Few states in this federal union can boast the extensive history enjoyed by that of Virginia, so it goes without saying that a large undertaking is par for the course for one of the first colonies to declare independence from the British Empire. Though competition for the largest music festival in the country, let alone the rest of the world, would seem a daunting prospect, the relatively new Blue Ridge Rock Festival is definitely a contender. Following a stellar 2021 showing – that saving glaring problems with organization and logistic – offered such diverse acts as Tech N9ne, Breaking Benjamin, Testament, and Avatar, it could be argued that the greatest competition this Virginia-based extravaganza faces this time around is with itself, and as throngs of avid fans flooded into the State for Lovers at around 40,000 strong, it’s a foregone conclusion that this newly minted concert-going sensation is continuing to catch on.
As the grounds of the Virginia International Raceway in Alton began to swell with enthusiastic spectators, the air would become saturated by a highly eclectic array of sounds from each of the venue’s five stages. The dual course recipe of saccharine melodic hooks and ugly hardcore aggression would rule the opening moments on the Monster Energy Stage as metalcore act A Skylit Drive, which was comprised of its original mid-2000s lineup and stuck mostly to older material on one of their early appearances following years of legal disputes with former members, hearkening back to the days when Atreyu and Bullet For My Valentine were ruling the charts. A similarly infectious and accessible tone with more of a soulful blend of rap and rock would emerge from the Zyn Stage courtesy of Texas-born late-2000s upstarts Fire From The Gods, led by the husky baritone and charismatic stage presence of AJ Channer, they enjoyed a vibrant reaction from the audience as they cycled through a set of heavy-ended bangers with the forceful “The Voiceless” and closing crusher “Excuse Me” being the standouts.
The flavor of the afternoon air would become darker and heavier as the opening acts exited their respective stages and made way for the heavier hitters. Hailing from the other central hub of the American Revolution, Massachusetts and bringing that vintage blend of uncompromising hardcore aggression and Gothenburg-forged melodic death metal, Boston’s Unearth brought the fury with the intensity of the very sun above from the URW Stage, instigating a massive mosh pit with mad thrashing riff machines like “This Glorious Nightmare” off their 2006 breakout album III: In The Eyes Of Fire and the In Flames-inspired fan favorite from 2004 “Endless”. Not to be outdone, fellow Bostonian riff maestros Shadows Fall struck a similarly forbidding tone with a more orthodox, Swedish-informed bent from the Zyn Stage, spearheaded by the expert crowd work and massive dreadlocks of Brian Fair. The raucous response from the fans about as deafening as the riff work of Jonathan Donais and Matthew Bachand as this early trailblazer of American metalcore pulled off a stunning reunion display despite being defunct for seven years.
As the afternoon marched on, the tone would then take a smoother and more accessible quality as the 3rd wave of bands entered the fray. The hard rock meets EDM fusion act and 20 years plus veterans from Michigan dubbed Pop Evil would live up to their name as they showcased their niche from the Monster Energy Stage, with the Breaking Benjamin meets dubstep charms of opener “Eye Of The Storm” and the club meets punch vibes of “Trenches” eliciting the loudest cheers. Meanwhile, the quirky splicing of atmospheric post-rock and djent-steeped alternative metal in Spiritbox brought a harrowing industrial curveball into the mix with compact offerings like “Holy Roller” and “Hurt You” from the Zyn Stage. Afterward, the Monster Energy Stage would become the temporary home of L.A. modern groove trustees and relative newcomers Bad Wolves, who made a decent showing with their darker reinterpretation of The Cranberries‘ “Zombie” and fist-raising bangers like “Killing Me Slowly”, among a few other offerings from their catalog.
The fourth onslaught of acts would see an interesting combination of star power and unfettered punk-infused rage, culminating in the most eclectic assortment of acts of the first day as the light began to fade. Georgian noise rock-infused metalcore veterans Norma Jean would dump out a treasure trove of compact anthems from their extensive back catalog via the Heart Support Stage, with towering monsters from their latest LP Deathrattle Sing For Me like “Sleep Explosion” and “Spearmint Revolt” garnering about as much energy from the crowd as older classics like “Memphis Will Be Laid To Waste” and “The End Of All Things Will Be Televised” from back when the song titles were long and the riffs were mathematically composed. A more stripped down and rustic tone would be struck somewhere along the lines of hardcore and extreme metal via the Canadian act Kittie, whose songs were generally short and simple, while the riotous performance and flamboyant appearance of these ladies kept all eyes glued to the URW Stage. Bringing up the smoother side of things would be American Idol finalist Chris Daughtry‘s post-grunge outfit bearing his own name, and would recall the stylings of Fuel and Nickelback with an ultra-smooth and precise vocal display on newer bangers like “Heavy Is The Crown” and “World On Fire”, though his seminal classic power ballad “It’s Not Over” would end up stealing the show.
As night broke in the Virginia sky, the final hurrah of day one would see an assembly of stellar headliners draw this first grand chapter to a close. For metal heads of all stripes, New York thrash icons Anthrax carried the entire event, attacking the airwaves at warp speed with high octane classics from the 80s in “Caught in A Mosh”, “I Am The Law” and “Indians”, though newer banger “The Devil You Know” and more mid-paced early ’90s fair like “Keep It In The Family” were equally up to the task. Between Joey Belladonna’s sense of theatricality and soaring vocal prowess and Scott Ian’s blistering riff work and crowd work, paired by Frank Bello‘s almost inhuman energy and relentless headbanging, perfect synchronicity was the name of the game. But for those who like their southern friend country rock with a side of rap, Tennessee-born Jason DeFord, aka Jelly Roll, drew a truly massive flock to his stage and captivated from start to finish, pairing his presentation with dancing lights and gnarly pyro; while In This Moment – led by the unstoppable force of Maria Brink – rocked the other side of the hill, serving their well-known theatricality and stage diversity with a more than abundant dose of metal, with the closing cut “Whore” serving as a phenomenal sendoff, pyro, smoke and giants balloons included. Yet when all was said and done, the night would belong to theatricality as Swedish retro-rockers and purveyors of the occult Ghost had the final word, cycling through a grueling 19-song set and hitting a pair of stunning apex points during the infectious odes “Dance Macabre” and “Hunter’s Moon”.
If there be any truth to the old adage to go large or go home, it’s a pretty safe assumption that the Blue Ridge Festival and all those involved are going to be on an extended vacation from their place of abode. Though three more days of music and mayhem yet lay in store for the open air venue in Alton, Virginia, it would seem that a massive adventure had already come to pass. Though the stylistic net may have been cast so wide that no one person could have fully processed all that was going on if they had the fortitude to run back and forth between five stages, it was a sure bet that everyone came away with a more than fulfilling experience. It was the impeccable introduction to an extended series of events spanning most of the week, and with dozens more seasoned acts spanning multiple genres still yet to be seen, the sky that hangs above the Virginia International Raceway is sure to be the limit.
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