In the grand global scheme of things, Portugal isn't usually the first name that comes to mind when you're thinking about your neaxt heavy metal vacation of festival pilgrimage. Norway (and Scandinavia in general) tend to top that list, with Germany, the Czech Republic, the UK and—I'd like to think, anyway—the USA trailing just a bit behind. The Southern European nations obviously boast thriving metal scenes of their own, but the colder countries tend to have the festival game on lock—that is, unless we're talking Portugal, because in that case, SWR Barroselas Metalfest rivals them all.
As one of Europe's longest-running extreme metal festivals (going strong since 1998), this multi-day, two-stage event has made a tradition of bringing together both local hellraisers and some of the biggest international names going. For example, this year's edition will showcase the likes of Marduk, Taake, Archgoat, Doom, Jucifer, Grave, Incantation, Misþyrming, Usnea, Inverloch, Conan, Naðra, and Severe Torture alongside tons of hungry young Portuguese bands.
It's going to be wild, and I'm heading over to survey the madness and document the fest for Noisey. Before I step foot in Barroselas, though, I figured it'd be a good idea to give you, dear readers, a better idea of what this fest is about, why it's so rad—and why you should think of adding it to your wishlist next time you've got a European metal adventure brewing.
I emailed with organizer Ricardo Veiga, who took time out of finalizing fest preparations and dealing with a last-minute cancellation (catch you next time, Aborted) to fill me in on all things SWR.
Noisey: It's pretty amazing that SWR Barroselas has been running since 1998, and has gone from a one-day gig to a massive international metal festival. What made you want to start a festival in the first place?
Ricardo Veiga: Barroselas is the village where me and my brother were born, so it came naturally to give something back to the community. To see what became of it over twenty years is clearly our biggest achievement. It takes some stubbornness to organize such a festival at a fairly isolated place in April, when it rains all the time, but in the end it’s all worth it. We never intended SWR to go massive in terms of size, our main goal was for it to have an atmosphere of freedom and intimacy with exclusive contents for devoted music lovers. The first edition was very stressful and we only had 5 bands, but then we visited [German festivals] Dynamo and Wacke,n and discovered a new world with killer bands and good ideas for structure and programming. We started nurturing some contacts with our fanzine Metalurgia and our band GoldenPyre and the rest is history.
What was the metal scene like in this part of Northeast Portugal in 1998, and how have you seen it change and grow since then?
Portugal in the 90s was developing a metal scene at the pace of snail mail, whereas nowadays it’s as full of HD mega giga speed as the rest of the world. The differences are enormous, and I remember that in the first editions, we were booking bands by letter!
Back when it all began the Portuguese metal community was small albeit very tight, but as the internet took off it made the music much more accessible, which meant a big influx of metalheads to the scene. It’s rather curious that despite all the notoriety the genre got in the 2000s, many of the best Portuguese releases precede that time, from bands like Filii Nigrantium Infernalium, Gangrena, Genocide, Thormenthor, WC Noise, Moonspell or Decayed, and some of them are still active.
SWR always has a very diverse lineup, but the focus seems to center on death metal and grind, especially with the smaller bands. For example, Avulsed headlined that first fest, and they were still high on the bill as late as 2007. Is this your personal preference, or is there just more demand for death/grind in the Portuguese scene?
We’ve developed our background in the death metal territory, and when it all began, bands like Avulsed or Machetazo were among our favourites. At the time, few black metal bands played live, which made it hard to book them, and heavy metal as a genre wasn’t as segmented as it is now. As for the demand, well, as you know, in metal there’s this cyclic rollercoaster where genres go up and down in popularity every two years. We always try to stay ahead of the curve, which is increasingly difficult as festivals are now more focused than ever, with festivals solely dedicated to niche genres. When we took Esoteric and Year Of No Light to the festival in 2010 or Voivod and Menace Ruine in 2011, few people gave a damn; now after the Roadburn effect those bands are all the rage. Facts change constantly, so do the crowd’s preferences, and we have to make an effort to keep up with that.
Unlike Scandinavia, Germany, and the UK (and despite the many great Portuguese bands), Portugal isn't very well-known as a "metal" country. At this point you've gotten to know tons of metalheads from all over the world, so what do you think the cultural differences may be between Portugal and those other places that keep it from becoming a major player in global metal?
There’s a booming scene out here but it’s very tough for a Portuguese band to go international. Portugal is fairly isolated in Europe, and most of the Spanish crowd prefers more classical heavy metal music, which makes it very hard for a band to go on a tour and it demotivates many of them when they see themselves being as good as anything out there but not having the same opportunities as, say, a German or Dutch band. Portuguese bands who get to play festivals abroad are very focused and persistent, but as most people who play just want to make music rather than sending a thousand unanswered e-mails, they don’t get much recognition. Also, apart from a few people, Portuguese musicians are fairly inexperienced when it comes to making things happen on an international level.
What is the general sentiment towards metal in Portugal, and how do the people of Barroselas feel about SWR in particular? Much like what happens with Roadburn in the Netherlands, it's a pretty small town, so when the festival happens, the streets are overrun with metalheads.
It was hard in the beginning, an extreme music festival at a small conservative village in Portugal organized by a bunch of kids with long hair at a time when public perception associated it with drug consumption; it had everything to go wrong, but it didn’t. We had some pressure to move to a different location without any infrastructure, which means we'd have had to rebuild everything from scratch, but over the years, people just got used to it and came to see the festival as a good thing. It keeps businesses busy during those days which means a lot when we’re coming from a period of economic downturn. During the event, it’s pretty quiet in downtown Barroselas as it only has a few cafés, restaurants and markets, so many people visit the nearest city, Viana do Castelo, where there is more of a touristic appeal with the beaches and historical locations.
What are the major challenges of running a big festival like this?
I think the main challenge of it is always the balance between what you intend to do and what you can do. We strive for the independence and individuality of our own decisions but in the end it all comes down to budgets, expectations, sponsors, artists’ availability, time, regulations… a lot of inter-connected variables that make us update the project every year to improve again and again.
What's the most difficult problem you've ever been faced with, and on the positive side, what's the best performance you've ever seen at SWR?
In 2001, Mayhem cancelled their show at the last minute and some people invaded the local cemetery, we received some threats from the local population, national coverage on TV and newspapers, problems with the authorities, difficulties with municipality and so on… I think you can imagine the rough years after that but we never gave up. It made us stronger.
As for the best performances I’ll never forget the Portuguese premiere of Bolt Thrower, the mayhem with Ratos de Porão and the personal delight of having Jeff Becerra and Possessed in a very emotional performance, that guy is the man.
How do you go about deciding which bands you'd like to invite to play each year?
That’s one of the biggest pleasures of organizing such an event, it’s like solving this big messy puzzle and making sure every piece fits just right. We get a very big kick from inviting and welcoming some of our favorite bands and music heroes to our own festival. The hard part is that we can’t have all of them at once, so the strategy is to look for the best bets at the time of every edition, to reach out for every opportunity. We constantly make lists with suggestions, questionnaires to understand our audience, cooperate with labels and other festivals, listen to a huge amount of releases and have a lot of people we trust make us suggestions or rate some shows they’ve seen abroad.
What makes SWR Barroselas different from every other metal festival in the world? What do you do to make sure it's a special experience for the people who come?
SWR feels more like a baptism of fire rather than a festival in itself, if you can make it through three days of rain, mud and non-stop heavy music you’re ready for any festival out there. Bands playing the festival say it feels like time has stopped, the event takes them on a trip down the memory lane and the crowd is very genuine. We make sure everyone feels comfortable and has a great experience, all three stages are covered, and we have a café opened 24 hours a day during the festival, organize a bunch of extra activities and take great pride in making every piece of decoration by ourselves with the help of crew of friends who’ve been with us since the beginning, most of them driving from far away to be with us every weekend. The bill is composed with a good mix of styles to make it as varied and exciting as possible with both old school and upcoming artists, as we feel like 10 hours of death metal would tire even the most fanatic ones. We also take a lot of care with our image, working with some of the best illustrators out there to convey our philosophy through their imagery, and if you can get people to come here with the right state of mind, everyone will have a great time.
Now that Aborted has just dropped off, what's your replacement plan? How are the organizers of big festivals like this able to deal with surprises like that—do you have a contingency plan in place, or do you just go with the flow?
Damn, this situation with Aborted was very weird and caught us totally unprepared. They are one of our reference bands and we know each other for more than 15 years, we had full confirmation for about a year and we never expected that… so it was a very big step back that we hope to surpass. It’s damn hard to replace a big band like them in such a short notice but we need to look forward and do our best work. Usually we have various options but they’re only available for a determined amount of time, the closer it gets the harder it is to gather 4 or 5 people who’re ready to pack and play a show hundreds of miles away, so we’ll have to go with the flow.
Now that SWR is bigger than ever, the sky really is the limit in terms of bands you can book to headline. Who are three bands you're absolutely dying to book for next year's fest?
Ahah, sorry but I would prefer not to comment on that as we have a huge array of ideas we’re eager to put in practise for the 20th anniversary next year and don’t wanna spoil anything yet! Meanwhile we’ll work hard to deliver a great festival in few weeks and then we start planning the next year’s edition. We can promise to have a great party again and really hope Aborted can finally make it!
Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey; she's counting down to SWR on Twitter.