In the last two years, the Hard Rock Hell (HRH) brand has been very much in the ascendency, adding a series of new, themed, city events to its roster. Last year, the inaugural Doom Vs Stoner threatened to crumble the foundations of Sheffield’s cavernous O2 Academy with and the second event looks set to repeat that success. Catering to a small, but fiercely loyal crowd, Doom Vs Stoner is the perfect opportunity to bask in the glory of the riff and, although not everything goes to plan, the overall event once again proves a triumph.
It could have been a disaster… Just a few days before HRH is due to start, My Dying Bride, the Sunday headliner, pull out. Thus far, no explanation has been given and the band have ominously requested privacy at this time. Whatever the reason, it is highly unlikely that the band would cancel without good cause, and we can only hope that whatever derailed their show is not as serious as it would appear. Nonetheless, it must have caused considerable consternation for the organisers who, unable to share the reason for the cancellation, have inevitably taken much of the flak. Lightning quick reactions sees the addition of The Picturebooks to the bill and the promotion of Kadavar to the headline slot, an impressive feat at such short notice, but a lack of communication (particularly a failure to update the website) has left a number of fans unhappy. In the end, the Sunday goes off flawlessly, but in future events the festival needs to focus more effectively on its social media should such a major line-up change occur, especially as it would more clearly highlight the behind-the-scenes efforts that go into making the whole thing work, despite the loss of a band so high up the bill.
Sheffield O2 Academy is a funny venue. Superficially unappealing, it perches atop a hill, overlooking Sheffield Hallam University and concealing a dank NCP carpark that, like all such carparks, maintains a fragrant odour of sanctity that no amount of bleach can conceal. Entry into the festival sees one plunged directly into the stygian darkness, and, if you arrive during a band, the sonic assault can be downright stunning. Nonetheless, the event security is courteous and the box office staff both friendly and efficient, ensuring that people get in quickly. With the doors opening considerably in advance of the first act, it means that no one is left out in a queue once the sonic devastation kicks off.
Once inside, a small selection of stalls offer the usual festival mixture of jewellery, trinkets and T shirts, whilst an official merch booth provides gear for both the HRH brand and the acts on stage. With convenience in mind, the festival also has numerous bars, a selection of hot food and even a cash point. This convenience, however, comes at a price. The cash point (as with all such venues) is of the chargeable kind whilst the food mitigates the advantage of its low price by being gloriously mediocre. A singularly unappealing mixture of easy-cook standards including hotdogs, burgers, nachos and chilli, all served at the same dubious temperature, await the ravenous hordes and many prefer to slip out to the various take away establishments that are within easy walking distance of the O2. Drinks also come at a substantial price, the average beer coming in at around £5 once the early bird offers come to an end, and the only way to avoid substantial pangs of regret is to attempt to drink oneself into acceptance before that happens (!). It’s a bit of an endurance test for the wallet, but it’s on par with any other festival, and the range om offer does at least include one ale amidst the more standard array of lagers. Moreover, the bars are well laid-out and queues are, remarkably, kept to a minimum, even between bands – a point where you’d normally expect them to be swamped.
So, the facilities, whilst adequate, are more or less on a par with what one would expect from any festival. There is one thing, however, that most certainly keeps people flocking back to the HRH banner (at least as much as the music), and that is the remarkable community that has built up around the brand. It’s notable that many of the same faces are present as last year (not to mention other events such as the excellent HRH United) and there’s a celebratory atmosphere that permeates even the darkest gloom conjured up by the bands. Old friends greet one another enthusiastically and newcomers are rapidly made to feel welcome, and it is this vital aspect that makes the HRH experience an event to which it is truly worth returning.
Kurokuma are band with whom we are not familiar, but that is set to change. Playing a distressingly heavy brand of psychedelic, sludge-doom, the band are epically heavy and their set offers minimal space for interaction as they plough through their dense material, turning the entire audience into sonic explorers engaged in a mass psyche-doom trip. Elements of neurosis and thergathon are audible in the mix and propulsive, tribal rhythms only add to the intensity pouring forth from the stage. A remarkable opening band, Kurokuma set both the tone and a suitably high standard for the event, their sinus cleansing dose of extremity leaving the audience blank-eyed and staggering by its conclusion. 9 https://kurokumauk.bandcamp.com/merch
Red spektor summon the spirit of cream and infuse it with the bludgeoning power of Sabbath at their most psychedelic. Bathed in red light (what else?) they deal in churning bass grooves and heroic blues soling. It’s a patchouli scented vibe the band emit as tar thick riffs and reverb-drenched vocals, delivered as if a sermon, coalesce to transport the audience back at least thirty years, and their performance is electrifying. John Scane, hidden under a black Trilby, is an engaging front man, and Red Sepktor will surely only climb the line up of bills such as this as more people become familiar with their monster groove. Highly recommended (along with the band’s self-titled debut which can be purchased here https://red-spektor.bandcamp.com/releases) Red spektor rule and that’s pretty much the end of it.8
Regulus, who recently released their mind-melting debut, have a tough act to follow in Red Spektor, but they also have a ton of energy and, as they launch themselves into their opening track, they successfully draw the audience in from the suspiciously herbal smoking area and send them into outer space on a super-boosted rocket. Their set is a pummeling monster of swirling, fx-laden metallic blues punctuated with the slower, doomier likes of ‘Bones’ but it’s a shame that the band don’t inject the same sense of dynamic into their lengthy live set that makes their debut album so compelling. The band are good, but with a little more light and shade they will be truly great. 7 https://regulusband.bandcamp.com/album/quadralith
I’ve only caught Boss Keloid once before, at Uprising Festival in Leicester, and they floored me. A remarkable mix of cataclysmic stoner rock with the addition of a vocalist who falls somewhere between Mike Patton and Pepper Keenan, the band open with ‘Lung Mountain’ the first number from outstanding album ‘Herb your enthusiasm’, and proceed to knock the crowd senseless with riff after mothermucking riff. The band’s hour-long set passes in a heartbeat with tracks like ‘Axis of green’ and ‘cone’ sounding even more devastating live than they do on record, but it’s the ecstatic conclusion of ‘Hot priest’ that leaves us in no doubt that we’re in the presence of hard rock royalty. Make no mistake, Boss Keloid are destined for much bigger things and if you’ve missed them thus far, kick yourself until your shins are blue and get yourself out there. Magnificent. 10 https://bosskeloid.bandcamp.com/album/herb-your-enthusiasm
What more is there to be written about Saint Vitus? They are doom legends, an institution that has spawned a thousand imitators and yet never been bettered. Their live shows remain an engaging highlight of any festival they deign to play and their presence at Doom Vs Stoner draws a huge crowd. Sadly ignoring 2012’s excellent ‘Lillie: F65’ album, the band transport the audience all the way back to 1984’s self-titled album, offering up three tracks including the eponymous ‘Saint Vitus’, ‘White magic/black magic’ and ‘burial at sea’, as well as choice cuts from across their career. The set closer is also the highlight, being the title track of 1986’s ‘Born too late’, Wino’s first album with the band and clearly still a fond place for the band. It ends the set all too soon and the cheers that rings out across the venue suggest that the audience are no less delighted. 9
I’ve lost count of how many times I have caught the mighty, unstoppable riff machine that is orange goblin over the years, but even so, familiarity has failed to dim the impact of these irrepressible monsters of rock. Singer Ben Ward is a towering presence whipping up a crowd who, by rights, should be exhausted beyond reason. The decision to open with ‘Bloodzilla’ is inspired. Within seconds, the Goblin have conjured up a pit that covers half the venue, hair, beer and sweat flying in all directions as Ben takes the role of ringmaster, alternating between delivering his raw-throated vocals and inciting a mini-riot. It makes last year’s impressive set pale in comparison. Songs like ‘Scorponica’ and ‘Saruman’s wish’ never get old and, by the time we get to ‘cities of frost’, with no sign of the audience flagging, it becomes clear that audience and band are matching each other every step of the way. Eventually, with sweat practically raining down from the ceiling and audience and band alike drenched, it’s the end, but there’s still just enough energy for a three song encore (culminating in a monstrous ‘red tide rising’, before the venue empties out into the damp Sheffield night, thoroughly battered by the exertions of the day. A spinal Tap-esque 11
More melodic than most, serpent venom add a touch of 40 watt sun melancholy to their Sabbath-esque riffs with haunting effect. The sort of band that drowns the audience in a sea of molton sludge, they are powerful indeed and the juxtaposition of clean vocals and coruscating riffs works well. Songs such as ‘Pilgrims of the sun’ (from recent album ‘of things seen and unseen’) are mesmerising, and it is an impressive early set that hints at bigger things to come. 9 https://serpentvenom.bandcamp.com/
We were lucky enough to catch Slabdragger and had no intention of missing them this year. Like the bastard son of khanate, slabdragger are heavier than a very heavy thing indeed and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that three people simply should not be able to make such a churning miasma of ear- wrecking noise. It just ain’t right. Even so, the band do temper their extremity with occasional harmonies, and it is this that helps to keep things just on the right side of bearable and always interesting. The set includes ‘Burden’, from the band’s epic split release with Meadows, a track that suddenly and implausibly turns into a grind nightmare, whilst a Frank Zappa cover, ‘Muffin Man’, brings things to a suitably mind-altering conclusion. Slabdragger – we hail thee. 10 https://slabdragger.bandcamp.com/
Next up we get a change of pace courtesy of the mighty Black Moth, a superb band who deliver a set laden with ferocious groove and dark melody in equal proportion. Singer Harriet Hyde is just wonderful, her stunning voice and engaging presence recalling a young Anneke Van Giersbergen, and the band deliver the riffs and hooks of tracks like ‘Moonbow’ and ‘severed grace’ with compelling energy. Black Moth have worked hard to build a loyal following and it is much deserved – let’s hope that 2018 sees the band expand their reach yet further. 9 https://www.facebook.com/themothpit
A last-minute addition to the bill, The Picturebooks are seemingly the next big thing. About to embark upon a mammoth UK tour, they were summoned to HRH at the eleventh hour and they bring their huge, if somewhat incongruous, sound to Sheffield with admirable energy to boot. Despite an engaging presence, they offer little that is new, coming across as the sort of pared-back blues that seems so popular at the moment, kinda like black rebel motorcycle club but without the variety. Many of the songs follow a fairly basic formula, with the gigantic drum sound and scratchy guitars giving way to catchy woah-style choruses. The drums, in particular, are addictive, but even tracks like recent single ‘Zero fucks given’ feel somewhat familiar. You can’t deny the energy of their set, however, and many of the audience are soon won over. 6
In contrast, Truckfighters arrive on stage with a sound that recalls Queens of the Stone Age at their most lysergic and the hyperactive stage mannerisms of AC/DC. A quite odd impression at first, it is rare to see one band pour so much heart and soul into a set and they soon draw the entire venue into their own special world. More psyche than doom and / or stoner, the band put up an impressive barrage of noise with songs like ‘the 1’ and ‘in search of (the)’. That said, they are even better when they leave off the gas and allow more subtlety to creep in, as they do with increasing frequency as the set wears on. The band conclude with ‘atomic’ and ‘desert’ and the exhausted crowd can barely stand, having been on the receiving end of so cataclysmic a live experience. I didn’t quite know what to expect of Truckfighters, but I come out a convert. 9
Kadavar have an uphill struggle given that they are standing in for a British doom institution, but if they are in any way nervous, it doesn’t show, and the crowd seem eager to embrace both the band and the new material from fourth album, ‘rough times’, which recently appeared via Nuclear Blast. Opening with that album’s title track, Kadavar blast away any lingering sense of disappointment at the absence of MDB, although it is regrettable that their music is so similarly paced to what has gone before. Nonetheless, Kadavar admirably step up as headliners and deliver their retro-themed stoner grooves with an excess of energy that is essential if the audience are to stay on their feet. With tracks like ‘die baby die’, ‘into the wormhole’ and ‘purple sage’ on offer, it’s as if the millennium never happened and Kadavar do a fabulous job of closing Doom Vs Stoner II. 8
Although social media may have buzzed with a certain amount of disappointment at the departure of MDB from the bill, there was no such sense of dissatisfaction at HRH itself. The community atmosphere that we have come to expect from the HRH brand is in full flow throughout and the Sheffield O2 Academy, despite its various ingrained faults, remains a fine venue for an event of this type. It is arguable that an offering an hour’s set-length is, perhaps, on the long side for bands lower down the bill, and it would be good to see a better selection of food considered for next year’s event (already in the calendar) as well as more seating available downstairs, but overall Doom Vs Stoner remains an essential item on the hard rock calendar. The festival organisers have clearly worked tirelessly to minimise the aggravations so typically found at festivals and the line-up is truly inspired with no weak links to be found. Moreover, and as we also noted last year, the sound is pristine throughout the event and the stage crew are to be congratulated for swift, efficient turnarounds – if there are lapses, they are never evident front of house and every band is presented in the best possible light. Security, also, deserve praise for being friendly and professional, helping to bring the event off smoothly, even with so many people wondering in and out of the venue at leisure. In short, Hard Rock Hell have done it again, and I, for one, cannot wait for Doom Vs Stoner III.
All photos: Jola Stiles apart from Serpent Venom, Slabdragger & Black Moth: Phil Stiles.
Words: Phil Stiles