Live Review: Hammerfest 13 - Day One - O2 Academy, Birmingham
12th February 2022
Review: Paul Hutchings
Photos: Damian John
It’s never going to be sunny in Birmingham in February. Memories of my last visit to the 02 Academy just over a month before the pandemic hit the UK centre on how cold it was. It might not have been as bitter this time around but the biting wind that sweeps along Bristol Street still has the same teeth. Luckily, the queue was quite modest and having negotiated the media pass it was into the labryinth of the building for a day of metal.
Hammerfest draws on the harder elements of the Hard Rock Hell franchise, which has expanded from its early days on the North Wales coastline to multiple events across the UK in venues big and small. Ridiculed in some metal quarters due to its relentless promotion and competitions to ‘win’ tickets, it is still a fun event with a range of music to suit all tastes. Like many events, the line up has been something of a movable feast in the lead in, with the loss of headliners Lordi and Unleashed followed by the more damaging last-minute withdrawals of Napalm Death and Venom Inc a mere 48 hours before the start. The undercard also suffered with a few urgent switches. Regardless of your view, this is a major showcase for smaller bands and an opportunity for the bigger beasts to cement their status.
A healthy crowd gathered in the semi-darkness of the second stage for the opening act, Son of Boar. The Bradford five piece had a decent 2021 with their debut self-titled album and a slot on the New Blood Stage at Bloodstock. They rumbled their thunderous blend of stoner sludge and held the room captivated for their entire set. Huge riffs cascaded down, the dual guitar work focused on deep driving power, allowing the Gaz Bates’ bass rumbled to shake the buildings very foundations. It’s clear that Son of Boar are very much about the riff and the pounding of tracks like ‘Snakes and Daggers’ gave us that in spades. Looking like the scrofulous version of Phil Campbell and the Bastard Sons, Son of Boar were in no mood to make up numbers. Vocalist Luke Oliver roared and prowled, and a very impressed audience were left wondering how their hearing would last for the rest of the day.
I hadn’t seen Midlands trio Master Charger since HRH Stoner v Doom in October 2019 and in the meantime the band described as possessing a ‘Satanic Blues Rumble’ have released their impressive third full length, ‘Origin of the Lugubrious’ and become one of the new DC Sound Attack stable. Master Charger ensured that no one was leaving by delivering an enormous set that thundered deep into the very soul. This band have improved massively since that October event, adding even more power and control. The distortion and depth that vocalist, guitarist, and beard wearer John James brings was bottomless, described by Richard Lee Mears (drummer of King Kraken) as the “musical equivalent of the Mariana Trench”. James is a masterful frontman, dedicating a song to his wife on her birthday, and he can also summon up a vocal roar to wake the dead. James is ably supported by bassist Dave Hayes, resplendent in his ‘Caress of Steel’ shirt and drummer John Kirk. Together they delivered a set drawn from their discography as well as a new track which slotted right in. Closing with a crushing ‘Death Trails’, Master Charger reminded us why the gnarly veterans remain a must see band at events like this.
Traversing to the main stage which the signs in the hallway informed me holds 3009 people, London’s Enquire Within had the honour of opening things up. The band have been around for a few years and play energetic metalcore with a thrash blend. Frontman Jacob Waller continued the bearded frontman theme, and if there was ever a remake of the Wizard of Oz then he’s a shoo-in for the lion! Waller brings the cleans whilst guitarist Daniel Lewin combined lead duties with the gruffer screams. Having released their sophomore album ‘ReBirth’ in 2021, there was a confidence in the band’s delivery, bassist Erin Ahmet (also the band’s producer), rhythm guitarist Amelia White and drummer Henry Waller gelling neatly. A strong reaction from those who had arrived early was encouraged with the promise of a free t-shirt for the most energetic crowd member (although Jacob’s pitiful throw to the photo pit suggested few really deserved it) and whilst I understood the band suffered some technical issues later in their set, another of the Off Yer Rocka roster delivered.
I’d reviewed the latest release by London’s Dethonator in these pages in 2020 and although my memory of ‘Race Against the Sun Part Two’ was a little hazy it was enough to get my backside back up to the second stage to catch part of a solid set. The band have been around for over a decade as Dethonator and their brand of progressive thrash metal is certainly welcome to this palate. Energetic and composed, the band were on point, aided by a decent sound (something which hampered the main stage for large parts of the day) the songs sounded strong. A final flourish saw Dethonator receive a decent and deserved ovation.
Called in at the last minute, Stoke-on-Trent’s Hellfekted have never been ones to back down from a challenge. The band’s star has been in the upwards trajectory for the past 18 months or so, with their fine debut ‘Woe to The Kingdom of Blood’ providing a platform for the band to move forward. This was my first opportunity to see new recruits Becky Webster and Matt Faulks alongside Liam Stubbs and bassist Chris Brownrigg. Hellfekted started at pace and didn’t let up on iota. Despite the rather static crowd, who appeared to be a cross section of curious, appalled and occasionally interested, Stubbs maintains the energy regardless. The unit looked tight, Webster adding her vicious guitar whilst Faulks drumming has the confidence of a man who has done triple duty with Blacklist and Thrasherwolf in recent times. Visceral blackened thrash rages for the 40-minute set and no one was arguing that this wasn’t good stuff by the end of the set.
The worst clash of the day meant that I was unable to catch all the Helgrind set. That didn’t really matter, for the 20 or so minutes I did see was a bruising, sonic assault which drew a very sizeable crowd. Despite being a guitarist short, there was no shortage of power from the stage as bassist and vocalist Paula Nelson demonstrated the band’s quality with an imperious commanding performance. Their blistering thrash has been centre of attention with the recent re-release of 2017’s ‘Insurrection’ and the thrashing attack finally brought some minor floor action as the first pits of the day opened up. The band are currently playing dates around the country and well worth checking out.
After a double thrash assault, it was a return to traditional UK heavy metal, and few do it better than Absolva. The Manchester quartet have just released a career best album called ‘Fire In the Sky’ and rightly plundered several tracks from it in an enjoyable and ferocious set which was slightly marred by an awful mix which did impact on the sound at times. In Chris Apppleton, Absolva have a natural frontman whose engagement with the crowd was warming to see. From the opening strains of ‘Demon Tormentor’ to the closing bars of ‘Refuse to Die’, Absolva pushed the pedal to the floor and maintained the tempo. A good-sized crowd roared their approval.
A quick dash to stage two again to catch a few songs from old school thrashers Solitary proved worth the effort. How this band aren’t bigger still surprises me, because the Preston collective are one of the most entertaining thrash artists in the UK. 2019’s triumphant Bloodstock set and the frenetic ‘The Truth Behind the Lies’ release in 2020 showed the talent and another powerful showing from what I saw reinforced the view that Solitary should be bigger. At least those who made the effort to see them appreciated it and offered full support.
One of the reasons that Solitary had fewer souls watching them than might have been expected was because of Blaze Bayley and Absolva performing a set of Iron Maiden songs drawn from the frontman’s tenure with the British giants. If you arent familiar with this period of Maiden’s work, then approach with caution because a lot of it isn’t that good. At least live Blaze was able to bring songs such as ‘The Clansman’, ‘Man on the Edge’ and ‘The Angel and the Gambler’ to more life than they are on record. As a frontman, Blaze is amiable and a true gentleman, his between song chats brief but enjoyable. The room was the busiest it would be all day which kind of sums up metal fans relationship with nostalgia, and there was much singing to songs that are still in parts excellent. Absolva gave the music their own stamp, whilst maintaining their high quality, and by the time ‘Futureal concluded’, it could only be admiration that one held for this stalwart of the British metal scene.
Somewhat confusingly, Ashen Crown were playing on the third stage. Another band to sign to the DC Sound Attack roster, Ashen Crown are a fierce, aggressive, and dangerously compelling outfit whose intensity is only matched by the sheer punishing power they produce. The third stage is a small room buried in the bowels of the venue, and the large numbers trying to get in demonstrated that they should have been much higher placed. Punishing riffs incited some feral pit action, and new track ‘The Feast’ sounded huge. I’ve flagged Ashen Crown as ones to watch before, and there was nothing here to change that view.
Heading upstairs to the seats and an opportunity to take the weight off the aching feet, there was little opportunity to clam the senses as the mighty Conan launched into an assault on the senses, synapses popping at the sheer force of their delivery. I’ve seen Conan many times and their brutal battery of sonic soundwaves never waivers. An 11-track set list hammered hard and heavy, the balcony shuddering with the vibration. You either get Conan or you don’t. For those nodding their heads in unison, this was simply an opportunity to immerse yourself. It was massive.
One of the hardest working bands in the UK, metal legends Raging Speedhorn are always playing live somewhere. They are no strangers to Hammerfest or HRH, and as usual the carnage on the floor for their punishing set was the heaviest it got. There’s something about Speedhorn that makes meek and mild mortals suddenly lose their shit and here was no exception as ‘Doomo Machine’ saw a sudden surge to the front. Drawing deep from their catalogue Speedhorn delivered an 18-song set list that saw tracks from their 20 year old debut as well as seven from their 2020 ‘Hard to Kill’. At times things threatened to come off the rails and there was a lack of cohesion toward the latter part of the set. Dan Cook’s energy is infectious, inciting, cajoling, and remonstrating with the audience, whilst co-vocalist Frank Regan picks his moments. Burningly heavy, Speedhorn is more than a match for most.
Disappointingly I couldn’t catch Barbarian Hermit due to their clash with Speedhorn, so they go on the list for next time. It was left to Midlands old school death metal outfit Memoriam to close the day out. Hampered by some early technical problems which impacted on the sound quite hugely, Karl Willets, Spike T Smith, Scott Fairfax, and Frank Healy hit hard with ‘Undefeated’ the first of 11 songs. Memoriam’s songs are bludgeoning, and tracks such as ‘Onward into Battle’ and ‘War Rages On’ still cause cranial damage. A brief but oh so apt social commentary by Willets introduced ‘Austerity Kills’, and the band then piledrove through the rest of the set before a bruising ‘Flatline’ closed their set. The crowd had thinned hugely which was disappointing for the band. Overall, a decent first day.