HAMMERFEST Festival Review @ O2 Academy, Birmingham (UK). 12th-13th Feb 2022.

    Picture Credit - Indie Images Review by Lydia Fitzer

    “Hammerfest, you are absolutely, gruesomely in some ways, beautiful”  Blaze Bayley.

    It’s been a long time since I’ve experienced live music. Hammerfest has landed in Birmingham UK, and the time has come to emerge from my Covid19 cocoon. Sometimes you’ve just got to put on your big girl boots and brave the big wide world, confident that it will all be worthwhile.
    There are those who claim this year’s Hammerfest wouldn’t be worthwhile at all. Admittedly, organising this lineup has been less than seamless. A number of bands have having to pull out at the last minute, including headline acts. While it’s understandable fans would be left sour, it isn’t fair to criticise the organisers of the festival. They worked incredibly hard, and have made the best out of a bad situation brought on by a series of events outside of their control. For me personally, it’s not ideal but it’s not a dealbreaker. My favourite part of any festival is being introduced to so many exciting new bands. While the prospect of seeing more famous acts is appetising, it doesn’t have to be the main course.
    So, on to the show. The second stage kicks off first at 1pm with a strong offering from Son Of Boar followed by Master Charger. I’m reminded of how much I love the feeling of the deep thrum in my chest that only comes with live music. Master Charger in particular giving a really ballsy sound which would be perfect to move to, if only the crowd had more energy. No audience is truly awake until after dark, it seems.
    The main stage opens at 3pm with Enquire Within, and the title track from their 2019 album ‘Bloodlines.’ Last seeing them back in 2020, two years ago almost to the day. At that time I wrote “they’re, honestly, really good, now they’re even better.” Vocalist Jacob Waller has an incredible energy on stage showing fantastic control. He’s the ultimate frontman, serving gorgeous guttural notes and engaging chat with ease. He makes the crowd fizz by declaring he will award a t-shirt to those he deems ‘worthy,’ and at the most intense moments throws shirts into the crowd with a roar. By the time they reach ‘Annihilation March’ (2021) the ,crowd is chanting and punching the air. At this point lead guitarist Dan Lewin begins to have technical difficulties. The band push onwards with the height of professionalism, and Lewin even makes it back to the mic in time for his closing backing vocal. As Waller says, ‘What a trooper’. As Waller does his best to stay cool and keep the crowd engaged, Lewin, rhythm guitarist Amelia P-White, and multiple members of staff work to fix the guitar sound issue. Bassist Erim Ahmet and drummer Henry Waller start to jam as Jacob Waller begins feeling the pressure; “I’m gonna need a couple of drinks after this.” Honestly, though, he shouldn’t worry too much. The extended drum and bass appreciation moment was actually quite enjoyable. It’s emphasising the understated groove element of their sound.
    At last, the trial is over. Enquire Within throw down harder than ever with the title track of their 2021 album, ‘Rebirth.’ Following with ‘Battle Torn’ (2019), a true banger which was seared into my mind two years ago. It’s an excellent calling card for a live show. The crowd are chanting with zeal, ‘He’s the leader, the great deceiver.’ The set is fantastic, but they deserve more. Hammerfest should bring them back at mosh o’clock, which is usually about two pints and a shot after seven. They finish hot; ‘We have travelled down to the very depths of hell itself, and all we have to do is… watch it burn!’ Waller roars as the red mist descends. I haven’t been in this much of a good mood since my roasters came out perfect on Christmas Day.
    Second to the main stage at 4.10pm is Helgrind, launching straight into heavy artillery thrash and serving the first high-flying guitar solo of the main stage. Meanwhile in stage three, Tableau Mort are bringing a much needed dose of theatre in the form of black metal. Their screams can be heard in the distance from down the corridor. Think painted faces and elaborate robes – just the thing to bring drama to a Saturday afternoon.
    Next on stage two at 5pm are IzenGard, who describe themselves less as metal and more as classic rock. They definitely have a different feel to other bands in the lineup, and don’t seem out of place – rather, their difference adds interest. The resonant vocal of Ian Ainsworth and Alison Tietze’s work on the keyboard adds an almost orchestral flavour. Ainsworth has a lush classic rock voice, although at times it’s hard to hear. I can’t help but think his mic volume is a bit low, particularly during their opening track ‘Demon of the Night’ (2019).
    It’s now 5.20pm, and things are about to get hot and heavy on the main stage with Absolva. Self-identified as ‘explosive British melodic heavy metal’. I identify them as producing badass anthem noises to fill your eardrums with pleasure. Opening with ‘Demon Tormentor’ from their super new, so-new-it-isn’t-being-released-until-next-week-preorder-now album ‘Fire in the Sky’. Their sound is extremely powerful and incredibly well-executed. I’d go so far as to say they give a world-class performance, very comfortably owning the room from the first moment they take the stage. Chris Appleton combines stunning guitar skills with a piercing classic metal voice and buckets of confidence. Follow with ‘Burn Inside’ from their new album, ‘Fire in the Sky,’ and have the crowd chanting and punching the air. Slowing it down with another from their new new album, ‘What Does God Know?’, which has a chorus that absolutely slaps you round the face with talent. Oh, and did they mention they have a new album coming out? They introduce the title track itself, ‘Fire in the Sky,’ with a rollicking opening leading into soaring guitar. It’s proper classy. I’m getting Dragonforce meets Metallica. Chris and Luke Appleton (rhythm guitar) are serious contenders for the coolest guitar moment of the festival – they synchronise perfectly and play the necks of their guitars as if they’re pianos. Leaving with a final cry; “For those of you that don’t know, we are Absolva and we do play Heavy F*cking Metal!” (Ah yes, and they have a new album coming out. Just in case you weren’t aware.)
    Next on stage one at 6.30pm, we’re treated to an appearance from the incredible Blaze Bayley. Now, those unfamiliar with Blaze may look at the stage and conclude that it’s basically Absolva with sideburns. In actual fact, what we have is Blaze Bayley with sideburns accompanied by the entirety of Absolva. Blaze Bayley has a long solo career as well as a prolific history as the lead singer of Iron Maiden (1994-1999). Of course, even the greats tend to need an instrumental, and this is where Absolva steps in as his backing band. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this backing is in the background, though. The boys of Absolva are still owning the stage with a level of skill and stamina that could put more famous bands to shame. What we have is the perfect combination of one living legend and one instrumental that’s practically perfect in every way. As opposed to Absolva, Blaze Bayley gives less ‘F*ucking Heavy Metal’ and more old-school classic metal. The set is fantastic, including a number of tracks from Bayley’s time with Iron Maiden. The most memorable ‘The Clansman’ from Iron Maiden’s ‘Virtual XI’ (1998). During ‘The Clansman.’ the first real moshpit of stage one is born at 7.05pm weighing in at sixty sore muscles, twenty-eight new bruises and seven spilled drinks. It’s so magical to witness the arrival of new life.
    Over on stage two at 7.20pm, Line of Fire have the headline spot, along with the deep misfortune of their set partially overlapping with Blaze Bayley. When I arrive the room is mostly empty, although it does start to pick up once the set clash has ended. There seems to be an issue with the mic being a touch quiet. Despite this, Line of Fire gives a really nice set. Gutsy riffs from guitarists Dave Lamont and Paddy O’Malley, along with a lovely husky vocal from Baz Shaw. They bring a relaxed Nirvana feel and a refreshing change of pace.
    At 7.50pm Conan take the main stage. Open with all-encompassing sound, like thunder. I wonder whether I’ve seen them before. Seeming so familiar, but maybe it’s only because their sound speaks to something inside me. I’m completely entranced. Immersed in the moment and the atmosphere, feeling the power in my chest. The sound flows seamlessly from one song to the next – they never let their instruments fall silent. You could be carried away by the waves. Conan are doom metal, and they say bring ‘unending hammer blows unto the earth’. In my opinion, this is an understatement. To me, Conan gives cries of the human soul. I can only close my eyes and let myself drown in it. Jon Davis’ high pitched screams echo through my mind, and when bassist Chris Fielding joins in backing vocal I can feel his voice in my fingertips. You too should see them live and join their flock. Complete immersion is vital. Hail Conan.
    Next to hit stage one, and a few minutes late but immediately forgiven, are Raging Speedhorn (9.20pm). They drop ‘Redweed’, a classic from their first album (‘Raging Speedhorn’, 2000), with enough power to create an instant moshpit. Their energy is outrageous. Striding across the stage oozing with confidence, and truly filthy unclean vocals from Frank Regan and Daniel Cook. When they say jump, you jump. It’s still the beginning of their set but Cook is already sailing on the hands of the crowd, mic still in hand. By the third song, ‘Spitfire’ (2020), the venue has reached fever pitch. Cook skips and kicks across the stage like a buck as Regan hits impossibly piercing notes and swings his mic on its wire as if he’s a helicopter about to take off. We’re at a perfect balance of alcohol and adrenalin – so, of course, the crowd surfing starts. A first, second, third, fourth, and even fifth crowdsurfer fall into the pit with rapid succession.  As Raging Speedhorn drop one bone crunching track after another, the crowd surfing and lethal mosh pits continue. By the time they explode their final song of the night (‘Hammerdown’, 2020 – an experience that will shake your teeth in their sockets) there has been a grand total of forty-eight instances of crowd surfing. Actually, if you include Cook’s adventures, the number rises to fifty-one. That must be some kind of record.
    Finally, at 10.55pm, Memoriam headline the main stage. They’re an old school death metal band hailing from Birmingham, and as Karl Willetts (vocals) says, “It’s not often we get to play somewhere where people understand what I say!” True Brummy problems. I also absolutely need to mention Willetts’ hair. He has the longest most lustrous white-blonde tresses in history. He wins the award for most.
    luscious hair of the festival by a long way (and in a full weekend of heavy-haired metalheads, that’s saying a lot). Even Memoriam’s crew seem to pine for such locks. At one point a crew member dons a glossy blond wig and stands next to Willetts for comparison. ‘You can’t tell the difference, can ya?’ Just a smidge. Better luck next time, Ronnie.
    Now, I can’t go further without addressing the elephant in the room. The fact is that this headline spot was supposed to be filled by Napalm Death, a pioneering grindcore band with a somewhat larger following. Willetts handles the situation perfectly with humour and honesty. It’s hard to have anything but respect for a band who has stepped up at the last minute under such disappointing circumstances. I’ve seen Memoriam before, back in 2018, and I have to say there has been a striking improvement in music and performance quality. A big part of this improvement is they seem to be having a lot more fun, and it’s infectious. Dealing with serious subject matter (think war, inhuman suffering and austerity), but sombre style of delivery they used in the past seemed to have weighed them down. Everything about them is coming across better this time. Memoriam give a really solid set. It’s a shame to see the numbers of the crowd gradually dwindle from their first song, ‘Undefeated’ (2019) to the last, ‘Flatline’ (2017). No-matter how enjoyable they are, I suppose for some people there’s just no getting past the fact they’re not Napalm Death. Doing a sterling job nonetheless, and I raise my horns to them.
    It’s Sleepy Sunday Screamy time, and first to the main stage at 1.40pm are Lullaby for a Unicorn. In a blend of hardcore and comfort, they’re known for guttural, clashy, thrashy music and a certain unicorn onesie. Ending on their most popular song, ‘Pointing at Seagulls’ (2018). This is a very catchy number about seagulls, sausage rolls and Stephen Seagal. As you can tell, Lullaby for a Unicorn enjoy ‘putting the ‘fun’ and me(n)tal back into Fundamentally Ludicrous’. Sadly their set ends twenty minutes earlier than scheduled and no other stages are open. This leaves a forty-minute gap devoid of any action.
    *Tumbleweed passes in the wind.*
    Next to the main stage at 3pm is Pythia. They’re a band of symphonic metal warriors fronted by Sophie Dorman, a tiny woman with a huge voice. Her style is largely an operatic-type soprano. This combined with Marcus Matusiak on keyboards gives heavy, heroic melodies with a touch of Nightwish. Their start could have been stronger, but after a few songs they’re peaking at an almost ethereal high. Ending on their all-time most popular track ‘Sarah (Bury Her)’ (2009), which can only be described as heavy metal’s answer to ‘Jolene’. It’s a compelling story and melodies that make you want to listen again.
    At 3pm on stage two is Wolfbastard, opening the stage with an incessant gritty sound and such earthy subject matter as ‘Sick in the Bath’ (2015) and ‘Show Us Where You Piss From’ (2018). Don’t be fooled by the grimy song names – Wolfbastard are enticing enough they might have a bigger crowd than stage one. They’re crusty black metal, and you can really feel the crust punk element of their sound. It’s the kind of thing you’d like to imagine yourself rage-playing in a garage.
    Finally 4pm rolls around, and it’s time for stage three to open at last. It never ceases to amaze me how every time I come to one of these festivals I find one of the most exhilarating acts of the whole weekend tucked away on the smallest stage. This year’s Hammerfest is no exception, and this is the moment. This is Incursion. Stage three may be small but that’s no excuse not to hone in on the aesthetic, as Incursion prove. They wear all black everything, with accents of greenish-yellow UV paint on their skin. The effect is just the right amount sinister and edgy. When beginning their set my first thoughts are how much I adore the voice of Fox (guitar and vocals). It’s truly beautiful; a variety of unclean demonic tones so well executed, it almost brings a tear to my eye. Beelzebub has entered the building. I think the main reason most of us listen to music is because we want to feel something, and Incursion really make me feel. Their sound is unabashed viciousness which connects with the audience on a primal level. Making you move, even at 4pm on a Sunday. The lights are blinding, and guitarists move in the small space with authority. Bouncing and thrashing as the bass moves earth. All that’s missing is actual hellfire. This is made all the more impressive by the fact they have a brand new bassist, lovingly referred to as ‘Mini Grunt’, who has apparently learned the entire set within two days. You’d never guess. (His actual name is Iuean, but his true name within the lore of the band has yet to be revealed. Hence ‘Mini Grunt’, like the previous bassist but pocket-sized for your convenience.) Opening with an as-yet-untitled song, which throws grappling hooks into your brain, then hit some pant-wettingly sweet bass and guitar in ‘Gravemind’ (2018). After this, the tempo comes down with a ‘nice slow one […] very sexy’, according to Fox. Red lights rise and an outrageously seductive rhythm begins. This is the elegantly named ‘Mutated Meat Mountain Battering Ram’ from an as yet unreleased album, including such seductive lyrics as Fox threatening to “eat your legs and pop your eyes.” Oh, you charming devil.
    **Update: As I am writing this I have been reliably informed that their opening track has been named ‘No Release (Chaos Factory)’. You heard it here first. The time arrives for Incursion’s signature move. Fox declares, “We have come to the very special part of the night where I ask for a volunteer from the crowd.” He presents the volunteer, whose name is Eddie, with a pack of hobnobs. “This pack of hobnobs is special, though. We’re in the apocalypse, there’s no food to be found, and this is the last pack of hobnobs in the world.” The crowd has to fight for them… to the death! Drummer Griff crashes into motion and the audience descends. Poor Eddie fights for his life and his biscuits. About halfway through, Fox adds more fuel to the fire by throwing out two more packs of hobnobs. It’s one of the most novel ways of starting a mosh pit I’ve ever seen. It was effective, but damn, I want to see it in a larger space at peak time. It would be immense. Their final song is the most popular and one of their oldest; ‘Scurge’ (2018). Fox gets the crowd chanting, then, with a voice dripping with poison, screams, “F*cking GO!” Absolute perfection of a live performance (and I swear I’m not saying that just because Fox gave me his guitar pick).
    Incursion left me pumped with adrenalin.
    King Kraken (stage one, 4.20pm) are an ideal follow-up to keep me high. Bring heavy rock from Wales, and are just pure quality. We have a stunningly mellow vocal from powerhouse Mark Donoghue – a voice that could fry butter. We have smoldering guitar from Adam Healey, and the whole band work to keep the crowd engaged. They’re exactly what you crave from a main stage.
    No time to rest, as Ward XVI hit the main stage at 5.40pm. This show has been massively anticipated. The set is elaborate. There is a faux bed, a toy box, interesting details everywhere you look. Beginning with the sound of a small child praying on a stormy night. A woman in a striped jumpsuit kneels at the foot of the bed. Guitarists quietly step onto the stage in costumes that recall Beetlejuice; black and white stripes and tailoring. The woman stands up and begins to sing. She is Psychoberrie, and this is her story.  Ward XVI provide the ultimate metal melodrama. Through a series of songs, telling the tale of a young girl growing up in a life of horror. She is abused by an alcoholic mother and grows up twisted, re-emerging as a dark angel who ultimately murders her parent. We see her finally being incarcerated in an asylum for the criminally insane, wrestling with her demons and embracing her own madness. Their sound is a hybrid of heavy metal and creepy fairground, led by Psychoberrie’s potent alto voice and excellent acting skills. The set is impressive – various grotesque monsters prowl the stage, amongst which is an enormous, nightmarish version of Psychoberrie’s mother herself. The audience is spellbound from start to finish. I would absolutely one hundred percent recommend seeing Ward XVI if you get the chance. I’d definitely see them again, and I hope to be able to see one of their more notoriously gory performances in future.
    It’s 8pm at stage three, and we have a last-minute appearance from Bad Earth. They’ve created a buzz, and for good reason. Their sound is tight with energy and raw aggression from drummer Ren Stefan. They give truly inspired guitar melodies from Rob Murray (bass) and Stephen Coxon (guitar, vocals). Coxon has a gravelly voice which feels somehow familiar – the kind of vocal which has been laced through metal history. Coxon claims that ‘Some say we’re not metal. I don’t give a f*ck, really’. My response is of course they’re metal. They may have stoner rock roots, but their blood is pure.
    Stage three closes with The Darkhorse at 9pm, We have two fantastic unclean vocals that blend amazingly with one another, an enthusiastically topless drummer, tasty guitar and deeply satisfying bass… Due to yet again overlapping. The small crowd is appreciative, and the band are behaving with positivity in the face of adversity. Props to them. Next time I really, really hope they have a better time slot.
    Last but not least, Red Rum have voyaged across the seven seas (all the way from Nottinghamshire) to join us on the main stage at 9.50pm for an evening of adventure, friendship, and general debauchery. They are living proof of the ongoing popularity of pirate metal. Plus, come complete with a keyboard and a mandolin. And what I believe is an electric mandolin.. and some kind of tiny plastic horn. Sometimes I wonder whether I’m at a music festival or in a fever dream. Walking on stage to heroic music they introduce their first song. This is the incredibly jolly ‘We Pirates’, which doesn’t seem to have been recorded.


    *****PHOTO GALLERY HERE*****

    Absolva, Blaze Bayley, Conan, Green Lung, Helfekted, Helgrind, Incinary, Incursion, Izengard, King Kraken, Line of Fire, Psychona, Raging Speedhorn, Red Rum, Titan Breed

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