Rock The Lakes Festival 2023 - The Review

I highly recommend it to metalheads and intrepid music fans alike

By Terry Ray | Published: Tue 5th Mar 2024

Rock The Lakes 2023 - Rock The Lakes Festival 2023
Photo credit: Terry Ray

Rock The Lakes 2023

Friday 18th to Sunday 20th August 2023
Lake Morat, Vallamand, Switzerland MAP
From SFR 78 for a day ticket
Daily capacity: 10,000

It’s not often you hear the words boutique and metal festival in the same sentence, but such is what I read somewhere about Rock the Lakes Festival in French-speaking Vallamand, Switzerland. It’s a small festival in its second year. The only reason I discovered it was checking out tour dates for fave folk-metal band, Eluveitie. Seeing that Korpiklaani and Ensiferum were also playing sealed the deal. It wouldn’t be cheap but having recently retired from 30 years of nursing I figured I deserved a treat.

I travelled from Cardiff, a fact which most of my friends, family and not a few of the people I met at RTL, regarded as evidence of early onset dementia. The only person I know who might have gone with me was on holiday so I decided to go it alone. At 56, apparently I shouldn’t be doing that sort of stuff anymore! The journey involved planes, trains and automobiles; flight from Bristol to Basel via Schipol, overnight in primitive hotel near Basel airport then three trains to Avenches and finally a bus to the village of Vallamand. From there it was an easy 15 minute hike to the festival site.

On the train from Kerzers to Avenches I met a couple of Swiss guys also heading to the festival. From them I learned a heartening lesson; any shame at my poor pidgin French and German was alleviated by the fact that French and German Swiss don’t generally speak each other’s language and therefore communicate in English. Indeed, anyone anxious about the language barrier needn’t worry. Apart from a little righteous Brit shaming from some of the vendors on the food concessions, it’s pretty easy to not only get by but meet new and interesting people.

My initial reaction on arriving at the festival site was “Wow! It really is small!” As you come round the corner from Vallamand you realise you are really quite high above Lake Morat. From Google Earth I’d expected farmland fields but in fact the whole site was set on hard sun-baked grass. Those of us on foot took a well-used shortcut down from the road to the festival check-in, but the carpark was nearby and didn’t look too much of a slog lugging camping gear.

Getting armbands (one for festival and one for camping) took hardly any time and the entrance to the campsite was right by the kiosk. So was the entrance to the main site. You can add bijou to boutique amongst this unlikely metal festival’s descriptors. I reckon it took less than 5 minutes to walk from my tent to the front of the mainstage. Strangely, a couple of days before the festival the organisers announced on social media that due to high demand the sale of camping tickets was closed. Yet the entire weekend the campsite was no more than about ¾ full. I estimate that at least 80% of the festival attenders were on day passes. All very snug for us remaining happy-campers once everyone else left at night.

Having set up camp I did a quick recce. There were a couple of blue portaloos and a urinal stand at the far end of the campsite. The main ‘hygiene’ area was (in festival terms) pure luxury, a raised toilet block with plumbed water and flushing toilets, a large trough sink with 4 taps, mirrors and soap dispensers. It was all kept clean and stocked over the weekend. There was also an 8 cubicle shower block. The water was freezing but I avoided queues by showering in the afternoons when it was  30°c+ so the cold was actually welcome and I air-dried instantly. There was also a kiosk selling coffee inside the campsite, during the mornings only, but handy nevertheless as the main site was inaccessible until midday.

As I’d already missed two bands (Dreamshade and Blind Channel) I was keen to get down to main site but as it happened the next lot up, Deez Nuts from Australia , were an extreme noise outfit which is not my bag at all. While they’re fast-forwarding in my head, let’s get the remaining festival nuts and bolts and a couple of confessions out the way before getting on to the main event - the music.

The view as you enter the site is fantastic. A flat open area at the top becomes a long, gentle slope down to the festival stage, with views of Lake Morat either side and, in the distance, mountains. I don’t know why more festivals aren’t set on slopes. It enables everyone who wants to see what’s going on to find a vantage point.

A view over the site at Rock The Lakes 2023
View from the top of the main site

The main food area was up the top, with concessions either side of the entrance to the largest of the site bars which included a big under-cover drinking area. There was a decent variety of food on offer. I recall Thai, pizza, Greek, pasta, a sausage and rosti place and, for sweet stuff, a crêpes van and an artisan ice cream stall. In addition to the main bar there were several smaller ones selling beer and wine and at least one artisan spirit (gin) stand. The festival was entirely cashless. Most Swiss use a banking app called Twint but Visa/Mastercard were okay. Depressingly, the one place I discovered only accepted Twint was the ice cream stand. Gutted.

This seems a good point to mention, as many use their phones contactless, that though there is no Wi-Fi available my 5G was superb all weekend. Price-wise , it was definitely more expensive than, say, Bearded Theory which I also went to this year. I’d stocked up on fruit and non-perishable junk at a supermarket in Basel so only ate on site once a day. A Thai curry cost £18 and the sausage and rosti £20. A coffee not much bigger than an espresso (no such thing as a cuppa) cost £5, as did a small bottle of cola. And here’s confession #1 folks: I’ve been utterly trashed at more festivals than I can remember, but I clearly must have overdone it and have been teetotal for several years now, under doctor’s orders. So apologies I cannot enlighten you on the cost of booze. My penance: I lived for 3 days on orange squash.

Loos on site were the standard porta type and urinal units. They seemed clean enough and queues were worst between bands as you would expect. There was little in the way of merch; a stall selling festival/band related gear, a stall for a Swiss metal magazine and a place selling stuff to please your inner Viking. I didn’t look closely, to be honest, because apart from my obligatory festie T-Shirt I don’t go to festivals to shop. You could however get a real tattoo.

So, to the music via confession #2 (which added to people’s perception that I’m mad). I travelled, according to Google, 743.6 miles to a metal festival and I’m not even a metalhead. I’ve been a lifelong good music fan across multiple genres, including some metal, but in truth I don’t really know much about it. I was actually there as a veteran folk music fan. My journey from traditional folk through folk-rock, folk-punk, etc. has latterly led me into the world of folk-metal. So, apart from the 3 bands I mentioned at the start, and Sepultura (who I had the misfortune to once see supporting Motorhead) I had absolutely no idea what to expect.

Lineup and schedule for Rock The Lakes Festival 2023
Lineup and schedule for Rock The Lakes Festival 2023

The days were loosely thematically structured, with largely more extreme metal on Friday, Saturday given to folk and symphonic metal, with classic/power metal on Sunday. As mentioned, it was roasting hot (topped 35°c on the Saturday) and shade was at a premium. I found an awning at the top of the slope with a great view of the stage between the sound tower and the (not very metal) VIP enclosure. Having found it on Friday I made a beeline there immediately the site opened on Saturday and Sunday. it became my base until the heat dissipated. Being gregarious helps and soon we had a little group of awning regulars. We could come and go without losing our spot. Apart from wandering off to take photos, replenish water and get moistened by the fireman discharging their hose into the air. (brilliant idea, along with the staff with back-mounted water dispensers mingling with the crowd), I pretty much stayed there for the daytime bands.

Firemen dowsing the crowd at Rock The Lakes Festival 2023
Firemen dowsing the crowd

The music on Friday was the most challenging of the weekend. Deez Nuts, being a blend of hardcore punk and hip-hop, left me cold. Marginally better were a melodic death metal band from Glasgow called Bleed From Within. They were moderately brutal but mixed it up with clean vocals, addition of lead guitar melodies and genuinely imaginative and varied material. Enjoyment might not be the right word, but they were definitely interesting.

Next up, one of the reasons for me being there: Korpiklaani. They’re a Finnish folk-metal band who’ve been around for years. They sing a lot about boozing and partying, a good combo to get a festival crowd going, and they clearly love to perform live. They threw their hearts into it and delivered a great set, highlight being a Finnish language cover of Anthrax’s ‘Got The Time’.

Korpiklaani at Rock The Lakes Festival 2023
Korpiklaani

Sepultura still leave me cold, sorry. Some great guitar solos did not make up for a relentless and, to these ears, indistinguishable series of noise. It was dark when German melodic death metal outfit Heaven Shall Burn played so maybe I was beguiled by the lights and fire, but underneath the cookie monster vocals the emphasis was definitely on melodic and I really enjoyed them. After that I conked out. The journey from the UK had caught up with me and I listened to headliner, Samael, from my tent. From what I heard, they sounded like Hawkwind without the psychedelia, but not really in a position to evaluate fairly.

Saturday was much easier on the ear, apart from Fit For An Autopsy who were  too extreme for me. Deep Sun, a Swiss symphonic metal band made a great noise somewhat marred by the cheesy synth sounds and soprano vocals so beloved of the genre. Silver Dust, also Swiss, looked and sounded great. A Victorian/Steampunk image and music I’ve seen described as theatrical metal. Great fun.

Silver Dust at Rock The Lakes Festival 2023
Silver Dust

I missed Visions of Atlantis as I was gassing to someone I met on the campsite, then sat reluctantly through Fit For An Autopsy. Sadly, next band Hämatom cancelled a few days before due to the death of their bassist. Instead of replacing them, big speakers were placed on the stage and the audience was treated to some of Hämatom’s best tracks. The band’s earnings were all to be given to the musician’s widow. The hiatus in proceedings seemed respectfully observed by all.

Sweden’s Soilwork had to restart proceedings and put in a high octane show, very heavy with clean and dirty vocals and two guitarists taking turns to shred it up. Great! Another new band to me who I will be checking out further.

The second band I came to see, Ensiferum delivered a set of epic, guitar and keyboard driven folk-metal. Fully electric, with no ‘folk’ instruments, they yet play folk rhythms and melodies, albeit very distorted, very loud and very fast. They engaged well with the crowd, played a blinder and made one old folkie, at least, very happy.

Ensiferum at Rock The Lakes Festival 2023
Ensiferum

The folk theme continued with British pirate metal band, Alestorm. For me pirate metal is a one-trick pony but, live, Alestorm were clearly talented musicians and put in a highly entertaining and colourful shift with songs about pirates and rum. They had the full after-dark light and smoke show to help, along with a giant inflatable duck. Amazingly, the Swiss crowd loved them and knew all the words!  Great fun but I won’t be rushing out to buy their albums.

Alestorm
Alestorm

As soon as Eluveitie hit the stage I knew that all the expense and effort getting to RTL was about to be repaid. Headlining on home soil at the end of a festival season that meant they were well limbered up, and with the dark, lights, fire and smoke, the only word is magnificent. My eyes literally glistened when they performed ‘A Rose for Epona’. The sound balance between electric and acoustic instruments was pristine and, for some reason frontman, Chrigel, who provides the harsh male vocal, seemed to take a backseat, with the set dominated by the soaring vocals of Fabienne. And it was as if I’d chosen the setlist for them. Pure ecstasy.

Eluveitie at Rock The Lakes Festival 2023
Eluveitie

There was another band to keep the party going afterwards, Fiddler’s Green, a German folk-rock band who played competent, energetic Poguesy stuff. I listened happily to them from my tent.

The music on Sunday was decent. King Zebra and Kissin’ Dynamite provided flamboyant 80s influenced heavy metal, veterans U.D.O. gave a masterclass in old-school heavy metal and Epica, despite the usual symphonic metal cheeseboards (sic!) and soprano, delivered brilliant songs and musicianship.

Gloryhammer, in full fancy dress (they must have been cooking) entertained us all with their swords-n-sorcery epic power metal tales set in the mythical world of Dundee (yes!) inhabited by heroes, goblins and…zombie unicorns. Their set was bizarrely pre-empted with ‘Delilah’ incongruously blasting out, with a life-size cardboard cut-out of Sir Tom centre-stage. The music was highly polished power metal interspersed with plenty of on-stage theatrics, including an air-saxophone playing goblin and the singer finally bludgeoning the evil keyboardist to death with his mighty hammer. All great fun live but with the same limited appeal of pirate metal to own on album.

Gloryhammer at Rock The Lakes Festival 2023
Gloryhammer

Unknown band of the weekend for me were Blackbriar, from the Netherlands. Although they’ve been around a while their debut album was only released in 2021. They play a Gothic-tinged symphonic metal. Sure the keyboards are typically cheesy but their songs are brilliant and the singer, Zora Cock, displays great vocal versatility that only occasionally strays near those high notes I deplore. They were a happy surprise that I will follow with interest.

Blackbriar at Rock The Lakes Festival 2023
Blackbriar

It’s a sign of how un-metal I am that the final headliner, Germany’s Blind Guardian, have been going for 35 years and are credited as seminal/influential in the development of power and speed metal, yet I’d never heard of them. I watched them near the front of the stage with their biggest fan, Pascal, and his girlfriend Denise. Amidst the smoke and pyrotechnics they put on a seamless show, plenty of heavy power balanced with softness and melody. I thoroughly enjoyed them and will certainly check out their back catalogue. A cracking end to the festival.

Blind Guardian at Rock The Lakes Festival 2023
Blind Guardian

In conclusion, this was a fantastic festival in a brilliant location and I highly recommend it to metalheads and intrepid music fans alike. I read that the organisers want to make it bigger and add a 2nd stage next year, though who knows where they’ll put it. I hope it doesn’t grow too much because it was perfect as it was.

PROS: Diverse roster of artists, fantastic site, good layout and amenities, friendly people (particular shout out to Valentine, Pascal and Denise, Ben and Yiefei, Jeremy, and the beardy guy in the tent behind mine, all of whom made me feel welcome and not so far from home).

CONS: The distance and expense, the heat, not able to take a decent camera on site.


review by: Terry Ray

photos by: Terry Ray


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