By Adrian Hextall For Tattoo.com
That Bloodstock Open Air (BOA) happened this year is nothing short of a miracle. With 2020 being a vast open, barren wasteland and the beginning of 2021 starting to look like the year was heading in the same direction, the likelihood of the big summer festivals diminished exponentially as the months dragged on.
One shining light, and something that seems to define the metal scene, ‘determination’, came from the organisers. The ebb and flow of knowing what the Government were thinking and the ever-shifting line-up thanks in no small part to wave after wave of COVID-19 infections and local country lockdowns meant that the festival always was trying to achieve more than was humanely possible. If it could go ahead, the public were in for a treat.
The original bands booked for the cancelled 2020 festival had in most part confirmed their desire to play in 2021. Headliners Judas Priest and Devin Townsend were green lit, but Behemoth sadly were unable to play leaving the door open for the organisers to play a trump card and pull in the newly reformed Mercyful Fate. A huge win for the festival and an opportunity to see the Danes for the first time in decades. Sadly, the elation faded somewhat as the band pulled out in March 2021 with King Diamond having this to say;
“Due to the uncertainties of international touring logistics, health, and safety issues, Mercyful Fate are unable to perform at this Summer’s Bloodstock. Unfortunately, most of our summer routing is already postponed or postponing soon. Like many others in our position we’re amending our plans to get back on the road as soon as possible. We’re gutted. However, we are happy to say that we’ve worked with the Bloodstock organizers and report that we will be back to headline the festival in summer ‘22. Until then, stay heavy and stay safe.”
A crushing blow yet, the perseverance of the team behind the bookings paid off and thrash legends Kreator were dutifully confirmed and once more the festival was on course. With what felt like an entire 2nd card of bands waiting in the wings to be called up should the original artist booked be unable to play, BOA then went and offered us one more thing….
Logically, with the restrictions and likelihood of bands being unable to play, the sensible thing to do would be to reduce the festival to say a 2-day affair or perhaps just three, forgoing the extra slots on the Sophie Lancaster stage (named in memory of the fan who was attacked and died aged 20 just for looking different and following a scene her attackers didn’t understand) for those arriving early for camping purposes. Perhaps restrict the numbers coming through the gate, anything to make it more manageable. Instead, to celebrate the festival’s 20th anniversary, we got 5 days of music instead of the usual 4. A bold yet welcome move.
With restrictions around social distancing only having lifted a couple of weeks earlier and just the one pilot music event (Download-lite with a 10,000-person capacity) to gauge what problems might arise, BOA was set to be one of the few events taking place this summer. As we sit here now reflecting on it, we can confirm it has been a huge success. A sell out event, with some 20,000 people on site plus crew plus bands plus press and more making it one of the biggest Bloodstock’s to date which is exactly what it should be when considering both the 20th anniversary and the fact that, pure and simple, people needed this.
The 5-days commenced on the Wednesday with 5 bands playing on the Sophie Lancaster Stage. One of our “rising stars of the future” Ward XVI turned in a performance and a half with the mixture of metal and wonderful theatrics. Their ‘The Art of Manipulation’, and recent ‘Metamorphosis’ albums are a must own exercise and it was a pleasure to be able to soak them up live for the very first time. Another one to watch on that opening day included ‘Raised By Owls’, a strange moniker if ever there was one but again if you like your metal ‘very hard and very heavy’, they are one to look out for. After all, who else would pause the set to get everyone dancing to the theme music to ‘Chucklevision’ and pose the question “Is Rob Halford the CEO of Halfords”? Questions I feel need to be answered.
With Onslaught bringing Day 1 to a close, there was a sense amongst everyone that perhaps this was going to work, perhaps the team had managed to do the impossible and bring a festival together under the most trying of circumstances.
Day 2 offered more of the same with the Sophie stage catering for those who’d come in early once more and again a wealth of talent was on offer with blistering sets from Seething Akira, headliners Fury and personal favourites Ashen Crown.
By Friday, when the main stage also opened up, Bloodstock shifted a gear and seemed to simply slot into what it knows and does so well. There’s a reason the festival has endured as long as it has and it’s solely down to the quality of the organisation, the ability to take on feedback from the public, the bands, the traders and more and simply tweak the experience every year to make it the festival it is today.
As we travelled back to the site (none of this camping lark for us thank you) on a daily basis, the efficiency at which the security teams got us through the gates, checking negative lateral flow test results on phones or print outs was impressive. Whilst there have a been a few cases identified since the festival it feels like it’s in the minority and that goes to show the exercise of simply ‘being sensible’ pays off and makes the event a much safer experience for everyone.
With 4 stages open, the small Jägermeister stage breaking a few surprises out for us and the Hobgoblin New Blood stage hoping to showcase some of the headliners of the future, the more well-known acts were now split between the Sophie Lancaster stage and the main Ronnie James Dio stage, named of course after the late, great, frontman and one of the forefathers of heavy metal.
With the August sunshine staying with us, it’s as if the gods of metal themselves were looking down and ensuring that the weekend would go off according to plan. The music as well shifted a gear with multiple genres across all of the stages starting to get a look in. Thrash legends Acid Reign have lost none of the intensity from when I first saw them many moons ago, Brit metallers Raging Speedhorn ensured we remembered why the UK is considered the home of heavy metal, King Creature, Primitai and Svalbard made sure succession for future festivals is in safe hands and on the main stage, we had 2 hugely interesting acts to really add some flavour to the pot.
Skindred, ever the crowd pleaser saw some great circle pits opening up in the crowd and with their mixture of rap, rock, metal and reggae they bring something totally original to the table and it really was something to see a field full of metalheads doing the Newport Helicopter [if you’re unaware of this phenomenon, I suggest a trip to YouTube to clarify] which could have probably generated enough wind power to keep Catton Hall in electricity for at least a month.
Skidred were, without a shadow of a doubt, the perfect lead in to the first main stage headliner of the weekend
Devin Townsend. An acquired taste the Canadian seems to be able to turn his hand to any genre of music, be it extreme metal, rock, progressive rock, alt-rock and more and when it’s all thrown together in the same pot it can be quite confusing for the casual listener. To best sum up his set, which the faithful lapped up, it reads almost like a line from a joke;
“So a Canadian, an elephant, a gorilla and a choir walked onto a stage…..” If that sounds like something that might float your boat then it’s likely a Devin Townsend show would be right up your street. And boy can that elephant dance!!
Saturday, typically the heavier day of the festival would close out with Kreator who delivered bone crushing set, wonderfully heavy and given the amount of beer being sold on Friday, which resulted in the organisers asking fans if they wanted any paid bar work to deal with the crowds, then it’s likely Kreator helped clear a few hangovers as well.
Elsewhere we were treated to King Goat who always put a smile on the face, doom lords Paradise Lost who were celebrating the 25th anniversary of their classic ‘Draconian Times’ album. For those who wanted the fire, the flames and the showcase set, Cradle of Filth stepped up to the plate and brought with them “THE SHOW”. Another band that for some is an acquired taste, certainly for me it’s one I’ve yet to fully appreciate, there is no denying they know how to get the crowd going and many, many people on forums have repeatedly stated that as always CoF were the band of the weekend for them. And if it was on the internet, it must be true!
Once Kreator had finished decimating the main stage, as people drifted in and out of the campsites or some left for the day, BOA’s trick of ‘let’s just keep people around a while longer’ continued with a great set from Phil Campbell and the Bastard Sons. Phil (to his mates) is no stranger of course to putting on a show. With his 3 sons making up the rest of the band a temporary vocalist Andrew Hunt of Buffalo Summer and Valhalla Awaits filling in for the recently departed Neil Starr it could have felt a tad odd but thankfully the show was a proper down and dirty rock show and was the best way to close out the day.
Tired and ready for a final push to make it to the end of the festival, we returned on Sunday to the excitement of knowing we would be seeing Judas Priest perform the first date of their slightly delayed 50th anniversary tour….. 50 years….. to think that Rob Halford has been singing as long as I’ve been alive is bad enough but that he does it as well now as he did when (say) ‘Painkiller’ was first released 30 odd years ago is a shock to the system.
Making the most of the sunshine (although the rain did threaten us for a while during Saxon’s set) and the fact that the cold beer seemed to flow better than ever before, Sunday [traditionally a day of beer anyway] presented NWoBHM heroes Diamond Head early in the day and whilst Brian Tatler may look rather weathered nowadays his playing remains undiminished and the band sound better then ever, with old and new material standing shoulder to shoulder with ease. Of course even with the quality of the newer material apparent, the crowd responded in full when the classic ‘Am I Evil?’ was aired. Full singalong ensued and a happy band and crowd confirmed that the festival was going to be finishing in style.
With Liberty Lies, Bleed From Within, Therapy and Wolf Jaw keeping the energy high during the early part of theafternoon, one of the true highlights of the day came with Gloryhammer and their laser powered goblin smasher [if you know, you know..]. A show of immense proportions with the sort of props that Evil Scarecrow would be proud of, the power metal wizards put on a show and a half and lifted the mood of those who were suffering a little from 5 days of festival fatigue. We may have waited 2 years for this but that doesn’t stop the tiredness kicking in after a while, come on, give me a break here… After a great set from the band who will be back on tour with Alestorm in December, we were treated to a trio of old school and modern classics. Saxon offered up their 40th (although it’s now 42 thanks to the pandemic) anniversary set list and whilst the focus was on the older material it’s great to be reminded just how good modern Saxon are with tracks like ‘Thunderbolt’. Charismatic frontman Biff Byford gave us an insight into what it means not only for the crowd but the bands as well after such a lengthy period of uncertainty.
To close out the festival, there were only a couple of ‘must see’ options for me. The newly reformed Black Spiders made an extremely welcome return to the stage at 8:00pm and provided the perfect lead into a 2-hour set from the masters themselves Judas Priest. What followed from Priest was, simply, one of the best shows I’ve seen them perform. Much was said about playing tracks from ‘Rocka Rolla’, released at the beginning of their career and ‘Invader’ being played live for the first time ever. The set list contained a wealth of tracks that dug deep into the back catalogue and the highlights for me included the epic ‘Blood Red Skies’ from the underappreciated ‘Ram It Down’ album, ‘A Touch Of Evil’ and ‘Exciter’ both being played for the first time since 2005. Of course the introduction of Glenn Tipton during the encore for Metal Gods, Breaking the Law and Living After Midnight was wonderful and bittersweet in equal measure. That Glenn can still get on stage and play with them is wonderful but when you see just how much Parkinsons has affected him makes seeing him on stage quite painful to watch at times as it seems so unfair that a man so gifted should be hit with something so debilitating taking away the thing he loves the most. A sobering moment for everyone present but Rob Halford ensured the crowd remained energised throughout and with new boys Richie Faulkner and Andy Sneap breathing new life and energy into the band, recent album ‘Firepower’ being the proof of that union, it feels like Judas Priest have at least another twenty years in them yet. A triumph to close the festival.
For those with energy, Evil Scarecrow kept the party going on the Sophie Stage but for everyone else, BOA 2021 was, suddenly, over. Emotional, unexpected, triumphant and a legacy creating moment in British music history. Congrats and thanks to all involved, let’s do it again next year shall we?
(Photo Credit- Pete Key)