Netphen, Germany / 29-31 May 2014
Words: TK Smith

For heavy rock freaks, the Freak Valley Festival in Netphen, Germany is the promised land. Held annually, and now in its third year, the mid-size event is quickly becoming as popular as Roadburn. It sold out several months in advance based on a very strong lineup of established acts and a few new ones just breaking into the festival circuit. With no desire to make it any bigger, organizer Jens Heide chose to keep it intimate and manageable. Headliners Radio Moscow, Blues Pills and Kadavar were each riding high on their blossoming popularity, yet it was the hungry The Heavy Eyes, The Midnight Ghost Train, Mothership, Wo Fat, Mos Generator, Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell and Samsara Blues Experiment that made the ticket worth its weight in gold. The opportunity to showcase a diverse range of rock acts from across the globe made the event all the more exhilarating. A few surprises added to the mix like the sinister Blood Hammers playing in the afternoon rain, the overwhelming assault of Sweden’s Truckfighters and the expanded Motorpsycho setlist merging prog, psych and rock into a tripped-out fuzzfest.

THURSDAY (May 29): Plagued by cool weather and rain most of the week, festival openers The Lone Crows (US) had their work cut out for them as they powered through their 30-minute set of stoner / psych originals. Amid the adverse conditions, they did a fine job delivering thick, moody, riff-driven songs with elements of classic ’70s acts like Humble Pie, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath wrapped in a modern soundscape. Still under gray skies, The Heavy Eyes (US) bolstered their hour-long set with plenty of Memphis-inspired stoner blues. The first of several trios to play the fest turned up the volume and let the full force of distorted feedback fuel the crowd. Bloody Hammers (US) are basically a husband / wife team (Anders Manga and wife Devallia) with a backing band. They’ve been around since 1999 playing fuzzed out doom and gothic rock. With new album ‘Under Satan’s Sun’ and a theatrical stage set that prominently featured the electric organ, they were wickedly outrageous and thrilled the punters - top hat and all.

By the time Papir (DK) took the stage around 8pm the rain had all but stopped leaving a marsh of wet fields and the occasional puddles to wade through. The Danish trio were less abrasive than expected playing a wide selection of psychedelic / progressive space rock that occasionally ventured into krautrock territory. Their jazzy jams were a bit tedious after the hour mark but finished strong in the wake of the plummeting temperatures. Headliner Radio Moscow (US) brought some much-needed heat in to the proceedings. The Iowa-based three piece chopped and diced their way through all four of their platters most coming from Brain Cycles (2009) and the new offering, Magical Dirt. It’s always a good sign when one or two songs stick long after the lights fade. The infectious “Death of a Queen” and frenzied “Before It Burns” fused with the boogie-ness of “Rancho Tehama Airport” and the funky “Gypsy Fast Woman” is the reason these guys are buddies with The Black Keys and darlings of the heavy psych blues crowd.

FRIDAY (May 30) was overcast but no rain. Local bands Wight and Motor Mammoth played the side stage in the morning hours. Tony Reed from Mos Generator got up and jammed with the Wight brothers turbo-charging the instrumental three-piece into overdrive. Sun Preachers (FR) drove up from Bordeaux to fire-up the main stage with their homage to ‘70s heavy rock akin to Blue Cheer, Sir Lord Baltimore and, of course, Black Sabbath. With sultry vocals over a barrage of heavy guitar, they converted the audience on the tail end of the majestic “Nail King”. Ivy Garden Of The Desert (IT) were more cosmic in their delivery fusing ethereal guitar and bass passage into a progressive haze of hypnotic feedback. The fuzz never masked their intricate musicality, which was perfectly timed as the first rays of sunlight filtered onto the stage. No one was prepared for the complete possession that overtook The Midnight Ghost Train (US) as they plugged in and proceeded to bulldoze through a set composed of mostly new songs. Steve Moss (guitar/vocals) led the ritual with the enthusiasm of a rock ‘n’ roll preacher determined on complete conversation or hellfire condemnation.

Stubb (UK) seemed a little anxious and edgy but soon mellowed as their whiskey-soaked biker rock filled the afternoon air. Testing a couple new songs to gage audience reaction proved fruitful as the mass swayed to their tribal beat with heads bobbing and air guitars reaching for the heavens. During the set change was the ideal opportunity to check out the many food and craft vendors. Several record labels were present including Italy’s Go Down Records and Germany’s Doom Dealer Records. The merchandise tent was seething with humanity clamoring to see what bands were hocking. Mother Of God (SE) strode onstage confident in their stoner grooves and power-chord anthems. Hailed in their homeland as the ‘next big thing’ they sang in both English and Swedish amid a sonically charged 60-minutes. Texas tornado-spawned Mothership (US) blew through their high-octane time slot with all the gusto of a raging bull. They are an extremely dangerous power trio that takes no prisoners in their aural assault.

Doom band Blood Ceremony (CA) stunned with Jethro Tull-meets-Black Sabbath charm. Alia O'Brien (singer/flutist/organist) was a wonder to behold with her fringed shirt and silk hot pants. Alongside metal guitarist Sean Kennedy, their flute-tinged witch rock cast the perfect spell as gray clouds swallowed the sun. Doing serious damage to the tympanic membrane was Wo Fat (US) the second Texas trio of the day. Their brand of psych-doom has been around for ten years reeking havoc and causing permanent hearing loss to thousands. Promoting their new album ‘The Conjuring’, released just in time for the festival brought some nice surprises to the set. Icelandic metal band Sólstafir (IC) remain in a genre all to themselves. Their twin guitar interplay is reminiscent of Alice in Chains with a song structure that’s ethereal and alternative while equally sinister, dark and brooding. As the night cooled, the Truckfighters (SE) ripped off their shirts and pell-melled into their punky, rambunctious set. Like a freight train out of control they tossed out stoner, blues and metal with a lethal dose of MC5 attitude.

Not kidding, the main reason for going to this year’s FVF was to see the incredible Blues Pills (SE). After departing from Radio Moscow in 2011, drummer Cory Berry and bassist Zack Anderson moved to Sweden where they met singer Elin Larsson. French guitar prodigy Dorian Sorriaux soon joined the ranks and, after the band cut the “Black Smoke” demo, they hit the road. European response was immediate and they we soon touring non stop – so much so they had little time to record a proper album. Two EPs and a live record preceded their debut (soon to be released this summer). Smoldering under the stage lights, the band cracked into their tribute to Then Play On-era Fleetwood Mac. Guitar phenomenon Sorriaux was a force all his own. His playing was lyrical, poignant and packed with emotion. Elin Larsson is a godess, her beauty, stage elegance and soulful voice is a marvel. When the rhythm section uncorked the bottle, it was a whole new level of spine-tingling blues-rock!

SATURDAY (May 31) was most anticipated due to its all-star lineup. Bushfire and Magnetic Mountain opened the gates on the local stage before Bone Man (GER) stoked the flames of the main stage. Soaked in dirty psych blues and heavy fuzz, the three-piece dished out a dense wedge of amplified heat that fully caught the noon-time hangovers off guard. Without missing a beat, Zodiac (GER) launched into their offensive with all the drive of a Panzer tank. Refreshingly melodic and generously powerful, the group pulled off a majestic set sounding much stronger than their vinyl offerings. Øresund Space Collective (SE) were the true freaks of the festival. A multi-cultural, free form, improvised space rock ensemble, they literally embodied the name of the event with bizarre compositions and unexpected time signatures in a surreal extension of The Mothers of Invention. Mos Gernerator (US) were just the opposite. A stripped down bone rattling heavy rock trio that raised a Neanderthal war-cry with chest-beating muscle-bound boogie rock ala Grand Funk Railroad. The first in a list of musical heroes.

The transition to Admirial Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s (UK) was met with a physical surge from the audience. Billed as a modern Budgie with elements of Sir Lord Baltimore, Hairy Chapter and Josefus the greasy bastards ruled the day with a brilliant, fire-in-the-belly performance. Combining the best of their two albums, the trio clobbered their way through classics “Mark The Beast”, “Devil’s Island” and “Red Admiral Black Sunrise” with new rising stars “The Thicker The Better” and “Bulletproof”. Berlin-based Samsara Blues Experiment (GER) made their debut as a three piece after the departure of bassist Richard Behrens. Guitarist Hans Elselt has taken over four-string duties and is an imposing figure under the spotlight. Promoting their new opus ‘Waiting For The Flood’ the trio launched into the 14-minute “Shringara” followed by a 12-minute “Don’t Belong”. Drummer Thomas Vedder created a massive wake while guitarist Chris Peters played with exceptional emotion and passion moving from the progressive blues of “Center Of The Sun” to the darker “For Lost Souls” and “Into The Black”.

Boston band Elder (US) walked the thin line between progressive rock, doom and metal. Smart, intricate and brutally heavy, they elevated long passages “Gemini”, “The End” and “Spires Burn” with majestic beauty. Spilling out at just over an hour, they kept their set to fan favorites with the imposing “Knot” as the main centerpiece. Motorpsycho (NOR), was astonishing. Their vinyl output has become more progressive over the 20 years since their humble beginnings as a straightforward metal band. By the late ‘90s they were drifting more towards jazz and psychedelia, but with their current disc ‘Behind The Sun’ they were roaring like a caged lion. New songs “On A Plate”, “Cloudwalker” and the seven-part, 20-minute epic “Hell” sat comfortably alongside old favorites “Triggerman”, “Superstooge” and “Starhammer”. With a set much heavier that expected, its extended length was blissfully exhilarating. A surprising addition was the Grand Funk Railroad cover “Into The Sun”, a perfect climax to an already stunning show.

Chart-toppers Kadavar (GER) closed the festival. One of the hardest working bands on the circuit, the Berlin-based power trio assaulted the faithful with 60-minutes of stoner, doom and retro-rock flawlessly executed. Guitarist Christoph Lindemann is an avid connoisseur of ’70 rock and proto-metal. His playing centers around chunky Sabbath riffs interspersed with fiery lead breaks. His support was bassist Simon Bouteloup (Aqua Nebula Oscillator) and manic drummer Tiger who looks and plays like a human incarnation of the Muppets “Animal”. Building a set that equally combined their first two records allowed the audience to appreciate the majesty of “Goddess of Dawn” and “Creature of the Demon” from their debut with “Come Back to Life” and “Eye of the Storm” showcasing their progression. Confident and brash they exalted the riff-heavy “Doomsday Machine” and beautiful paced Aqua Nebula Oscillator cover “Broken Wings”. It was a treat to find them selling their new “Live in Antwerp” double LP ahead of its street date, just for this show.

As the lights dimmed and the hum of the amplifiers became a distant memory, the 2014 Freak Valley Festival made its mark as one the best out there. Its moderate size and friendly atmosphere was a welcomed relief from the excessive crowds and poor organization of other much larger festivals. Credit goes to organizer Jens Heide and his supportive staff for keeping the event charming, fun and loaded with great music and professional bands. We highly recommend attending FVF but get your tickets early, the word is spreading and it will soon become one of the many European festivals that sells out months in advance.

Website: Freak Valley Festival