Live gig review by Alan Daly
© Olga Kuzmenko
Photos by Olga Kuzmenko
It’s August, and we’re in Catton Park in Derbyshire: It must be time for another Bloodstock Open Air Festival. Sticking to the successful format of recent years, the event once again boasts over 100 international metal acts performing on 4 stages over 4 days to 15,000 fans, give or take a few. Now in its 14th year, it has grown to be the UK’s biggest independent metal festival and has earned the reputation of being the best; as attested by thousands of regular patrons. A wide variety of established international groups and talented local bands, as well as the relaxed atmosphere afforded by the smaller numbers in attendance, make it the festival of choice for serious heavy metal fans. The proximity of the stages within the arena and to the campsite also make it popular among wheelchair users and those who are keen to introduce their mini-metaller offspring to the music festival experience.
As usual, Thursday is a gentle break-in to the weekend with a handful of bands warming up the Sophie Lancaster Stage while thousands of eager campers pitch their temporary sleeping quarters and dens of iniquity. We catch a little bit of London band Monument to get us in the mood, but their similarity to Iron Maiden fail to grab our immediate attention, and so, like kids with ADHD, we head for the bright flashing lights of the fairground rides and the mouth-watering smell wafting from the greasy food stalls.
Returning to the Sophie stage to see the opening night headliners, Jaldaboath, we are confronted by something akin to a scene from “Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail” as knights dressed in chain mail deliver so-called medieval templar metal. The charade does little to enthuse the largely unimpressed audience, save for a small gathering of fans at the front. For us, it is an underwhelming start to the weekend, making us regret our decision to abandon Monument so hastily. But with three full days of metal ahead, the best is definitely yet to come.
With levels of excitement and adrenaline high, the campsite parties run through the night, and before we realise, it’s time to make our way back to the arena to check out the Friday bands. Returning first to the Sophie stage, we check out Exeter-based technical metal quartet Cambion. These lads battled their way onto the New Blood stage in 2012 via the Metal 2 The Masses competition, and obviously impressed the right people enough to see them here on the second stage two years later. With a sound likened to Meshuggah and Fear Factory, they are exactly what we needed to kickstart our festival. Hooky riffs and heavy breakdowns have heads and dreadlocks banging both on and off the stage, although it appears to be a tad too early to persuade the tired and hungover revellers to open up the mosh pits just yet.
We make the short walk across the arena to the Ronnie James Dio Stage, enjoying the pleasant weather and upbeat atmosphere on our way. The next band on our list have been on the celtic metal scene for more than two decades and last graced the Bloodstock main stage in 2011. Wearing tattered rags and gaunt face paint, ghoulish frontman A.A. Nemtheanga (aka Alan Averill), proudly announces “We are Primordial and we are from the Republic of Ireland”. The considerable crowd gathered appear to need no introduction and they sing along loudly and enthusiastically during ‘As Rome Burns’ and ‘The Coffin Ships’. Averill thanks the familiar faces in the crowd that have been supporting them since the early nineties, and finishes out their setlist of just five epic tracks with ‘Empire Falls’.
Making their Bloodstock debut a bit later in the afternoon, New York City three-piece crossover/trash metallers, Prong, attract the largest crowd thus far to the main stage, and bring with them their A game; giving it 110%. Jumping around throughout their set, and running back and forth non-stop, they seed the energy feedback, and the fans duly reciprocate with circle pits and crowd surfing. Their infectious grooves and distinctive sound have heads banging and fists pumping high from the start. Performing just one song from their latest albumRuining Lives, they wisely choose more recognizable tracks from their back catalogue to engage a wider audience during their short setlist. The closing trio of ‘Revenge… Best Served Cold”, “Whose Fist Is This Anyway?” and, of course, “Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck” trigger a chaotic frenzy in the pit that sets the bar high for the acts to follow.
A torrential August downpour sends thousands of rockers dashing for the big-top shelter of the Sophie Lancaster and New Blood stages, giving the lucky performers an unexpected surge in popularity. We prepare ourselves for a thorough soaking at Hatebreed on the main stage, but conveniently the rain stops as quickly as it started and the fair-weather metallers rejoin the drenched die-hards in the pit. Entering the stage to the “Rocky” theme song, vocalist Jamey Jasta commands the crowd from the outset. Rattling out a string of their distinctively short, punky tracks including ‘Live For This’, ‘Tear It Down’ and ‘Perseverance’, Hatebreed immediately get the audience jumping and moshing; helping them to generate enough body heat to dry out their sodden shirts. A steady flow of crowd-surfers traverse the sea of upstretched arms including Batman and a Penguin – Not the Danny DeVito kind, but the Antarctic kind (Maybe he was supposed to be an “Emperor” Penguin! Get it?). Deafening chants of “Hatebreed” from their fans prompt Jasta to thank them, adding that when they formed the band twenty years ago, never did they think they would share a stage with so many legends. Spotting a very young fan at the rail holding an inflatable guitar and wearing oversized earmuffs, he invites him onstage with his dad to enjoy the rest of the set from the side, earning respect and applause from the audience.
As Hatebreed plough through half a dozen more tracks and finish up with a stomping rendition of ‘Destroy Everything’, we opt to keep our spots close to the main stage, where we patiently wait for Dimmu Borgir to start their set. Technical difficulties appear to be causing some consternation among the sound and stage crew, and as the minutes pass, we are disappointed to see a member of the crew using a black marker to scratch tracks off the setlists which were already in place. The crowd wait patiently however, with no heckling or projectile firing as we have witnessed at other festivals in similar circumstances; another tribute to the mature atmosphere at Bloodstock.
Almost twenty minutes late, the Norwegian symphonic black metallers take to the stage sporting white face paints, pentagrams, studs and spikes, and open with ‘Allegiance’ from their 2003 album Death Cult Armageddon to huge cheers of relief and appreciation from the audience. Forged by six musicians, their sound is dark and intricate with keyboard and guitars combining to create a dramatic foundation for the screams and growls of vocalist Shagrath. Further technical difficulties plague them during their performance, but fortunately these hiccups are overshadowed by the latter half of their set, and as dusk descends, pyrotechnic fireworks explode onstage; engulfing the band in a thick fog, and soaring flames at the front of the podium singe the front row fans. A crowd-pleasing duo of ‘Puritania’ and ‘Mourning Palace’ sees their shortened set draw to a close as the smell of pyro fades and the sun sets red on the horizon, promising a brighter and drier Saturday.
The Friday headliners are none other than American supergroup Down; the sludge metal quintet featuring ex-Pantera vocalist Phil Anselmo. From the moment they step onstage and launch into ‘Eyes of the South’, the aroma of “herbal cigarettes” hangs thick in the air as their fans chill out and enjoy the distinctive southern groove. A mix of old and new songs, including ‘Lifer’ from their 1995 debut albumNOLA (dedicated to Dimebag Darrell), and two tracks from their latest EP Down IV – Part II keep the majority of the audience engaged as the evening drizzle cools the sweaty members of the steaming mosh pit. No stranger to controversial remarks, Anselmo makes some borderline racist, and presumably insincere, comments when addressing the crowd, and at another point he stops the band mid-song to commend the audience on their head-banging and enthusiasm. Creating something of a party atmosphere onstage, we are treated to a short tease of Pantera’s instantly recognizable ‘Walk’ before Anselmo brings some friends onstage to join the band for the final track ‘Bury Me in Smoke’. A piece of parting advice from him before leaving the stage, sure to be heeded, is along the lines of: “Get Drunk, have sex, and have a great festival”.
Thus, our first full day of live Bloodstock music draws to an end, but it’s not time to return to the campsite just yet. The Sophie Lancaster Stage is hosting a “Live Band Metal Karaoke” session where we get to see some talented festival-goers flex their vocal chords and sing along with a full backing band to classic tracks including ‘Cowboys From Hell’, ‘Killing in the Name’ and ‘Holy Diver’. Finally exhausted, we retire to our tent where we plan our schedule for Saturday before getting some much-needed shut-eye.