In the last two years I have seen more bands live than I did in the preceding two decades. Not all of those gigs were local – I travelled up to Glasgow to see Anathema and down to London to see Opeth. Almost all of the bands I’ve seen perform live were metal – it is, after all, the genre of music I like most. It’s not just bands whose output I know and like that I’ll go see, either. If any metal group which looks even remotely interesting is playing in town, I’ll go and watch them perform.
But I’d never been to a metal festival.
When I learnt that both Dark Tranquillity and Arch Enemy were on the bill of this year’s Bloodstock Open Air, I was determined to attend. Bloodstock Open Air (BOA) is a three-day metal festival, which takes place at Catton Hall in Derbyshire each year. And has done since 2005. It’s a relatively small festival – twenty-five signed bands, the same number of unsigned bands, and around 10,000 people attending. There’s also an indoor Bloodstock festival, which has been running since 2001. (Normally, BOA is in July, but this year it’d been postponed until August. Which resulted in the cancellation of the indoor Bloodstock.)
Anyway, Calin, a colleague from work, was also keen to attend. He even had camping gear. We made our plans – bought tickets, booked the days off work. Three of us were going: Calin, his girlfriend Angela, and myself. A few others were interested but, for one reason or another, decided they couldn’t make it. In the weeks leading up to BOA, I was both dreading it and looking forward to it. Seeing favourite bands perform live… but three days of chemical toilets and no showers. When the organisers announced that Scar Symmetry had joined the line-up, I was even more chuffed.
Calin had wanted to arrive early, insisting we needed to do so in order to get a good spot for the tent. I didn’t think we needed to get there until after lunch. The actual festival didn’t start until 4 o’clock, anyway. In the event, we left later than planned, stopped off en route at Morrison’s for beer, water and baby wipes, and arrived on-site around noon. Calin had been right. The field was already full of tents. Fortunately, we managed to find a good spot against the fence. As soon as we had the tent up, we went and checked out the “arena”. This was the site of the main stage, the unsigned bands tent, the beer tents, and various food and merchandising stalls. My first purchase was a Bloodstock cap to keep the sun off my head. Perhaps it wasn’t the best souvenir I could have chosen – several times over the weekend I was mistaken for festival staff because of it. The Metal Market stalls were mostly clothing – and mostly Goth clothing – but one or two did sell band T-shirts. But for me, it’s the music not the fashion. The stalls that sold CDs mostly had prog rock and classic metal. Even among metal fans, it seems my tastes are fringe. I didn’t see anyone sporting the same band T-shirts as myself the entire weekend. In fact, I was asked where I’d bought my Akercocke T-shirt by one of the blokes in the Earache Records stall, as he’d not seen it before. As for my Dark Tranquillity hoodie – referred to by my friends as my “death metal cardigan” – since Dark Tranquillity were on the bill, there were plenty of examples of the garment to be seen throughout the festival.
After a quick wander through the Metal Market, we hit the bar to try out the Bloodstock Ale. It wasn’t bad. And we weren’t the only ones to think that, since it ran out before the evening was finished. Bizarrely, all the paper cups in the bar were emblazoned with the Tuborg logo, and some of the bar staff also wore Tuborg T-shirts… but there was no Tuborg being served. Only Carlsberg.
The acts on the main stage were audible from pretty much anywhere in the arena. Some of the bands we went to watch perform, some we didn’t. Dark Tranquillity and Arch Enemy both put on excellent shows, although the sound could have been better. Lacuna Coil and In Flames gave slick polished performances. Scar Symmetry were… disappointing. Their set was ruined by bad sound, and it was only on the last song that they really shone. Several bands were afflicted by sound problems throughout the festival. The secret heroes of BOA, however, had to be Rise to Addiction, who played a solid set, sounded great, and got the crowd going. I bought their CD, A New Shade of Black for the Soul, afterwards.
Of all the genres of music, you’d have thought metal was well-suited to live performance. It’s aggressive and loud, both qualities more effective live than on a studio album. But a lot of the metal bands I listen to write songs with intricate guitar parts, and the subtlety and sophistication of those can be lost in a bad live mix. But when they riff, when the guitars start to chug, backed by the drummer’s inhumanly fast blastbeats… then it’s an intensely visceral experience, and has a presence no other musical genre can match.
Music festivals are ostensibly about, well, music. That’s what people attend for. But it’s also a three-day party. Getting drunk each day, crashing out in a tent… and, of course, having to steel yourself to use a chemical toilet. The toilets were particularly bad at BOA. I can’t understand why people would vandalise toilets they themselves have to use. It’s an almost literal example of the expression, “you don’t shit in your own backyard”. Several times during the event I was reminded of the Apollo astronaut who dosed himself with Imodium before his mission. He claims he currently holds the world record for distance travelled without going to the toilet – half a million miles. More than once, I wished I’d had the foresight to do the same…
No one expects to eat gourmet food during a music festival. While BOA was well served by food vendors, they sold pretty basic fare. I tried most of them. The fish and chips weren’t bad. The Mexican wrap, well, wasn’t – they left the tortilla open on a paper plate. Most of its contents ended up on the grass. The rice in the Chinese curry was like eating cavity wall insulation. The burgers… For an extra 50p, you could have a cheeseburger, the same as an ordinary burger but with a slice of processed cheese added. One food vendor, fortunately, did sell real food. It was just a small trailer, but it sold fresh-baked baguette and panini sandwiches. I did try their giant chocolate muffin for breakfast on the Saturday morning, but it was too much to eat in one go. There was also a coffee and doughnuts trailer. Calin bought Angela some doughnuts, and tried to wangle an extra one, on the perfectly reasonably assumption that those not sold would be thrown away. But the bloke behind the counter was having none of it. We Brits still haven’t got this customer service thing sussed, and it’s about time we did.
Toilets aside, the camping was fun. I’d bought a sleeping bag with a built-in air mattress from Argos the week before, and it was very comfortable. If there was a lot of noise at night – and there was always someone playing metal on a stereo somewhere – I never noticed it. One large boisterous group blocked one of the routes to the arena throughout the Saturday, and prevented people with cans of beer passing until they’d taken a swig. But it was all harmless fun.
On the Friday morning, the three of us tried walking to the nearest village, Walton-on-Trent. After a mile and a half, we decided to turn back. My ankles were killing me. Stupidly, I’d bought new boots for the festival only a couple of days before. I’ll know better next time. Calin took Angela to the village in the car, while I stayed to watch Scar Symmetry. Angela was not enjoying the camping as much as Calin and myself, although she’s a big fan of fellow countrymen Lacuna Coil. Since they were the last act on the Friday night, it was agreed she’d leave the next day, while Calin and I would stay to the end.
Early afternoon on the Saturday, we drove Angela to Tamworth railway station. The plan was to find somewhere in town to get a decent lunch – definitely needed after two days of bad burgers and hot dogs. But I was wearing wellies as they were more comfortable than my boots, and we both probably smelled a bit ripe… So we decided to go to the White Swan, the pub in Walton-on-Trent, which Calin and Angela had eaten at the day before. On the way back, we didn’t both with the GPS… and subseuqently got lost, and ended up driving down some narrow pot-holed roads that probably last saw traffic in the 1930s. The White Swan proved a surprise – excellent food and some nice beer. And full of people from BOA. So we didn’t feel, or smell, out of place.
By the time we got back to the festival, it was chucking it down. I no longer felt a bit daft walking around in wellies. We sat out some of the worst of the weather in the tent, finishing off the tinned lager we’d brought with us. Occasionally, we made forays into the arena to see what was happening. At one point, during Dream Evil’s set, I heard the singer say his band didn’t play “Swedish peasant metal; our songs have meaning”. And this from the band who wrote ‘The Book of Heavy Metal’, featuring such classic lines as “In life – I have no religion / Besides the heavy metal gods / Wear nothing but black skin tight leather / My skin’s clad with metal studs”…
Several times during the afternoon, Calin and I considered leaving because of the weather. But I was keen to see Arch Enemy, and Calin to see In Flames. So we stuck it out. It was the right decision. The rain stopped shortly before Arch Enemy took to the stage, and both bands’ performances were worth the wait.
The next morning, we were up early, took down the tent, piled everything into the car, and left. I was home by 9:30. The first thing I did was spend half an hour on the toilet. Then I had a shower. Afterwards, I felt human again.
Several times during BOA, I found myself wanting it to be over. The festival was occasionally uncomfortable – and three days without a shower or access to a decent toilet is not much fun. The music, however, more than made up for it. I’m glad it’s over, but I’m also very glad I went. It was certainly an experience, and I learnt some valuable lessons:
- don’t wear new boots at a music festival
- buy a hat – it keeps off the sun and the rain, and also hides your manky hair
- baby wipes are genius
- a giant chocolate muffin is not the breakfast of champions
- trying to carry three large coffees in thin paper cups is foolish, dangerous and futile
- even if it’s the middle of a heat-wave, take wellies anyway
- there’s a 1000% markup on slices of processed cheese