Just as the Royal Rumble kickstarts the road to Wrestlemania, so Metal 2 the Masses begins the journey to Bloodstock. A microscopic Eurovision Song Contest of sorts, the competition to perform on the New Blood Stage at Bloodstock Open Air has given exposure to some of the country’s hottest underground acts and, after a 12 month hiatus, Bristol will once again have a representative at Catton Hall in August. It’s damn cold at the Exchange tonight but the trio of acts playing are ensured a warm reception by a healthy turnout as the temperature drops to near freezing outside.
Kicking off the entire Bristol edition tonight are Awakening Hyperia, who have been together less than a year and yet look like they’ve been playing for decades. Full of vigour and youthful energy, they are a modern throwback to the mid 00’s where Avenged Sevenfold, Bullet for My Valentine and Trivium ruled supreme, combining silky guitar harmonies with crushing riffs and arena-style anthems. The near-telepathic connection between axemen James Chakraverty and Morty Forrester is ridiculous for a band so early on in their career, and they’re backed up brilliantly by bassist Barney Forrester and drummer Kiran Schroeder. The Exchange, notorious for the odd sound issue here and there, does throw up the odd moment when it comes to sound levels but the power of songs like Breathe and Freefall shines through regardless, as does the final punch of closing song Watch and Wait. They even find space in their set for a quite excellent cover of Afterlife on what would have been Jimmy ‘The Rev’ Sullivan’s 36th birthday; poignant and dynamic in every sense.
Following that would be a challenge for any band but Dead Man’s Bastard – in their second M2TM effort – take it completely in their stride and, despite technical issues hindering lead guitarist Tom Linacre right at the beginning, deliver a bruising masterclass in the art of groove metal. Frontman Phil Babb cuts an imposing figure on stage, demanding more from the crowd at every opportunity and is genuinely delighted when they respond in earnest. Dead Man Crawling sounds like the very best of Gojira and Lamb of God rolled into one whilst the sonic bounce of Carnage Incarnate sparks frenzied headbanging and moving bodies across the floor. Elsewhere, bassist Owen Warr’s dexterity on the five-string is a joy to watch, especially during the superb Learn From What Is Killing You, whilst guitarist Sean Watson and drummer Joe Lancaster ensure that Dead Man’s Bastard will live long in the memory despite the slight setback along the way.
Rounding off the hopefuls tonight are Ylem Darkul, playing blackened death metal so brutal they threaten to shake the corpsepaint right off their own faces; well, except vocalist Sam Harris who keeps his head well hidden and mysterious under a rather fetching cape. With proceedings behind schedule the band let their music do the talking, only really stopping to thank everyone for pronouncing their name right and storming through the rumbling Pazuzu Idle and Cerebral Coitus with astonishing force, helped out by some very accomplished drumming. Fists pump during Malleus Maleficarum and Valckeries Call gets the first pit of the evening up and running as Ylem Darkul produce an all-out assault on the senses. Those pesky tech issues raise their head again at points but it’s nitpicking at best, the quintet guaranteeing a very strong end to the triumvirate of talent onstage this evening.
The magnificent Heriot are tonight’s headliners and deliver a lesson and a half on why they won the Swindon edition of Metal 2 the Masses last time around; charismatic and frantic, they cover more ground across the stage than some people do walking to work, showcasing that it’s not just about playing well and having good songs but putting on a performance to compliment the seismic riffs and thunderous drumming. As they leave, the winners are revealed; there’s no word on who won the audience vote or garnered the most praise from the judges, but it’s Awakening Hyperia and Ylem Darkul who emerge victorious and proceed to the semi-finals. The truth is, though, that all three could have gone through tonight; metal is very much alive and well in Bristol and it’s only going to get bigger on the basis of what’s been displayed at the Exchange.