shared with a good beer and great friends with a common love of some classic 70s ‘pomp rock’ I am reminded of the essence of what festivals like this are all about.
A shockingly depleted Pete Way is now obviously paying for his former lifestyle, not playing his bass, instead using a mic stand to steady his wavering body and showing no resemblance to his previous band who put on a powerhouse display mere minutes after this cautionary showing.
A quick look sees Demons & Wizards in fine, powerful form on the way to an old favourite.
UFO – ‘the last round tour’ – yet another great and massively influential act on their final run of shows, alas! This year’s event is proving to be an end of an era in a very personal way and the opportunity to celebrate their legacy with a final bow to one of the defining 70s hard rock acts is one of the high points of the entire event. ‘Lights Out’, ‘Too Hot to Handle’, ‘Rock Bottom’, ‘Doctor Doctor’ … some of that era’s great rock songs are given a real good shake by one of their punchier lineups. The wiley Mogg is in fine voice and humour and Vinnie Moore reinterprets the Schenker riffs and solos with astonishing flair and finesse. This last round of shows sees the band going out in top form and doing justice to a career of great distinction.
Saxon are as fucking solid as the day is long, a 45-year career with very few soft patches is testament to their stripes as one of the generals of the metal battalion and their legion line up in force at the festival’s main stage for a master class in good ol’ ballsy British metal. Biff Byford is ringmaster of ceremonies of this always rock-solid unit and ‘Denim and Leather’, ‘Wheels of Steel’, ‘And The Bands Played On’ and a load more are delivered with a vitality belying their years.
Hammerfall, the nice guys of Swedish power metal, are obviously shrewd operators, calling their latest single ‘(We make) Sweden Rock’ and releasing it to time with the festival is not only a smart marketing move but it makes the song a rallying cry for their rabid fans and is featured many times throughout the weekend on the festivals many massive screens. Turnout for their set is impressive and as it falls towards the end of the event it becomes an opportunity for fans to not only enjoy a set from a highly proficient band but to loudly voice their appreciation for the entire event.
Rainbow come to this show with some speculation as to how their set will go over. Opinion has been mixed over some of their previous performances since Ritchie put this current lineup together after hearing the call for him to amp it up again and dust off what are some of the most classic songs of what is now termed classic rock. With a setlist including ‘Stargazer’, ‘I Surrender’, ‘Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll’ along with a selection of Deep Purple classics, Ritchie plays well and singer Ronnie Romeo is a class act who does justice to the weighty material. Having Rainbow play the final headlining set of this four-day event turns out to be a good fit, obviously not as pummeling as some of the performances that have preceded it but to hear these truly timeless songs played by a solid unit becomes a fitting closure and farewell to what has been an incredibly enjoyable 4 days.
When it’s announced that unfortunately Behemoth can’t make the show due to flight or visa issues Tunisian proggers Myrath step up to close the event and do a stellar job with tunes that incorporate their eastern musical heritage with solid contemporary progressive rock to great effect. Belly dancers, fire dancers, an impressive presentation and a very capable band with engaging tunes put on a highly entertaining show that is an enjoyable way to bring things to an end.
So another year, another incredible festival shared with good friends and cheerful like-minded revelers, another celebration of all that is great about rock and metal music and the community that so passionately follow it.
Check out some of the attached footage, it’s not all great and is taken from different positions and perspectives with the intention of giving you – the reader/viewer an overview of the event and an insight into what Sweden Rock Festival 2019 was all about.
Roll on next year!