The longest-standing rock festival in Romania, ARTmania, has established itself as more than another simple, run-of-the-mill festival. Since its inception, its grasp extends beyond music, encompassing many other forms of artistic expression, aiming to serve as a multi-faceted cultural platform. With a tradition spanning fifteen years, the festival has brought some great bands to the Romanian public, which may have been difficult or impossible to witness otherwise. This year was no different, bringing a lot of awesome things for us to experience.
For me, going to ARTmania 2022 was something more than a mere festival. It was a transformative experience in my life, a conglomerate of tons of joy and many beginnings. It was the first time I went to ARTmania, the first time I went to a festival of this size, the first time I drove this much across the country, the first time I went to an event with a press pass, and the first time I’d be seeing any of the bands present. Reading that sentence back, I have the feeling that it makes me sound like I’ve been living under a rock, but I assure you, that’s not the case (or, at least, that’s what I’m telling myself – cue nervous laughter).
The festival, for its main attraction, takes place in the center of the city in The Large Square, where the stage is set up. It’s a setting that really makes sense if you break it down. Sibiu is a very old settlement, dating back to the first century BCE, with a diverse history, nestled close to the taller segments of the Carpathian Mountains, featuring a cornucopia of historical monuments and buildings – some of which date as far back as the 13th century. The city’s aesthetics ultimately take up an eclectic feeling as a whole, but the medieval mountain city vibe is inescapable, especially with so many streets paved with cobblestone.
While the festival hosts a fair variety of other cultural activities besides its main musical attraction, and while I would’ve just loved to take part in any and/or all of these, due to a wide array of circumstances, I didn’t make it to any of those. These included, but were not limited to, movie showings at the Brukenthal Museum, literary activities hosted at the ASTRA Sibiu County Library, a multi-modal exhibition circuit as well as traditional arts and crafts and creative recycling workshops at the ASTRA Museum Complex. Maybe next year.
I arrived in Sibiu at noon on Friday, the first day of the festival, and just about had enough time to take a short rest, get something to eat, snap a beer, and get in a quick chat with some friends I crossed paths with there before the shows began. First of all, I was disappointed to hear that My Dying Bride didn’t make it to Friday’s line-up – they got caught up in the flight cancellation issues happening as of late. A solid hour before the first band, on each day, there was something called ‘Silence is Gold’. The festival organizers respectfully asked attendees to stay as quiet as they can if they arrive early, to not disturb the service being held daily between 18:00-19:00 in the Catholic Church in the square. Organizers obviously made sure to sort out soundchecks well before. I have to say, it was somewhat surprising to see such a large and packed square being so quiet. It was like being in an open-air library, with muffled and distant chatter being the only sonic ambiance.
At 19:00 sharp, Romanian folk/black metal band Bucovina got up on stage and kicked it all off. I’m not necessarily a fan of the band, and while their set being one of the opening ones meant it was fairly short (clocking in at just 45 minutes), I have to say that I quite enjoyed the show they put on. They definitely did good in terms of warming up the audience for what was coming up next.
Stoned Jesus took the stage with no delay, playing a similarly short set, albeit with a lot more zest in a certain way. That was expected as they have an immense experience touring and playing live gigs. I think they were also eager to hit the stage, as this show market their first international appearance on stage since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Stoned Jesus was a super enjoyable set, particularly as I was surveying the crowd around me, digging into the fact that everyone was vibing to the tunes, softly swaying, drink in hand, eyes stuck to the stage, like a gentle wave that was the perfect visual accompaniment to the grooves that were just blasting me away – I was really close to the PAs.
Afterwards it should’ve been My Dying Bride; however, they were replaced at the last minute by Alternosfera due to their aforementioned logistic snafu. People really enjoyed Alternosfera, and it was obvious that many from the audience saw them many times. I wasn’t particularly taken aback, but I do have to admit that they put up a solid show and it was relatively enjoyable. They also got to play a solid hour, so they could really put up a proper show.
Friday’s headliner, prog supergroup Transatlantic, really closed off the evening on a majestic note. It was actually kind of funny right at the start; Roine Stolt was having some technical issues with his guitar during “Overture: The Absolute Universe”. It just refused to make any sounds. A tech took a look at it twice before we finally got to hear him play his part. While the tech was sorting this out, Stolt, as well as the rest of the band, handled the minor mishap like it was part of the show. Stolt was walking around the stage clapping to the rhythm and just vibing to what was going on with a wide smile on his face.
Surely enough, during the latter half of the song, everything was back to normal and the show went on without a hitch until the end. I have to say that it became kind of awkward eventually that on the two large displays on both sides of the stage, the only thing we saw the entire show were videos of the trademark Transatlantic zeppelin in various situations. It would’ve been really sweet to have a video feed of close-ups of the members doing their thing, like with the other bands, particularly so as the gist of a prog show is the relatively still physical emphasis and highly technically proficient delivery.
Finally seeing Mike Portnoy live was kind of bitter sweet for me. I saw Dream Theater on their Along for the Ride tour in 2014, when Portnoy was already out of the band and it was something that I would’ve loved to see back then – Portnoy going absolutely ham at what he does best. His stage presence was as dynamic as ever, radiating the fact that he still very much enjoys putting up a show for the audience, emitting his characteristic joy and exuberance, but it partially missed with him not having such highly strung parts in Transatlantic.
Concluding their more than solid 90-minute set, Transatlantic wrapped up the evening with “Stranger in Your Soul”, ending right at midnight. As the thunderous, epic, and anthemic finale came to a close and the members gathered at the front of the stage to take a bow, something cracked inside me and I just burst into tears. The lack of sleep, the fatigue, the trip, all the firsts mentioned above, and all the excitement did their number and I was just overflowing with happiness. I must’ve cried a good ten minutes until I came to and headed for a proper good night’s sleep. It was a deeply cathartic moment, and it was beautiful the way it was.
Saturday, after a hearty breakfast and a tub of coffee, I was back to normal and hyped for the shows. Before the shows I did some sightseeing, but ultimately got drawn into the Lutheran Cathedral of Saint Mary – which I highly recommend visiting if you’re ever around. It boasts a vast collection of engravings from around the town from various times, which were collected from buildings that couldn’t stand anymore and preserved in the walls of the church inside. It is also home to three lovely pipe organs, two of which I had the fortune of hearing at the time of my visit. You can even go up in the tower, on what feels like an endless flight of stairs, but the view at the top is well worth every drop of sweat.
Eventually, I saw that it’s about time to head to the square as The Vintage Caravan would go up soon. I got there just in time, too. They’re a fun Icelandic rock band. Mixing hard rock, progressive rock, blues rock, psychedelic rock, stoner rock, they’re going for a smorgasbord kind of affair, but they do it with a lively attitude and it was obvious. It was a great opening act for what was coming up in that evening, particularly as somehow, all the bands playing were from the northern area of Europe. It really energized everyone, even though their set was a mere half hour.
Up next was one of the main reasons I was present: Leprous. My God, I’ve been waiting for quite some time to finally catch them live! As soon as they walked on stage I started howling and screaming like a madman, and a lot of people in the audience had similar reactions, with varying degrees of savagery. We were all pretty damn psyched.
I was immediately impressed with their on-stage demeanor, as well as their delivery. They were as good as I was told, and they sounded, somehow, a pinch better than on CD. It was a very welcome surprise to say the least. The fifth song they played was “Running Low”, and the microsecond it started I totally lost my shit. Aphelion is my favorite Leprous record and I even talked about it a good deal with fellow writer JP here. “Running Low” was an absolute banger to hear live, although I’d be remiss if I wouldn’t mention that I was just a tiny little bit let down by the fact that the cello solo was transposed to guitar instead of being played from a backing track – like the string segments from the other songs on that evening – or by a guest musician. It’s insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and I’m totally nitpicking big time, but I really needed to get that out of my system. Closing the set with “The Sky Is Red” wasn’t something I’d have expected, but it was a very solid choice being preceded by “Nighttime Disguise” and “Slave”. Another point I want to make is less nitpicking and more significant was how the low end was kind of lacking during the set. I’m not sure what was up with that, as well as with some other minor mixing inconsistencies, but thankfully it didn’t take all too glaring of a toll on the experience.
Cult of Luna is a band that gets hyped up a lot by people I discuss music with, especially in regards to their live shows. While I never got the appeal of listening to them, I was incredibly curious about their show. Let me tell you right away that they did not disappoint in any way. As it got progressively darker outside, the lights went wild and so did the smoke machines, while the band really cranked it up. Their delivery was impeccable, and having two drummers on stage really makes the rhythm smack you. At one point, I’m guessing halfway through the gig or just past that mark, when it was already dark outside, the weirdly sweet and fresh scent of dry ice was pouring onto us as it already flooded the stage. An amorphous haze, catalyzed by intense flashes of saturated lights, giving way to faint silhouettes, mere contours on stage, coupled with the absolutely battering wall of sound was truly a sight to behold. It’s one of those things you have to let consume you, in order to eventually relish in the experience. Also, in case it wasn’t obvious, it was really fucking loud, and I was once again really close to the stage.
There’s no way to really immortalize in words the sensation of seeing Meshuggah live. Going to see them live is like a pilgrimage of sorts for everyone I know that’s into heavy music. Their legacy is an incredible one and the performance of their craft is an even more incredible phenomenon. There was a large gap to wait out until they started to play, during which time, on a smaller stage that was set up on the other side of the square, the Romanian prog-death outfit Taine played for us. It was a nice ‘intermission’ type bit, and it made the time pass like it wasn’t even there.
As soon as Meshuggah walked up on stage, the first thing we saw was Tomas Haake approaching his drumkit, and everyone in the crowd just went nuts. I think that even people who weren’t in the festival perimeter had the same reaction. As soon as they started playing, I went into some kind of frenzy headbanging and jumping and doing all sorts of nonsensical body movements, trying not to get any impact from the mosh pit that somehow formed right in front of me. Everyone was unhinged right then and there. We all stopped moving when they stopped playing, until then, it was a constant mass organic motion driven by the thickest riffs in the universe.
While I was really satisfied that they played “Born in Dissonance” and then “Future Breed Machine”, which was the set closer, I really, really, wished they would’ve played “New Millennium Cyanide Christ”, as it’s the first song I ever heard from them almost 15 years ago, when I was entirely new to extreme metal. After the show ended, I had a beer with some friends and afterwards also had a chat over a beer with Am Fost La Munte Și Mi-a Plăcut guitarist Vlad Enescu, who came to the fest with some of his friends. It was then time to head back to my accommodation and get some proper rest.
In rolls the last day of the festival. On Sunday I needed more time to rest up, and so I just took it easy before the shows. It was a trying weekend with temperatures going well into 40°C, which didn’t make standing around for hours on end and exerting oneself at the gigs any easier.
On the final day, the evening was opened by DorDeDuh. They took shape by the hand of former Negura Bunget members Edmond Karban and Cristian Popescu, following a sound rooted in black metal but taking on folk flavors. I was never really sold on them, as I’m not big on black metal. Many people and friends tried to convince me to listen to the album they released last year, Har, but I was still stuck in my former image of them sounding like in the beginning. Prejudice will get the better of any of us. Even though Har was met with widespread acclaim, I still wasn’t near it. On this day it was a chance to see what that is about, and all I have to say is that I regret not getting into it.
DorDeDuh played a great set, although I’m really not sure what was going on with the sound and the people at the sound booth, as certain frequency bands were cutting in and out during the gig. It was really weird and it cut a little out of my enjoyment of the set. Even so, I was compelled by the material and, obviously, the way the band took it to stage. I eventually found myself going slowly into Har with pleasure afterwards. I also really wished that their set would’ve been much longer, as it felt like it would’ve benefited the material much more.
I met with the guys from Methadone Skies, and we pretty much hung around the gigs for the rest of the evening, chatting between gigs about all sorts of things, which was really nice. With barely enough time to catch a beer from the booth, we hurried to the front to see The Pineapple Thief take the stage next, to send things in a more upbeat direction. I was honestly surprised with how well they played and what a dynamic stage presence they showcased. Even though their sound is more straightforward and more easy-going, they still had plenty of engaging, progressively inclined stuff, which was super fun to see.
It being a Sunday, sure, there were less people than on Saturday, but the audience was just as sparking with wild excitement all around as Testament were up next. I’m not exactly invested in old-school thrash metal, but since I was already there, I figured it’d be a nice opportunity to catch one of the founding members of a major style of metal. People went really wild for them, and I have to admit, it was a super fun show, even though a lot of the songs sort of melted together due to many similarities between them. It was impressive to see the band play with so much energy and precision at such a late point in their career. I was particularly impressed with Alex Skolnick’s delivery. The ultimate surprise was having Dave Lombardo on drums, which was one of the best twists we could’ve witnessed. Needless to say that Lombardo absolutely killed it and it was really awesome to have seen him.
One of the funniest things happened though at this show. Between every song, there was a dude behind us, who’d just scream at the top of his lungs ‘cabrones’. The first couple of times me and the lads just shrugged it off, but it became increasingly hilarious to the point where I was croaking with laughter. As the show advanced, he would scream ‘cabrones’ longer and with even more passion. It was the only thing he had on his mind, and I have no idea what it meant [it’s a Latin American/Mexican colloquialism for ‘friend’ or ‘buddy’, Ed.], but it was just great. He was really happy to be there, that much was certain. A sincere shoutout to the cabrones dude for embodying the spirit of going to a fest so neatly.
After this, like on Saturday, there was a large gap until the headliner, so Revolver took to the smaller stage to give us some tunes. They’re a very young band right from Sibiu, with a fair amount of talent and promise behind them. They play something of a mix between metalcore, nu-metal, and alternative metal, and they have the right attitude and energy when doing it. It was quite fun to have seen them.
When the curtain was dropped on the main stage to reveal the setup, we pretty much understood why they needed an entire hour to put it all together. The absolute madlads built another stage on top of the stage. Then again, it is Merciful Fate, you’d kind of expect this kind of stuff from them. It was a massive staircase with a marbled finish, as wide as the stage, leading up to a cube kind of thing, which was adorned with a pentagram and capricorn skull. Above it all hung an inverted cross made only out of a neon-like outline. King Diamond just busts out of the cube, dressed in a crimson red robe and a capricorn skull on his head, with his characteristic make-up sometimes being visible from beneath the skull’s edges, wielding his custom crossbones microphone stand. The show had already begun, but my brain was a little late in processing all of this.
It was a massive sight to behold, especially considering the age of the band members and the fact that they played impeccably. Especially King Diamond himself, who, I’m glad to say, still has it. He was screaming like he didn’t age a day since the beginning of his career. Really impressive stuff. It was a flawless show, so to speak, except for a bit right at the end where they were cut short of a song due to some schedule misalignment. Apparently, they started a few minutes too late due to someone or something and couldn’t play the song they had picked out as the set closer, so they closed with a shorter one from the new album, which they didn’t plan on playing, as it wasn’t entirely finished. I guess it wasn’t the end to the evening as they envisioned it, but we just fucking loved it as it was.
As the crowd started dispersing after the end of the show and the techs started gathering the gear, I stared up to the sky and took a moment to recollect the entire experience over the weekend. The chatter started to dissipate and move further away, and I also went to rest up and prepare for my trip back home the next day. While there were some minor kinks here and there, I hope it was just the staff being rusty after two years of not doing any of this. At the end of the day, it was an amazing experience, and I hope to be able to repeat it next year. I obviously wholeheartedly recommend you to take the trip if it isn’t too far from you.