Beneath the swathes of denim jackets, bullet belts and Iron Maiden back-patches, Copenhell is a pleasingly diverse gem of an alternative musical festival that refuses to cater solely to the metal old guard. Of course, some of this year’s big names are cornerstones of the heavy world — from Avenged Sevenfold to W.A.S.P. and Ozzy — but the meaty line-up is pitted with artists that draw on everything from EDM to opera.
Even before the festival kicks off in earnest — on the inadequately titled ‘warm-up’ night — Copenhell makes a bruising statement of intent by hosting the grandfathers of post-metal, Neurosis. With only the festival’s smallest stage open to them, Neurosis work through a set made up of swaggering slabs of riffs and passages that wind to dead ends. The band’s tone is thick and cloying, almost claustrophobic — the sort usually reserved for small sweatboxes— but sounding satisfyingly heavy outdoors thanks to some deft sound-work.
In the harsh light of the festival’s official first day, Copenhell reveals its true bounty. The standard festival fare of food and merch stalls and bizarre sideshows are well put-together, but it’s Refshaleøen’s harsh industrial backdrop that really sets the mood. The 2000 metre2 unfaltering gaze of Fenrisulven — the Copenhagen wolf — watches over the weekend’s proceedings as 23,000 alternative music fans flood into the festival.
On paper, the opening day looks the weakest. The business end of Thursday hosts the likes of symphonic stalwarts Nightwish and bro-metallers Avenged Sevenfold, big crowd-pleasing acts that lack something in the way of nuance.
Lower down the bill, buried in the line-up, there’s much more to be had if the in-your-face stuff isn’t really your bag. While Parkway Drive are hardly subtle, their eco-metal manages both aggression and poignance. As the opening act on the main stage, Helviti, they have the dubious honour of setting the pace for the rest of the weekend and they do so with fiery aplomb.
Over on the smaller stage, gospel-cum-black metal act Zeal & Ardor are a different beast altogether. Their records have created a bit of a stir, so it’s gratifying to see their mix of spiritual chants from slave-era America and frosty screams land so well in the middle of the day. In less able hands, their Satan-fuelled ritualistic chants might seem trite or forced but a few songs in, the band have the crowd caught up in their thrall and chanting along.
Another black metal act, Danish born Møl, don’t quite summon the same trance-like state. As last minute replacements for bottled energy merchants Skindred, something gets lost in the mix. Their sensational new album, Jord, relies so much on high-end guitar to offset the grinding backdrop but it’s far too quiet and loses the flourishes that sets them apart from less by-the-book black metal acts.
Friday is an absolutely creaking with the prowess of its line-up so after inhaling all the caffeine and painkillers, we dive in.
Copenhell’s tendency to open the main stage with brutally high-energy acts continues. Nu-metal darlings Deftones could be a bit of an odd fit for this fairly traditional crowd, but they whip up a chaotic whirlpool in front of the stage with the likes of ‘Shove It’, ‘Rocket Skates’ and dripping-with-groove ‘Swerve City’. Chino is on masterly form, flinging himself around the stage and genuinely seeming to enjoy his crowd’s frenetic reception.
Yet more displays of kineticism comes from Japanese electronicore outfit Crossfaith. In front of a hard-drinking Danish crowd, their weird mash-up of EDM, blast beats and songs called things like ‘Jagerbomb’ goes off like a bomb.
After two back-to-back sweat-sets, Alice in Chains bring a pleasing and much-needed change of pace. The endless debates over Will Duvall’s suitability to replace deceased vocalist Layne Staley have finally — thankfully — seemed to abated. Duvall is a gold-standard frontman, easily as comfortable getting the crowd to bounce along to pulsing classic ‘Man in a Box’, wrenching heartstrings with the stripped-back ‘Nutshell’ or calling on the crowd to sing-along to new-era favourites like ‘Stone’.
The focal point of the weekend, Ozzy Osbourne, easily draws the biggest crowd. The man himself is on fantastic form, thundering around the stage and looking far more lively than he has in years, his live performances tempered to perfection by Black Sabbath’s wide-ranging The End tour last year.
Perhaps the biggest joy of the weekend comes from the addition of Zakk Wylde to Ozzy’s line-up. Wylde is a decidedly unsubtle guitarist, inserting pinch-harmonics into the least likely — and sometimes least appropriate — riffs and always on the cusp of dropping into a roaring solo. A big presence on stage, he isn’t eclipsed by the main man and intermittently steps forward and let’s rip.
The set is pretty close to spot on too, with three Black Sabbath covers — including the unexpected ‘Fairies Wear Boots’ — and packed with fist-pumping, cheesy classics that have defined Ozzy’s career.
Saturday is no less eclectic in its variety, and caters to all manner of tastes; whether you’re into experimental French avant-garde breakcore (Igorrr), cock-rock (Steel Panther) or even swashbuckling pirate metal (Alestorm), the final day of the festival is a veritable smorgasbord of heaviness.
The anticipation of the festival’s main stage closing act, Ghost, has built to fever pitch by the time frontman Cardinal Copia and his unnamed ghouls and ghulehs take to the stage, which is mocked up, fittingly, like a cathedral.
When Ghost started out they were a bit of sideshow, with fans as interested in the band’s Satanic garb as their music. Recent albums have completely overturned this misconception; Copia is undoubtedly theatrical but their musical content is bold and has hooks for days.
Songs like ‘Square Hammer’, ‘He Is’ and ‘Faith’ could comfortably be delivered by globe-straddling pop stars were the lyrics not about giving souls over to Satan. But when you think they are at risk of taking themselves too seriously, they escort out some geriatric black mass bishop to deliver the sax solo in ‘Miasma’.
The whole set is uplifting, amusing and mesmerising, in a way that only these Swedish rockers can be. A fitting end to a festival that refuses to be painted into a box.