Picture the scene: a 270-degree panorama of lush Transylvanian forests, with the final arc completed by a Carpathian mountain crowned with a 13th-century castle. This is the vista that surrounds the festival grounds of Rockstadt Extremefest, Romania’s intimate answer to European summer festivals like Wacken Open Air, Hellfest and Graspop Metal Meeting. Based on this, Rockstadt is already ahead on points when it comes to location, but what really matters at these events is the music – and the 2016 lineup was nothing to be sniffed at, especially considering that this festival only has a history of four years. With headliners from across the globe (including acts representing regions as far-flung as Finland, the USA, Australia and others) showcasing the best in almost every genre of extreme metal, supported by a strong base of local and less established bands, what could go wrong?
Well, the weather, for starters. Despite sunny forecasts, two days of rain greeted festivalgoers – but this did very little to lower the morale of 3000-odd metalheads, especially given the relatively low-priced drinks (noroc, Ciuc Beer! You’re a sponsor well worth having!).
But apart from the inclement weather and subsequent mud, Rockstadt turned out to be one of the best-organised festivals I’ve had the pleasure of attending: a well-stocked merch store, large variety of food and drink stalls, excellent music and punctual scheduling, all combined with a friendly audience that represented all walks of metal life. And then there was the music… with over 50 bands spread over four days, detailing the performance of each is an exercise in futility, but standout performances deserve individual mentions.
Day 1, Thursday the 11th of August, started strong on the second stage with local thrashers Berserkers opening the festival with a frenzied, hard-hitting show. The 80s heritage is strong with these ones – for a band barely into their 20s, they channel elements of bands that were at their peak well before these guys were even conceived. This thrash-fest was followed by my personal ‘discovery’ for the weekend, Ordinul Negru, who delivered moving, atmospheric post-black vibes in the vein of Imperium Dekadenz. I could happily have listened a longer set by this band – forty-odd minutes wasn’t quite enough. Sadly, the lashing rain led to a heavily overcrowded second stage tent and I joined the general morass that slid into the relative shelter afforded by the central beer tent area. Net result? Ura de Dupa Usa, Clitgore, Hypno5e and Postvorta’s performances all became a mess of background noise under the constant drumming of water on canvas.
Friday was plagued with congested traffic – Mexico’s Hocico were delayed by over two hours, but still had the crowd moving and shaking to their catchy (if slightly out of place) electro-industrial beats on the main stage, while Bucharest’s Negative Core Project suffered a similar fate and could only take to the second stage at 2AM – after all the other acts. My tour group and I were subject to the same malady (albeit to a lesser degree) that nevertheless led to missing the first band on the main stage, Hteththemeth and their apparently unique avant-garde metal. After this, however, Max Cavalera proved his continued relevance in metal as Soulfly tore the Adrian Rugina  stage apart, ending their performance with mid-90s Sepultura numbers that reminded a good number of attendees of their age.
Also on the main stage, Carach Angren (this being their second outing here, having played at the inaugural 2013 edition) put on a wonderfully melodramatic show, chock-full of corpsepaint, gymnasts and gothic theatricality. Seregor is a highly engaging frontman, but I still question the wisdom of having acts on the blacker end of the spectrum playing before dusk… The inherent misanthropy and disaffected tone of the genre is always slightly less powerful by daylight, no matter how well played the instruments or how much energy the band bring to the stage. Namtar’s drumming was easily the most impressive performance from behind the kit I saw all weekend.
The drama didn’t end with the visiting Netherlanders, however: long-standing local lads, Negură Bunget’s show was an emotional one, as their ex-vocalist Chakravartin  joined them on stage for a special retrospective show in honour of their new album, Zi. Imagine, if you will, atmospheric blackened folk metal played live with traditional Romanian instruments and up to five vocalists singing at once in gorgeous dark harmony. Absolute shivers down the spine. Despite a number of lineup changes, the original spirit of Negură Bunget to deliver the ‘blackest darkness’ of the Transylvanian forests is still firmly in place.
It seems blackened folk was the order of the day after this, as Bucovina (another powerhouse in the Romanian metal scene) recorded their set for a live DVD. While far more folk-based, they still brought on a crushing show – it is easy to see how locals consider this band to be the Romanian equivalent of Primordial purely based on the crowd reaction and following they have. Their show was followed by genre pioneers, Finland’s Moonsorrow showing everyone how it should be done – with panache, passion and the sort of consummate musicianship that twenty-plus years of active performance brings. England’s My Dying Bride closed off the day’s proceedings, bringing tears to the eyes of many a long-time listener with old favourites like ‘She is the Dark’.
I admit that I missed almost all the acts on the second stage on Saturday but I nevertheless was privileged to watch some incredible headline shows – starting with Morgoth and their hook-laden death metal as well as the irrepressible Tankard, whose paeans to sex, drugs and old-school Teutonic thrash metal are a welcome breath of levity at any festival. Closing with their 30-year-old hit, ‘Empty Tankard’, they were undeniably the bane of livers everywhere, but the entire mainstage audience left the scene with smiles.
Norway’s Borknagar played a great retrospective set, this being their first ever Romanian show, combining songs from their 20-year discography and culminating in their latest single, ‘Winter Thrice’. Despite a few fumbles (the band had obviously started celebrating live vocalist Athera’s birthday a few hours early) Borknagar delivered the goods with some of the best songwriting and vocal performances in metal today. Standout moments included older songs like ‘Frostrite’ and ‘Colossus’ that really highlight ICS Vortex’s incredible vocal range.
As good as Borknagar’s show was, though, it hardly prepared me for Mayhem’s revisited De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas set. From the opening riffing of ‘Funeral Fog’ right until the last fade of reverb-heavy feedback, the old guard perfectly exhibited what a stereotypical black metal show should be: melodramatic, discordant, unsettling and completely over-the-top, but entirely engaging and energising, too. Attila was frightening in his intensity, but the spell he cast over the audience was something out of myth and legend. The hour-plus of standing in the cold and wet, pressed against an icy guardrail, seemed to pass in moments and has left me with dreamlike fragments of memory – it was just too much to absorb. My only regret in an otherwise perfect performance is that they arrived too late (traffic again) to do a meet-and-greet.
Sunday started (very late) on a sombre note: I blame post-Tankard celebrations. The early acts may also have contributed to the ‘chill’ factor – Tesseract might be on top of their game, but long-winded proggy shows are hard to get through after three days of festival partying. I don’t think they received the attention they deserved from a tired, slightly drunk audience.
Thankfully, this mental fugue was swiftly and effectively cleared by Cattle Decapitation’s merciless brutal death drive, followed by the equally relentless Destruction, whose irreligious approach to textbook thrash was very well received indeed. The show they put on made me reconsider their place as just another German thrash act in the vein of Kreator and Sodom and re-evaluate them as something more akin to a European version of 1980s Slayer: their guitar work, vocals, themes and technicality put them head and shoulders above what I expected.
The second stage bands like Australia’s Jack the Stripper also had the blood pumping with their frenetic hardcore (despite their light-hearted name, this band means business) as did E-An-Na with native folk melodies – sounding something like a Romanian take on early Eluveitie, right down to the bagpipes. Between them, Angerseed delivered traditional death metal violence, Hungarian style.
South African melodeath outfit Mind Assault  then performed to an audience bursting from the seams of the tent, despite overlapping the sets of Finnish and Swedish genre legends Insomnium and Soilwork on the main stage. I’m the last person to call myself a patriot, but I admit to feeling some small twinkle of pride in the stage-diving-filled show my fellow South Africans put on.
Both of the aforementioned headliners put on excellent performances back on the main stage, but Finland took the race: Insomnium sound as good live as they do in studio, but bring so much energy to the stage that they overshadow their own recorded work as well as the show put on by their Swedish brethren. They were definitely the day’s highlight for me.
Parkway Drive, in closing off the festival, proved me wrong – I had automatically consigned them to the ‘metalcore twaddle’ heap before hearing them, but they were a good choice by the festival organisers for ending on a high note: while they aren’t my usual cup of tea, the Australians put on a massive show that is well worth experiencing.
Post-recovery and contemplation, I cannot recommend Rockstadt Extremefest highly enough – cheap tickets, cheap living costs and excellent music in an unforgettable location. Sure, there were some typical festival issues (the sound quality on the main stage on Saturday took a while to settle, for instance) but overall it was an excellent smaller-scale summer festival – especially for travellers from the UK or EU with their stronger currency.
1. The main stage was named after a local hero who died saving others from the fire at the Club Colectiv in Bucharest on 30 October 2015 (BBC report here). His face also adorned the bass drum heads during Bucovina’s performance. As well as this, Adrian Rugina was posthumously awarded the National Order for Merit.
2. His new role as the festival organiser and promoter has left Stefan Zaharescu with little time for band activities, it seems.
3. Romanian/South African promoter Wrath Inc. (link here) is doing great work in developing a cross-continental ‘exchange program’ for local bands from both countries, with the Mind Assault show marking the first South African metal band to play in Romania. They have also recently put on a sell-out show with Thy Art is Murder and Fallujah (Facebook event here) in Bucharest and are constantly adding bands to their roster. Wrath Inc. also regularly has a hand in shows across South Africa.