I must confess to this festival being one that had gone unnoticed by my radar, even though it has been going for over 10 years and played host to Girlschool, Pretty Maids, Uriah Heep, Y&T, Napalm Death, Krokus, Saxon, MSG and many others.
So this year it only seemed right to hop over the channel and drive the 80 miles from Dunkerque to Raismes to see what it was all about. Philippe Delory, the organiser, had been more than helpful in the build up to the event supplying AAA passes instead of the normal press versions and generally answering anything and everything.
The event itself takes place in the glorious surroundings of the Castle of Princess d'Arenberg (the building is used as the backstage area, complete with its own huge kitchen), a stone's throw from the town and 5km from Valenciennes and everything is on site that you could want. There is camping at the site and as I discovered, you can almost pitch your tent anywhere, so it makes a nice change to have a 30 metre walk to the stage area rather than the normal Himalayan trek.
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Passes collected (again very efficient organisation of the entry side), tent nailed to the grass (which costs a grand total of 3 Euros per person), it was time to see what the venue had to offer. Bar, various eateries, rock clothing, CDs and just about everything else for sale, so that was all pretty much covered.
So to the important part, the music. There are two stages, the main one and 2nd stage, facing each other and naturally enough the running order alternates between the two and I kid you not, there is almost no break whatsoever between the band on one stage finishing and the band on the other stage starting up and there is always the added entertainment of the security personnel hotfooting it from one stage to the next.
Emerald Plays Thin Lizzy
It's all very well having a couple of stages, but things go even better if you get a mix of inspiring acts to strutt their stuff on them. And on this front the organisers always seem to come up trumps. The majority of the early bands are of course French (this is a French festival you know), but after that there is a mix and this year was no exception with Y&T from the States, Pendragon from the UK, Norway's Audrey Horne and Italy's Elvenking among those giving the event an international flavour.
The whole shooting match kicked off at 11.30am with French act Emerald plays Thin Lizzy first on the main stage. I hope I don't need to tell you what their set consisted of and if you are not sure, I would suggest a fairly immediate lobotomy is in order. As an opening act they were never going to set the event on fire and as it turned out the local fire brigade had no need to be in attendance.
The song choices were the routine fayre - 'The Boys Are Back In Town', 'Jailbreak', 'Whiskey In The Jar'... need I go on? As a band they were what you would expect in your local watering hole, not wholly bad and they had fun which is always a plus point. Just one thing though – if you are no technical wizz on the six string device, then I would suggest a Gary Moore solo is about the last thing you should be attempting.
Noise Emission Control
Noise Emission Control came up next on the 2nd stage and I have to say I was mightily impressed with them. For a band appearing so early in the day, the mix and originality on offer from this 4-piece was impressive to say the least. Thrash, punk, elements of the likes of Plastic Bertrand and the Beastie Boys included, the band were also very technical and melodic. Take away the suspicious dance moves and this is definitely a band to watch. And you have to love their humour with a full size fake dog on stage with blood covered hand in its mouth.
Les loques a terre were on the face of it not the sort of band I should me mentioning, a covers band from Paris. However the female vocalist had an astonishingly strong voice although not altogether suited to some of the material – Faith No More's 'From Out Of Nowhere' springs to mind. When she was dealing with the more souldful side, it was a different story. Give her something along the lines of Melissa Etheridge and she would be in her element.
So to a band who whilst quite low on the bill, have a lot of experience touring throughout the world and multiple album releases, Elvenking from Italy. It was the first time I had actually seen them live and to my mind there was only one band that eclipsed them throughout the day – more of them later. If you feel the need to pigeon hole, then folk metal is about as good a description as you can get.
As for their influences, they obviously come from such varied sources from classical to punk and about everything in between. What also marks them apart from the crowd is their use of their very talented violinist. It fits perfectly into the band and their songs, and adds an edge that is missing in so many.
With a glorious and inspiring intro there is always the fear that is going to be the highlight of the show but in the case of Elvenking, things just got better and better. Violin at the root of all the stunning melodies, filling the space perfectly between guitar and vocals, as with all good bands the songwriting is key and these guys certainly know how to do that.
There are so many elements to their sound that fans of just about every form of rock will have something to sink their teeth into.
Exactly why they are not better known is somewhat of a mystery, although they hardly come from a hotbed of rock music which makes life a little more difficult. As vocalist Damna told me after the gig, there is almost a sense of disbelief that there can be a classy rock band coming from Italy. They should hopefully be on these shores early next year and I would suggest you get down and see them.
Bukowski, Komah and the UK's Evile carried on proceedings with all the gusto required, the damp weather (seems it was my gift to the organisers as it followed me like a guided missile for almost 300 miles) not causing any adverse effects to equipment or spirits. Talking of equipment, the sound was almost impeccable throughout and the sound guys did an absolutely bang up job especially when you consider the lack of time they had between acts.
I mentioned there was one band who eclipsed Elvenking on the day and that band came on at just after 7.00pm – Norwegian rockers Audrey Horne. Off the back of their acclaimed album 'Youngblood' released in February this year, their reputation has been fast growing and since they toured the UK in late April they have been on the road playing numerous festivals, including the likes of Hellfest and Sweden Rock.
Having seen them on their last UK date a few months back, I was pretty sure what to expect but the setlist had altered drastically even in that relatively short time. If only more bands would develop that approach and keep things fresh but I suspect a lot of that is down to the standard of musicianship. And when it comes to that, the boys from Bergen are right up there with the best of them.
Most of the set of course was taken from 'Youngblood', with 'Straight Into Your Grave', 'There Goes A Lady', 'Cards With The Devil', 'Pretty Little Sunshine', the quite brilliant 'This Ends Here' all being given an outing. Vocalist Toschie also had time to bring out his mischievous humour while introducing 'The King Is Dead' another one from 'Youngblood'. The French so he said have a history of that kind of thing so he guessed they would like it.
Aside from the newer tracks, there was time for a couple of stormers from their 2010 album. 'Blaze of Ashes' featuring outstanding drummer Kjetil Greve ramping things up about as high as they can go and 'Bridges And Anchors' with Toschie making customary use of the local megafone.
Another classic in the making, 'Threshold' from the 2007 album 'Le Fol', gave bassist Espen Lien his time in the spotlight. As for the twin guitars of Arve Isdal (Ice Dale) and Thomas Tofthagen, they just compliment each other so well it is almost unreal, both of them making shapes all over the fretboard and Arve especially the perfect foil for Toschie, patrolling the front of the stage.
The vocalist himself was on fine form, and to his credit he couldnt have done more to interact with as many of the audience as possible. He is an accomplished frontman as well as well as vocalist.
These guys are just so full of energy it is impossible not to feel it; damn fine musicians and songwriters.
If there is any justice in this world you will hear a lot more about Audrey Horne and the chances are if they were from the UK or States they would already have achieved a lot more. Coming from Norway, things are just a little bit tougher, both financially and logistically but if there is one band who deserves success, then this is it.
It may well be known for Black Metal but with this bunch, Norway can now lay claim to producing one of the best classic rock bands for a very long time.
They were going to be a very hard act to follow and the band that had to do just that was Pendragon, coincidentally hailing originally from the same, small and mostly irrelevant town that I call home. I didn't actually see a great deal of them as I was backstage for most of their set interviewing Audrey Horne and generally putting the world to rights with the fellows from my semi homeland – it's a Viking thing.
Pendragon's approach is of course entirely different, more prog than rock and more for the purists than a pumped up festival crowd. That is often the problem with this kind of band at a festival encompassing the wide range of music that this one does. Musically, they are a very talented bunch of guys and good songwriters but being sandwiched between Audrey Horne and Y&T is never going to make it easy to get all the crowd on your side.
So to the headliners, the legendary Y&T. I first saw them way back in 1982 at the Reading Festival. They blew me away then and have done just about every other time I have seen them since. Raismes was en route to the UK for them where they were starting their annual autumn tour three days after their appearence here.
Having interviewed mainman Dave Meniketti 10 days before the festival, it was clear then that the man has as much enthusiasm for the business now as he always had and bear in mind the band is about to enter its 40th year – yes you did read that right.
It is almost pointless to tell you how good musically he and his band are, they are rarely if ever anything else. Consummate professionals to a man and in Meniketti they have a true talent in every sense of the word. There is of course a lot said and written about his guitar playing and because of that it is sometimes easy to forget what a superb singer he is as well. His voice is still pretty much intact after all the years of touring and he still has that expressive tone that isnt always there with some others.
The set list contained a large dose of perenniel favourites - 'Black Tiger' kicking things off and then 'Open Fire', a very interesting version of 'Midnight In Tokyo', 'Winds Of Change', 'Lipstick And Leather', 'I'm Coming Home' from the last studio album 'Facemelter', 'I Believe In You' from 'Earthshaker' and of course the classic amongst classics 'Forever'.
The gig seemed though a little flat, just that spark missing that has been there every other time I have seen them live. There were technical issues going on throughout and what seemed like more guitar changes than hypocrites in the government and that didn't help.
Hell, not even the best can be perfect every time and maybe that explains some of the flat feeling – they were good, very good, just not as good as I have witnessed on other occasions.
So there we have it. To my mind, and more importantly eyes and ears, Audrey Horne and Elvenking were the two stars of the show but the festival is a winner in so many ways and it really is time it was put on the map as a must attend event.
Absolutely everyone from the organisational side went out of their way to be as helpful as possible – the gate staff, camping area staff, security, backstage and catering staff were all just plain good and efficient at what they do and that is how it should be.
Holding it all together of course is the main organiser Philippe and hats off to him and his team for doing what they do, and not doing it for the money. This could quite easily be used as a template for smaller festivals.