Bloodstock has become, in recent years, one of the most anticipated festivals on the circuit. Dedicated to metal, you’ll find no concessions to the mainstream, no random band choices in the name of ill-advised eclecticism, just one of the widest, most engaging heavy metal line-ups assembled in the UK. At the end of BOA 2012 Anthrax were announced for this year’s bill and, over subsequent months, revelations as to the other acts on the bills suggested that this year’s edition would be heavily leaning in favour of thrash metal. Aside from ‘Thrax, this year’s line-up boasted Death Angel, Anthrax, Lamb of God, Gama Bomb and, of course, thrash titans Slayer – it was, therefore, no surprise that the metal community collectively put on their hobnailed boots and marched on Catton Hall for the biggest Bloodstock yet.
A four day marathon of metal, mayhem and madness, Bloodstcok is not just about the music. This year saw the well organised campsites once more divided to provide for all-comers – from the families and older veterans relaxing in Hel to the blood and sweat soaked hell-raisers of Valhalla, the campsites were once again well provided for with plenty of food stalls, toilets and even showers drawing no more than moderate queues at any given time. The arena, meanwhile, boasted the best selection of food and drink yet with the ever-excellent Halls Dorset Smokery joined this year by the equally excellent Motley Brew, a metal-themed tea stall with friendly staff and excellent tea. The perfect place to sit for a brew (in a proper mug) and chat with like-minded, tea-swilling metallers, Motley Brew provided a much needed oasis of calm amidst the swirling maelstrom of madness that is Bloodstock. More importantly, Bloodstock carried a well-stocked bar which offered not only the fine Hobgoblin beer but also a variety of other, tasty, mind-rotting beverages of which the pick was surely the eponymous Bloodstock ale. Throw in some excellent stalls offering a mix of clothes, merch and music, a metal-spewing fairground, the four DJs of the apocalypse and the occasional themed battle and you have a festival which hums with life day and night, even when the stages themselves were silent.
Arriving late on Thursday, the party is already in full swing as we hit the arena for the first time. Sadly the acts are done for the day, but the four DJs of the apocalypse are keeping the party going with a string of evergreen classics and even a brief technological fault during ‘Poison’ can’t dampen the spirits of the assembled throng. It’s a grand start to a long weekend.
Friday morning requires an early start because over on the Sophie stage The way of purity are destroying the quiet with their brutal, blackened assault. Having been a fan of the band for some time I wasn’t sure what to expect from the band live, but they certainly delivered. Marja Panic is an amazing front woman whose vocal skills are matched only by her utter commitment to the band’s cause. This is demonstrated, not only by the way she pours her soul into the lyrics, but by the short, impassioned speech which closes the set. It highlights that no matter how good the music is for TWOP, the most important element is the message and even in a short festival slot, that message is put across loud and clear. Happily, the sound is also loud and clear and the band’s blistering approach is perfectly captured as a wall of electronically enhanced sound that comes pouring from the stage like a sonic tsunami. If you’ve not picked up the band’s stunning ‘equate’ album, then now is surely the time to do so.
Over on the main stage it is the turn of perennial thrash underdogs Death Angel who prove to be on stunning form. Clearly invigorated to be playing to a large, enthusiastic audience, the band respond in kind by delivering a high octane set of thrash gems. Despite the short set and the early hour, Death Angel rip though tracks like ‘Lord of hate’ and ‘I chose the sky’ with furious energy and the assembled crowd lap it up. An exceptional set this early into the festival, Death Angel set the bar damn high. Fortunately Ex Deo are up to the task. Taking to the stage in full Roman gear, the band look the part and when ‘Caligula’ rings out there is no doubt that their Roman-inspired take on death metal is the real deal. With a crushing power, hints of Behemoth and (of course) Kataklysm are present and correct and there is no doubt that the martial blast of death metal perfectly fits the often grim subject matter. Lyrically intelligent and musically tight, Ex Deo are another high spot of the Friday.
The legendary Dark Funeral don’t really need any introduction and as they take to the stage in full corpse paint the crowd swells noticeably. Playing icy cold black metal, you would expect Dark Funeral’s sound to evaporate in the hot, mid-day sun, but such is the band’s authority that they simply banish the sunlight and force all eyes to the stage as they conduct their evil mass wreathed in smoke and majesty.
Sadly the same cannot be said for Municipal Waste. It must be said that it is not the band’s fault that things go so awry but, somewhere during Firewind’s set, something has gone badly wrong with the sound and the band’s mid-range has entirely disappeared leaving a wall of treble and muddy bass rolling out across the field. The band do their best to get things going, and those young things at the front of the stage may have had it better, but standing further back the mushy sound quickly becomes tiresome. Hopefully the band will return soon to deliver the set of which we know they’re capable, because there’s nothing more disheartening than watching a good band being scuppered by poor sound.
Sadly we see no more of Friday’s entertainment due to prior commitments but, following our engagement, a quick flit back to Derby brings us to the site in time to catch the four DJs once again getting the crowd jumping until the early hours.
Waking up with ears ringing and a sore head, it’s time to catch the mighty beholder, a band who practically drip with promise. Songs such as ‘killing machine’, ‘toxic nation’ and ‘liar’ are immense, metallic assaults, whilst the band’s genuine joy at being back on the main stage is humbling to witness. A peerless blast, Beholder deserve to be much farther up the bill next time. 3 inches of blood are the perfect festival band and tracks like ‘metal woman’ simply never get old no matter how many times you hear them. Sadly Cam Pipe’s voice is somewhat lost in the aggressive mix, but the band’s trademark aggression and style are all present and correct, garnering a powerful crowd response in the process.
Over on the Sophie stage Betraeus prove that their random appearance in the Guardian, of all places, was no fluke as their complex progressive-infused metallic assault leaves the rapidly growing crowd gawping. The band’s sound is a powerful mix of a wide variety of genre staples including the still unassailable death, and the darkened confines of the Sophie tent seem the perfect environment for this intelligent, exciting brew.
Back on the mainstage Hell deliver a fiery climax to their set before Kataklysm take to the stage like the conquering heroes that they are. Back in 2008 Kataklysm laid waste to the crowd and here, five years later, it is no different. A fearsomely tight unit, Kataklysm can rely a truly great back catalogue of ear-mincing death metal (‘Prevail’, ‘in the arms of devastation’) and they mine these fine releases vigorously to unleash earth-shattering tunes such as ‘Iron will’ and ‘as I slither’. It is awe-inspiring, fist-pumping metal of the first order and Kataklysm really should be higher up the bill next time.
One of the most anticipated bands of the weekend must surely have been French technical metallers Gojira. Having released a new album since their last appearance (the excellent ‘L’enfant sauvage’), as well as a live DVD, the band (now signed to Roadrunner records) are tighter, more exciting and more powerful than ever. Thus, songs like ‘Explosia’ and ‘flying whales’ set the crowd alight, but when none other than Randy Blythe (who has spent a good deal of time talking up his love of Gojira) saunters on stage to deliver a surprise guest vocal on ‘backbone’ the assembled crowd can barely contain itself. Highlights fly from the stage thick and fast during the band’s short and sweet set, but for this writer the high point (aside from Randy’s appearance) was a blistering rendition of ‘the heaviest matter of the universe’ – Gojira were blinding at BOA once again and must surely be heading in the direction of the headline spot.
With Avantasia sounding massively overblown and hysterical, it is up to Lamb of god to devastate the main stage on Saturday night which, in all fairness, they don’t quite manage to do. Let’s be clear about this – the set list LOG deployed was killer, and Randy and co were clearly thrilled to be headlining a metal event such as BOA, but a mix of sound issues and problems with a barrier in front of the stage served to cripple the set early on. That said, a crippled LOG set is still a damn powerful thing to behold and the band’s stunning material just about saved the day. Nonetheless, it was a disappointing outing for many.
Opening with the monstrous ‘desolation’, things start well, although from the off it is clear that a large chunk of the sound is simply absent from the mix (a recurring problem over the weekend). ‘Ghost walking’ also proves the quality of the band’s memorable material, but with damage done to the barrier, a brief lull serves to damage the momentum of the set, Randy easing the tension by talking about his new British alter ego Roger Brilliant. Building up a head of steam once more we then get ‘walk with me in hell’, ‘set to fail’ and crowd favourite ‘ruin’ only for the barrier to go down again. This time Randy remains largely silent, apart from to thank the crowd for their patience, but it takes ages to repair and with no one really bothering to explain what is going on both crowd and band get increasingly frustrated. It doesn’t exactly kill the band’s set, but it could have been handled better and as a result the next stages of the concert are somewhat strained. When the band does return they rapidly assault the audience with ‘now you’ve got something to die for’ – a wise choice with its full-throated opportunity for the crowd to sing along – and from then on LOG demonstrate exactly why they were chosen for the coveted headline slot. Tracks such as ‘the undertow’, ‘laid to rest’ and ’redneck’ are all metal classics, and it is just a shame that events served to headline the band’s normally relentless momentum.
Sunday starts early with the excellent, humorously brutal Irish thrash crew Gama bomb. Despite being early on the bill, the band have a large crowd gathered to see them (and a respectable showing in terms of t shirts) and deservedly so. Slamming the pit with anthem after anthem, we get ‘zombie blood nightmare’, ‘smoke the blow with Willem Dafoe’, ‘thrashoholic’ and ‘terrorscope’ delivered with gleeful, beer-soaked abandon. Gama bomb prove to be an unexpected highlight of the weekend, an alcohol-infused throw back to the days when Metallica used to tour the world with one hand on their instruments and the other on a bottle of Jager. It’s not that what they do is particularly new (although their awesome lyrical matter is original enough), it’s the joy with which they throw themselves into each and every song – Gama Bomb are fans first and foremost and the crowd respond with equal love. It is a great set.
Whitechapel are at the opposite end of the spectrum. Deadly serious and relentless, this brutal metal core mob impress with a sound designed to scour the site clean. Tracks like ‘make it bleed’, ‘section 8’ and ‘this is exile’ are all mosh pit destroying monsters and while the crowd remains relatively small, it is certainly intense. The same cannot be said for sacred mother tongue who, sadly, just sound tame compared to what has gone before and much of the crowd drifts away before the band’s set is done. Fozzy are not, it is fair to say, on their best form at BOA. Perhaps it is the sound, but songs which should devastate the crowd, such as ‘God pounds his nails’ and ‘she’s my addiction’, come across as muddy. Perhaps the sound was better centre stage, and excellent frontman Chris Jericho, a born showman if ever there was one, clearly puts all his energy into elevating the show, but ultimately Fozzy don’t fly in the manner of which we know they are capable.
One of the best moments of the weekend, however, transpires when, over at the Sophie stage, we are lucky enough to see Grifter, one of the best British bands on the circuit right now. Throughout the far-too-short set, Grifter do not put a foot wrong, and the crowd noticeably swells as they play through their swinging, whiskey-soaked hard rock. Most importantly the band are now a tight cohesive unit to the extent that, when Ollie’s guitar gives out half way through a track, the band simply use it as an opportunity to deliver an extended bass solo so laden with groove that a friend, unfamiliar with Grifter, thought it was part of the song. Few bands can carry off technical mishaps with such verve and it demonstrates that a) Grifter are awesome and b) they should be on the mainstage next time. The fact that an awesome Black Sabbath cover is the low (comparatively) point of the set highlights the strength of Grifter’s material, and if you’ve not heard them yet, you damn well need to sort that out immediately. Grifter rule.
Another unexpected treat is RSJ, also on the Sophie stage, who treat the audience to random snatches of cheesy eighties pop between icy blasts of searing metal. It’s quite, quite mad, and yet the band are awesome and well worth further investigation. Meanwhile, back on the main stage, Amorphis do much to impress the crowd with their melodic death metal. With new album ‘circle’ having gained plenty of exposure, the set offers three songs from that record including the excellent ‘shades of grey’, as well as a few older classics. It is dreamy stuff and comes across surprisingly well in the sun-dappled fields of Derbyshire.
It’s two years since the mighty Rob Dukes marched onto the Bloodstock stage last with his troops of doom, the mighty Exodus. Up until this point the main stage has had a rigidly enforced no swearing rule (presumably part of the streaming deal) which Rob breaks within seconds. The band deliver a tightly focused set of extreme thrash, pulling out the evergreen classics ‘another lesson in violence’ and ‘bonded by blood’ (the latter dedicated to Jeff Hanneman and Paul Baloff), whilst newer material like ‘children of a worthless god’ is relentlessly brutal, turning Bloodstock into a seething cauldron of malcontent; a never-ending mosh pit that swirls ever larger at the foot of the stage as Rob proudly orchestrates the insanity like a demented conductor.
With each album receiving rave reviews and the band undertaking enough tours to keep them traversing the globe more or less perpetually, Devildriver have become a supremely confident act of late. Dez Fafara is a truly amazing frontman, a towering, physical presence whose infectious enthusiasm carries all before him. The set, which includes such brutal classics as ‘these fighting words’, ‘I could care less’, ‘the appetite’ and ‘meet the wretched’ is delivered with a searing intensity and you can feel the pull of the mosh pit as the crowd grows continuously throughout the band’s brilliant set.
With Slayer headlining, Anthrax are the perfect supporting band. Opening with thrash anthem ‘caught in a mosh’ it is clear that these veterans are out to slay, and this they do with precision-targeted aplomb. ‘In the end’ (dedicated to Dio and Dimebag) is suitably emotional, a raucous cover of AC/DC’s ‘T.N.T’ sounds almost as magical as the original and when a fully suited Judge Dredd marches on stage for ‘I am the law’ the crowd’s collective euphoria goes off the scale. I have not always taken Anthrax as seriously as I should, and as a result had my ass handed to me by the band at Bloodstock – on brutal form, Anthrax put on one hell of a show and the only possible complaint is that it was too short.
And so on to the headliners. That band; the band that is responsible for more T shirts than any other (except, perhaps, Iron Maiden) at your average metal show; the band responsible for the most brutal and instantly recognisable thrash album of all time – Slayer. And yet, despite the anticipation, it is clear almost immediately that all is not well in the Slayer camp. The mightiest, most unassailable of thrash institutions has taken just too many knocks of late: the problems surrounding the recording of ‘world painted blood’, the well-documented strife with Dave Lombardo and, of course, the death of Jeff Haneman have all served to finally draw the sting from the band’s delivery and so Slayer’s show is something of a sombre affair. That said, even a downbeat Slayer show is one hell of a thing to behold, and in terms of set list it is more or less a dream showing. Opening with the blistering title track of the new album, things start well, and ‘disciple’ continues the momentum. However, Tom’s introduction to ‘war ensemble’ lacks its usual enthusiasm whilst his quiet introduction to ‘mandatory suicide’ is downright sinister, his briefly philosophical musing on the brevity of life not quite a tribute to Jeff Hanneman (or not explicitly so), but not quite the Tom we are used to either. It’s hard to put your finger on the malaise now infecting Slayer, but with Tom seemingly too drained to interact with the crowd and the rest of the band simply bowing their heads to deliver that trademark Slayer devastation, this rare headline slot feels somewhat phones in. Fortunately the band’s material saves the day and with classics littering the set alongside some rare gems (‘postmortem’, ‘snuff’), the closing blast of ‘seasons in the abyss’, ‘hell awaits’, ‘dead skin mask’ and, of course, ‘raining blood’ followed by an encore of ‘south of heaven’ and ‘angel of death’ demonstrates exactly why Slayer are so revered. These are songs that are not just anthems but part of the fabric of heavy metal itself. Even those who are not fans of Slayer (such people do, apparently, exist) have songs like ‘angel of death’ indelibly tattooed on their souls, and even in its current, vulnerable state, Slayer is still a beast with lethal claws and murder on its mind. Not, perhaps, the show we were waiting for, but still a mighty fine closer to the biggest Bloodstock yet.
Bloodstock is, without a doubt, one of the friendliest festivals going. 2013 suffered some notable failings – sound issues dogged the main stage more than on any other year, and whilst the technicians struggled nobly with the sound, it is clear that certain issues arose that need to be resolved before next year. The safety barriers too, did much to damage the momentum of LOG’s set (and there is no surprise that LOG are more sensitive than most to the issue of fan safety) and such problems should not be allowed to arise again. That said, Bloodstock is, for the most part, the best organised, best laid out, most inviting, most metal festival out there and the passion and commitment of its organisers, the friendliness of the security staff and stall-holders and the excellent array of music are all perfect reasons why BOA has become almost a pilgrimage for the 15,000-odd metal fans who descend upon Catton Hall each year. Roll on 2014 – with Emperor already announced it looks to get even better yet.