New Dark Age: Castle Party

Castle Party

July 11 – 14, 2019

Bolkow, Poland

Castle Party is a four-day festival of dark, independent music that takes place every summer in the ruins of a 13th Century castle in the small town of Bolków in the Lower Silesia region of Poland. A wristband that will gain one admission to all events over the four days costs about $80 at the gate on the day of admission. Early bird specials can be gotten for considerably less.

The first Castle Party took place in 1994 at nearby Grodziec Castle. It was a one-day event involving a few bands and drew about 500 fans. The next several years it grew in duration and participation and was eventually moved to Bolków to accommodate the many thousands of spectators. The program now presents over 50 bands, not counting the pre-Festival and the late night after parties.

Goths, punks, and industrial music fans from all over Europe make the trek to this relatively remote location. The castle enclosure contains food stands, souvenir shops, a meet-the-artists booth, bars, restaurants, ample, clean portable toilets, and a viewing tower.   Performances take place in a large outdoor stage facing the castle’s main, walled-in, grassy courtyard. There is also an indoor small stage within walking distance in the town’s cultural center.  Performances occur simultaneously in both venues. 

Shows begin between 3 and 4 p.m., giving one time to sleep late, sightsee, or socialize. The sun in this northern latitude doesn’t set until around 9:30 p.m. The last shows commence a little before midnight, although there are a few special performances that take place even later.

Festivities are not limited to the two music venues. There is a nightclub, the Hacjenda, with an upstairs bar and a small downstairs dance floor. Castle Party wristbands are required for entry. Part of the town, especially the streets climbing to the upland castle, bustle with shops, food trucks, and stands selling attire, costumes, accessories, beer, street fare, and local delicacies. There is even a queue lined up to buy the curiosity of black ice cream.

Besides the townspeople, who by now are thoroughly accustomed to the festival, there are whole families who come in droves from the surrounding communities to gawk and photograph the black-clad, fetish and goth-attired participants. This includes an increasing number of accompanied pre-adolescents in Halloween-style outfits and face-paint.

We found accommodations at Pałac Jastrowiec, a beautiful and ancient, local palace that now serves as a B&B about ten minutes away by car.

The festival commenced on Thursday, the first day, at the cultural center or “Small Stage.” We arrived in time for the fourth of the opening performers, an aptly named French band, Soror Dolorosa, a mournful, coldwave post-punk band.

A special treat came next, German-Austrian trio and multi-media  combo, Near Earth Orbit, whose apocalyptic, electronic bombast and repetitious, ominous melodies accompanied a masterfully-produced, pessimistic screen show that documented the dangers facing the modern world due to technology and ecology run amok. Even the name, Near Earth Orbit, which they abbreviate as NEO, alludes to a threat, referring to those near-earth orbiting objects, stray asteroids, and comets that, should one collide with Earth, would extinguish all life on the planet. Predicted threats demonstrated visually—with industrial music accompaniment—included artificial intelligence, computer viruses, alien invasions, treacherous machines,  epidemics, ecological and nuclear disasters, modern warfare, weaponized drones, etc. It was quite fascinating, thought-provoking, and terrifyingly entertaining. Snacking, drinking, and engaging in a little of our own gawking brought us to the end of our first evening. 

The second day, Friday, we started with the first band at the outdoor stage, local singer-songwriter Baśnia, whose poppy, minor key rock made us think of Heart or Fleetwood Mac. Independent, yes, but hardly dark.  What followed was Helroth, a Warsaw-based, pagan folk metal machine, featuring guitar,  bass, violin, flutes, a raspy male lead, and two wailing female vocalists. Fusing ancient ethnic appeal with ferocious heavy metal so energized the crowd that a  “Wall of Music,” or what we call a mosh pit inevitably exploded, fully sanctioned, despite its exceptional fury.

The following several bands, Austrian Whispers in the Shadow, Germany’s Aeon Sable, and American band Dawn of Ashes each gave their own style of danceable, mesmerizing gothic rock. The stand-out among them was Aeon Sable, whose lanky, charismatic and pony-tailed front man, Nino Sable, cavorted throughout their set in an energetic manner that resembled the choreography of Peter Murphy combined with that of Mick Jagger. His confident vocals, their steadfast rhythms, and layered, melodious hooks combined into a luscious musical experience. It’s perhaps a sign of the times that most of these types of bands played without a live drummer,  relying on electronic rhythm tracks.

Such is the northern latitude of Poland that the sun was only just starting to set at 9:30 p.m. when Merciful Nuns came on. Also from Germany, the Nuns were reputed to be a knock-off of Sisters of Mercy, but we found them far more original and creative than mere imitators, although they did please the crowd with at least one Sisters’ cover. 

On Saturday, we got started late after a road trip to an attraction in the nearby Czech Republic. Having arrived in time to catch Żywiołak, a straight-forward, ethnic Polish folk ensemble, we were caught in a sudden cloud burst and found no shelter from the rain as the band played on. We got so thoroughly soaked that we called a car and retreated to the B&B to get changed out of our best goth attire and into basic black before returning to the castle. 

Unfortunately, when we did, we were assailed by the over-the-hill and now irrelevant nineties digital hardcore band Atari Teenage Riot, a politicized German band of anti-musicians whose painfully and dangerously loud noise machine was accompanied by offensively obnoxious, narcissistic screaming and anti-American slogans rather than anything resembling music. If it weren’t so obnoxious, it would have come across like a laughable effort of adolescents to shock their classmates by bravely repeating maternal f-bombs. ATR must have been disappointed, because there were no roars of approval from the crowd. The miserable performance, the pointless obscenities, and the anti-American hate speech fell flat despite repeated calls for agreement from the stage. Disregarding all standards of noise volume, the offensively extreme and pointless racket drove us off the field as quickly as we could run. 

Fleeing to the cultural center we were treated to one if the most moving and intense musical experiences of the whole festival, Swedish trio Forndom. Hypnotic and other-worldly, playing Scandinavian minimalistic tribal music from a candle-lit stage, two ghostly percussionists seemed to halt the very passage of time. The hooded central vocalist sang a deeply spiritual mantra and intermittently ran a bow across a primitive string instrument evoking visions of a lost, pre-historical Nordic past. This provided a truly rewarding, transcendent experience that validated the whole day. 

The final day, Sunday,  we came too late to hear the openers, Blitzkrieg, but  were happy to catch electro-industrial Dark Side Eons, although this involved being caught up in another sudden torrential downpour. As we huddled under umbrellas, other festival-goers danced and splashed joyfully in the mud until the rain turned into a pounding hail storm.  

Again, we retreated to the B&B to dry off and change, returning just in time to hear melancholy synthpop stars, Solar Fake, but missed preceding groups Blitzkrieg and God Module on the big stage. Then came Eivør, a gifted and creative female vocalist from the Faroe Islands, an autonomous country belonging to the Kingdom of Denmark. Overflowing with enthusiasm, accompanying herself on guitar,  she showcased an extraordinary vocal range and varied styles, reminiscent at times of Kate Bush and at other times of Lisa Gerrard as she tossed her blond locks flowingly in an animated stage performance.  At one point she donned a ritual face mask and took up a large flat drum, dancing and drumming as she sang. Inevitably, Bjork came to mind. 

We ran down to the cultural center to catch the one Italian band at the festival, Ash Code, and were pleased by every aspect of their melodic darkwave sound, except for the persistence of a pervasive drone throughout their set. 

Then it was time to climb back up to the castle for the last act, Sólstafir, from Iceland. The front man narrated a picture of their harsh homeland—desolate, cold, and dark—as the exhilarating sounds of their symphonic metal filled the air and thrilled the audience who responded with roars of enthusiasm. This grand and fitting finale brought to an end the 26th annual Castle Party.

This was our fourth visit to Castle Party, and it drove home the following insights. Just as American popular music often has a hint of blues or country & western, European music has a tendency to incorporate elements of their Old World folk, which they hold in high esteem. National and pan-European traditional music sometimes colors their brand of modern rock or is present quite explicitly. European fans of goth, punk, and industrial may ride the cutting edge of modern electronic alternative music, but they haven’t abandoned their ancient, tribal roots. There is, in fact, an ongoing revival and even a celebration of Medieval, pagan culture which ironically fits quite well with the dark, alternative scene. It is this blend and variety of “dark, independent music,” experienced nowhere else, that keeps us coming back.