It is the time of year when the UK's exclusive metal outdoor festival arrives with just short of 15,000 fans of metal's splintering subgenres gather to witness the best of homegrown and international talent. It can only be Bloodstock. Some of the announcements this year birthed controversy among long term attendees of the event with accusations that the festival is tiptoeing towards Download, the country's most populous rock festival. However, Bloodstock was originally spawned as a melodic metal venture with heavy/folk/power/symphonic/progressive metal being the reason of its existence. The inclusion of death and black metal in recent years has frustrated those who prefer melody in their metal but now it appears both the melodic and extreme metalheads are united in their disdain for the more commercial rock acts populating the Bloodstock running order. In spite of this, the 'true metal' contingent can be satisfied by the strength of the undercard and the rare UK appearances in addition to returning Bloodstock acts.
The size of the festival means you can always get a decent view of any band with little effort (not to mention there are screens on either side of the stage if you want to hang further afield) and queues are never too lengthy. Drink prices are reasonable for a festival and although the food may be quite pricey, there is a range of cuisines to seduce any palate from burgers to Mexican food. The condition of the nightmare-inducing portable toilets this year is generally outstanding for a festival and the Bloodstock team are to be commended. In addition to the music, there is a selection of fairground rides, a rock/metal art gallery and a VIP area with an astonishing range of ales and ciders.
It is a tradition that the Bloodstock organisers have a penchant for putting popular bands to open the Ronnie James Dio Stage of the festival despite mass audience disapproval. Today sees '80s thrash metallers Nuclear Assault unfortunately occupying this constitution. This poor decision is even more ludicrous considering these Americans are calling it quits next year, daubing this likely to be their final UK show (not to mention first in aeons). Yet the early start fails to impede a large congregation accumulating as Nuclear Assault's crossover thrash metal storms through the likes of 'Critical Mass', 'Game Over'and 'Butt Fuck'( without the hilarious drunken rant unfortunately) as well as infectiously catchy new number 'Analogue Man in a Digital World', their tongue-on-cheek stage presence rightfully eliciting a fevered ovation from the crowd.
'80s metallers Armored Saint keep the momentum burning with a solid representation of their career trajectory, opening with new song 'Win Hands Down', immediately proceeded by 'March of the Saint' and 'Nervous Man'. Their heavy metal is multi-faceted, picking up hard rock strains, marrying heavier riffing with melodic breaks. Unfortunately, the dynamic nature of the music is not mirrored in the lacklustre stage presence and Joey Vera's normally sleek vocals sound strained on some of the more challenging notes. Closing with their old track 'Mad House', Armored Saint vacate the stage leaving a fair amount more to be desired.
Frustratingly clashing at the same time as another progressive black metal band (Ne Obliviscaris – awful oversight by the organisers) is Norwegian second wave black metallers Enslaved, diving into their set with 'Thurisaz Dreaming' from the new album 'In Times'. Their experience shines through as their austere stage presence takes command of the stageto execute an atmospheric, visceral and technically adept performance. Bolting into 'Fusion of Sense and Earth'realises a mosh pit as the straight-forward rhythms seemingly possess the audience. New song 'Building With Fire' meshes the nastiness of their Viking black metal roots with the modern progressive direction with astounding results and acts as the perfect segue into the violent classic 'AllfÇ«ðr Odinn', which although the majority of the audience seem entirely unable to recognise it, still draws out the headbangers and moshers.
Maintaining the Norwegian black metal theme is Emperor-frontman Ihsahn with his extreme progressive metal solo project, far removed from his previous celebrated endeavour. Sinister melodies build into energetic progressive - and the occasionally downright strange - sections, never dropping their dark side. Ihsahn remarks that he and his backing band cannot hear each other but from the crowd, the sound is not as poor as the Norwegian probably expects it to be. The setlist concentrates on 2013's 'Das Seelenbrechen' although the crowd is treated to an Emperor medley inclusive of 'Thus Spake the Nightspirit'and the closer is a new song 'My Heart is of the North'. In spite of the subdued response from the audience throughout, Ihsahn manages to secure a rapturous applause for his endeavors when he leaves the stage.
The energy is cranked up to 11 as thrash metal legends Overkill waste no time exploding on stage with 'White Devil Armory' demanding the audience move with their modern thrash metal assault. However, compared to their standard live assault, the Americans seem slightly pacified. Nonetheless, the vigour in the likes of abrasive '80s thrash classics 'Hammerhead', 'Rotten to the Core' and 'Hello from the Gutter' oversee mosh pits and hair waving in the air. The one-two punch led by the stinging classic 'Elimination' followed by rebellious The Subhumans cover 'Fuck You', that sees the audience yelling along to the chorus, brings the set to a halt with a bang. Overkill are always a pleasure to see in the flesh.
Drawing arguably the largest crowd of the weekend are belligerent power metallers Sabaton, melodic metal's best success story in the past ten years and these Swedes are deserving of a headlining slot – reminiscent of their shameful position playing first in 2009 and once again drawing an enormous crowd. Nonetheless, with a tank backing them and microphone stands adorned in assault rifles, bullet belts and helmets, it's unambiguous that these power metallers mean war. The first strike is 'Ghost Division' heavy with heated keyboard soundscapes and drums that sound like mines detonating, all commanded by the deep signature vocals of Joakim Brodén. Pyro fired from the tank's gun, mosh pits in abundance and the band's bombastic combinationof power metal and modern history all contribute to a melodic metal show that flaunts more energy than most death metal bands.
The setlist airs plenty of 'Heroes' songs including 'Far from the Fame', the UK debut of 'No Bullets Fly' and the folky 'To Hell and Back'. Lodged among these barrages are the popular likes of 'The Art of War', 'Swedish Pagans' and 'Screaming Eagles'. Aside from the music, Brodénis sure to include comic elements in his stage banter that rattles laughs from the festival. Following the pensive'The Art of War', Sabaton leave the stage to roars and applause. The audience remains stationary though in anticipation of an encore and sure enough the five-piece return with 'Night Witches'. Canons belch yellow and blue Swedish confetti across the festival as the cheers are earth-shattering. Possibly the power metallers most popular anthem ever 'Primo Victoria' gets the audience leaping up and down as many sing along word-for-word. Closer is the power metal party track 'Metal Crüe' concluding the set on a dizzying high note. When Sabaton return to this festival, they will probably be headlining and it will be 100% deserved.
Over at the Sophie Lancaster stage are home-grown doom metallers Conan who have accrued a substantial amount of international interest despite being a comparatively young band in the metal stratosphere. Their ominous take on doom metal is incredibly heavy and oppressive with mid-paced or crippling tempos, utilising the abrasiveness of stoner doom to arm their music with further rawness. With selections off both full-length releases, such as 'Foehammer', 'Battle in the Swamp' and 'Hawk as Weapon', the trio's doom metal is fairly simplistic but this adds to their primitive sound and bludgeons the listener senselessly. The solid number of spectators is testament to the effectiveness of their music and when they end their set, the ovation is extremely positive.
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