Tom O'Boyle (words) and Katja Ogrin (pictures) up horns and head to Bloodstock 2012 for Alice Cooper, Sepultura and more!

A historian writes: As ever in 2012 the great British summer turned out to be a great British disappointment, leaving most with nothing but grim resignation to the fact that almost every time they opened their curtains of a morning they would be met with a low hanging, hazy bank of grey misery that used to be the sky. Festival season was a washout, and Sonisphere didn’t even bother to show up to the sodden party. Even the Queen couldn’t subjugate the precipitation in time for her Diamond Jubilee, rendering all the effort and expenditure that went into faithfully recreating Willy Wonka’s boat pointless as the deluge determinedly depressed everyone, including ever her royal grumpiness as she floated idly by.

July turned soggily into August, and just as the Olympics made even the most cynical amongst us proud, so too did the sun suddenly decide it was going to open up in the final stretch. The weather was fine, the country was on a high united in celebration of national sporting achievements.

Still, it wasn’t enough to get a grin from the monarch. She deserves the utter pasting she’s been given in the meme community. I’m sure she’s seen them. Whoever did the one about wondering where in the hell Iron Maiden were in the opening ceremony was bang on. If we want to celebrate the impact of British culture on a global scale there is no better band to consider than Iron Maiden.

They are loved by millions of people the world over, and given half a chance Maiden would have had the vast number watching the ceremony eating out of the palm of Eddie’s rotting hand.

Just imagine. Kenneth Branagh’s sideburns overseeing toiling subjugates at the presses, and what devilish fruit of their labour rises out of the ground? Industrial revolution era chimneys? No. A monstrous Iron Maiden stage set, Steve Harris et al pealing out the opening licks of ‘The Trooper’. Bruce Dickinson bounds to the fore, a barely contained ball of energy, red coat clad, proud, with the union flag flying majestically in hand. Utter euphoria ensues.

With the Olympics criminally ignoring the birth of heavy metal as a keystone of our nation’s cultural heritage, it was left to Bloodstock festival, held deep in the very same Black Country in which Iommi strummed his first chords, to fly the flag. As Thursday the 9th of August rolled around the sun came out, much to the chagrin of the goths and delight of everyone else, and the UK’s biggest independent heavy metal festival did just that, and in quite spectacular fashion.

By 11am the next morning, the Quietus stands amidst a sea of once milk white, but now burnt red flesh, adorned in a multitude of metallic trademarks, from humble scene stalwart the patch riddled jacket to the recently Top Shop commodified and thus de-fanged inverted crucifix. There’s overpriced stodge in our bellies and booze in hand. As the day progresses the amount of falsetto vocals wailing shrilly on the winds from various stages starts to grate, but it is important to bear in mind that this festival’s original allegiance was sworn to power metal, that most fashion unconscious and irony oblivious of sub-genres, where warriors slay demons with the might of their vocal chords alone. As the festival has grown in stature and size it has managed to retain its DIY ethics and palpable sense of community, whilst catering for a greater diversity of metal’s multitude of sub genres, this year showcasing doom, death metal, black metal, thrash, hardcore, power metal and a soupçon of grind. The combination of attire of the genre adherents in attendance means that the arena looks at times like a live re-enactment of ‘World of Warcraft’, as spiked, corpse-painted, tattooed hordes cross paths with bearded Norse warriors gulping dubious looking liquids from drinking horns. The few baseball cap wearing hardcore kids that came to see Hatebreed look baffled.

As day one takes flight hirsute Swedes Grand Magus peer through their aviators out across a growing crowd at Bloodstock’s main ‘Ronnie James Dio’ stage for their slot in the afternoon sun. Everyone regardless of individual taste is left with a smile at their good natured set of classic rock. Later, Sepultura tenderise a growing pit, finishing everyone off with the knock-out punch of sing along anthem ‘Roots, Bloody Roots’, which goes down as well as you’d expect in front of a bunch of pissed up, sun-struck metal heads. Next up on the main stage should have been Swedish black metal freaks Watain, but they have refused to go on because its apparently too sunny for their evil doings. Instead, The Dio Disciples curiously bring pub covers to the main stage with their nostalgic tribute to the diminutive legend.

Watain are late. Not Axl Rose late, but late enough to deny any chance of being able to dart over to the Sophie Lancaster stage to catch French shoegaze/black metal crossover duo Alcest. To describe them as such seems reductive, because musically they are so delicately uplifting. It is a shame to miss them. Luckily, when Watain petulantly take to a stage bedecked with animal skulls and burning pyres it is worth it. This is performance art at its most vehement and chilling, the music on display surprisingly accessible, its rotten roots drinking deep from the black hearts of Bathory and Dissection. "We are Watain, and we are here to bring the sun down," proclaims their diminutive frontman E, his blood smeared, slight and skeletal frame barely covered in tattered clothing as he contorts and howls, possessed, at centre stage. The sun falls, its heat and glow fading to an angry red, defeated, disappearing finally into darkness as a chill wind rattles the bones of the throng at their feet.

Closing with a haunting rendition of ‘Waters of Ain’ from their modern classic ‘Lawless Darkness’ Watain skulk off having succeeded in tearing open a portal to the other side, a portal through which stride Behemoth, who in turn deliver what stands as the most breathtaking performance of the entire festival. In 2010 they were due to play this stage on a lower billing, when tragically their leader Nergal was diagnosed with Leukaemia. Two years later he has beaten the disease, a legal battle with the Polish catholic Church whom he offended by tearing up a bible on stage, and even survived an appearance as a judge on Poland’s iteration of reality TV Karaoke showdown The Voice. Tonight he returns, triumphant. His stage presence is powerful; his voice even more so. When he screams, "It is good to be alive!", you know he means it. The fact that this is followed up by the defiant majesty of ‘Conquer All’ is spine tingling. If you have never heard them, imagine the ebb and flow of gnashing guitar grooves bolstered by an impenetrable wall of hyper speed blast beats. They sound monolithic, the hellish herald of a Demigod arriving to preach to his blackened masses. Nergal is striking upon stage. Immovable, commanding, and when the blasts relent the audience beg for more. It is phenomenal stuff.

Saturday has a lot to live up to, and just about manages it, but with the Sophie Lancaster stage holding a huge party last night that went on until the early hours, there are an awful lot of sore heads this morning. Mayhem prove too much for the hangovers, their torturous, serpentine and outright nasty black metal impressing, but grating in a set toned down on theatrics but forthright in delivery. Try as they might they can’t stop everyone having fun, because Hatebreed only know how to write songs that do two things: sound exactly the same and make everybody bounce up and down. Perfect festival fodder, but not as perfect as home grown heroes Orange Goblin, who pack the Sophie stage out shortly after funereal doom bringers Witchsorrow compellingly satiate anyone gutted that Electric Wizard are nowhere to be seen. Goblin provide the party of the day, bear-like front man Ben Ward declaring that playing Bloodstock is "like coming home", to an adoring multitude in a packed out tent.

It is left to Machine Head to close out day two, and they do so with suitable stadium filling aplomb. They are a band, like Metallica, who have become institutions of the scene. They play shows to thousands of enthusiastic fans, and release successful records that all sound similar. Its not that Machine Head are bad, its just that they’re not that exciting any more. Still, they defy the amount of forum moaning that took place upon their announcement with a crowd pleasing set that caters to both new and old fans.

By the time day three rolls around it is with guilt that the New Blood stage has yet to be visited, a jewel in Bloodstock’s crown that gives unsigned bands the opportunity to play to festival sized crowds. It is a symbol of Bloodstock’s dedication to the grass roots of the scene, catering for the underground as well as the under dog, the festival’s organisers all too aware of how the future of the scene can be found playing in local venues, often to small, uncaring audiences.

Mid afternoon on the main stage belongs to death metal. Legends Nile have the crowd’s allegiance, but suffer from a muddy sound which blurs their precision brutality. This still does nothing to cease the seething audience, who, peppered with rain for the first time in the weekend seem oblivious amidst the fury of ‘Black seeds of Vengeance’. They are followed by the melodic blasts of modern death metal outfit The Black Dahlia Murder, who suffer initially poor attendance, perhaps due to the connotations their name has with the modern deathcore scene; a dirty word amongst the true believers in attendance, but a prejudice soon rendered irrelevant as songs as vital as ‘What A Horrible Night To Have A Curse’ draw the attention of blast fiends from all corners of the site. By the end of their set they open up the biggest pit of the day and leave after an eviscerating rendition of ‘Funeral Thirst’, their music having definitively done the talking.

Dimmu Borgir provide the day’s helping of black metal, and in sharp contrast to the haunting majesty of Watain and Behemoth on day one, and the uncomfortable menace of Mayhem on day two come across as pantomime, their songs lacking the vehemence of their alumni, and suffering from the loss of key former member ICS Vortex. ‘Progenies of the Great Apocalypse’ aside, they come across as insincere, frontman Shagrath going through more costume changes than Kylie. The real display of misanthropic vehemence is happening concurrently on a second stage bursting to the gills with its biggest crowd of the weekend, all there to witness Anaal Nathrakh‘s coruscating grind. Frontman Dave Hunt is a down to earth bloke, with a sharp wit, which only serves to draw their vicious display of righteous indignation into sharper contrast. His ‘other’ band Benediction opened the main stage a day previous in good humour, but tonight they act as Bloodstock’s moral compass, calling out child murderers, fascists and all of society’s arseholes in a glorious display of catharsis. When they play ‘Do Not Speak’, Hunt qualifies it with its violently sardonic (Orwellian) intro: "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face… forever!" In the chaos that ensues, the feeling of power and triumph permeating the tent is the first moment that comes anywhere near close to matching Behemoth‘s might on the first night.

All too soon the time comes for Alice Cooper to close the festival for another year, which he does in fine form in a show which is as much about theatrical spectacle as it is legendary song after legendary song. ’18 ’til I die’, ‘Hey Stoopid’, ‘Poison’; the hits keep coming, some of them songs you didn’t realise were his, lapped up by an effusively partying crowd and delivered with the confidence of a consummate professional. He stalks the stage, gesticulating with sharpened sword and glittery cane, bedecked in spikes, and harassed by skeletons, executioners, monsters and more over dressed guitarists than a latter day Guns N’Roses concert. Alice convincingly ends the weekend on a light-hearted, euphoric note.

As the streamers float serenely to the ground and the crowd drifts away, the true value of this festival is drawn into sharp focus. Fundamentally, Bloodstock provides people with an environment in which their acquired tastes are liberated, free from the judgement of the cynical modern era. It is a place to indulge your flights of imagination no matter how ridiculous or un-hip the outside world may find them, a place where people can forget reality and absorb themselves in a three day party, with a soundtrack whose quality is determined by musical accomplishment instead of image. Metal is capable of being many things to many different people. It is music which is unafraid to confront and express the depths of human emotion, be they abyssal nihilism, unadulterated rage, or pride, honour and glory. The fact that this country played a key part in the founding of this most secretly adored and massive of cultural movements, and with the likes of Bloodstock continues to do so, is something else to add to the list of things the nation should be proud of.

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