Live Review: Wildfire Festival 23 – 25 June 2023



Wildfire Festival returned to the picturesque setting of Wanlockhead for another fun packed weekend of great music. Based at the Wanlockhead Inn, Scotland’s highest pub, this is a unique festival venue with the main stage in a marquee and a second stage inside the pub for late night shenanigans. The pub offers festival goers a well stocked bar, a wide selection of food and friendly banter from the staff who are amazing.

Dave Ritchie and his team have built up a loyal following for Wildfire over the years with people travelling from all over the UK and even Sweden to enjoy a diverse range of bands. Importantly, the lineup is not just the same permeation of bands doing the summer festival circuit: if you come to Wildfire you are guaranteed to see several bands that you have probably never heard of before but will want to see again in the near future. That was the case when I took a look at this year’s lineup, but knowing that Dave has the knack for finding great new talent I was intrigued to find out what was on offer.

Arriving in time for the first band on Friday after a long drive up the M6, I was greeted with the news that Death By Owl had suffered a bit of a domestic and had imploded that morning. I was disappointed, because I was intrigued by their name more than anything; but it did mean that there was time to catch up with old friends before the day got off to a flying start with Burn The Maps. Hailing from Fife, these alt rockers brought a feel good vibe with lots of harmonies and a polished sound that went down well with the crowd. Current single Let Me In and 2020’s Rise stood out in particular in a great opening set. Next we took a trip back to the 80s with Edinburgh’s Medusa Touch who were the first of many hidden gems this weekend. Those of you with long memories may recall them from way back when. After going the way of many bands of the NWOBHM generation they decided to reform in 2019 and released a new album, Terror Eyes The Anthology. I, for one, am glad that they did because they were an absolute joy. With a sound reminiscent of Ratt and Mötley Crüe, Medusa Touch are definitely old school; but they were totally unapologetic and revelled in their no doubt murky past. There were grins on the faces of frontman Gogsy and bassist Demy throughout the set, which spread to the audience by the time set closer Loser rolled around. Representing the new generation of rockers, rising stars Thieves of Liberty showed us why they are in growing demand on the festival circuit. With spots on the forthcoming SOS and Firevolt festivals, it is clear that the North East quintet are grabbing attention wherever they play. Their twin guitar attack combines groove with some chunky riffs and memorable melodies, providing the perfect launching pad for singer James Boak’s powerful, blues-tinged vocals. Look out for their debut EP Back Again.

Wildfire is not afraid to mix things up, so after an opening run of bands in the classic rock genre, there was an abrupt change of pace when InRetrospect burst onto the stage. A 5-piece metalcore band from Leeds that combines brutal metal riffs with melodic moments, over which Nathan Biddles delivers a passionate mixture of harsh and clean vocals and even elements of hip-hop. Delivered with huge amounts of energy, the stage can barely contain this monster of a band whose aural assault entices and stuns the crowd at the same time. The alt metal vibe continues with Neonfly and a burst of melodic power metal. Singer Willy Norton has a strong, clear voice that cuts through the powerhouse twin guitars, and is complemented by the harsh vocals of bassist Paul Miller. An imposing figure with waist length dreads, the bassist locks into a groove with the drummer to drive the music forward relentlessly. After a set featuring songs from their most recent album The Future, Tonight, and a rousing finish which sees Paul and Willy swap roles on vocals and bass, it’s time for a breather while the stage changes over once more.

I was particularly looking forward to seeing This House We Built live for the first time, having interviewed them for ERB magazine, and I was not disappointed! Opener Fairweather Friend begins with some Richie Sambora-esque talk box before the riff kicks in and strikes up a serious groove. The first thing that strikes is that the sound is much heavier live than on the album. Which is no bad thing at all, as Scott Wardell’s powerhouse vocals could easily fill the tent unaided. To his right stands possibly the coolest man at Wildfire, Wayne Dowkes-White on bass: seriously, anyone who can rock a mohawk and tattoos look with white plastic sunglasses deserves respect! In complete sartorial contrast, French hair metal rockers Harsh were all leopard and snakeskin-print spandex in the finest tradition of the Sunset Strip in the 80’s. Delivering some serious Eddie Van Halen-inspired fret work, these guys really know how to have a good time and soon have everyone on board for the ride. Sharing a bottle of Jack Daniels with some willing audience members at the barrier no doubt helped keep the party going too! All too soon it was time for another change of pace with the arrival of A New Tomorrow who defy being categorized. They combine elements of prog, metallic riffs, driving drums and soaring vocals in a sound that will keep you guessing. Check out new single Intuitionto experience their expansive sound for yourself.

Friday night headliners Tailgunner are firm Wildfire favourites, returning after a triumphant set last year to repeat the experience. If you like galloping Iron Maiden bass lines and Judas Priest riffing then they are the band for you. The pace doesn’t drop for the whole of their rifftastic set, with epic tales and screaming guitar solos coming thick and fast. They are an incredibly tight unit who clearly relish the opportunity to play for an enthusiastic crowd. The night closed with the now traditional party in the inn with Heist, but unfortunately my bed was calling so I’ll have to check them out another time.

Saturday morning brings overcast skies to match the mood of those suffering from a hangover; but Crooked Shapes offer the perfect cure with their upbeat, feel good vibes and classy vocals. The pace changes with the arrival of Kite Thief who offer up metal riffs with poppy vocals and sing along choruses guaranteed to blow away the remaining cobwebs. Which is just as well because you need to be fully fit to withstand Pulverise’s assault on the senses. Combining metal, rap, groove and pop the band soon bring a smile to the face with their infectious energy. Vocalist Jojo Millward doesn’t stand still for a second, bounding around the stage while the rest of the band lay down some seriously catchy grooves and clearly enjoying every second. Ones to watch out for and certainly a band that I hope to see live again soon. Lords of Ruin bring a traditional melodic metal style to the stage with more than a hint of a Viking invasion in the form of vocalist Dox, who looks like he has just jumped off his long ship to lay waste to the masses. Stirring stuff!

Shy and retiring are words that have never been used to describe Lixx. Oozing sleaze and self-confidence, along with a killer pair of snakeskin trousers, vocalist Joe could make a stripper blush and certainly made a few hearts flutter in the audience. Totally over the top and completely tongue in cheek, these guys are huge fun. Having been round the block they know what they are doing and have the licks to back up the raunch. Highly recommended. Tantrum are a very different kettle of fish: another firm favourite with the Wildfire crowd, they bring tales of epic battles and heroism set to a soundtrack of traditional heavy metal riffs and powerhouse vocals. Today is a sad day as it is drummer and founding member Billy Angus’ final gig; but at least he finally managed to write a song which was performed with gusto. Maybe not a Viking funeral, but a fitting send off nonetheless. Changing the pace once more, Yorkshire rockers Deadflight impress with their modern sound combining hooky riffs and passionate vocals. There are some quality songs on offer here which are guaranteed burrow into your subconscious and refuse to leave. Their 2022 album Arrival is highly recommended if you enjoy riffy, driving rock tunes.

Technical problems delayed the start of Dead Blonde Stars set which unfortunately meant that the Sheffield grungemeisters time was cut short. However, they made the most of their slot and delivered a set laden with dense, weighty riffs. Vocalist Gary Walker draws comparisons with the late, great Chris Cornell which adds to the Seattle sound that the band use as a basis for their own spin on the genre. Well crafted songs are delivered with precision and bass-heavy goodness for all to savour. After the intensity of DBS, Blue Nation come as a complete contrast with their classy, soulful blues. They deliver a set of up-lifting and life affirming songs which spread a positive message of hope. Echoes touches on the serious issue of suicide and comes with a plea to talk about mental health issues, whether that is something that you are going through yourself or a friend who you might think is suffering in silence. The band collect money at all of their shows for the Samaritans charity, so if you go and see them spare some cash if you are able. The other reason to go and experience Blue Nation live is for the onstage banter, because guitarist/vocalist Neil Murdoch is hilarious. His interaction with his band mates and the crowd is worth the price of admission alone!

Continuing the uplifting vibe, next we have Theia, an exuberant duo from Burton on Trent. Brothers Kyle and Ash Lamley are a bundle of brightly coloured energy with a very modern sound. Making use of synths on a backing track to fill out their live sound, they manage to make an impressive amount of noise for just two people. Guitarist/vocalist Kyle soon has the audience in the palm of his hand with his infectious enthusiasm and can-do attitude. New single I’m Plastic is well received and suggests that bigger things are on the horizon. Tonight’s guest slot should have been taken by the Marshall Potts band; but unfortunately illness meant that they had to pull out. Undaunted and after a few frantic messages, Dave managed to find a popular alternative in the form of metallers UNTIL 9. Combining melodic and harsh vocals, crunchy riffs and a scary clown drummer, they proved to be just what the crowd wanted on a Saturday night. Heaps of energy and a take no prisoners approach left everyone feeling exhausted by the end of their set. Later, after the headliner, the night drew to a close with the Jamie Porter Band taking the party back inside the Inn for some feel good blues-rock tunage.

Sunday arrived with a hint of blue sky: could we avoid the rain? Sadly not, but that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm as we embarked on the third and final day of Wildfire. Unfortunately, I missed openers The Latitude, but I’m told that they were very good and a quick listen on Spotify confirms that they have some promising material. So, the first band of the day for me was Derby trio MuddiBrooke who deliver a passionate set of alt-rock. Taking ownership of past mistakes, failed relationships and controlling partners, guitarist/vocalist Brooke exercises her demons across a set of grunge-lite songs that go down well with the early crowd. You have to feel sorry for anyone nursing a hangover when Volcano X hit the stage with their brand of power metal. Epic vocals and guitar heroics aplenty on This is Heavy Metaland The Power of Metal, as well as a cover of Braking the Law. It was kill or cure! Fortunately, enough people survived to witness a terrific set from A’priori. Delivering some classy rock with catchy riffs and hook-laden choruses, the Blackpool trio have what it takes to put on a show. Guitarist/vocalist Tony Lang knows how to strike those rock star poses as well as delivering some blistering solos. 2022 album House of Cards is well worth a listen if you like accomplished, modern hard rock.

By now the water level inside the tent was rising, threatening to turn Wanlockhead into the full Glastonbury experience, just as Giant Walker hit the stage to deliver their brand of prog-metal. Combining soaring female vocals with unusual time signatures, this is a complex musical journey. In contrast, Catalysis are a straightforward brutal riff machine whose mission is to bring metal into your life. Unphased by the arrival of a giant inflatable, crowd surfing duck they plough through their set without stopping to draw breath. Returning to the tent I am greeted by the sight of Deadfire vocalist Charlie Munro wrestling with a large purple dinosaur: well, it is a festival after all! The rest of the set was a lot of fun too, with a hardcore / punk vibe and loads of energy. I shall be keeping a look out for this band. Onwards, and next we have We Three Kings whose fuzzy, blues-based rock offers a contrast to the preceding shenanigans. Guitarist/vocalist Rich reminds me of The Dust Coda’s John Drake.  Maybe it’s the shades and slicked back hair, but there are some musical similarities too.

Making the long journey from South Wales, King Kraken are here to deliver a highly enjoyable set of riffy rock/metal. Resplendent with some giant kraken tentacles on each side of the stage, the band deliver a set of catchy, metal-tinged tunes which go down well. Another CD added to the collection. Dead Writers are a very different prospect indeed. Fragile, charming and just a little mysterious, vocalist Paul Shine has a hint of the gothic about him and the music follows suit. There is a light, airy feel to the songs, but underneath there is always the potential for a guitar solo to break lose and take you off in a different direction. Ones to watch, for sure. Now the end is in sight: the Sunday night special guest slot is filled by Rebecca Downes whose powerhouse blues vocals are well known. Backed by a band of seasoned and accomplished musicians, Rebecca delivers a crowd pleasing set interspersed by some anecdotes from the road.

Which brings us to the headliners, The Cruel Knives, who give us slick, professional modern rock as you would expect from ex-members of Heaven’s Basement. There is a lot to like here, with polished performances across a set of future modern classics. Passionate vocals, catchy riff-driven hooks and a tight rhythm section. Nothing is left to chance; the songs and delivery have been crafted for maximum impact. Don’t expect to see them on small stages for much longer.

Well that’s it. Wildfire is over for another year and Dave and his team have pulled off another success. Although I came to the festival not knowing quite a few of the bands on offer, I left with a bundle of CDs and a list of bands to keep an eye on. Wildfire will return to the Wanlockhead Inn on 28-30 June 2024 and I cannot wait. I’ll see you there!

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