All festivals should look like this. No, really. All of them.
If you’ve not been to an HRH event before (and this was our first), you may contemplate the notion of a two-day indoor event with a mixture of optimism regarding the amazing line-up and resigned horror at the thought of expensive food, overflowing toilets and endless delays as sound gear gives out.
Only, from the moment of arrival right up until the moment we left, none of the above happened. The first impression counts, they say, and the first impression of HRH Doom Vs Stoner was a friendly team (both security and door staff) helping everyone to get inside as quickly and easily as possible. If anything was too much trouble, it didn’t show, and I don’t think I’ve ever entered a venue with so little hassle. Once inside, it came as a pleasant surprise to find easily accessible bars, a variety of merch and, in the Sheffield O2, the HRH team have found the perfect venue. Not only does it have space and to spare for the assembled masses, it also houses one of those all-too-rare sound systems that is both punishingly loud and beautifully clear. Moreover, just in case you couldn’t get a view of the stage, video screens ensure a clear view from pretty much anywhere. The positives didn’t stop with the provision of entertainment. Although you could come and go from the venue as you pleased, there was a great selection of well-priced food in the venue (the giant pork pies proved a stroke of genius) meaning that there was no need to miss a single note unless you wanted to. Drinks were somewhat more expensive (pretty much the same at every O2 venue), but comparable to any other festival you may visit, and overall Hard Rock Hell goes to show what can be done with just a little thought by people who genuinely care about the scene.
Put simply, HRH Doom Vs Stoner was one of the most community spirited, friendly, exciting, well-organised festivals that I have ever attended.
On to the music…
Slabdragger were not a band I’ve caught before, but they make a hell of an impression. A three-piece, the band deal in hypnotic, super-slow doom in the thergothon mould. Odd, apocalyptic time changes, vocals howled into a wind tunnel and a guitarist who looks like Jim martin all make for a cracking start to the day, but what really stands out is the band’s menacing stage-presence. This latter reaches a peak during a blistering tsunami of feedback-strewn-heck, before which guitarist Sam Thredder appears to kneel before the power of his own immense riffs. Yusuf Tary, meanwhile, contents himself with laying down fat bass lines that feel like a stolid, invisible force is bearing down on you and that’s before you place Jack Newnham’s pulverizing percussion into the mix. If you want to know what being physically pummeled by music feels like, Slabdragger are your band. 9
A low-key start from the band wrong foots crowd with a short, quiet greeting far removed from the acid-edged monstrosity that is Slabdragger. However, it does not take Limb long to gain momentum. More closely allied with stoner than doom, the band play it loose and dirty, but the riffs are still hewn from the living rock and the bass leaves loose items of clothing (and fillings) rattling. From the band’s split EP with Gurt, ‘Plague doctor’ is a highlight, and Limb prove an impressive addition to the line-up. Certainly the crowd seem overawed by the band’s set and, by its conclusion, it’s possible to see rows of weary heads nodding as if the weight of the music itself is compelling movement. 8
Earlier this year, Conan played an impressive set at Leicester’s inaugural Uprising festival. It piqued our interest and we were keen to see them in action again. Today’s set is even better. With an hour in which to decimate the audience with their dark, doomy, brutal riffs, Conan stroll on stage and proceed to reduce the place to dust with a grim determination that few can match. Jon Davis seems to channel the very voice of hell and the band’s unhinged screams and devil-compels you riffs leave little room for respite. Whilst Conan don’t offer much in the way of variety, the band’s seeming desire to physically disembowel the audience with their remorseless, searing doom never fails to impress, and this was one of the best sets I’ve yet seen them play. 8
It takes forever to get the Black Spiders set up, with a number of technical issues seeming to hold things up. However, when the band finally take to the stage it’s to a cheer that echoes right up into the rafters. Something of a change of pace, Black Spiders provide a quick fix of good time rock ‘n’ roll, that stands in contrast to the ferocious, bowel-corrupting doom of Conan. Offering up a bit of Soundgarden here, a touch of QOTSA or Sabbath there, Black Spiders clearly enjoy drawing together their many influences over the course of an action-packed set which sees the guitarists gleefully playing on their backs whilst forming an arch with their feet. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, but the band also have the musical goods to back up their riotous behaviour on stage and the hour they’re allotted flies by. 7
In all honesty I didn’t expect to enjoy Angel Witch this much. Although their eponymous album from 1980 is rightly considered a genre classic, the production doesn’t even come close to hinting at the band’s furious power on stage today. Clearly invigorated by bands with whom they’re sharing the stage, Angel Witch come out all guns blazing, packing a more powerful punch than anyone has any right to expect. Neither doom, nor stoner, they still manage to slot right into mix, proving just how broad a church metal can be when not fixated on genres. The band’s powerful proto-thrash produces a welcome Adrenalin rush and they tear into their material with an enthusiasm that belies the fact their debut recently celebrated its 35th anniversary. In general, Angel Witch are the biggest surprise of the weekend, and they pretty much rock the place right down to the foundations. Only ‘sorceress’ falls a touch flat with the guitars falling out of tune and spoiling an otherwise impressive ambiance. Otherwise, ‘Angel of death’ has an apt Slayer vibe to it whilst the ever-green classic ‘Angel Witch’ sees the band out on a high. 8
From the get go, goblin are a riff blasting, heavy-rock, party machine. They come on to AC/DC’s ‘It’s a long way to the top’, a track which perfectly fits the band’s hedonistic rock vibe, and immediately send energy levels through the roof. This is the band you want to headline a show such as this, and even following on from the truly stunning Angel Witch, they still force the beleaguered adrenal glands into action once more in order to keep from flagging over the band’s lengthy set. Ben Ward has the crowd eating from his hand from minute one as the band tear into ‘Scorpionica’, and it’s hard to believe that any band, at the end of so long a day of heavy-damn-metal, could sound so fresh, so exciting and so plain unmissable. Tracks like ‘Acid trial’, ‘cities of frost’ and, of course, ‘the fog’, all cause unspeakable carnage in the pit and, as the band leave the stage following a truly exhausting ‘red tide rising’, they leave the audience bent and broken. It’s the perfect end to a stunning day and there’s still plenty more to come. 10
Due to irritating transport issues, we only catch the end of Sgt Thunderhoof, alas, but what we do catch – crunchy riffs, great showmanship and plenty of power, suggests that they are exactly what you want from a festival band. We’ll be doing our best to catch them properly next time. 7
Regulus play very cool, full -throttle rock ‘n’ roll in the vein of Monster Magnet. Sheffield locals, they have a great front man in Luke Jennings who puts a ton of energy and personality into his performance. Packing a heavy psychedelic edge that recalls the vibrant improvisation of Cream, Regulus offer up some stunning solos alongside the blistering riffs that power their songs. Complete with drummer Joe Millburn who looks like rock god, Regulus look and sound the part and they seem quite at home on the vast stage of the O2. Humble, engaging; Funky even, Regulus rule and by the time they get to the single ‘Big business’, there are plenty in the venue who look set to buy the band’s music the second they can get to the merch table. 8
Ohhms rule. Now we’ve got that out of the way, we can go into detail. A surprisingly visceral experience live, ohhms appear amidst a tide of corrosive sludge riffing. If that was all there was to the band then ohhms would be a good band. As it is, they are a great band and, between the prog elements that drift into the mix and the amazingly physical performance from the band, they are astounding. Paul is a performer in the Gira mould, contouring his features and inhabiting his art and the band match him every step of the way. Ohhms strike at the heart of why genrefication matters not a jot and that art is everything. They are pretty much the band of the festival and, as they end their set with the bassist plunging into the crowd, they leave the entire venue in disarray. 10
The band come on early to a near deserted venue, but, rather than let it get them down, they simply announce that it’s time for a hoe-down and launch into the unreconstructed rock of ‘Yippee Kye ay’ a storming opener from a band I greatly admire and one that draws the audience in like moths to the proverbial. From there, the band keep the pace lively and the audience blazing. More rock ‘n’ roll with a hint of psyche than doom or stoner, trippy fit well with Regulus who so impressed us earlier, and tracks like ‘change your mind’, ‘Reign’ and ‘super fun’ are delivered with gloriously ragged potency. 8
Welcome to the darkness. Witchsorrow are a band who have committed some ten years to staring blankly into the void and, over time, they have only gotten better, moving from out of the shadow of their influences into a sinister cloud that is entirely of their own making. Emerging from a thumping Judas Priest intro, the band tear into the devastating title track of their awesome recent album ‘There is no light, there is only fire’ and plunge the audience into a swirling K-hole that sees no light penetrate its obsidian canvass. From there we are treated to a set that covers ‘Made of the void’ as well as a particularly brutal ‘to the gallows’ before plunging into the foaming frenzy of ‘God curse us’. One of the few bands who can pull off yelling out “scream for me!” and not make it sound lame, Witchsorrow are a band to treasure. 9
Feedback, noise, ear raping carnage… It can mean but one thing: Speedhorn are back in town and, with the biggest cheer of the day, it’s clear the audience are along for the ride. No Speedhorn gig is predictable; no two gigs are alike and the band remain gloriously unhinged. Age cannot tame them, the only real change is that they are musically tighter and better than at any other time in their history, as evidenced by excellent new album ‘The Lost Ritual’. Speedhorn aren’t concerned with trends, genres or labels. Their sole concern is to unleash the music that moves them and if the audience happen to be along for the ride, then so much the better. Frontmen Frank Regan and John Loughlin are, frankly, a terrifying double act and their guttural roars pale in comparison to the ferocious glares they stab towards anyone foolish enough to cease their moshing in favour of attempting to take a picture on their mobile. Proof of the quality of their new material is how easily it sits in a set littered with classics and tracks like the opening ‘the hate song’ gel perfectly with newbies such as ‘Bring out your dead’. Four tracks from ‘lost ritual’ get an airing tonight (although, tragically, not ‘halfway to hell’), and you can’t beat the likes of ‘Super Scud’ for pure, full-blooded rage set to music. Such are the energy levels, it’s hard to believe the band aren’t headlining… Their performance suggests they think they are and, as they conclude the show, it feels as if the venue itself exhales in relief as the noise abates. Raging Speedhorn remain exceptional and, in a venue with a capacity crowd, they are in their element. 9
Candlemass are a band for whom grown men weep. Over the course of thirty years they have released countless classics (albeit none more so then that debut, the still remarkable ‘Epicus, Doomicus Metallicus’) and this special, one-off UK show is a celebration of that heritage. Frontman Mats Levin, whose work with Therion is the stuff of legend, fits perfectly into the role vacated by Rob Lowe, and he has both the presence and the talent to deliver a powerhouse performance. The band, meanwhile, augmented by former Opeth man Per Weinberg on bass, are on fire and their sound is both crystal clear and resolutely heavy. This is classic doom played with passion and conviction by the masters and, over 90 minutes, they show the youngsters how it’s done. Songs like ‘mirror mirror’ and ‘Cry from the crypt’ are tight, ferocious, dark and beautiful, but it’s the tracks from ‘Epicus…’ (from which we get everything barring ‘bewitched’, ‘well of souls’ and the Sabbath Medley) which draw the most furious response from the audience. Candlemass are exactly the titans needed to close this epic festival and they do so with an unforgettable display that will only further enhance their legacy. If I have one gripe, it’s the absence of anything from the excellent ‘death thy lover’, but it is a churlish gripe considering the wealth of classic material on display. 10
…and so concludes the first ever Hard Rock Hell Doom Vs Stoner. The line up was exceptional and the only regret is that we couldn’t catch every act who played. However, good music can only take a festival so far, and what stood out above all else were the little details that the organisers had focused upon. Throughout the weekend there were few queues, even fewer technical hitches and the stage ran (more often than not) like clockwork. The sound was outstanding – so a huge vote of thanks to the engineers who worked on that – and the screens (which helpfully showed set times between shows) made sure everyone had a view. The biggest aspect, though, was the friendliness and community vibe that permeated the venue. From the staff to the audience, it was a great place to simply hang out and catch great bands, and that’s what you want most from any festival. Roll on Doom Vs Stoner 2, because this was an unqualified success.