BOLKOW, POLAND—This marked the 20th anniversary celebration of the event billed as the “Dark Alternative” music festival held annually in a remote town in southern Poland based in the ruins of a medieval castle and situated an hour and a half from Wroclaw (pronounced Fro-suave), the nearest city. It draws goths of every age and imaginable wardrobe—mainly from Poland, Central Europe or as far away as the UK—to three days of music and camaraderie. We didn’t find anyone other than ourselves who had come from the U.S. Live performances took place on a main stage in the courtyard below the imposing tower of the castle and at a gutted, abandoned church a few blocks away. There are two clubs in town where DJs serve up a rotating menu ranging from darkwave to techno.
On the first night of the festival, we were treated to a superb performance by the death metal band Kat (Polish for The Executioner), so accomplished and refined that this crowd of goths was temporarily transformed into headbangers. As the members of Kat took position, the eerie and thunderous strains of Mussorgsky’s “Night On Bald Mountain” boomed from the speakers and swirling billows of smoke churned across the open air stage. Then out charged Roman Kostrzewski, the elder statesman of Polish heavy metal, his wild gray hair trailing around his grizzled face. He roared the lyrics in clear, articulate Polish to furious, speed metal accompaniment, and conducted the band with arm gestures and body language. Headbangers in the crowd exploded into a brutal, violent mosh pit, peopled by hulking Slavic giants and tiny, tattooed girls in Doc Martens.
Following them was the headliner band, Lacrimosa, an aptly named, morose Germanic group with alternating male and female vocalists singing mournful melodies to heavy, orchestral accompaniment including guitars, accordion, synthesizer and symphonic strings. Beautiful minor key melodies from Central European folk, plus hints of early 20th century Berlin cabaret, gave Lacrimosa an aura of timelessness, transcending the realm of rock music. The rock scene and youth culture in Europe seems to not have lost touch with their ancient Celtic, Germanic and Slavic musical roots. They are happy to blend older musical traditions into their modern because, to a great extent, their tastes in music grow right out of their historic identities.
On the second day, we attended sessions featuring local and regional music groups at the converted church now serving as a music venue. Among the more noteworthy were hard rockers All Sounds Allowed, who warmed the crowd before the much-awaited performance by award-winning band Blank Faces. As a fitting conclusion to their set, one of the bands took up an actual metal grinder and worked it on some hard object in rhythm to the music, showering orange sparks of metal debris all over himself, the stage and the front rows of spectators. Then, Blank Faces, fronted by a shaven-headed, goateed demon—heavy on instrumentals, sparing on vocals—blew away all rivals just as they had done at a recent regional competition with their combination of symphonic dark metal and eerie arrangements that might suitably serve at the soundtrack for a horror movie.
The most noteworthy experience that night took place on the castle main stage by the day’s headliners, Corvus Corax, a large, theatrical ensemble of costumed wild men in masks and kilts who blasted tribal, medieval and Celtic style anthems on bagpipes, drums, rattles and noise-makers. To me it was obviously a tongue-in-cheek, Renaissance-Faire put on, but many in the crowd took them quite seriously, singing the lyrics from memory with great gusto. Even those of us who thought the performance was a bit of a spoof, however, still found it to be fun.
On the third afternoon, the castle main stage hosted female-led Polish “cold wave” Hatestory, who sang their stories of drinking, hangovers and cash shortage in old school, punk rock style. After Haterstory’s excellent set, we were driven away from the main stage by Lolita Complex, a monotonous, self-conscious and uninspired group from Austria, who came across as a cliché or parody of themselves.
This proved to be all for the better, because walking down the hill into town, we were treated to the sights of gorgeous and exotically attired goths and steampunks wearing every imaginable dark-themed costume, made up to extreme cosmetic excess, their hair dyed in the most intense and unnatural tints, coiffed into extravagant shapes. Some of them gathered under a statue of Pope John Paul II. Others clustered around strolling celebrity musicians.
As the third night fell, we returned to the castle where Icon Of Coil turned the now-densely packed audience into a massive rhythmically swarming hive with electronic, techno-industrial grooves. Thus, the crowd was ready to receive the ultimate headliners, VNV Nation, who came out just before midnight, going right into a beloved favorite, “Space And Time.”
Electro-industrial, but at the same time uniquely heartwarming and sentimental, VNV’s set both energized and emotionally touched the audience. Frontman Ronan’s friendly patter was set against uplifting pieces from “Praise The Fallen,” “Ascension” and “Perpetual.” His exhorting the crowd to sing along was a bit distracting. Nevertheless, soaring synthesizers and hypnotic rhythms succeeded to uplift the overjoyed audience in a fitting conclusion to the live performances.
As on previous nights, the crowd regrouped at either of two clubs to snack, drink and dance until the early morning hours. There were many styles forthcoming from the DJs, but our favorite, called “‘80s Trash Batcave,” was heavy on Joy Division, Cure and Depeche Mode. Poles are about 20 years behind Americans in that most everybody still smokes. But, catching up to the U.S., smoking is prohibited indoors, so the clubs are basically indoor/outdoor establishments. The staff and the patrons are extremely friendly and polite, never showing any signs of hostility.
When the festival was over, we visited the city of Wroclaw to view a huge, cylindrical, panoramic mural commemorating the victory of a rag-tag Polish peasant uprising, led by the American Revolutionary War hero, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, over the Imperial Russian Army. Their victory was short-lived, and Russians eventually crushed the rebellion, but not the spirit of the Polish nation.
On the streets of Wroclaw, many wore Doc Marten-style boots and sported tattoos, piercings and punk hairdos in a rainbow of weird colors. All t-shirt statements were in English. Polish young people are remarkably fit looking, healthy and athletic. Yes, even goths and punks. In cities like Wroclaw and Warsaw, if you stop and do a 360 in any busy street or square, you are likely to spot a “10.” Their good looks and outward optimistic appearance are in contrast to the hardened faces and bent frames of the elderly, who unfortunately suffered through oppression and famine under Soviet authoritarian rule.
The experience at Castle Party Bolkow and everything we witnessed before and after it demonstrate Poland to be a nation happily awakening into the 21st century from the nightmare of Communism.