Underworld, London, UK - 21/5
Bloodstock Open Air 2012Previous Next
author EW date 22/08/12
The years go by but the ritual remains the same. For this writer the Wacken years of 2003-08 were a glorious pilgrimage to German soil with success found on each occasion but for 2009-12 the migration for the loud and the heavy has remained on British land as Bloodstock Open Air has risen to became an 11,000+ festival to rival more it's celebrated teutonic cousins. This year's line-up was perhaps stronger than ever, at least on the main, Ronnie James Dio, stage where recognised international superstars competed with more modestly statured acts for the honour of being the band to see. The Sophie Lancaster Stage as usual boasted a stellar collection of lesser-known lights interspersed with a few gems, while the New Blood Stage plays it cosy role as the cradle of the scene, the stage where bands are born and consecrated with the hope of one day reaching the heights of The Sophie, or perhaps the zenith of The Dio stage.
Complimented by three large camping fields plus smaller ones for media and a 'quiet zone', a funfair which come nightfall and decreasing sobriety attracts punters like dizzy moths to a fluorescent and vomit-inducing flame, and your usual array of merchandise and food stalls, Bloodstock is in many ways a holiday park for the metally (sic) unhinged, deprived of the opportunity to walk freely in cut-off band shirts adorning gruesome album artwork and for manes to fly free in the wind without threat of unwanted comment, which throughout the remaining 51 weeks of the year must remain in cupboard and ponytail respectively. Retain those thoughts in your mind, for I bring you: Rockfreaks.net conquers Bloodstock. Volume 4.
As reassuring as a beef n' ale pie and no less tasty, Swedish heavy metal heroes Grand Magus open proceedings for this writer and proceed do what they do on his seven previous shared live experiences: play the kind of tunes in "Kingslayer" and "Like The Oar Strikes The Water" which should justifiably have them being performed in a late evening, rather than early afternoon, slot. Magus' material is perfectly suited to rousing an audience from early slumber with their all-round solid performances, quietly brilliant heavy metal and knowledge of a fine chorus or two. That a newer generation have come round and jumped ahead of Magus while not sounding half as recognisable is a strange occurrence; until that rights itself you'll make do with a band who could out-metal any modern upstart with a flick of their greying beards. 
After a session in which Moonsorrow performed a solid if unspectacular job while I was largely otherwise occupied, it came to Iced Earth to bring delight to us all in what was becoming an unexpectedly sweltering afternoon in the English midlands countryside. I make no attempt to hide it: I am pained and gutted to have missed Iced Earth with Matt Barlow because that man has pipes to spare. However, new vocal recruit Stu Block is doing a fine job of filling the mighty ginger ones shoes with a combination of a strong vocal style and charismatic frontman work that was certainly not present in the days of Tim 'Ripper' Owens fronting the band.
Having taken a slightly curious decision to launch a band image comprising more denim than a Levi's convention, Iced Earth certainly look like a unit and it could be argued they are close to matching that again musically these days. New bassist Luke Appleton did nothing to upset the apple cart, it was only the sore throat of Block which put a blotch on the musical delivery. It's not hard to argue the case for a more energetic performance from his instrument-playing cohorts but for a mid-afternoon set in the heat Iced Earth did not melt away. 
Iced Earth performing "Watching Over Me"
Considering the original incarnation of Bloodstock as an indoor purveyor of all things power metal, to await the arrival of first Watain and then Behemoth in the top slots of the RJD stage on this glorious summer's evening would have seemed as unlikely as Nightwish ripping out a blastbeat back in those tragically wimpy days.
To all but perhaps the very most underground of BM fans Watain represent the truest form of what black metal means in the year 2012. Their last two albums - "Sworn to the Dark" and "Lawless Darkness" - have shot the Swedes into the consciousness of many whose appreciation of BM will be minimal before this mid-evening show, one which has the potential to open up the plethora of great art in the BM cannon to the uninitiated or scare them off forever, depending on personal tastes. Whatever preconceptions may be in the minds of those watching, a stage littered with burning tridents and flaming torches scattered among a rabble of men who may well have just crawled from the grave is not the kind to induce visual boredom. Through the muddled sound and brutal delivery, band leader E. takes the responsibility in such a vociferous act to invoke the spirit of each song to the audience, a task which he takes to well considering the difficulty of doing so on a large festival stage in broad afternoon sunshine. Through his demonic demeanour and caustic song references comes the Satanic fervour of "Malfeitor", "Total Funeral" and closer "Waters of Ain" which could otherwise be lost in translation without him. A deeply intense set from one of BM's most blackened lights draws to a very fiery conclusion. 
The lucky sod that I am, I had the pleasure of witnessing Behemoth's gradual return to full power earlier this summer at Metalfest Croatia. I'm not sure what God may have done since then to upset the Poles but wow has their performance tightened from what was already an exhibition in professional black/death extremity then. Seeming as if his battle with leukaemia, high-profile relationship with Polish pop star Doda and all manner of celebrity endorsements since then has increased the pressure to continue to prove himself to a fickle metal fanbase, Nergal & co destroy not only all other bands at BOA 2012 but can legitimately claim to crush any other extreme metal band in the live arena today. By continuing to play crowd-pleasing setlists culled from across their discography, with middle-era tracks like "Christians to the Lions" and "Decade of Therion" melding nicely with more recent "Slaves Shall Serve" and even an ancient track in "Moonspell Rites", Behemoth receive richly deserved adulation for the devastation they cause to necks and ears in this drunk and exhausted corner of the Derbyshire countryside.
Blessed by a sound that was capable of handling the speeds in which Inferno pounds the skins, I can only declare Behemoth as one of the few extreme bands I would pay to repeatedly see perform the same material month after month. This was another lesson in violence and one I'm sure I won't soon forget. 
Behemoth performing "Lucifer"
Due to food-gathering and interviewing-recording requirements laid out upon me for this weekend my first full band of day 2 is the once mighty Mayhem, a band who need no introduction to anyone who likes controversy, black metal, or a combination of the two. I was especially looking forward to this one having only once seen Mayhem, at a rather poor Wacken 2005 performance, and feel it is time overdue we caught up again. Also, I had somehow gotten to this point never having seen Atilla live with any unit; I have heard tales of him appearing on stage mummified, dressed in rubbish and dressed as a tree so was eager to see his get-up today. What amazing concoction of individuality could it be? Oh, just a Sodom shirt. Well, maybe after the visual tour de force of Watain the night before perhaps the rest of the band will pick things up? Erm, no. No stageshow, no fire, no movement, crap sound, no energy, no point. Even the 2 new (slaphead) guitarists who might've thought had something to prove entering such a legendary band showed no willingness to break a sweat. Until we reached closer "Freezing Moon", which faded out minutes before their set was scheduled to finish the lack of reaction to a band so huge in the evolution of black metal told a sorry tale.
If there was proof needed that the evil aura of the likes of Watain today has overcome the historical legacy of Mayhem then this was it. Compared to those Swedes, simply no contest. 
Further interviewing requirements unfortunately severely curtailed my desire to catch the set of Sanctuary, the pre-Nevermore act of Warrel Dane and Jeff Loomis, which since the demise of the brilliantly unclassifiable act, has sprung back into life to bring late 80's classic heavy metal to the fore. With a heavy heart I missed all but one song, but in "Battle Angels" there was enough evidence to see the 4/5ths original line-up gelling, with Dane himself making a commendable effort to reach the hysteric high notes he laid down on record some two decades past. Sounded good so you'll have to catch them yourself on future tours to let me know what I missed. [?]
Blossoming in the UK underground doom scene are Hampshire residents Witchsorrow, a band frequently seen around London parts whether the three-piece band are to be playing or not. Today in a decent slot on the Sophie stage with a forty minute set, the husband-and-wife duo on guitar/vox and bass push their set through an ever improving dedication to classic doom greats like Electric Wizard with songs as high on passion as they are slow on speed. Playing to a far bigger audience than I have before seen, mainman Necroskull (or Nick to his mum) is the only one of the three to play up to the audience in an otherwise fairly restrained performance but the quality of their music is obvious and growing in a stately stature to rival The Wounded Kings as the pre-eminent underground UK doom band of the time. 
Easily one of the biggest acts of the weekend, the legendary thrash veterans Testament come to town keen to spread the message of their new opus, "Dark Roots of Earth". Noted with these guys over the years has been their refusal to dramatically soften or change their sound to appeal to prevailing climates, no doubt a reason that has aided their longevity and continuing success with noteworthy and relevant releases and an audience size that was probably only bettered by each of the nightly headliners.
With the Skolnick and Peterson duo now more than settled on guitar again the playoff between the two is top notch; where Peterson holds together the rhythm to a setlist of classic Testament tunes like "Practice What You Preach", "D.N.R.", "The Preacher" and newbies "Rise Up" and "Dark Roots of Earth", Skolnick can be heard adding colour with his classical skills in ways that perhaps only Mustaine and Hammett can rival in thrash. On vocals Chuck Billy has never been a man lacking in confidence and his performance is decent; he does not consume the stage like other notable frontmen but is more than happy to let his band do as much of the talking, especially with a monster like Gene Hoglan on drums. I have since read comments from Peterson that not everyone is the band is pulling in the right direction, an extraordinary remark for a band so current and active, but it would be hard to say this situation presented itself too obviously in their live show. [7˝]
Testament performing "Dark Roots of Earth"
And onto Machine Head…the final major name to be announced for the festival to a chorus of probably 75% approval and 25% disapproval if chat and discussion are anything to go by. Despite what my reputation in these parts may be I was very much in the approval camp - much of their material may not be to my tastes but it's easy to see what impact Machine Head have had on mainstream metal since exploding onto the scene in the mid-90s, plus I had yet to see them live and was about to set that straight without having to go to one of their now-standard arena shows.
With a light and pyro show only equalled by Watain and Behemoth, Robb Flynn & co are on top form playing to an audience it would seem as ready for their groovy, thrash-tinged metal as could be expected at one of MH's own shows. Opener "I Am Hell (Sonata in C#)" sets the precedent for what became standard for a part-time fan of the band like I - following a lifetime of visits to metal pubs and clubs one does not need to have heard "The Blackening" or "Unto the Locust" for Machine Head songs to be recognised with a knowing appreciation of the song structure or it's finest moments. Following comes "Aesthetics of Hate", "Imperium" and "A Thousand Lies", all lapped up by a large section of the typical BOA crowd who probably felt more at home with these day 2 headliners than either Behemoth or Alice Cooper on the other nights. That gratitude even appeared to extend to a rambling and pointless speech by Flynn which preceded the flimsy opening to "Darkness Within" and in the process made him look (and sound) a bit simple in his views. But hey ho, through "Real Eyes, Realize, Real Lies" and, of course, "Davidian" to close, Machine Head utilise the best of a great and powerfully loud sound to show why they are the metal giants of today - even if I'm still not sold on a good number of their songs. [8˝]
Machine Head: Popular
With the summer Britain has 'enjoyed' so far in 2012 consisting mostly of rain and ominous clouds it had been the most pleasant of surprises to find myself looking for the sun cream on Friday and Saturday; if there is a weather god he is clearly favourable to a spot of heavy metal. Of course it couldn't last though and the arrival of brutal death metal masters Nile brought about the worst of the weekend's weather, a thankfully light shower it would not be amiss to say most attendees were in need of by now.
Blasting into action with "Sacrifice Unto Sebek" early sound issues made way for a good-natured set; save for the odd growled song introduction Nile don't deal in the tough guy posturing afforded most death metal acts, instead merely blasting out their own brand of Egypt and Lovecraftian inspired tomes of relentlessly complex and invigorating metal with a limit on stage movement will do for them. With "Lashed to the Slave Stick" second and "Annihilation of the Wicked" artwork as a background one might wonder whether they are still living off the glories of that (brilliant) record but moving through a brief seven songs with "Black Seeds of Vengeance" to close a disappointingly brief yet well-received 40 minutes, confirming in this writer's eyes and ears why they remain one of the essential DM acts through to today. 
Nile performing "Lashed to the Slave Stick"
Proving that the truth can sometimes be as strange as fiction, Spinal Tap tribute act Anvil came on stage at a decidedly generous 16.30 and in 45 minutes managed to display why a) they never made it, and b) why they will never truly make it. The majority of their set is a rendition of fairly safe and standard speed-tinged classic heavy metal made remarkable largely by Lips' strained vocals and a good dose of fist-pumping choruses, but surely like anyone who has seen their rockumentary 'Anvil: The Story of Anvil' the over-riding temptation is to simply support the Canadians knowing full well the honesty and dedication that gone into their struggle and craft over the past 30 years.
In "Metal on Metal", "666" "Mothra" and a handful of others Anvil have some class A solid metal but acting the class clown has always been Lips' part-time role. After the dildo guitar solo (an act hilariously reminiscent of Tap's Nigel Tufnell 'playing' the guitar with a violin bow) and the obligatory rockstar drum solo I had almost forgotten what music they had to offer but soon learnt, for the benefit of this review, the Anvil theory to music: if you can't win 'em over with riffs, win 'em over with a dildo. I may have forgotten most of the music highlights of their set but that one will live long in the memory. 
Ensuring the superb variation in styles on the RJD stage continued came northern doom/death mongers Paradise Lost. The majority of their discography may not equal in despondency the feeling that can be found on their earlier material but it matters not when in frontman Nick Holmes they have the quintessential gloomy English northerner. Getting away with his cheerful grumpiness though thanks to the professional if staid performance of PL's hour long set is not a problem, but as someone never yet won over by the band following memories of a poor performance all the way back at the indoor Bloodstock in 2003, the spark required to do so still feels MIA. Despite such grievances the clear sound enables four new tracks aired off this year's "Tragic Idol" to garner as warm a reaction as older material aired although I can't help but feel by the conclusion their conveyance would feel much greater in a club venue. 
At the opposite end of the black metal scale to Friday's Watain, Dimmu Borgir represent the slick and pompous extremity of a genre that has always maintained a sense of theatre about it, whether wholly intended or not. In Dimmu's case, the elaborate stage costumes and artistically decorated stage show play into their outlandish material these days, with neither representing an entirely serious take on the 'norm', whatever that may be, as it soon dawns on me that this band probably would be better with a backing choir and orchestra as they had so at Wacken a week before. With standard metal synth instead complimenting the guitars and Shagrath's nasal croaking the pretence of it all that being done live with a full orchestra would surely bring to life songs that in my ears struggled to get out of third gear in what should have been one of the peak slots of the weekend. There is no doubting that after years forever improving their craft Shagrath & co put on a consummate show providing plenty of visuals (much like Watain, much unlike Mayhem) but the grandiose offerings in "Progenies of the Great Apocalypse", "The Serpentine Offering" and a handful beyond leave only a shallow taste in the palette when set against the jugular attack provided from others this weekend. [6˝]
Dimmu Borgir: Theatrical
Moving straight onto Anaal Nathrakh in the Sophie tent immediately after Dimmu Borgir only heightens the difference in directness with their songs; whereas "Progenies…" is bold, elegant and plainly massive, the Brummie bastards simply obliterate whatever stands in their path in a sort of Ryanair you-get-what-you-pay-for no-frills manner. 'Subtle' would not be the term to describe "Drug-Fucking Abomination", "When the Lion Devours Both Dragon and Child" or "Do Not Speak", consequently appreciation of their dominating riffs is restricted to those who know their material, and even then with a struggle in the cacophany of sound raging around the giant circus tent well over a thousand plus are crammed in. Limping heavily yet going without the aid of a crutch and yet eloquently spoken about his views on philosophy and consequent themes of upcoming songs, Dave Hunt cuts a contradictory figure on vocals - a deep-thinker trapped inside the aura of an extreme metaller all the while looking resoundingly normal in appearance. Perhaps it is this that adds to their appeal. All in all the sound may struggle to hand Anaal's three guitar sound but for sheer OTT extremity there is noone to argue with these guys all weekend - most pleasing. 
And to close, a gentleman, a golfer, a rocker, a legend. Alice Cooper turned out to be the perfect headliner to a weekend of sun, beer and metal, much more appropriate than bloody Europe (2009) and less ill/drunk than Motörhead last year. Yes, rivalling Twisted Sister who were bloody brilliant in this slot 2 years previous and with even more instantly recognisable classics, Cooper and his excellent backing band brought Bloodstock the perfect closing present with his theatre show of ghouls, blood and beheadings, not mentioning the odd singalong in "School's Out", "I'm Eighteen", "Hey Stoopid", "Feed My Frankenstein" and one my personal all-time favourites, "Poison".
Having made note of the different methods used by bands over the weekend to employ drama, excitement and the unexpected in their performances, Alice's tactics may not have changed much over the years but in building a fictional character around himself, Furnier (to give him his proper name for a moment) can up the ante further by essentially acting rather than performing, thus ensuring anyone in attendance not in love with at least one of his songs (I can only hope not) will not be short of inspiration for cracking a wide smile at the end of his show. We've all been there before at a show where the prospect of a big band whose material you don't fully know playing a set of around 2 hours can fill you with a small sense of dread, especially at the end of three tiring festival days, but by providing so much more than just the music to command your attention even songs such as "Only Women Bleed", "Cold Ethyl" and "Halo of Flies" which I can't claim to know before the show flew by, generating in me the kind of excitement that now does not appear so often after 10 years of doing this stuff. Closing with "School's Out" (incorporating a clever mix of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2") and "Elected", Alice Cooper and his trusty cohorts were a fitting finale to a diverse three days of all things heavy metal. Think I will have to check out of his own shows sometime based on this… 
Alice Cooper performing "Elected"
And so comes to the end my fourth year, and fourth review, of Bloodstock Open Air. In that time the environment of the festival has changed little but it's recognition within the metal scene and attendance has grown so much so that the Ronnie James Dio stage can be expected to fill with major international bands from across the sub-genres of heavy metal, destroying any notions that Sonisphere or even Download (pah!) best represents the idea of a British heavy metal festival. There is no grandeur about the festival's location to rival Metalfest Croatia or Metal Camp, nor the pull of Wacken but in it's modesty is it's strength, and for a line-up as stellar as what is delivered on the RJD stage with a support line-up on the Sophie, you'd be hard-pressed to find that elsewhere with just 11,000 other souls to share it with. On that note, congratulations Bloodstock!
Photos kindly taken by Nikki Ryan. Apologies for the lack of close up shots of the artists reviewed, here are some of the Sophie stage acts for your perusal