|HRH Metal – Birmingham, O2 Academy – 11 February 2017|
|Written by Rich Hobson|
|Monday, 20 February 2017 19:53|
No strangers to the boutique music festival, the folks at Hard Rock Hell (HRH) have spent the past decade amassing an impressive portfolio of events throughout the calendar year to challenge the idea that festivals are just for the summer months. Shrewd line-up stacking, event spacing and specialist genre dedication has helped the brand to evolve from its initial flagship, November’s Hard Rock Hell festival, to include the likes of Hammerfest, HRH AOR, HRH Prog and HRH Blues. But, for all of the company’s impressive events covering very subgenre and outlying bracket of the metal genre, somehow they hadn’t got a specialist Metal event. Where better to go then, than to Birmingham – the birthplace of Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Napalm Death and a thousand lesser bands you’ve likely never heard of – to set up the inaugural HRH Metal event, a festival created solely for the metal bands in (and out of) the UK.
Hosted at Birmingham’s O2 Academy and using all three rooms of the establishment, the line-up proffered an extensive list of bands from the metal canon across two-days of ear-splitting mayhem. Unfortunately, “ear-splitting mayhem” also accurately describes my health for the preceding week and as such, it’s not until the early afternoon that my Über Rocking contingent arrive at the event.
It’s not all misfortune though; our opening act of the festival are the mighty Red Rum, HRH veterans who we’ve caught before at one of these events and who proved to be a highlight of the whole weekend. From the opening notes of their set, Red Rum are a band who pin their style to their (frilly) sleeves. If the name wasn’t already a dead giveaway, this band ply the boards of pirate metal and they have many a shanty to play. Much has changed since Red Rum played Hammerfest 2015. Not only have the band since released a debut album (the excellent ‘Booze and Glory’), but the level of technical accomplishment and showmanship has increased to the level that they could compete with one of this year’s Hammerfest headliners, Alestorm.
One of the biggest bonuses to playing the main room of the event (outside of the bigger stage and better sound system) is that every band booked for the main stage is afforded a hefty 40-minute plus set. With a little under 50 minutes for their own set, Red Rum blast through choice cuts from the album and its preceding EP, ‘With Gods By Our Side’. It’s not long before the festival is caught up in the band’s boozy ways, bouncing along to the likes of ‘Booze and Glory’ and ‘Drenched in Ale’. A combination of power metal epics, celtic-ish instrumentals that nod their head towards the battle metal contingent, and heavy roar-alongs like ‘Dragged out with the Tide’ show that Red Rum have many more dimensions than “a band that sing about pirates”. A huge crowd reaction for ‘They’re Taking the Hobbits to Isengard’ and ‘Make Port Drink Port’ proves that the band already has a few crowd favourites in their repertoire and could be set for greater success when they release their second album later this year.
Opting to stick with the main room for the duration of the day (reasoning – correctly, it later transpires – that the room will fill heavily for headliner Skindred), next up on the main stage are thrashers Savage Messiah. Now celebrating their tenth year as a band, Savage Messiah have built up a steady fan-base over the past decade, as well as amassing a discography which draws heavily on the heady days of the 80s metal scene (sans the hair products). As such, the band relies on the hallowed power of the riff to power through their own hour-long set.
Sounding somewhere between Metallica, Judas Priest and Slayer, Savage Messiah are the quintessential metal band. Riffs march with imperious authority while solos are pitched with arena aspiration, lending the band a sense of prestige worthy of a headline act. In crowd responds in the most fitting way a metalhead can; they bang their heads, roar along where possible and crash about in a denim-clad destruction derby.Though not necessarily the most original band to take to the stage for the festival’s first day, Savage Messiah possess a clear and unabashed love for heavy metal. As they so often say, if it ain’t broke...
With the five-decade anniversary of Black Sabbath’s ‘Black Sabbath’ fast approaching, it’s fair to say that the metal genre has never been so expansive. In five decades the genre has evolved into everything from death to grindcore, Viking metal to cyberpunk. Therefore, it makes sense that HRH Metal should build its line-up with a diverse range of acts and styles. What makes slightly less sense, is the run-up of metal acts leading to proto-industrial/rap-rock/nu-metal pioneers Senser. Whilst Skindred might pull off a litany of stylistic changes throughout their set with total ease, the band are bolstered by a metal core that marks them as unassailably metal. Senser on the other hand, thrive in the left-field, stranger territories of the genre.
Pre-dating nigh on every other band that has since adopted their style, Senser are something of an institution to the metal scene. Yet, following on from two straight-up heavy metal bands (each with their own subgenre flavouring), the band meet mixed reception in the room. To the initiated, the band are the best thing since sliced bread, pioneers given a platform to cerebrally challenge the notions of what is and isn’t metal. To the non-converted, they are a throwback to one of metal’s darkest flirtations, one that almost derailed the whole genre. Somewhere in the middle of those two camps, I decide to enjoy the first half hour of the band’s eclectic sounding set before braving the Birmingham streets to grab lunch across town at a popular street-food pop-up. You can’t win em all.
Frigid temperatures and a longer-than-expected trek across town offer the first disappointment for our HRH Metal experience – we went and missed bloody Raging Speedhorn. Walking in literally as the final dissonant howl blares from the speakers, the state of the Academy main room suggests that we missed something very special and chaotic. Rather than fall into a state of despondency, we opt to march our way through to prime position for the first day’s sub-headlining act, Evile.
It has been almost twelve months since I re-connected to Evile, one of the best thrash bands of my youth and – at one point – the highest hope for a thrash metal revival scene that was thriving at the end of the 00s. That first moment of a rekindled musical relationship told me two things. One, that the band’s classic sound still had a vintage feel that, rooted in the 80s as it was, was timeless. Second, that the band I followed fervently from 2007 to 2010, when I entered the punk wastes and lost touch with 70% of the metal bands I previously loved, had evolved into something much bigger.
Evile are now seasoned warriors of the metal scene. As such, their set flies heavy and hard, the band’s characteristic Gatling-gun approach to riffs doing its level best to turn the venue into a seething mass of banging heads and tangled hair. Bigger and badder than they’ve ever been, Evile squeeze every last drip of energy from their performance. The band’s more recent releases get a strong outing and there is an undeniable sense that headlining the main room of the academy is the exact stage this band could always thrive in from day one. Now, a decade on since the band released the back-to-basics thrashterpiece ‘Enter The Grave’, Evile aren’t wasting any time in turning the burner on full as they tear their way up the ranks.
The appointment of Skindred as the headliner for the first day of the inaugural HRH Metal festival couldn’t be any better. Whilst over the past 17 years many a band has appeared on the metal scene, some of whom even rising to the point of being able to fill arenas and headline the likes of Download Festival, no UK metal band retains quite the same level of ingenuity or potential as Skindred. A pre-set playlist heralds the band’s approach to the stage, pulling out the likes of ACDC’s ‘Thunderstruck’, Queen’s ‘’Don’t Stop Me Now’, Ramones’ ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ and John Williams’ “Imperial March” to ensure that even before they’ve played a note the crowd are rabid with anticipation.
Not that they need a primer. Right from the off, the riffs are huge, opener ‘Under Attack’ turning the whole room into a seething mass of moving bodies. Skindred’s flirtation with genres outside of the metal canon (including dance and reggae) would normally illicit a “that’s not metal!” response from the scene’s elitist hardcore. Yet in the face of such an uncompromisingly huge aural assault, even the hardcore can only respond with dropped jaws and a “you do whatever you like”.
Frontman Benji Webbe is very much a key ingredient in the live success of the band. By taking their already enormous sound and projecting it even further by berating and cajoling every single member of the audience until they reach fever pitch, Benji guarantees that nobody is left as a passive onlooker when his band play. Almost two decades worth of material has given Skindred a veritable treasure trove of anthems, putting them on a level peg with some of the genre’s biggest giants. ‘Rat Race’ is an enormous follow-up to ‘Under Attack’, which in turn is chased by the seismic sing-along for ‘Doom Riff’ and a bounding rendition of ‘Ninja’. Breaks in the action between songs are less about giving the crowd a breather, as getting the crowd back into the habit of losing their minds at every opportunity.
“This is the best drinking song EVER” declares Benji, before playing the intro to House of Pain’s hip-hop anthem ‘Jump Around’. The crowd respond exactly how you’d expect them to – they jump around. But a couple thousand pogoing, headbanging metalheads isn’t a rare sight at a Skindred show – it’s the reality. ‘Sound the Siren’ segues into ‘Pressure’ and the room erupts into a roar of approval. Skindred do big choruses just as well as any arena sized metal band has done before them and the sing-along to the likes of ‘Pressure’ and ‘Nobody’ proves they can inspire plenty of excitement on a grand scale. Benji Webbe isn’t just a pantomime front-man, however.
While he might promote rabid fan reactions, his music and speeches between songs are made purely to promote unity. It doesn’t matter if he is denouncing homophobia, racism, transphobia or just bashing the soulless music of Justin Bieber (whose song ‘Sorry’ gets an airing while Benji demands the crowd sing “fuck this shit” the whole time), Benji is outspoken but engaging throughout the show. The song ‘Saying It Now’ is introduced with a contextual story; Benji tells the audience he wrote the song after missing the opportunity to connect with a friend back home, who passed away while Benji was unable to visit.
Promoting community spirit whilst still demanding everybody have a good time, Skindred are the kind of idols the metal scene needs. Fiercely independent and unique, the band are recognisable now as one of the most esteemed and exciting bands in the UK. Today, Skindred headline the O2 Academy of Birmingham. In five years’ time? Maybe Wembley; they wouldn’t be the first band to make such a jump and you can bet they’ve got the show to ensure the night is legendary. Headlining the first night of a brand new metal festival, there could be no better band to represent both the present and future of the metal scene.
HRH Metal returns to the O2 Academy on 17/18 February 2018. Tickets are already selling fast.
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