Amid scorching temperatures in the UK, the destination for heavy culture proved to be a global celebration of extreme music and outsider art.
England has been in the grip of multiple heatwaves this summer that, as Cattle Decapitation’s Travis Ryan on-brand points out from the Bloodstock main stage at one point, feels actually threatening. For British people forever moaning about the rain that’s made certain years of other festivals infamous, it’s like a cruel curling of the monkey’s paw.
For American readers – we ain’t used to this shit. These are the conditions that turn the punters of 2022’s Bloodstock Festival into frightened rats scurrying between food stalls and sound desks for precious bits of shelter, but this is the UK’s most metal outdoor festival, and on an occasion like this it’s like a challenge thrown down to those willing to battle such arduous temperatures to then be rewarded with sets from some of the finest this fest has to offer. After 2021 saw a primarily UK-focused bill due to the ongoing international touring situation of the COVID pandemic, 2022 feels like a grand return to full size bringing in both fresh and legendary faces from across the globe.
After scene-setting shows from the likes of Bloodywood’s bhangra-infused rap metal bouncing a large crowd and particularly Inhuman Nature who offer a violent and exciting UK answer to the crossover thrash of Power Trip and Enforced, case in point about the renewed size of this year’s event comes in the form of watching a massive headline-sized band perform on the second stage before even 3PM on Friday.
Rumours of the identity of Bloodstock’s first ever secret band have floated for a couple weeks before the event, but the hoisting of a backdrop displaying the words “Machine Fucking Head” makes the crowd to have secured a spot inside the sweaty, sweaty tent feel like they’ve lucked out about not having to pay an extra penny for another act of this magnitude. The fact that it’s not only Machine Head’s first public show since the pandemic but the first time they’ve played a festival at all in many years feels all the more unique, and with the band adopting a three-piece set-up for one night only and leaning massively on their fastest pit-stirring material they come to attack the hell out of the rare opportunity to see them in a slot like this.
Every song near enough feels like it’s introduced from Robb with “Are you ready for a fast one?” just injecting more and more pace to giddy levels, while a first ever live outing of Roadrunner United track “The Dagger” shows that this is not just the band coming back to a comfortable business as usual. It’s a dramatic peak for the festival startlingly early on, but not one it struggles to match again after the fact.
Burn My Eyes drummer Chris Kontos emerges to perform an impressive stage dive during his friends’ set, and one of the joys of this year’s event proves to be the sense of camaraderie between artists. When Robb Flynn insists that fans stick around to watch d-beat pioneers Discharge right after, the authenticity of this enthusiasm is evidenced in how much fun they’re clearly having when they’re spotted side-stage air-drumming for the great punk band.
The same goes for Randy Blythe snapping photos with his camera of Killing Joke showing a great reverence for the band immediately supporting his. If metal is a genre populated by fervent hardcore fans in the bands as well as on the ground, there’s an affirming evidence of this at a place like Bloodstock that reminds you of the passion that unites everyone on site.
This heart-racing run of incredible speed mid-afternoon is capped off by Exodus, a band who wonderfully feel like they’ve been brought back to life in the last couple of years. Between the return of Gary Holt after his Slayer days and the vanquishing of cancer by drummer Tom Hunting, the thrash legends have a renewed drive and purpose that makes for a remarkably impassioned delivery of their vicious repertoire.
A freshly Dave Lombardo-backed Testament are on main stage after them but Tom seems to determined to lay down the hardest tracks of the day, a propulsive engine of he and Holt’s riffing formidable by anyone’s standards. The talented Brandon Ellis of The Black Dahlia Murder filling in on lead guitar adds a youthful rock star presence to the band today, as well as the first of a number of respects paid this weekend to the incomparable Trevor Strnad. Part of the joy of a place like Bloodstock is being in a crowd that will know the words to steel-capped metallic anthems like “Blacklist” and will treat “The Toxic Waltz” like the weekend’s biggest opportunity to throw down.
If the thrash run here proves a little much meanwhile, a nihilistic bile-vomiting antidote is available on the second stage in the form of an always-intimidating Eyehategod.
Ten years after planting their banner at the very top of the main stage fresh after their frontman’s emergence from leukemia, Behemoth return to headline Bloodstock Festival in such a dramatically different place that you can’t help but reflect on how far they have come. This is now a band this unapologetically extreme and blasphemous who are yet considered a safe bet to close a day like this, whose huge representation of fans show up ready to lose their minds to “Ov Fire and the Void” and “Conquer All” safe in the knowledge that the weekend’s heaviest headliner will also put on one of the biggest shows.
Behemoth easily bring the most pyro of the festival and the theatrics of their ritualistic attire seem to invent a brand new aesthetic for a smaller black metal band to copy every time they release a new single, but behind this it’s the power of the band that stops a Behemoth show being a mere flowery commercial black metal pageant.
Nergal has some mic problems at the beginning of “Ora Pro Nobis Lucifer” but the song still feels like the most rallying paean to Satan you could ever start a set with. “Christians to the Lions” and “Slaves Shall Serve” are such brutal, devastating blasts causing carnage on the ground that have somehow managed to grow with the stages the band have reached since their recording.
Of the new singles from upcoming Opvs Contra Natvram, it’s “The Deathless Sun” with its huge “I am nothing!” refrain that feels the most instantly at home, though Nergal brandishing two blue and yellow smoke grenades for “Off to War!” makes for a very powerful photograph reminding you of how such seemingly esoteric music can throw itself behind contemporary causes. It’s “Bartzabel” and a concluding “O Father O Satan O Sun!” that demonstrate how gob-smackingly huge Behemoth have managed to take this kind of music, delivering moments of unbelievable gravitas more anthemic than practically anything on the bill with a clean singer is able to reach.
Saturday sees the worst of the heat, the mid-afternoon bands truly having to push themselves to overcome some of the sluggishness that’s setting into a crowd who feel like walking baked potatoes, but the determination on display is paramount.
While up and coming UK acts like Mastiff’s guttural punk spew and Pupil Slicer’s deranged mathcore get violent in the tent, SpiritWorld walk onto the main stage looking like fancy Texan gentlemen with their cowboy hats and fine embroidered jackets, an amusing and swaggering counterpart to the confident crossover beatdowns being laid down that makes them feel like they absolutely own this weather.
Lorna Shore’s presence at Bloodstock is a tantalising one given their recent representing of heavy music at places like Lollapalooza, and the deathcore band of the moment coming out on stage and immediately announcing their first song as movement-defining hit “To the Hellfire” shows a band not playing about one iota.
The lavish orchestration of their music could get lost on an outdoor stage but live you’re forced to reckon with the sheer talent of the players, some hugely impressive lead guitar playing on display before reaching the undeniable star of the show which are Will Ramos’ vocals. Hearing that stomach-churning final movement of “To the Hellfire” land right in front of you just like it does on record is inarguably impressive, and the setlist being made up of last year’s EP played in order followed by a selection of new singles shows a band rightly confident in where they’re going.
Sylosis afterwards feel like home scene heroes, their pedigree in bands like Architects, Conjurer and Bleed From Within all revolving around this act who have done more than most to make thrash metal feel at home in the 21st century. They’re well oiled after performing at Birmingham’s Pulse of the Maggots festival days before, and their week-old single “Heavy is the Crown” also demonstrates a band with assured confidence in their current day state sandwiching the speed and technicality of their older material between the commanding and hulking presence of their recent work.
Being able to watch Bury Tomorrow between Samael and Dimmu Borgir feels like an endearing quirk of Bloodstock running order. Samael’s industrial drum-machine backed Swiss black metal in the tent is an imperious and unique booking for Bloodstock of a band who could just as easily play Roadburn or any iteration of a Deathfest, but Bury Tomorrow meanwhile feels like a showcase of what putting in the work to get a crowd onside can get you.
Their kind of melodic metalcore is something still relatively fresh to Bloodstock’s palette as the festival increasingly opens itself up from its old school origins to bands like them, and they seem aware of their status as a slightly less necro offering ahead of an incredibly occult evening. This band though are seasoned vets of putting metal crowds in this country in the palm of their hand, and maneuvering that status with a dogged persistence to encourage people to give themselves over to them pays off.
Afterwards, Dimmu Borgir offer something of a back to basics performance for as much as the most grandiose symphonic black metal band of all time can do. Costume changes and dramatic staging are less on the cards today but instead there is a firm and robust command of the fundamentals of what an imposing, statuesque extreme metal band sounds like, doing away with past incidents of sound issues to just reinforce that guttural presence of “Puritania” or “Progenies of the Great Apocalypse”.
There is no greater occasion at Bloodstock this year than of Mercyful Fate’s return to the UK for the first time in 23 years, the newly active occult heavy metal icons being the draw to have sold many attendees their tickets this year. Incredible reports and footage of the band making their return to stages across Europe prior to this have drawn salivating reactions from those here waiting to get their chance, and the image of that stage in front of you tonight is enough to make an evil-loving metal maniac cry it’s so beautiful.
A cackling King Diamond in his new black spiked crown beneath the gargantuan shadow of a fluorescent upside down cross and looming Baphomet head behind him is the stuff that heavy metal dreams are made of, and the songs that accompany it are a masterclass in the core transcendental embrace of the dark magic that heavy metal at its best is meant to bring.
An opening one-two of “The Oath” and “A Corpse Without Soul” is delirious for the amount of kickass Hank Shermann riffs and sacrilegious proclamations you can fit into a single burst, and it is frankly obscene how good the King sounds for a guy who was pushing to extremes how out there a heavy metal vocalist could be when he started forty years ago. The musicians who Hank and King have assembled, primarily from Fate’s previous underrated 90s reunion period, are supreme professionals able to lay down these multi-faceted tracks with consummate ability.
While the setlist is otherwise made up of 1980s classics making for a euphoric running order of material, the first glimpse of new Mercyful Fate material comes in “The Jackal of Salzburg”, a monster which King introduces as “nine minutes long, not finished yet, and about the inquisition in Austria in 1675” in one of the most lovably Mercyful Fate combinations of statements you could possibly make.
The transitions between sections do feel a bit unpolished making the point about its incompleteness feel quite promising, because the core riff ideas have some crazy stuff going on showing how unique this band’s approach to writing heavy metal still feels. “Satan’s Fall” to close feels like a tour of riffs and concepts to spawned thousands of bands each in their wake. With Judas Priest having already topped the Bloodstock bill twice now, it’s hard to think of another heavy metal band of Fate’s vintage to be able to headline the festival like this, but even harder to think of anyone who are delivering the holy grail of shows like this to this day.
Saturday night isn’t done giving up its memories though, because Malevolence headlining the Sophie Lancaster stage put on the show of their lives. The band had been brought in as a UK replacement for Hatebreed but you’d never know it, because Malevolence more than any other second stage headliner this weekend take a slot that can sometimes feel like a bit of an afterparty for the main stage closer and turn it into their own crowning event.
The crowd is booming from the first moment to the last, threatening to burst through the roof of the tent for how much their grooves have people bouncing and flying over each other’s heads, and their gutsy sludge metal chorus melodies have never sounded louder posing the question of if Crowbar had had the capability to be an arena band.
They only made their debut on the main stage last year but the sense of turning the evening into their own homecoming show is fortified by the appearance of guest vocalists rushing in from side-stage like it’s a hardcore festival, Blood Youth’s Harry Rule charging into Bryan Garris’ verse on the now beloved “Keep Your Distance” while Lorna Shore’s Will Ramos provides a fantastic screaming support to “Karma”.
Between Alex Taylor shouting out his parents in the audience at what’s clearly a very special show for them and again Robb Flynn watching in the wings clearly wowed by the young band he’s seeing, tonight’s Malevolence show feels like the point when their burst of momentum at the beginning of this decade completes one level and moves up to another.
The largest event may have gone to last night but it’s hard to argue with the sheer run of quality bands presented by the Sunday on the main stage, and past a certain time of the day, there’s a sense of victory over the elements that we’ve finally made it and can enjoy the rest of the bands to the fullest.
Life of Agony unfortunately pulling out for medical reasons mean Skarlett Riot get bumped up to open the main stage, but Vended prove a major point of curiosity, playing to a large main stage crowd for a morning slot with an aggression and vitriol that suggests with further honing of their songs there could be quite a vicious band here.
Vio-Lence making their first ever appearance on UK soil feels like a great celebration of the spirit of the time that made them, performing thrasher classics from their Eternal Nightmare album to a crowd of people who in many cases will have been waiting an awful long time to see them, as Chris Kontos spontaneously emerges for some gang vocals and exchanges jokes with guitarist Phil Demmel that makes it look like men having the same amount of fun as when they were teenagers.
Venom Inc. had been asked by Bloodstock to fill the slot unfortunately left by The Black Dahlia Murder, and with a desire to put on something special in order to do that job honourably, turn up and play the iconic and essential Black Metal album in full. This piece of unshakeable extreme music history makes for a hell of a fun festival set, starting with the epoch-defining rampage of the title track immediately getting people on board with laying down their souls to the gods rock and roll before treating hardcore fans with a number of songs that don’t get as frequent outings.
“Sacrifice”, “Raise the Dead”, and “Heaven’s On Fire” are riotous touchstones of blackened speed metal hell-raising before any of those terms were really a thing, but it’s “Teacher’s Pet” that feels the most surreal to be seeing, a song so far beyond the limits of today’s good taste that nonetheless feels devilishly wicked to be having this much fun with. Extreme metal legend Nick Barker playing drums for them even adds a touch of musical class that you’d never usually associate with something as unwaveringly debaucherous as Venom’s lineage.
Cattle Decapitation have been much requested by Bloodstock goers forever, and after finally being booked for 2020’s festival, the universe made one more step to prolong their debut appearance, so today feels like a satisfied exhalation of a promise coming to fruition. Seeing Cattle Decapitation is like a shocking recalibration of what you can expect from a death metal band of such precise technicality, any ideas that surely it can’t quite match such things in the live environment torched away by the white hot power of an extreme band at the summit of the genre.
Even the further hurdle of outdoor sound is batted away like a non-issue by the unrelenting savagery and taut mobility of this band, and it’s a marvel to behold whenever you are in front of them. They lean tremendously heavily on latest album Death Atlas but refrains like “The Geocide” and “Bring Black the Plague” allow Travis Ryan to pull off vocal tricks that quite simply no other person on this bill can, and the world succumbing to its doom climax of “Death Atlas” itself live almost reaches funeral doom proportions of dejected sorrowful weight. At the same time, “Forced Gender Reassignment” is something that’s been waiting to be played on this stage for a decade, and the legendary gore-soaked track makes disgusting reveling in butchery feel like a party.
If there’s any band you feared for in the sun this weekend it’s Dark Funeral, this being a band who not only wear heavy corpse-paint at risk of being sweated away but giant black medieval body armour like a cartoon scenario waiting to go wrong, but with the stalwart perseverance of Satanic soldiers they pull off something of the impossible and make an hour set of underworld black metal outdoors feel appropriately grim.
They’ve been on something of an up since 2016’s Where Shadows Forever Reign with the arrival of frontman Heljarmadr, and these songs from their last two albums are very capable of carrying most of a set before slipping into shadowy classics of The Secrets of the Black Arts and Open the Gates.
The only band on site capable of matching Mercyful Fate for sheer reverence though are subheadliners Killing Joke. They’re not even strictly a metal band and their sheer sonic size summons the apocalypse more than anything else, lent an air of discomforting edge of the abyss ruin by Jaz Coleman in unsettling facial get-up walking on stage and announcing that we are at the dawn of World War III before the band kick into eternal doomsday banger “Wardance”.
Even when they’re upbeat like Eighties there’s an air of eve of the war to it, but given global conflict there is something particularly insidious feeling about the songs from their 2003 self-titled record, The Death & Resurrection Show and Loose Cannon drilling in a sense of the yawning maw of doom poised beneath you ready to swallow when the world tips over.
Lamb of God are a staple on the UK festival circuit, but where that usually means smashing through a mid afternoon slot on an outdoor stage, their arrival at Bloodstock has a much deeper sense of gravitas to it. At once they change from reliable modern metal standard-bearers to a legendary act foundational for the tastes of a generation of metal fans and the sound of a younger generation of metal bands, and their headlining set closing the main stage has the air of the iconic about it they just can’t get anywhere else.
That it’s their first time doing so here since 2013 brings that out even more, and the ominous shape of Randy Blythe visible behind the curtain at the start of “Memento Mori” before it falls and things get real brings such a hushed stateliness to a headline performance. Their nature as a machine mercilessly producing guttural metal bombardments is apparent in how the new singles “Nevermore” and “Omens” get dropped into the set without any real fanfare, just more weapons to continue the attack with, but mostly this is a showcase of what a festival headlining slot from one of the 21st century’s great metal bands should feel like.
“Ruin”, “Now You’ve Got Something to Die For”, and “Omerta” all get thrown out early showing what a conquering set of songs this band have amassed over the years, and “Walk With Me In Hell” in the midst of them is a reminder that next to Behemoth and Mercyful Fate, Lamb of God aren’t without their infernal fire.
It’s “Contractor” with its Gatling gun snare hits that lands the biggest right hook, Phil Demmel filling in guitar for Willie Adler adding the injection of enthusiasm and enjoyment of the moment that you want from a replacement player. Randy moving around the stage with great energy primarily sticks to charging his way through the songs but takes the moment to not only shout out the other bands of the weekend but Sophie and Sylvia Lancaster taking heed of the atmosphere of togetherness, and the ensuing circle pit for “Redneck” that threatens to consume the whole crowd is breathless evidence of the kind of response a band get when they have long since entered heavy metal’s hall of champions.
Bloodstock still has one last highlight left in store though, as those desiring to end their festival on something with a bit more pizazz to it filter into the Sophie tent for the also long-awaited performance of The Night Flight Orchestra. The crowd is smaller than for the other Sophie headliners due to the natural and to be expected Sunday night departures, but the atmosphere is electric as every person who shows up does so with one intention – to dance.
Bjorn Strid of Soilwork seems to have found his unexpected true calling at the helm of this airliner-themed yacht rock band, and with air hostess backing singers and some incredible musicians behind him, what follows is a borderline revelation. The hour they’re on stage is unbelievably joyous, people’s inhibitions going out the window as they’re plied with song after song of the highest 1980s pop rock quality that make it unbelievable to consider that “Burn for Me”, “Gemini”, and “White Jeans” have not been omnipresent cultural hits since the day you were born. It ends on an absolutely absurd conga line, the instrumental crescendo of “West Ruth Ave” sending the mood to a final fever pitch. It might be the only festival in the UK where you can see evil black metal and brutal death metal out in broad daylight, but Bloodstock’s got the deepest streak of fun to it and in 2022 it goes out in exultant fashion.
Tickets for the 2023 edition of Bloodstock are already available here at Early Bird discounted prices. Full festival info here.
Bands confirmed thus for next year’s edition now include, Killswitch Engage, Megadeth, DevilDriver, Decapitated, Knocked Loose, Fit For An Autopsy and Gatecreeper on the Ronnie James Dio main stage as well as Zeal & Ardor, KING 810 and Unto Others on the Sophie stage.