Planet Rock teamed up with Bloodstock in the early summer to find a band to open the Sophie tent on the Saturday morning. The winners would be Birmingham prog metallers Netherhall; having defeated over 500 bands, and playing their first gig in a year and a half, such a performance would surely intrigue any festivalgoer. Netherhall played songs that will appear on their upcoming debut album, due at some point later this year. The material is a little heavier and ultimately more mature (and memorable) than their early work in the late 2010s. Matt‘s ethereal lead vocals ultimately suit the band better than those earlier tracks, and his impressive ear for melody became apparent to those watching Netherhall for the first time. The four songs breathed life into a bleary-eyed Sophie tent, gently waxing and waning in intensity to keep the listeners engaged in a highly atmospheric and emotive half hour. With meticulous songcrafting and attention to detail, the guitar and bass interplay was fascinating to watch, as both Tom and Lewis doubled up on backing vocal duties in addition. Held down by tight, dizzying percussion from sticksman Jake at the back, visibly having a great time on stage again, Netherhall really captured all of their listeners that made it down early. It’s a real shame that they were only on at 11am and weren’t able to attract some of the more hungover Bloodstockians that day, but those who made it were exposed to a real treat.
It was a real shame that Video Nasties were on at the same time, but the commanding main stage set from Conjurer was not one to be missed. Their ascendancy through the stages at Bloodstock (as well as everywhere else) over the last five years has been staggering – from relative unknowns on New Blood in 2016, to rising stalwarts in 2018 in the Sophie tent, few would question their slot on the main stage this time round, and the turnout they pull proves it. Like everyone else, the pandemic has been a real stumbling block for Conjurer, who were mid-tour when the world shut its doors. Yet if the new song that they opened with is anything to go off (which someone on setlist.fm has named Dwells, although officially unconfirmed), they’ve taken their downtime to full advantage. It has the blackened elements present on 2018’s ‘Mire’ at the start, but goes into dreamy post-metal territory that could have come from a Svalbard studio outtake. A confident track to get fans excited about the upcoming album, bassist Conor (also of Sylosis, who unfortunately pulled out at last minute) chatted to me later on and spoke about his enthusiasm to get the new material out, which he feels is more mature and stronger than ‘Mire’. Conjurer carried on to play a series of fan favourites, including Retch, Thankless and Hadal (complete with Conor diving into the crowd as per usual) to prove that they could be the UK giants of tomorrow.
Like any other festival, you wander around, bumping into people you know, missing bands you wanted to see, stumbling across bands you’d never heard of or know next to nothing about, but finding a real hidden gem in those moments. Ramage Inc. were one of those bands for me this weekend; as me and two of my recently-reunited friends wandered into the Sophie tent, the Scottish progressive metallers were on, creating an authoritative presence there. I knew nothing of them but the name before going in, having seen them on a few festival lineups and gig posters in the past (and it also sounds a bit like that one Metallica song, doesn’t it), but left the tent as a fan of them that day. Bryan‘s bellowing vocals and sense of melody reminded me a little of Boss Keloid – without the herbal undertones, mind – and their progressive sensibilities are clever without going in on themselves too much, or becoming over-indulgent. The songs are wide and epic, but still very much songs, rather than meandering, aimless explorations, an unwelcome trap in the genre. Ramage Inc. showed a real grasp of light and shade to keep their music interesting, impressing new listeners such as myself. They’d become the first new discovery of the weekend I’d listen to by myself at home – if that’s not the sign of a good review, I don’t know what is. A band I need to explore much further.
Mercyful Fate would unfortunately have to pull out due to pandemic complications, allowing Teutonic thrash lords Kreator to take their place. It was perhaps an interesting choice for headliner on the Saturday night. Having subheadlined in 2017, and played third-last in 2011, was their spot at the top of the bill borne of convenience, above all? Given the circumstances, no-one would complain about Kreator being there. Yet the question still lingered… was the elevation to headliner deserved, could a bigger band have taken their spot in an ideal world?
Yet Kreator would silence any doubts straight away.
Mille‘s stage presence is that of a metal god (more about that tomorrow), bringing on a flag to wave during Flag of Hate, casually inviting Dani Filth onstage to guest vocal during Betrayer and getting the vast crowds to chant along to the anthemic chorus of Satan Is Real as if they were in the palm of his hand – not a bad response for a track released 35 years into Kreator‘s career. He keeps it real, as well, showing sincere gratitude to the audience and festival organisers for their promotion to main stage headliners. Meanwhile, the rest of Kreator put on a razor-tight performance; with blistering leads from Sami, Jürgen controlling blisteringly fast tempos with ease and precision, and (relatively) new bassist Frédéric slotting into the sound like a long-established part of a well-oiled machine. Almost four decades into their career, the truth is that there’s no sign of them letting down in aggression or intensity. And the fact that they’re not a ‘Big Four’ thrash band from America doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve every minute of their headline slot.
The crowd go absolutely wild throughout, singing/shouting along, with some of the festival’s biggest, wildest mosh pits during closer Pleasure to Kill in particular. As the title track to one of their most classic albums, there was never any doubt that the thrash enthusiasts would go ballistic for it. Yet the newer material, or anything from the second half of their career, goes down just as well. It’s a sign for any band that they’ve achieved longevity. There’s no frills or messing around; just thrash metal brilliance from Kreator.
Unbelievably, it’s the last day of the festival. Shortly after a stunning performance from Seidrblot, whose atmospheric, dark, Viking-inspired folk gives Bloodstock’s early risers something a little different, Bloodshot Dawn take to the main stage. Regulars at Bloodstock Festival since their first appearance over a decade ago, they’ve become a well-revered name within UK death metal and underground circles, and this performance is testament to why. Drawing heavily from 2018’s ‘Reanimation’, the Portsmouth death metallers give the festival a much-needed shot of adrenaline early on in the morning. Sounding like a well-oiled machine with barely a note out of place, it’s striking that two of the members onstage – lead guitarist Charlie and Ben on drums – are filling in due to Covid restrictions (usually known from Woe Betide and This Is Turin respectively). You wouldn’t have guessed this was anything other than Bloodshot Dawn‘s ‘usual’ line up, though, with the precision and intensity of the performance. Bloodshot Dawn windmill, grin and blast through a six-song set that seems to draw to a close too quickly, considering the quality on show. It’s a real death metal breakfast. In a world where everything was right, they’d be doing much longer sets on this beloved main stage. Maybe their upcoming, promised fourth album will give them that push?
Stoner metal legends Orange Goblin swagger onstage in the early afternoon, celebrating 25 Years of British Rock & Heavy Metal (according to the festival poster) – or 26 years, as Chris is keen to remind me when I interview them shortly after lunchtime. Before their set, they appear relaxed, carefree and seemingly devoid of nerves, just soaking in the festival atmosphere and sun, visibly excited to soon be back onstage. It’s their second show since the pandemic took hold, and only their second show with Harry on the bass guitar, who is a longtime friend of the band. He slots in confidently, clearly enjoying himself onstage and performing backing vocals for the towering presence of Ben Ward, whose vocals and showmanship haven’t diminished in 25 – sorry, 26 – years of Orange Goblin. They play songs from all nine of their studio albums, proving that they are a heavy metal institution by now, with the adoring fans to prove it. The likes of Sons of Salem and Red Tide Rising from the (relatively) newer end of their discography go down just as well as old-school Goblin tracks such as Scorpionica, which the band acknowledge as being a real fan favourite that they could hardly drop from a setlist during our pre-show chat. Their set feels like a celebration more than anything; the fans love it, the band are into it, and their show is truly a standout performance of the whole weekend.
Up-and-coming riff merchants Green Lung are one of the hottest names in the UK stoner/doom underground at the moment, and their teatime slot on the Sophie stage proves why. Green Lung had been one of those bands I’d listened to in passing once or twice, but never really delved into properly until now. Their set showed me why I need to do just that. Any newcomers such as myself are confidently summoned in by the quintet, while those already a part of the cult show their appreciation, mostly in the form of strange-smelling cigarettes. Its stench takes over the blood, sweet and beers that typically reeks out the tent by the last day of the festival. Onstage, Green Lung strut their psychedelic-infused Black Sabbath worship with ease. I seem to be repeating myself at this point in saying that they show gratitude and excitement at performing again, but they’re no different to any other band here, and it means just as much to them as with anyone else. Their set is well-paced, owing as much to the low and slow as it does to the more upbeat, energetic numbers, that stop us from sinking into the void. New singles Leaders of the Blind and Reaper’s Scythe are warmly received – the latter of which causes a big cheer to erupt when it drops, with the audience headbanging enthusiastically. By the time popular closing number Let The Devil In plays, from the acclaimed ‘Woodland Rites’, Green Lung show full command over the tent, converts and converted alike. The future of heavy psych is in safe hands.
Midway through their set, Rob Halford shouts ‘We are Judas f***ing Priest!’ out to the festival attendees, virtually in their entirety. Like you didn’t know already.
Judas Priest celebrated a half-century of heavy metal in style on the Sunday night with their first performance in over two years. Would it be a predictable ‘greatest hits’ set, like last time? Few would have complained if so. But no – they opened on a real curveball, playing One Shot At Glory from ‘Painkiller’ for the first time ever. Invader also received its live premiere, and Rocka Rolla was outed for the first time in 45 years. Not bad going, then. It wouldn’t be Priest without Painkiller, Breaking The Law, Living After Midnight, Electric Eye, You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’… etc. But with a set with plenty of deep cuts, Priest managed to keep things fresh and keep the audience guessing, and strikingly doing the unpredictable fifty years into their career.
Judas Priest never particularly stood still at any point, re-writing the same album over and over. The festival had a raucous sing-along to Turbo Lover, but it’s worth remembering that it represented somewhat of a stylistic departure for Priest upon release, a glammed up rocker that fitted in with the contemporary 80s metal sound. Tipton and Downing upped their shred game for ‘Painkiller’ a few years later, with its vicious title track sounding just as powerful as it did thirty years ago. Rob Halford could still belt it like no-one else, ten days shy of his 70th birthday. Even the maligned Ripper-era albums saw Priest willing to evolve and try something new – although such cuts were a little too deep for this setlist.
There are still all of the trademark elements to a Judas Priest gig. Halford is in fine form as frontman, as usual. His motorbike rouses a loud cheer, and he brings on the Birmingham Bullring bull as a nod to his Midlands heritage during the encore. Priest don’t need to rely on the frills of an expansive stage show, when their sheer stage presence and the importance of their music to so many metalheads in the crowd speaks louder volumes than they ever could today. Guitarists Andy Sneap and Ritchie Faulkner deliver virtuosic performances alongside Ian Hill, the only constant member of Judas Priest over the last half-century, who delivers a lesson in holding down the low end with Scott Travis not missing a beat on the drums. It’s a masterclass performance for two hours – a slightly longer set time due to the late cancellation of Sylosis. The moshpits go ballistic throughout.
Priest introduce Glenn Tipton for a ‘British Steel’-heavy triumvirate of Metal Gods, Breaking the Law and Living After Midnight to an adoring reception. It’s the perfect end to five days of Bloodstock. What more appropriate way to round off a heavy metal festival celebrating 20 years, than with the first band to openly embrace the heavy metal label, celebrating 50 years?
Monday morning inevitably comes round, and all our hangovers hit us at once. We make our way back to our cars and coaches, bleary-eyed, back to reality in a world without bin jousting, overpriced food and cans of Carling at 8am. For many of us, it’s our best Bloodstock experience ever, aided by the extra day, stellar lineup and extra meaning after a year or so away from live music.
The 2022 announcement began to roll out over the course of the weekend. We’ll have the likes of Lamb of God and Mercyful Fate (finally!) headlining, with Phil Anselmo & The Illegals, Testament, Exodus, Life of Agony, Bloodywood and Dimmu Borgir amongst some of the others on show. Assuming travel restrictions are back to normal, it’s already set to be another great festival.
Until next year…
Photos: Andy Shaw