Review by Lydia Fitzer with Photography by Rob Hadley

“Welcome aboard the Hard Rock Hell experience! This weekend’s lineup will feature the most helpful staff you’ve ever met, flawless organisation, a plethora of bands who would be worth the ticket price on their own, and more hair than you could possibly imagine. We’d tell you where the exits are, but why would you ever want to leave? Sit back, fasten your seatbelts and enjoy the ride, you beautiful headbanging weirdos.”

Saturday

The festival started at 1pm on Saturday, but things really kicked off at about 4pm with the arrival of Ballsdeep to the main stage. They describe themselves as ‘Aggressive not Progressive’, and this is certainly true. If you want raw metal-rage power, these guys deliver. Rich Beresford smashes out some pretty good growls on vocals, and Will Harris has boundless passion on bass.

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Next up on the main stage was Monument. True to their name, they were ready to be admired. Think flowing hair, spike-studded jackets and a topless bassist (Daniel Bate) who went down a storm with the ladies. Monument clearly don’t know the meaning of the word ‘subtle’. Does every song have at least one enormous guitar solo? Perhaps. It is fabulous? Absolutely! They put on a brilliant show with tons of stage action – no more than in their first EP and final number of the set, ‘Rock the Night’. The performance as a whole was quite rousing. This was their first UK show in two years, and I’d like to be one of the first to give them a huge ‘Welcome back!’ They mentioned that they’re dropping a new album in a couple of months and planning a UK Tour. You should definitely go.

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At 6.30pm the home crowd had the immense pleasure of welcoming Birmingham band Hærken to the main stage. They bringeth ye olde Death Metal! What they slightly lack in movement they more than make up for in theatre. They enter, cloaked and hooded, to a choral intro. They carry a censer (used to burn incense in religious ceremonies). The music becomes sacred. When the first guitar notes crash down, the crowd explodes!

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Hailing from San Diego, The Dread Crew of Oddwood were a highlight of Saturday. They play their own brand of Acoustic Pirate Metal, or ‘Heavy Mahogany’. If you’re unfamiliar with the band, watching them arrive on stage is quite an experience. At first you think, Ooh, a pirate. With a cello. Then, A whistle? And then, An accordion?? Wait, is that a f*cking mandolin?! Oh my life, I need to get me one of those feathered hats. Just like that, you’re sat in the palm of their hand. Uncork your finest rum and prepare to jig!

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The crew spent the entire show in pirate character and gave a hell of an immersive performance, complete with leaps and booger jokes. Their music is light and light-hearted, especially in comparison to earlier acts. It’s pure good mood food.

“You know what follows really nicely after a drinking song?” asked Captain Wolfbeard O’Brady. “Another drinking song!” Boy knows how to please a crowd. They launched into ‘Raise Your Pints’, featuring some skilful whistle fingerwork from Quartermaster Stark Cordwain. The audience had the time of their lives. The song ‘Heavy Mahogany’ proved, if ever there was doubt, that jiggy headbangs are a thing. It also created the best-natured mosh pit I’ve ever seen.

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To wrap up the show, The Dread Crew whipped out a hilariously unexpected cover of George Micheal’s ‘Careless Whisper’, ensuring they’ll be seared into the memory of the audience forever. The cries for an encore went tragically unanswered. This is their first ever UK Tour, and I personally demand that they repay us for the absence of encore with many more UK Tours in the future.

(Side note: To the guy in the audience dressed as a wizard, ten points to Slytherin!)

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Evil Scarecrow kicked off at 9.10pm. There’s a sense of; We have smoke machines. We’re kind of a big deal. Indeed they are – they’ve been playing HRH for years, and are one of the most anticipated acts. They walked out to Scorpions’ ‘Rock You Like a Hurricane’. Honestly, I’m not sure how effective it is to enter to another band’s song – especially one as iconic as this – but it seemed to go down well.

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Make no mistake, though – Evil Scarecrow gave an unbelievable show. If you’ve never seen them live, you need to. Book your ticket now. Right now. Out of all the acts of the weekend, Evil Scarecrow had by far the most physical entertainment, the most audience participation, the most showmanship, and undeniably the most props. Think crowdsurfing, astronauts, demon robots and UFOs on stage.

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Meanwhile on Stage 2, Fury were seriously working the room. They have years of experience and it shows. They deliver what they term ‘Universe Spanning Fantasycore’, and I for one am ready for it! Their most popular song, ‘Lost in Space’, came early to a huge reception. Their sound is classic and distinctive, with a gorgeous smooth vocal from Julian Jenkins. Fury are a quality act, and could probably have carried a spot on the main stage.

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It was 10.40pm, and at last the hour for Alestorm to take the stage had arrived. Despite the amazing quality of the other acts, a huge number of people were at HRH just because of them. It felt like every metalhead in the UK was in attendance. Cheers as the giant inflaable duck was brought onto the stage – a legend in its own right. The chanting began; “Alestorm, Alestorm, Alestorm!” The crowd pressed forward – this is what they’d waited for all day. Alestorm burst out of the wings to a thunderous reception and launched straight into ‘Keelhauled’. The crowd was manic!

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In case you’ve never heard of Alestorm, they’re a Pirate Metal band. Heavy, hard, bouncy, brazen, and completely addictive. In live shows, they have bass strong enough to send you into cardiac arrest. Christopher Bowes has the most piratey vocals you could dream of! Seeing them live for the first time, I also noticed his eyes. He has that electric, almost frightening charisma that you see in the eyes of some of the greatest stage performers. I’d love to see him exaggerate it more.

It was an awesome show, although after the more physical performances of Monument and Evil Scarecrow I was slightly disappointed that Alestorm didn’t do more gambolling about like peg-legged kittens. Still, you can’t have everything!

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Partway through the show, a guy called Phil (Hi Phil!) joined the band on stage and downed two bottles of beer at once to the tune of ‘What shall we do with a drunken sailor?’ He stayed for the cover of Taio Cruz’s ‘Hangover’ and bust a sweet rap! If you haven’t heard Alestorm’s cover of ‘Hangover’, you really should. It will leave you like, Taio who? It might actually be one of the most enjoyable covers of all time.

‘Captain Morgan’s Revenge’ went down delightfully with the crowd. I’m afraid I cannot fully disclose how this song was celebrated as it would not be appropriate on this platform, but I can confirm that it involved a carnal violation of the Bananas in Pyjamas.

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There was one song that everyone wanted from the encore, and that song was ‘Drink’. The mosh pit turned into a human tornado, and the whole room was screaming “We are here to drink your beer!” They closed the show by expressing their fondest sentiments to the adoring crowd with ‘F*cked with an Anchor’. F*ck you too, Alestorm! (It’s ok, it’s Pirate for ‘Love you’!) The crowd finally staggered away into the night, “with a bottle of rum and a yo-ho-ho!”

Sunday

The Sunday lineup looked promising. The main stage kicked off at 3pm with Fire Red Empress. Jennifer Diehl knows how to fill a stage, but I would have liked to see more movement from the rest of the band. They have a striking sound fronted by a distinctive female alto, although I felt that her screams were a bit strained at times. This could have been to do with the setup though – her mic was on the quiet side, and she might have been trying to compensate.

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If you attended HRH on Sunday and strayed away from the main stage at around 3pm, you might have come across Vice. They were tucked away on the third stage like a skittle in a bowl of M&Ms. Genuinely they were the highlight of Sunday afternoon, and a high point of the whole festival. While acts on the main stage were struggling to get a rise from the sleepy Sunday crowd, Vice’s audience were bouncing as if it was Saturday night prime time. They’ve only had their current lineup for about a year. Despite this, their sound is well formed and they have delightful chemistry.

Vice Photo Courtesy of SD Photography - Simon Dunkerley

Vice Photo Courtesy of SD Photography – Simon Dunkerley

I cannot recommend them enough. They have natural charisma by the galleon, and developed a rapport with the audience faster than you’d think possible. They obviously have heaps of fun on stage, and it’s infectious! I went away with a bubble of joy which lasted for the rest of the day. We were treated to some next-level guitar skills from Tom Atkinson. A couple of audience members went as far as to say that he was “the best guitarist of the weekend”. That’s high praise considering the calibre of talent! Not to be outdone, we also had some sterling bass work from their newest member Aiden Lord (I’m a sucker for a good fingerpicked solo). Connor Summers gave glorious force on the drums… Basically, they’re all rad, and you should support them. You’re welcome in advance!

Vice Photo Courtesy of SD Photography - Simon Dunkerley

Vice Photo Courtesy of SD Photography – Simon Dunkerley

I went back to the main stage at 4.30 in fine fettle and ready to be impressed. Kaine didn’t disappoint. Their sound is prime headbanging fodder. They performed with enthusiasm, with just the right amount of showboating from the talented Mr. Bassist (Stephen Ellis). It was refreshing to see the drummer (Chris Mackinnon) take over lead vocals for ‘Death by Snu Snu’, a song he’d written. The Futurama reference was much appreciated!

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Power Quest arrived at 6pm and brought some world-class noises to many eardrums. The bass rolled like thunder, Ashley Edison’s vocals were flawless, and the guitarists were spewing their stage presence all over the place. Power Quest have historical links to Dragonforce. While their style does somewhat recall Dragonforce, there’s no denying that they have an identity all their own. One minute you feel like you’re listening to the lovechild of Dragonforce and The Darkness, the next you’re suddenly getting 100x hardcore Meatloaf!

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Onto sadder subjects. At the second stage at 6.15pm, the Birmingham boys of Torous gave their last ever show. Before the music, you could make out a mohawk silhouetted in the mist. I reckon this image captures the spirit of Torous perfectly. You feel a young and potent aggression in their sound. When they played one of their best-known songs, ‘Colours’, Marc Malone took on a more vicious vocal style. The song is about not being afraid to be yourself, and it’s assertive as the point of a blade. They may be quitting live shows for, as Malone said, “the best possible reason”, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be missed. The audience continued to cheer long after they had gone.

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Elvenking graced the main stage at 7.15. They pair a heavy sound with ethereal electric violin, and sport a wicked dark-elven aesthetic. Having six members gives the music a rich depth. The three vocalists singing together sounded positively regal, and their enthusiasm was catching. Damnagoras (lead vocals) is especially excitable – he couldn’t seem to stop himself breaking into air guitar!

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The respect the audience had for the band, verging on worship, was tangible. The audience were an ‘Elven Legion’, and they were there to offer homage to their Highness, the Elvenking. Damnagoras proclaimed, “We still stand for the outcast! They call us crazy, they call us stupid, but f*ck ‘em all. We’re proud to be… LOSERS!” They launched into the song ‘Losers’ to bellows of approval from the crowd, and left a feeling of kinship.

Memoriam were up next, with the growliest of death metal. If you’re looking for something extremely loud to thrash around to in unintelligible rage while you think of the inhumanity of war, this will be perfect for you.

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The award for world’s happiest, most enthusiastic bassist goes to… *Drumroll*… Matthew Ward of Attica Rage! This gig was a sad one, as it was Stevie Bell’s (guitarist) last show. However, it was a great atmosphere for Bell to leave on and his skills were truly celebrated, especially in ‘Overkill’. I hope he felt the love!

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Finally, Grave Digger. The last, but by no means least, act of the festival. They were formed in 1980 in Germany, and this was their first Birmingham gig. Some fans knew every word to every song. They had waited years for this moment.

A hooded skeleton appeared and the crowd lost all control. As the bass rattled my ribcage, I realised that I want to be Chris Boltendahl when I grow up. Who doesn’t? Unless you want to be Axel Ritt of course, who is an absolute Metal God.

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Boltendahl has the voice of a demon, but not while he sang ‘The Ballad of Mary’. Everyone was quiet for this piece. It was stunning, delicate and moving. No-one was so moved as a group of Scots in the crowd. They swayed, holding a Scottish flag aloft. No encore was so strongly demanded all weekend.

“Birmingham, are you totally sure you want more?” Are you kidding? Yes! A thousand times yes!

Their last song was ‘Heavy Metal Breakdown’. It embodied the spirit of the HRH experience, and it was a hell of a ride. Grave Digger milked their finale for all it was worth, and it was perfect. As they took their final bow, the crowd was trembling at the core.

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HRH Metal was a wonderful experience. It was seamlessly organised – I still haven’t fully processed the fact that everything started and finished on time. The event could have used a considerably larger venue, but don’t let that put you off buying tickets in the future. It may have been bursting at the brickwork, but the crowd was so friendly that it never felt claustrophobic. I can’t give enough of a shout-out to the event organisers and staff for running the festival so well. You need to go to the next one!

See the complete photoset from the whole weekend here. 172 awesome shots!

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2 Responses to “HRH Metal at The O2 Academy, Birmingham, UK – 17th + 18th February 2018”

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