A place of worship indeed, bow down to the riffs, let the spiritual noise raise you. And, of course, “Hail Cthulhu”. I’d only been down to a day of last year’s inaugural event of this showcase of hallowed gems of underground metal and punk, but this year had my weekend ticket early on, on the strength of a couple of highlights and confident the rest of the bill would fill nicely. And it certainly did!
So, an early start in the North West on the Friday morning, gathering some troops in Chester then heading down south. Find our respective accommodation (the bonus of staying at some friends flat down there meant all the more money for refreshments/vinyl) and then meet up again at the reasonably lengthy queue to get into the huge converted warehouse/factory buildings hosting the event, with the opening bands already audible in the background. In time (via the bar) to catch the end of Throats on the main stage, their aggressive hardcore coming across a bit better than what I’d heard in advance in my trawl of those new to my ears in the line-up. Next through to the second stage to find it’s had a relocation to the opposite end of the room from last year. Whether that is a factor or not the sound is much better than the general ropey-ness in here last year, and even though Brighton grinders Oblivionized have the cardinal sin of no bass their vicious, convoluted attack comes over impressively, and with a quality new album they are on a high at the moment. With a new third stage added this year, there would always be the potential for clashes or running round trying to see it all, but very quickly had slipped into a relaxed mode where it really didn’t matter what you missed because what you saw instead was just so good. Such was the case with missing the blackened hardcore from the States of Young And In The Way on the main stage in preference for (relative) locals Monolithian (above) at the third. This was a lighter, airier place compared to some of the packed states of the other spaces yet they were still limiting access for numbers. Anyway, when in eventually the bass and drum doom/punk powerhouse were a joy to savour, and marvel at Simon’s skills in getting such huge and diverse full bass sounds out with ease. Wish my pre-order of their new album would hurry up. Back over to the second for some more familiar friends and the grind drinking anthems of Leeds’ The Afternoon Gentlemen (below). They also seem to be on top of their game, a more concentrated special brew with them not necessarily playing that often these days. Needless to say, silly mosh mayhem ensues and this early afternoon binge is a highlight of the whole day. Their self-titled album is available here for the first time and I snapped it up sharpish.
Saw the end of Harm’s Way (above) on the main stage, their thundering US beatdown hardcore effective, the frontman a veritable beast. And fortunately too packed for any indulgence in ninja dancing as apparently was off-putting in a lead up gig in Manchester. A different tangent of punk next, with some melodic crust from Milwaukee’s Enabler. Already a firm favourite of mine, I had to do a double take as it is only main man Jeff with a new line-up since I’d last seen them, but the machine rolls on, charging, evocative. Quality is coming thick and fast now, as Trap Them fill the main hall and their front man spends most of the stage down among the crowd giving it up close and personal. They have a great HM-2 distorted sound to their riffing, giving that death/punk/sludge crossover some real meat, thrashing along at times, at others an anguished crawl. Belgium’s Leng T’che (below) are as spot on in their precision grind brutality as ever, incredibly punchy riffing and a charismatic frontman, plus guest Oblivionized input to the party. Great stuff.
A change in pace but no let-up in the power with Will Haven (above), long standing US heavy riffing metallic hardcore. I’d seen them when they first reformed with another vocalist but the first time now with original vocalist and he is a real powerhouse. There’s not a guitar solo in sight or sound as they bully us with a relentless pile-driving of solid tunes, and again the volume of tone of this main stage sound is immense. A little bit of the reverberating doom filth of Slabdragger before a re-arranged slot for the dark crust of the Swede’s Martyrdod (below), it’s another enjoyable set though they have definitely opened up their sound to more polished, melodic article represented on their recent album than their rawer, blacker origins.
With their gig at the Star and Garter in Manchester being one of the most psychopathically mental I had seen in recent times, the prospect of Nails (above) on the main stage was to be feared/thrilled for. To be fair, on the bigger scale the insanity may have been a little diluted (in spite of my own doomed crowd surfing efforts) but the performance from the band certainly wasn’t, their raging blasts of distorted hardcore coming across excellently, aural punishment in spades. Them nearly finishing me off was an appropriate near finish to the day as ultimate headliners Converge have never hugely clicked for me, so was quite happy to enjoy a blurry vision of them from a comfy shelf at the back of the balcony while we contemplated the wisdom of all day/night drinking. Again, solid enough riffing and a full hall testament to their standing but I staggered out before the end to wander back through the Bristol nightlife, slightly less than alive.
Lovely sunny morning greeted me on the Saturday as I enjoyed a gentle stroll along the docks then a gentle die in a park by the river in true festival casualty fashion. It was even hard work forcing the first hair of the dog down in a ‘spoons, but the “Breakfast Club” takes no prisoners and is a support group of sorts for those in need, like me. It was immersing once again in the music that really did the trick though as first we caught the end of the progressive black metal of Manchester’s Caina, who were much more dynamic and emotionally shifting than the rather relentless moroseness I had expected. Then we plunge into the mists of the second stage for the first of our connected Australian death metal horrow-shows, Impetuous Ritual (shared members of Portal to come later). Clad in spiked armour and budgie-smugglers, blood splattered, and sounding like bile spat from hell they were an absolute twisted pleasure. Waves of the insane cacophony of ultra guttural noise, blasting drums and brutality really pushing the envelope of extremity. From the darkest depths there to the sunny vast lands of the main stage but again with no band in sight, as France’s Celeste (above) are reduced to some hypnotically bobbing red headlights in a sea of stage fog – the way they like it. A batteringly heavy post-metal riff fest, roaring hardcore, while they can get mellower on record here there was no letup within their set, crushing violent heaviness a pleasure to endure. Over to the third stage for the Danes Halshug (below). New to me when announced, but these relative youngsters have captured and injected some venom into an old-school Scandi d-beat onslaught, fantastic punk energy and no wonder they’ve earned enough respect to be picked up by Southern Lord label.
Not much further afield in their home terms as from Northern Germany come the two-piece of Mantar, seem to take a while getting their setup sorted at the second stage but well worth the wait ultimately. Fantastically rhythmic metal riff work-outs, the sole guitar producing a huge full and heavy sound, with a harsh vocal intermittently adding some great hook to the tunes. Over to the third for locals Svalbard (above), but as the last time I’d seen them recently in Leeds had been extremely blurry enjoyed them all the more this time, their impassioned metallic hardcore remaining progressive and intense, their new album due soon on Holy Roar. Went to Torche on the main stage not expecting anything remarkable but more fool me as their heaviness of tone was exactly that as they rumbled through their melodic stoner vibes, with the soaring vocal line over the top. Was late to leave at the end of their set and expect to squash into the second stage for the two-piece blackened death force from Switzerland that is Bolzer, so just a circuit round the edge to end up outside again. And a breather socialising with anyone and everyone, old friends and new, whether in the front bar and food area, or the side beer garden, all seem to be on the same wavelength and loving this atmosphere and relentless quality of bands. Met Norwegians, Italians, Israelis, Americans, and was being a guide of sorts for a Turkish friend, already suggesting the line-ups are attracted international attention and renown in the same way as Roadburn does. Next back on the main stage were the Americans Goatsnake (below), who may have a legendary reputation and be a rare event to catch live but I’d anticipated a more retro doom experience that would have been ok, satisfying if not striking. What it was, as I leaned on a comfy wall at the side of the hall, was one of the heaviest things I have ever heard. Not in terms of violence (Whitehouse?) or volume (Sunn O?) but in sheer lung and gut shaking reverberating wall of riff noise, exhilarating. And topped off in entertainment by the off-setting of bluesy singing, tambourine, maracas, and harmonica action. Plus the bassists hilarious story of coming to reclaim Blackbeard’s head, we’re all about the pirate action.
As amazing as it was sounding I still slipped next door before the end as some occult ceremony was about to go down and I felt the summoning call of the elder gods. It was Portal opening the gates and the anticipation was palpable for their first UK show, though some of us were blessed to catch them in Germany previously. From the off there’s a flesh stripping sand storm of incomprehensible death metal dissonance and disturbing ceremonial growls, the soundman perhaps holding his head in his hands as he tries to grasp the shreds of insanity within the structures. It is not for the faint hearted, or the tuneful, it’s a sick soundtrack to your soul being torn apart. Lovely. A proper breather now before more metal majesty in the form of Triptykon (top), the doom/death band with Tom Warrior at its black heart. Two Celtic Frost songs in the first three sets the scene, the punctuation of the seminal death grunts is legend. They were marvellous here, a completely uncompromising vision of ground down darkness, occasionally breaking out into faster punkier stuff and even treating us to a cover of the proto black/death origins with Hellhammer. Tom seems on good form too, even play-fighting with bassist Vanya though she is not standing for any messing. I leave just before the end to get in for a real bonus highlight for me, a first chance to see the Swedish crust punk legends Skitsystem (above). They’d dissolved in an onstage fight in Poland some years ago but some life has been breathed back into the old dogs of war once more and they deliver a blistering set of hardhitting raw mayhem, such wild fun and as my friend said arguably the real headliner of the night for those of us inclined to the punk side of the tracks. Their finish meant we could still have time for 20 minutes of the two hour set of sonic black mass that was being conjured and orchestrated in the main hall by Sunn O (below). Drowned in what was presumably the last of the nation’s supply of dry ice the American drone ensemble did just that, causing structural and physical damage on an epic scale, us leaving the balcony fearing for its integrity as we were shaken apart by the seismic tones, Attila’s rasping voice flickering through the mix somewhere. Don’t know if I have the patience/endurance/drugs for a full set so set off for home, getting as far as the nearby station and marvelling at how they are still audible over arriving trains from that distance.
Sunday is always the easier day (allegedly) so I can even feel like breakfast at the pub as we get motivated for the finale. Getting a message saying the start has been delayed potentially due to the soundquake last night means we have a dangerous amount of extra cheap drinking time so it’s almost a relief to get to the venue eventually. After the usual socialising we get into Monarch (above)and what a pleasure that turned out to be. I’d missed the French doom band through clashes last year at Damnation Festival and heard mixed reviews, evidently only the ones who loved it were right. Much more dynamic than I was expecting , with the frontwoman providing a table load of electronic effects too, it was the kind of churning, distorted, crawl that was right up my street. Their long goodbye was endearing too, and I was glad to pick up the last copy of their 7” of Misfits and Runaways covers. As previously, we could have been chasing seeing bands more but there was great pleasure in just going with the flow and made it easier on ourselves with a trio of treats at the third stage. First, we had the prime death metal of Vallenfyre (below), although me and my friend did have to recreate the touching scene from the end of Titanic to get us both into the place with the one-in one-out system they were running. The band were fantastic, arguably some of the best heavily distorted riffing of the weekend and frontman Gregor was on top dry comedic form, living the high life in a parking lot in Maryland last week and a cowshed in Bristol this.
Next Goatwhore (above), who had jawdropped me with their intensity at Roadburn earlier in the year, and again were a non-stop blackened thrashing beast of a show, with the singer exhorting us to party like we’re watching Judas Priest in ’84. Why not? Great entertainment, including the guitarist’s 30 second Priest/Sabbath/Frost medley. Finally, (after “scene from the Titanic, the sequel”, to much laughter from the security) Canadian progressive thrash legends Voivod (below), who I’ve seen a stack of times and they are still as exciting as ever (and as completely humble as to be chatting outside to everyone beforehand). But I think even they were taken aback by the rapturous reception, drunken chanting of their name between every song, the cheers for drummer’s Away’s birthday, the ballroom dancing, the sheer exuberant mayhem kicked off by their set of classics and newer tracks. It was great to look around that afternoon/evening and see such universal beaming faces of joy at the silly chaos kicking off to bands held in great affection whose music is the trigger for it all.
Easy for us to mellow out afterwards for some of the final headliner, Earth (above). The initial part of the set seemed to be more reminiscent of the foot-draggingly slow Southern States folk-doom of their mid period, but then there were also elements of heavier return to form that I considered their most recent album “Primitive and Deadly”. A pleasurable, but achingly slow exercise in drawn out riffing that I decide to again leave before the end for fear I may forget how to walk
The full weekend experience was non-stop pleasure, and whatever recipe they have concocted here is definitely working. I found the crowds more manageable than last year, though still not without some inevitable missing out, and the sound as consistently good in the main stage and much improved in the second, the third a regular extra bonus. The collection of people attending was a likeminded banging (or nodding) of heads together. Bristol is still a great place culturally and a great home to the venue, and I think with the consistency of these previous years a future ticket is a must whether a line-up is announced or not.