Atlas Rock 2022

Atlas Rock is a new festival at Gasklockorna, near Gävle, Sweden, where Gefle Metal Festival has been held since 2016. Atlas Rock has a more traditional hard rock line up, and we took the road trip to check it out. On Saturday, we saw several bands, including Alice Cooper and Black Label Society, and on Sunday, we focussed on the headliner Scorpions, who delivered a powerful version of «Wind of Change» with altered lyrics, dedicated to the people of Ukraine.

Lørdag 4.juni

There’s a line between hommage and pastiche, and Nestor are firmly on the former side. Their love for the heavy rock of the 80s goes beyond the velveteen trousers and waist-scarves – they love and respect it.  They know their audience, and opened with «On the Run», starting a largely high-energy set taken from their sole 2021 album «Kids In A Ghost Town»,  which continued with the title track and paused for breath only once, on the ballad «Tomorrow», which was also drummer Mattias Carlsson’s chance to show off some more sophisticated playing.  We were also treated to a premier of a new song «Signed in Blood» which had all the trademarks of their favoured era.  We even had a cow-bell, which had keyboard player Martin Frejinger stepping out from behind his 80s red onto the catwalk in his ankle-high sneakers. Bassist Marcus Åblad provided excellent support (and on backing vocals) but got a chance to show off on «These Days». Don’t be fooled by the style – these guys can really play. Hats off to Jonny Wemmenstedt, whose fingers are steeped in the speed metal of the era, and who produced plenty of guitar pyrotechnics to please the fans, especially on «Perfect 10» and «Signed in Blood». Vocalist Tobias Gustavsson, a first-rate front man in any era, gave a strong, full throttle performance, energetic, engaging with the audience, and with a 15 second-long note on «Firesign». A great festival warm-up, as evidenced by applause all the way to the back, and not too thin a crowd either. Nice work. 4.5/6

Uriah Heep provided a largely uptempo set filled with strong ensemble playing and extended musical passages where the band got to show off their longevity. The crowd were obviously anticipating their set, and people who were sitting before were standing by the time the instrumental intro had faded. The set started with the dense sound of «Graze by Heaven» and continued in similar vein with «Too Scared to Run», which gave Mick Box his first extended solo and drummer Russell Gilbrook a chance to show off his skills.  The set continued with some material from the band’s early career which was as well received. Dave Rimmer (bass) and Gilbrook led the first, «Gypsy», playing a fast-paced rhythmic duet backed by Phil Lanzon’s rich organ sound. Rimmer had to wait until «July Morning» for his chance to take centre stage with a lush melodic bass solo. Vocalist Bernie Shaw who belted it out from start to finish, and Box both took their moment to celebrate the return of live music «Welcome back to live fucking music! Have a great summer!». They closed out the set with two crowd pleasers – «Sunrise» and «Easy Livin'». Mick Box grinned for most of the set.  He was clearly loving being back on stage as much as the fans loved seeing him, and there was real glee as he displayed some of his trademark hand waving , the fans cheering as he shook his hand up and down over the guitar neck body while his left hand did the work. Shaw reckoned that tonight’s set would be a good start to Heep’s festival season.  He wasn’t wrong and the crowd agreed. 4/6

Powerwolf provided a predictably theatrical set, eagerly anticipated by a packed crowd which had gathered around the stage, ten, twenty rows deep in places. This was indeed a «holy heavy metal mass”, which vocalist Karsten Brill invited the audience to join. Before the third track, a hooded figure brought on a metal incense burner on a rope, which Brill swung to bless the audience.  Christian Jost, whose keyboards form part of the band’s gothic presentation also stepped out, his priest’s scarf flapping behind him as he gestured and stamped, demanding the crowd’s participation. As with other bands in this genre, it’s a matter of good musicians doing what they do well, and if you like the genre, you’re would have enjoyed the set. Special mention should go to Benjamin Buss on lead guitar, who is well schooled in the techniques and tropes of power metal guitar, and played fast and with great commitment from the first track, ably supported by his wolf-brother, David Vogt. There was a lot of audience participation throughout the set, with Brill putting them through their paces and showing off his own vocal prowess in the process, or when asking the girls in audience to scream a little louder ahead of «Demons are a Girl’s Best Friend». There wasn’t a great deal of dynamic variation in the set, which was powered along by drummer Roel van Helden until they slowed things down for the final number. The faithful audience gathered around the stage emitted a collective cry when when Brill declared the holy heavy metal mass concluded, but the fun had to end sometime. 3/6

Black Label Society stood out in Saturday’s roster as the heaviest act by far, and in some ways for being a more earnest musical act than the other more theatrical (or, in the case of Uriah Heep, celebrated) acts. It was an intense set, largely fast-paced, filled with furious guitar playing and driven by the energy of Zakk Wylde’s performance and brooding stage presence. Even a power failure during the first track didn’t stop them. Wylde’s vocal style was largely harsh, just short of shouting, adding to the heavy metal atmosphere, his guitar playing switching between pounding rhythm and soloing at pace, ratcheting up the intensity. BLS is all about Wylde, a multi-instrumentalist of some standing, and that requires a formidable live band. Well, no problem. Drummer Jeff Fabb made his presence felt from behind the kit from the first number, and particular mention should go his parts in «Fire It Up» and «Stillborn». John DeServio on bass grinned through the whole concert, clearly just delighted to be performing the music. His standout moments were some very fast fret work early on in the set and some wicked slap bass in the close of «Suicide Messiah», while Wylde surveyed the audience from his platform, giving the horns sign left and right, each time waiting for the audience to cheer in reply. For some, the guitar duet on «Fire It Up» would be the highlight, Wylde and second guitarist Dario Lorina at the end of the catwalk, guitars behind their heads. The set’s only real change of pace was «In This River», the sentimental tribute to his childhood friend guitarist Darrell Abbot who was murdered on stage in 2004. Wylde saluted the audience – «To our Sweden Black Family chapter – cheers» and then called on the audience to make more noise as the video tribute to his friend cycled on the screen. «Set You Free» brought back the heavier sound, and the contours of the set were becoming apparent, building again to more driven, energetic climax. The set closed with Wylde standing on his guitar platform, pounding his chest in time to the drums, while the applause continued for the exciting and dynamic set. For anyone unfamiliar with their material, which spans eleven studio albums, this was a good introduction and a welcome change of tone in the direction of more earnest metal music from the earlier acts. 4/6

Playing their first European show in almost three years, Vince Furnier, yes, selveste Alice Cooper, brought his «Nightmare Castle» to Gävle as Saturday night’s headliner. It’s an unashamed theatrical performance, from the introductory frantic textures of Mousssorgsky’s Night on the Bare Mountain which backed the huge stage cloth of Cooper’s eyes looking over the waiting audience, through the various pieces of stage business, often enacted by his wife Sheryl Goddard, right to the encore «School’s Out», into which they incorporated the chorus from Pink Floyd’s «Another Brick in the Wall (part 2)». The quintessential showman, Cooper knows his hits, starting with «Feed my Frankenstein» and «No More Mr. Nice Guy», which got the set started nicely, though it took a couple of tracks to get the sound balance right, with Cooper’s vocals being a little low at the start. Later, we got «Hey Stoopid», another staple. Four tracks in, and lead guitarist Nita Strauss had already had four solos, ranging from conventional speed metal to something at the bluesier end, constantly moving around the stage, throwing shapes, posturing, twisting her guitar away from her body. It’s no secret that she is almost as much the star of the show as Cooper himself, both as musician and as part of the theatrics. Later on, she would get her own moment centre stage, backed only by drummer Glen Sobel, with full-on speed-metal pyrotechnics.  Then it was Sobel’s turn, giving an extended drum solo of some richness, including excellent work on the toms and more double pedalling than the rest of the set demanded. Bass player Chuck Garric came out to give him a hand and take a moment to show off his chops. For all its silliness and theatricality, it’s a very polished performance enacted by very talented musicians, all of them accomplished in their own right elsewhere, and this in part is what makes it work. Strauss may have the top billing, but she did not overshadow the other guitarists, playing guitar-solo tag all through the set, passing the line to Ryan Roxy, or taking his lead when it was his turn to start a round of guitar breaks. Tommy Henriksen («okay, he’s not from Sweden») also took his turns, also having a moment with Cooper out on the thrust stage on «Fallen In Love». The other song everyone was waiting for was undoubtedly «Poison», carefully positioned at the start of the second half of the set, to get the crowd energised again. Following that, we had the solos and a few moments for the band to perform without Cooper as he disappeared off stage for a costume change. The theatricality increased from there on, with Sheryl appearing for a second time, this time as the Black Widow, thrusting a baby out of a pram at Cooper, who then threatened to butcher it during «Dead Babies». His punishment was prompt – a guillotine was brought out, and Cooper dramatically beheaded under the Black Widow’s supervision, and she then danced around the stage, whirling and kissing his severed head to the backing of «I Love the Dead».  Thankfully, Cooper came back to life in time for the next track «Escape», returning to the stage in a strait jacket he had worn earlier. The main part of the set concluded with «Teenage Frankenstein», bringing us full gothic circle back to the start. The encore was, inevitably, «School’s Out», with Cooper changing costume once again into white frock coat and hat, the white entertainer now. He introduced the band, referring to Strauss as «Her majesty…. the lead guitarist of the decade», thanked the crowd for visiting his castle and wishing «… and may all your nightmares be horrific!» but the fact is, he’s more of a much-loved institution, and the crowd sent him and his band on their way with sustained applause. 5/6

Søndag 5.juni

Scorpions headlined the Sunday night at Gävle, stopping off in Sweden on their Rock Believer World Tour, in support of their latest album of the same name. With such an extensive back catalogue, running across a number of genres as well, they are a band to please all. They are also entitled to cast themselves more in the role of entertainers after fifty years in the game. So, they can pitch their set how they like, and here at Gävle they chose to provide a classic heavy metal set, aimed to please the crowd at the first of many long overdue rock festivals.  «Gas in the Tank» from their new «Rock Believer» album set the tone for the rest of the performance, as fast-to-medium paced heavy metal. After «Make it Real», vocalist Klaus Meine told the audience they would be taking them through the years, and took them back to New York City, 42nd Street for «The Zoo», the pace of its pounding rhythms absolutely spot on. There followed the first two instrumental numbers, «Coast to Coast», featuring the whole band, including Meine on guitar, and they stood shoulder to shoulder on the thrust stage. Next came «Seventh Sun» off the new album, and Meine’s vocals were finally correctly balanced, showing that his voice is still as clear as ever across his range. This and «Peacemaker» which followed were good, well-crafted metal numbers which went down well with the audience. To be fair, they were already getting a good reception, so they couldn’t do much wrong. We then headed back into the 80s «I’m sure you know the words» for «Bad Boys Running Wild», followed by lead guitarist Mattias Jabs’s «Delicate Dance», which had him own the thrust stage for an extended guitar obligato.  Then it was, as Meine put it, «time to get the acoustic guitars out», for «Send me an Angel» which had the crowd swaying and filming with their phones, and «Wind of Change», with alternate lyrics, which Meine explained were intended to show solidarity with «the brave people in Ukraine». «Listen to my heart – It says Ukrainia – Waiting for the wind to change.” The crowd were very much on side here, so the gesture felt authentic rather than corny.  When the song reached «…like brothers», it seemed like the whole audience was singing. It was a genuinely moving moment. The only awkward moment was Rudolf Schenker’s acoustic solo in the middle of the song,which stuttered somewhat.  There followed «Tease me Please me» which fit the set well, but passed without making much impact, and despite some engagement with the audience by Meine, the sentimental «Rock Believer» from the new album also came and went. Then came the drum and bass solos. Hats off to Mikkey Dee for a rich, high impact, diverse drum solo which lasted a good while and drew huge applause. Time to build to a climax with «Blackout» and «Big City Nights», where Rudolf fluffed his lines a little again during the solo.  After a brief pause came the very welcome encores of «Still Loving You», which started with some gentle, lyrical guitar playing under the fading lights of the Swedish sunset, and then the unashamed crowd pleaser, «Rock You Like a Hurricane». Well, they had. 4.5/6

Tekst: Alex Maines
Foto: Anne-Marie Forker

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