Des Moines Über Alles: The inaugural Knotfest Germany was one for the history books
The circus has arrived in Oberhausen.
I make my way to the city on the train from Dusseldorf airport. There are Slipknot shirts everywhere, as well as a Scout troop on its way to (or from) a camping expedition, and a man lugging a crate of empty beer bottles around with him. He was shouting 'scheisse!' at the departure board as I waited for the train, delayed by twenty minutes and betraying Germany's reputation for maximum efficiency.
The streets around Oberhausen station are littered with scorched brown leaves from the trees lining the pavements. It feels like a pseudo Autumn following another sweltering summer over Europe, far from finished.
Situated in north-west Germany's Ruhr region, Oberhausen's industrial past is all around the site of the first Knotfest in the country. There are huge rusted sculptures of equipment in the grounds of the Peter Behrens industrial museum over the road from the festival site.
Where industry once thrived, culture has stepped in. The city's huge former gas storage facility, the Gasometer, is now an exhibition space. It overlooks the Rudolf Weber arena and its surrounds, adjacent to an enormous shopping mall, which on this warm, sunny Saturday on the last weekend of July, is awash with metalheads of all shapes and sizes.
The arena, once sponsored by a beer brand but since the beginning of 2022 a cleaning company, serves as the indoor stage for Knotfest Germany. That means Vended, Malevolence, Cattle Decapitation, TesseracT and Meshuggah get the pleasure to play a 12,000-capacity arena as the second stage. The audience is free to drift in and out as they please.
The first band on, Vended play to one of the biggest crowds of the day in the arena. They feed off the palpable excitement in the audience and hurl it back at them. It's the band's first excursion to Germany, frontman Griffin Taylor tells us. Griffin looks like a skinnier, sprightlier version of his father. His speaking voice sounds like him too, without the wear and tear of the Slipknot frontman's years of service. And that scream is unmistakable.
But Vended are clearly not Slipknot clones. As they tear through "Ded To Me" and others they are pumping new blood into the nu metal of some of the lesser-recognised bands from the original scene. Taproot comes to mind, for one. Vended are the youngest band playing today and it shows. Taylor jumps into the crowd to part it by hand for a climactic wall of death. I notice backstage that they keep their smeared and faded face paint on for the rest of the day, as if to show the rest of the bands that they can be counted as warriors too.
On the outdoor mainstage, Bleed From Within are continuing their brutal assault on metal's mainstream. The formula works for this German crowd: technical flair, breakdowns, and Scott Kennedy's roar vying with Steven Jones's clean melodies. They've toured hard here before, judging from the back of a T-shirt I saw someone wearing on the way in, listing a long series of German cities and towns.
Kennedy makes a point of telling the audience that Germany is the home of heavy metal. English metalheads might dispute this statement but Kennedy is a mischievous Scot and the Germans that can decipher his Glaswegian accent roar their approval. The band's performance of "Pathfinder" from 2020's Fracture kicks up the first serious clouds of dust from the gravel underfoot as the mosh pits kick in.
Malevolence are another British band having a breakthrough 2022. Their set is slightly delayed in the indoor arena and this is a more sluggish performance than the one at Download Festival in June. They make it work for them though, because "Slave to Satisfaction" and "Still Waters Run Deep" are nasty, serpentine affairs that firmly tighten the noose. That chokehold effect suits this venue that has also hosted the UFC. It’s fun watching the crowd attempt to reconcile Malevolence’s skin-flaying sound with the look of the English lads onstage, whom German tourists usually encounter on holiday in the Mediterranean.
The allies bombed Oberhausen's oil reserves in World War Two. On the day of the festival, some German towns and cities are having to restrict hot water as Russia turns down gas supplies in retaliation for sanctions over the Ukraine war. Watching Ukraine's Jinjer take the outdoor stage, with the Gasometer in the distance, brings all this home in a powerful and polished performance awash with symbolism. Ukraine's ministry of culture has given permission for the band to tour Europe and play festivals this summer as part of a mission to spread awareness of the war raging since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February.
Tatiana Shmailyuk briefly thanks the audience for their solidarity before launching into 'Home Back', a song about the conflict in the Donbas region of the country initiated in 2014, which has sadly taken on broader significance.
Last year's Wallflowers album was a masterpiece of the Covid era, full of introspection, mental insecurity and dread. But today, not a single band mentions the pandemic. For Jinjer, the Russian invasion snapped Ukraine out of its Covid malaise. "Call Me A Symbol" and "Colossus" from that album have assumed a boiling fury live. "Vortex" spirals then gets the pistons pumping to the moshpit's glee.
Throughout the set, Jinjer snatch smiles and jokes amongst themselves, particularly when Shmayluk miscues Roman Ibramkhalilov's guitar introduction to "Pisces", the song which launched dozens of reaction videos and with it the band's career in earnest.
Cattle Decapitation's double bass drum could be shipped to Ukraine as munitions. Travis Ryan's squeals and grunts make theirs the most extreme performance of the day, as he thanks the 'three people keeping it real in the mosh pit'. Though Covid has receded into the background, "Bring Back The Plague" and "Plagueborne" shove it back into our minds. Cattle Decapitation are having a blast, literally. Their apocalyptic, Christian Right-baiting visions are as sick as they are viciously funny – "Forced Gender Reassignment" in particular.
Ghostemane is keeping it unreal on the outdoor stage. There's a nod to Cattle Decapitation and their ilk with the Mortician T-shirt he's wearing. Otherwise the pale and dyed-blonde singer raps and screams his way through a woozy set of Trent Reznor-core trap. It's a risk for a crowd of red-blooded Germans. But just as the festival as a whole is audacious taking place the weekend before Germany and Europe's biggest metal festival, Wacken (which Slipknot is also headlining), Ghostemane is received with plenty of late-afternoon beer-dancing. In the same way that Jinjer's performance is emblematic, his is too: of the Soundcloud rap generation raised on Slipknot and Gucci Mane in equal measure.
It must be something about the way that his songs thunder in and fade like half-dreamt fragments which makes me finally wake up to exactly where the outdoor stage is set up: the 'parkplatz' of the arena. We are in a heavy-metal parking lot.
The next three bands are interrelated. TesseracT have Meshuggah's tensile-steel guitar tone, but theirs is a gleaming, angular, sometimes beautiful noise. Once lulled into submission, the band launches its four-dimensional cube straight at our heads and we duck for cover. They showcase the full scope of their crafted sound with the opening "Concealing Fate" trilogy of songs from the album of the same name.
In Flames are compatriots of Meshuggah, but whereas Meshuggah have burrowed ever deeper into their sound, In Flames have expanded outwards, playing a crowd-pleasing set from across their 30-year-plus career. The inclusion of "Graveland" from The Jester Race and genre-busting "Cloud Connected" from Reroute to Remain show what a long, dramatic journey it’s been from their Gothenburg melodic death metal roots.
It's slightly cruel scheduling that whilst In Flames are delighting the mainstage crowd, Meshuggah have a less than half-full arena to decimate. But they are an unstoppable machine. "Born in Dissonance" and "Demiurge" are optimised for destruction here, "Ligature Marks" is a hulking monster, and 'Future Breed Machine' power-cleans the floor of the venue. The opening song from 1995’s seminal Destroy Erase Improve album, "Future Breed Machine" reminds us that the Swedes fired the starting gun on 21st-century metal. But the German pilsner has truly kicked in by the early evening and I’m astonished to see one attendee manage to sleep through the entirety of their set.
The sun is low in the sky as Slipknot emerge from backstage. As they climb into the black cars transporting them to the mainstage, they resemble a special forces operation team. I overhear another musician joke that we should form a guard of honour for their departure.
As soon as they leave, it starts. "For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)" by AC/DC thunders out of the PA, reverberating off the outer walls of the arena. When I first saw Slipknot in 2000 they slowly turned up the volume of the song as the crew unveiled the band's instruments, until it was at a deafening volume.
They've grown out of that. In fact, it’s abundantly clear tonight that they've entered their Imperial phase. The opening three songs – "Disasterpiece", "Wait And Bleed" and "All Out Life" – gets a full-blown dust storm erupting over the site. The set they've been playing this summer is one of the most well-balanced of their career.
They've slowed down the pace since I last saw them. Between songs, Corey Taylor acts as compère as much as frontman. All his time doing solo speaking tours has paid off, allowing the band to slowly re-emerge behind him to rip into another song. These lulls make the set more of a rollercoaster than ever, as we are jerked out of our comfort zone into another hurtling free fall. Jim Root and a leaner, even meaner Mick Thomson are absolutely incendiary tonight. Then there's percussionist Michael Pfaff, aka Tortilla Man, who brings the same anything-can-happen intensity as the 2000 incarnation of the band. He runs across the front of the stage during "The Heretic Anthem" like a young Axl Rose and belly flops, looking like he might slide right off the lip of the stage to his doom.
We get new single "The Dying Song (Time to Sing)" which has the high-contrast dynamics fully embraced by We Are Not Your Kind and presumably the forthcoming The End, So Far. It is furious anti-pop where texture and melody come first, not as an afterthought. Corey asks for some help from the crowd with the soaring chorus of "Dead Memories", citing his age (he doesn’t really need it).
When Corey asks the audience how many in attendance are Slipknot veterans and how many first timers, the show of hands is split 50/50. There are lots of people who got into Slipknot with WANYK who have only just been able to see them live. As Corey tells them, Slipknot and its fans simply don't hear music like anyone else. And from this showing, and the tease of their new album title, there's still plenty of gas left in the tank.