REVIEWED: Bloodstock 2019 - Part I

The inevitable, gruelling transition back to functional adult life following the giddy, alcohol-drenched festivities of Bloodstock Open Air is seldom a seamless and easy adjustment. An experience not dissimilar to Tom Hanks’ psychologically crippling return to civilisation in the 2000 survival blockbuster Cast Away, you emerge hungover, partially deaf and covered in filth - like some manner of hideous, Jager-soaked newborn child - to a strange and hostile alien environment. A world where cracking open a cold one at 8am is no longer considered a suitable breakfast option, but simply ugly and hardened alcoholism. A curious form of existence where running water and flushing toilets fill you with all the dumbfounded amazement of an ex-con newly released into society. 

 

And so we return to the 9 to 5 drudgery; to unrelenting deadlines and team-building exercises; to the quiet desperation of the 6.45am commute. So, with exactly 351 long and painful days left until the next annual round of heavy metal hijinks, it’s no surprise that we at Dark Matter are getting more than a little misty-eyed about the savagely brilliant weekend that was BOA 2019. And from the brutalising antics of death metal royalty Aborted through to the haunted, frostbitten atmospheres of the ever-enchanting Swallow The Sun, here’s a rough, if slightly hazy eyewitness account of how it all played out… 

 

 

 

 

On this balmy Thursday evening, the Sophie stage is pulling a larger crowd than usual for the first headliner as those Blood-stockers drawn to the darker side of existence line up for sacrifice on the blackened altar of mighty Greek metal anti-gods, Rotting Christ. These hoar-frosted Princes of Darkness are well worth turning out for - having spent 30 years on the scene honing their unique and instantly recognisable gothic style, an anarchic and deviously crafted blend of death, doom, industrial and the most sullied of black.  

 

As husky, ritualistic chanting gives way to the first dusky chimes of the powerful 'Hallowed Be Thy Name', the rabid excitement in the smoky air is palpable, with dramatic pauses and subdued lighting adding a nightmarish, surreal sense of ceremony to the proceedings. With gravity-laden spoken lyrics, a percussive foot-tapping barrage of drums and deliciously groove-heavy riffs set against a quasi-religious choral backdrop, 'Hallowed...' is typically Rotting Christ in the way it flaunts its blasphemy in the face of the church. 'Fire, God and Fear', another blistering number from latest opus 'The Heretics', picks up the pace with faster, more scorching aggressive beats, while the brutal, tribal shouts of 'Agape Satana' tap into the animalistic side of metal, bringing out the latent lurking beast in the hearts of their audience as they holler along. Harkening back to their primitive grindcore roots and no doubt pleasing hard-core fans of their earlier oeuvre, Christ crack on with tracks from seductively satanic, creeping classic 'Passage to Arcturo' and the raw and bestial masterpiece 'Non Serviam'. Following up with the exhilarating crowd-pleasing belters that have defined the modern, deeply mystical Rotting Christ sound, the band lighten the tone with their myth-inspired, soaring epics 'Elthe Kyrie' and 'Kata ton Demona Eautou', rounding off the set with the dark and catchy melodies of 'Grandis Spiritus Diavolos' and soon whipping up a feverish mosh-pit to churn up the festival mud.

 

Currently in the midst of their album tour with a packed schedule taking in such diabolically heavy extravaganzas as Brutal Assault, Athens Rocks and Monolith, the band may, perhaps understandably lack some of the spirited energy exhibited at previous performances in the UK, but they still deliver a pretty solid, well-balanced performance that proves a rousing finale to Bloodstock’s opening night.
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From scalding summer heat to monsoon-like downpours and punishing gale-force winds, Bloodstock has suffered more than its share of violently changeable weather this weekend. But, if any band are well equipped to cope with such brutally turbulent conditions, it’s undoubtedly Finnish melodic doom titans Swallow the Sun. A band whose every visceral, crippling slab of aggression and whirling, icily ornate note abounds with all the savage, windswept beauty of their native homeland.

 

Indeed, as the ever-mounting winds restlessly lash and stir a sky heavy with swollen black clouds, it’s hard to imagine a scene more wondrously suited to the stirringly evocative experience that awaits us. Uniformly cloaked in black and shrouded in dense plumes of purplish fog, a ghoulish profusion of Gregorian chants and tribal horns flood the synapses with sombre, ink-black atmospherics before the band plunge headlong into the crushing, exquisitely intricate throes of ‘These Woods Breathe Evil’. Pale as death and whirling expressively beneath the stark, panicky glare of flickering strobe lighting, guitarist Juha Raivio’s fluidly unfurling guitar lines display impeccable clarity above a brutalising expanse of blasting bass and bloodcurdling screams. With these lacerating accents and coldly introspective layerings of distortion displaying impeccable placement in amongst explosive stints of visceral gargling and battering aggression, Raivio’s talent as a composer is paired with impeccably tight and cohesive band chemistry.

 

Leaping precisely a full decade forward into 2019’s darkly entrancing ‘When a Shadow is Cast Into the Light’, this electrifying musical synergy is exactly what the Finns continue to illustrate in ever-increasing abundance. With keyboardist Jaani Peuhu’s meticulously placed lashings of sumptuous cleans adding tenderly affecting warmth alongside Mikko Kotamäki’s caustic signature snarl, ‘Firelights’ blends diabolical, brimstone-scorched atmospherics and loftily transporting symphony to utterly bewitching effect. As the band progress into the sleekly luxuriant, dusky guitar lines of melancholic 2003 classic ‘Swallow’, the fathomless depth of feeling and intimacy these artists display remains an incomparably rare and moving pleasure to behold.

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It’s early Saturday afternoon in the rowdy and bustling thick of the BOA arena and, as a deafening blast of nu-metal collides awkwardly with a few stray notes of Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’, it’s clear that the day’s festivities are well and truly underway. But just beyond this bewildering cacophony of garish noise and neon is the sound of something infinitely more intriguing taking shape deep within the shadowy, cloistered confines of the Sophie stage. Still relatively fresh to UK shores, Helheim are one of a rare breed of bands – blending the raggedly frostbitten and visceral with an inky luxuriance deep enough to drown in, never was the phrase ‘hidden gem’ so perfectly apt as it is this hazy, sun-drenched August afternoon. And while the state of the modest smattering of fans gathered here today can barely be described as sober, there’s no mistaking the biting, visceral intensity and crispness of sound that, like a freshly-thawed mountain spring, floods the faculties with its icy, exhilarating vitality. Indeed with its fluidly luxuriant outpouring of sultry, Solstafir-ish riffage and ink-black undercurrents of gnarly tremolo, it’s little surprise to learn that latest album ‘Rignir’ translates to ‘Rain’ in traditional Norse. Underpinning rousingly anthemic battle cries and thickly muscled grooves that restlessly writhe and contort with savage, serpentine grandeur, riff-laden standout ‘Ymr’ makes for instantly electrifying entertainment.  

 

Richly laden with immense, rumbling slabs of percussion and stirring choral vocals that echo with the eerie, eternal resonance of the immortal gods, ‘Ísuð’ is easily the most captivating of these various epic compositions. Erupting out of a tensely suspenseful episode of thunderous, meticulously measured percussion, the searing climax of madly accelerating riffage that follows quickly stirs the crowd into a delirious frenzy of chaotic motion. Let’s hope it’s not too long before the UK has the privilege of their deliciously epic company again.

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Among the various, multimillion dollar-grossing rock legends and major label heavyweights dominating the Ronnie James Dio stage this weekend, black metal seems to be playing a lamentably minor role in this increasingly flashy and lucrative affair of a music festival. But beyond the dazzling spectacle of elaborate pyrotechnics and high-definition special effects, the nightmarish, blackly grandiose presence of Master’s Call is, nevertheless, looming extravagantly large over at the New Blood stage here tonight.

 

All ghoulish monochrome and glistening black leather, the UK aggressors waste little time in plunging listeners headlong into a gloriously visceral expanse of battering percussion and ragged tremolo riffs that seethe and bristle like an agitated nest of infernal serpents. Combining white-hot, incandescent extremes of aggression with scalpel-sharp technical details and varied, intelligently penned songwriting, theirs is a sound rich with reverential nods to the old gods of this notorious subgenre. Yet, in amongst all these classically iconic trappings is the presence of something unmistakably of their own making, as gargantuan slabs of churning guitars ooze coldly majestic horror through the nightmarish throes of ‘From Once Beneath The Cursed’. With these crushing, brimstone-scorched accents taking ample time to work their blackly ritualistic magic on the senses, frontman Shayan bellows forth a slew of diabolical curses that boom eerily over the PA before the vocalist all but disappears behind a dense cloud of murkily impenetrable fog. With a vicious and darkly compelling presence that dominates every inch of their present surroundings, this is the unmistakable sound of a band destined for great things.     

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