Contributor Perran Helyes submits the highlights from the four day fest, including sets from Killswitch Engage, Meshuggah, Knocked Loose, Megadeth and many more.
Bloodstock, the UK’s most purely dedicated to all out heavy metal summer festival that brings tens of thousands of people to England’s Catton Park every August, feels like it’s truly back to full capacity now after the COVID knock to all festivals that started this new decade.
Last year’s event the sun looked down mercilessly upon turning it into a baking dustbowl, but 2023 is the first Bloodstock of the 20s that feels reassuringly normal even as other festivals on the mainland face other kinds of extreme weather, and it’s a damn good feeling to be back at one of European metal’s ancestral homes with everything in order.
Bloodstock’s lineup has become increasingly eclectic over the years, choosing to force all manner of heavy bands who would never play together otherwise to rub shoulders rather than conservatively curate. Case in point is the Thursday night, where in a running order with King 810’s surly and elaborately staged groove metal, Skynd’s cybergoth and Vision of Atlantis’ pirate-themed power metal, Dallas cold-school death metallers Frozen Soul prove an early highlight as frontman Chad Green douses the front row with a snow machine even as the tent feels a lot more warm-school. Their lovechild of Dying Fetus, Bolt Thrower and Mortician grooves are so pulverisingly thick yet accessible and catchy that they could easily bring these songs from their Matt Heafy co-produced new album “Glacial Domination” to a main stage slot in future.
Bloodstock Friday might be topped by another of the more modern bands to be given their first headline slot here, but it starts in incredibly old school fashion. A 70s double of Witchsorrow and Wytch Hazel – both contemporary bands but drawing on the seminal foundation laid down by the likes of Black Sabbath – is an inspired start as the two incredibly prove to be great foils to each other, Witchsorrow’s utterly hopeless and nihilistic pure doom leading to Wytch Hazel’s more spirited and pure of resolve take feeling like a ray of light afterwards with their colourful guitar harmonies and great sense of melody.
In the middle of the day, Fit for an Autopsy and Gatecreeper bring the guttural death metal power to the main stage, but the top of that running order is a brilliant joining of the dots of some of the most significant acts in the evolution of melodic death metal into metalcore that made so much of popular 21st century metal what it is. Heaven Shall Burn, one of the signature metal acts in their native Germany, somehow make their first ever appearance at a festival in the UK. It has always been an untapped market for them, but for a band very used to headlining such events themselves they very humbly approach this as an opportunity to win over a whole new crowd yet do so with the panache and pyrotechnics of a proper professional outfit.
In Flames on the other hand, have a name that speaks for itself, and they already pull one of the biggest crowds of the weekend just when setting up. For a band with so many varied chapters in their career, they have stoically remained a great live band through all of that, and currently touring their heavier than in many years Foregone album seems to have put them in an attacking state of mind.
It is a crazy treat to see a band also at this stage a slick seasoned touring outfit with such a professional looking show also be able to explore the extreme roots of the catalogue so much to pull out a rendition of 1994’s “Behind Space” (a song so old Anders Fridén didn’t even sing on it), and new members Chris Broderick formerly of Megadeth and Jag Panzer and current touring bassist Liam Wilson formerly of The Dillinger Escape Plan put on a real technical display of strength.
Killswitch Engage getting to headline this thing though almost feels like righting a wrong in the history of heavy metal. The band who arguably more than any other kicked the metalcore boom of the 2000s into overdrive and define such an important chapter have never been given the opportunity to demonstrate their status as a classic, seminal band from the top of one of these festival bills. The chance here is to put on a show that definitively proves their worthiness to be admitted to those halls of legendary bands, and a 20+ song setlist demonstrates what a catalogue that is. Jesse Leach at one point remarks that he has never been on a stage with pyro before and it’s frankly madness they’ve never been given this kind of budget to play with prior.
Few stones go unturned; their 2009 self-titled album might be seen as a low amongst band and fans alike, but they still find time to remind everyone what a tune “Reckoning” still is. They have always had a purity of heart and an earnestness in their melodies that make you truly sing those songs from your diaphragm, and “My Curse” as an opener is astonishing in the loud response it gets. Jesse Leach for his part sounds truly incredible, singing with a clarity that is a standard-bearer for others.
The duality between his supremely passionate stage presence meanwhile and the goofy persona of guitarist Adam D, once a source of anxiety for the frontman, has smoothed out since his return a decade ago to its most natural form. The two genuinely just seem to make each other smile now, neither undermining the truth and sincerity of Leach’s sentiments on unity and emotional vulnerability or Dutkiewicz’ want to entertain. The main stage at Bloodstock is named after one Ronnie James Dio, and so the opportunity to tie it all up with their cover of the great man’s “Holy Diver” has never felt more appropriate or unanimously appreciated.
For those still with some darkness in their hearts though after such an affirming display, doom icons Candlemass close the Sophie Lancaster stage with a rare appearance. The title track of their new “Sweet Evil Sun” album sounds even finer than on record, and from there the setlist is entirely made up of classics from 1986’s “Epicus Doomicus Metallicus”, 1987’s “Nightfall”, and 1988’s “Ancient Dreams” albums making for a staggering tour through the building blocks of everything epic doom metal that is still achingly heavy today. Oddly for utterly harrowing and at the end of its existential tether a song like “Solitude” is, there is something incredibly life-affirming about the metal faithful responding to it like the holy grail of crushing miserablism that it is.
Saturday brings something last year seriously lacked, a little bit of rain, but the couple of sets that it threatens to dampen power on regardless. Knocked Loose get the worst of it having to briefly halt to tend to their increasingly wet technical equipment, but this band have a global reputation now for obliterating big stage slots like this and the heavens opening adds to their apocalyptic weight. The sheer rabid extremity of their newest material in “A Tear in the Fabric of Life” and the just released “Upon Loss” singles which bookend the set make it feel wildly exciting that this is currently one of the bands positioned as the faces of hardcore. “Mistakes Like Fractures” and “Counting Worms” go a long way as to showing why; these are relentlessly brutal tracks with more subdrops than your brain can handle, but they also bring pay-off hook moments that everyone in the crowd knows.
Employed to Serve on the other hand are homegrown heroes salivating at the chance to showcase what they have built on a large stage, and the rain lets up just as they walk out on stage adding a strange element of relief too that it’s all gonna be able to go according to plan. It’s always a special moment when these bands who have made their names in all of the small grassroots venues up and down the country get to turn up here and suddenly put on a show that makes them look like rockstars, and as flames burst out of the stage for the crunching last riff of “Sun Up to Sun Down”, it’s clear that this is a band who armed with the crowdpleasing headbanging material of their recent albums have absolutely no reason as to why they should not be taking off with metalheads of every stripe on every shore. “Mark of the Grave” is a brilliantly riffy taste-whetter for Crowbar up right afterwards.
Royal Republic are a truly great festival band, a self-described “Swedish pop quartet” who effortlessly turn up as the least heavy most playful act on such a stage and absolutely own it. The exuberant showmanship of Abbath might not be miles away though, Norwegian black metal’s biggest character cutting as iconic a silhouette as any other performer at this festival.
The weight of reverence though truly must exist for Tom G Warrior (where do you think Abbath learned all those “ugh!”s?), whose band Triptykon are playing a special set honouring the early material of his seminal outfit Celtic Frost. The spiritual father of extreme metal has been been incredibly absent from the UK at all prior to a Triumph of Death show similarly honouring the material of his old band Hellhammer last year, so seeing the “To Mega Therion” backdrop with H.R. Giger’s unmistakable artwork unfurl is like a near decade-long wait being rewarded.
The songs from that album, “Morbid Tales”, and the intervening “Emperor’s Return” EP which are being performed tonight (and the obscure thrash metal tracks from the latter getting aired in a subheadlining set is a surreal delight) are simultaneously like the primordial ooze so much of what else is being played at this year’s festival evolved from and often the already perfected versions, the orchestral death stomp of “Necromantical Screams” evidence of how metal was being treated as high art long before “S&M” was even a glint in Lars Ulrich’s eye.
What is mind-blowing about Triptykon performing these songs today though is how for once songs from an iconic 80s metal band legitimately sound heavier and more destructive now than when they were younger. The evolving weight and tone of Warrior’s work with Triptykon being retrospectively applied to those songs that started it all turns them from the work of ambitious beyond their years scrappers forging their way in a brand new musical world into utterly terrifying in their authoritative impact, “Procreation (of the Wicked)” going from the heaviest song of 1984 to in its souped up, doomed out form still the heaviest song of 2023. It is unholy and sublime.
It is inspired booking that the headliner to follow Triptykon is the only band on the whole bill that could match them for neck-snapping weight. Meshuggah are really one of the heaviest bands that could ever command the name-power needed to headline such an event, and the two make for an incredible pairing of artful extremity to have changed the world of music through unfaltering vision. There is no obvious melody in Meshuggah’s music, no singalong parts, and yet live in front of a fervent crowd they are absolutely extraordinary.
Jens Kidman actually talks to the crowd at a festival a fair bit more than at their own headline shows when everybody attending knows what they are getting into is a pure, unfeeling killing machine making no concessions to the audience’s comfort, but Meshuggah live is still more a thing that happens to your body whether you really like it or not. Their unmatched melding of multi-layered polyrhythmic riffing onto a still detectable backbeat locks the spine into a physical motion that will still be head-nodding for an hour after they’ve finished.
The low 8-string tone lifted by many a bouncy djent band but used on 2002’s “Nothing” album specifically because it was darker and more in tune with an all-smothering void is still unsettling when Meshuggah deploy it. Their jerking forms silhouetted by the tantalising light show feel unknowable and out of reach, but the presence of large video screens at a festival like this offers a rare close-up look at Tomas Haake, eyes glued shut as those bewildering patterns flow through his limbs. There is still not another band like them.
The early risers on the last day of the festival get eased into the day with the Mongolian throat singing folk metal of Uuhai, while over on the second stage doom-sludge powerhouses Tuskar join Urne yesterday as some of the rising bands out of the UK underground threatening to follow the likes of Employed to Serve into bigger terrain.
Tribulation are such a unique proposition in the whole spectrum of heavy music that it’s almost a wonder where to put them. Out in the outdoors and the sun feels at odds with their crypt-like aesthetic, occult atmosphere and the literal grave dust sprinkled over guitarist Adam Zaars’ shoulder, but the classic air their heavy metal licks convey and the surprisingly pristine clarity to their ghostlike melodies are like a timeless band in waiting. They definitely are not playing to the already converted here, but “Leviathans” and “Strange Gateways Beckon” sound phenomenal and those with a taste for the phantasmagorical combined with the fist-pounding should walk away with a new favourite band.
Sepultura have been on a bit of a popular upswing with many people recognising the quality of recent albums they have made with 2020’s “Quadra” reaching a new critical peak for their modern output, and so it’s not a surprise that an hour festival set gets pretty much exactly split between songs from that record they are still keen on touring after COVID and their enviable selection of 90s classics. They don’t even find the time to go further back to the likes of “Beneath the Remains” or “Troops of Doom”, but the heightened drama of “Quadra” cuts “Guardians of the Earth” and “Agony of Defeat” where they experiment with grander symphonic influences sparring with the rousing metal classics “Dead Embryonic Cells” and “Territory” makes for a thrilling back-and-forth.
The dual vocal part bouncing between Derrick Green and Andreas Kisser in “Ratamahatta” sounds in 2023 every bit as unique and incendiary a track and celebration of all things Brazil as it did in 1996, and as they try and smash through their last songs of the set as quickly as possible to not outstay their stage time, that anthem abruptly switching halfway through into the unmistakeable rumble of “Roots Bloody Roots” is a big moment.
The news came mere days before the festival that daddies of power metal Helloween were not going to be able to make their much-awaited performance, so the race to find a suitable replacement for the second-highest slot of the festival was on. Salvation came in the form of KK’s Priest, the former Judas Priest guitarist arriving on the scene with his band ready to remind people what an instrumental part of some of heavy metal’s defining moments he has been.
Tim “Ripper” Owens is another of the weekend’s star vocalists in terms of hitting some truly ceiling-scraping notes. The songs from the two KK’s Priest albums carry on the classic sound sturdily, but the selection of Judas Priest songs that they play are an intriguing proposition, often avoiding the standards but throwing out songs you might not have seen performed in a while like “Night Crawler” or from “Ripper” Owens’ own era “Burn In Hell”.
It leads into Megadeth as the most classic names amongst the main stage headliners, and for the sneeriest and most cynical amongst thrash metal’s Big 4, the show they are able to put on is an amazingly euphoric reminder of what has made them so beloved. The setlist is quite simply unrivaled. Their reputation might be one of bitter anger and technical mastery, but that undersells how “Trust”, “A Tout le Monde”, and “Tornado of Souls” are some of the best melodic accessible metal songs you could ever possibly write, and they play all of those in a row that feels like paradise.
Megadeth as a line-up are in pretty good shape in 2023. Dirk Verbeuren and bassist James LoMenzo returning for a second stint are a rock solid rhythm section, and every time Kiko Loureiro steps out to the front for one of Megadeth’s many, many immaculately composed guitar solos you know you’re about to hear some of the best and yet constantly singable playing there is.
Captain of the ship and commanding officer Dave Mustaine looks out at the crowd with a contented humility that’s an endearment for a musical figure of his status. He introduces new track “We’ll Be Back” with a self-awareness that “we don’t want to act like it’s the new national anthem” that belies how long he’s been at the peak of all this. It’s a privilege to be watching a band with as much of a legend and as many essential songs as this one as much as it is for them to be here playing them.
For a last blast of energy, the classic line-up of Brooklyn crossover warriors Biohazard coming together once again is a final draw for many. Dual frontmen Billy Graziadei and the returning Evan Seinfeld are authentically very excitable bouncing over one another to address the crowd, and the songs from their 1990 debut and 1992’s “Urban Discipline” appeal to the faithful Bloodstock-goers through their core 90s metal groove but also offer a dose of hardcore unity and truth that is a unique end to a festival that if next year’s line-up announcement that Architects and Amon Amarth are both to set to headline is anything to go by is increasingly diversifying what’s on offer.