This is ROCKwell UnScene Magazine bringing you the weather from central Birmingham over the coming weekend. Storm Dennis will be rolling in overnight. Residents should prepare for extreme gale force wailing and heavy rage. We urge all but the most hardcore of music lovers to stay inside their homes, as there is serious danger of Death Metal.
Let’s dive in. The first day kicks off on Stage 3 at 13:00 with Lullaby for a Unicorn. Their self-described genre is “Turbo Metal Unicorn Sexy Horn Time”. I’m already sold. They’re a ton of fun – but more on this later.
The Main Stage opens at 14:00 with Nailed to Obscurity. This is where the festival begins in earnest. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I suspect that this might be the strongest HRH Metal opening act so far. They bring melodic death-doom metal from Germany, and a visible desire to stand out among an arguably saturated genre. (Death metal may not be mainstream, but there’s no denying that new death metal bands pop up like daisies.)
The first sound is of Jann Hillrichs with drums that demand attention. The thrumming bass of Carsten Schorn sets in. Jan-Ole Lamberti, Volker Dieken (guitars) and Raimund Ennenga (vocals) stroll onto stage. Ennenga takes up a power stance and they prepare to deliver their most popular song, the title track from their latest (2019) album, ‘Black Frost’.
Ennenga proceeds to deliver all the vocal techniques. For the first moment he’s some kind of gremlin, then deep and smooth, then breathy and sinister. Finally he unleashes his unclean roar, backed by an instrumental of pure practised power. The pace is almost leisurely, but the atmosphere is tense enough to feel in your hands. Ennenga’s body lunges and crawls into the space, and I feel my insides do the same. Nailed to Obscurity are a band to be taken very seriously.
Flickering lights fall on the crowd as Nailed to Obscurity begin their second song, ‘King Delusion’. This is the title track from their 2017 album, and another really solid offering. On some level you can tell that this song is older – their current style is richer. I look forward to seeing whether this upwards trajectory will continue.
The audience are braying already – they’re hungry for blood this year. The band follow ‘King Delusion’ with ‘Feardom’ from their more recent album. For me it recalls the vibe of some of my favourite Tool songs. When I close my eyes I can taste it; Nailed to Obscurity are the dark chocolate caramel of death metal.
They follow this deliciousness with ‘Innerme’, a serving of pure electricity from their 2013 album ‘Opaque’. The performance of this is incredible. Ennenga brings down his fists as the drums crash. Lamberti and Dieken thrash their hair in sync as Ennenga rotates his head on its axis. They bring enough power to serve to a full headline crowd – Ennenga brings so much that he looks like he could burst a blood vessel at any moment. This is the passion we need!
Possibly my favourite song of the set is the penultimate ‘Tears of the Eyeless’ from their newest album. It charms me into submission. I finally admit to myself that I might have to make room for them in my regular listening rotation. Guitar melodies soar into the stratosphere as the audience claps along. Mournful clean vocals draw you in then unclean vocals tear you down.
Finally it’s time for the last song of the set. The instrumental opens with a riff that can only be described as having Mission Impossible vibes. The layers of guitar creep up on you until the melody is soaring. Ennenga hits his own chest as he roars and the crowd cries out – this is gorilla warfare on your eardrums. This is, of course, ‘Desolate Ruin’, the closing track of ‘King Delusion’ (2017). Eventually Ennenga and Schorn leave the stage and Hillrichs falls silent at the drums. Lamberti and Dieken face one another. They begin to play a melody that reaches into your soul. Schorn returns on bass and the drums crash, sending waves of power across the venue.
Next up on the Main Stage we welcome Dendera. They were scheduled for 15.10 but start nine minutes late. They introduce themselves with an epic metal version of The Avengers theme tune and immediately their tardiness is forgiven. What can I say? They’re uniting two of my greatest loves – heavy metal and superheroes.
They open with ‘Final Warning’ from their most recent record, ‘Part One – Blood Red Sky’ (2017). The sound is characterised by an incessant rapid instrumental and stretching, high-pitched vocal notes. My thought process during the first few seconds of the song goes like this:
‘Hm, the vocalist’s style isn’t unlike the singer of Power Quest. …He really does sound like the singer of Power Quest. …And he looks suspiciously like the singer of Power Quest… Oh my God, it is! It’s Ashley Edison from Power Quest!’
In the past I’ve described Edison’s vocal as being “100x hardcore Meatloaf”. I stand by this, even though he is using a slightly different style for Dendera. He has an amazing voice which has improved within the past couple of years. His vocal control is nothing short of phenomenal, and his long piercing notes are the stuff dreams are made of. In short, he brings glory to whatever he touches.
The palsy-inducing stage lights match the fiery instrumental. Dendera’s energy holds you at the point of a sword. (This is the perfect energy for a band touring with Rhapsody of Fire – they’re in the warrior business.) They give us a sneak preview of an as-yet unreleased song coming out later this year; ‘The End of Days’. This is probably my favourite song of the set. It’s everything you could want from a metal track – heavy, fast, headbang-worthy with buckets of passion and vocals that lift you off the ground. It puts the bounce into my bones.
They finish on one of their most popular songs, ‘Blood Red Sky’ (from ‘Part One – Blood Red Sky’, 2017). Flashing red lights descend on the stage with an avalanche of drums. Edison screams high enough to break glass. Dendera raise their guitars with triumph.
It’s now 16:00, and Karybdis are opening Stage 2. By opening it, I mean totally setting it on fire. They bring melodic death metal from London, and they bring it with mastery. Their sound is enormous. I can feel it twisting in my guts, and can’t help but squirm. The guitarists move with their whole bodies, throwing their torsos across the tiny stage as they headbang.
Speaking of guitarists, I have to commend Karybdis for putting on a virtually flawless show in the face of much guitar-related adversity. At the time of this festival it’s been just over a month since their old guitarist stepped down, and only a couple of weeks since their new replacement guitarist was put out of action by an injury. However, the awesome Dave Klussman has stepped in to help with the February shows brilliantly. Together with Pete Rogers (guitar) and Jay Gladwin (bass), you’d never notice anything amiss. The focus on their faces is seriously intense, and it shows in their sound. Everything is absolutely tight.
Rich O’Donnell (vocals) is a born star. He spills charisma all over the place, and has the strongest unclean vocal of the festival so far. He’s like Beelzebub in human form. His voice is deep, growling, resonant moving to an effortless high-pitched screech. He makes one lungful of air last almost longer than should be possible. At one point he throws his body into the air and his legs appear to be a whole metre off the ground. At another point his body thrashes and you see the sound move through him like a wave. (Is he actually possessed by Beelzebub? Maybe.) The crowd love him too – they growl along with him and throw themselves into mosh pits (so far the Main Stage has been sadly sans-mosh. This might be the first of the day).
Karybdis give me everything I want from death metal; joy, creativity, depth, and a glorious stage performance. The crowd are hollering with appreciation long after they’ve gone. Next year I want to see these boys on the main stage where they belong.
It’s 17:20 on the Main Stage, and it’s time to welcome Blitzkrieg. This is an interesting one historically speaking. Blitzkrieg were formed in Leicester in 1980, and were part of the new wave of British heavy metal. During their first year they were signed with Neat Records and produced their first record, featuring the tracks ‘Buried Alive’ and ‘Blitzkrieg’. Unfortunately they split in 1981 and didn’t start recording again until a few years later. During that time Metallica covered ‘Blitzkrieg’, and it appears to have been somewhat absorbed into the Metallica-sphere. On the one hand, this might have helped draw more attention to Blitzkrieg themselves. On the other hand, Blitzkrieg could be forgiven if they felt narked that someone else has taken a lot of credit for their original song. (I get a strong sense that vocalist Brian Ross still might not be over it.)
Anyway, back to the present. I love the fact that I can see the band pumping themselves up at the back of the stage. They jump around in a circle like a team pep rally. Honestly, it’s very endearing.
They begin their set and I love them. I love all of them. Intense headbanging with glorious manes of hair. Group fist bumps. Leather jackets, shades indoors and red guitars. The most fresh-faced bassist you’ve ever seen. A vocalist who clearly knows his way around a stage and- Does he have handcuffs attached to his trousers? By Jove, he does.
They begin with ‘Ragnarok’ rolling straight into ‘Inferno’, the two opening tracks from their first studio album ‘A Time of Changes’ (1985). Their sound rages! They bring instrumental gymnastics, a classic heavy metal vocal, and are simply a pleasure to listen to and a wonder to behold. They are so heavy metal, but I can’t help feeling an inexplicable twinkle of glam punk. They close their set, of course, with ‘Blitzkrieg’. It’s a triumph, and their shiny new guitarist Nick Jennison is completely invaluable. I look forward to hearing their new album.
It’s now 18.30 on the Main Stage and the next planned act is Lord of the Lost. Unfortunately, not everything in life goes to plan. They are forced to pull out as Chris Harms (vocals, guitar, cello) is extremely unwell. Think high fever, voice problems, and inability to stand. Pretty understandable, I reckon. This isn’t the only cancelled act of the day – all three stages have had dropouts at some point during the afternoon. I’ve never known a HRH Metal with so many cancelled acts, but to be fair I’ve never been to a HRH Metal in the middle of a violent storm until now. As far as I can tell, the organisers are doing everything they can to keep the festival running smoothly despite these setbacks.
Someone has to pick up the torch for the main stage, and that someone is… Lullaby for a Unicorn! You remember these guys, of course you do. The fellows of Stage 3 Turbo Metal Unicorn Sexy Horn Time. Are they as good as Lord of the Lost? Probably not. But do they make up for it with determination, fun, and Sexy Horn Time? Absolutely.
Lullably for a Unicorn receive some support from the crowd along with a certain amount of grumbles. A couple of songs in, their vocalist comments that “There’s a lot of Lord of the Lost fans very angry right now”. He isn’t wrong. Come on, guys. I get why you’re annoyed, but there’s no need to take it out on the people who are the only reason you’re not currently staring at an empty stage. Not only are they filling the stage – they’re filling it with a rad unclean vocal, a cowboy hat, some beautiful dancing ladies, and a bassist in a unicorn onesie. What more could you ask for?
Over on Stage 2 Raised By Owls were due to start at 19:20, but they’re already in full swing by the time I arrive at 19:10. I can only assume their set time was pulled forwards because of the previous no-show. Formed in 2015 by vocalist Sam Fowler, they describe themselves as an extreme metal band. For me the most accurate description is comedy death metal. They fuse high-quality metal with humour that’s bawdy, sardonic, and just plain silly (in the best possible way). The crowd is eating from the palm of Fowler’s rainbow-leopard-print hand. His screaming vocal is of excellent quality – almost as good as his banter. At one point, he says, “If you have a sex toy with you at the moment, wave it in the air. This song is called ‘Night of the Living Dildos’”. The audience presents no dildos as far as I can see, but there is a guy crowdsurfing. A human sex toy, perhaps?
Raised By Owls whip out a double-ended dildo that they spent a whole fifty quid on and lasso it in the air. I think that sums up everything you need to know about them. I highly, highly, highly recommend seeing these guys live, preferably while drunk. You’re welcome in advance.
Meanwhile at the Main Stage, the crowd has turned out for Evil Scarecrow. The venue is suddenly heaving – and it’s no surprise. Evil Scarecrow are notorious for putting on an incredible show. They have everything; intense makeup, full length robes, old-timey tunics, forehead needles, robots, robo-crabs, sexy dancing, disembodied eyeballs, the catchiest songs, and the most supportive fans. Dr. Rabid Hell (vocals and guitar) describes Evil Scarecrow as “the scrappy underdog of heavy metal” because of their unorthodox method of success. As he says, everything they have is thanks to their fans. They don’t even have a record deal – they use fan funding and sheer willpower. I saw them a couple of years ago. To this day they remain one of the most enjoyable bands I’ve ever seen live, and unquestionably the best when it comes to crowd engagement. I challenge you to go to one of their gigs and not feel the compulsive urge to do the ‘Hurricanado’ and ‘Crabulon’ dances. It’s impossible. Fifty quid and a beer to anyone who doesn’t join in during ‘Hurricanado’. You might think you can rise to my challenge, but you’ll realise that it’s simply not worth it. Evil Scarecrow are magnificent, and I want to see them dominate the universe.
At 21:10 Equilibrium are due to start on the Main Stage, although they don’t actually come out until 21:26. Deadlights flash and glare into the audience as the noise blares. Robert “Robse” Dahn (vocals) cries, “Birmingham! Jump, jump, jump!” The atmosphere is instantly electric. They wear floating cloaks, surrounded by blinding white light and flaming red.
Equilibrium describe themselves as epic metal, and they have also been described as symphonic folk metal. They play with features from a lot of different genres. Some of their riffs are jaunty and video-game-esque, sometimes I feel like I’m at an alt club-dance party, some moments are celestial, sometimes it feels extra-terrestrial… No-matter what they do, though, their sound is always dark and all-encompassing. Real talent is in the building, and now I’m listening.
Dahn shouts, “We are Equilibrium from Germany! Are you ready for party hard?” I was born ready for party hard!
I think this is the happiest I’ve been all day. Their performance is exciting from my eyeballs to my toes. They truly do represent the concept of equilibrium – their use of different techniques is perfectly balanced. Their instrumental is perfect. Dahn’s unclean vocal is perfect. Their performance is perfect – they give the most ferocious headbangs I’ve seen all day. I have to check out the closing acts of the other stages before they finish, but leaving Equilibrium’s set almost breaks my heart.
Mage headline Stage 3 at 21:00, and have certainly filled the room (albeit quite a small room). By the time I arrive they’re running at full power. What they lack in subtlety they make up for in pure decibels. They’re quite raw and unrefined, with a definite sludge/stoner vibe. This isn’t a bad thing, but I would like to hear them make their sound a bit more distinctive.
Headlining Stage 2 at 21:40 is Enquire Within, who when I arrive are partway through a more hardcore version of Avenged Sevenfold’s ‘Nightmare’. They follow this with their most popular song, ‘Battle Torn’ from their 2019 album ‘Bloodlines’. They are, honestly, really good. They’re not perfect but they’re a pleasure to listen to. They serve hard jumping melodies, amazing guitar from Daniel Lewin, boundless energy from Henry Waller (drums), and an awesome vocal from Jacob Waller. Mellow, smooth, lovely growl. Not to mention catchy lyrics. I’m singing along before I know it. It’s a crying shame that the crowd is so small.
Back to the main stage, and I’ve walked into a full-blown Equilibrium party. The whole room is jumping and I’m instantly intoxicated. Praise the metal gods who blessed me with the opportunity to see this band. Equilibrium deserve the greatest of mosh pits (although this year the mosh pits have been very small compared to previous years. Come on, Brum – don’t go tame on me).
“My dear friends, it’s time to say goodbye”. Say it ain’t so! They launch into the magnificent ‘Blut im Auge’ (from ‘Sagas’, 2008), which is nothing short of the finest pirate metal that your looted gold can buy. It’s a proper firecracker of a tune (and gives me a bit of a Trollfest vibe). It sets off the wildest mosh pit yet. You’ve just got to lose yourself to the music.
They end with ‘Rise of the Phoenix’, the closing track of ‘Renegades’ (2019). There is a thrumming, trembling wall of noise. The crowd sways, arms outstretched. Marcus “Makki” Solvalt (bass) starts to sing yearningly. The sound is so vast that you can see it towering above you. It fades too soon. The band and special guests bow together. Every person in the crowd has their horns in the air. The balcony are in a standing ovation. Equilibrium finish sixteen minutes late, and a thousand years too early.
Finally it’s 22:40 and time for the main event; Rhapsody of Fire headlining the main stage. …Although apparently it’s not time for the main event. They start thirty-four minutes late, which I’d argue is edging into an unfashionable level of lateness.
They open with an intense, operatic, warlike sound. Manu Lotter (drums) steps out first and raises his hand to the crowd. Roby De Micheli (guitar), Alessandro Sala (bass), and Alex Staropoli (keyboard) materialise and start to play abruptly. Giacomo Voli (vocal) appears just as suddenly. For a moment he kneels on the stage as if in worship, then he starts to sing.
There is no denying that Voli’s voice is beautiful. It’s large, high, resonant and classic, with the perfect amount of vibrato. The sound he makes is indescribably pure. I feel like a jeweller examining a flawless diamond.
Rhapsody of Fire give Italian symphonic metal which tells epic stories and aims to make you feel like a warrior. Every noble melody prepares you for battle. You never have to struggle for motivation again. Time to resolve a blood feud? Rhapsody of Fire. Afraid of missing a deadline? Rhapsody of Fire. Can’t bring yourself to clean the bathroom? Rhapsody of Fire. Too lazy to get out of bed? Rhapsody of Fire. The possibilities are endless.
They play through their entire 2019 album ‘The Eighth Mountain’ in order from start to finish, never missing a beat the whole time. They then play the first six songs of their 2000 album ‘Dawn of Victory’, an interesting choice considering that the band lineup was quite different when it was recorded.
The guitar canters into the distance and the vocals fly into the sunrise. The bass is enough to replace the beat of your own heart. Voli is the human embodiment of glee. His body curls into the lyrics and his smile lights up the stage. The whole room is filled with his personality – he’s a natural performer. I also adore the fact that he hypes up his bandmates. He kneels and bows to them, points at them in amazement, and motions the crowd to cheer for them. This is the kind of wholesome comradery I live to see.
My favourite moment of their set is the performance of ‘The Wind, the Rain and the Moon’ (‘The Eighth Mountain’, 2019). As the song opens, the lights beam like stars. At first the only sounds are voice and keyboard, then they’re joined by mournful guitar. The sound builds around the profound lyrics. The song lingers in your ears – “I’ll be the wind to caress your skin”.
I don’t mind telling you that I fought my way through a massive amount of adversity in order to be here by a certain time today. The weather, public transport, and even my own body all rebelled against me. However, I persevered! I will tell you why. A Manchester-based band called Vice are about to open the Main Stage at 14:00, and I’d sooner face disembowelment than miss even a few minutes.
I saw them at HRH Metal a couple of years ago. At the time they were hidden away on the smallest stage at an awkward time, and I came across them purely by chance. They were one of my highlights of the whole festival. I used such phrases as “delightful chemistry”, “infectious”, “natural charisma by the galleon”, “next-level guitar skills”, and “a skittle in a bowl of M&Ms”. That last may have been a strange metaphor, but I stand by it nonetheless. I’m beyond chuffed to see them on the Main Stage where they belong (and I am going to smugly pretend that it’s because of my previous positive review, although that is almost definitely not true).
I need you to know that my first thought when they arrive on stage is, Nice merch! I totally want one of those patches. This may be relevant later.
Vice open with serious strength, bringing a war hammer down onto the sleepy crowd. After their introduction they play ‘Exist and Remain’, featuring an incredible performance from bassist Aiden Lord. He comes to the front of the stage, leans in and headbangs with a ferocious expression. Tom Atkinson is lead vocal (and guitar), but Lord bounces off him with an unclean vocal of his own. They follow this with Vultures. I can only assume these are both newer songs. Maybe we’ll see them on the new album. Here’s hoping it comes out sometime this year.
The last time I saw them, Atkinson was described by a fan as “the best guitarist of the weekend”. Now that I’m close up I can really see why. Very sexy big guitar solo times. I think they might not have a single song that doesn’t feature at least one brain-scrambling guitar solo.
Their penultimate track is ‘Left Behind’, another possibly new one. Do you have a taste for heavy, heavy metal? The crowd is fully engaged and chanting. Connor Summers gives incessant pounding on the drums, and the whole sound digs in. They peel back the layers in the wall of sound. Lord points across at Atkinson during a really tight riff which develops into the most crushing solo you’ve ever heard. The whole performance immediately levels up. At the end of ‘Left Behind’ Summers stands, yells into the abyss and grins.
They end on ‘Greed’, a classic Vice banger from their 2017 album ‘The First Chapter’. The growling melody gets under your skin immediately. I want to move! I know it’s still early but… Do you wanna build a mosh pit? By the end, everyone has their horns in the air.
One thing that’s particularly memorable about Vice has always been their chemistry with one another and with their audience. There’s just something so likeable about them. I struggle to imagine any crowd not loving them within the first few seconds of a set. They really seem to care about their fans. Atkinson even invites members of the crowd to “say hi, have a drink” with them after the set. Of Lord, he says, “Don’t worry, he is over eighteen!” His youthfulness is definitely a distinctive feature. Through the whole set Lord pulled such a hardcore facial expression. I tried so hard to take it seriously, but it was difficult. It kept making me smile – he’s almost too adorable to pull it off.
Ok, so we need to have a conversation about merch. Recall that my first thought was about merch. This is a band who came onto stage as a walking advert for their own merch. Patches, stickers, wristbands, the lot. They performed. On the Main Stage. Without bringing any merch to sell. Is your mind exploding right now? Here I am at the merch stand being told that “No, there is no Vice merch. No, you are not the only person who has asked for it. Everyone wants it”. Vice should consider this a direct request to themselves to please never come to a gig without merch again. Here I am, trying to stop being a freeloading fan and support them with actual money and I can’t! On the bright side, I did catch one of Lord’s guitar picks. On the downside, I didn’t get their signed drumhead. When they threw the drumhead it smacked me right on the skull. You’d think it should have been mine by rights, seeing as I marked it with my pain. Apparently not. (I’m totally over it, as I’m sure you can tell. Definitely not wishing eternal damnation on the guy who took it from me.)
Anyway, onwards. Next to the Main Stage at 15:00 are Ethereal Sin, an elegiac black metal horde from Japan. I love them immediately.
They start facing the back of the stage. They all sport long dark hair, long dark robes and sinister makeup. The opening is the auditory embodiment of the word “ethereal”, and sweeps you into the history of Japanese legend. As the gigantic instrumental descends and the bass judders, red and white lights blind the crowd. Yama Darkblaze gives a demonic vocal that I could never tire of hearing. The wall of death peels back into choral softness then builds again. Every member of the band moves around the stage as if they own it. They headbang viciously and burn trails across their guitars. I am left feeling truly inspired. (I even buy one of their t-shirts.)
At 17:00 Die Kur hit Stage 2. They’re industrial metal, and clearly something I need in my life judging by the presence of a violin and a theremin. The crowd is small but intensely invested in the show. They mosh, roar, jump across the floor and crash into walls. When I walk in Takatsuna Mukai is giving space-vibes on the violin, and the whole sound sends tremors through my ribcage. Ays Kura spits the lyrics with pure fire as well as covering synthesisers, samplers, and the theremin. They give me space, they give me horror, they give me metal party. Most excitingly, they give me amazing theremin solos! I’ve never seen the theremin being played properly before. It’s a real gamechanger. Using it in metal is a stroke of genius – the way it screams and wails makes it perfect for the genre. It’s the most refreshing take on the type of solo which is usually played exclusively on guitar.
The stage lighting is such that I can’t see the band’s features or expressions at all. I wonder whether this is deliberate or just a case of an unfortunate setup. I can only see stark silhouettes against a blue haze. While this is aesthetically effective, I feel as though a more visible performance might work better. I also think they could benefit massively from a bigger space and sound system. Their creativity excites me deeply. They need the Main Stage like the devil needs hellfire.
At 17:40 Krysthla bring a good solid helping of heavy metal to the Main Stage, followed by Skiltron at 19:00. Skiltron are a folk metal band from South America, although now based in Europe. The move to Europe was probably a good decision for them. I’m not sure how popular kilts and bagpipes are in South America, but if my fellow Europeans are anything like me they’ll be eating it up like Coco Pops. Yes indeed, they are all wearing kilts. Their amazing bagpipe player Pereg Ar Bagol is also striding around proudly topless, which is how I hope all Scottish people spend their weekends. (It’s amazing that I’m so enamoured with kilts considering the heinous one I was forced to wear as school uniform, but that’s a whole other story.)
They open with ‘Lion Rampant’ from their 2013 album ‘Into the Battleground’. They have a gorgeous sound. It’s joyous heavy metal, incredibly Celtic – if I didn’t know any better I would assume they were Scottish. Martin McManus has a wonderful and incredibly sharp voice. He plays air-guitar exuberantly – we stand! His voice lifts you off the ground during long notes. Skiltron is very bagpipe-heavy. Bagol jigs across the stage as he plays. I’m astonished that he has the breath for it. Skiltron leaves my heart soaring, and makes me wonder whether Sunday is the best day.
Skiltron also give a special treat; a new song from the album coming out later this year. This is only their second time performing it, and it hasn’t even been recorded yet. It’s called ‘Fight Loud and Destroy’, and it’s mighty. Bagol’s bagpipes are masterful, and the whole instrumental is full of fire. McManus punches the air in time during a glorious guitar solo from Emilio Souto. This is the energy the song deserves! Unfortunately the crowd are not giving the energy that it deserves. Where is the mosh pit this weekend? This is not the Birmingham crowd I know and love. Won’t the real Brum crowd please stand up, please stand up, please stand up?
Meanwhile over on Stage 3 (19:00) we have a surprise addition to the lineup (I hear the original band was forced to pull out due to sickness). Allow me to introduce you to Midlands-based punk/hardcore band FACE UP!, whose tagline is “FACE UP! OR F*CK OFF!”. This pretty much sums up their sound; aggressive, charismatic, demanding and addictive. They’re the first female-fronted band I’ve seen this weekend, and mark only the second woman I’ve seen on stage at all. I really would love to see more women gaining success in the metal and alt music scenes. As I’ve mentioned in the past, metal music is largely centred around white men. I enjoy music that happens to be produced by white men as much as the next metalhead, but the scene would seriously benefit from more diversity.
The whole band use the stage as if they were born on it, and vocalist Roxx thrashes around in the red light like wildfire. She points to the sky, leans back, arches forwards. She has that spark in her eyes that you see in all the best stage performers. Her voice is a rough husky alto, part spoken and part growled. We got a baby Otep over here! She says that they’re “not quite metal”, but it’s close enough for me. FACE UP! are pure vitality and a breath of fresh air. The crowd is wild for them.
She cries, “Our last song goes out to every single mother f*cker in this building!” It is, of course, ‘The World is Ours’, the title track from their 2019 album. Bassist Gav comes down into the middle of the room and creates a circle pit around him as he continues to play. It’s the most hyped the crowd has been all weekend. He gets back on stage to finish, and they end on a massive high.
20:20 on the Main Stage sees a beautifully put-together and perfectly rehearsed set from thrash metal band Xentrix. They’re at the top of the decibel scale, and pack a truly electric bassist in the form of Chris Shires. The bass rhythm judders strongly enough to send your sinoatrial node into spasm. He moves on the stage like a coiled spring, and at times gives the most intense fingerpicked bass line of the whole festival. Shires has my bassist award of the weekend for sure.
Headlining Stage 3 at 21:00 are Secrets of Mariana (another female-fronted band. How exciting!). They bring a fantastic atmosphere, and sound really well-rehearsed. Their sound is characterised by Amy’s vocal. She switches seamlessly from a soft clean to an immaculate unclean, which is a difficult technique to master. I seriously love her unclean metal roar… I love it a lot more than I love her softer style. It’s not that her softer voice is bad. It’s just that her more aggressive side is so much better by comparison. I think she could benefit from a few vocal lessons, as bringing her different styles to the same standard would take the whole band to another level.
The headline act of Stage 2 are Birmingham band Valous, starting at 22:00. They certainly have valour to play at the same time as the Main Stage headline. They have attracted a decent-sized crowd nonetheless, and what the crowd may lack in size they make up for in pure spunkiness.
The whole room is lit up with red. Smoke billows across Mat Shutt (vocals), his arms outstretched. I like his trousers. They’re fitted pleather with lots of unnecessary zips. Totally my style.
I’m just about reach the conclusion that Valous are enjoyable but distinctly average when I’m abruptly forced to re-evaluate my opinion. They start bashing out cracker after cracker. I’d thought Shutt’s vocal was pleasant but undistinctive, then it suddenly became more varied and resonant. I’d thought their songs were kind of unmemorable, then suddenly they were brainworms spat with rage, featuring drum and bass lines that roll like thunder. I have to conclude that the members of Valous are in fact mythical telepathic shapeshifters.
Finally, it’s time for the headline of the Main Stage (22:00). It’s time for… *Drumroll*… The Three Tremors. This is quite a new band, only formed in 2018 but unsurprisingly catapulted into popularity. The project is a supergroup uniting three prolific metal vocalists. The most well-known of these is ex-Judas Priest vocalist Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens (also of Iced Earth and Beyond Fear). Sharing the vocal limelight are Sean ‘Hell Destroyer’ Peck (Cage, Denner-Sherman) and Harry ‘Tyrant’ Conklin (Jag Panzer). These three vocal powerhouses are backed by all four of Peck’s current bandmates from Cage.
The Three Tremors step out to red, flashing lights and a somewhat depleted crowd. They open strong with one of their most popular records, ‘Wrath of Asgard’ (‘The Three Tremors’, 2019). Their sound is truly classic metal, with constant rolling melodies and high-pitched resonant vocals. The most impressive thing about The Three Tremors is how well-matched the three vocals are. When I say well-matched, I mean virtually identical. Their ranges and tone are so similar that if you closed your eyes you wouldn’t be able to tell who’s singing at any given moment. They do use different styles (hence why they’ve released a massive collection of solo versions to showcase their different styles; ‘The Solo Versions’, 2019). However, when they sing together they’re clearly working to complement one another, meaning their styles inevitably move closer together. It really is a wonder to behold. At one point I wonder if this is what it would sound like with three clones of Ashley Edison on stage.
They power through a few of their own songs and a few covers of bands they’ve been linked to – mostly Judas Priest, but there’s some Jag Panzer and Cage in there as well. (Since the entirety of Cage are on stage, I’d argue that the Cage song is actually less of a cover and more just Cage performing with friends.) There’s also a bit of Black Sabbath. You can never go wrong with Black Sabbath, in my opinion.
I pop out partway through their set to check out Stage 2, but fortuitously I return to the Main Stage just in time for their cover of Judas Priest’s ‘Breaking the Law’. What an iconic banger. This features a special guest appearance from Blaze Bayley (previously of Wolfsbane and Iron Maiden). The whole crowd sings along to this number, and how could you not? It’s a proper crowdpleaser if ever I heard one.
Their set, and the whole festival, ends with the song ‘The Three Tremors’ (from their 2019 album of the same name). The guitars ring triumphantly like bells as drums from Sean Elg vibrate your brain. Dave Garcia gives a mind-boggling guitar solo, a truly fitting finale. At the climax of the song, the three vocalists “unite as one” with a series of melodic wails that tear into your eardrums. The crowd punches the air. There is a final inconceivable note shared between the three, the grandest guitar, the brightest light. What a moment to finish HRH Metal 2020.
It has been, as always, an immense pleasure. Of course, the scheduling wasn’t as on-point as previous years. Considering the biblical levels of storm and plague I think that can be forgiven. Hard Rock Hell will return, and I will return to provide another review longer than anyone ever wanted. If you’ve made it to the end of the review, congratulations. If you spent all day at HRH on both days, as the Secrets of Mariana said, “Well done, guys. Seriously well done.” You are one hard-rockin’ warrior, and you will be rewarded in Metal Valhalla.