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Metal Female Voices Fest II - Review

November 2005 will see what will undoubtedly be the gig of the year for any femme-metal fan, the Metal Female Voices Fest in Belgium. With a spectacular line-up already confirmed, it should be another unmissable event. Sonic Cathedral had the good fortune to go behind the scenes last year, meet the organisers and interview the bands. Sam Grant looks back at a truly phenomenal occasion, and anticipates many more in the years to come.

The queue wasn’t quite as long as I’d expected it to be, but the residents and tourists of Brussels still had plenty to glare at as the line of shrouded fanatics snaked its way through the streets, its members looking appropriately out of place on a bright Sunday afternoon, like participants in some deathly masquerade ball. Queuing is a very British thing to do. Even on plane flights where people have allocated seat numbers you can notice the Brits, they’re the ones that line up an hour before boarding even though they could nonchalantly swan on the plane a few minutes before the cargo doors are shut. I remember my brother joined a queue once and he didn’t even know what it was for, it’s that kind of sheepish mentality we share, but while the members of the UK home counties had taken to politely forming a line outside the venue, judging by the strictly adhered-to dress code, everyone had a good idea why there were there. All the other Europeans, on the other hand, had taken to swarming round the entrance and nudging their way in, while people further down peered over other’s heads, appraised and accepted the situation in a second and fell back obediently. Allocated places or not, everyone was pretty desperate to get in.

And so they should have been. The Metal Female Voices Fest II was the Gothic Metal event of 2004. Metal Organisation had managed to cobble together quite a staggering line-up in one building, with many of the greats at the top of the scene making an appearance on the same stage in the course of a good few hours. Not only were Nightwish on the bill, arguably the biggest Gothic metal band of the moment, but Epica, Flowing Tears, Darkwell, and a whole host of others. Tickets to this event had sold out months before the date itself. Since August there had been none left and some people were selling them for over five times the original asking price. Having battled my way through the slovenly crowd of uber-Gothics I managed to find the cosy help desk and acquire the passes that Charlie and I needed in order to take photographs, interview the bands backstage and steal some of their beer. As a result of having to pay no entry fee I had some extra tickets to hand and I had no trouble flogging these to a few desperate teens outside the hall who, at the thought of seeing buoyant sprites like Tarja, Simone and Helen bouncing around on stage, had more than the music in mind as a reason for cramming their hormone-fuelled bodies into a room of 2000 at the tail-end of a weekend.

We made our way through the turnstiles and were greeted by a large black blob of people milling around looking for sandwiches and beer before the first act, Syrens Call, came on. Those who were not shelling out for merchandise had made their way over to the bar area only to be told that they weren’t allowed to pay with real money, but had to go over to a booth occupied by two burley but morose looking gentlemen who would give them tinny little tokens in exchange for real cash [or Euros at least] which they could then use to by the wares. It was an unusual, and seemingly pointless system, and at the end of the day it did nothing for me but highlight the farcical nature of currency, and prove that the only value that anything has isn’t intrinsic, but that which we attach to it. Even now, a few months on, I have a few of these tokens sitting upstairs along with various other shrapnel, which I won’t be able to exchange for anything in the average shop, whereas some leftover Euros would have been more useful. I’ll give them back their funny money this year only to find that it’s outdated and the venue is employing a new system necessitating the exchange of food for tokens, which then get exchanged for food. Or lost family members. You see, in the 21st century we haven’t moved on as far as we’d like to think.

I managed to catch about two minutes of Ashes You Leave before I had to leave the happy revellers, many of whom were still trying to bunk down somewhere comfortable for the next few foreseeable hours, in order to commence the interviews. I had, on entrance, acquired the phone number of a young gentleman called Julian [this isn’t as dodgy as it sounds] who would be part of the Metal Organisation entourage to take Charlie and me backstage to conduct the interviews. We were ushered through some discreet side door and down the back cavity of the venue, phalanxed by items of old stage equipment and various roadies sitting on piles of cabling looking as though they’d accepted that they were going to be staying there for a good while. Fans or crew, a lot of people were privy to the need to find their niche in the arena.

The backstage area itself looked like something out of a school canteen. There were lino tables thrown artistically around the room along with red plastic chairs. The myth and romance of the concept of ‘backstage’ swiftly lost its mysterious essence, and it wasn’t long before we found out that this was actually a dining room after all, but filled up with random band members and journalists fiddling with their audio equipment nervously. A member of the Metal Organisation crew came up to me, greeted me with a French accent and showed me the interview schedule that would strap us in over the next few hours. However, it was now that it occurred to me that a great deal of organisation had gone into this event and that this day was the culmination of a huge amount of work which most punters would be blissfully unaware of, walking in, filing out, and having very little idea about its intricacies.

The interviews themselves lasted for about 30 minutes to an hour each, in which time we were able to talk to Syrens Call, Darkwell, Flowing Tears and Epica, as well as quiz Ellen Schutyser on various things too inappropriate to write in an interview. All the bands were extremely cooperative and cordial in spite of their busy schedules on the day and we came away, a few hours later, with a bundle of very good interviews. Tired but strangely fulfilled, we came downstairs and negotiated our way through the empty foyer which had now become a cemetery for plastic beer glasses, just in time to catch the last few minutes of Nightwish’s Ghost Love Score. On entering the hall at this point, I was reminded of how good the sound in the hall was. I don’t know if it’s something about the UK, but I’m used to quite mediocre, over-trebled sound quality oozing its way into the audience from somewhere approximating the front of the stage, but this wasn’t the case at all here. The sound really was incredible, and in the moments I had snatched of the Epica set earlier, it was extremely powerful and really did the music justice, which is all too often a rarity.

However, it was not only the music that made the experience so special, or indeed the line-up of the bands. By the end of the Nightwish set, the crowd had worked themselves up into a whirlwind frenzy, giving the event one of the most supreme atmospheres of any gig I had been to. No-one in the hall was indifferent, and the sheer jubilation felt when the confetti rained down at the end of Ghost Love Score was unmatched by anything else I had seen in a gig to that date. The emphasis had clearly been not only on getting the bands in and out successfully, but putting on a damn good show for the audience as well, and judging by the reactions, this was certainly appreciated.

At the end of the event I had the good fortune to meet Philty, the event’s main organiser from Metal Organisation, who seemed tired but glad [and probably relieved] at the way the event had gone, and to no surprise. We talked about the success of the event and how well it had been received, the overriding concentration being that the event is one of its kind and in its own league. No other festival does more to bring so many quality femme bands into the limelight at the same time and to introduce new fans to many more. Not only this, but after the event and during the performances, many of the bands came into the main foyer area to mingle with the crowd and talk to them, therefore doing away with the protocol rigid crowd/artist divide, which is hardly likely to be something you’ll see at Glastonbury or Reading.

All in all, I was struck not only by how smoothly the event went for the fans and for those of us backstage, but by the sheer professionalism of the crew and the organisers, some of whom appeared to be younger than I was. Metal Organisation were a class act, in addition to those that played on the stage that day, and I am thoroughly looking forward to the next event. For those that missed it last year, do everything you can to go along in 2005. Beg, borrow or steal money to get tickets. If you don’t, you’ll not only miss out on seeing some of the biggest names in femme metal on the same day, but you’ll be reading reports like this in 2006 rubbing it all in again.