Festival Review: Graspop Metal Meeting 2023 in Dessel, Belgium

The 2023 European festival season is in full swing, with some of the largest metal festival bills in the world all descending upon the continent for months at a time.  Even among such a star-studded field, with Rock am Ring, Hellfest and more, Graspop Metal Meeting has few peers when it comes to both quality and quantity of incredible music. Crossing genres and spanning decades, from the dingiest of black metal to the glitz and polish of 80’s glam, this wonderful little metal oasis in Dessel, Belgium has earned its reputation as a world-class event.  The efficiency of transport to the festival site itself from Antwerp an hour away (via an easily labeled “Graspop Ticket” no less) created a vibe of a metal pilgrimage right from the outset.  As I transferred to progressively more local trains, the concentration  of black-clad tent-carriers rose until the buzz overtook the entire cabin.  

The birth of tent city in Graspop’s Boneyard campground is fluid and chaotic. A coordinated mess of humans, pressed like sardines to find their spot for the weekend on their own initiative. I found it a bit overwhelming at first, but watching the seasoned veterans block off their plots taught me how to manage on the fly. I wasn’t paying attention to the clock, but it couldn’t have been more than three hours between waiting for my train in Antwerp to having camp in the heart of Graspop: a small adventure before the fest even began. Coming out a day early also allowed for meeting new neighbors and orienting in your new home. The place only gets more lively as the night stretches on, so having your bearings set before nightfall was a boon. The first note of day one hadn’t been struck, but the energy and camaraderie of Graspop was palpable. A multinational, multi-lingual melting pot from all over the world had descended on a tiny town for the love of all things heavy, and it was already a beautiful thing.  

Thursday began in earnest with a deceptively cool, damp morning. Considering the forecast of clear-skied heat for the whole weekend, it was refreshing to start out with a bit of a chill. The walk from camp was super manageable, even easy to do in between bands if necessary. That was extremely welcome, because food within the festival and the token based, cashless system that required were both a bit convoluted and expensive. 

Thursday pulled no punches early on in the day, with heavyweights Haken and Spiritbox kicking things off.  Even though Haken are themselves headlining a smaller fest this summer (Radar in Manchester, England) and Spiritbox are a darling in the U.S. core scene, they only scratch the surface of what Graspop has to offer. That’s part of the charm of Graspop to me–being there at all feels like an accomplishment to be playing on such a massive scale. Spiritbox especially felt suited for the main stage, with a confidence and swagger that made clear why they were returning from last year’s lineup. Their breakthrough single “Holy Roller,” bolstered by guest vocals from Stray From The Path’s Drew York, was the first of many highlight-reel moments for the weekend. A raucous, disgusting closing breakdown melded with the palpable joy of friends ripping a gig together was special to see—on York’s birthday, no less.

The tide of brilliant sets was a little overwhelming—It felt almost strange to take a rest amidst such a wealth of music. The late afternoon featured more typically European festival mainstays in Epica and Arch Enemy.  Flanked by pyro and smoke cannons, these were the first acts to really weaponize the grandness of Graspop’s ambience.  The neverending sea of humanity was a spectacle all its own, and both bands challenged the throng for more and more energy—trading gratitude for the confidence of prior experience. There was a cool, polished undercurrent that drove their respective performances, and it really did seem like Graspop itself was bringing out the best in both band and crowd. 

Ghost took this confidence to another level, adding their signature theatrics to the fold.  I personally don’t know their music very well, but the character of Papa Emeritus IV and the interplay of the numerous identical masked figures onstage felt like almost a stage-set musical in a way.  The personality of the steampunk-y Nameless Ghouls paradoxically shined through their darkened goggles, all orbiting the central protagonist of Papa IV. The contrast of their spooky, gothic ambience and the almost indulgent pageantry of their frontman is a really gutsy decision, and it resounds in a surprisingly authentic way. Adding in a huge cathedral-like set backing only furthered that commitment—Honestly, Ghost occupying my headlining slot for the night couldn’t have felt more appropriate. 

Guns and Roses closed out the main stage with a career-spanning three hour set, but personally I was much more excited for Cradle of Filth. Therein lies the beauty of such an ambitious event—the lineup being so huge offered plenty of alternatives. Something exists for almost everybody, in every time slot, until nearly two in the morning;  an incredible start to a busy weekend.

Friday’s afternoon slate felt as if it didn’t quite know what it wanted to be, and as a result cast a wide net. The fiercely political, rap-adjacent project Fever 333 gave way to art-pop rock trio Palaye Royale, with nostalgic metalcore act Asking Alexandria in between.  It was a series of kind of jarring transitions personally, but in their own right, each band had a clear cadre of fans crowding the barrier and belting every lyric.

Just as for Thursday, though, there was a palpable shift in the balance of power once the late afternoon bands took mainstage. Behemoth weren’t simply playing to a crowd, they were drawing people into their experience. Frontman Nergal Darski commands a stage like few others, reminding the throng why Behemoth has remained relevant even after 30 years.  Some extreme metal acts lose their bite with time, but this Polish four-piece has evolved into something rare and unique among their black metal compatriots.  The sea of hands raised to the sky amidst the chanting lyrics of “Blow Your Trumpets, Gabriel”  felt like more than fabricated satanism for image, but rather an embracing of hedonism for the art. Gratuitous pyro, a mockery of a papal miter, and lyrics that would’ve gotten your tongue removed in medieval Poland painted a wonderful picture of sacrilege in the Belgian sun.

Amon Amarth and Watain, in different ways, continued the trend of commitment to aesthetic. With both bands, you know what you are in for: Vikings and misanthropic black metal, respectively.  However, the way these energies are cultivated is vastly different. Amon Amarth are all about the spectacle: huge statues, men in armor battling onstage, swathes of fire ringing the stage, and plenty of synchronized headbanging.  Over the course of the hour-long set, it all bleeds together a bit, but if you connect with melodeath, the riffs are top-tier, and they really do succeed in making it feel like more than pretend.

Watain, on the other hand, feels like an ancient ritual in a cave. Blood, ritual fires, ceremonial torches, and effigies strewn across the stage to a backdrop of melancholy that seeps into your bones. Their vocalist began the set by throwing a LIT TORCH INTO THE CROWD. It felt like I was watching a cult gathering, in the best way. Black iron spikes carved with runes ringed the stage, and the performance felt far more connected than anything else I’d yet experienced at Graspop. A moment of intimacy betwixt the madness outside the tent, but what mattered inside was intensely personal in its own way. The grime, blood (fake or not, I don’t know) and costumery were just vehicles for that connection. I don’t listen to a ton of black metal, but the feeling of the genre in a live setting is hard to match.

Friday’s headliner was none other than French titans Gojira. Considering their reach is far less broad in the U.S. market, it was incredible to see what they are capable of with a full production.  Smoke wreathing a dazzling light show set the stage for the consummate professionalism that Gojira are so known for in the European festival circuit. Crushing riffs, righteous pick scrapes, and bellowing screams abound, all driven forward by drummer Mario Duplantier’s relentless rhythm. Their career-spanning set leaned heavily on the latest record “Fortitude,” but went as far back as their breakthrough third record “From Mars to Sirius.”

Gojira are a really brilliant studio band, to be sure—but to me, they truly shine in a live setting in a more honest and vulnerable way. The little inflections and flourishes and extra scrapes breathe a different dimension into the sound that sometimes is buried under a studio production. I don’t know if it’s their live rig, how they play it, or what, but Backbone and Stranded especially feel unique in person. It took me a while to get into them, but Gojira has to be one of the best live bands in the metal world right now.

Next up were one of the very few acts that can give Gojira a run for their money: the inimitable Djent Gods Meshuggah. Though they’ve strayed away from some of my favorite material (namely 2008’s ObZen), no one can match the calculated ferocity of these Swedish machines. A dizzying array of strobes seems tied to drummer Tomas Haake’s kick with inhuman precision. The bass and guitar meld into one assault, and if you close your eyes it feels like you’re almost leaving your body at the mercy of sound.

The technicality, the masterwork of flow and time signature, the audiovisual sync, it all combines into a perfect distillation of what it means to be “heavy.” It’s ridiculous and hard to follow a bit at times, but if you let yourself feel it, it’s sublime. It doesn’t matter what songs they play, what order, what stage, it’s insane in the best way—Thus, the Yiddish origin of the band name could not be more fitting. Once again, the late night sets are massive—a trend that the night doesn’t end on the main stage at Graspop.

Saturday started off on an ambitious foot, with a hereditary prelude to the night’s headliners Slipknot.  A massive crowd gathered far earlier than previous days, and Vended did not leave the throng wanting.  Drummer Simon Crahan and vocalist Griffin Taylor stay true to the musical aggression of their bloodlines,  with a youthful aggression that wanders into early ‘Knot territory…albeit in a less unhinged way.  Young as they are, the five-piece commanded the mainstage surprisingly well- if it’s a front, it’s an extremely convincing one.  They’ve got a characteristic bite that is easily identifiable, but I respect them for not taking the low-hanging fruit of having Corey Taylor feature on a track.  They want to carve their own path (to a point), and that’s pretty commendable.  To me, they have what it takes to make their spot in the metal scene on merit- it’s just a matter of if they’ll keep it.

My highlight for the weekend was the enigmatic Sleep Token. I joined in an intensely personal and almost cult-like following for this band back in 2019 in advance of their debut album, but nothing could have prepared me for the unique explosion that occurred this January.  Their second single off of Take Me Back To Eden, The Summoning”, positively broke the internet- and they haven’t slowed down since.  Ascending from quiet prog metal favourite to international billboard-charting phenomenon in a year’s time has inflated their crowds, but not their egos.  At its core, Sleep Token is an incredibly vulnerable exploration of love, loss and growth- a message that evidently has resonated with a growing audience.  They have morphed through genre changes so fluidly their entire career that at this point nothing is a shock- but at the same time, they keep you guessing at every turn.  Their setlist bounded from the deliciously heavy black metal influenced Vore to wistfully pensive Mine and back without misstep, a testament to the cohesiveness of the creative vision for the project.  Vocalist Vessel sauntered, danced and trembled his way across the stage as some sort of eldritch being, an incredibly unique flavour of confidence that to me has no true contemporaries.  The other Vessels, II (drums) III (bass) and IV (Guitars) as well as the choir melded together to blend a wonderfully powerful cocktail of emotion onstage.  Celebration, mourning, introspection or something other, whatever they create onstage is a worthy form of self-described Worship.

Parkway Drive, Architects and Pantera formed a righteous three-pronged attack to act as buildup for the final set of the night.  Parkway and Architects together are a huge force in modern metalcore, and Architects seized the opportunity to feature Winston McCall on an epic rendition of “Impermanence” on the main stage.  These sorts of huge crossovers, even among friends in bands, are often rather difficult to capitalize on- it was really sick to see the possibilities of Graspop come to fruition.  Even though I’ve kind of fallen out of love with Architects’ more recent material, they still put on a world class show and prove they’re still at the top of the game.  Only a couple tracks, including Nihilist and Doomsday,  hearken back more than two albums.  While it’s a proper shame for a band with so much history to move on, it’s understandable with the pain that they’re leaving behind in their prior material.  Parkway Drive took a more theatrical approach, flanked by sheets of fire and cannons galore amid iron-spiked stage props.  I’d not seen them prior, but the absolute joy radiating from the band as a whole was palpable.  Multiple members of the band, on more than one occasion, stopped to look out over the crowd with visible disbelief.  Many “Holy Shits” were uttered as they watched the crowd rage at their behest,  a surprisingly obvious gratitude for a band that is no stranger to festival main stages.  The highlight of the set came as frontman Winston McCall waded into the crowd and stood on hands and shoulders as a circle pit orbited him at least forty meters across.  There’s a certain boldness that took over their set, in a way that it seems is only possible at an event like this.

Pantera was sandwiched in between the two modern metalcore titans, and even though there’s a noticeable generational gap between the fanbases, they gave quite a rousing throwback set.  It honestly felt more like Phil Anselmo and friends, but the four-piece did make an effort to honour the fallen Abbott Brothers throughout the set.  Drawing primarily from A Vulgar Display of Power and Far Beyond Driven, Zakk Wylde and Charlie Benante combined with the OG Pantera members to deliver a nostalgic but not dated presentation of classic metal.  Finally, the inimitable Slipknot graced mainstage.  The masked nine walked out amidst a backlit horror-inspired short depicting models of the band and burning effigies of their prior masks- possibly a signal of a new era.  If it was, I couldn’t tell- the Knot were the same brilliantly chaotic band of lunatics that they always are, even missing two original members in Craig Jones and “Clown” Shawn Crahan. Vocalist Corey Taylor’s white skull-stitched mask is even more unsettling in the flesh, an uncanny valley facsimile of life screaming as if hell is directly in your face.  Leaning heavily on their self-titled record, they pulled out deep cuts such as “Purity” and “Liberate” alongside the fan favourites “People = Shit” and “Wait and Bleed”.  Slipknot is a well oiled horror machine that still delivers on its promises of mayhem more than two decades on, on the biggest metal stages the world has to offer.

After the insanity of Slipknot, Sunday was a bit slow for me.  First though, Aussie metalcore darlings Polaris were up on the Metal Dome stage.  Having seen them a couple times prior, it was really sick to see Polaris getting their dues and ripping up the early slate at their first Graspop.  Their brand of bouncy metalcore is delightfully infectious, and you could feel the crowd swelling throughout the set as more and more people filtered in to check them out.  It was quite the change to see them command a stage of this size after a small club in Warsaw, Poland several years back.  Indian nu-metal fusion act Bloodywood was an interesting inclusion on the bill, and they rose to the occasion on the third Jupiler stage.  Blending rap, hard rock, and traditional Indian instrumentation is a tall ask, but they held a massive crowd at rapturous attention like it’s second nature to them. Alongside the Moldovan Infected Rain,  it’s cool to see bands from non-traditional markets break into the EU festival circuit.

From new age heavy metal to punk rock and deathcore, what followed was all secondary to me in anticipation for Lorna Shore.  I had seen them once prior in a dingy mostly-empty bar venue many years ago, so to see their ascension to such monumental heights while staying true to their symphonic deathcore roots is really incredible to see.  From Will Ramos’ disgusting animal noises on To The Hellfire to Adam DeMicco’s shockingly emotive solos in the Pain Remains trilogy, Lorna shore is a masterclass in atmosphere and bringing out honest emotions without sacrificing heaviness.  I won’t lie, the end of Pain Remains I is a tearjerker in a way I never expected deathcore to be.  Unfortunately (and this seemed to be a trend),  they did not go back to any material predating Ramos’s joining of the band- a bit of a disappointment for any fan that predated their newfound near-viral success.  Nevertheless, though, Lorna Shore’s incredible upward trajectory is fully justified by their clean, polished and powerful live show.

The swan song for Graspop 2023 for me was Billy Talent- a set I just wandered into by chance but enjoyed quite a bit.  The catharsis of good ol’ punk rock in the rain to close out such an incredible experience fit perfectly into the story that this weekend had to tell.  Overall, Graspop is a hell of an experience.  From the journey to GMM’s grounds, to the incredibly lively camp life, the music, the energy… all of it felt purposeful and alive.  There were some small hiccups, but it might just be a function of me being a first timer.  With that said, Graspop is an extremely well put together and intentional festival with TONS to offer for heavy music fans of all stripes.  A grassy field in the middle of nowhere becomes quite the party when 60,000 soon-to-be close friends are invited! I hope to one day be back, and if you’re considering it it’s never too early to start planning.



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