The big review: Bloodstock 2023

Welly boots, wild weather and neck-wreckage: Catton Hall once again hosts the heaviest weekend of the summer. This is Bloodstock Open Air 2023…

The big review: Bloodstock 2023
Sam Law
Stu Garneys

Thank the Metal Gods; it’s good to be back at Bloodstock. After last year’s furnace-like heat, Derbyshire’s Catton Hall is the scene of some more conventionally ‘British summertime’ weather in 2023, starting sunny and growing progressively more sodden, but there’s no damping the atmosphere on this most metallic weekend of the year. With Megadeth, Sepultura and Tom G Warrior’s Triptykon revisiting Celtic Frost, there are plenty of heavy legends in attendance, but there’s a continued push towards the future with Killswitch Engage getting a first UK festival headline, while Meshuggah smash the Saturday night slot.

It’s not all smooth sailing – a last-minute cancellation by German power-metal legends Helloween sees KK’s Priest drafted in last-minute – but with everything from the yearly bin-jousting, heavy metal exercise sessions and Viking battle re-enactments and all the usual foolishness, there’s simply too much going down to be anything other than pumped.

With a jam-packed timetable shoved into our battle-jacket, and a belly full of beer, we dove headlong into the good, the bad and the ugly of BOA 2023...

Frozen SoulS.O.P.H.I.E Stage

Anyone looking to be eased gently into this weekend’s shenanigans is in for a rude awakening courtesy of Frozen Soul. Despite a surprisingly early-doors set-time at Thursday dinnertime, the chuggy Texan death metallers take no prisoners, knocking punters down faster than tents are going up with bowel-loosening churn and spirit-caving crunch. As spine-chilling as songs like Arctic Stranglehold and Crypt Of Ice may be, it turns out they’re pretty great for working up a sweat. Nothing better than to start as one means to go on...


As fascinating a proposition as SKYND are, they’re not really suited to Bloodstock’s Thursday S.O.P.H.I.E. Stage headline slot. A time in the festival normally reserved for boozy revelry (countless punters have already drunk themselves into the dirt by the 10:45 set-time) and shameless cheesiness (which has already arrived earlier, courtesy of Austria’s Visions Of Atlantis), the Australian industrial-rockers’ brand of modernist, synth-stained storytelling about murder and mass suicide doesn't quite fit the vibe. The more ghoulish of Bloodstock's contingent, though, still find plenty to get their teeth into, mind, on songs as grim as Columbine, John Wayne Gacy and Jim Jones.

Wytch HazelRonnie James Dio Stage

There are no shortage of odes to Satan this weekend, but Wytch Hazel feel like a reminder that the devil doesn’t have all the best tunes. Beyond their eye-catching all-white vestments that make them look like Ritchie Blackmore's Bee Gees, there’s an ear-grabbing grandiose sweep to the Lancastrian collective’s sound that fits perfectly alongside their explorations of Christian theology. Packing the honeyed harmonies and fist-pumping purpose of truly classic rock, songs like I Am Redeemed and Strong Heart confirm that they’re anything but boring choirboys.

GatecreeperRonnie James Dio Stage

“Christ, Sacred Reich are a bit heavy today...” Unbeknownst to most in the crowd, arrival problems mean the crossover kings have swapped slots with fellow Arizona natives in Gatecreeper on Friday afternoon, leaving many in attendance more than a little perplexed to be pummelled by an uncompromising onslaught of Sonoran death metal. With the temperatures spiking, the sunbaked heft of Sweltering Madness and Flamethrower ruthlessly connect, regardless. And the news from frontman Chase Mason that album number three is ready for release this year is reason for everyone to get excited.

ZetraS.O.P.H.I.E Stage

Zetra don’t step out of the shadows often, so there’s reason enough to be excited about the mysterious, corpsepainted duo’s Friday afternoon set before they even step on. The crowd seems somewhat split when they do, with battle-jacketed traditionalists unsure about the wafty theatrics and densely-layered, keyboard-heavy sound. For the army of acolytes down the front, however, their entrancing occupation of the space between shoegaze, doom and goth rock – and unapologetically weirdo personality – makes this one of the sets of the weekend.

Sacred ReichRonnie James Dio Stage

Apparently unaffected by having been bumped up the bill thanks to their swap with Gatecreeper, Phoenix thrash legends Sacred Reich go about delivering a speedy masterclass with zero frills. From the black and white fabric banner they leave fluttering in front of a powered-down video screen to the hacksaw attack of classics The American Way, Death Squad and Surf Nicaragua, this brakes-off showcase feels like a defiant throwback to the genre’s denim-clad glory days. You’d be hard-pushed to find anyone complaining.

Pest ControlS.O.P.H.I.E Stage

Rocking up to the S.O.P.H.I.E. tent almost immediately after Sacred Reich have unplugged, it’s remarkable to see the generational difference for rising crossover crew Pest Control. Mainly, it’s down to audience energy, with few of the veterans nursing decades-old mosh injuries having cottoned-on to the brilliance of the Leeds crew yet, while the countless youngsters throwing themselves towards the stage with unhinged abandon are apparently keen to create a few scars of their own. Like their fellow Yorkshiremen in Malevolence, expect this lot to be climbing up the Bloodstock bill quickly over the next handful of years.

Fit For An AutopsyRonnie James Dio Stage

New Jersey deathcore mainstays Fit For An Autopsy are another of those bands that seem to evoke an oddly divided reaction at Bloodstock: either utter disinterest or rabid devotion. It’s more of the latter than the former today, thankfully, as a massive crowd assemble to bask in the tectonic heaviosity and impressive dynamic range of songs like A Higher Level Of Hate, Pandora and Far From Heaven. "Words cannot explain how amazing today was," they post after the set on Instagram. “Thank you Bloodstock for one of the best festival experiences we’ve ever had." It’s hard to argue with that.

In FlamesRonnie James Dio Stage

In Flames’ continued insistence on overlooking not just their best albums, but some of the defining releases in the history of melodic death metal – The Jester Race, Whoracle, Colony – continues to dumbfound fans, but they kill it this afternoon anyway. Boasting headline-standard sound and real swagger - plus ex-Dillinger Escape Plan bassist Liam Wilson - we do get a couple of decades-old bangers in Cloud Connected and Only For The Weak, and they even go back to 1994 to get Behind Space. Even better, a savage State Of Slow Decay and The Great Deceiver from this year’s fourteenth album Foregone sound absolutely titanic, making it feel an awful lot like these legends might just be getting their old groove back. Just do Ordinary Story next time, lads...

Killswitch EngageRonnie James Dio Stage

Almost 25 years in, how do Killswitch Engage go about nailing their first-ever major festival headline gig? By wreathing pretty much every song in pyro and playing like their very lives depend on it. "We're gonna do as many songs with 'fire' in the name as possible," grins guitarist Adam Dutkiewicz at one point, while vocalist Jesse Leach does his best not to get singed, admitting they’ve never performed with these kinds of flame-stacks before, and that it won’t stop them going all-in tonight.

With ear-wrecking volume and impressive production utilising Bloodstock’s massive new video screens, it is very much about the brilliance of an average Killswitch show writ large. You want bangers? From bludgeoning opener My Curse to an epic Rose Of Sharyn, Bloodstock's drowning in them. Silly banter? Adam has you sorted: “Who plans on not bathing all weekend? Your balls are gonna smell like corned beef.” Emotional payoff? There’s no better moment this weekend than the chaos as the Ronnie James Dio stage is closed-out with a riotous Holy Diver. It’s exactly the kind of celebration these dudes deserve.

CandlemassS.O.P.H.I.E Stage

It’ll never stop being funny seeing sozzled festival crowds grinning their asses off while singing Candlemass’ immortal mantra, ‘Please let me die in solituuude!’ Before they get to that moment around midnight on Friday, the Stockholm legends take the late-night crowd on a guided tour through the pendulous highlights of their peerless epic doom discography like A Sorcerer’s Pledge, Bewitched and Mirror Mirror. Even last year’s Sweet Evil Sun already feels like a classic. There is no better band to launch you back into the chaotic darkness of the Bloodstock campsite in the wee early hours.

UrneRonnie James Dio Stage

Joe Nally looks almost overwhelmed with emotion as the clock strikes noon on Saturday. Having just released astonishing second album A Feast On Sorrow the morning before, the Urne frontman is basking in the catharsis of deeply personal songs like Becoming The Ocean and The Flood Came Rushing In, with which he chronicled the struggle of seeing family members fall victim to dementia. They pay tribute to the album’s producer – Gojira frontman Joe Duplantier – with a short blast of The Heaviest Matter In The Universe at one point, but from the thundering riffage of The Burden to the classic metal texture of Serpent & Spirit, these Londoners are brewing plenty of classics of their own.

The GreyS.O.P.H.I.E Stage

From the rattling Bluetooth speakers in the campsite to the thundering stacks flanking the main stage, there are heavy sounds everywhere you turn this weekend. Cambridge post-metallers The Grey make (largely instrumental) music that weighs down like few others', though, marrying the pummelling feel of a band like Neurosis or Karma To Burn to big themes with striking nuance and colour. The set climaxes with a monstrous, as-yet-unreleased swell of sound called Chvrch, dedicated to all those who've seen personal struggles spiral into mental health crises, which uncannily captures the layered turmoil of that experience. It’s truly awesome.

Royal RepublicRonnie James Dio Stage

"Does Bloodstock boogie?!" That's the question one overexcited punter screams from the bar as Royal Republic crash on for a gloriously funky set. The answer, it turns out, is an emphatic 'yes'. Dressed like Freddie Mercury, with moves to match, frontman Adam Grahn is having the time of his life introducing the mostly unfamiliar, none-more-metal Bloodstock festival faithful to certified smashers like Stop Movin’ and Tommy-Gun. And, with denim-clad arses wiggling all over the site, it's not long til everyone else is having the time of their lives, too. All aboard the Full Steam Spacemachine!

Employed To ServeRonnie James Dio Stage

More than any other here, Employed To Serve feel like a band custom-built to soundtrack beery festival Saturday afternoons. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, you’ve probably never been to Bloodstock. With Sammy Urwin and Justine Jones smashing vocals back and forth as the rest of their band unlock a bottomless box of riffs, the flab-free grind of Force Fed and Eternal Forward Motion get the a pit spinning on righteous indignation. Then, in Mark Of The Grave, they treat Bloodstock to a delicious dessert of metal munchiness, with columns of fire for good measure. We won’t ever get tired of telling you how absolutely bloody brilliant they are.

CrowbarRonnie James Dio Stage

You know what you’re getting with Crowbar: outstandingly gnarly riffs that sound like they’ve been dredged from the Mississippi delta, presented at obnoxious volume with absolutely no fucking about and legendary frontman Kirk Windstein pulling the sort of faces normally reserved for Bloodstock’s portaloos. That’s what they deliver on Saturday afternoon, right before the skies split, and it’s as fucking great as it always is. Enough said.

Knocked LooseRonnie James Dio Stage

“We’re not gonna let a little rain stop us, are we?!” These are Knocked Loose singer Bryan Garris’ fateful words almost exactly a minute before the sudden deluge that splits the Kentucky hardcore heavyweights’ set swamps the stage and causes a power-cut. Thankfully, the stoppage is short-lived, and becomes just another chaotic element in what’s one of the best sets of the whole weekend. Bryan (with frosty highlights in his hair and a new sense of ease in his own skin) leads the charge through a non-stop barrage of brutalist anthems – Deep In The Willow, Trapped In The Grasp Of A Memory, Mistakes Like Fractures – while guitarist Isaac Hale (sporting a fetching pair of dungarees) keeps cranking the aggro. So fresh, violent and utterly vital are these 45-minutes that they could have been dropped into a headline slot and the festival would’ve only gotten stronger for it. Confirmation that one of the world’s most exciting bands are only getting better.

AbbathRonnie James Dio Stage

It’s ‘Corpsepaint Saturday’ at Bloodstock this year, and who better to lead the charge than everyone’s favourite badger-faced black metal icon, Abbath? It feels like the ex-Immortal frontman is actually playing into the silliness these days, upping his gurn game whether throttling through original compositions like The Artifex and Ashes Of The Damned, or reviving his old band’s The Rise Of Darkness, and he's all the more mighty for it. Admittedly, it’s the sort of shtick that would benefit from the cover of nightfall, but under blue skies no amount of slap can disguise the delight in this crowd’s smiles.

Triptykon plays Celtic FrostRonnie James Dio Stage

The mighty Tom G Warrior takes the main stage for Saturday’s sizeable subheadline under the Triptykon banner, but today's set is a celebration of the early works of his previous band, the legendary Celtic Frost. It's a show that was always going to be utterly, utterly essential and unexpectedly for an artist so dedicated to the darkness, at times Tom is actually beaming onstage, while also bringing out a cracker-dry sense of humour, walking on and announcing, "Hello, Download!" From the esoteric gallop of Into The Crypts Of Rays to the unmistakable stomp of Circle Of The Tyrants, it’s exactly the kind of set that reminds us just how important and important the man's work was in the history of metal, and how vital a force he remains. Dark dreams come true. Long may they continue.

MeshuggahRonnie James Dio Stage

Compared to the excitement around Killswitch Engage on Friday, there’s remarkably little fanfare about Meshuggah’s coronation as Bloodstock headliners on Saturday night. It’s testament to the machine-like efficiency with which the Umeå tech-death collective destroy anything put in front of them. The striking, anatomically-themed ‘Immutable’ production they’ve been touring for a while now looks even more ominous when raised onto Bloodstock’s massive main stage, and killer cuts Broken Cog, Light The Shortening Fuse and Ligature Marks deliver all the carnage we’ve come to expect. Some will complain that their jackhammer attack comes at the sacrifice of human colour, but that’s hardly the first thing that comes to mind when you’re under their pump. They don’t even need to play their biggest hit Bleed tonight. The Abysmal Eye, Demiurge and Future Breed Machine are more than enough to send several punters off in search of medical assistance, anyway.

All Hail The YetiRonnie James Dio Stage

After three nights of heavy drinking and a rainswept Sunday morning, there are a lot of sore heads and long faces as Bloodstock 2023's final day gets underway. All Hail The Yeti aren't long lifting spirits with all the fuzzy power of a hug from an abominable snowman, mind. Hailing from Tinseltown but sporting a scuzzy, sludgy sound rooted in the swamps of the American South, there's an appealing blend of high polish and monstrous heft to songs like Highway Crosses and Witch Is Dead that's not long in winning this big crowd over. Bow down.

TuskarS.O.P.H.I.E Stage

Speaking of bands that leave you feeling like you've been trampled by some prehistoric beast, Tuskar boast an absolutely mammoth sound over in the S.O.P.H.I.E. tent. Beefy compositions like Matriarch and Grave already feel massive in the club venues the Bucks boys normally frequent, but they're something else in this kind of cavernous setting. Many in the sizeable crowd are visibly awestruck by it all, which feels long overdue for one of UK metal's more underrated bands.

TribulationRonnie James Dio Stage

Tribulation turn up looking like they've just rolled out of their coffins. The Swedish goth-metallers haven't had many opportunities to showcase the brilliance of latest albums Down Below and When The Gloom Becomes Sound on these shores, so it's great to see the fantastic In Remembrance and Down Below aired in front of the Bloodstock faithful. Their dark majesty is diluted somewhat by the scorching early afternoon sun, but they've enough vampiric bite to get at least a little of their intoxicating darkness under your skin.

Ugly Kid JoeRonnie James Dio Stage

Ugly Kid Joe are old hands when it comes to big days out like Bloodstock, and they serve up a feelgood buffet as Sunday's sold-out crowd properly begins to swell. From frontman Whitfield Crane's effortless charisma to the cod-metallic crunch of Devil’s Paradise and a smashing cover of Harry Chaplin classic Cat’s In The Cradle, it's enough to get the most tired bodies pumping fists and singing along. They even have the audacity to try Motörhead’s Ace Of Spades with Sepultura guitarist Andreas Kisser bouncing onstage. And, obviously, spring-loaded mega-hit Everything About You remains utterly irresistible.

Church Of The Cosmic SkullS.O.P.H.I.E Stage

They've been at it for a few years now, but the 'WTF?' factor remains high for Church Of The Cosmic Skull. Dressed and decorated all in purest white, the Nottingham crew's culty shtick is becoming secondary to banging compositions like Cold Sweat nowadays. A little bit Creedence Clearwater Revival; a little bit Elton John; a lot Fleetwood Mac, it's a legitimately uplifting retro revivalist sound with tongue-not-too-far-in-cheek. Extra points for managing to build a Sunday afternoon sing-along around the line 'Everybody's going to die...' Just Heavenly.

SepulturaRonnie James Dio Stage

Under a pale grey sky, Sepultura deliver a characteristically uncompromising lesson in violence. The blunt-force bludgeon with which they hammer through everything from Territory to Guardians Of The Earth and Refuse/Resist this afternoon even manages to lift the more utterly banged-out bodies in attendance. And when towering frontman Derrick Greene demands that they all get off their arses to fucking move for Arise, Ratamahatta and Roots Bloody Roots, there are very few who don't oblige.

KK's PriestRonnie James Dio Stage

The last-minute dropout by German power-metal legends Helloween could have put a serious damper on the final run-in of Bloodstock 2023. Fortunately, there was a Metal God on-hand to save the day. Picking up where he left off with that cameo during Ross The Boss’ set in 2019, Kenneth Keith Downing returns with a little more black leather and a lot more confidence to introduce us to 'his' Judas Priest. It's Priest's underrated late-1990s/early-2000s vocalist Tim 'Ripper' Owens who steals the show, mind, tearing through classics like Night Crawler and Beyond The Realms Of Death with the ravenous aplomb of a man who's been waiting too long to be back at the top end of line-ups like this.

Zeal & ArdorS.O.P.H.I.E Stage

A scheduling bork means that Zeal & Ardor had to cancel their Saturday headline spot on the S.O.P.H.I.E. stage, but Bloodstock manage to re-jig things and squeeze the full 70-minute set in at teatime on Sunday. Cue absolute carnage. With what feels like everyone on site struggling to fit into the heaving tent once KK's Priest have finished, the Swiss-American troupe bring the fire, dragging us into their nightmarish netherworld where chaingang gospel has somehow cross-pollinated with black metal. They absolutely crush it, too: a masterful light show discombobulating in the dusky ambience as Manuel Gagneux leads his men through a career-spanning set of Satanic songs of praise. Oh yes, Devil is fine.

MegadethRonnie James Dio Stage

Word is that the booking of thrash kingpins Megadeth has – once again – helped Bloodstock break its one-day attendance record. With a huge crowd stretched out in front of the main stage, it’s easy to believe, and the Shredmasters Supreme do not disappoint. A big banter opening sees frontman Dave Mustaine staring down an inflatable unicorn about the size of a minibus on top of the audience as he rattles through thrilling opener Hangar 18, but it’s not long until someone’s burst the jokers’ bubble and we’re down to business properly. There’s a sense of real, tight-knit purpose as Megadeth 2023 rattle through the time-tested likes of Angry Again and Sweating Bullets with lead guitarist Kiko Loureiro stealing the show every time he’s allowed to cut loose. Dropping only We’ll Be Back from latest album The Sick, The Dying… And The Dead!, the focus is very much on keeping the gargantuan crowd happy, too. And with a frankly ridiculous run-in of A Tout Le Monde, Tornado Of Souls, Symphony Of Destruction, Peace Sells, Mechanix and Holy Wars… The Punishment Due, noone could accuse them of even coming close to failing in that. They’re welcome to come back and break a few more records anytime, if packing this level of show. Absolutely face-melting stuff. Here’s hoping the bangover has eased off by this time next year.

The best of Kerrang! delivered straight to your inbox three times a week. What are you waiting for?