Glastonbury may hog the headlines, but there’s another summer music festival that combines the beauty of Copenhagen’s seawater canals with the brutality of massive guitar riffs and explosive pyrotechnics. RSNG travelled to the tenth Copenhell festival to discover the tougher side of Copenhagen, where viking-inspired heavy guitars are valued above and beyond soulful singer songwriters. Here is your survival guide for next year’s edition…
Most festivals are a camping experience, but Copenhell benefits from being in the Refshaleøen district of Copenhagen city, the old industrial docklands area, which has now been repurposed as an entertainment centre, housing bars and the top-tier restaurant Noma. Most people at the festival come in from hotels or airbnbs (like RSNG does) in the city, and spend the afternoon into evening at the venue. This gives you the chance to see more of one of the world’s most beautiful cities, with its canalside restaurants, immaculate parks and cycle-friendly streets.
The crowd has churned up the dust of Copenhell into the kind of plume you see chasing stampeding wildebeest
2. Watch For The Big US Names… Despite being a relatively small festival, Copenhell benefits from being the weekend after the UK’s Download festival (with its 80,000-strong host), so some of the world’s most titanic rock acts are already in the neighbourhood, so to speak. For 2019, big beasts are here from across the rock spectrum, with Deep Purple’s Glenn Hughes at one end, via progressive noise merchants Tool, and on to Friday’s headliners, Slipknot and their frightmasked, spectacular stage show.
For me, Friday’s stateside one-two punch of groove metallers Lamb of God on the Helviti main stage, followed by Clutch on the Hades stage – who mainline a kind of heavy, blues-riffed space rock (see below) – make up the highlight of the festival.
In all the ferocity and speed of Lamb of God’s songs, it’s easy to miss the sheer levels of musical virtuosity needed to pull off their brand of highly technical but undeniably groovy attack. Live, they are a revelation, simultaneously throwing everything they have into classic tracks like ‘Now You’ve Got Something To Die For’, but remaining blisteringly tight and on point throughout.
Frontman and vocalist Randy Blythe soon stokes the crowd into circle pit mayhem, churning up the dust of Copenhell’s concrete battleground into the kind of plume you see chasing after stampeding wildebeest. By the time they close with ‘Redneck’, the crowd is chanting every lyric and the positive energy feedback loop between the stage and the fans has the hairs on the back of my neck standing up.
3. …But Catch The Local Favourites Any festival lives or dies by its atmosphere, and Copenhell really comes alive when local favourites hit the stage. By the time Swedish Viking metallers Amon Amarth hit Sunday’s main stage in the golden late afternoon sunshine, a lake of beer has already been drunk.
Watching the stage from the towering grass bank, I can see the crowd swelling in number and the band are soon raising actual drinking horns, leading the massed thousands in a toast: ‘Skol!’ Anywhere else this would likely seem overly theatrical, but with the piercing wolf eyes of the gigantic mural plastered the food hall hanger, looking down on us all, it’s hard not to get carried away by the Scandinavian spirit.
4. Enjoy The Midnight Sun Since I landed in Denmark it’s been wall to wall sunshine and blue skies. During the heat of the day it’s easy to forget that we’re pretty far north here. You’re only reminded of the latitude when the sun sets, or rather doesn’t. Far into the evening, when night should have fallen, sunlight continues to light the sky, creating the sense of a never-ending party.
Slipknot’s Saturday night performance features a stage light show that outdoes every other act. One minute the band is cloaked in darkness, the stage above them glowing with an electric blue light, and the next they are lit up by multi-story scrolling video feeds. But the sky above the crowds is almost as stunning, as dark, mackerel-patterned clouds spill like ink across a white gold sky, as the midnight sun glimmers on.
5. Feel The Energy It can be intimidating to attend a metal festival if your previous live music experience has centered on mellower genres. The thing to remember here is that although the sound and iconography aims to shock and occasionally terrify, the energy is all positive. It seems more aggressive the music, the more the crowd is energised, but the alchemy of metal means that this energy is plugged directly into having an awesome time, rather than being an asshole.
At Copenhell you can lose yourself in a mosh pit safe in the knowledge that it will stop in its frenzied tracks to pick you up, if you trip. And the general levels of Scandi goodwill here causes complete strangers to break into spontaneous hugs when fan-favourite tracks drop.
No band embodies this energy more than Trivium, who storm onto Friday’s main stage at 2pm. Vocalist and guitarist Matt Kiichi Heafy takes his art seriously, applying the same discipline to working on his voice and shredding ability as he does to honing his Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt skills, which he practises on tour.
Heafy and his bandmates’ dedication shows through live – monster riffing tracks like ‘Down From The Sky’ are despatched with samurai ferocity while more melodic recent work, such as ‘Until The World Goes Cold’ allows the crowd to fill their lungs and bellow along. But it’s the final track, ‘In Waves’ that shows how in tune this band is with their fans. Heafy manages to persuade the entire crowd to sit down through an extended intro, and then counts us in to the monstrous opening riff. As it drops we all launch into the air and bounce around like football fans who have just won a Champions League penalty shoot out.
Seeing Copenhagen from the deck of a paddleboard is a more authentic experience than slouching around with the herd
6. Spend A Morning Paddleboarding The civilised gate opening times for Copenhell (around midday) gives you the chance to check out one of the best ways to explore the waterways of this coastal city, first. Paddleboarding has boomed in popularity and Copenhagen Surf School offers guided tours.
The sun is blazing as I step aboard a 12’6 Red Paddle Company Sport board and paddle out from the Hal C landing in Refshaleøen. The banks of this canal system are surprisingly green and leafy – you feel like you have completely escaped the city, and are journeying along a sleepy, summertime river. So, paddling around a corner to see the futuristic new power station, built right in the city and dominating the skyline, is a strange experience. Looking closer I can see that the sloped roof of the station is dotted with ski lifts. ‘Yes they are building a ski slope there,’ says my paddleboarding guide, Rasmus. Only in Copenhagen!
Within an hour so, Rasmus and I have powered along past the ‘Pirate Cove’ of commandeered boat wrecks built into a floating island that borders the wooded edge of the autonomous enclave of Christiania Freetown, under road bridges and into a canal network lined with open air cafes and restaurants.
It’s here that the wash of a passenger ferries catches me out and I topple off the board. I brace myself for a shock, but the water is surprisingly warm – it’s actually refreshing! I haul myself back on the board and we paddle around the corner to be confronted by the steps of Copenhagen’s Opera House, with its massive aluminium roof, jutting so far out from the walls that it looks like an optical illusion. Seeing the city from the deck of a paddleboard feels like a much more authentic experience than slouching around the pavements, with the herd.
7. Work Out The Ferries Depending on where you stay, the best way to get to the festival venue may be by water, because the Refshaleøen district is on an island separated from the main city by a deep stretch of seawater. Passenger ferries leave regularly from landings along each side of the divide and can be checked with Copenhagen’s Move app. Late night services run until 3am when the festival is on.
8. Check Out The Craft Beer The Danes love a craft beer. This is clear from the bar in Copenhell’s R.I.P area, as much as the Tipsy Mermaid, an entire boat bar devoted to craft beer that’s moored on the city centre side of the Inderhavnsbroen foot and cycle bridge (which crosses the main waterway to the Christianshavn district). If you cross this bridge you can also take in an interesting walk through Freetown with its ‘homemade’ houses and largely ‘autonomous’ community. In the word’s of Lamb Of God’s Randy Blythe: ‘there’s nowhere else in the world like Freetown.’
Back to the craft beer, and the Copenhell favourite, as tested to destruction by my photographic assistant, was a 9.2% porter. He wasn’t much use as an assistant afterwards, to be fair!
9. Don’t Snooze On The Schedule Copenhell is possibly the perfect size festival if your priority is to see as many bands as possible. The stages are not very far apart and the scheduling has been cleverly done to avoid too many clashes, meaning that if you download the Copenhell app you can keep up to date on last-minute timing changes and still catch everyone you want to.
It’s worth keeping an eye on what is happening on the smaller, Pandemonium stage to catch such gems as London stoner metallers Orange Goblin, stateside thrash legends Municipal Waste and haka-leading New Zealand upstarts Alien Weaponry (see the video in WHAT NEXT? below.)
10. Realise It’s Not All About Metal Despite marketing itself as resolutely metal, Copenhell has other flavours of rock to offer, from the classic offerings of Deep Purple’s Glenn Hughes, to hard rockers Stone Temple Pilots, to the bluegrass tinged, stoner space rock vibe of Clutch, who although definitely heavy, aren’t really metal.
Clutch frontman Neil Fallon is a one-man charisma machine, despite being dressed in workwear and looking as if he’s just stepped out from putting up some shelves in his garage. His distinctive voice showcases the bands lyrical wizardry from show opener ‘Ghoul Wrangler’, from their 2018 album, to 1995’s ‘Escape From The Prison Planet’.
Fallon’s guitar chops aren’t to be sniffed at either, as the band take it down a notch on ‘The Regulator’ (used to great effect in Season 2 of The Walking Dead). Live, this song has even more impact – the bluegrass guitar part distracts you with its melancholy beauty before the chorus batters your cranium with a wave of unadulterated, yet smooth, heaviness. Clutch bring Lamb of God’s Randy Blythe on for a surprise appearance on ‘Passive Restraints’, but the crowd favourite is still ‘Electric Worry’. After all, absolutely anyone can sing: ‘Bang, bang, bang, bang, vamanos vanamos!’
WHAT NEXT? Watch 20,000 people perform a massive haka at Copenhell with New Zealand rockers Alien Weaponry.
Photos by Matt Ray
Visit Copenhell’s website for more on their social channels and news of next year’s festival
RNSG used the Copenhagen Card for travel around the city – go to the Visit Copenhagen website for the official tourist guide to the city
Follow this article’s author on Instagram @The_Adventure_Fella