Bloodstock Open Air 2011

author EW date 14/09/11

A man's quest for metal will always know no bounds, especially for one deprived of foreign festivals for the first time since 2002 and for whom the light relief of Bloodstock Open Air could not have arrived soon enough. With it's 10th anniversary, and 5th as an outdoor event, Bloodstock now aims high when comparing against the big European players of the scene with a level of organisation and completeness a world away from it's inauspicious beginnings in a central Derby venue aimed squarely at the power metal crowd.

With little changed in outward appearance from Bloodstock 2010, the greatest difference came in the international strength of the main stage band list, with the likes of Immortal, Morbid Angel, At the Gates, Kreator, W.A.S.P., Devin Townsend and Motörhead, all legends in their own field, coming to this remote Midlands region for the 11,000 or so metalheads in attendance. The festival does however lack any real strength in depth - I, as a very frequent gig-goer and avid reader of anything with the words heavy metal in it, had heard of no more than a dozen of the 60+ bands playing the 2nd and 3rd stages - something I would not be surprised to discover in a large percentage of the audience also. Would it be worth losing this stage for unsigned UK bands to get recognised? Definitely not, but a finer sense of cherry-picking of the bands on the 2nd (Sophie Lancaster) stage would not go amiss to further boost the festival's profile.

Before covering the bands, is there anything else that could be improved upon by the festival? The kilometre long walk from car park to edge of campsite is a well-worn complaint but seemingly unavoidable; as is the £3.80 beer charge (which is admittedly cheaper than most London venues now). Having daily headline bands finishing before 11pm is not ideal - understandable with inner city curfews, but on remote fields in the middle of nowhere? Technical issues raised their head during the performance of many a band this year but come with the territory of any live performance. Anything else? Not from me - security, the running order, stalls, non-band entertainment and even the weather (by and large) were of the positive variety this year and is something the organisers should be proud of.

Right then, to the bands…

Forbidden

One of the pantheon of reformed thrash acts of the last few years, Forbidden have never been major players even despite their strong return-to-form of "Omega Wave" last year, but as the first of a number of thrash acts to hit the stage this weekend their scene status was not at all apparent in their commanding early afternoon performance. The effectiveness of thrash metal live has never been doubted, and the reason why is watching songs like the new title track, "Chalice of Blood" and "Twisted Into Form" send the pit into delirium, the high octane and calculated riffing of Craig Locicero and instantly recognisable vocals of Russ Anderson fronting a formidable force of energy that went some way to relieving the hangovers of the traditionally messy first night at a festival. [7½]




Triptykon

Part 1 of the Swiss combo which represented this writer's most eagerly awaited acts of the weekend were Triptykon, themselves a quickly-becoming hallowed name given the dark might of "Eparistera Daimones" and for being, of course, the home these days of legendary Celtic Frost mainman, Tom G Warrior.

In a set spanning just four lengthy songs the final result was Triptykon 2 - Celtic Frost 2, a surprise at a time when one might have considered the promotion of the Triptykon name a priority. At least then the Frost 'covers' were crushing to the extreme, "Procreation (Of The Wicked)" slowed to twice the length of the original and chained with iron boots such was it's monolithic weight, and "Circle Of The Tyrants" the usual 'URGH' fix all extreme metallers crave. The Triptykon numbers "Goetia" and "The Belonging" in comparison did suffer against their more majestic elder relatives without the weight of historic significance but if there's one thing we learnt from this show, it is that Tom G Warrior and co can summon the darkness and rain from an early summer's afternoon. As if by magic it hardly rained at all after this performance. [7]


Coroner

Part 2 and the unexpected success story of perhaps thrash's most under-appreciated act of the 1980's, the technically-minded Coroner. Unfairly remembered by many as Celtic Frost' roadies, this band released a couple of cult classics and now back on the trail they hit Bloodstock with the precision known in their works but also an engrossing sensibility that would have quashed any question of their worth being placed above other formidable names. Opening with "Masked Jackal" and continuing through "Internal Conflicts" and "Grin", without gusto the accurate performance and skilled songwriting allowed the band to remain relatively static yet pull off an engrossing performance that will have served as an almighty introduction to the large numbers in the audience who will never before have heard the band. Long may the Coroner re-awakening continue. [8]

Kreator

As common to the festival circuit as bad hygiene and dodgy diets, Kreator never fail to disappoint with songs that naturally incite pitting madness and, in Mille Petrozza, a man truly born to front a thrash metal band. With the band's 90's electronic diversions now a thing well and truly in the past a Kreator setlist is comprised pretty evenly of 80's classics and more modern numbers, both sounding as good as each other in the live environs. Whether it's "Endless Pain"/"Pleasure To Kill"/"Raise The Flag Of Hate" or "Violent Revolution"/"Enemy Of God"/"Hordes Of Chaos" you'd be hard-pressed to know from which era each was born when blasted out before you, the overly-processed thrashing of the new records instead released in a fury of anger and passion that younger bands usually struggle to match.

Nothing revelatory can be gained from such a solid set with a good sound and light show as back-up other than the reassurance that if these Germans don't get your blood pumping you may wish to consult a doctor quickly. Heck, it even incited my first pitting action in a good 7 years - what clearer indication do you want? [8]

Primitai

One of the less covered aspects of the Bloodstock extravaganza is the acoustic Jagermeister stage/tent where a number of smaller bands playing elsewhere on the festival get the chance to show off their raw chops in front of a few dozen people. Primitai were the only band I caught any more than 10 minutes of, and though not enough to award any kind of grading, was mightily impressed with the application of the band's songs into acoustic territory, with frontman Guy Mille and lead guitarist Srdjan Bilic cutting confident figures without the invisible barrier of electricity to hide behind. Mixing NWOBHM and classic rock the band seemingly pleased a cross-section of fans from young to old more so than I could have expected when stumbling across their performance after Kreator. Nice stuff.

Lawnmower Deth

Had it not been for the irreverence of the closing stages of Lawnmower Deth's show I would not have covered them here for so little did I see, but when a performance includes a man, dressed as Satan in a ladies dress and bullet belt, bouncing on a trampoline on stage to the encouragement of both band and audience during "Satan's Trampoline", you feel it's not something that can be ignored. The 'comedy thrash' of British old-timers Lawnmower Deth, recently resurrected for the odd performance such as this, is semi-legendary these days as one of the B-league of British thrash acts from the 80's never to make any sizeable waves but with a near full Sophie Lancaster tent capacity greeting them one must begin to wonder of the miracles that a return from the dead can do for a band's status. Musically there is nothing special about the speedy thrash of Lawnmower Deth but with the comedy of frontman Pete Lee and their own closing rendition of "Kids In America" it seems a show of theirs can be nothing but unadulterated fun.


W.A.S.P.

With a perception held by some that glam/heavy metal legends W.A.S.P. did not have the profile to be headlining a day of a festival such as this, Blackie Lawless and co set up convincing all otherwise with their irrepressible brand of outlandish rock, yet with only a lukewarm stage presence to go with it. 2009's "Babylon" was a hugely pleasing record from a band I had longed sensed being past it and while "Crazy" and "Babylon's Burning" from it were well-received for most it is the band's classics - "Wild Child" and "I Wanna Be Somebody" in particular - that are the focal point of a W.A.S.P. show.

Having taken a while for the performance to really kick into gear it was surprising to hear "Wild Child" inserted into the middle portions of the setlist before Blackie proceeded to kill the interest of most by recruiting a fan onstage to help sing, a tactic that only seems to incite yawns and a quick trip to the bar (anyone else?). In fact W.A.S.P.'s set ended up being one full of promise which by it's conclusion was only partially filled; these guys have enough good songs to capably fill a 90 minute set but it was hard to note the exultant feeling that should have been abound for a band filling this time slot on day one. Shame, but by no means a disaster. [7]

Skeletonwitch

How do fan and band approach a show commencing at the ungodly hour of 11am? No easy feat when both parties are probably feeling the after-effects of an expected heavy night, so it was good to see American blackened thrashers Skeletonwitch pulling a sizeable audience for their morning slot. The band may well be lumped in with the retro thrash crowd but their growled vocals and extreme riffing makes the Ohio group's work a pleasing alternative to the more prosaic acts out there, and the result is a band who have METAL stamped all over them. Songs about that most metal subject - dying - may hardly be literary awakenings but the simple sight of 5 burly hairy blokes putting their necks out before midday in front of you is a warming sight and easily digested with the first beers of the day, getting all going for the more demanding acts that were to follow later on. It seems Skeletonwitch should always play shows at 11am… [7]

Finntroll

"Nifelvind" is an album that still does it for me on every listen and what with having had a festival dominated by thrash so far the chance for some oddball folkified black metal was greeted as lovingly as the big huggable trolls that these Finns are. "Solsagan" serves as the classic opener, mixing hammering riffing with sizeable chanting choruses before a mix of tracks from the band's discography were aired, providing plenty of opportunity for merry jigs to be spotted across those present, unable to deny the fun factor in what could still be labelled a black metal band performing up on stage. Oh how the elitists may cry.

Aside from frontman Vreth, Finntroll are not the most energetic performers, relying on their mass of hair to do the talking, and so remain better suited to the smaller venues they frequently inhabit rather than daytime festival performances such as these. In "Trollhammeren" they possess the folk metal equivalent of Slayer's "Raining Blood" but even the sheer ale-chugging delight of that one could not stop Finntroll from turning a slightly below-par performance. Wait for the smaller occasions I'd decree. [6]

Ihsahn

So utterly resplendent is the thinking man's black metaller Ihsahn these days that one could seemingly forget his past as the frontman to one of BM's ultimate acts and focus purely on the proggy tendencies of his three increasingly proficient solo recordings. Last year's "After" has revealed itself to be a record with scope beyond the mere realms of metaldom as the Emperor legend continues to spread his wings to benefit the metal community as a whole. In just his second solo UK performance after a 2010 London showing and with Emperor ceasing activity finally in 2006 this was no doubt the first chance for many to catch sight of the man with the thoughts of an old classic bonus track at the back of their minds. Alas this wish was not granted, the man understandably wishing to rely on his current works to draw people in, but the likes of "Frozen Lakes On Mars" and "The Barren Lands", make for intensive listening whoever the performer.

Of course Ihsahn does not perform alone, pulling along with him 5 others to bring his works to life who perform with a mixture of energy (keyboardist) and quiet concentration (3rd guitarist), but the show is all about one man. The convoluted sound and intricate song structures don't tend to make for the best live show but witnessing this man on stage is like a pop fan catching a glimpse of their favoured celebrity singer, albeit here we have one that actually possesses talent, and by the bucketload. Always essential, whatever the outcome. [7]


Wintersun

Ahh, Wintersun. Returning to Bloodstock 2 years after they cancelled on us to focus on their new album (note: still not released), it is bloody lucky their one and only album, from back in 2004 now, is such a genre classic they can be forgiven for having just the one new song ready 7 whole years later. Of the debut album tracks played ("Beyond the Dark Sun", "Winter Madness", "Battle Against Time", "Starchild" and "Sleeping Stars") picking a highlight from this orgasm of classically influenced riffs is impossible when their intricacies are so beautifully played out, making it abundantly clear how a band with just one album to their name can be so highly regarded. Sounding like their euphoric Finnish brothers in Ensiferum mixed with the heaven-ascending bravado of Bathory it is a tough combination to deny and a great success at their long-awaited performance British festival performance.

New track, "The Way of the Fire", hints at great things to come, but in the life-affirming qualities of Wintersun's output it is possible to forget all about life's qualms and drift away into their Scandinavian seasonal magic, only to awaken miles from anywhere in the not-so-sunny British summer. All this an no mind-altering drugs in sight… [8]

Rhapsody Of Fire

A reminder of the power metal background from where this festival came, Italian troupe Rhapsody Of Fire were a welcome surprise to the line-up, gracing British shores for the first time in their 16 year existence. On a personal note I was big into this band back in 2002/2003 when they were formerly known as just Rhapsody, but having lost (and never regained) all interest in power metal soon after I never expected to see catch their OTT and classical power metal performance, let alone be overtaken by the brilliance of it. Somewhere between Manowar, Queen and the backing band of Sir Robin from Monty Python's The Holy Grail, Rhapsody Of Fire came and won Bloodstock over.

As a sign of their abilities in penning songs that lodge firmly in the memory, it came with a flash of "Holy Thunderforce" that RoF's abundant talent became clear. Blessed with possibly the clearest sound of the festival, the million-notes-per-hour which emanated from the guitar of Luca Turilli and coupled with Fabio Lione's operatic vocals killed dead any notion that power metal cannot survive in Britain, the general presumption which has existed for sometime. Performing with an apparent joy at the crowd participation before them, the show passed in the blink of an eye with even the amusing highlight of Lione stating in broken English the bands pleasure to be there, before launching into complex lyrical arrangements around all sorts of mythical and folkloric tales…in fluent English. Selected language abilities obviously.

So glorious had this long-awaited UK performance been for the band that is has transpired within mere days there has been a split in the band, leaving Rhapsody Of Fire to continue with singer Lione while the Rhapsody name has been restarted with Turilli. Maybe the shock of this performance has been too much for them to get over.. [9]


Immortal

As the first band announced for BOA 2011 during last year's edition, Immortal's return to Britain following reformation has been a long-awaited one in which time the band has further risen to legendary status amongst the hordes. Quite how much of this is down to the band's music is questionable though, given the vast amount of corpsepainted fans to be found wandering the festival in the hours before the Norwegian's appearance, a quick glance at many being all that is required to regard the majority as likely having no other interest in this here genre of black metal.

2009's post-reformation album, "All Shall Fall" was a strong release, but in their back catalogue does Immortal's real strength lie. Anything taken from 2002's classic "Sons of Northern Darkness" is sure to be appreciated live but what is revelatory is how well the band's early- and middle-era tracks replicate from muddy, top-speed recordings into fist-pumping audible tunes in the festival environment. "Withstand The Fall Of Time", "Blashyrkh (Might Ravendark)" and "Call Of The Wintermoon" are clear and powerful and led by Abbath as a man would lead an army of thousands into battle. Too big a personality for black metal it is no surprise he launched the I project during Immortal's downtime, his 'crabbing', crouching and encouragement of the audience being entirely atypical when watching any other black metal band, and plentiful in entertainment for the 90 minute set to flash by.

Fulfilling a festival headline position that doubtless no other certifiably extreme metal act could do, Immortal have assumed the mantle of being the de facto black metal act on the back of classic metal-styled performances and an image to make KISS cry. Is this how black metal was always imagined to be?! [8]


Primordial

Ireland's finest, and one of this scribe's favourites, Primordial should be a lot higher on bills than 1pm slots by now, a fortune presumably favoured upon them for sounding unlike anyone else and not yet having split up and reformed.

After initial debate as to their worthiness of being on the bill at all it is most sad to report that the band could not make the most of their appearance when the very passionate vocals I have lauded so highly in reviews of "To The Nameless Dead" and "Redemption At The Puritan's Hand" deserted Alan Averill after two songs of this performance. His explanation best read here citing an impromptu seizure of his vocal chords left his further participation impossible, yet courageously the band plied on through three more, urging the crowd to sing in his place which was dutifully carried out, not least by my group of mates with the usage of lyrics being sung from iphones in an unexpected round of Live Primordial Karaoke. God bless technology.

If nothing else we realised still how great the likes of "Empire Falls" and "The Coffin Ships" are even without vocals. How many others could this be truly said about performing at this or any other metal festival? [?]


Napalm Death

As a band who need no introductions and come from these here parts, Napalm Death just seems a right fit on the Bloodstock festival at a time when a bit of extremity can't fail to go amiss. Despite never being much of an ND fan on record there lies a distinct pleasure in witnessing frontman Barney Greenway flail about on stage like a man who has just discovered the pleasure of bodily movement, and in more sombre moments, hearing his intelligent and considered opinion on each upcoming song. One may not understand the lyrics he growls out but the thoughts he offers both on stage and in interviews mark the man out as with someone with a considered world opinion and in the process lend the band's songs a significant weight of interest towards what otherwise could have been standard grindcore/death metal blasts of political and social anger. Theirs is a huge discography to choose from and we get treats from all the way back to "Scum" through to 2009's "Time Waits For No Slave", which with a couple of covers thrown in for good measure back up the ND credentials as the most important death/grind band of all time. [7½]

At The Gates

Too classic to even begin to countenance, At The Gates have been on the reformation circuit for a few years now and yet with seemingly no new material in sight it strangely does not feel a great chore being subjected to an hour's worth of material from the hugely influential Swedes. Whether it be from older stuff off "The Red In The Sky Is Ours" or final album "Slaughter Of The Soul" it seems every riff in every track has lead to the formation of (usually shit) bands in their wake, all failing to capture the spirit of those records.

Appearing at the peak of the weekend's weather there was a revelatory air about AtG' set, a knowledge perhaps that the festival end was in sight and the sun, gently bronzing the backs of all punters stood before the stage, was causing everything to appear rather too perfect for the likes of myself who get overly sentimental about these kind of things. The setlist was similar to previous occasions with the seemingly ageless likes of "Terminal Spirit Disease", "Kingdom Gone", "Windows" and "Blinded By Fear" all getting their turn to destroy a few of the necks that had to be banged across the previous three days. After this death metal act of legendary proportions what could really be expected to top it? [8]


Morbid Angel

Ah right yeh, Morbid Angel, that's what. Having just recorded a revelatory air about AtG there was less triumphalism and more worry about how über-legends Morbid Angel might turn out to be, what with the teeny bit of controversy that has plagued their new album "Illud Divinum Insanus" since it emerged earlier this year. Would they play any of the panned industrial numbers from it? As it turned out no. Will they have forgotten how to play death metal altogether? Definitely not. Does David Vincent still look like an 80's goth reject? Ok, yeh kinda, but what the 'Angel did do was lay down the law in virtuoso death metal performance for it seemed the backlash against their new material has stoked a fire in their collective bellies to disprove any naysayers with a live performance that will kill any other death metal show for sometime, at least until Bolt Thrower hit the road again.

Playing classic after classic from the "Altars Of Madness", "Blessed Are The Sick", "Covenant" and "Domination" records MA's set was a virtual roll-call for the classics of the death metal genre. You want "Maze Of Torment", "Rapture", "God Of Emptiness" or "Chapel of Ghouls"? Come get it. Not to be outdone by their more illustrious earlier material the live setting saw even the new tracks "Nevermore", "I Am Morbid" and "Existo Vulgoré" prove worthy additions to the set showing all is not totally lost with "Illud…" just yet. Perhaps discussion of that record had gotten to the crowd as the reception seem to be disappointingly muted for a setlist comprising so many DM greats but for as for what Vincent, Azagthoth, Destructor and Tim Yeung were able to do this was a brave attempt to polish off the muck that has landed on their death metal crown in recent times and reclaim it for the Morbid name. [9]


Motörhead

Motörhead is really the ideal act to close any festival such is the influence Lemmy & co have musically across all genres of bands, as well as at that time, when most may be feeling worse for wear after 4 days of partying, the legend himself arises to remind us all how he's been living that way for 40 years and is still going strong. A true inspiration to us all.

Everyone by now knows how a Motörhead show works: Lemmy grumbles for an hour-an-half while cooly playing away at the middle frets sans hand movement, Mikkey Dee smashes his drums to pieces and Phil Campbell is the epitome of cool and swagger on a stage of total power. This was of course how it worked come the conclusion of BOA with the only notable being an especially grumbly and most probably drunk Lemmy at the helm, punishing all with a filthy bass sound and even filthier than usual voice. With this formula most of the usual classics were aired including two off their upcoming album due out later this year, "The World Is Yours", plus solo slots for Campbell and Dee but the gloss was lost by an irritable Lemmy, bring their show to a good level. It's alright, we still love the man just as much… [6½]


With such an impressive mainstage line-up there was not much time to check out many bands on the smaller stages, but of those I caught at least some of Angel Witch were every bit the NWOBHM legend they are rightfully recognised as today, Beholder delivered a confident blend of modern metal, Northern Oak were the scene of an interesting combination of Agalloch-ian styled metal and real English folk, Power Quest are the same joyously cheesy power metal band I remember them being the last time I saw them on their first gig 8 years ago and Akarusa Yami were … interesting, in a terrible way.

Hopefully with a stronger 'supporting' line-up next year the festival will continue to improve and being to offer a credibility alternative to some of it's European cousins. All in all however this was another successful year in the name of Bloodstock Open Air and further confirmation of it's status as the only true metal festival going in the UK today.

Til BOA 2012!

Photos courtesy of the lovely Nikki Ryan and Mary Evans/Noise Cartel.

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