Oli Pritchard raids, rocks and rattles cages in at Rock al Parque in Parque Bolivar
The deep fjords and desolate, snow swept mountains of Scandinavia. The depressive, constantly rained-on Black Country of England. The dark, accursed forests of Germany. And…the tropical sun of Bogota. These are the homelands of heavy metal. Devoid of autumn’s gloom and winter’s deathly cold, Bogota nonetheless has a dark heart of pure metal. One weekend in every year, the leather clad hordes march en masse to their local pilgrimage site: Rock al Parque.
Rock al Parque is a unique project: as co-founder Julio Correal told us, “there is nowhere else in the world that has a rock festival run by the government for the people, free and with world-class bands. Nowhere! The culture is for the people, it is free and to be shared”. He then went on to claim that the Aguila Cero had 0.000004% alcohol in it, so who knows the truth? The point holds though; this is a hell of an idea and so utterly Bogotano.
“There is nowhere else in the world that has a rock festival run by the government for the people, free and with world-class bands.”
– Julio Correal, Rock al Parque co-founder
Twenty years ago, Mario Duarte of iconic local band La Derecha had an idea, and now here we are. We spoke to Hector from Aterciopelados about it: “We were here in the start, those first editions. We’ve seen it grow and grow, of course we never thought it would get this far. From a few hundred people to 130,000! The fact is that we’ve helped so many bands to grow up. This has probably done more for the rock scene in Colombia than anything else. Not just musically, but culturally. Roqueros are now accepted in the city, and that’s part of the high evolution we wanted”.
Hector went on to add, “this is one of the biggest festivals in all of Latin America, and it’s totally free. We are pioneers, and now we hope that this can give inspiration to a new generation of peace and education”.
These claims run through the very core of the festival like a stick of dark Brighton (or Hove, seeing as Nick Cave lives there) rock. At every step there are proclamations of peace, of the anti-Taurino movement, of recycling and various other worthy projects.
It’s great and all, political activism is important and great to see in music, but a little more leather and studs and less liberal posturing might be an idea.
It’s often the case in Bogota that things look better on paper and Rock Al Parque has some serious downsides. You wouldn’t trust a communications company to pick up the rubbish; why do you think local government can manage a rock festival? For starters, it’s some sex no drugs and rock and roll: the festival is -unbelievably- dry. Dry. No alcohol. That’s right, nanny doesn’t want you to get drunk and boisterous. This is the spirit of heavy metal for sure. After all, the list of sober rock stars is legion and…oh. That’s right. Lemmy doesn’t drink water: he probably pisses Jack Daniels.
Then, we have the joy of entering the festival: like crossing Checkpoint Charlie in the sixties, or entering Stalinist Russia, it’s oppressive beyond belief, the jackboot of the state firmly reminding us that this is government-approved rock. Therein lies the crux of the problem: It’s like listening to heavy metal at your grandmother’s house, except not a cool punk grandma that still has green hair and used to fuck Johnny Rotten while blowing coke up Lemmy’s arse, but your actual grandmother. Rock al Parque is free, but sadly it’s a case of getting what you pay for.
Saturday kicks off with by far the heaviest lineup of the weekend. The Eco stage is given over entirely to bands that are heavier than weightlifting elephants, chief among them Thy Antichrist, who launch a sonic assault on the crowd as though they were chucking tejo discs about, each detonating in a frenzied mosh pit of violent lust for music. Sadly, the sound quality is frequently shocking and the likes of Luciferian look visibly disgusted with it. Still, the mere existence of a whole stage dedicated to PURE BLACK METAL is something in and of itself. No longer a niche genre, and although at times the moo-ing crowds wander off to prostrate themselves in front of foreign mercenaries trading on past glories, the ECO stage maintains a healthy following, with the exception of Nosferatu who end up playing in front of about 50 people.
Over on the main stage, Withering Void provide a rare female voice in heavy metal. Standing proud in her daisy dukes, Paola Vega belies her petite frame with a guttural roar the equal of anyone else. Accompanied by a strobing bass providing a hint of Latin rhythm, the band are nonetheless ignored by the majority of the crowd who are waiting only for Nile. Overly thankful to the organisers, their prefect’s manner between songs is in sharp contrast to their savage sound. Eventually they fall at the last, giving the crowd a cover of Blackened as a sop rather than playing their own music to the end.
After them stride on Ancient-Egypt-obsessed Nile, big and hairy and dangerous, like some sort of pack of metallic death metal robot timberwolves from the past. After some cursory New Album Stuff which the hordes politely acknowledge, they roll back the years and play us classics from In Their Darkened Shrines. Atmospheric yet quick, Nile tread a fine line between sounding like an anonymous film soundtrack setting and a dangerously elegant death metal band.
There is no respite, solid walls of music collapsing across the stage, layered one upon another until it seems as though we are indeed about to die imprisoned in a pyramid constructed entirely of distortion and down tuned bass. By the time the last drum fills of Black Seeds Of Vengeance are fading out, this has clearly been the moment the festival starts. Great band, great performance, great atmosphere. Without a doubt the highlight of the weekend.
Neurosis are next, although we mostly wish they weren’t. They plod through the same old same old as ever. It’s not really clear why they’ve been booked, neither still relevant nor proper classics, they’re just occupying space on the stage. I’d tell you more, but to be honest, five minutes after they’d walked off stage it was as if they were never there. Still, everyone needs a toilet break I guess.
Over on the second stage, Killswitch are showing everyone why they were such an exciting band back in the day. That day is no longer, but they remain a frightening prospect, as they prove today. Barring an ill -advised ballad, this is all quickfire riffs and blazing percussion. The rhythm guitarist is a knob who’s more interested in dicking around than providing decent music, but that’s no bad thing at a fest.
Exodus are the Big Foreign Name to finish. Earlier, Steve Souza had told us it was all about classics, in the mistaken belief that we wanted to hear shit from the new album. In truth, we’d rather hear less than more, but Exodus are bizarrely huge here in Colombia and the crowd are wilder than enraged chimps doing lines of speed off the edge of a chainsaw. They smash again and again into each other in the famed Wall Of Death, doing Colombia proud as a capital of metal.
After all, the other keyword from Souza was “violence”, cheerily missing the loaded connotations here in Colombia. He won’t have been disappointed though, as the crowd rips itself apart in an orgiastic display of power and anger. And then as quickly as they shred riffs, they are gone. Enthusiastic to play, for sure, but also quick to leave. Thousands of poor souls, or rather people, as their souls are no doubt with their dark lord SATAN, trickle out into the night that they love, wrapped in the comforting cold darkness that mirrors their hearts.
Sunday is a mixed bag, neither one thing nor the other, and it never really gets going until the end. For reasons known only to themselves, the organisers have stuck a bunch of reggae bands on the second stage, all of whom turn up, play so-so music and cheerily fuck off again, having enjoyed themselves but not really having brought anything to the festival.
The ECO stage is not much better, generally featuring Bogota bands. On the one hand, it’s great that they’re promoting so much local music… on the other, most of it is unspeakably dull. Honestly, many of these bands have the creativity of a lobotomised Chris Martin, married to the charisma of a depressed Brummie [Someone from Birmingham – ed] goldfish. Like toddlers beating furiously on a kitchen door and complaining about Mum’s music, they have no lack of enthusiasm, it’s ideas that are the problem.
Roaring like a severely fucked-off lion with his sadly-shortened dreadlock-mane, furious riffs pounding over the audience like a barrage of artillery shells, Max Cavalera dominates not just the stage but the entire day.
As the day goes by, the weather becomes moodier and darker by the minute, a storm gathering and building, ready to erupt… but when it finally arrives it is no tropical deluge like one would expect of Bogota, but rather comes in the form of La Pestilencia. Although slower than is traditional, they turn in a performance every bit as heavy as expected. The riffs no longer ring out a dozen a minute, but instead smash powerfully onto the audience like a mighty ocean relentlessly pounding the beach, only an ocean of rock. This is undoubtedly the local performance of the day, but there is one more waiting in the wings, the hero of the hour, Latin America’s biggest heavy music star.
It’s no shame to be overshadowed by a legend such as Max Cavalera. He’s playing tonight with Soulfly but, to be honest, it’s always the Max show, whichever band he happens to be with. Roaring like a severely fucked-off lion with his sadly shortened dreadlock-mane, furious riffs pounding over the audience like a barrage of artillery shells, he dominates not just the stage but the entire day. This is less a man and more some sort of tribal deity in the Church of Metal, a volcano made human and erupting for a glorious hour or more. Max’s voice is bigger than the mountains lying to the East, twice as heavy and deeper than the earth’s molten core.
He exhorts the crowd-beyond-a-crowd, the actual people who want to be there to thrash themselves beyond limits, to tear out their hearts moshing. The truly electric atmosphere builds to the point where it feels as though the crowd would, to a person, rip open their own heads and feast on brains if he told them to. Even fucking Soulfly songs are applauded. Luckily, he realises why the audience is giving him the time of day and wheels out some Sepultura classics, finally finishing in a brutal, rhythmic recitation of underrated classic Attitude. Finally, he departs, after some kind words for a country he clearly loves. We are left sweaty and dishevelled but gloriously happy.
At least there was a good after party on Sunday night, so we returned on Monday with eyes like sheep’s cunts and stinging heads. Luckily, there wasn’t too much going on early doors. Gusano Ciega on the ECO stage showed why singers shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near drum kits as their singer spends as much time bothering his drummer as concentrating on singing. They’re not a bad band though, sounding kind of English, despite their Mexican heritage. Maybe Fucking Morrissey’s success over there will pay dividends. Finishing up on the ECO stage, a truly enormous crowd flock to pay tribute to La Derecha. The founders of the festival have been shunted out to the third stage for their last ever appearance, which has to feel like an insult to the man who started it all.
The big news though is all on the main stage. Band after band bigger than the last, and all for different reasons. Molotov are huge in Colombia, despite being absolutely shitting terrible. They please normal people, which of course makes them detestable. Happiness and jolliness are their stock-in-trade, which will never endear them to me. All around, the press zone detonates in an explosion of dancing and enjoyment, like jolly cows being entertained by bovine clowns en route to the slaughterhouse. Five minutes in, and they’ve dropped a cover of.. shudder… Rock Me Amadeus. A good festival band maybe, but by God’s Buttery Bollocks they’re awful.
The BIO stage almost steals their thunder, leading with Nepentes. Rocketing onto the stage like a blaze of lightning, these Paisas are political, angry, brutal and uncompromising. Like a Rage Against The Machine-lite, sort of Slightly Vexed Against The Machine… except they are absolutely fucking furious. Dreadlocked singer Juan Fernando Álvarez spits out lyrics like a rabid vampire bat, venom dripping from rhyme after rhyme. Between songs they lambaste politicians, appeal for peace and exhort the crowd to better the country through education.
It’s a perfect show, easily the best of the Colombian bands, and certainly the best of the day. Angry and relevant, they show the lazy gringos what pure fury and a belly full of piss and bile can achieve. Álvarez jumps into the crowd, floating away like a glorious angel of death, so much energy being unlocked within that teeming multitude that they are literally steaming with rage… great clouds of steam rise like the mist that envelops our mountains. Even the drummer comes running to the fore to join in the abuse of polititricksters and charlatans. These guys have the crowd in the palm of their hand and with good fucking reason. Right now, they could start a war, but all they want is peace.
What they can’t do, is make noise like Black Label Society. Stolen thunder? Here it is, in the form of fuck-off huge amp sets carted in especially for us to listen to Zakk Wylde’s technical prowess. If the man could write songs as well as he could play them, he would be the best in the world. Sadly though, he descends too much into wanking his guitar like a depressed teenager. Ten-minute solos please the guitar tech community but drive the rest of us to wanting to drill out our own ears.
How he’s managed to forge a career off of being Ozzy’s guitarist who can do tricks like play behind his back, God (or Satan) only knows. Clearly the most Spinal Tap of bands, although Marty wouldn’t be impressed by their punctuality today. Having said that, they’re perfect for the moment, making eardrums bleed and when the bassist rolls out with coloured strings to mimic the national flag, a huge roar goes up. He’s oddly static too, spending most of the gig front centre, hair round his face. It’s like looking in a mirror. What this band is, is what the festival needed right now: loud balls-out, fuck-the-modern-day music.
Over the way, local heroes and rock al parque legends Aterciopelados are doing their hippie thing on the main stage. They’re wearing fluffy tiger jumpsuits like giant benevolent toddlers, which is exactly what one should wear when supporting the likes of Anthrax. They meander dreamily through their flower child landscapes, a relaxed and tranquil warm-up for Anthrax. The crowd don’t miss a single lyric, singing along with gusto and verve. Panpipes and tiger stripes? You can shove your Anthrax up your arse!
Talking of which, eventually the forgotten men of the Big 4 turn up onstage. While they’re outdated, a decade past it and with no real back catalogue of gold, they’re a perfect headliner. They’re huge for Colombia, for a free festival, and the crowd fucking adore them. They aren’t being lazy either, bringing on Andreas Kisser from Sepultura/Tierra to play a little medley of Anthrax and Sepultura, before realising how much he outshines them and sending him offstage while they knock out a cover of TNT. Finally, the drummer (a rare day for drummers today) does that ice bucket thing, which seems apt. The festival is over: welcome back to the cold, grim reality of Bogota normality. Luckily, us heavy metal heads love cold grim harshness.