Bloodstock 2014 Review

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Walking into Bloodstock is like walking into Bartertown, that lawless den of iniquity that graces the opening of Mad Max 3. As a young filmgoer I used to thrill at those opening scenes to the movie – the dissolute population, the outlandish garb and the pernicious vendors and so the sights, sounds and feel of Bloodstock is almost like coming home each year. Bloodstock is small. Unlike the other metal festivals it does not make concessions to the mainstream and it keeps things intimate enough that you’re likely to see the same faces year on year. As a result it feels both safer and friendlier than any other festival I have ever attended which is surely one of the main reasons so many of us go back time after time. This year, however, the organisers have outdone themselves with the line up, securing a truly stunning array of talent for the various stages on offer and yet, despite this, Bloodstock remains the most down to earth and approachable of all festivals thanks to the fact that it continues to support home-grown and local talent and it continues to provide stalls and stands that value personal service over identikit merchandising and wallet-violating food. And to top it all off the bar serves ale (something that the other festivals are only just starting to catch on to) rather than overpriced, fizzy urine. IN short, Bloodstock is awesome. It is the best, the friendliest and the most unique extreme metal weekend out there and it is an utter joy to be back.

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Thursday

 Escaping the bar on Thursday SonicAbuse, alongside several hundred other lucky festival goers, get the weekend off to a flying start with the always entertaining Gehtika. Tearing into the crowd with a vital fury, Gehtika pull out all the stops to entertain and singer, Anthony Knight, charges around the stage like a man possessed. There is no question of the talent lying at the heart of Gehtika, but it is here, in the band’s spiffing live presence, that you realise just how entertaining the band are. A whirlwind of make up and dizzying riffs, the band offer an electrifying thirty-odd minutes and it is fair to say that the only disappointment their set offers is the fact that it ends all too soon. Gehtika – we love you – let’s have you higher up the bill next time please?! Next up, Incinery offer up complex and blistering thrash, setting the moshpit alight once again, despite the tender ministrations of Gehtika leading to exhaustion in some quarters. The Nottingham-based five-piece are tight, energetic and have a fine singer in James Rawlings who prowls the stage with a gleam of evil intent in his eye. These two bands are unquestionably the highlight of the Thursday evening’s entertainment, although with a fairground, plenty of well-stocked stalls and a disco running late into the night, there is plenty more to keep festival goers busy into the early hours.

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Friday

Waking up in a tent that feels like an oven with a head that feels like it’s been used as a football Friday does not start well.  It’s seven in the morning, and all around festival goers are emerging, blinking, from their tents, desperately trying to prioritise the need to join the ever-growing queue for the toilets with the desire for tea and, in many cases, aspirin. However, it is not long before the live music kicks off and, having suitably recovered with the aid of a bacon roll and a large brew, we’re off to the main stage.

With songs like revel in flesh’, ‘living dead’ and ‘supposed to rot’, Entombed AD, are not just your average band. These Swedish veterans have released more classic metal than many bands can ever hope to achieve and so it is no surprise that the band, criminally low on the bill, lay waste to a vast, ecstatic audience. Establishing a pulverising sound early on, the band simply grind out a string of brutal, sludgy metal, leaving the crowd desperate for more. LG Petrov may have moved the band’s name forward to avoid any uncomfortable litigation, but there is no question that Entombed AD are the real deal, and their appearance on the main stage was a real highlight of the day.  In contrast Primordial operate on an entirely different plane, their music an ethereal and intelligent mix of black metal fire, historical analogy and earthen folk. Primordial have no real peers, their music forged from a passionate belief in the power of the music they make and Alan Nemtheanga, looking ghostly in his stage garb, is an enigmatic and erudite frontman. True, the band’s music works better in a darker, more intimate setting, but Primordial, nonetheless, delivered an intense and engaging experience.

Over to the Sophie stage and it is SonicAbuse favourites De Profundis who are, well a bit disappointing actually. However, it must be emphasised that the blame lies not with the band but with the tinny and messy sound hat seemed to dominate the Sophie stage on Friday. Certainly by the time the band bought their set to a close they had reached the crushing levels of gleaming perfection we have come to expect, but it could have been so much more. Nonetheless, even a relatively poor De Profundis set is something to behold and the band not only gave it their all but, by the time the set concluded with the sound levels balanced, they had clearly made a fair few friends. How the band were not further up the bill escapes me, for De Profundis truly are one of the great modern metal bands.

Back on the main stage the legendary  Prong set about doing their legacy a disservice with a set that starts well but rapidly drifts into tedium. Sure ‘snap your fingers snap your neck’ once sounded cutting edge, but in truth there’s just too little variation in the band’s sound to keep people’s attention and the mind starts to wander well before the set is bought to a close. Happily, a legend of an altogether different sort is due to take to the stage. With Celtic Frost tragically in the realms of the past tense, we can only be grateful that Tom G. Warrior has survived the trials and tribulations of the music world for long enough to form the immense Triptykon, a band whose sole purpose is to weave music and art together into one mind-meltingly intense trip that even the blistering sunshine cannot dispel. Thought provoking, intelligent and atmospheric, Triptykon’s music is almost otherworldly and the Bloodstock field is mesmerised by the powerful, hypnotic energy flooding from the stage. With songs like the melancholy ‘black snow’ and the powerful ‘messiah’, Triptykon prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are more than capable of bringing the intricate menace of their albums to a large stage.

Otherworldly is also a good word to describe the majestic tones of Winterfylleth, the UK black metal band who benefit immeasurably from an evil and icy downpour that sees the Sophie stage packed to capacity. Not that Winterfylleth don’t entirely deserve such a gathering – their music is a masterly concoction of black metal menace and pagan charm and they deliver an astounding set to the masses crammed into the confines of the tent as the heavens slowly empty outside.

No strangers to Bloodstock, Dimmu Borgir return with their gloriously theatrical take on blackened death metal although the set is not without niggles. Cramming a headline-strength production into a main support slot is always challenging and on this case things do not start promisingly. With a twenty minute delay due to what the band describe regularly as “technical bullshit”, ‘progenies of the great apocalypse’ fails to materialise due to more of the same and the crowd have to endure yet more waiting as the gremlins are hunted down and destroyed. For any other band, such a wait could have killed the set, but for Dimmu Borgir it is simply a challenge to up their game and the band respond by throwing their very best songs at the set. Tracks like ‘the serpentine offering’ (Yes!), ‘Puritania’ and ‘gateways’ are all delivered with the band’s customary mixture of high camp and unnerving menace whilst the sound, once it’s tidied up, is no less impressive. With fireworks, explosions and all manner of excitement to watch whilst the band play, Dimmu Borgir once again laid waste to the main stage and the only real shame is that they didn’t play for longer.

Down are not the obvious choice for a headline act. Certainly Phil Anselmo is charismatic and imbued with an astounding voice, but they’re not necessarily the first act you’d think of as having a headline presence. The organisers knew better. Not only is Phil Anselmo an arch performer, but Down themselves deliver a remarkable set packed with power, aggression and humour. Phil’s many moments of talking to the crowd are punctuated by acts of genial buffoonery and a genuine camaraderie between band members that so many bands lack these days. From the off you can see that Phil is having the time of his life, bringing his beloved Down to the main stage, and the band’s performance is never less than incendiary. With a set list including ‘we knew him well’, ‘hogshead/ dogshead’, ‘hail the leaf’ and the evergreen (sorry!) ‘bury me in smoke’, the band simply unleash hell upon a reeling bloodstock and never let up, even taking a moment to launch into an impromptu snippet of Pantera’s classic ‘walk’. And yet, as much as the tunes hold sway, there is much to be said for Phil’s magnetic performance. It is quite literally impossible to take your eyes from the powerfully intense frontman and throughout the set his mask drops to reveal the very human, very passionate character that is so often buried under layers of brutal obfuscation. It is a towering performance and by the time ‘bury me in smoke’ sees the band handing their instruments over for what must be one of the highest profile jam sessions ever held on the Bloodstock main stage, the audience are spent, delirious with joy and fully inducted into down’s chaotic world. It is one hell of an end to one hell of a day. Roll on day two!

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Saturday

Having dealt with more tragedy than any young band should ever have to endure, that Polish death metal band Decapitated are with us at all is nothing short of a miraculous testament to perseverance in the face of adversity. What is most notable is just how tight an entity Decapitated have become with songs like ‘carnival is forever’ and ‘spheres of madness’ cast as gleaming, chrome plated displays of furious commitment and dizzying skill in equal measure. Not so impressive are Orphaned Land who obviously play with a great deal of personal belief and commitment but whose music simply does not translate well to a sun-kissed main stage. Strangely the band fare much better when delivering a far more intimate acoustic set on the tiny Jagermeister stage, suggesting the band are simply not ideally witnessed in such a large scale environment.

You can never go wrong with the almighty sludge lords, Crowbar, and just as they did a couple of years back, the band simply march onto the main stage and tear it into itsy-bitsy pieces. A personal favourite, ‘sever the wicked hand’ sounds as fresh and brutal now as it did when it was released a few years back, whilst ‘new dawn’ and planets collide’ also place a sledgehammer to the cranium during the band’s all too short performance. An unstoppable force in metal, Crowbar delivered a sinus-clearing dose of toxic sludge and the swollen audience loved them for it.

An odd choice after so brutal a clan as Crowbar, Lacuna Coil have no right to be this good, but from the moment they take the stage, singers Andrea and Cristina whip the crowd into a frenzy and keep them there. Songs like ‘trip the darkness’ and the classic ‘heaven’s a lie’ sound far heavier than in their more sanitised studio incarnations, whilst the pounding ‘our truth’ brings the set to a suitably raucous close. It’s a brilliant performance and provides a touch of sonic relief after the menacing strains of Crowbar. However, such relief was never likely to last long, and soon enough Alexi Laiho and his troops of doom take to the stage. A regular fixture at Bloodstock, Children of Bodom rarely, if ever, disappoint and they don’t start now. With a set list of classics looking suspiciously like a greatest hits package, new songs like ‘halo of blood’ sit happily next to classics like ‘needled 24/7’, ‘silent night, Bodom night’ and ‘are you dead yet?’ all of which paves the way nicely for the legendary Carcass.

A band far better when playing than when forced to engage in awkward banter with the crowd, Carcass more than made up for their previous, rather more lack lustre performance at Bloodstock (2009) by unleashing a torrent of filthy death metal with a furious abandon and yet precision drilled ferocity of a well-oiled machine. Songs like ‘reek of putrifaction’ and newer additions to the set like ‘captive bolt pistol’ are so relentless in their delivery that the brief periods of crowd interaction between them is entirely superfluous. What is clear, however, is that in finding new members for the excellent album ‘surgical steel’, Jeff Walker has injected new life into the band and the performance is exceedingly powerful. So powerful, in fact, that Carcass would have walked away with performance of the day if it hadn’t been for the majestic appearance of the headliners.

I have waited years to see Emperor, as had many others in the jostling crowd, and this was one case in which anticipation was well rewarded. No corpse paint, no flamboyant stage garb,  no over-amped stage set, just Ihsahn, Samoth,  and Faust laying waste to all before them with a stunning performance boasting a hell-fire informed collection of pyros and explosions and some of the best music witnessed all weekend. ‘Into the infinity of thoughts’, ‘towards the pantheon’, ‘the majesty of the nightsky’,’wrath of the tyrant’  and even a Bathory cover (‘a fine day to die’) make Emperor’s celebration of 20 years since ‘in the nightside eclipse’ a remarkable and memorable occasion. Easily one of the most promisingly oblique of the black metal bands from the 90s, Emperor were hypnotic, mesmerising even, and proved to be not only band of the day, but band of the weekend. A divisive choice for main stage headliner (the audience was certainly the smallest of the three days), Emperor weren’t here to make new friends, rather they were here to reward the faithful and this they did with a performance that will remained burned in the memory for years to come.

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Sunday

With an almighty storm unleashing watery hell upon the denizens of BOA and turning the ground to a soupy quagmire, Sunday could so easily have been a washout. And yet BOA festival goers are a hardy bunch and, ignoring the cheerful forecasts gleefully predicting rain until five in the afternoon, the tired, elated crowd simply emerge from their tents, don waterproofs and trudge through the puddles to the main stage with only the slightest air of dissatisfaction. Such perseverance is rewarded because by the time those ghastly purveyors of sickness, Aborted take the stage, the skies have more or less cleared and, with the exception of one or two showers, remain fairly clear. The Aborted sound as nauseatingly putrid as ever, churning out the noxious ‘fecal forgery’, the brutal ‘necrotic manifesto’ and drawing their set of peerless death metal to a close with ‘the saw and the carnage done’. You couldn’t hope for a more sickening set, and Aborted gleefully set the tone for the day, revelling in their perversity as the crowd slowly swells.

Revamp are an odd bunch. Clearly very talented, they have an impressive array of sounds, hopping around the genre with skill, but floor Jansen’s often impressive voice somehow feels lost in the mix and the performance suffers as a result. Nonetheless, the band give a strong showing and certainly bear further investigation. Also marred by sound issues, it’s initially hard to work out that the legendary Biohazard have taken the stage thanks to a mix that buries the guitars in trebly mush and all but kills the vocals altogether. However, as the sound clears, it is clear that Biohazard are dishing out the very best and this they do by charging through ‘shades of grey’, ‘what makes us tick’, ‘down for life’, ‘tales from the hardside’ and then, determined to make their mark on BOA once and for all, they trigger a massive stage invasion for an epic ‘punishment. What other band would be brave enough to pack the stage out with rampant fans before unleashing their most popular moment? Biohazard may have metal in their sound, but at heart their still punk as fuck and all the better for it. Few bands play as directly from the heart as Biohazard, and these hardcore infused veterans gave one hell of a show, challenging every band that followed them to up their game or be rendered irrelevant.

With Graveyard delayed and relegated to the Sophie stage, Swedish court jesters Avatar are elevated to the main stage and not only rise to Biohazard’s challenge, but almost surpass it with a show that is one part Marilyn Manson, one part In flames and two parts Noel Fielding. Caked in make-up, clearly having the time of the lives, Avatar take to the main stage as if they were born to play on it and if they have any nerves about the whole thing, it doesn’t show. Opening track ‘hail the apocalypse’ sees the band hit the ground running and from there we are treated to a variety of crazy beats and riffs including a monumental ‘let it burn’ and an excellent ‘smells like a freak show’. Despite an initially small crowd (the curse of a threatening cloud looming overhead sends weaker souls scurrying for cover), the band’s magnetic pull slowly gathers people in and by the end of their set Avatar have made a fair few new friends.

Obituary don’t need friends, new or otherwise. The Floridian death metal merchants are here to slay, and this they do with a mechanical proficiency that borders on the psychotic. Clearly stoked to be back in the UK and back on the Bloodstock main stage, the band waste no time in unleashing hell with songs like ‘violence’, ‘visions in my head’ and ‘inked in blood’. Obituary are legendary and with good reason, they are devastatingly heavy.

Saxon, are not devastatingly heavy but they do have some of the best NWOBHM tunes going in ‘wheels of steel’ and ‘crusader’ and they also know exactly how to work a crowd, and this they proceed to do over a forty minute show that is the epitome of all things metal. It is an absolute pleasure to watch Biff, whose voice is still as epic as ever, and his crew taking bloodstock by the scruff of the neck and demonstrating the power of traditional heavy metal,  and with songs like ‘heavy metal thunder’ and ‘power and the glory’ they do just that. What has the crowd enjoying a collective metalligasm, however, is when Biff brings a grinning Dave Mustaine on stage for a monstrous ‘denim and leather which sends the entire place into a frenzy. It’s moments like this that heavy metal fans live for and to see Dave soloing his ass off alongside the veteran members of Saxon was almost worth the price of admission alone.

Far from being intimidated by such a masterful display, Amon Amarth  simply roll out two massive dragons (yes, you read that correctly) and proceed to set the stage, and bloodstock, alight with an onslaught of pyrotechnic flash, heavy metal thunder and huge Vikings sporting grins the size of Texas. Highlights? The whole damn set is a highlight with ‘we shall destroy’, ‘war of the gods’, ‘As Loke falls’ and, of course, ‘’the pursuit of Vikings’ all making their mark on a festival that should have reached its exhaustion point days ago. Amon Amarth put on a an amazing show with Johan Hegg, in particular, revelling in every minute, standing atop the dragons one minute, smashing down Thor’s almighty hammer the next. You could ask for nothing more from Amon Amarth, they delivered a near perfect set and it’s hard to believe that Megadeth could live up to all that’s gone before.

This year SonicAbuse has been lucky enough to witness all of the Big Four in action, with Metallica, Slayer and  Anthrax all gracing Sonisphere with their presence, but in all honesty not one of those bands came close to delivering a set with the power and precision that  Megadeth delivered. Having already guested with Saxon, it was very clear that Dave Mustaine was in fine form, and when he comes striding out on stage, flanked by a wall of brightly lit video screens to unleash ‘hangar 18’, the vitality of the man and his band hits you like a fist to the jaw. From then on there is almost no let up, but the real surprise is Dave himself who seems to have settled comfortably in his own skin. This is the third time I have seen Megadeth and it is the most engaged Dave has seemed as he plucks a young headbanger from the crowd, gives him a pick and brands him ‘the future of metal’; chats happily with the crowd and, almost casually, unleashes hit after hit. For those that had forgotten just how immense the Megadeth back catalogue is, we get ‘tornado of souls’, ‘skin o’ my teeth’, ‘sweating bullets’, ‘trust’, ‘peace sells’ and ‘a tout le monde’ and many more played with a passion and fire that the band shouldn’t rightly have after so many years in the business. Megadeth have always been about “we the people”, but here, on the Bloodstock main stage, you get a glimpse of just how honest a statement that is. Megadeth bond with the audience in a way that makes this huge outdoor show seem strangely intimate. Dave Mustaine is a mesmerising presence, and never once lets the quality or pace of the show dip. This is what a thrash metal show should look like and the bond between audience and band could not have been stronger. From all that had gone before, you could easily have expected Megadeth to have been left high and dry after the manic showmanship of Saxon and the flaming dragons of Amon Amarth, but these metal legends simply strode on stage and took the crown, seemingly without breaking too much of a sweat. It is a show that will remain long in my memory and a taut reminder that, whilst perhaps not the most commercially successful of the big four, Megadeth are, and remain, the best.

With the lights raised on the main stage for the final time and Dave Mustaine having taken his final bow, BOA 2014 drew to a close leaving the bone-tired warriors to either party the night away in the Sophie stage or make the long, soggy trudge back to the cars. With the majority of the threatened bad weather having only partially materialised, the festival crowd is in high spirits and the prevailing feeling is that 2014 has surely been one of the most successful and exciting Bloodstocks yet held. Form the line up to the atmosphere to the late night entertainment that raged almost through until dawn, the organisers could not have done it better and deserve one last round of applause for their Herculean efforts. Roll on 2015, it cannot come soon enough.

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