Through the course of extreme metal history, South Africa has very much hovered just along the fringes in terms of securing it’s own presence in the international spotlight; a bit like that short guy hopping up and down at the back of a crowd trying to get a glimpse of the stage where giants file in ranks through the front rows. Sure, our protagonist has been to all the shows and knows all the songs, but he has never been acknowledged. So, instead of vying for that impossible prize of a twenty centimeter stretch of front railing, he’s just gone and lost himself in the moshpit where, although he still can’t see much, he can express and release the energy within himself in close enough proximity to the source of his ecstasy.
Does this not sound like a true personification of South African extreme metal as it claws it’s way for a space in the global metal arena? Well, perhaps it has been up until now; but no more! Witchdoctor Productions, who have already brought us a slew of international visitors in the last year, have shown great ambition and proven that they have the muscle to grasp firmly with one hand onto that sacred rail. But can they hold on? The rest remains up to the South African metal-loving public to bring that further strength required to heave the other hand in place which will secure the spot for keeps. Have we triumphed in this year of 2015, or has the fight only just begun?
Placing a bookmark in the pages of history
And so it was on the first weekend of April, 2015, that Witchdoctor Productions hosted this first festival of it’s kind in downtown Johannesburg, South Africa. In the wacky district of Newtown where graffiti tags and dereliction meet head-on-head with fine arts culture and urban revival, and one can transcend from one universe to another simply by crossing a street; it was here that Witchfest Urban Festival combined a concert hall with the adjacent public park to create a unique venue setting for their so-called “urban camping” three-day metal festival.
This might sound a little dodgy to some, and indeed, the notion of outdoor camping so close to the notorious Johannesburg city center created some furor from the local metal-loving public. In fact, many people traded in their tickets upon announcement of the final venue, but those were eagerly snapped up by others. Nonetheless, local and international visitors poured into the venue and lived out what will certainly be recorded into the books of heavy metal history as a most enjoyable experience.
No less than thirteen bands from outside of South Africa’s borders made the pilgrimage to this Southernmost nation of a vast continent, thousands of kilometers away from even the least traveled of tour routes, to appear live at Witchfest. These included even some of the biggest names in extreme metal acts, such as Cannibal Corpse, Decapitated, Septic Flesh, Kataklysm, Fleshgod Apocalypse, Belphegor and more, from diverse global regions such as the United States, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Austria, Greece and other nations great and small.
As support to this rich line-up of internationals, almost thirty South African bands appeared live to represent the home front. Drawn from every corner of the land, this included some long-time scene heavyweights such as Agro, SacriFist, Mind Assault, Theatre Runs Red, Terminatryx, ING, Bile Of Man and many others right down to the rising powers on local stages such as Nebula Disrupt, Scroll Of Thoth, Desolation, Demogoroth Satanum and plenty in between. Across three incredible days, metallers could enjoy live metal from the time of their late breakfasts, right into the early hours of the following morning.
Now Witchfest is certainly not the first heavy metal festival experience to hit South Africa, and will not be the last. However, what has made this effort so noteworthy and different from other high-and-medium-caliber ventures such as those from RAMfest, Oppikoppi, Krank’d Up, and even former Witchfest events, is that they have aimed to cater an entire festival specifically for the extreme sub-genres. Furthermore, it must be noted that the bands who came to visit were not shy to come and mingle unrestricted with the fans. In fact, it was even said by some of these acclaimed artists that this was one of the best tour experiences they have ever enjoyed!
Success or failure: in review
And so it was to this ironic interpretation of utopia that we of www.metal4africa.com made our own 1400km journey by bus with twenty fellow metalheads from Cape Town. After seventeen hours of driving through the baron interior during the black of night, our party arrived in high spirits by lunchtime on the Friday. There, we found hundreds of metalheads from our own land, and dozens from abroad. Many had traveled in from neighbouring nations such as Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and a few from Mozambique too. Most remarkably, however, were the visitors from much further abroad such as Switzerland, Germany and the United Kingdom who we found camping midst our own ranks. It was from these European visitors that we heard the most surprising tales, as they, much like some of the artists, also declared this festival experience to be one of the most unique and memorable that they had experienced yet; and that being quite the compliment since those words came from the mouths of veteran attendees of some of the finest and most widely celebrated metal festivals in the world.
By all public accounts, Witchfest Urban Festival, the first of it’s kind, was a resounding success. To suggest that it was perfect would be a little naive, given that it was a first try at fulfilling a long-gestating and rapidly evolving vision; but to say that by and large the general public in attendance were joyfully satisfied would be an understatement.
Despite public fears and the year-long saga of venue and ticketing disruptions, it appears to have all come together in the final hours and resulted in what appeared to be a pretty well-run festival. Apart from all the usual spoilers attached to things like mobile ablution facilities, vacant-eyed security guards, and a few local stragglers latching onto the festival for their daily livelihood – all of which are a common part of festival culture, locally and abroad – everything else seemed to be kept very well in hand.
There was good quality food available at the grounds which could be enjoyed in a spacious and comfortable chill area under the trees, and easy access to other amenities in the city nearby. I’ve never seen a festival camping ground remain so clean from litter! The medics appeared mostly idle with no major emergencies plaguing the festival, and apart from tending to late night parasites seeking to feed from the festival grounds, the security staff appeared to have it quite easy from within the grounds having no major incidents arising from festival-goers.
Inside the concert hall, cleanliness was even more surprising with the ample inside ablutions being regularly checked and attended to by staff. Blessingly, this allowed for required use of the less-comely mobile ablutions outside to be kept to a bare minimum, save for late night emergencies. Timekeeping on the stage was excellent, with at least ninety-five percent of acts going on stage exactly when they were expected to. The quality of stage production was absolutely superb!
So why is the future in jeopardy?
By keeping our finger close to the pulse, and as being an independent third party organisation, we at M4A listen carefully to the conversations being shared by the ‘man on the ground’. We are under no constraints and thus believe in plain talk about matters dear to the heart of our fellow metalhead.
As to the question of the festival being an actual success – financially as well as by public endorsement – only Witchdoctor Productions will ever know. Whilst everybody in attendance ranging from fan-kids to performance veterans clearly enjoyed a fantastic and unique experience, and will be talking about it for years to come if not indeed for the rest of their lives, there is no doubt that this was an expensive and taxing exercise for those behind it. The controversy surrounding repeated venue changes and alleged interference from conservative groups and officials must have left an expensive trail in it’s wake, and funds were wasted which can never be recovered. The evidence of this can be seen in rising ticket prices since the inception of advertising in 2014, and Witchdoctor Productions ominous message behind an Indiegogo campaign launched just weeks before the actual festival, seeking to raise $100,000.00. It was visibly clear to any who looked beyond the glitz and glamour of what the festival offered that this specific venture would be running at a huge loss no matter which way it played out.
With the longer-term future of this festival concept already in question, it seems to boil down to striking a balance between careful decision-making on the part of the organizers and their resistance to buckling too far under public pressures and desires. By all indication, it appears at this time that Witchdoctor Productions will choose to consolidate the festival they have already created rather than to aspire towards the larger, more elaborate vision initially advertised. This decision is something which we at metal4africa support wholeheartedly, as we believe that it would be the sensible approach for the foreseeable future and the longer-term security of the festival. As long-time observers of our local industry, we have witnessed many great concepts ruin themselves by attempting to grow too large, too quickly.
In this regard, we don’t believe that the overall success or failure of an event concept can be measured on one event alone. Our observation is that Witchfest Urban Festival is off to a great start, having captured not only the hearts of local metalheads, but those of the international visitors as well. Unfortunately, it will probably require more investment than it is likely to see return even in the next installation if prices for the public don’t rise yet again. Nonetheless, the long-term vision appears to have great merit as has now been proven. It is therefore our hope to see it become firmly established in it’s current form first. Then, hopefully, it can grow into a behemoth of worldwide proportions. This concept, and at this time, appears to be Southern Africa’s best hope of maintaining our spot in the front rows of the international metal arena, as a nation, and as an active participant in the global metal movement. If we wish to see this happen, we need to lend our strength to theirs in a way that counts. When those tickets go on sale, that will be our opportunity to turn a once-off historic event into a timeless legacy.
Below is the full line-up and event poster for the 2015 event. For updates and information on the 2016 event, join the official Witchfest 2016 facebook event page. If you are a local who has some cash to burn, or an international who wants to put some money to a useful cause, you can visit the Indiegogo campaign: The Show Must Go On and donate to the cause there, or just learn more about the challenges met by the promoter in trying to bring this monumental event into reality.
Photos courtesy of Vetman Design and Photography
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