Can you imagine watching a show inside a cave? I mean an actual, natural cave. Must be a good spot for some dark, atmospheric music, right? Well, Prophecy Productions seems to think that too, as for 10 years now they have curated a very particular metal gathering: Prophecy Fest.
Set in the small city of Balve in Germany, Prophecy Fest is a metal festival mainly composed by artists from Prophecy’s own label, performed inside the Cave of Balve (known to the locals as Balver Höhle), an ancient natural cave that has been the setting for human gatherings and celebrations for hundreds of years. It doesn’t get more kvlt than that, does it? The festival has been going for a while now, and the latest edition in 2023 has been their biggest one yet, featuring some very special and unlikely performances and bands outside of the vast Prophecy catalogue, but that perfectly fit at what the festival is going for: dark and atmospheric heavy music.
I live in Brazil and I planned a big trip to see the phenomenal ArcTanGent Festival and get to know Europe for the first time. During my planning, I heard of Prophecy Fest and everything about it looked stunning. A chance to see Disillusion, Amenra and E-L-R? Agalloch reunion? Set inside a cave? Since I was already in Europe, hell yeah I’m seeing Prophecy Fest. So I tweaked my traveling scheduled a bit to fit this one in! I have to admit, after ArcTanGent I thought I couldn’t handle another camping festival so soon and I thought about selling my ticket, but after a while I got hyped for it again and decided to go. And I’m glad I did, because this was truly a memorable experience for me, in all possible ways.
Prophetic Overture (my own Dead Winter Day)
I made my way to the festival site via a train from the city of Dortmund to Balve. There, I managed to meet some people that were also going to the festival that fortunately became my festival companions for most of the days. When you’re going mostly solo to a festival, things can get lonely after a while, so it’s always nice to meet people that you can talk to, and I met some great people from all around the world on this one that made this experience much more special to me.
The first day of the festival was more of a welcome party, with acoustic performances around a bonfire near the campsite. On a proper German welcome, they also had free beer for the whole night which is certainly not something I expected at a festival! I arrived quite soon, but I had to wait for a friend to set our tent, so I unfortunately missed the first couple of acts: a book reading by Ernie Fleetenkieker (which was in German so I wouldn’t be able to understand it anyway) and Illudium. I did manage to catch the other shows on the day though, which were all really good, especially Vrîmuot which I didn’t listen to previously but was really compelling. Unfortunately, I was really, really tired on the first day and wasn’t in the proper headspace to enjoy it to the fullest. I won’t go into detail because it is a really long story, but I had one of the most tiresome days of my life in Dortmund before I got to the fest so I was exhausted.
After the shows, I had a really troublesome night. I didn’t bring a sleeping bag with me and I really underestimated just how cold the night could be. Even with some warm clothes, I was near freezing at my tent. Eventually I got out and fortunately some people had a fire going on, which saved me from one of the worst nights I ever had. I decided to get proper supplies as soon as I could, and so I did.
Friday (a proper metal mass)
After getting myself some camping supplies to secure a decent night this time around, I managed to actually get some real fun at the festival. This was a full festival day inside the cave, and I got inside as soon as I could. Seeing the stage inside Balver Höhle was wild. The cave is actually not as big as I thought, and that was actually a good thing. The main stage was tall so you could get a decent view from pretty much anywhere, and the whole aesthetic of it is just awesome.
My first concert for the day was the absolutely delightful weirdness that is Laster. A selection of the weirdest tunes you’ll ever hear accompanied by a tight and playful performance, Laster‘s live show was the perfect start for the first proper festival day. Their music ranges from black metal, to dark rock, to jazz, and even post punk, and it makes for an absolutely entertaining show, especially the bassist, whom I could not stop looking at. If I was already interested in their new album Afgelopen Tijd that’s coming soon, Laster has now skyrocketed to the top of my anticipated releases.
I stuck around for one of my most anticipated shows in the festival: the mighty Disillusion, complete with live cellos and trumpets! I am a huge fan of their most recent release Ayam and I think it’s some of my favorite music ever in the prog/death spectrum. While they didn’t play my personal favorite “Abide the Storm”, it’s impossible to complain about this show. The emotional moments in songs like “Driftwood” are moving, and “Alea” just sounded even more epic with the live trumpets. One of my highlights for the day and I hope I get to see them again someday.
Next up were The Vision Bleak presenting their album The Deathship Has a New Captain in full. I am not familiar with their music outside of said album, but it is indeed some cool gothic music that makes for a fun show. They were followed by the impossible to describe Darkspace. Somewhere between drone music and black metal, Darkspace live show works almost like a Lovecraftian entity has descended upon earth and is trying to communicate, and we as simple humans just try to comprehend what it is saying. It is an absolutely entrancing show, and anyone into atmospheric dark music should give it a try.
One of the best things about Prophecy Fest for me was the possibility of watching the main stage shows while sitting down. There was a comfort ticket that gave you a few goodies, including the ability to skip merch lines and being granted access to an area with chairs next to the stage that offered a great view. That was amazing for me since I was still beat up from the first night and sitting down helped me watch way more shows then I would have the energy for otherwise. Take notes, festival organizers: chairs are metal too.
I then waited around for doom giants My Dying Bride. Personally, I am not big into doom metal, not because I don’t like it, but it’s a genre I am mostly unfamiliar with. After this show, I understand why My Dying Bride are held in such a high regard. With a heavy and melodic show, they had the attention of every fan on stage and manage to convince me to finally delve deeper into the genre – starting with their discography.
The main event for the night was probably my most anticipated one at the whole festival: the post metal masters Amenra. I have never seem them live, and I always heard people talking about how better they are live than in studio, so I had some pretty big expectations. Even so, Amenra blew my mind in every way. This level of intensity at a concert is just beyond words, and despite being tired from the rest of the day, the show had so much energy I found myself jumping and moving around at my chair all the time. “Razoreater”, “Am Kreuz”, and “A Solitary Reign” are personal standouts, but honestly every single song and every single second of the show was unbelievably amazing and I could actually spend a whole day just talking about how good this was. My personal favorite show of the whole festival, and one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, period. While Prophecy Fest claims they do not have headliners in the traditional sense, you just can’t have a band as powerful as Amenra not close to the end. Everything after their show would pale in comparison.
Saturday (Into The Final Day)
At the final day of the festival, I managed to pull off an seemingly impossible task: I actually saw all the bands that played on this day. Just how, you may ask? Because I sat down for most of it so I was well rested for the whole day. Once again, festival organizers from all around the world: please consider putting chairs like Prophecy Fest did!
The day started earlier than Friday with an awesome show by E-L-R. Post metal with a doom edge and truly remarkable vocals, their music carries a fascinating atmosphere that I find really unique and engaging. I was really anticipating this show and it delivered in every way, as the songs from their latest album Vexier manage to be even more engaging in a live setting, and their stage props fit the Balver Höhle setting like a glove. This is a band that deserves way more attention than they are currently getting, and I hope more people get into them!
Prophecy Fest organizes their second stage in a very interesting way: every band had two short sets with 20 minutes each, making for a full show if you watch both. Between each set, there is a full show at the main stage, so there are no clashes whatsoever, and one stage is less than a minute from walking distance of the other. So after the first show, I rushed to the second stage to watch the first set of the British dark rock band Gospelheim, which I find immensily fun. Think of a more gothic version of Ghost and you may get the idea. Both sets were a perfect, dancy break from the dark and weird stuff that was to come with Slagmaur. I’ve never heard that one as well, and they play very experimental and theatrical black metal, complete with animal costumes and clips from old films as intros. Weird, but certainly interesting.
I then had another dose of great doom metal with Saturnus. They put on a great show, having a lot of fun with each other in a surprisingly funny show, highlighted with a special and emotional duet featuring Paul Kuhr of Novembers Doom in the song “Even Tide”. Another band I added to my growing list of essential doom metal I need to listen to more. Soon after, the main stage was followed by what was announced as the only show ever for the black metal project Gràb. That project is composed by one full album called Zeitland, which was played almost in full during the show. The album tells the story of an old man that gets tired of his life and seeks to end it. The album is truly engaging in itself, and somehow grew even larger in a live setting. I hope this isn’t really Gràb‘s only show ever, as this is too good to be a one off thing. Remarkable show and one of the best black metal concerts I’ve been to!
Novembers Doom were next, performing in German soil for the first time in 17 years, which seems kind of insane, right? Some passionate fans were making the most of that long wait and frontman Paul Kuhr seemed like a super nice guy, throwing jokes around, complimenting fans who knew the lyrics and interacting with people in all areas of the cave. The band just seemed to have a lot of fun, so it translated into a very fun show. At the side stage, we were graced by the powerful performance of Dymna Lotva. While I have heard the band previously, I did not know about their goal in spreading awareness on the current state of Belarus and it made their music hit like a truck. It’s amazing how art can convey feelings and make us empathise in deep levels, as even not understanding their language, I could feel the pain, the grief, and the rage sung by vocalist Nokt Aeon in every word. One of the most emotionally charged performances I’ve ever seen, and surely one that will stick with me in the long run.
Between Dymna Lotva‘s two sets, I caught a really fun show by Dornenreich. This was their only metal performance this year, and while I personally prefer their acoustic work, I can’t deny their electric charged performances are also great! Nearing the end of the night, I watched the first set by Swiss sludge/doom band Tar Pond, and I was floored by it. This was a pretty heavy festival with many flavors of heavy music, but when it comes to thick, deep heaviness, Tar Pond took the cake. Every riff had a wall of sound that felt like a massive punch, and it was impossible not to bang your head with the utmost energy in those slow, mammoth riffs. Their new album is already upon us, so do yourself a favor and listen to Petrol to see where I’m coming from.
The second to last act at the main stage was a very atmospheric and ethereal performance by Darkher. While it was as introspective and angelic as I expected, it also had some pretty heavy moments in a few songs. While she ended up replacing Arthur Brown‘s set who had to pull out of the festival at the last minute, I feel her somber performance was the perfect mood setter for Prophecy Fest‘s big finish.
The festival’s final offering, and surely the most hyped one, was the reunion of the legendary Agalloch. After being separated for 8 years and the members having some side projects, this reunion came as a surprise for many, and as soon as they were announced, the festival sold out. I met many people who traveled great lengths just for this performance, and the love and passion that fans have for Agalloch is undeniable. As the very first notes of “Limbs” graced our ears and the curtain fell (literally, there was an actual curtain), people were screaming and crying all around. It was impossible not to be moved by the commotion of so many people realizing what seemed to be an impossible dream. It was beautiful to see such love, and Agalloch made this as special as possible, with a setlist spanning their whole career and playing songs dear to many such as “In The Shadow of Our Pale Companion” and “As Embers Dress The Sky”. The band was tight and it truly felt that this reunion wasn’t half assed for money: they enjoy playing this music and they know how much it means to the fans. With a couple more shows announced in North America, I hope they are back on the stage for good and give more people the opportunity to see this beautiful, passionate show.
Prophecy Fest 2023 truly was a great experience for me. I had a few shortcomings on my end that are totally my fault, but nothing that got in the way of enjoying a massive gathering of great bands and great people. Beyond the music, I met some great people during these days and the whole experience will stay with me on the long run. The next edition is already on its way and with some great acts announced, so if you’re looking for a escape from reality marked by great music in a very special setting, grab your beers and set camp at the Balver Höhle next year!