From its humble beginnings as a one-day indoor festival at Derby’s Assembly Rooms in 2001, the Bloodstock Open Air Metal Festival has evolved into one of the most eagerly-anticipated events on the UK metal scene’s calender – and with a lineup boasting such legends as Behemoth, Testament, Alice Cooper, and Machine Head amongst others, it’s pretty much a given that OneMetal were going to show their faces to carouse, headbang and join in with the wholesome, metallic fun. OneMetal.com music writers Phil Whitehouse, Jack Traveller and Danny Heaton were the lucky trio stomping the grounds at Catton Hall, and here is the first instalment of their three-part review of the bands they got to witness across the three days of the festival.
Phil: Malefice (Ronnie James Dio Stage) [4/5]
Reading-based metal wrecking crew Malefice have proven themselves to be perfectly capable of knocking the sleep out of festival-goers’ eyes first thing in the morning in the past, and their stint opening up festivities on the Ronnie James Dio Stage at Bloodstock 2012 is no different. Bursting onto the stage with an energy and enthusiasm that seems almost unnatural at 11am, the band waste no time in exhorting the surprisingly large crowd of punters who’ve managed to drag themselves from their tents into frenzied bouts of headbanging and circle-pitting with their blend of bludgeoning groove and occasional bouts of soaring melody. Their 30-minute set time leaves no room for digressions or extensive crowd addresses, vocalist Dale Butler instead pausing only briefly to commend the crowd for their enthusiasm before demanding further brutality as the band tear strips off Entities-era crowd-pleaser ‘Dreams Without Courage’. The band’s percussive, hammering assault is served well by a clear, punchy sound, and the band’s tightness and on-stage intensity is rewarded by a level of enthusiastic pitting that shouldn’t be achievable at such an ungodly hour. All in all, a great way to kick off BOA 2012.
Jack: The Commander in Chief (Sophie Lancaster Stage) [1/5]
Norwegian The Commander in Chief took to the stage in faux parade-ground military attire, sparkly epaulettes and all. Good effort, but the costume was robbed of most of its impact by her bandmates, who seemed to be inexplicably wearing whatever they felt like. Who is she supposed to be commanding exactly, if not them? Certainly not the audience, unless she issued orders for two thirds of them to retreat from the Sophie Lancaster tent during her set and fall back to a more heavily fortified and better provisioned position (the bar). If those were indeed her orders, this reviewer didn’t receive them, as it’s quite hard to understand what your commanding officer is saying when she has a voice like the first time you realise you have tinnitus.
Sadly, not even good songwriting could save The Commander in Chief. I think my expectations might have been overly high, in light of the sycophantic praise of her technicality on her website, but to my ears the songs were reminiscent of nothing so much as some Lovecraftian horror of a collaboration between Nickleback and Pantera, (but without the hookiness of either of those bands) with the occasional token string-skipping tech riff thrown in, or perhaps some out-of-place shred solo. The arrangements too lacked finesse, serving merely as a vehicle for the Commander herself to show off over; bland, featureless drumming and remedial basslines providing just enough of a rhythmic foundation to the guitar parts to add context without ever being in danger of having an identity of their own, or allowing a song to be greater than the sum of its parts. Finally, the lyrics were pretty cringeworthy, as proved by the refrain of ‘Greedy Little Bitch’ (the most inane chorus since Andrew WK’s ‘Party Hard’) and a song The Commander introduced as being “about teenagers in high school” (I think Avril Lavigne had a song about that too…)
Despite being a genre whose culture prides itself on equality, it’s a sad fact that sexism is just as prevalent in metal as it is elsewhere and this is something artists like The Commander in Chief only serve to perpetuate. The true irony is that The Commander is undoubtedly a competent guitarist, and could probably make worthwhile contributions to metal, but by billing herself as “The first female 7-string guitarist in metal” (which isn’t even true; I can think of several females in bands who play extended range instruments off the top of my head) she is implying that it is somehow more impressive than if she were a male making the same music, and by trading on her gender like this, she preserves the stereotype of metal being a man’s game. Poor show.
Phil: Waking Theo (New Blood Stage) [4/5]
I wandered into the New Blood Stage to check out Barnsley-based Waking Theo largely on a whim, and was pleased to find myself treated to a tightly-played, high-energy display of melodic death metal that at times recalled a stripped-down, keyboard-free and aggression-pumped version of Dark Tranquillity. Guitarists Chris Town and Ben Wright supplied a surfeit of chunky, hook-laden riffs and arrestingly atmospheric, yet constantly driving leads while the rhythm section of bassist Chris Giles and drummer Chris Vinter ensured that even when the six-string performances were at their most nimble and melodic, the foundation of the sound still kept a chest-rattling intensity. Most pleasingly, Waking Theo steer clear of in-vogue tropes or sops to commerciality and accessibility, eschewing dunderheaded breakdowns or ill-fitting clean singing passages in favour of singer Craig Gordon’s unswervingly intense roaring (occasionally reminiscent of Napalm Death‘s Barney Greenaway’s guttural emanations) and the occasional adrenalising inclusion of black metal-esque trem-picked blast passages. One to keep an eye on, this lot.
Jack: Grand Magus (Ronnie James Dio Stage) [5/5]
Both the crowd and band were in high spirits for this set; vocalist JB in particular seemed to be having the time of his life miming silent instructions for crowd participation while grinning like a cheshire cat. The band were on form too, with nary a note out of place. I couldn’t comment on the sound; I was right at the front for Grand Magus, so I wasn’t getting much off the arrays. In particular, from my vantage point Fox’s bass was largely inaudible, although when it did peek through in drop-outs and bass-led riffs, it sounded fantastic (most notably in ‘Ravens Guide Our Way’, whose inclusion in the set pleased me immensely), with a great, chunky, grinding tone. There was enough bite to sound appropriately aggressive, but the tone wasn’t so hot and driven as to introduce unpleasant overtones in bass notes that ring over each other. I couldn’t fault the setlist (traditional opener ‘Kingslayer’ followed by mostly a mix of material from Hammer of The North and Iron Will), though I’m surprised they didn’t drop in more from their excellent new album The Hunt (reviewed here). I was eagerly anticipating seeing Grand Magus since I foolishly missed them at last year’s Damnation Festival, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed, as it was an exceptionally enjoyable performance. I actually caught up with JB after their set to have a chat about The Hunt, amongst other things, and you can have a look at how that turned out here.
Phil: Krepuskul (New Blood Stage) [3/5]
Romanian experimental metal quartet Krepuskul drew a fair audience to the New Blood Stage, and unusually for an unsigned act, most of those gathered were there in order to hear one song specifically – an unusual little ditty titled ‘Hamsters’, a track which managed to blend groove-centric riffing, occasional dancable jazz flourishes and guttural growling which lyrics about the titular rodents and which succeeded in charming a good few Bloodstock punters into the tent. Krepuskul themselves seem under no illusions as to why we’re all there to see them, and make us wait until the end of their half-hour set of idiosyncratic, bouncy metal before unfurling the song that brought us together – however, in doing so, they seem to charm the audience even further with their evident pleasure at being able to play for us, with their affably goofy on-stage presence, and their with catchy, if somewhat over-long and occasionally repetetive compositions. They’re not the most serious of bands, and they’re not the most accomplished, either – but they’re a lot of fun to spend half an hour with – and who doesn’t want a bit of a break from the overweening grimness and seriousness of metal to spend growling about hamsters?
Danny: Primitai (Sophie Lancaster Stage) [3.5/5]
Primitai’s brand of high-energy power metal soon has fists assaulting the air. The song writing is very competent, with some fantastic leads and choruses catchier than a prize from the Swedish lottery. Although it’s my first exposure to this band, I can’t help but join in ‘woa-oah’-ing along. What’s more, they really seem to gel as a band, and their onstage chemistry is palpable, culminating in a guitarist-based human pyramid for their final number. Despite the fact that their material is a tad generic, the overall spirit of fun prevails, resulting in a hearty cheer.
Phil: Cambion (New Blood Stage) [3.5/5]
Having named technical/groove metallers Cambion as one of my New Blood recommendations prior to the festival, I was looking forward to checking out their set, and was pleased to discover that the quartet retained a lot of the effect in the live arena that they have on the tracks I’d heard which initially piqued my interest. Instrumentally, the band played with impeccable tightness, delivering their off-kilter grooves in pummelling lockstep, and intermittently letting loose fleet-fingered lead runs that provided a welcome melodic counterpoint to the low-slung growling of their groove-laden rhythms. One aspect that let the band’s performance down slightly, however, was that the singer’s Burton C. Bell-influenced clean singing didn’t have the same heft and presence as his harsher screams, perhaps requiring some vocal backing from other members to punch up their heft – that minor gripe aside, however, Cambion delivered a thoroughly satisfying set that balanced memorable hooks, instrumental technicality and steamroller groove with admirable aplomb.
Danny: Sweet Savage (Sophie Lancaster Stage) [4.5/5]
Sweet Savage are the pleasant surprise of this year’s festival, and something of a hidden treasure. Their most notable accomplishment to date is having their 1981 hit
‘Killing Time’ included on Metallica’s Garage Inc. Although they make no secret of this, name-dropping a little too often for comfort, their set is pure NWoBHM magic,
with an abundance of pacey riffs and sweet twin leads, with enough grit to recall the likes of Saxon or Tank, displaying the benefits of their experience. By the end of their set, heads are banging, and they round off with a rousing cover of ‘Whiskey in the Jar’. All in all Sweet Savage are a real curveball (predictable cover notwithstanding) this early in the day, and it’s a pity their veteran status hasn’t secured them a more
Jack: Dakesis (Jagermeister Stage) [2.5/5]
The deserved recipients of the lavish praise of a significant portion of the UK metal scene, Dakesis are a band whose star is well and truly ascendant. Masters (and mistresses) of the theatrical and tongue-in-cheek, their set was something of a departure from the progressive power metal they usually play, being an acoustic performance on the Jagermeister stage. They made a valiant effort, but despite the quality of the band’s performance (frontman Wayne Dorman is a seriously accomplished vocalist, and his bandmates are no slouches either), it would seem that balls-to-the-wall power metal – usually the domain of hypertechnical shred guitar, shimmering keyboards and double kick drumming – doesn’t lend itself all that well to arrangements you’d more typically find in folk and country. Undaunted by this challenge, Dakesis forged ahead, pleasing the crowd with good natured stage banter, a selection of new tracks, and fan favourites ‘Valhalla’ and ‘On Wings of Steel’, the latter having been turned into an acoustic ballad worthy of Bon Jovi (is that praise or criticism? You decide!). Going on the quality of the performance alone, I would have scored them higher, but the awkward shoehorning of power metal tropes into folk arrangements (next time cut the acoustic shred solos, guys) didn’t do them any favours. Possibly the wrong band for the Jagermeister stage, the quality of Dakesis’s performance, if not their foray into acoustic power metal, spoke for itself, and I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking they’d be better served playing on the Sophie stage next time, where they can bring their pomp, pyrotechnics and musicianship fully to bear.
Jack: Iced Earth (Ronnie James Dio Stage) [2/5]
Ah, Iced Earth. What a curious band you are. No one can deny that you have some belting tunes, but why do you always pick the stodgiest, most plodding and least interesting of your oeuvre to play live? Arriving on stage in an explosion of denim, the American power metallers got off to a confident start, but as you may have surmised, their set choice left me cold. Another thing that bothered me about the set was new vocalist Stu Block’s stage banter. The man was bordering on being a stereotype, with his incitements to “get in the pit, motherfuckers” and such. Perhaps I’m being overly harsh picking on Iced Earth for this, because I’m certain they won’t have been the only band of the weekend who did it, but it was them I picked up on it most from. Everyone asks to be shown the horns from time to time, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but when your every sentence addressed to the audience is a stock phrase, my inner cynic begins to raise his eyebrows. As a band, when you parrot things like that you’re just re-using the same hackneyed crowd banter that’s been standard for decades now. It smacks of going through the motions (though I wouldn’t say that Iced Earth were going through the motions with this performance), and makes me think “don’t you have enough of your own identity to even use your own sentences?” When I can predict what you’re going to say the next time a song finishes, you might as well be reading from a script, and that isn’t exciting and rock and roll. The band had decent stage presence, and obviously Stu Block is a superb vocalist, so it wasn’t a total loss, but a combination of the aforementioned poor set choice and Block’s very rehearsed crowd addresses spoilt the performance for me. At the end of the day, Iced Earth are too good a band and Stu Block is too good a vocalist for them to have been ‘shit’, but it definitely wasn’t their finest hour.
Phil: Sepultura (Ronnie James Dio Stage) [4.5/5]
Considering the general antipathy one tends to find directed towards modern-day Sepultura by metal fans, one could be forgiven for assuming that the band exists these days as a wounded animal, dragging itself limply towards an ignominous death. Such preconceptions are rapidly shattered as Sepultura‘s current incarnation fling themselves onto the stage and tear through a bruising rendition of ‘Beneath The Remains’, the band’s newest addition drummer Eloy Casagrande whipping up a storm while Derrick Green’s gravelly roar rings out with undimmed purity of purpose. An equally feral airing of ‘Refuse/Resist’ follows, before the band let fly a series of more recent, post-Max selection of tracks which show that the band have still been capable of creating primally satisfying metal – the menacing groove of the title song from their most recent album, Kairos, the cascading waterfall of double-kicks and tom rolls that introduces the teeth-baring thrash of Dante XXI‘s ‘Convicted in Life’. Of course, it’s the classics that the gathered crowd goes most apeshit for, and the closing threesome of ‘Territory’ (complete with guest vocals from Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens), ‘Arise’ and ‘Roots Bloody Roots’ causes devastation in the front-of-stage circle pit before Sepultura depart, leaving no-one in any doubt that they remain a vital force.
Danny: Pythia (Sophie Lancaster Stage) [1.5/5]
My enthusiasm for Pythia isn’t quite as vibrant as it was for Sweet Savage, regrettably. What it boils down to is the problem with female vocalists. Personally, I find that the instances where female vocals sound good with metal – especially when they’re of the swooping, operatic variety – are very few and far between, and in the vast majority of cases they just sound tacked over their metal backing tracks. This is my experience of Pythia, whose riffs display talent at times, even sounding a little blackened intermittently, but ultimately contributing to a sub-Nightwish outfit, who might be more at home on Eurovision. The real nail in the coffin is some truly nauseating synchronised sign language at the end of their last track. At this point I would have left had I not been paralysed with apoplectic laughter, recalling the scene in Napoleon Dynamite where Napoleon and four starry-eyed girls perform the words to a very wet song in sign language.
Phil: Kataleptic (New Blood Stage) [4/5]
Birmingham-based death metal quintet Kataleptic were another of my pre-festival New Blood Stage recommendations, so while I was hoping they’d put up a performance that would justify their inclusion on that list, having seen them several times before I wasn’t terribly concerned that they’d let me down. Well, not only did they not let me down, but they put on one of the strongest performances I’d seen from the band. Their outsized performance dwarfed the already modest New Blood Stage, with band members lurching to and fro with hair a-windmilling, creating a perfectly chaotic and intense visual accompaniment to their uncompromisingly devastating death metal assault. Tracks from their forthcoming full-length album rubbed shoulders with old favourites like ‘Altercation’ and ‘Full Circle’, their entire set demonstrating the band’s ability to blend out-and-out crushing brutality with enough melody and technicality to keep the songs from turning into monotonous chugfests.
Danny: Dio Disciples (Ronnie James Dio Stage) [4.5/5]
Dio Disciples are next on my to-see list, and begin in a fairly plodding, unremarkable fashion,confirming the suspicion doubtless harboured by many that they are just going to be a glorified Dio tribute. This rather listless display garners little adulation and sees several punters wandering away to explore other stages. Personally, I hold faith that things will take an upturn and am soon rewarded with a rabble-rousing rendition of ‘Stargazer’. The hits keep on coming as well, through classics like ‘Long Live Rock n Roll’, ‘Heaven and Hell’, ‘Neon Knights’ and naturally ‘Holy Diver’. It’s a true testament to the integrity of this material, that although I witness many death metal acts this weekend, and sing along with most of them, nothing shreds my vocal chords like this performance, such is the challenge in terms of range, and the temptation to throw yourself heart and soul into the spirit of the occasion! The festival’s hardest working man, Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens does a stellar job in recreating Dio’s trademark croon, as does mystery man Toby Jepson. Although I, and I’m sure many alongside me had doubts surrounding Dio Disciples and their placement as second only to headliners behemoth on today’s bill, they more than allay these concerns. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Ronnie James Dio would doubtless be blushing right now.
Jack: Watain (Ronnie James Dio Stage) [5/5]
I was expecting Watain to be rubbish, but admittedly my only reason for this was that they’ve been getting a lot of good attention lately and I’m habitually suspicious that anything a large number of people say will be good will actually be shit. In fairness to Watain, it has taken them since 1998 to get here, so hardly a meteoric rise to fame, but the old habits of judgement die hard, you know. Uppsala’s finest took to the stage amid fire and blood, great flaming iron constructions and a banner depicting the same superb Dore print that they used as a cover for Lawless Darkness, making for the most impressive stage set of the weekend so far, and the band in their traditional blood and corpse paint made for some impressive imagery. “Greetings Bloodstock, England” proclaimed vocalist Erik Danielsson as the sun began to sink into the west “we’re Watain, and we have come to kill the sun!” he cried as his band launched into the excellent ‘Stellarvore’, and that little piece of theatrics made the set for me. Precisely the point I was trying to make in the aforementioned Iced Earth section; with that one address, completely unique to him, and utterly badass into the bargain, Danielsson made the crowd his own, and he didn’t even have to call us motherfuckers to do it. Again displaying their eye for the theatrical and appropriate, Watain followed with ‘Sworn To The Dark’ “and now the sun is dead, we are Sworn To The Dark!”. Flawless.
In terms of sound I couldn’t fault the set at all. If you’ve ever read any of my prior live black metal reviews, you’ll know that the aspect of live black metal I prize so highly is how heavy it sounds compared to recorded black metal. You can’t mix out the fundamental frequencies of a kick drum on a stage like you can on a CD because the sound pressure levels are just too great; too much air is being pushed. Even if the audience don’t hear that kick drum, they’re going to feel it in their chests, and that extra dimension of heaviness is precisely what Watain achieved. Great booming toms, drenched in reverb, made the drumkit sound like the percussion in a macabre ritual, particularly in slower parts, and the guitars had just the right amount of abrasiveness balanced with chug to be musically pleasing, but still stylistically accurate.
Despite my initial expectations Watain put on a great show. I stand corrected, Watain; you deserve the hype.
Danny: Alcest (Sophie Lancaster Stage) [4/5]
French black metal/shoegaze act Alcest take the stage next, hot on the heels of their latest release Le Voyages L’ame . They immediately make an impression
by having the sheer testicular fortitude to open with a sombre, clean number rather than some of their more incendiary material. In fact, the vast majority of their set is comprised of such contemplative and delicate fare. Although a few harmonies are a little off, their sound is nothing short of angelic by and large, embodying all that is ‘pretty’, for want of a better word, about modern black metal. Although this may not be to the tastes of the corpse-painted masses, it’s worth mentioning that when they want to they can offset this pensive material with some good old fashioned blast ‘n’ screech, which will satisfy traditionalists more effectively. Unfortunately for them,
these eruptions comprise the minority of their set, recalling the likes of Opeth in this respect. All in all, however, Alcest masterfully manipulate atmospherics and have the crowd eating out of their hands.
Jack: Behemoth (Ronnie James Dio Stage) [4.5/5]
After the the decorative canapé of Watain, it was time to sit down to the businesslike main course of Behemoth. The Polish titans were as vast and heavy as you could want in a Friday headliner, their sound crushing and note perfect to their recorded output. Despite having a full array of props, Behemoth’s stage show definitely seemed a drop in energy from Watain, though in fairness to them, Watain’s fire-and-blood theatrics were always going to be a tough act to follow. Behemoth’s was a colder light show that was more brooding and less savage, and it suited the grim, sober seriousness of Behemoth’s music. I was initially skeptical that Behemoth wouldn’t have enough memorable material to fill an hour-and-a-half-long slot, but the set was well paced, and frontman Nergal was on form, ranting like a mad demagogue in his long leathern robe, his imposing stage presence holding the crowd’s attention even during the less well known numbers.
It is a scientific fact that Orion is a seriously under rated bassist. His three finger 16th notes were enviable in their tightness. Tremming with three fingers is challenging on bass because the first note of every beat falls on a different finger each time, so in order to achieve consistency you have to drop accents with a different finger every four notes or risk accidentally accenting with your strongest finger each time and having it come across as triplet feel. No big deal to the mighty Orion, whose right hand was rock solid all night, providing a solid, massive foundation for amongst other numbers classic track ‘Chant For Ezkaton’, (a set highlight for me).
Possibly not quite as good as their Hellfest performance from June, even with the inclusion of a massive glitter explosion halfway through the set (Stealing Motley Crue’s stage moves, are we Behemoth?), but in spite of that, definitely a worthy effort.
Malefice’s Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/maleficeofficial
The Commander in Chief’s Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/thecommanderinchiefmusic
Waking Theo’s Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/wakingtheoband
Grand Magus’ Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/grandmagusofficial
Krepuskul’s Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/KrepuskulRomania
Primitai’s Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/primitai
Cambion’s Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CAMBIONOFFICIAL
Sweet Savage’s Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sweetsavageofficial
Dakesis’ Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Dakesis
Iced Earth’s Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/OfficialIcedEarth
Sepultura’s Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sepultura
Pythia’s Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Pythia/12587806334
Kataleptic’s Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Kataleptic
Dio Disciples’ Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/DioDisciples
Watain’s Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/WATAIN/204952137482
Alcest’s Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/alcest.official
Behemoth’s Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/behemoth