22 August 2021

REVIEW: Bloodstock Open Air 2021 Part 1

Bloodstock Festival this year has come a little more meaningful than most years, after an eighteen-month intermission from live music, and more importantly, being around like-minded people. Metal music has a real sense of community and family that isn’t present in every subculture; perhaps it’s the fact we’re all music-adoring misfits who all go to the same gigs, maybe it’s something else. The pandemic meant that the lineup has been heavily UK-centric, due to bands from abroad being unable to get to the festival. Yet for every Dark Tranquility, Black Dahlia Murder or Vio-Lence that would pull out, the likes of Loathe, Conan or Black Spiders would step up.

Bloodstock is one of the best festivals in the world. The festivalgoers are (mostly) very warm, friendly and open people who you could casually have a chat with on a bench at breakfast time as much as at Lemmy’s Bar after the Ronnie James Dio stage headliners have come off. It’s family friendly, as well. You’ll have kids wandering around with their parents – or mates – and be made to feel just as welcome and ‘part of it’ as anyone else. My lasting memory of my first Bloodstock was watching Napalm Death stood next to a family of four. Oh, and the line up is usually pretty good as well, if you like it hard and heavy. You’ll get as many legends of heavy music as you will bands with more of an underground, cult (or kvlt) following. Bloodstock champion local bands, too, with their Metal 2 The Masses competitions that help give bands a real leg up in the live circuit. The camping atmosphere is as chilled as it is silly. You’d be hard-pressed to find bin jousting anywhere other than a metal festival in the English Midlands.

It was my first time doing media at a big open air festival. You’d head over to the VIP area and press tent and casually see the likes of Dani Filth or Ben Ward wandering around, make small talk with people who work for your favourite bands, and spot faces you can’t name back from when local gigs could be taken for granted. I made a lot of new friends doing interviews, met people who I was in contact with but had never seen in person, and reconnected with a lot of my old mates. Oh, and there was a massive selection of beer at the bar, too (with a much shorter queue).

So, what happened?

WEDNESDAY

After setting up camp, drinking a few cans of increasingly warm lager and getting acquainted with our neighbouring campmates, the first band of the weekend – for me, anyway – is Raised by Owls, who’ve gained serious traction since debuting at Bloodstock on the New Blood Stage in 2017, winning the Nottingham Metal 2 The Masses on the way. You might not have heard of them, but you’ve probably seen one of their silly videos on your social media feed at some point (Napalm Geoff is a personal favourite of mine). Indeed, their sense of humour has helped their rising popularity. Their set included songs with titles such as Ainsley Harriott Advises You To Give Your Meat A Good Ol’ RubDavid Cameron’s Favourite Band Is Pig Destroyer, Owen Wilson Says Wow and Rob Halford Robs Halfords, and this is part of the appeal for those unsure or uninitiated. But it wouldn’t be fair to simply write Raised by Owls off as (another) comedy band. Their blistering grindcore, injected with a blackened sensibility, is razor-tight throughout their set and obviously well-rehearsed; being funny hasn’t compromised a shred of musical brilliance. Most of all, though, they know how to put on a show, bringing on a life-size Mr Blobby and blasting the ChuckleVision theme song. It gets the crowds laughing, dancing, and most importantly, starting the biggest wall of death for 7:45pm on a Wednesday, as frontman Sam Fowler keeps reminding us of. A real treat – who knows what kind of slot they’ll have next time Bloodstock book them.

THURSDAY

Stumbling off my hangover and vowing never to drink rum again – at least for a few hours – I witness something special from Oldham trio Tortured Demon, who blow the cobwebs off the Jäger stage in true style at only 11am. With an aggressive, thrashy, bouncy sound that borrows from 90s Sepultura, they sound extremely tight and musically cohesive as a unit. What’s really striking is the fact that the band are all in their teens, with drummer Joe the oldest at 17. They sound better than several bands here who are two or three times their ages. TD have gained a lot of hype from promoters and underground enthusiasts in the last year or so, and it’s quickly apparent to see why. Their grooves and breakdowns win over the crowd as much as the faster paced riffs do, causing eye-wateringly violent moshpits and walls of death, with a legion of hungover metalheads chanting the band name louder and louder as the set goes on, causing the barricade in the tent to need repair by the end. The lads will leave the festival with a lot of new fans – myself included – and for the rest of the weekend, it’s hard to go a couple of hours without seeing a Tortured Demon t-shirt. It turns out that would sell out of merch by the end of the day, but you can pick one up next February when they open for Evile on their UK headline run.

Around lunchtime on the Sophie stage, we’re graced by Birmingham death metallers and Metal 2 The Masses alumni Ashen Crown. Almost two years on from the release of their debut album, the pandemic has meant they’ve hardly had a chance to tour it – so they make the most of it today, visibly enjoying themselves and having fun with a sense of camaraderie onstage between the bandmembers. From the first riffs of Ultimatum, the crowd is energetic throughout. You only need to head over to their Facebook page to see some of the circle pits that ensued. Despite the relatively early timeslot, they still pull a large audience, who chant along obediently when their participation is needed. Ashen Crown are a death metal band, sure, but they aren’t really limited to one sound or style. They have thrashy elements, a sense of groove à la Lamb of God, and a hint of doomy darkness to keep the riffs fresh and interesting. Longtime fans are treated to a new song or two as the set goes on, and by the end, there’s a real sense of triumph as they take their final bow. Ashen Crown are prolific on the gig and festival circuit, so do yourself a favour and see them again when they inevitably come around. My first interview of the festival for MMH was with guitarists Jay and Ste a few hours later, who were super friendly and chatty, still glowing from the success of their set.

An hour or two later, London trio Urne play a spellbinding set in the Sophie tent. Their sound is hard to pinpoint, although in an age where several rising bands are transcending genre expectations and refusing to be placed into a box, Urne are also unafraid to do their own thing. There’s elements of doom, sludge, extreme metal, hardcore, prog, and god knows what else in their melting pot of sound. ‘Serpent & Spirit’ is still only a few weeks old, so it’s everyone’s first chance to hear material from the record. It’s surprising how much sheer power and expression Urne manage to produce only as a three-piece, with the talent of Angus doing more on a single guitar than many bands can do with two. Joe switches between sung vocals and gruff roars with ease, and the two dominate the stage with energy as Rich controls the tempo at the back. They all look as if they’re having a blast, visibly enjoying the moment in their first gig for around a year and a half. Their eclectic style may not captivate all listeners, but for those who can appreciate their multi-dimensional sound, it’s a thoroughly rewarding experience. Definitely one to keep tabs on.

While interviewing, I bump into Andy from The Crawling, who spots my MMH t-shirt and asks if I can interview them. I admit that I’ve never heard of them, but he gives me a business card and we have a chat half an hour later, in which he and his bandmates are very warm, chatty and insightful. We talk about the close-knit metal community in Northern Ireland and their sense of musical atmosphere that ‘might not be for everyone’. I like to think myself as open minded; intrigued, I check them out on the Sophie stage shortly before nightfall. On stage, they are like Hydes to the Jekylls that I met a few hours earlier. A punishing, crushing, despairing death-doom sound blasts from the stage monitors, and doesn’t let up in intensity until they depart. Truly, The Crawling is an apt name for a beast of this nature. The atmosphere they create is, in a word, miserable, as if you’re being dragged by your ankles through a murky swamp at snail pace while you grieve for long-lost, better days. Andy spots me queueing for chips the next morning, and I let him know that although despite his warning about them not being for everyone, it certainly did it for me. A great discovery for the weekend, and certainly a band I’ll be looking out for in the future.

FRIDAY

As Friday rolls around, I somehow feel even rougher than the morning before, but a vitamin tablet, breakfast meal deal and a breath of fresh air sorts me out in time for Insurgent, who regrettably clash with Svalbard on the main stage. I choose Insurgent not just because they’re lovely people who won Metal 2 The Masses in my own neck of the woods, but because their set had received a certain buzz around it beforehand. There was hype even amongst people I’d spoken to who were from nowhere near the Midlands, and only had heard of them because of their announcement, with the strength of the week-old ‘Sentient’ EP enough to turn a lot of heads in time for their show. Insurgent crushed it, with their catchy, techy brand of alt-metal impressing so many in the crowd, alongside their commanding stage presence. Though they jumped around, obviously having a lot of fun at their first festival appearance, they were razor-tight and polished throughout. This translated well to the audience, who were numerous in size and all very much into the music, headbanging and bopping along to every note. Their criminally short set will be talked about for some time and will serve as fuel to what already seems like an unstoppable ascendancy for Insurgent.

INSURGENT

Fans of the low, slow and sludgy at Bloodstock this year could have done much worse than to see Sound of Origin in the New Blood tent in the mid-afternoon. Only an hour or so after APF labelmates WALL, who had played their second ever show to the Jäger stage, excitement built at the front of the tent as SoO took to the stage and launched into the first notes of Dim Carcosa. Frontman Joel is in fine form, bursting out into eye-watering high notes, brutal screams, and even throat singing during closing number Morning Bird. He commands the crowd with a Freddie Mercury-style presence, getting audience members into a game of vocal call and response with ease between songs. It would be simplistic to just consider SoO to be another post-Black Sabbath fuzz band – sure, they’ve got plenty of those qualities, but they have the sort of bounce and groove that defies genre expectations, and even a little Alice in Chains worship as well. It seems that you could say this for any band after a year and a half of nothingness, but SoO really look like they’re enjoying the moment in the spotlight, lapping up the receptive audience and not just playing a set, but putting on a show. I spot Joel and guitarist/vocalist Zeph near the main stage while stumbling around after a few rounds at Lemmy’s Bar later on that day, and let them know how much I enjoyed their set. After interviewing SoO on Sunday afternoon the three of us get to silly levels of drunk, buying each other shots during Judas Priest. As I’d find out, there ain’t no party like a Sound of Origin party… do not sleep on this band.

The Sophie tent had a genuinely impressive run of bands leading up to Napalm Death headlining the stage on the Friday, with Raging Speedhorn bringing bounce and groove at half five, and Conan‘s fuzzy sludge-hammer before Devin‘s performance on the main stage. Arguably, though, it was Evile who had the most ‘unmissable’ set. Their first with Ol on lead vocals, Adam on guitar, and since the release of ‘Hell Unleashed’, it birthed a new chapter for the Northern thrashers. We’re treated to a couple from the new album, which is more aggressive and death-thrashy than anything they’d really done in previous eras. Yet Evile know what their fans really want to hear, busting out a setlist that leans heavily on vintage ‘Enter the Grave’ material. Closing with a one-two of Thrasher and Enter the GraveEvile had some of the craziest and most violent mosh pits that I, at least, was a part of all weekend. Ol stepped up to the plate as lead vocalist for Evile for the first time, handling the older material with ease, in which he would only have played guitar on when previously in the band. After relatively sporadic activity for the past five years or so, we would really hope that this is the start of a new lease of life for the band, based on the quality of this performance. Their sixth album is already in the works, and they’ll be on tour next year, so keep your fingers crossed.

DEVIN TOWNSEND

A small emergency at my camp means I’m forced to miss the start of Devin Townsend‘s set, but what I do catch was nothing short of absolutely incredible live showmanship. It’s worth mentioning that he’d amassed a purely British backing band in light of the pandemic restrictions, who’d only had half a week of rehearsals prior to this set, only headlining the main stage at Bloodstock Festival. No pressure, then…

Perhaps a few eyebrows were raised when Devin was announced as headliner for Bloodstock, but he silenced any doubters with the show that he led on the Friday night. A natural born entertainer, his sense of humour is apparent between songs as it is with his stage show. How many times have you seen an elephant, a performing gorilla or dancing skeletons on stage, let alone during a Bloodstock headliner? It gave the audience something to wryly chuckle at, in between being absolutely blown away by the musical extravaganza on display. Devin led the show with ease, even with a full choir during Spirits Will Collide, and initiated a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday to Bloodstock and the festival organisers at the end of the set, 20 years after the inaugural festival. His show had all the frills, it was over the top, it was nothing short of triumphant.

Devin played a fan-chosen setlist that reached from all corners of his varied discography. There was plenty for the old-school Strapping Young Lad diehards, opening with Aftermath and busting out fan-favourite Love?, for example. There was material from when he performed as the DT Band and DT Project, as well as just Devin Townsend. Hevy Devy was present in full force, yet he would also dedicate ample time for his ‘softer’, more uplifting material. He played a bit of everything, and it was truly magical.

A wonderful, all-encompassing show to (hopefully) signal a restart and new beginning for live metal music.

DEVIN TOWNSEND

Photos: Andy Shaw