LIVE: Ieperfest @ Ypres, Belgium

By Glen Bushell

While everyone knows the larger scale festivals that take place in Belgium each year such as Groezrock, Pukkelpop, Graspop Metal Meeting and so on, one of the most highly respected is the comparatively small Ieperfest. Now in its 23rd year, having grown from a one day event into a three day festival, with 3 stages, the ‘More Than Music’ tent, and some of the finest vegan food in Europe, the 2015 edition was as thrilling as always.

The weather stayed on our side after a storm – which essentially resembled the end of days – hit the picturesque town of Ypres the night before Ieperfest kicked off, and in between consuming some fine Belgian beer, we saw some of the biggest and best names in aggressive music take to the stage. There were some unfortunate sound issues that plagued the main stage for most of the weekend, but that didn’t stop some stunning performances, and in a bizarre turn of events, saw many of the smaller, up and coming bands outshine some of the icons that graced us with their presence.

Friday August 14th

The first band we catch on the Main Stage are the hotly tipped Sweet Jesus, who are fronted by former Have Heart frontman Pat Flynn. However, this is not Have Heart Pt II and to make comparisons between the two bands would be lazy. Their blend of classic DC hardcore and modern day punk is a delight to watch, with Flynn being vocal as ever about what Sweet Jesus are there to achieve, and given this is their first time in Europe, what starts as a modest crowd swells to a considerable amount of new followers by the time their set finishes.

We then head over to the Marquee Stage for our first dose of thrash for the weekend from Insanity Alert, who certainly live up to their name. With a plethora of props that include straitjackets, oversized crab hands, and droopy eye glasses, these Austrian punks certainly now how to have fun. Drawing from the back catalogues of D.R.I and Suicidal Tendencies, while adding their own twist to a classic sound, they prove to be one of the unexpected highlights of the weekend.

Back on the Main Stage, Californian heavyweights Lionheart are here with the sole intention of destroying Ieperfest it seems. They certainly have a huge following, and are the first band of the day to turn the ground in front of the stage into a scene from a bad Kung Fu movie. Their sound is big, and their presence is looming, but they play a style of hardcore that is becoming increasingly saturated now, which unfortunately makes them indecipherable from any other band that adopts this style.

The same cannot be said for DC punks GIVE, who play an absolutely mind-blowing set on the tiny Trench Stage. They tear through tracks from last year’s excellent ‘Electric Flower Circus’ LP with precision, and it really is like watching Dag Nasty and One Last Wish during “The Revolution Summer” rolled into one. There is no violent dancing here, just a humble yet adoring crowd who know they are witnessing a special set from a band who are unmatched in today’s hardcore scene.

With so many bands at Ieperfest gravitating towards a heavier sound, it is a pleasure to see Punktastic favourites Ceremony on the Main Stage today, as their new found post-punk sound helps break the day up somewhat. Ever the entertainers though, they do venture back to older material such as ‘Kersed’ and ‘I Want To Put This To an End’ which still fit nicely alongside ‘The Separation’ and ‘Your Life In France’ to provide yet another memorable set from Rohnert Park’s finest.

Drawing one of the biggest crowds of the day so far, it’s easy to see why everybody is awaiting the arrival of NYHC legends Maximum Penalty from the opening riff. They have been at this on-and-off since the mid 80’s, and play a career spanning set that is simply crushing. From groove-laden classic hardcore to their more metal-leaning later material, they prove that they are still a force to be reckoned with in 2015.

They have been one of Europe’s biggest metalcore exports for nearly 20 years now, and handling a stage this size is a walk in the park for Caliban. They are still a powerful band, and their sound is massive as they launch into ‘King’ and blast their way through ‘Devils Night’, and even if the sound is perhaps a little dated now, the accomplished musicianship they have makes up for that. Their set does wain a little towards the end, but with what would follow them, they could easily have headlined the opening night of Ieperfest.

Now, this reviewer is loathed to say anything bad about the iconic NYHC band Judge, let’s just make that clear from the start. Their one off show in London last year was a spectacle that will forever be etched into our memories and something we never thought we would witness, however tonight’s performance is somewhat flat and downright dull. Of course they air classic cuts ‘Where It Went’ and ‘New York Crew’ but with the exception of guitarist Porcell hurling himself around the stage, the band seem tired, and even uninspired to play this evening. All we can do is hope that it was down to some sounds issues with the vocals, that an open air stage is not the place for Judge, or that perhaps it was just an off-night for the band, as this is not the way such a legendary band should be remembered.

Saturday August 15th

After a night of partying, we managed to make it down to the festival site just in time for By The Grace Of God, who are back after a break of over 10 years, and they have lost none of their potency. The Kentucky hardcore punk band traverse their back catalogue and make moving tracks ‘Boy and The River’ and ‘Beneath The Blue’ seem even more relevant than they somehow did originally thanks to frontman Rob Pennington’s impassioned introductions. Let’s just hope this revolutionary band are here to stay this time.

As the weather takes an unseasonably cold turn, Naysayer do their best to warm a sizeable crowd up over at the Main Stage. Its great seeing them get a proper performance this time, after issues in 2012 meant they played only a brief set. However, that’s where the problem lies. That was 3 years ago, and as powerful as Naysayer can be, they don’t seem to carry the same weight as they did then, and with no new music being promoted at the moment, they come off slightly boring.

Loma Prieta suffer no such issues as they proceed to decimate the Trench Stage. Undeniably the loudest band we have seen so far at the festival, their fusion of screamo, punk, and hardcore is absolutely visceral. The sheer intensity of new track ‘Love’ matches up to older material such as ‘Fly By Night’ and the sonic force of their attack leaves everyone jaw-dropped and breathless in its wake.

Our non-stop running between stages then takes us back to the Main Stage to see the incomparable Trial bringing their awe-inspiring show to Ieperfest. In retrospect, they should have a far bigger crowd than they do today, but those devotees in attendance hang on frontman Greg Bennick’s every word. ‘An Awakening’ and ‘Are These Are Lives?’ are spine-chilling reality checks, while ‘War By Other Means’ is proves a cathartic release for both the band and the audience screaming back at them.

Following a performance like that is no easy task, but a newly reunited Boston hardcore band Guns Up give it a damn good go. They tear through ‘Won’t Change For Me’, ‘ Losing Sight’ and ‘Frozen’ like they never went away in the first place, even if isn’t the most powerful of comebacks due to some unfortunate sound issues with the guitars. A final one-two of ‘No Shelter’ and a furious cover of Stormtroopers of Death classic ‘March Of The S.O.D’ make us hope that this not just a temporary return.

While it might not be to everyone’s taste, there is sometimes a place in the world for just ignorant hardcore, and that’s what New York veteran’s All Out War do incredibly well. Their sound can be likened to a juggernaut hurtling through the gates of Ieperfest, and flooring everyone in its path. They cover all areas of their back catalogue, from their new ‘Dying Gods’ EP by way of their 2003 LP ‘Condemned To Suffer’ which still sounds as furious as it did some 12 years ago. Clearly this is the release the crowd needed as clouds of dust rise from the pit, before they end with ‘Fight For God’ and leave Ieperfest a bruised and battered mess.

As heavy as All Out War were, the only band that could top that today are Entombed A.D, and the moment that raw, buzzsaw guitar sounds cuts through the speakers, they sound the most tight and professional band of the weekend. Granted this may not be the classic Entombed line-up, but you wouldn’t know it, as their metallic anthems ‘Left Hand Path’ and the incomparable ‘Wolverine Blues’ are played with the utmost intensity. In another life Entombed A.D would be headlining today, but for their near hour-long set, they prove they are still the most vicious of all.

This leads to Walls Of Jericho not packing the same punch they usually would unfortunately, but you wouldn’t know it given the godlike reaction they receive from the crowd. They have been doing this for a long time, and you know exactly what you are going to get from a Walls Of Jericho show, and front woman Candace Kucsulain is a commanding force, it would have been just been more hard hitting had they already released a new record rather than hearing the same songs again. That said, when they take things back to ‘A Day and a Thousand Years’ and ‘Playing Soldier Again’ it shows what an important band they have been to metalcore.

We dash back over to the Marquee Stage to catch what we feel is not only one of the performances of the weekend, but one of the best sets we have ever seen from Touche Amore. Seeing this Californian melodic hardcore band grow over the last few years has been fantastic, and now front man Jeremy Bolm can command a crowd of this size with ease. Covering almost all of their releases, every voice in the room can be heard screaming the words back at the band during ‘Just Exist’, ‘And Now It’s Happening In Mine’ and a moving rendition of ‘Home Away From Here’. If rumours are to be believed, the band are heading off to work on LP number 4, and after such a staggering performance we will be waiting with baited breath.

Closing down the Main Stage are New York heavyweights Biohazard, and there is no denying this bands influence as it can be heard in many of the bands that have played Ieperfest today. However they do suffer from the ongoing sound issues that this stage is having to deal with today, and when they should sound crushing, they just sound a little weak. The songs are still there though, with ‘Down For Life’ making the whole field bounce, and of course their staple anthem ‘Punishment’ lighting up the crowd. As they years have gone by Biohazard have struggled to stay relevant as they have never really progressed their sound, and have been surpassed by younger bands, but the formula they found nearly 30 years ago has worked for them, and the stage invasion during ‘Hold My Own’ proves they are still inspiring new generations.

Sunday August 16th

When we arrive at the festival on the Sunday, we hear an ungodly sound pulsating from the Marquee Stage, and people swiftly avoiding flailing limbs, which means it can only be 50 Caliber on stage. They are one of the longest running UK hardcore bands, and while we have witnessed the occasional sloppy performance from them in the past, they are a well-oiled machine today. The guitar sound is thick, and the breakdowns calculated, setting the dancefloor on fire in front of the stage.

Back on the Main Stage, Dutch hardcore band No Turning Back put in an equally stellar performance, and whip the early crowd into a frenzy. It’s easy to forget that they have been doing this for over 15 years now, and show no signs of slowing down or losing steam. With modern classics ‘Never Give Up’, ‘Take Your Guilt’ and set closer ‘Stronger’ all included in their set, they prove once again that they are still one of the finest hardcore bands in Europe.

Following them are native sons Nasty, and given the amount of people wearing their merchandise across the weekend, they draw an unsurprisingly large crowd. If you had never listened to Nasty prior to seeing them, they tick all the boxes of a generic heavy hardcore band before they have struck a note, and granted their sound is not particularly original, they are very good at what they do. Their faithful clearly enjoy it too, and naturally ‘My Brain Went Terribly Wrong’ sends the audience seven shades of crazy.

As Belgian bands go though, there are few that are as beloved as Oathbreaker who receive a deafening cheer as they take to the Marquee Stage. Their set is caustic, terrifying, but somehow beautiful at the same time as they tear through ‘No Rest For The Weary’ and ‘Glimpse Of The Unseen’. To look at, front woman Caro Tanghe appears fragile and insular, until THAT vocal comes out of her and shakes you to your very core. Whether you categorise them as metal, hardcore or perhaps a bit of both, Oathbreaker are still one of the most chilling bands in aggressive music today.

As Sunday starts to wind down, the crowd still has enough energy left to show Stick To Your Guns what they can do. Feeding off this energy, STYG play their hearts out as they play a hit packed set. Naturally ‘Amber’ gets the biggest reaction and turns the front of the stage into a Launchpad for more stage dives than we can track of. ‘Against Them All’ sounds massive today, and the groove of ‘Diamond’ sounds bigger live than on record. They close out with a stirring rendition of ‘Nobody’ ending a perfect set from a very important modern hardcore band.

Its then time for us to make our way back into the Marquee Stage for a set from Less Than Jake that really could have gone either way for them, given they are pretty far removed from hardcore. However, this is Ieperfest, not some festival filled with closed minds who gain pleasure from hurling bottles of urine at bands that don’t fit a certain mould, everyone is welcome here. Covering all bases of their back catalogue from ‘All My Best Friends Are Metalheads’ through ‘Johnny Quest Thinks We’re Sellouts’ before closing with ‘Gainesville Rock City’ they prove that they didn’t need to win this crowd over, because they already had them in in the palm of their hand from the start.

There couldn’t be a more contrasting sound emanating from the Trench Stage, as the suffocating low-end rumble of Birds In Row spills into the air. After a moderately quiet couple of years for the French trio, they are back and showing exactly why they are such an important band in modern hardcore right now. The new material from their forthcoming EP sounds just as visceral as ‘Pilori’ and their closing opus ‘You, Me and The Violence’ is simply breath taking.

Anyone worth their salt knows that most bands that come from Sweden are just great, and the music executed perfectly. As expected, legendary skate punk band Satanic Surfers are exactly that as they take to the main stage. Their songs are short and sweet during this rare live performance, and even when they bare titles such as ‘And The Cheese Fell Down’ and ‘The Ballad Of Gonzo Babbleshit’ the music is and composition is taken very seriously. Of course the biggest reaction comes from the quintessential Satanic Surfers anthem ‘Hero Of Our Time’ and marks triumphant set from this often criminally overlooked punk band.

The final band to grace the Marquee Stage is the one and only Pentagram, who are still on top of their game after 40 years of playing their own brand of doom metal. Even at the age of 61, and after a lifetime of excess, front man Bobby Liebling still has an enchanting presence as he moves his snake-like hips to the gargantuan riffs of ‘All Your Sins’ and the seductive ‘Forever My Queen’. It’s a good thing they are the final band to play this stage, as nothing could have possibly topped the their sonic intensity thanks to the earth-shattering volume they play at, and they show Ieperfest that they always have, and always will be one of the finest doom metal bands on the planet.

After a weekend of memorable performance across all the stages, it comes down to headliners Sick Of It All to end the 23rd edition of Ieperfest, and for a lesser band this would be almost impossible, but not for these seasoned veterans. As the brothers Lou and Pete Koller bound around the stage, the crowd gives it their all one final time as they tear through a set packed with almost every SOIA classic you could imagine. Newer track ‘A Road Less Travelled’ sounds like the band have been playing it their entire career next to ‘Clobberin Time’ and the metallic crunch of ‘Take The Night Off’ still packs a furious punch. Of course no SOIA set would be complete without their staple anthem ‘Step Down’ before they finish with ‘Us Vs Them’ to bring Ieperfest 2015 to a close in spectacular fashion. See you next year!