Steelhouse is set to return this weekend for its seventh staging and, while the Welsh classic rock festival has built up a loyal following over the years, along with a fistful of good reviews, to some extent it remains one of the calendar’s best-kept secrets.
Taking place on a remote Ebbw Vale farm (which quite literally sits atop a mountain), the first thing that grabs your attention as you make your way up the ridge is that you’re surrounded by some of the most spectacular scenery in Wales. The site is built by a 50-strong crew of volunteers – known as the Steelhouse Family – who give up their time to head up weeks in advance to set things up. In a region that is starved of live music events, this level of dedication is vital.
The community spirit echoes throughout the weekend, which counts for a lot if you’re unlucky with the uglier side of Welsh weather. The biblical rainfall of 2015, for example, still sends a cold shiver down my spine. To give you an idea of what it looked like, metal legend Doro Pesch had to be carried to the stage by one of the crew as conditions underfoot were so treacherous backstage. The prices aren’t as horrific as you would expect to see at mainstream UK festivals either. Broadly speaking, the food and booze is locally sourced.
The festival has drawn many cornerstones of rock music to its unique surroundings – including UFO, Thunder, Europe, Dee Snider, Michael Schenker, Doro and Black Star Riders – while also offering a platform for the genre’s newcomers. Steelhouse’s appeal comes from throwing together the nostalgic thrill of the timeless classics while also supporting the fresh blood that will keep rock music alive.
That’s an invaluable commitment, especially during a time when many small music venues are under threat from developers. These stages are pretty big and there are plenty of eyes trained on acts just cutting their teeth or waiting to take the next step. Take, for instance, RavenEye’s performance last year.
The band have since put out their acclaimed debut, ‘Nova’, on the Frontiers Music label and more recently supported KISS at huge arena shows on the European leg of the glam-rock giants’ KissWorld tour. The Temperance Movement, who got tongues wagging after their performance in 2013, went on to become the guest band for the Rolling Stones in Europe the following year, racking up a couple of impressive LPs along the way.
This year appears to have a nice balance to it, too. Ragga-metal party-starters Skindred look set to deliver a triumphant homecoming set and heavy metal titans Saxon, with their full ‘Eagle’ production in tow, will top the weekend’s proceedings, while California’s Rival Sons, Ontario’s Monster Truck and Last In Line, featuring former members of the original lineup of Dio, are all flying in to play. There’s also Mr. Steve Harris taking time out from some other band to hit the stage with British Lion (the festival also carries the clout of Trooper Beer sponsoring the stage this year, no doubt something to do with a certain bassist).
Then there’s the latest missive from the new wave of British classic rock bands. Inglorious, who recently put out their Kevin Shirley-produced second album, Stonebroken and Broken Witt Rebels, who both made their Download festival debuts this summer, Tequila Mockingbyrd and Jared James Nichols will be out to make an impression. The next big thing is out there. Steelhouse could be where the world finds it.
Steelhouse Festival returns to Hafod-Y-Dafal Farm in Ebbw Vale between July 28 and 30. Head to www.steelhousefestival.com for the full line up and stage times.
Every year, without fail, God pisses upon the hallowed turf of Donington Park during Download. He drinks well over the recommended two litres of water per day, crossing his legs and tapping his feet. Then, as 90,000 or so metalheads descend upon the site, God unleashes his mighty pissbeast. The Devil has the best tunes, but there’s no need to be so sour about it.
There’s grass. Actual grass. You can run your hands through it. You can uproot it and roll it between your fingers. You can pretend you’re in a butter advert. Royal Republic revel in something approachingsunshine while opening the Main Stage – quite fittingly dubbed ‘The Lemmy Stage’ – with enthusiasm usually reserved only for small children watching Frozen. Two obnoxiously large, neon lightning bolts flash behind vocalist Adam Grahn, creating a backdrop to match ludicrously-titled songs like Make Love Not War (If You Have to Make War – Make Sure to Make Time to Make Love in Between). Live, they’re a heavier proposition than usual, sounding more like an indie band dabbling in rockabilly while covering Clutch. It’s a bloody lovely way to kick off the weekend, and they’re back in the UK this October. Which is a bit of all right.
Puppy play to a sparse crowd at the Maverick Stage, letting their mixture of Weezer, Pearl Jam, Iron Maiden and vocals reminiscent of Wheatus do the talking. Half the audience are loving it, half of them look like they’ve been asked to explain exactly why they’re voting to stay in or get out of the EU. It’s confusing but, with time, Puppy are sure to master their craft and get people on board.
Back over on the Lemmy Stage, AlienAnt Farm drop Movies early on and play a load of other stuff that’s not really important. It’s flat and doesn’t have any place on the main stage – this is pure nostalgia, and not even decent nostalgia at that. Everyone’s waiting for Smooth Criminal, and while we wait, singer Dryden Mitchell makes a weird declaration, telling the Donington crowd that all he wants to do tonight is cuddle Babymetal and watch Jeremy Kyle. It feels like we’re in an episode of Brass Eye,so we leave.
“God bless Ryanair for getting us here on time,” proclaims Zoax mainman Adam Carroll, not a trace of sarcasm seeping from his throat. He takes the Maverick Stage by force with his feral screams and a beard the size of a small dog, flanked by the spasmodic fuckery that is the rest of the band.
Back at the Lemmy Stage, Babymetal are about to come on and God’s toilet flushes. Rain rips through the atmosphere like bullets. Revellers scream. Others cheer. Babymetal are late. We stand. The cheesy intro video rolls and the Kami Band burst into BABYMETAL DEATH. The girls get on stage. People go batshit. They run around pretending to be bumblebees or something and Gimme Chocolate! begins.
And here, on the main stage of Download Festival – The Lemmy Stage – is where it becomes crystal clear. Babymetal need to go. They are a novelty act. Yeah, all right, Karate is a tune and Su-Metal’s vocals are good, but aside from that, it all falls on the gimmick and it falls flat. The dance moves are amateurish, the metal is passable and that’s about it. It’s manufactured and designed to shift units, and that’s fine. But, even more so than Alien Ant Farm, it has no place at Download Festival, least of all in such a coveted spot that could have gone to a band that deserves the exposure.
The antithesis of Babymetal is Heck, who’ve pulled a decent crowd at the Maverick Stage. This is a real band. Yeah, they’re all over the place, climbing up the rigging and rolling around in the mud, but it’s not a gimmick. Mathcore-infused blasts of hardcore from their new album ‘Instructions’ are actual songs compared to the raggedy mess they spewed out under their former Baby Godzilla guise. Go see Heck, bang your head, sing along and please bring a crash helmet.
Back to the tent to change clothes, seeing as Converse and cargo shorts aren’t really doing the job. Christ, it’s so nice to feel the silkiness of an antibacterial wipe between the toes, the sensation of new socks, the comfort of this air mattress…Bollocks. Fell asleep. Missed Killswitch Engage. They were probably brilliant. They always are.
Back into the arena for the Lemmy tribute and it’s not, as some suspected, an all-star cast shredding through Motörhead classics. Nah, it’s just a video. A tasteful, classy tribute to the man. Large portions are culled from 2010’s Lemmy documentary, with a few extra segments thrown in by Lars Ulrich, Triple H and the like. Live footage elicits cheers all round and, even though everyone’s drenched, they’re out in masses to celebrate the icon, the musical bulldozer, the gentleman.
If anyone’s holding back tears following the Lemmy tribute, the moisture is wrung out by Korn. In a festival environment, nobody can touch this band. Well, except maybe Rammmstein, but we’ll get to that later. For now, Korn are the band of the day. Y’all Want A Single? Yes, please. We will take one hour of bouncy, groove-laden anthems.
All Time Low take to the Zippo Encore Stage and it’s barren. Which is a shame, because they open with Kids In The Dark and it’s a temporary remedy for trench foot. But, then again, nobody’s here because everyone’s over at the Lemmy Stage. Rammstein are on and, frankly, if you’re seeing something else, you’re wired wrong. This is it. Three years of absence, nothing really in the way of new material. The German industrial unit’s last show on UK soil was right here. Let’s see what else they’ve got for us.
Paul H. Landers and Richard Z. Kruspe descend on platforms from the top of the stage, chugging along to a standard riff. The whole band’s at it and then – darkness. The clicking of heels. A spotlight to the left of the stage, and there’s Till Lindemann, dressed like a Victorian pimp. It’s all very Vaudevillian, so extremely Rammstein. Till leads the audience into an overture of sorts – allegedly called Ramm 4 – and orchestrates the chorus of “Ja! Nein! Rammstein!” like it’s a staple.
And then Reise, Reise. Du Hast. Ich Will. The main centrepieces remain, as does the fire from the walls, ceiling, wings, masks, the keyboard player, Till’s jacket and anything else that can be set ablaze. The band are tight and Lindemann’s thundering, bassy vocals are powerful enough to send a grown man to the naughty step, but an annoying crackle pervades from one of the guitars without being fixed.
Technical niggle aside, this is flawless. The band decide to omit Mein Teil, Pussy and Benzin, instead replacing them with b-sides and rarities. Hallelujah is an absolute juggernaut and leaves you wondering why it was scrapped from ‘Mutter’, the cover of Stripped is gloriously sexy and a rare outing for Zerstören leaves casual fans scratching their heads. An acoustic Ohne Dich has the band perched on the stage’s lip like they’re around a campfire or something. It’s ridiculous. It can’t be real. There aren’t enough superlatives to sum this up, really. Unpredictable, ungodly and the best stage show on planet Earth. Ja.
Brown scratch marks trailing down the tarpaulin. Mud or shit? Who knows? Who cares?
It’s Black Sabbath day.
A double-header of new(ish) UK talent assaults the Maverick Stage on this drizzly afternoon as Black Peaks and Turbowolf are up. The former boast the densest, beefiest racket since Mastodon released ‘Remission’ over a decade ago, losing none of their heaviness in the live environment, while the latter hit the stage like a bag of jelly beans splitting at the top of Everest. Turbowolf are sass personified, and it doesn’t matter that they don’t play American Mirrors. Their feel good, trippy rock ‘n’ roll is a reminder that the old can sound new and that, in fact, a conga line can be organised with ease on a muddy Saturday in the Midlands. Superb.
Another British twin attack over at the Dogtooth Stage now, with varying results. Milk Teeth’s scattershot, knee-scraping punk goes down an absolute treat, with punters straining their necks to have a peek inside the tent. Acoustic renditions from ‘Vile Child’ showcase Becky Blomfield’s gorgeous voice, but the same can’t be said for Dead!. Their intro tape is a clip from the That’s Not Metal podcast, in which hosts Terry Bezer and Stephen Hill lay into the band and call them “everything that’s wrong with art.”
It would be a pretty funny, middle finger move on the band’s behalf if they came on sounding like Tool and melted our faces, but that’s not the case. No, Hill and Beez were spot on: this is lowest common denominator, soulless pop-punk. Well, no, scrap the punk. It’s pop music with kinda grungy guitars, masquerading as rock music and performed with the transparency of Clingfilm. Nothing punk about it. Vocalist Alex Nelson addresses the crowd: “This is our first year at Download Festival and you’ve filled this tent up!” Nope. Ask someone how full the tent was for Milk Teeth.
Megadeth take to the Lemmy Stage and it’s pretty much business as usual: thrash metal classics interspersed with songs from whatever new record MegaDave is peddling these days. This year, it’s ‘Dystopia’, a step up from ‘Super Collider, which isn’t saying much. Aside from an abysmal rendition of an abysmal cover – Sex Pistols’ Anarchy In The UK – Megadeth survive. Mustaine keeps chit chat to a minimum – he still sounds like the Grinch – but Sweating Bullets and Holy Wars are fully banging.
Architects have pulled out due to a family emergency so it’s up to Against The Current to save the day at the Zippo Encore Stage. They don’t, really, and there are a lot of disgusted people with beards and tattoos walking away. They do the job they’re supposed to do – Paramore with a lot of the fun and innovation sucked out – but it’s just not a great fit for the festival, especially in Architects’ slot. Chrissy Costanza’s vocal performance is bang on and she’s clearly going to be a prominent pop-rock figure in years to come, but her stage banter comes off as arrogant rather than confident, especially when her band’s in this spot due to the misfortune of another act.
The average Skindred show is always going to be better than a sex sandwich, and the Donington faithful are hungry. There’s no space to scratch your arse, elbow or any other nook/cranny. The crowd goes wild. If there’s even a shred of justice left on this excuse of a planet, Skindred will command a similar slot on the main stage in years to come. But at the moment, we can’t breathe, so we escape the crush to pick up a falafel wrap and some churros. Not as good as Skindred, but they’ll do. More rain. More churros. The churros are now moist.
The riff. That riff. The riff that started it all. Black Sabbath, from the album ‘Black Sabbath’, by Black Sabbath. It’s the definitive heavy metal band saying farewell to old Donington Park. They’re going out on an extensive UK tour next year, but let’s not sour the mood. Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler churn out those colossal, bluesy riffs like they just wrote them yesterday. Children Of The Grave. Into The Void. Iron Man. Classics all night.
But it’s not a perfect show. Far from it, in fact. Bill Ward is still missed behind the kit. Tommy Clufetos is an ace drummer but he just smashes the shit out of his kit, rather than utilise any of the jazzy, subtle brushes Ward is famed for. Ozzy Osbourne’s a bit of a problem, too. He’s up and about, interacting with the crowd like the great frontman he is, but the bloke wouldn’t be able to hold a note if someone covered it in bubble wrap and gently placed it in his hands. It’s part of the charm, but you can’t give him a free pass. If this were a new band, they’d be slated. But it’s Sabbath. The songs. They’re just so iconic, man. Not even Osbourne’s wobbly vocals and Ward’s absence can properly take away from the magic this band conjures in a live environment.
Everything’s broken. Mud everywhere. The Converse are fucked. Our lift home’s been stuck in gridlock for three hours. One of our party is ill. Sunday begins an omnishambolic failure, but the tail end of Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes sets us right. The feral hellraiser is standing atop the crowd, spitting out his bluesy hardcore anthems and having them screamed right back at him. The Maverick Stage is heaving, everyone’s having a lovely time and I Hate You provides one of the loudest, most defiant singalongs of the weekend. Yes, Frank.
It’s been exactly five years to the day since Disturbed last played the UK – right here at Download, in fact – and the crowd standing before the Lemmy Stage is enormous. The nu metal bounce of hits like Down With The Sickness and Stupify cause ludicrous behaviour from all in attendance. Halfway through, chrome-domed, chin-pierced frontman David Draiman leads us into that hammy, overly-earnest cover of The Sound of Silence. Why is he sat on a stool? Why does Halestorm’s Lzzy Hale need to then come on and do a U2 cover? Why have they wheeled out poor Blaze Bayley for literally a minute? Why did they do that abysmal cover of Killing In The Name yet not play Stricken? So many questions and all we get is a succession of weird noises.
Billy Talent have us sorted, though. An hour of anthemic, punk-driven rock ‘n’ roll splendour. The Zippo Encore Stage’s audience is somewhat sparse, but that’s probably down to the large majority of people fucking off home. Because it’s raining again. Oh well, they’re missing out. This band is so tight. Clad in black and red, they look the shit as well as sounding it. From Devil In A Midnight Mass to Viking Death March, Billy Talent are on top form and even with key member Aaron Solowoniuk sitting out – he’s dealing with a relapse of multiple sclerosis, with Alexisonfire’s Jordan Hastings filling in on drums – they’re still one of the strongest bands of the weekend. And yes, we know they were on at the same time as Gojira. We get it. Gojira are the best band ever.
Straight up next are Jane’s Addiction, and while Dave Navarro is one of the best guitar players in the game, mixing heavy metal, alt-rock, psychedelia and all manners of other merriment with ease, it’s a bit uncomfortable watching Perry Farrell grind against semi-naked women as he sings. So we leave and watch Napalm Death desecrate the Dogtooth Stage. Barney Greenway’s electrocuted Dad dancing is always a showstopper, almost distracting you from the sheer intensity and consistent brilliance of the Brummie grindcore legends.
And then everything stops. Because nobody’s allowed to play while Iron Maiden are on. Bit greedy of them. Anyway, the obligatory UFO intro and ridiculous Eddie-themed video play. The Mayan stage set is revealed. The beginning of the beast.
Well, ‘beast’ is a strong word nowadays. Because Iron Maiden is not the all-conquering, all-knowing institution it once was – it just thinks it is. Any Maiden fan who tells you ‘The Book Of Souls’ is their best work this millennium is a dirty liar. It’s bloated, meandering prog and everyone’s telling Maiden it’s brilliant, so of course they decide to dedicate half the setlist to it. Some of the songs fit nicely – the opening salvo of If Eternity Should Fail and Speed of Light are sure stayers, but the rest of it can get in the bin. Climb like a monkey? Fuck off.
The posturing makes it too much to handle. Towards the end of the 13 minute The Red And The Black, is Adrian Smith, head jolted back with his mouth curved in an O, finishing off a guitar solo or himself? Bruce Dickinson’s as fit as a butcher’s dog but even he struggles to hit those high notes. But he thinks he’s the dog’s bollocks, doesn’t he? And so does most of the devoted crowd, lapping up his overly long, irreverent rants.
The classics are, of course, amazing. Hallowed Be Thy Name – which was missed on the Maiden England Tour – is an obvious highlight, but even Blood Brothers from ‘Brave New World’ sounds like a Cannibal Corpse song in comparison to some of the ‘Book of Souls’ material. It’s just stale, and, hogging half their stage time, it slows down the pace of a usually unstoppable band to the speed of gridlocked cars on the roads outside.
And back to the car. To civilisation. Download Festival, there’s been some ups, d(r)owns and absolutely smashing churros. We’ll be back next year. But please sort out this pissy weather, yeah?