It's been eight long years since I've been to a show at London's Wembley Arena. The last time was 2015, when Slipknot conquered the venue after the release of .5: The Gray Chapter album. Korn supported them that freezing January night. Thousands of fans struggled to get in before they closed their set with an earth-scorching rendition of "Blind". The venue continues to harbour a bad reputation for not getting fans in on time.
It's a different story as I walk down Olympic Avenue (the area's link to the event is somewhat overplayed) in the blazing late May sunshine for this year's Heavy Music Awards. It is the seventh that has taken place. This time of year, the approach to Wembley Stadium and the neighbouring arena is closely associated with the end of the English soccer season – its play-offs and cup finals. There's usually a sea of team colours stretching from the tube station towards the ground. Advertising flanking the approach encourages prospective sports gamblers to 'take time to think' before acting. Today, the area is overtaken by black-clad Creeper and Boston Manor fans.
Wembley Stadium and Wembley Arena are big and little brother for some of the biggest rock shows in history. The dressing rooms and backstage corridors are adorned with the evidence – signed gig posters (from Slayer to The Nightmare Before Christmas Live In Concert). There are poster-sized photos of Freddie Mercury at Live Aid and Status Quo's Francis Di Rossi, alongside No Doubt's Gwen Stefani. I saw the latter support Red Hot Chilli Peppers in 1996, then red hot themselves following the release of "Don't Speak".
The surrounding area has transformed. Regenerated in the intervening years since 2015, it now boasts a huge library and glass-fronted civic centre. But inside Wembley Arena, little has changed. It's still London's premiere music cattle shed, with a cavernous auditorium. Just after I arrive, Halestorm members Izzy Hale and Joe Hottinger are sound-checking their performance with Sophie Lloyd. Her soulful shredding drifts through Knotfest's dressing-room door like Yngwie Malmsteen reincarnated for Gen Z.
Things are changing in the heavy music world. The bands performing, nominated and winning tonight suggest a new breed is surfacing. In such an historic venue, for some this is their taste of the big time.
Barstaff methodically rip open boxes of beer and wine to furnish the generously spaced tables that take up the back half of the floor space. Soon, the tables are taken up by music industry well-wishers. Fittingly, the front half of the floor is for the fans, without whom (so the cliché goes) none of this is possible.
Dutifully, I make my way to join the people at the front to get a taste of opener Vukovi. With the lights off, it's less dangerous – but the house lights remain on as the industry liggers trickle in. Then they snap off as the teutonic techno thunder of Electric Callboy announces that the ceremony has begun.
Host Alex Baker's mic immediately starts feedbacking during his welcome, a sign of the technical problems that dog the early part of the evening. Let's call them growing pains, because – as Baker underscores – this is the first time an awards ceremony of this kind has taken place in an arena. It's a big double-step up from the Kentish Town Forum last year. The mainstream media ignores this world of music and 'we crack the fuck on' regardless, he proudly proclaims. A long-time presenter of Kerrang! Radio, he confesses his first show here was the Spice Girls. One of the loudest of all time, he says, in terms of the audience's screams at least. Pop, in one form or another, makes its presence felt throughout the evening.
Vukovi makes their disdain clear at the size of the mosh pit as they invite out Scene Queen to guest: 'Get that fucking pit bigger!' It's familiar stage banter, but delivered in Janine Shilstone's commanding Ayrshire accent, the obedient London crowd is not objecting. Vukovi battle through a somewhat swampy mix with their sharp, electronica-tinged metal - taking on the tough assignment of kicking off the ceremonial performance slate. Rather than compromising their rousing introductory set to any further technical difficulties, the band stepped off triumphant before their last song could fall victim to a faulty mix. With the cards stacked against them, Vukovi still ace the assignment.
As December Falls win the first award for Best Breakthrough Award. They stress their independence before thanking their booking agent and PR team, revealing something of the way bands are organising themselves these days. Halestorm pick up the 'very heavy' award (4.5 kg in fact) for Best International Artist, then drop a very heavy hint that they might be returning to headline the arena soon. (They've since announced a gig with Black Veil Brides supporting in December). Chris Motionless from Motionless In White sends a video message effusively thanking us all for their Best Video award for "Werewolf", their first-ever award, it transpires.
Loathe's intro tape glitches out, delaying their arrival onstage as second live act of the night. Guitarist/vocalist Erik Bickerstaffe had complained during soundcheck that his guitar was playing up. It's not working now either. But Loathe adapt to perform a gamely drum 'n' bass version of "Heavy is the Head that Falls with the Weight of a Thousand Thoughts". Well, we can't really hear the bass either, so it's really just drums and vocals. Credit to drummer Sean Radcliffe, he's destroying it up there, with a snare like a cannon. And vocalist Kadeem France looks good in a suit, recalling Henry Rollins performing "Liar" at the Grammys all those years ago. France apologises for the technical gremlins, explaining they're par for the course with the band. He continues to push his claim to being akin to a 21st-century Mike Patton with his croons, screams and insouciant, impenetrable charm.
It's fantastic to see uber-metal-cover-artist Eliran Kantor, who's turned 'an obsession into a profession' he says, pick up Best Artwork for Malicious Intent by Malevolence. A few boos for the representative from Ticketmaster can't dampen co-presenting Halestorm's enthusiasm for the Best Festival award going to the Download Festival. Brit-pop-rockers McFly get a surprisingly loud cheer (how many in the audience grew up listening to them, I wonder). They also seem to have come dressed as Rio-era Duran Duran. They present a clearly chuffed Charlotte Sands with the award for Best Breakthrough Album for Love and Other Lies. She's another independent artist collaborating with songwriters like a pop star, receiving an award from a pop band who treated their music like a rock band.
Technical gremlins try to interrupt the beginning of Boston Manor's set. They are soon stamped out. The band has three dancers in tow, developing the evening's theme of a heavy music scene cleaving close to an accessible, danceable pop sensibility.
Vukovi return to the stage to pick up an award for Best Production from Cassyette, for album Nula (co-produced by Bruce Rintoul). 'I just thought I was hear to get steamin',' says Shilstone, with echoes of her 'refreshed' appearance at the awards last year. Metal-loving funnyman Ed Gamble and UK Masked Singer presenter Joel Dommett come out to present the Best UK Live Artist award. Inventors of audience-participation favourite the 'Newport helicopter', Skindred, win it. Their singer, the legendary Benji Webbe, gives respect to reggae music and the effortless blending of genres he pioneered in Dub War. He affectionately heralds his band as 'the original reggae-metal soundsystem'.
Biffy Clyro take home the Pioneer Award: 'Hail Satan, motherfuckers!' singer Simon Neil salutes us in a pre-recorded thank you. Will and Ian don't sound like big rockstar names but Creeper's Will Gould and Ian Miles move a little differently to your average human. They bestow the Best International Breakthrough Artist award upon Scene Queen. She thanks her 'chronically online fans' for the success of an act predicated on the classic British favourites 'sarcasm' and 'tasteful nudity'.
The special H Award for community spirit in metal is given by HMA founder Dave Bradley to the fundraising Teddy Rocks festival. Tom Newton started the event as a tribute to his little brother, Ted, who died when he was 10 years old of a rare bone cancer. As it grew from its first pub gig that raised £400 in 2011, Teddy Rocks has raised half a million pounds for children with cancer. They leave the stage to chants of 'Teddy!'
By this point Alex Baker is almost too emotional to introduce Underoath. But they soon unblock any choked-up throats with a torrent of their own metallic catharsis. Alyx Holcombe, whose former podcast On Wednesdays We Wear Black won an award last year, gives the Icon award to fellow BBC Radio 1 presenter Daniel P Carter. Somehow he's presented the Rock Show for twenty years now. Before that, he was bass player for British alt-rockers A and had stints in Bloodhound Gang, as well as the very extreme Krokodil alongside Slipknot's V-Man. But it's his service to heavy music on the airwaves that has earned him icon status.
Members of Skindred return to present Best Breakthrough Live Artist to Static Dress, who tore the place down performing last year. They're yet another independent artist, who are re-releasing their debut album Rouge Carpet Disaster through Roadrunner later this year.
Of the remaining 'Big Four' awards to be given out, Scene Queen returns to hand Best UK Artist to another former live performer at the awards, Sleep Token. Spinefarm Records boss Dante Bonutto picks up their award. The Halestorm/Sophie Lloyd collaboration follows. First Hale and Hottinger hush the arena with an acoustic rendition of "Terrible Things". There's something fitting about Hale giving it her all with a voice of such power in the week Tina Turner died. She takes to a keyboard for "Raise Your Horns", doing almost impossible gravelly rock-god theatrics with her voice. Lloyd comes out to overlay her vocal gymnastics with some supple guitar runs of her own.
Last year's warm-up DJ, Kerrang! Radio presenter Jon Mahon, gives best album to Bad Omens for The Death of Peace of Mind. It confirms a growing feeling over the evening that the new world of heavy music is being born in front of us, winning out over more established bands. Not unfamiliar with big singles, the Best Single award goes to one of those rare long-established acts, Enter Shikari, for "The Void Stares Back" (featuring Wargasm). They're a band who were the future once, when they burst seemingly out of nowhere thanks to MySpace in the early 2000s.
A big show with a nearly three-hour running time, Baker gets to the climactic award for Best International Live Artist, given to everyone's favourite German party boys Electric Callboy.
Headliners Creeper throw a final shade of theatrical gloom onto the stage as the night's closing act. Suddenly the cattle shed is a neon nightmare of Creeper's invention. Their show is the vampire movie Near Dark if The Sisters of Mercy were the house band. Where Sophie Lloyd is a guitar hero in a new mould, singer Will Gould is channelling Andrew Eldritch for a new generation.
In the live setting, new single "Cry To Heaven" makes that emphatically clear. New-wave synths vie with Ian Miles' ecstatic soloing, giving the evening the sheen and glamorous underbelly of an inner city before it gets cleaned up. The key change towards the song's climax, like the other new song they play, "Ghost Brigade", confirms that Creeper are heading into new territory. But they have a keen eye on the rearview mirror and what made everyone proclaim that 'Goth Is Great' forty years ago.
Feeling like the denizen of one of their music videos, I stalk up the spotlit Olympic Avenue – to catch the nighttrain. It feels like heavy music's next generation will only grow in status and confidence, as will the Heavy Music Awards.