2017 looks set to be a busy year for the HRH brand and it gets off to a flying start with HRH metal, a special, two-day event held in Birmingham’s cavernous O2 Academy. HRH is one of the few festivals out there (alongside Bloodstock) to offer opportunities to up and coming bands and whilst the main stage offers an impressive roster of talent, the second and third stages read like a veritable who’s who of the underground scene. This is more important than many people realise because these bands are the ones that will be gracing the main stage in years to come and promoters ignore them at their peril. HRH Metal is the perfect opportunity to see unsigned acts playing their hearts out and the structuring of the festival, with the third stage opening considerably earlier than the others, meant that every act had a strong chance of a good audience regardless of stage time. Details matter and the organizers of HRH seem to be only improving with each event they host.
As a venue, the Birmingham O2 is most certainly not as well laid out as its Sheffield counterpart (in which last year’s Doom Vs Stoner event took place), but it does offer three separate rooms (as opposed to the two on offer in Sheffield) and there are plenty of toilets and bars scattered around the place. As with Doom Vs Stoner there is a good variety of food on offer (although, annoyingly, one of the stalls vanishes on the Saturday) as well as a decent selection of metal merch stalls, but drink prices are eye-wateringly expensive which is frustrating as there’s nowhere within an easy distance to head off to for a pint. The festival organisers, once again, did a fantastic job of keeping the stages running to time with a minimum of technical hitches and the security deserve praise for their friendly and professional manner over the course of the weekend. Last but not least the fans, upon which a festival stands or falls, kept the vibe friendly and positive and the whole weekend was a remarkably positive experience.
The day gets off to a fantastic start with Leicester’s amazing Internal Conflict (9). Still riding high on the back of crushing album ‘the Rising tide’, Internal Conflict deliver an impressive set packed with rousing tracks such as ‘Baying for blood’ and album’s epic title track. Whilst the first song sees guitarist Sean struggling with a recalcitrant wireless guitar pack, the band simply close ranks and deal with the problem with such professionalism that it barely interrupts the flow of the set whilst singer Adam Kyle works the crowd like a seasoned pro. Why internal conflict aren’t further up the bill is anyone’s guess, but they rule over the audience from the get go and, if you’ve not seen them, you need to kick yourself, hard, and get to the next possible show. This is a band intent on going places and they have the skills necessary to achieve their lofty ambitions.
Winter storm (7) play to an impressive crowd, their symphonic metal faithfully reproduced on stage. The band unleash a new song, ‘Astral world’, from the as-yet-untitled forthcoming album (“don’t ask us when it’s out!”) which is gratefully received, but their performance could use a touch more punch and soon it’s time to head off to Savage Messiah (8) who take to the main stage with their customary confidence. A slick performance, Savage Messiah dispatch their carefully harmonised solos with ease, airing plenty of new tracks alongside a raft of old favourites, and the end result is a flurry of mass head-banging as the audience is treated to a taut reminder of just how fiery the Messiah boys can be.
RSJ (9) are another festival highlight. Brutally heavy and yet with an edgy, artistic edge, scratch the surface of any RSJ track and you’ll find surprising depth. A guest spot from Raging Speedhorn mentalist John Laughlin on a gut-wrenching ‘hit the road Jack’ certainly adds an extra sparkle to the set, but at the heart of RSJ’s dense sound there lies a darkness beyond the mere heavy that keeps listeners coming back for more. That said, you can never get too much of brain-frying monsters like ‘fuck off Joe’, and RSJ pretty much satisfy on every level.
An easy highlight of the day, Senser (9) emerge to find a huge crowd awaiting their dark mix of hip hop, politically-charged lyrics and blistering metal. From the monumental drum beat that kicks off ‘devoid’ (a highlight from the ‘to the capsules’ album) through to the moment the band depart the stage (far too soon) we’re treated to a tour of their finest tracks including a crushing ‘resistance now’, and the rather more chilled ‘switch’. With Heitham Al-Sayed and Kirstin Haigh (the latter looking unassailably cool) stalking the stage and engaging the audience, the band are left to deliver the guitar-fuelled soundscapes and by the time Senser conclude with ‘eject’, the crowd is pumped up and ready to explode. Senser are always an energetic prospect on any festival bill and their performance is a thrilling display of the potential for heavy music to head off in unexpected and original directions.
You can’t get a better festival band than Raging Speedhorn (9), and whilst singer Frank Reagan is currently AWOL (engendering a mass chant in his honour during the set), the swirling cloud of bearded insanity that is Dan Cook (RSJ) is on hand to help out. Songs like ‘Scraping Resin’ drown the mosh pit in a terrifying sea of sludge, whilst the opening number ‘bring out your dead’ demonstrates an even more terrifying and nervy energy than found on record. Raging Speedhorn remain one of the fiercest live bands on the planet and few can hope to stand up to the fearsome John Laughlin whose intense stare is enough, even without the band’s potent riffs, to whip up a mosh pit that damn near covers the venue.
Evile (7) are a slick thrash monster and they rarely disappoint, not least thanks to an embarrassingly rich back catalogue, but something feels lacking nonetheless. Whilst they deliver a perfectly satisfactory set, the band eschew their more diverse material for a head’s down approach that lacks the variety of which the band are easily capable. Nonetheless, you can never get too much of mosh-pit friendly numbers such as ‘eternal empire’, ‘metamorphosis’, ‘enter the grave’ and ‘thrasher’ and the audience are left sweaty and exhilarated in readiness for the dazzling, stadium-sized monster that is Skindred.
Headliners Skindred (9) have grown from humble beginnings to a stadium-chewing rock monster. Benji, dressed like a cross between Elton John and Ziggy Stardust, is the ring master of a riff-hurling circus that has the entire crowd jumping in unison. His personality lies at the core of the band’s ability to engage a crowd, but, of course, all would be naught without the songs to back it up and tracks like ‘pressure’ remain crowd-pleasing belters that set the mosh pit alight with dizzying ease. Racists, misogynists and homophobes are not welcome here, Benji informs the crowd, reminding us once more that metal is about individuality and inclusivity not division and hatred, and from the positive vibes fuelling the pit, it’s clear that the crowd are on message. With songs like ‘kill the power’ and a particularly potent ‘nobody’, Skindred rarely put a foot wrong and they prove electrifying closers to a long, exciting day of metal.
With sore heads a-plenty, the venue is relatively empty as we arrive to check out Pythia (5). Playing to a small, but enthusiastic crowd, Pythia seem to lack the confidence to truly fill that stage and whilst they look the part, decked out in armour, their performance does little to draw the crowd in.
In contrast Primitai (8) own the stage with their melodic metal and taut harmonised lead breaks. They have a huge stage presence and, with songs like ‘falling embers’, ‘the line of fire’ and the apt ‘scream when you see us’ they lay waste to HRH with consummate ease. Primitai are a band who consistently impress (the last time SonicAbuse caught them it was supporting Sepultura and we ended up leaving with their back catalogue on CD) and it’s easy to imagine them working their way further up the line up in the coming years.
Things take a sinister turn down on stage 3 as Donkerkarnuffel (7) emerge with their peculiar clown-themed death metal. Best described as cradle of clowns, the band have plenty of stage presence whilst tracks like ‘Zombie clown apocalypse’ (complete with an Eddie-like Clown mascot) get the whole crowd singing along. Deranged and pretty damn cool, Donkerkarnuffel are a whole lot of fun.Let’s face it, any band that sets off a mosh pit complete with audience members waving clown horns is worth a trip.
It’s back to the main stage for the darkly magical Winterfylleth (9) who need no props to transport their audience to a time and a place far from present day Birmingham. A darker more cerebral act than found elsewhere at HRH metal, Winterfylleth are a challenging prospect who, nonetheless, filled the main stage with ease thanks to their memorable and icy blasts of black metal. Opening with the dense, hypnotic ‘the swart raven’ and maintaining a chilly atmosphere with ‘the dark hereafter’, Winterfylleth are as uncompromising as metal comes and their presence on the main stage was an entirely welcome change of pace.
Ridiculously over the top and theatrical, a Hell (8) performance is always a thing to behold, although the band were, sadly, shorn of their usual pyro. With huge riffs, a larger than life singer (David Bower) and a performance which teeters on the edge of parody, Hell certainly entertain with tracks such as ‘the age of nefarious’ and ‘something wicked this way comes’, but it’s fair to say that the vocals are musical Marmite and for those who prefer their metal a touch rawer, the band’s set can be hard going. There’s no question that Hell love what they do and their set is one for the fans, with crystal clear sound and impressive performances from all concerned, but we head off before the end in search of something rather more brutal.
Sadly, Stone Ghost pulled out of the event and so it’s down to Hecate Enthroned (7) to come on early on the second stage. Very heavy, the band seem to suffer a few technical issues with the vocals relegated to near the bottom of the mix and so it’s off to the main stage for the musical madness that is a Lawnmower Deth (8) show. Brilliantly silly, Lawnmower Deth pull out all the stops and the crowd respond accordingly as huge inflatable balls are tossed into the crowd by mysterious animal figures. Clearly ecstatic to be on stage (there’s no such thing as a calm Deth show), Lawnmower Deth are irrevocably stuck in arrested development and all the better for it. With characteristic charm, they turn the main stage into a giant metal party with their punk-infused hyper-thrash and, for many, they are the band of the day. However, for SonicAbuse, something rather darker is waiting to lure us in…
Down in the belly of the venue something wicked stirs. It is, of course, the heretic order (10) whose deft performance, dark, mysterious stage show and memorable songs all contribute towards one of the performance of the weekend. Songs like ‘Ghost tale’ impress but at the heart of the band’s performance is a crushing ‘Death ride blues’ which sees the packed room sing along in union at Ragnar’s command. Few bands manage to successfully combine darkly fantastic tales drawn straight from history with such potent, full-blooded heavy metal, but The Heretic Order do so with ease and lay waste to the venue accordingly. Bassist Rotting Skull looks awesome in his top hat and he remains a perpetual blur of motion throughout, only adding to the energy present in the very vocal audience. Worthy headliners, next time the Heretic Order should be on the main stage.
Finally, it’s on to the main event, a full headline appearance form the mighty Sodom (9) the German thrash institution that inspired, amongst others, Cradle of filth (whose cover of ‘Sodomy in lust’ pales in comparison to the real thing, aired with devilish glee here at HRH). Bassist/vocalist Tom Angelripper is a figure of Lemmy-like intensity, roaming the stage and delivering his lyrics with a caustic bark that has lost none of its power. Throwing in ‘Surfin’ bird’ (just to show they have a sense of humour underneath all the blood ‘n’ thunder), Sodom’s set is a masterclass in pure metal and tracks like ‘Agent Orange’, the none-more-brutal cover of Motorhead’s ‘Iron fist’ and ‘Nuclear winter’ somehow energise a crowd all but beaten into submission by a weekend of non-stop metal. It is a fitting conclusion to a cracking weekend and as the band exit the stage the audience tear themselves away from the stage like zombies, ready to head home and collapse before the first light of Monday morning heralds a return to the real world.