Rabidfest, Oxford - 16.08.19- 18.08.19 / Louder Live
Following on from the success of last year’s outing, the local Oxford-based festival Rabidfest returned for a second incarnation to the delight of metal fans throughout the city. Kicking off on Friday evening with a free night of music at a favourite hangout of Oxford metalheads The Wheatsheaf pub, it promised to be a weekend of carnage, mayhem and great music.
Local favourites The Crushing had the auspicious honour of opening proceedings and did so in the only way they know how – with tongue firmly in cheek throughout their set. As their name suggests, they do not take themselves overly seriously, so they make for wonderfully entertaining openers with a set jam-packed with jokes and tunes that enough of the crowd knew well enough to sing along to.
Winners of last year’s Oxford Metal 2 The Masses Imminent Annihilation took the stage next to again provide a style of music that is very fitting of their name. A real contrast to what had gone before, the five-piece from Aylesbury bring the brutal growls and thuddingly heavy guitars that a large part of the crowd has been drawn to the festival for. Certainly, their cover of Roots, Bloody Roots to end the set was a real crowd-pleaser, and they brought a frantic thirty minutes to this early stage of the festival.
Up-and-comers Fahran from Nottingham are one of the lightest and most musically diverse bands of the weekend, blending elements of classic rock, alternative, and power metal to a set of pure joy and energy that saw them well and truly steal the show for the evening. Vocalist Matt Black also brought a more emotive aspect to the band’s sound with his performance while the rest of the band enjoyed strutting their stuff as much as the limited stage space would allow. Considering that they are not locals, it is fair to say that this will have won them a number of fans to support them on what must surely the early stages of a promising career.
Headlining were NWOBHM act Troyen who were originally active in the early 80’s before splitting up and reforming 32 years later. Since 2014, they have once again been gracing the British rock and metal scene and put in a triumphant performance to end this section of the festival and whet the appetite for what was to come. Typical of other bands of their ilk, they produced a show filled with glorious riffs, solos and big choruses to leave the crowd smiling and still singing along to the songs inside their heads as Friday night drew to a successful close.
Saturday morning brought a change of venue, a slight hangover and the promise of a full day of metal mayhem after the previous night’s appetizer. The venue of the Bullingdon Arms had been procured for the rest of the weekend, which is also a regular location for gatherings of a rock and metal sensibility in Oxford.
Those who got down to the venue early were treated to a set from the opening act A/M (Altered Myths) and could have been forgiven for thinking that some of the band members themselves hadn’t managed to make the early start, but it turns out there really are just two members of this band – guitarist ‘Eskay’ and drummer/singer ‘Matik’. Between the two of them though, they produce a huge sound with distorted guitar work, crashing drums and catchy hooks to get the day off to a great start.
Four-piece progressive metal act Villainous continued an already solid start to the day with a set that blended both innovation and energy into an intriguing thirty minutes. Using the term “progressive metal” can be a bit misleading when it comes the boys from Brighton, because in terms of performance, they were more like early Tool than other bands of that genre; with some more of the rawness that encapsulated early 90’s heavy music thrown in for good measure. Much of this was embodied in frontman Sean Stakim who danced and grooved across the stage giving the intelligent musicianship of his bandmates a real punk-edge. If they can get the balance between their disparate influences right on record, these guys could well be ones to watch in future.
Last-minute additions to the bill Master Charger were up next and already with just three bands, any doubts over the quality of the music on offer from a low-key festival such as this were firmly laid to rest. The Nottinghamshire three-piece served up a terrific display of heavy riffs and sludgy rhythms to keep the audience’s heads moving. Lead singer and guitarist JP roared at the Bullingdon with his powerful vocals all the way through and was duly roared back at by an entertained crowd. Master Charger are very much a no frills act, but they do their thing very well indeed.
Local lads Damaged Reich continued the onslaught with their high octane thrash metal, making sure to use their status as local favourites to the utmost possible effect. If truth be told, it was not the tightest of displays, musically-speaking, but the great thing about playing fast-paced metal is that a powerful enough sound can easily see bands through a set. Damaged Reich were additionally aided by frontman Joe Samuels’ killer screams and stage presence, which held the performance together very well.
Diving deeper into the heavier ends of the spectrum, Gloucester-based three-piece Ascaris brought their unique style of blackened death metal to the City of Dreaming Spires. The formal attire they donned for their performance did not fool the crowd for long into a false sense of security, as the guitars and rhythm section duly erupted into a ferocious half-hour of music which is never going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but is undeniably well performed. The harmonizing screams from Sam Gooding and Dave Marcovecchio were carried off particularly well, and even problems with their amp couldn’t keep them down for long.
There was quite the contrast therefore, between the brutality of Ascaris and the far more upbeat rock and roll approach of Hell’s Gazelles, who (also being local legends) drew the most noticeable addition to the size of the crowd. Much of what the band does well can be summed up by lead singer Cole Bryant’s relentless energy and enthusiasm. They’re in a small club in Oxford but they may as well be on the main stage at Download the way they put on a show, only he has no space on stage so constantly vaults into the crowd instead. It’s not just the energy though, as the other three band members show off their talents whenever they get the chance to take centre stage. Hell’s Gazelles’ reputation is quickly rising, and it’s easy to see why.
Kinasis have a tough act to follow therefore, so it is probably a good thing that they go in a completely different direction and therefore do not invoke direct comparisons. Extreme technical metal is not something that you would regularly associate with the southwest, but nevertheless they bring from that region an eclectic blend of various heavy influences which would cause great frustration to any genre purists out there. The musical expertise is there in abundance, though again it must be said that they would clearly be more of an acquired taste than most other acts on the bill.
As stressful and hard work as putting on an event like this is, being able to put your own band on the bill has got to be a nice perk. It wasn't just any performance from organiser Mark Gibbs' band VIG (Violence is Golden) however, as this was also unfortunately their last ever show as a band. I say unfortunately, because they gave a tremendous demonstration of what the Oxford metal scene would be missing, with groove-laden riffs and powerful vocals from Gibbs. It's always sad when a mainstay of a scene departs, but what a way to bow out!
Upping the ante even further, Confessions of a Traitor made the trip up from London to tear up the Bullingdon Arms with a crazy 45 minute set. Frontman Stephen MacConville set the tone early on with his brutal guttural vocals and manic performance, spending most of it up close and personal with the assembled crowd. It's easy to see why there is so much excitement about these guys, because they really give their all into the performance and make for a terrific live experience that would have been many people's highlight of the day.
My personal highlight of the day however, were the following band Red Method. It feels like a super group made up of ex-members of Meta-Stasis and The Defiled shouldn't really end up working, but Red Method bring all their different weird elements together into an incredible blend of crushing brutality and technical wizardry. In addition to this they are also one of the most theatrical bands of the weekend, donning post-apocalyptic costumes and making full use of their limited space on the small stage to fully engage with the crowd, who loved every minute of them. I had not come across Red Method before this show, but it was immediately clear why there was so much hype surrounding them going into the weekend, I will not be surprised to see these guys go very far indeed.
Conan had the honour of headlining an already great success of a day, and the doom metallers definitely drew a crowd, proving the extent of their popularity. The problem was that while they had a good percentage of the crowd who had turned up to see them, those who hadn't were left fairly cold by the performance. Doom metal is generally not something that translates well to those not well-versed in it, and those who had stuck around after the brutal energy of the previous bands were now met with a static trio playing very slow-paced music. This is not to say they didn't do it well and stick true to what they do best, but as festival headliners this final performance did fall a little short of the exceptionally high standards set out by the rest of the day.
Saturday night ended with the one-time return of the Oxford metal club night Sanctum, which closed out the night in amazing fashion. Unfortunately, due to a combination of a Sanctum-induced hangover and public transport, I completely missed King Bolette opening the Sunday and the majority of Final Couse Of Tacitus, arriving only for their final song, which was a cover of the House of Pain classic ‘Jump Around’. It’s a shame, because from what I could gather, it seems like it would have been a fun way to kick off the day.
Broken Empire were my first full set of the day, and all I can say is that I am incredibly glad I didn’t miss any of them. This was my first encounter with the local hard rockers, and I could not believe when I looked them up on Facebook afterwards that they had only been together for a couple of years. The tightness of their set and the way every band member fed off each other to produce their sound was reminiscent of bands with much more experience under their belts. They were one of the lighter bands of the day, sounding more along lines of modern rock acts like Volbeat and Alter Bridge than the heavier stuff that had gone before, so they did not get the turnout that their performance deserved. They certainly earned themselves at least one more fan though, and more so than any other act of the weekend, these guys are definitely ones to watch in the years to come.
Democratus are another band that have not been around all that long, but arrived back in Oxford with a solid reputation behind them and spent the next thirty minutes proving exactly why they deserve it. Musically, the band are both brutal and brilliant, with some incredible guitar parts that had me air guitaring along for most of the show. In addition to this, they brought a furious rhythm section who held together their melodic death metal sound and kept things moving. The icing on the cake was lead singer Steve Jenkins who brought an incredible vocal range and tremendous stage presence to the show, even going as far as to wield a hangman’s noose during one of the songs. They got one of the warmest receptions of the weekend as they left the stage, which tells you all you need to know.
A band from my hometown in Witney, Bloodshot had a tough act to follow but rose to the task admirably. Progressive death metal is not a subgenre that everyone will be into, but Bloodshot do a fantastic job of engaging the crowd and putting on a great musical display. Even on a small scale such as that of the Bullingdon Arms, they do well to make sure the technicality of their music wasn’t lost among the clamour, as often happens with death metal bands. They had a bit more of a mixed reaction, but if you’re into the heavier side of the metal spectrum, Bloodshot are definitely worth a listen.
A band who were more aligned with the kind of music that I am personally into was The Five Hundred, and I had a real blast with their set. Again, the type of technical metal that relies on seven and eight string guitars and everything that goes with it, is not for everyone; and I do wonder how much there was for those not into tech-metal. I didn’t do much wondering at the time though, because I was handbanging along to every second. The Five Hundred were excellent from start to finish, expertly balancing thuddingly heavy grooves with spectacular melodies. The Nottingham five-piece have been firmly added to the list of “must see again”.
Groove metallers Gutlocker will have had more of a broad appeal, and they certainly made full use of it by putting on a very entertaining show. They had a good following in the crowd and knew full well how to play to them. Whenever you want to play to a metal crowd, having riffs and vocals that shake your bones is a very good way to start, but they also inject a fair amount of fun into the show too, even starting a conga line at one point, as you do. It’s not difficult to see why Gutlocker have this level of popularity, even outside of their local area, and they did themselves no harm at all with this show.
Speaking of a band being outside their local area, Dog Tired graced Oxford with their presence having travelled all the way from Edinburgh to perform. Their sound was utterly furious, throwing together various elements of heavy music in way that could sound incoherent in less capable hands, but the Scots show they have the ability to carry if off very well indeed. This is fast-paced riffing paired with dual vocals and powerful rhythms, and it made the crowd very happy indeed. The general consensus afterwards was the sincere hope that the distance the band travelled won’t put them off of making a return visit.
Bast were certainly a contrast to the high-energy bands that had gone before, and probably more so than any other band fall into a category of doing what they do incredibly well, but what they do will not be many people’s cup of tea. That style is a blend of progressive blackened doom metal, which is very niche and did lead a lot of people to make the decision that it might just be dinner time. At first I have to admit, I was thinking along the same lines, but the three-piece won me over by creating a great atmospheric intensity which, once I sunk into it, proved to be a terrific ethereal experience.
Metal festivals such as Rabidfest usually fill their line-ups with serious bands playing seriously heavy music, and there is nothing wrong with that at all. Sometimes though, it is nice to have some comic relief, which Papa Shango provide in abundance. The circus-rock troop provide a hilarious set full of props, Day of the Dead style costumes and shameless innuendo to bring a broad grin to the faces of the whole crowd. Let it never be said that metalheads don’t have a sense of humour, because the audience could not get enough of Papa Shango, and will definitely welcome them back should they decide to play here again. You can tell a show has been fabulously entertaining when your friend texts round afterwards to ask if anyone got a good picture of her sponging.
You just can’t have an Oxford metal festival without Desert Storm. The five-piece sludge/stoner outfit are legends of the local scene, not just for the great music and live performances that they have delivered to Oxford over the years, but also because twin brothers Ryan and Elliot Cole (who play rhythm guitar and drums respectively) have also been heavily involved in organising many similar events through their Buried In Smoke Promotions. It was thoroughly unsurprising therefore, that even in this late stage of the weekend, they still got an enthusiastic welcome from the crowd and were able to instigate 45 minutes of headbanging. For those less familiar with Desert Storm’s back catalogue, they will have been converted to their camp due to their heavy grooves, catchy riffs and thundering rhythms.
After a full weekend of intense musical entertainment, we had finally reached the final act of this amazing festival. Ingested are a death metal band from Manchester who garnered a lot of excitement when they were announced as the final act for Rabidfest 2019, as they have already established themselves as a band of real pedigree in the death metal scene, and this was also the final date of their “Call of the Void” summer tour of Europe. Unfortunately, circumstances conspired against them to make this ending something of an anti-climax. Firstly, they were a member down of their usual five-piece line-up; and then to add to this they had to struggle through persistent sound issues with their samples, eventually having to abandon them. Add this to the fact that their extreme style is not for everybody, leading many to simply call it a night there. Ingested were not to be defeated though and deserve an enormous amount of credit for the way they were determined to make a success of their set. Frontman Jay Evans put everything he had into the show, inciting the crowd to mosh and bang their heads at every song.
Pulling out such a solid performance through adversity is, to an extent, a fitting way to end the festival however. As local alternative music scenes continue to struggle throughout the country, and particularly in Oxford where the recent closure of one of its most iconic venues The Cellar is still being felt by the residents, the success of Rabidfest is incredibly admirable. To bring together bands from across the country to perform a terrific weekend of metal is no mean feat and Mark Gibbs and his team deserve an enormous amount of praise for everything they’ve done. Rabidfest shows that this kind of music can still draw crowds, even at small venues in small cities, and the weekend was not only greatly enjoyable, but made me optimistic about the future of British metal.