“In the name of the king, bang your heads!”
When Avatar announced their tour in support of the new album Avatar Country, it was out of question for me that I would try to go to as many shows as possible. Too vivid were the memories of the last tour in late 2016, when Avatar already proved they do the kind of live shows that anybody who witnesses them will speak of for a long time. Looking at the tour schedule, I decided that eight shows would be possible for me this time round: Warming up with a weekend in Sint-Niklaas (Belgium) and Cologne, then going on a funny trip to Spain, and finally finishing it off with a four show run, from Munich via Prague and Berlin to my hometown Hamburg.
Putting this plan into action, I was fortunate enough to see one brilliant show after the other, and to the people who use to ask ‘…but doesn’t it get boring to see the same show so many times?’: I have hardly ever seen any tour where the shows were as diverse as on this one. There were big differences in the venue sizes, therefore in the way the band was able to use their stage setup, but also the crowds differed a lot more than you would expect anyway (for example people in Spain being in general much livelier than people in Northern Germany). On some shows you had the common young adult metalheads, but on others (especially Belgium) there were many very young fans, 14 year olds on their first ever metal gig or even whole families with little kids. Looks like the newly crowned king and his elite orchestra are on a steady way to conquering the metal kingdom and becoming that band that everyone loves…
De Casino, Sint-Niklaas (Belgium), Saturday March 17th
The first show I attended was of course all about getting to know the new stage show, and the support acts too.
Things have changed for Avatar since the last tour. So far, their stage show (on small club stages of course) had mostly consisted of the musicians headbanging and windmilling their asses off, led by singer Johannes Eckerström in his ‘scary clown’ role. Now, they have added to that by putting the drumkit on a raised platform surrounded by stairs and even higher levels for the musicians to move around on. And Johannes isn’t the (sole) leader anymore: with the whole album circling around the concept ‘king’, guitarist Jonas Jarlsby, whose nickname had always been Kungen (king) anyway, was finally crowned king of Avatar Country for real. Righteously so, the show was opened by Kungen on a golden throne, all kingly with crown and cloak and all, being elevated up from behind the drumkit, soloing his way through Legend Of The King, while Johannes was down on his knees singing in front of the king. Soon though, Kungen was down on the floor with the others and the show went on in the usual way, until the king finally received his crown and the royal cape again at the end of the show.
But what even is usual in Avatar Country? Certainly not the support acts on this tour. First, there was Old Kerry McKee, a country singer who accompanied his songs not only on his acoustic guitar but also played a whole drumkit with his feet and added some harmonica, besides spinning records on a turntable to fill the little breaks between the songs. Slightly weird, certainly seriously skilled and as oldschool and handmade as it can get – still not exactly what you’d expect at a metal gig, therefore the crowd reactions were mixed.
And then there were Hellzapoppin, not even a band but a circus sideshow, freakshow or whatever you wanna call it, who are connected to Avatar ever since they collaborated on the video for Black Waltz. These five guys are absolutely mental. Fire eating, sword swallowing, putting running power tools into your nose or your throat, jumping around on burning glass with your bare hands, casually eating a balloon that is almost as tall as yourself, lifting weights with your nose and your eyelids and pretty much anything else you shouldn’t try at home, they did on stage, and presented it in an incredibly entertaining and humorous way. On this first night, I was proud that I made it through the show without looking away (slightly concerned about the little girl right in front of the stage though…), but I think there could hardly be a more fitting support act for the self-proclaimed freakshow that is Avatar!
Luxor, Cologne (Germany), Sunday March 18th
Today I wasn’t alone at the gig for a change, but was accompanied by a whole bunch of friends, some of whom I had gotten into Avatar myself (in general I’m used to people just rolling their eyes when I talk about my latest (or oldest) band crushs, but somehow I’m slowly but steadily turning everyone around me into Avatar fans… This band is just truly irresistible!) and all of whom I know from the Ghost fandom – if someone could please explain to me why so many people who love Ghost also love Avatar, even though we all tell ourselves that we love the bands for their music and not for their fancy outfits? 😉
I said it before: things have changed for Avatar. This was most notable when we got to the venue around 3pm and found ten people already lined up there – last tour, you’d get to the venue an hour before doors and be first in line… (to be honest though, Cologne remained the only German show where it was this bad.) In a venue as tiny as the Luxor, ten people can already be enough to fill up the first row, but we made it in the end by splitting our group to the far ends of the barrier.
Tiny, yes.. This also meant that Avatar weren’t able to have their raisers and platforms on stage, the only ‘show element’ was Kungen’s throne which they just put up at the front of the stage. However, this gig was proof that it does not at all matter what Avatar have or don’t have on stage. What makes the show great are solely the five guys doing their crazy thing, anything else is just a nice gimmick. The energy on that tiny stage was almost electric, and the sound was close to perfect, so compared to Belgium Cologne was by far my favourite gig of the weekend.
Sala Mon Live, Madrid (Spain), Saturday March 24th
Getting a flight to Madrid after work on Friday evening already allowed me to get to the venue early in the day, because this is Spain after all! This is not Cologne where you call 3pm ‘early’. People are of a different nature here, many showed up early, and the atmosphere in the queue was loud and enthusiastic. Watching Spanish parking habits all day long was painful (not enough space for your car? Just crash against the car behind you hard enough a few times until you’ve created the few extra centimeters you need…), Hellzapoppin however taught them all a lesson by carefully navigating their camper van into a space that was exactly as long as the vehicle.
Madrid was without a doubt the biggest party of the tour. Loud and wild before the show already, people simply exploded when Avatar started their set. This seemingly exceeded the band’s wildest expectations for their first ever headline show in Madrid; Johannes told us again and again how much they loved it and promised he would never forget this show… And then suddenly he poked his cane right into my face “…and YOU will be my witness, because you have seen us yesterday…” Completely perplexed by what was happening I shook my head, I mean I had not been in Bilbao the day before “… no? But you have seen us recently, I know it, I remember you…” The clown was left in confusion, and I felt guilty because I had ruined the point of his speech… 😅 Sorry Johannes! It’s still a little bit awesome to notice that your repeated presence at the gigs makes somewhat of an impression on the band!
Sala Bikini, Barcelona (Spain), Sunday March 25th
An overnight coach from Madrid to Barcelona, which would easily allow me to get a few hours of sleep while on the road, sounded like an excellent plan for someone who always travels on as low a budget as possible (=me). If just the clocks hadn’t been turned forward that night… Because therefore the bus company decided not to operate the coach at all, don’t ask me why. Certainly one of the more interesting reasons I’ve been given for a cancelation so far. Plan B at short notice was to go to the airport right after the gig in Madrid, have an uncomfortable nap there and then catch an early flight out to Barcelona.
The crowd was full of Spanish energy again of course, but a bit more relaxed and easy-going as the people of Madrid; it was the perfect balance for my liking! Less perfectly balanced was the sound today, the bass was much louder than usual. But you know what: I didn’t mind, because it was the first time ever I could clearly hear Henrik’s groovy and funky parts that are usually drowned out by the guitars – makes you appreciate that guy even more than before! That’s one of the many benefits of going to multiple shows of a tour: you experience different venues and audiences, you see different variations of the stage setup, but you also hear different variations of the sound mix and get the chance to dive into all the instrumental parts.
[Let’s not talk about how I survived another stressful week at work after this weekend and an early flight home on Monday morning (oh, and if it all wasn’t enough, a fucking brilliant Dark Tranquillity gig on Monday night; I will tell you more about that after I will have seen them again in May… 😉). I had really deserved my upcoming holidays in Avatar Country and related nations, so fast forward to the next weekend: Therion in Berlin on Good Friday, then down to Munich for Bloodbath on Saturday, and on Sunday it was once again time for the winners of this little Swedish band competition (despite the undeniable awesomeness of the other bands): Avatar!]
Technikum, Munich (Germany), Sunday April 1st
I’m not alone in the queue anymore, because believe it or not: I’m not the only one who follows the band around to this extend. There are certain other faces that you see at gig after gig. You start talking, you find out you’re even from the same city!, you also meet at the DT gig in between the Avatar madness, and soon you have a new gig buddy. It’s the kind of stories that I love my concert life for!
Watching Hellzapoppin arrive in the afternoon has become somewhat of a routine, although they were late today because, as they told us, they were held and strip-searched for several hours at the German border. German authorities vs five Americans in a camper van, travelling with swords and other unusual equipment in their luggage? Yeah, let’s make use of our authority power and do unspeakable things to the weird guy who has half of his body hair shaved… Welcome to Bavaria. What a shame. 😒
The Technikum had the biggest stage I had seen on this tour so far (even if not high enough to use the full setup) and was the biggest headline show in Germany for Avatar to date. Generally speaking, with around 800 people it’s still what you’d call a small venue rather than a medium-sized one, but it sets a clear mark for the direction the band is going. And surprisingly enough for me, the crowd was so loud that almost (almost!) memories of Spain came to mind…
The production looked more professional on this bigger stage, the lights had more room to unfold, and they introduced us to the famous soap bubbles on Welcome to Avatar Country! But still it all centered around the band members. Even if I love their energy on tight small stages, it was cool to see how they make use of more space besides sticking to the excessive headbanging of course. For example, there’s Tim showing off the whole repertoire of his dancing skills, or Henrik walking around a bit more and blessing the whole audience with his smile. Needless to say: Johannes going crazy with his cane…
Lucerna Music Bar, Prague (Czech Republic), Monday April 2nd
Off to Prague after a short night. This venue had the most unusual stage: it was small (especially compared to the size of the room) but almost round, like an intimate little circus ring. Especially Hellzapoppin radiated in this setting, it was exactly what they needed to connect with the crowd. Consecutively, their performance today was probably the best of the tour (that I have seen at least), and they absolutely earned and deserved the enthusiastic reactions of the crowd.
If it had been bass appreciation day in Barcelona, today was drum appreciation day with John dominating the sound, probably because we were standing especially close to the kit due to the shape of the stage. John’s steady beat, with only so many trickeries as necessary to keep things interesting, drives Avatar’s music just as much as the guitars do, as I was able to observe today. Besides, if you have never truly watched John behind his kit, you have missed an essential part of Avatar’s show. Even when he isn’t engaging in little scenes with Johannes, he turns drumming into pantomime acting, with so many little details in his gestures and mimics it’s truly fascinating to watch.
Johannes’ outfit is falling to pieces. As the shows go by, he keeps losing more and more buttons of his stage jacket. In Munich, he had already entered the stage with his pants torn in a very peculiar spot, then he lost more buttons until he had hardly any left. That’s what you get from excessive cane swirling… In Prague now, there was a button missing on his pants too, and still the stage tech had to collect more buttons from the stage floor during the set… Just like Johannes’ make-up smears and runs down his face over the course of every set, over the course of the tour he is slowly turning from the king’s dapper advocate into the ragged clown he has always been…
Bi Nuu, Berlin (Germany), Tuesday April 3rd
If Prague had been Hellzapoppin’s peak, Berlin was probably their lowest point, as the stage was so small they had trouble moving around, and things truly got dangerous at some point or another…
To keep this short: I love bubbles, bubbles look totally cool! But if the gap between the stage and the barrier is very small and the stage is very low, and the bubble machine is set up right in front of you, and for some reason it’s directed at the audience (more precisely: right at my face!) and not at the stage… In this case, bubbles are NOT COOL AT ALL! 😂 I got soaked in bubbles, who turned out not to consist of lovely soap but of some sticky, smelly, chemical something. Bubbles are disgusting. I hate bubbles.
I thought this was going to be my second to last gig of the tour, and since I knew I wouldn’t have time to wait for the band after the gig in Hamburg, I took the opportunity to say my goodbyes and thank yous to them when we met them after the show. Little did I know that…
Grünspan, Hamburg (Germany), Wednesday April 4th
…I didn’t want this to be over. I wanted this tour to go on forever. I had considered going to the last gig of the tour in Gothenburg for a while already, and at some point opportunities presented themselves… In the queue, outside the venue in Hamburg, I made the decision to go for it, and promptly booked concert and train tickets on my phone. So in the end, Hamburg was not the last gig of the tour for me. Still it felt a bit like it was, since I hadn’t even realized yet what I had done…
To be fair, it would have been a worthy last gig. Great sound once again! The people of Hamburg are said to be very cool and laid back, they can easily watch a whole gig with their arms folded and just slightly nodding their heads… But if they get loud and get moving, you know it truly comes from the heart, and I have seen many a musician standing on a stage in Hamburg in awe and disbelief of what was happening in front of him. Today was one of those days. Moshing throughout the whole gig and never ending “Avatar! Avatar!” chanting at the end of the gig. Chills, goosebumps, and I constantly had to remind myself that this was not the end…
[Interlude: hopped on a flight to London early on Thursday morning, just hours after the end of Avatar’s gig. Saw Cellar Darling and Diamond Black, didn’t sleep till my flight home on Friday morning. Slept a few hours, packed a few things, went out to see Ne Obliviscaris, afterwards boarded a northbound coach at 2am. If you paid attention, you will know that I was not only on my way to my ninth Avatar gig of the tour, but also in general to my ninth gig in nine days. The heart wants what the heart wants… It was time for my encore!]
Trädgår’n, Gothenburg (Sweden), Saturday April 7th
I reached Gothenburg shortly after noon and went straight to the venue, but of course nobody was there yet. I know people in the northern countries don’t queue as early as people elsewhere (except if it’s Nightwish in Finland maybe… 😅), but still I almost didn’t dare to leave my spot again to take a quick stroll through the city, I was just too excited for the show! (I did it though. Strolling, I mean. Very quick, very short, then back to queuing… 😂)
The audience felt very international, everybody wants (and should) to see Avatar in their hometown!
Ryan Stock of Hellzapoppin found his power drill replaced with a giant dildo (of course he did swallow it!), a lovely little prank courtesy of Avatar that set the mood for the night.
And what a show it was! I thought I had seen several perfect shows of Avatar before, but tonight, at home and on the biggest stage of the tour (for real now), everything klicked, everything was just something else. (They had even had their clothes fixed before the show and a full set of buttons blinked from Johannes’ chest!) You wouldn’t even have needed anything special to happen, but of course you don’t say no if former band member Simon Andersson enters the stage to perform War Song with the band!
And in the end, when Hellzapoppin and Old Kerry McKee came in to throw red roses at Avatar… Well let’s say, it’s something you don’t feel every day. Now the tour was over for real, but you know what: In opposite to what would have been in Hamburg, I wasn’t even too sad, because this ending was just so perfect, I wouldn’t know what should have come after it. Avatar have returned home, and they have deserved to stay there for a while, just a few weeks, before they set off again…
To sum it up…
What to say. You won’t find many bands that give you a show like Avatar. The sound is almost always great, and the energy level on stage is immense. All five guys put everything into their performance (especially the power of their hair and their necks… 😉), and they transfer that energy so well to the audience that you just have to explode and bang along with them. Most noteworthy, there is Johannes who goes all crazy with his stage antics, besides making use of his wide range of vocal skills. The only thing that might make you slightly unhappy is that by now Avatar have so many great songs that everyone will probably miss a favourite or two on the setlist. On the other hand it was nice that they bothered to bring back two songs from the early days, especially with Reload they killed it every night. The sound of the band has changed so much over time, but somehow they still manage to form a coherent set out of all those songs old and new.
And that’s not even all, because an Avatar concert is an experience from the very first to the last minute. You enter the venue to hear festive circus music playing from the speakers, you listen to Avatar Country’s radio broadcast in between the sets (someone has invested a serious amount of work into that, and you really need a few gigs to grasp all the weird stories and jokes in it!) and after the show, you spin the wheel of fortune at the merch desk. If you are then patient enough to wait for the band, you will find that they are super nice guys who are happy to take some time to sign stuff, take pictures or just have a long chat. They don’t have to hang out in the cold with us, so I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that they actually bother to do so.
Hellzapoppin – I would have thought that after a few times it would get boring to see the same show and the same jokes again and again, but just as with Avatar, it didn’t. It might not have been as shocking as the first time anymore, but it was still intense and just got better! Especially when you start noticing tiny little flaws in the performances every now and then, you are reminded that even if these artists are experts at what they do, it’s still a dangerous thing and there’s still a chance that things go wrong. Risking their lives for our entertainment, like Ryan joked on stage every night… It’s not just a joke…
Besides, off stage they turned out to be some of the coolest guys ever and actually quite inspiring personalities, so it was a pleasure and an honour to meet them day after day on tour!
And last but not least, Old Kerry McKee. I have to admit I wasn’t a fan of his music in the beginning although I admired his skills. But over time I got used to his presence and started to enjoy his performances more and more. In all his weirdness, he belonged to this touring family and somehow fit in there.
All in all, everybody who was involved in this tour – the bands, their wonderful crew, other fans (except for some certain individuals…) – helped making this an amazing time for me! Thank you, everybody! 10/10 would do again…