Bloodstock Open Air 2021 Review: Pandemic Festival Pandemonium

In the words of Rob Halford during Judas Priest’s two-hour headline slot: “Britain’s premier heavy metal festival is back.” Yes, cranky Covid’s delta wave dangerously hovered over the pit like clouded sweat but after a few strong ciders and a crunching riff – experienced live for the first time in over 18 months – the external world became a distant memory. If you were to look at the original line-up for this year’s festival you would be taken aback by the number of dropouts. Logistically, the organization of bands must have been a nightmare and I can only convey my admiration for how Bloodstock managed to pull together new bands from the aether. Gone were headliners Mercyful Fate, replaced by Satan’s favorite thrashers Kreator. Gone also were Soen, Night Flight Orchestra, Cattle Decapitation, VioLence, Dark Tranquility, Dimmu Borgir, Toxic Holocaust, Unleash the Archers, The Black Dahlia Murder, Exhumed and many more. That’s a lot of big name bands struck down by travel restrictions, quarantine nightmares and general instability.

Bloodstock didn’t buckle. Instead, it became a festival that championed British music more so than ever before. Yes, there were fewer big names to fanboy over but the quality and diversity of metal on offer this year was staggering. Devin Townsend spent weeks quarantining in a mid-tier British hotel just to headline Friday night this year. Kreator too. In fact, most bands spent the weeks, heck months, tip-toeing tentatively around the issue of Covid. In a cruel twist of fate, multiple bands had to cancel their performances during the weekend of the festival itself: Loathe, Sylosis, Party Cannon, and Black Tongue had to pull out due to members testing positive. The cruelest dropout concerned Jinjer. The Ukrainian band pulled out a few weeks before due to quarantine-rule issues (some bureaucratic nightmare involving Ukraine’s relationship to the EU) but then, miraculously, found a way to be reinstated. Days later, after hype, dead-hype, and re-hype, the band had to drop out again.

The uncertainties and last-minute shuffling meant that bands who would usually play the second stage had a chance to fill spaces on the main stage. One such band was the North West’s Foetal Juice (reviewed glowingly by our resident Gardenstale) who opened the Ronnie James Dio Stage on Friday morning. I managed to bump into a buzzing, beer-drenched but kind-hearted Foetal Juice after their Friday show. They were now media darlings, floating about Bloodstock with a newfound adoration and pomp. In reality, the band were modest and overjoyed, describing how grateful they were that their “dancing, fighting, shagging” form of violent death metal was welcomed by the masses. The massive mainstage was a daunting force but the band were able to fill it with girth, might and violent spunk: “If it wasn’t for these stomachs there’d be four erections here.”

For Britain’s busiest gore-death brutalizers, this was an incredible opportunity. “It’s kind of turned into the Mecca of underground metal” commented drummer Rob Harris during our meet-up. “If you look at the line-up this year you’ve got so many underground bands that we’ve known for years that are just fucking smashing it and are in really good positions because of this.” From grotty back rooms and grubby fields in Huddersfield, Banbury, Sunderland and Bromsgrove to the hallowed fields of Bloodstock, the sun does shine for bands given a chance to play in front of thousands of fans. Incessant touring is the only way for a lot of less well-known bands to survive. The past eighteen months have been a brutal chokehold.

Foetal Juice – and the band members’ other projects such as Necronautical, Burial, and Wolfbastard – is not a full-time venture and real-life beckons. “We’re skint, skint all the fucking time’ spat vocal goblin Derek Carley. “It’s a case,” stated the more collected Rob Harris, of “just working all the way through it [lockdown], just with shitter shifts and not being able to do any of the stuff that you enjoy like meeting your mates, getting wankered, and playing gigs – and it’s been the lack of that which has made us absolutely wankered for this interview.” It’s why Bloodstock, and the festival’s drive to champion heavy music during this time, is such a vital institution. Foetal Juice’s joy is just one example of the feel-good energy that exploded during the long weekend. Their future goal is to become heavier, more blackened, more punky, more grindy, and generally more violent. But that’s just their music – the people behind the music are kind, funny and dedicated to upholding the underground ethos of British music. Gratefulness, camaraderie and great music – that’s Bloodstock. Here are the highlights.


Headliners

Devin Townsend headlined Friday night with a ‘By Request’ performance that saw him performing with a bad back and an entirely new band. It was not an understated show. Unleashed upon the crowd during the tasteful “March of the Poozers” were giant inflatable testicles, and during the uplifting “Spirits Will Collide” a gorilla and an elephant accompanied a manic Townsend on stage. Strapping Young Lad favorites “Aftermath,” “Almost Again,” “Love?” and “Detox” interspersed the softer side of Townsend’s recent releases, and a wonderful performance of “Deadhead” and a spooky Friday the 13th version of “Vampira” demonstrated the well-rounded and balanced approach that Townsend took to the feel good performance.

Saturday’s headliners Kreator were hellfire. The pits had splinter pits, the walls of death had vertical layers, and Teutonic aggression surged from the flamethrowers that were pointed from every angle on stage. Like Townsend, Mille Petroza was beaming with joy at being able to perform live again. During “Fallen Brother” he paid tribute to those no longer with us, and during penultimate track “Betrayer” Dani Filth hobbled on stage to awkwardly growl here and there. The guitar tones didn’t sting and slice as scathingly as I hoped, a problem the main stage seemed to have for a few bands over the weekend, but Kreator did ramp it up – as expected – during the visceral spurts of their early era thrash. Kreator is eternal and despite their aging physical appearance, their live shows are still breakneck and furious.

The mighty Judas Priest returned again (after performing on their Firepower tour in 2018) for their 50th anniversary extravaganza. The stage was transformed into an abandoned warehouse of rusting metal and Birmingham grit, reasonably understated in comparison to a gold cloaked Rob Halford. It was a performance for digging up gems from the past. Painkiller’s “One Shot at Glory” and Stained Class’ “Invader” were performed live for the first time, the wonderful “Exciter” for the first time since 2005, “Hell Patrol” for the first time since 2009, and “Rocka Rolla” for the first time since 1976. Glenn Tipton joined the band on stage to perform the final trio of “Metal Gods,” “Breaking the Law,” and “Living After Midnight” in one of the many feel good moments during Priest’s set. Somehow Halford looks more and more of a metal god, especially as his white mutton chops lengthen and his attire becomes more theatrically godly – long may Priest deliver their sermon.

 


Best of the Rest

It was on the second stage, the tented S.O.P.H.I.E stage, and the third stage, the Hobgoblin Newblood Stage (championing upcoming bands who had recently won their regional heat), where the real winners of the weekend featured. A personal standout were doomsters Famyne who played with classic, dread-filled aplomb. The drummer and guitarists were long-haired and physically imposing, but it was outstanding vocalist Tom Vane – smaller in stature – who stole the show. Without blinking, Vane creeped and contorted as he warbled out tonally superb vocal lines. As soon as the first crank of the amp cast its withering malevolence I was entranced.  On the opposite end of metal’s spectrum, Casket Feeder’s crusty, grinding death metal was encrusted in scum. For a band yet to release a full-length their balance of old school death metal riff craft and contemporary -core influences worked excellently. Like Famyne, the first crank of the ol’ riff stick hooked into the flesh instantly.

The riff is mighty and Britain’s metal scene is littered with sludgy, stonery goodness. Myself and my fellow campsite goblins were chasing the riff with desperation. Thankfully, the riff could be found in abundance for it had been stored, like wine, in a deep cellar for eighteen months. Even the most basic of riffs sounded deep and luscious, and each finger caressing those strings sent shivers through the crowd.

Boozy stoner-sludge-black monstrosity Pist provided a pungent variety of riffs. Smiling vocalist Dave Rowlands fired good vibes and vicious snarls as he giggled and glided through vistas of groove sludge and blackened menace. Green Lung, too, brought many a wood-elf riff to the mix – their stoner-doom was classic and simple but incredibly effective. At one point, the Lung managed to play a riff so wonderfully simple yet groovy that the tent ripped open and the world ended for a blissful moment. Vocalist Tom Templar talked about mushrooms and witchcraft as the tent’s ceiling was lost to the thickness of the toke. It may have been the 6% cider, but Green Lung felt special.

On the main stage, Orange Goblin – spearheaded by the massive daddy of stoner Ben Ward – celebrated (a year late) their 25th anniversary. Ward was drenched in sweat and booze as crowds surfed, pits rocked and space-stoner surged. The guitar tone, again, lacked a punch but the Goblin knew how to work a crowd. Ward shouted words of praise into an adoring audience on dad-rock Sunday. It was joyous and I managed to crowdsurf without getting assaulted: result. Orange Goblin seem to stand tall as an icon, now, for stoner-rock bands trying to break through from the underground. They have left fertile soil.

Back in the tent of doom, Conan provided a different sort of riffcraft. Theirs is an incessant pounding of the war drum. The one-tone slamming grooves of Conan’s thunderhooves were gloriously no-nonsense. Conan has been around for a while now and their unwavering ability to crush demands respect. Crushing and fresher on the scene, Garganjua emerged. The name Garganjua suggests a band who like to play vast and cosmic riffs within a bubble of green, however Garganjua’s sound is more akin to the existential post-metal dread of Cult of Luna and Neurosis. Their atmospheric song building was on point and the tone of guitars, always strong in the S.O.P.H.I.E tent, offered a brief glimpse into a post-metal apocalypse.

A special shout out goes to Conjurer who were promoted to the mainstage after their staggeringly heavy performance in 2018. Conjurer is a band who play well beyond their years, merging massive sludge riffs with post-metal, hardcore, black metal and death metal. Despite it being midday on a Saturday, Conjurer stupefied the audience. They are a band who hit so many sweet spots. It only seems like they’ll become the figureheads for underground British extreme metal in the years to come.

Despite many technical difficulties, British thrash old boys Acid Reign were a bundle of manic energy during mainstage sunshine. Frontman Howard Smith may be 51 but his constant back-and-fore sprints, power jumps and crowd interactions were unmatched over the weekend. Evile, too, were probably the most intense band of the weekend. Their pits were painful and the general unhinged energy that seemed to pass through the tightly packed crowd during their performance was wonderful.

There were few bad shows, although a concerted effort was made to avoid most of the mainstage during the weekend (apart from the headliners). Paradise Lost played Draconian Times in full – a solid record, although live it seems to suffer from a repetitive bleakness. Nick Holmes’ Hetfield impression was on point, and his typically dour humor was appreciated. In comparison to the thrash of Kreator and Acid Reign, Onslaught provided little rage. Their cold performance highlighted their lack of solid riffs and strong lyrical hooks. The least enjoyable band of the weekend.

Missed were Cradle of Filth, Skindred, Saxon, Diamond Head, Venom Prison, While She Sleeps, Gloryhammer, Therapy?, Raging Speedhorn, Winterfylleth, Memoriam and Evil Scarecrow. Most regrettably Napalm Death was skipped due to pure exhaustion following Kreator on Saturday night – sometimes sacrifices have to be made. The music was fantastic but the festival was also about seeing old friends and forgetting the world exists for a few days. Too much time was spent sat around chatting nonsense, drinking floor beer and eating expensive food and granola bars. But, during this time of solitude and distance, it’s easy to forget that other metalheads exist. Here we all are online, faceless, but it’s great to form a physical connection with those addicted to the same corrupt form of music. Hopefully soon, as long as we’re all sensible and follow the correct procedures, this can happen more often.

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