Belgium may not be particularly famous for its mainstream musical exports, but once a year the reasonably sleepy village of Meerhout changes all that. It’s is bombarded with tens of thousands of punk fans from across Europe for Groezrock festival, and Punktastic makes the trip every year to get an earful of everything from unashamed pop punk to brutal hardcore. It’s always big two days in the calendar and with Rancid and Refused topping the bill this year, we just couldn’t wait to make the trip.

This year, we began the weekend at the main-stage with Philadelphia’s finest recent export The Menzingers [4/5]. The quartet proved an excellent way to wake up an early afternoon crowd, and though they play a set heavy on their recent album ‘On The Impossible Past’, there is plenty of massive singalongs. Frontman Tom May’s vocals are on top form and ring out in perfect tone over the raw instrumentation.

Next, over on the Impericon Stage, pop punkers We Are The In Crowd [3.5/5] are conceivably playing to an entirely different audience. Although beginning their set to a relatively small crowd, it doesn’t take long for stragglers to be enticed in by their sickly pop-punk riffs and female/male trade off vocals. Although their male vocalist Jordan Eckes misses a few notes and is overshadowed by his female counterpart, there is something entirely refreshing about the dual vocal set up, and the band go down well despite being at the very poppiest end of the Groezrock scale.

Marked with the tagline ‘Back to Basics’, the Etnies tent is without barrier or security; encouraging as many stage invasions and dives as physically possible from an increasingly energetic audience. With this, Hostage Calm [2.5/5] take to the stage, but fail a little to fully engage with the crowd. Despite the potential on display, the quintet regularly sound a little confused, and during their surprisingly short set it seems like their cover of The Clash goes down better than their own material – it’s a shame as they’re usually great.

Of all of the bands that were making high profile returns at Groezrock, Belvedere [4.5/5] were possibly the act producing the most question marks as to just how it would work out. Thankfully, their mid-afternoon set on the main stage was just something else. As it’d appear that this reunion isn’t one that’s destined to fruit new material, it might well be the first and last time many fans would get to see them live, but they did themselves justice and produced one of the most memorable sets of the weekend.

Ska at Groezrock seems to come and go with mixed reactions, but fortunately for fans of the ever-unfashionable genre, the main-stage boasts one of the greatest 3rd wave live bands today in Reel Big Fish [4/5]. Predictably, they kick the party off in fine style. The Californians unreservedly bounce through a greatest hits medley that would please any die-hard, whipping the crowd into an absolute frenzy. Though their 45 minute set falls in the middle of the day, this may as well be a headline performance for the crowd’s reaction. The ever present country and death-metal versions of ‘Suburban Rhythm’ prove to be a massive pleaser, as does the unmistakeable Reel Big Fish take on Metallica (though a ska band covering a metal band at a punk festival might be the most irrelevant thing to happen this weekend).

Back on the Etnies stage, the crowd are definitely more alive for The Wonder Years [3/5], and at times it becomes difficult to distinguish band from fan for all the stagedivers. Racing through a wealth of songs from their back-catalogue, the sound is excellent and the band are as tight as ever, but despite this the perturbed demeanour of a select few band members at increasing interruptions limits the flow of the set somewhat. As a result, something falls a little flat with the early evening performance, and it’s not quite The Wonder Years at their best because of it.

A chandelier hangs above the stage and florescent purple lights fill a relatively intimate tent for Groezrock’s brand new acoustic stage, and as Thrice frontman Dustin Kensrue [4/5] delivers a forty minute set compiled of covers, solo material and a couple of “surprise” performances of fan favourites ‘Artist in the Ambulance’ and ‘Stare at the Sun’, the atmosphere is excellent. Although it is the latter which receive the biggest reaction, there remains a definitive air of respect for the guitarist as his pitch perfect vocals enthral the tent. Kensrue just about manages to overpower the noise from the nearby Macbeth and Etnies stages, but other acoustic performers weren’t quite as lucky over the weekend. It’s a welcome break from the raucousness, and a set that was definitely worth squeezing in to see.

Skipping the UK on this trip over to Europe were Yellowcard [3.5/5], who are still riding on the success of comeback album ‘When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes’. No one seems to have gotten tired of the relatively frequent European touring following their return yet, though, as they go down a storm and deliver some of their finest despite a recent change to the line up. The faster songs are still the better of the bunch, but it’s a great set and the next album really can’t come fast enough.

We were absolutely gutted to turn up too late on Friday to get to the pre-Groezrock gig, which made us even more excited about Lifetime [2/5] on the Etnies stage as the evening began getting into full swing. Unfortunately, the band didn’t quite give off the energy we’d hoped, and our high expectations weren’t quite met. That might just be what you get for putting bands up on a pedestal though as plenty of people down the front will have had totally opposite opinions to us.

Undoubtedly the most brutal band on the line-up comes in the form of Groezrock’s favourite New Jersey powerhouse The Dillinger Escape Plan [4.5/5] tonight, and after ploughing into the opening “chords” of ‘Panasonic Youth’, the subsequent hour proves a continued onslaught of time signature fuckery and immense disregard for surroundings. As is to be expected, the band treat the stage as their playground by jumping off speaker stacks and climbing the girders for fun, and though large proportions of the crowd are unsure as to what they are witnessing – resulting in a flow of two way traffic in and out of the tent – Dillinger Escape Plan clearly haven’t noticed or don’t give a shit as they’re too busy breaking things and sounding excellent. For those who stuck around, this is one performance that will not be forgotten, and Dillinger at their very best.

Since the departure of some tattoo-ridden guy from Watford angry-mob Gallows [2.5/5], there has been much speculation and discussion about their new frontman and the future of the band. Taking to the stage at their first major European festival with Wade MacNeil at the helm, the band do sound as tight as ever, but hearing a Canadian scream about the inequality of living in the English capital doesn’t quite seem to sit quite right, and perhaps unavoidably, tonight’s show presents itself as a façade (albeit a well delivered one). Once they have released more material and leave the Frank Carter legacy behind, the band might just pack a bigger punch. Groezrock 2012 isn’t quite that moment for them yet.

Over on the main stage, Lagwagon [4/5] were at their finest. Everything that needed to be in the performance was there, and there’s very little in their performance or set that would have let fans or casual observers down. A festival set through and through, but the band learned how to play to a crowd a long time ago, and it’s one of the reasons they’re as well loved as they are and and have lasted as long as they have. They’ve never quite reached the same commercial success of others that fill similar slots to them this weekend, but the respect they have from the punk scene in general is clear, and tonight’s set is a perfect example of why they deserve it.

To close off Saturday’s intense proceedings, Rancid [4.5/5] decide to just do what they do best – deliver wall to wall hits. WIth such an extensive back catalogue, there’s always going to be a few tracks missing that would have fit in well, but there’s no doubting that they’ve been one of the most influential and successful punk bands ever. Celebrating twenty years this year, their 30 song setlist is focused on pleasing the fans, and with a sparkling performance, they do just that. In a way there’s an element of not being able to teach old dogs new tricks with Rancid, but the fact is that the old tricks are so brilliant to watch that no one really gives a shit. They’re the perfect band to headline Groezrock, and as ‘Ruby Soho’ brings the night to a close at about 1.30am, there’s a ridiculous amount of smiles to be seen leaving the tent.

The late finish of the first night of Groezrock is always intense, and as we made our way back to bed (via. the bar), we remembered that another whole day awaited us in a few short hours.

BEN TIPPLE
(additional: TOM AYLOTT, JESSICA ACREMAN)
(photos: MARYAM HASSAN)