FESTIVAL REVIEW: Bloodstock Open Air 2019

Now in its nineteenth year, the annual metal pilgrimage to Bloodstock Open Air at Catton Hall in Derbyshire was joined this year by a very special, but highly unstable, guest.

The weather.

Yes, I know it’s England in August, and we should be more than accustomed to inconsistent weather conditions, but this really was something else. Tents too hot to be inside one moment were waterlogged the next. People soaked to the skin by sudden, torrential downpours were suffering sunburn minutes later. Grass turned to mud, mud became rivers, and the unprecedented winds would go on to cause problems all of their own.

However, unlike the patrons of other similar festivals, the army of denim and leather-clad hairy types at Bloodstock remained largely unperturbed by the changeable conditions. After eventually giving up on checking the same equally useless weather websites on their phones, everyone basically stuck two fingers up to at the sky and just got on with it. Fuck the mud. It’s Bloodstock, baby.

THURSDAY

After tents are erected and the first or tenth beers of the weekend have been consumed, people begin gathering inside the Sophie Lancaster Tent to watch the first bands of the weekend. The doomy Barbarian Hermit, and the hard rock groove of Blind River help kick things off nicely, but both play second fiddle to the supremely silly Footprints in the Custard. Arriving on stage to the theme music from Thomas the Tank Engine, the catchy ‘Space Force’ goes down well with a fully costumed Chewbacca stood in the crowd, before the band’s less than svelte guitarist strips down to a lime green mankini. I’d say it was one of the most disturbing sights of the weekend, but this is Bloodstock. It would struggle to make the Top 5.

Ten Ton Slug from Ireland are up next and crush the crowd with all the weight of, well… a ten-ton slug, while Greek headliners Rotting Christ lay waste to the stage with cuts like ‘Fire, God and Fear’, ‘Elthe Kyrie’, and a simply apocalyptic ‘Apage Satana’. It’s only Thursday but people are leaving the tent already claiming they will be the band of the weekend.

 

FRIDAY

Beginning the day on the Sophie stage, Zealot Cult distribute old school Floridian style death metal riffs before Bristol based Control The Storm turn up the heat with a pyro-laden half an hour of quality power metal. Back on the Ronnie James Dio Stage, reactivated UK thrashers Xentrix smash their way through a selection of old and new material, and Death Angel vocalist Mark Osegueda has to overcome some mic issues, but the band still puts on another blinding display of Bay Area thrash.

Seattle legends Metal Church are up next, and it’s squarely at the feet of singer Mike Howe where I lay the blame for the first lot of bad weather. Barely five seconds have passed after he mentions how dry it is, that the first drops of rain are felt across the arena. The downpour doesn’t dampen any enthusiasm though as the band works their way through a set comprised of new songs and classics, ending on a blazing ‘Fake Healer’ as a fully costumed Jesus time his crowd surf just perfectly.

Children of Bodom put in an enjoyable shift, TesseracT confuse the older headbangers with their polyrhythms and off-kilter time signatures, while Sulpher brings their Ministry style industrial sound to the Sophie tent, and Gaia entertains the New Blood Stage with their brand of technical death metal.

Main support Powerwolf put on a howlingly good hour of classic sounding power metal, getting the hugely enthusiastic crowd to participate in songs based mainly around werewolves, sex, vampires, sexy nuns, and sexy werewolf sex.

This means that headline act Sabaton are left with the unenviable task of having to top all of that, and to be fair, they almost succeed. Aided by lights, explosions, and the infectious enthusiasm of frontman Joakim Brodén, the Swedish war enthusiasts might not to be to everyone’s taste, but they still put on a great performance, blasting their way through the likes of ‘Great War’, ‘Red Baron’, ‘Fields of Verdun’, ‘Shiroyama’, ‘Carolus Rex’, ‘Ghost Division’, and of course, ‘Swedish Pagans’ and ‘Primo Victoria’.

And just when you think it’s all over, up pops a smiling Grand Magus to bring things to a rousing conclusion on the Sophie stage. If songs like ‘Triumph and Power’, ‘Iron Will’, ‘Kingslayer’ and ‘Like the Oar Strikes the Water’ don’t get your pulse racing, then the chances are you’re already dead and in Valhalla.

SATURDAY

With nasty brown puddles forming and deepening everywhere, and wellington boots being the first choice of footwear, the aptly named Swallow the Sun perform, rather ironically, in blinding sunshine. Clearly influenced by Paradise Lost, the doomy Finns play a stunning show, leaving a massive impression on many of those previously unfamiliar with their work.

No one who attends Bloodstock on a regular basis can possibly be unfamiliar with Evil Scarecrow. The only question is what stupid shit singer Doctor Hell will get everyone to do this time. Okay, so how about pretending to be a robot? Scuttling like a crab? Pretending to walk in zero gravity? Or how about pretending to be a ‘Hurricanado’ by spinning around in a circle while blowing raspberries? Yup. All of that and more. And everyone loves it. Even those old enough to know better.

Aussie deathcore merchants Thy Art is Murder set about their business with ruthless efficiency while Dust Bolt attack the Sophie stage with the same wild ferocity that Wildhearts approach the main stage, but with not half as much force as the brutal winds which ultimately cause the postponement of Cradle of Filth. While the organizers try their best to salvage the rest of the day, the excellent pairing of Djinova and Lock Horns take the New Blood stage apart, while Slay Duggee (dressed as dogs of course) treat the VIP tent to covers of children’s songs like ‘Paw Patrol’ and ‘Baby Shark’.

Hindered by last-minute worries about whether they would even get to go on, New York thrashers Anthrax delivers arguably their best ever show at Bloodstock to date, even if does happen to be slightly abridged. Ripping through ‘Caught in a Mosh’, ‘Got the Time’, ‘Antisocial’, ‘Indians’, ‘I Am the Law’, ‘A.I.R.’, and ‘Madhouse’, not to mention a rare outing for the underrated ‘Now It’s Dark’, how many other bands can play a cover version just one song into the set and get away with it? Then again, Anthrax isn’t like many other bands.

There always seems to be one controversial act at Bloodstock, and this year it’s the turn of Australian headliners Parkway Drive to try and make the piss-takers and internet trolls eat their words. For all the whinging about them not being metal enough for Bloodstock, they easily drew one of the biggest crowds of the entire weekend and played their collective arses off. Rumours had persisted throughout the day that, due to the weather, they would have to play without any help from fireworks or pyros. As it turned out, that wasn’t the case, the stunning light show enhancing the performance rather than overshadowing it. Not metal enough for Bloodstock? Don’t be silly.

SUNDAY

And so to the final day. Where people had been happily bouncing and strolling through the Thursday, there was now more of a look of grim determination etched upon the faces of many. Festivals take it out of you, and everyone seemed to be feeling it more than usual this year.

Fractions and Fallen Temples fall either side of Aborted and yet another deluge, but by the time Ross the Boss and his special guest, KK Downing, take the stage to perform a split set of headbanging Manowar and Judas Priest covers, the sun is out and good times are upon us once more. Soilwork draws a large crowd, their Swedish Melodeath going down well while Hypocrisy delivers a set of blistering death metal, frontman Peter Tägtgren snarling and roaring his way through ‘Eraser’ and ‘Roswell 47’ looking like a cross between an evil Johnny Depp and Gollum from Lord of the Rings.

One of the undisputed highlights of the festival comes in the imposing shape of legendary former Twisted Sister frontman, Dee Snider. Mixing new material with classic Twisted tracks, it’s not just the songs which make Dee’s performance one of most memorable of the weekend, but the way he works his audience. One of the most genuine frontmen in the business, the crowd respond exactly the way he wants them to. Banging their heads one moment, laughing their backsides off the next. If anyone says they didn’t like his hour on stage, they’re either lying, deaf or dead.

With their show held back from yesterday (the organizers kindly allowing Saturday day tickets to remain valid for Sunday) due to, of all things, an act of God, Cradle of Filth screech and howl through songs such as ‘Cruelty Brought Thee Orchids’, ‘Summer Dying Fast’, ‘Nymphetamine’ and ‘Her Ghost in the Fog’ to an enthusiastic crowd of corpse-painted fans. Queensryche prove their newer songs can happily sit along older standards such as ‘Take Hold of the Flame’, ‘Empire’ and ‘Eyes of a Stranger’ as vocalist Todd La Torre delivers possibly the best technical performance of the weekend.

For anyone requiring a second fix of Manowar, covers band Womenowar play (on 10, naturally) to a massively overcrowded Jagermeister stage before final main stage headliners Scorpions claim the next ninety minutes or so as their own. Aged 71, vocalist Klaus Meine might move a little slower these days, and occasionally looks worryingly frail, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with his voice. From opener ‘Going Out with a Bang’ to obvious closer ‘Rock You Like a Hurricane’, he sounds superb, any lack of mobility made up for by guitarists Rudolph Schenker and Mathias Jabs. Even drummer Mikkey Dee gets to use the band’s specially constructed ego ramp, playing ‘Send Me an Angel’ and ‘Wind of Change’ on a small, portable drum kit before being lifted above the stage for his main drum solo later on. There are occasional grumblings of “they’re just going through the motions” from the harder to please members of the audience, but considering their age, it’s a perfectly acceptable – and highly enjoyable – set of singalong classics.

Back on the Sophie stage, Eluveitie close out the festival brilliantly before everyone begins the slow trudge back to their tents or cars one last time, exhausted and covered in mud, but happy and already looking forward to doing it again next year.

In a weekend which saw people dressed as Teletubbies and Star Wars characters; saw wheelchair moshing, viking training, weightlifting competitions, consistently lengthy queues outside the signing tent, a main stage wedding proposal, and a crowd-pleasing multi-band announcement for next year’s twentieth anniversary bash, this year also saw the rise of an even more Eco-friendly Bloodstock.

After the litter-strewn horrors of Glastonbury and Hyde Park earlier this year, campers and stallholders were politely asked to clean up after themselves and restrict their use of single-use plastics. Bins for plastic bottles, general waste, and recycling were conveniently placed throughout the main arena and campsites, and it worked. By any other Sunday morning, main camp, Midgard, usually looks like the apocalypse just left town, but this year saw a welcome and marked improvement in waste disposal and general hygiene.

If an army of metalheads, looked down upon and generally perceived as unclean by the public, can clean up after themselves so efficiently, then there really is no excuse for other similar music festivals, irrespective of their size.

Nineteen glorious years of Bloodstock down, roll on Number twenty.

You just know it’s going to be epic.

GARY ALCOCK