On Thursday the 9th of August, myself and 19,000 others descended upon the grounds of an old manor house in the heart of the British countryside for a weekend of heavy metal, drinking, and debauchery. The first Bloodstock in 2001 was merely a one-day indoor festival, headlined by Saxon, and organized by two best mates who loved music and loved their scene. Seventeen years later and the Bloodstock train keeps chugging on, smashing its attendance record once again. What’s particularly appealing is its cozier size. It’s not too big — it’s no Download or Wacken — but it’s not too small. It caters for a lot of the middle ground — the niche, the kvlt, the young and old.
Most striking is the core of new bands that the Bloodstock organizers actively seek to push and present to these huge festival crowds. There’s an entire stage dedicated to young and upcoming bands who had won their regional Metal 2 The Masses competition heat. Countless cities over the UK and even Norway have had promising young bands representing their scenes and performing in front of big crowds at this year’s festival. This is great to see and I discovered some really promising music this way. Be sure to check out the upcoming article about the UK (and Nepalese!) music scene.
During the weekend I spoke to people from Canada, Australia, and Japan who had traveled to attend the festival? But why? Well, Bloodstock is one of those places which feels like home — the entire festival seems to have been founded on the underlying warmth of good will, comradeship, and merriment. Everyone is friendly, everyone is positive, everyone wants to have a good time. And this goodwill spreads — the security staff, the site staff, the cleaners, the bands are always smiling, always grateful, always positive.
This year, despite what I thought was a somewhat inconsistent line-up, the quality of music was outstanding. Never have I discovered so much exciting new music (check out the technical thrash madness of young British band Callus now!).
Queues for miles in the blistering British sun. Cue thousands of people trying to wrap glass bottles of booze, and other things, in clothes to avoid confiscation. Rumors of sniffer dogs were rife, everyone nervous, shuffling from side to side, wide-eyed. In fact, there were no dogs, and everyone was in a very good mood — eager, excited, and anxious to pitch their tent and start the weekend.
We set up camp and hand out our homemade clash-finders. We argue about genres, try to convince other members of the group to check out ‘this sick band,’ and talk about riffs as we drink. Judas Priest headline the Friday, Gojira the Saturday and Nightwish the Sunday. But before all that, there are bands on tonight! On the Sophie Lancaster Stage (which is a big ass tent) Hundred Year Old Man, Skiltron, Bloodshot Dawn and Arkona usher in a glorious weekend of music. We check out Skiltron — a Geordie power metal band with a bag-pipe. Bag-pipe usage is liberal, to say the least. It hurts our brains. We go back to the tent and have our own party. I have a bit too much to drink. I am sick. I go to bed and prepare for the real magic to begin.
With a fuzzy mouth and aching joints, I got up early. Sleep was very poor. It felt like everyone at the campsite had pulled an all-nighter and directed their piss-poor conversations directly into my tent. At one point someone urinated on my tent, I spent an hour listening to the mad babble of a couple who had “lost their tent,” and the rest of the night was spent listening to people slurring Alestorm as the sun rose. Fortunately, the weather was good and a nervous, anticipatory energy ran through me. But firstly I needed to wash — this involved shea butter infused wet-wipes, awkward yoga poses and lots of grunting.
It begins. The first band I tromp to is an unknown band on the New Blood Stage called Garshkott. It’s 11.15 and there are at least a hundred people here, which is great, even though the music is an off-putting mix of slams and Pantera grooves. Their sound is thick though, thicker than a festival turd held in the gut for a week. Like a seer, I forecast a weekend of riff after riff pummeling my brain into a mush – I cannot wait.
The razor-sharp OSDM tones of Memoriam on the main stage is next. The crowd is somber at first, probably still upset that they’ll never get to see Bolt Thrower again. Regardless, death metal god Karl Willetts is forever in a good mood, crabbing about the stage, swishing his beautiful blond locks, and smiling at the crowd like a proud patriarch. The riffs start to hook the crowd and there’s a wonderful dirty edge, slightly doomy, to their sound that gets some heads banging and fists pumping.
After, as I’m wandering the arena, a bit lost, not sure if I want noodles or a Yorkshire pudding, I wander past a small tent located smack bang in the middle of the arena. This little stage features newer/lesser known bands who begin as soon as a big act finishes on the main stage. The swarm of main-stage zombies, on their way to have a pint or poo, get drawn into these strange sounds like hipsters to a pop-up coffee shop. I was one such zombie and, boy, I’m so glad I stopped. In the distance, I noticed a little mop of blond hair, a blond Buzzo, and next to him a Cliff Burton look alike, shredding his guitar to pieces. This is Callus, a young band who sound like Coroner mixed with High on Fire mixed with Voivod — seriously. They were so insanely talented it made me want to give up everything. Riff after riff after riff was played with unbelievable intensity and accuracy. Transitions were unexpected yet cleverly organic. They had everything that a modern band with ‘thrash’ leanings should have — wild imagination and vicious intensity.
Bloodbath next. I was still thinking about Callus. Bloodbath are covered in mud and blood. It’s raining. The sound is a bit off. I’m not really feeling it. But the sun comes back out and they play “Breeding Death” and suddenly everything’s mental. Crowd surfers slime their way over wet heads, aggressive pits open up, and I’m headbanging furiously for the first time this weekend. They end with “Eater” and the crowd roars in unison: glorious.
For the rest of the day, I wander in and out of different tents, getting a taste of a variety of acts. Sodomised Cadaver, from my neck of the woolly welsh wood, mixed gory sexual comedy with solid death metal of the Cattle Decapitation variety. The singer looked like Ric Flair, was unaware as to the nature of the myriad “Woooooos!” from the crowd, and pointed towards his cute three-year-old son in the crowd as he introduced the tasteful, subtly named “Lords of Rape.”
Bristol old-school, new-school death metal four-piece Body Harvest were up next, slamming, grinding, and grooving about with a perfect amount of aggression. Kamikaze Test Pilots were another band I stumbled upon on that strange tented stage in the middle of the chaos. This slick Clutch-meets-prog four-piece were tight, anchored by an incredibly nuanced, jazz-like drum performance which had me mesmerized. The vicious tones of Deafheaven-meets-Envy were sent forth with the excellent black metal youngsters Underdark, the perfect lead-in to Emperor.
Onto the big guns now. The hangover was gone, the sun was casting a sensual glow, and the sexy sound of a well-polished Emperor emerged. The boy-band of black metal played Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk to mark its anniversary but, due to the light and the strangely mixed crowd, some of the power of their sound was lost. Ihsahn’s cleans were great though and the band as a whole sounded extremely good. At one point someone threw a pineapple. Closing with “I Am the Black Wizards” and “Inno a Satana” was a beautiful end.
We waited patiently for Judas Priest. I wanted to be close enough to smell the turbo power. We sat on the floor amongst cans, cups, and the crushed pineapple. A woman fell on me and my leg smelled like rum. Ahoy! Eventually, Priest began, playing a set of songs that that people who know Priest would know. It’s theatrical and glamorous and bold, “Sinner,” “Freewheel Burning,” and “Painkiller” being the standouts. Halford looked older, a bit less energetic, but that’s to be expected — his voice was still pristine. Then, the most special — and most emotional — moment of the weekend. None other than Glenn Tipton joined the band during the four-song encore. The whole band, but particularly Halford, appeared emotional, surrounding Tipton and cheering him on. He looked to be having a whale of a time, smiling, pointing towards the crowd — it was wonderful to see.
Talking of whales — Gojira headline the Saturday. I’m excited — as far as live bands go they are one of the best and, being given a headline slot, they will surely go all out. It’s an early start again. The tent was roasting as the sun pierced down. Now, we need to talk about the gritty festival stuff. Everyone needs to go for a number two at some point. The odd few try to repress it. They try to somehow convince their mind that it’s not there. But there comes a point in everyone’s gut where enough is enough. Thankfully, I snagged myself a press pass, meaning I could access the VIP area (which was just a tent and a few benches and portaloos). So, as everyone queued for peasant portaloos, I waltzed and pirouetted into the VIP area for a Very Important Poo.
I waddled to the main stage at 10:30 to see Nailed to Obscurity in their first ever UK show. Clad in black, all with luscious long black hair, they played a death-doom drenched in melody and emotion. The sullen interludes and atmospheric build-ups ushered in a day of twists-and-turns galore. The crowd was small for Nailed to Obscurity but, as if heralded by the thrash gods, thousand of smelly riff-wizards emerge from moldy tents, in yesterday’s underwear, to watch the thrashtacular Power Trip. It was midday yet there was a circle pit of dizzying vastness swirling around, kicking up dust. Lead vocalist Riley Gale crowd surfed and stirred up trouble, prancing around menacingly in his Slayer tracksuit-bottoms and stroking his porn-mustache. There were some great vocal hooks that really got the crowd going — I salivated at the thought of them playing later in the evening sometime.
Torn between seeing the UK grind up-and-comers Negative Thought Process and symphonic Greeks Septicflesh, I choose to see a bit of both. Thankfully, the two stages are close. Negative Thought Processes grindy madness is predictably brief. Twenty minutes of staggering energy comes to an end with the bassist screaming as he lies on the floor and guitarist/vocalist roaring like a caveman fighting a saber-tooth tiger. The crowd chant for more, the lead man jokes “we’re a grind band, we’ve got no more!” I skipped to Septicflesh. Despite some bass difficulties, the band was tight. Their theatrical evilness worked, despite it being 2 pm and sunny. It’s all very melodramatic and the vocalist struggled to keep stray strands of black glossy hair out of his eyes — poor fella. They play “Anubis” and I do that thing where you flop your wrist in the air when there are blast beats.
Now, Conjurer have been making waves of cataclysmic proportions in the UK and boy did they deliver. In the Sophie tent, in the dark, they consumed all life! The tone of the guitars was disgustingly dense and gritty. We stood there periodically gasping and looking lovingly into each other’s eyes as a dirty tone smeared through the tent. The band lack that core identity, merging a variety of styles proficiently but failing to unite the different moods. We overlooked this though because the general tone of the show left us staggered.
Too many riffs. Is that a thing? Thankfully the expressive progressive tendencies of A Forest of Stars shone at the perfect time. It was a mesmeric change in tone for a festival largely focused so far on sing-alongs and slamming pits. A packed stage greeted this Victorian menagerie: it was a beautiful progressive black metal production by a wonderful band, “Drawing Down the Rain” being a staggering triumph. I met the entire band afterward for a scheduled interview. I was nervous — AFOS are a group I’ve adored for ages and I didn’t want to mess things up. When I say I had one of the most enjoyable, fulfilling hours of my life, I mean it. Before we even started the interview we sat for half an hour, talking absolute nonsense and joking about everything. The band were the friendliest, wittiest, most passionate, fiercely creative and down-to-earth force — it was fantastic that my mental image of the band came true.
Back to the tent, I trotted. I looked at the horizon. Black, black clouds. We had feared rain all day and it arrived in the early evening, a cold deluge of debilitating heaviness. We chose to miss Cannibal Corpse and sat in the tent, talking about riffs and the formation of a riff economy. The Gojira headline set was approaching and the rain wouldn’t let up — we were comfortable in our little tent of warm riffs. But, we donned our ponchos and traipsed through the churning mud. Miserable and sodden, we stood rooted to the spot and waited, huddled like grim penguins. Then, the rain stopped, and a nervous excitement ran through me.
Gojira must have spent a huge amount of money on this show — flames, lasers, steam, confetti, fireworks, pyro, and a huge crystalline screen combined with a mesmeric effect. My friend referred to the set as congregational, as if we had gathered to witness the summoning of the great whale god. It did feel like this. The sound from where we were was deep and crushing, the visuals behind the band were hypnotic, the harsh flash of lights blinding. We could feel the throb in the ground. “The Heaviest Matter of the Universe” was played second, sending the crowd into a frenzy. The more expressive tracks from Magma worked exceptionally well in terms of pacing, supported by beautiful visuals of lightning and fire. 30 odd inflatable whales surfed across sodden bodies during “Flying Whales.” We swayed to the chainsaw cacophony of “L’Enfant Sauvage.” We were hooked by the jagged intensity at the core of Gojira‘s sound. This was a hugely expansive, engrossing performance by a band who excel live.
The night wasn’t over by any means though — the horde dispersed and the crazy festivities continued. A lot of people shuffle to see Orphaned Land, but we fancy something of the stonery-party variety: enter Ten Foot Wizard on the Serpent’s Lair VIP stage. The lead man played a guitar designed as a banana and used an actual banana to play slides. At one point the members swung plastic fruit around and I caught one: I was happy. My army surplus poncho began sticking to me so I took it off and swung it around my head as I performed a sexy stoner dance. Someone ripped my poncho from me and stamped on it. This was fine because a jovial pit had formed and we stomped and swayed to metal of the Frank Zappa variety. The set ended, it was about midnight, and we partook in a silent disco. Shockingly, we were asked for ID at the bar because we looked under 25. We just moved to the other end and were served. We danced to Cher mixed with Motörhead. Once all danced-out, we shuffled to the final few minutes of a showing of Predator — we cheered gruffly as Arnold survived a nuclear blast: what a man.
Sunday was a peculiar day. The main stage line-up was awful: Amaranthe, Fozzy, Jasta, Mr. Big, DevilDriver one after the other. Nightwish headlined, but I’ve never properly listened to them. Regardless, I wandered the arena with a feeling of freedom that was exciting. I was on the barrier for King Leviathan‘s rather banal groove-thrash performance. I felt a bit empty about the day’s prospects. I spent a fair bit of time preparing for my interview with Mantar. So much of the day was spent feeling out of place in the media tent as actual journalists tapped away at laptops and wore cool t-shirts and used awesome recording equipment, whilst I sat with on my phone, armed with a £20 dicta-phone from Amazon, and a soggy notebook. I sat in the corner, eavesdropped on interviews, listened to how the professionals delivered their questions and drank a few cans of the free beer from the fridge.
In between this, I decided to see what was going on in the arena. The worst act of the weekend was Amaranthe, a soulless power-metal band with three-vocalists. I weaved through the crowd, observing faces painted with shocked grief. A hardcore contingent of wild fans was present at the front, but for the most part, there was total apathy, a pure state of emptiness. The band had to end their set early due to technical issues. The highlight was when one of the singers asked the crowd if they remembered dub-step. Silence. This was followed by the band asking the crowd to jump with them as they played a thankfully brief dub-step power-metal remix. No-one jumped.
I stayed for Fozzy, mainly for my love of wrestling and Chris Jericho. I expected nothing. I received a slobberknocker! Despite the music being trite post-grungy modern-rock of the sleazy variety, and despite Jericho miming a fair bit, it was a masterclass in crowd engagement. Like a wrestling match, there were lots of set-pieces — Jericho ran through the crowd, manned the cameras, climbed the amps, and fired steam from a steam gun. The banter between songs was solid, too. I found myself ignoring the music, choosing to observe Jericho’s ego-trip in the flesh.
Thankfully, things picked up in the Sophie tent. Demonic Resurrection played a tight-set which drew in adoration from the crowd, thanks to the warming banter of frontman The Demonstealer. Mantar‘s pre-show set-up was just as exciting as their crushing set. I watched Hanno, the frontman, giving instructions to the production crew, constantly pointing up to the sky in regards to volume and rushing about, fiddling with effects pedals and the multitude of bass amps. Despite a lethargic, clearly tired, crowd, the band crushed with their destructive punky, groovy sound.
The weekend was lacking in kvlt black metal but thankfully the one-man black-metal sound of UK-based Abduction satisfied my need for esoteric majesty. His mix of Leviathan, Xasthur, and Blut Aus Nord was mesmeric — the vocals seemed to swirl around my brain as if everyone in the arena was channeling him. I stood and swayed in a hazy daze, genuinely drawn in by the quality of the serpentine riffs. The 7% perry was getting to me.
Food, toilet breaks, merch perusing, medieval battles, more drinks, trips back to the tent, interviews, drinks, toilet breaks, food, drinks, and metal made up the remainder of the day. We gathered patiently for Pallbearer at 8 pm. Their sound was muddier than on record, a good thing. Brett Campbell sounded immense on the mic and the crowd swallowed the crushing melancholy of their sound with open arms. An unfortunate lack of “The Legend” and “I Saw The End” left me a bit deflated, but on the whole, Pallbearer impressed an absolutely rammed Sophie crowd.
With Nightwish not appealing to us, we went back to the tent and sat pensively. We listened, and sang along, to the whole of Porcupine Tree‘s In Absentia as we gazed into the hazy dusky distance. Watain’s satanic pomposity seared through the air at 22:40, the final band of the weekend on the Sophie stage. We stood at the back of the cramped stage in sort of a dazed stupor. I wasn’t really feeling it, especially from this distance and with the guitars sounding flat and weak. I had some chicken. I looked at the empty main stage and wiped a solitary tear from my cheek. I made my way back to the tent. Bloodstock was over.
But, oh boy, things were only just beginning. At midnight, as we sat in a circle near our tents in the Midgard field, rating bands out of a hundred, the ritualistic chants of “HYPNOTOAD” could be heard in the distance. What was going on? Marching up the main thorough-way, about 400 meters away, we could see a neon glow. At the front of a horde of about 200 people was a neon wizard, an individual wearing a top hat, holding a cane, and who was wrapped in fairy-lights and tinsel. Next to him, other neon mages with boom-boxes and microphones chanted into the night. The mad horde followed them, continuing the “HYNOTOAD” chant and shouting other incredibly inappropriate things.
“This guy’s here every year,” my seasoned Bloodstock friend said, “they follow him on Sunday night in search for the sacred bins.” In previous years Bloodstock was famed for its rich and abundant source of industrial sized bins. Why? Bin-jousting — a famed tradition where two warriors sit atop these bins as muscly warriors fire them into one another. After the impact, they fight until one falls off. The winner receives a plastic medal. However, in 2017 one infamous bin-glider punctured his lung and fractured three ribs — the bins were removed. So, the toad-horde were on the hunt for the now rare, scarce bin. We decided to follow them.
Two tired security people traipsed behind. In the far corner of a field, they found the sacred bins. The jousting commenced! The neon wizard furiously gave instructions. The crowds roared. Bins clashed. The taste of blood spread amongst one and all. Two gazebos were ripped from the ground and used as bases for both sides. The chants of “Ga-zee-bo” on everyone’s tongues, an incantation. Eventually, the security politely asked us to stop. The goodwill of everyone at the festival meant that we followed their orders. We went to bed, but apparently, this went on for about 4 more hours.
My first Bloodstock was complete. It’s a festival based upon a genuine love of metal and genuine desire for an association of like-minded metal geeks to come together and have a good time. There’s a really special community feel to the festival which is warming. The festival is expanding each year and it’s important that the magical balance isn’t lost. I will be attending every year now, even if the lineup is poor. The amount of new bands I’ve discovered is staggering. The amount of people I’ve met who have been friendly, caring and enlightening has been wonderful. The experiences I’ve gained invaluable. Get to Bloodstock 2019, camp with me and my friends, chat absolute rubbish, see amazing bands — you’ll love it.