On the second Saturday of April, in the second largest city in the Ruhr area, Essen, Germany, people were greeted with gloomy and chilling weather. The city was relatively quiet upon arrival, yet if you wandered off slightly outside the centre you would see that there was life to be found in a small club called Don’t Panic! on the Viehover Platz. Outside the club, organisers were waiting to warm-heartedly welcome you in and show you the way, and around the building, many alternative fans were going around waiting and searching for their companions. An hour before the actual opening the doors were opened for the VIP entrance where pass holders were allowed to go in and get to the merch before others, and have a chat with band members of the event, after that the whole place was also accessible to normal ticket holders. Inside you were immediately greeted by the delightful sight of a cosy bar with a small stage at the end of the room, and within seconds you’d forget the cold from outside. It was fairly busy already with groups of fans everywhere, with a warm feeling full of joy around the space with smiles and laughs of everyone. Up to the stairs, the atmosphere kept going strong, with more groups of people surrounding the merch stands that were manned with several band men. Anyone was greeted by them with a smile full of appreciation if they went up to them and everyone got the opportunity to talk to their favourite musician.
In the blink of an eye, the two hours had passed and the first band got ready to get on stage. GAZTREA had the privilege to start off the night. Going back downstairs to join them you’d find there was already a group of fans standing in front of the stage waiting for them, giving a loud cheer as the first members got onto the small stage. Being the first act of the evening, the crowd had yet to get warmed up, which didn’t seem to be a problem for the band. With their first song, as the beat became louder, the music managed to captivate the crowd and a handful of people started moving along. Were it tapping of feet, headbanging or just singing along to the lyrics, around you, you could find people participating in their own way. And even though it was just for 40 minutes, GAZTREA made sure the crowd would go on a journey, experiencing the strength of their heavy songs, and the mesmerizing ballads they played in between. The vocals of Kal truly touched everyone, be it the harsh and low grunts, his high pitched screams that would impress Rob Halford (Judas Priest), or his beautiful clean vocals. And sad as it was that the act ended, cheers went through the bar again to applaud the great opening.
What came up next was an unexpected gem. The bar was now crowded with people, filling the room with gleeful chatter and the faint but distinct smell of beer. It was very clear the grown crowd was explicitly there to support the final of this formation of Nana:[shi], and as soon as the band had gotten on the stage there was a roaring cheer going through the place. Within seconds the band had managed to get the crowd in the palm of their hands and the insanity of their music blasted through the speakers, right into our chest. The performance was pure controlled madness, with the wide vocals of Seiji letting us ride on a rollercoaster of emotions. His low clear vocals touched our hearts, while his high screams riled us up in a feeling of despair on such level that only Kyo (Dir en Grey) or Tsuzuku (Mejibray) were able to pull off successfully in the past. Sooner than wanted, the ending closed in, and the crowd had their moment to bid their final farewells to vocalist Seiji, as he announced his departure from the band. The act carried an energy that will stay with you for a long time to come, and we surely hope that both the band with the remaining members, as well as Seiji, will be able to offer us more of this in the future. We’ve got a taste of the drug and we just want more!
A surprising thing happened once nana:[shi] left the stage, confirming my previous suspicion that a large part of the crowd was there for these final moments. Looking around as the next act prepared the stage, the mass more than halved in number, leaving a decent gap between the stage and the front door now. As the members of Esprit D’air made their way on the stage to start playing, they seemed unfazed by this fact and made sure the people missing out on it would rue their decision. And it worked! Not even had they reached the end of their first song when had they gotten most of the crowd back in cheering for them wildly. If one were to describe GAZTREA’s performance as a powerful journey, and nana:[shi]’s act as wild emotional madness, Esprit D’air could be said to be the joy of the night. Their act was full of smiles and laughter as their guitar riffs sounded strong through the bar. Even the heartfelt lyrics from Kai still left us with a smile at the end. There were some technical difficulties through the performance, but none felt like a drag as Kai joyfully made fun of them through his actions and comments to get a sound of laughter through the group. The height of the act, however, was when Kai called back Seiji onto the stage and they performed a duet of Serafine. There was joy found on both vocalist’s faces as they sung the beautiful cover created by Esprit D’air, and they felt a perfect match to one another in both voice and energy. It left us with an ending to remember.
Then it was time for the headliner of the night: VII ARC, and they truly brought in the heavy works. With eccentric dark looks, and harsh guitars they transformed the stage into a metal Valhalla. At the first hard breakdown in their very first song, the crowd went nuts with a mosh pit that stirred up the energy in the room even further. Those that didn’t participate in the pit were on the sides headbanging like crazy following the cues of the band and being indulged in the vibe. As Kay growled lowly everyone was down with it, heads reaching as low as his tones, hair flowing from left to right to the rigid beat produced by the drums and distorted guitars. No one cared for the soreness they’d experience the next day, they were fully in trance of the music at this point and not a single soul was standing still anymore. There wasn’t a single moment where it felt like the band didn’t seem to know what they were doing, because they knew exactly what they were on to. They had the crowd dancing like puppets to their show, and they owned it like true masters. Whereas nana:[shi] made me feel like I went back in time with the old school visual kei vibe, VII ARC set me in the present with the sheer crazy modern side of visual kei, feeling nothing short compared to the likes of DEZERT or DADAROMA. They absolutely managed to make the most of their time on stage, and even as they reached the final track from the lineup, they left us thirsting for more with a song that was catchy enough to still be in our heads the next day. They ended the night with a bang.
So, is Visual Kei dead here in Europe? If I were to ask the participants of the night that the answer would be “Hell no!” All of these bands proved that statement to be far from actuality. Throughout the night there was nothing but the visual kei vibe to be found, both through the music, the looks from the bands and the mesmerizing looks from the fans as well. It was like a huge family coming together with everyone in harmony in one loving group sharing the same passion: Music. The night was genuinely a stunning experience and the bands made every last cent spend on it worth it. We keep the genre living!
Photography: Heike Leppkes