It probably wasn’t intentional, but when Rage Against The Machine pulled out of Reading & Leeds a few weeks before the Bank Holiday bash was due to kick off, they took with it the last niggling whispers of it still being a legacy rock festival.
There was no grand announcement, but 2022 also saw the death of the Lock-up stage. A long-standing pillar of rock, punk and alternative, last year it was reduced to just one day – sharing the space with the indie celebration of the Festival Republic stage – and this year, it was all brought under one united umbrella.
Ignore Twitter, though – all this means is that the deck has been cleared for a new generation of bands to make their own legend. And what better group to usher in a new era than Bring Me The Horizon? The first new rock headliner since Biffy Clyro made the leap in 2013 and the first British metal band to top the bill since forever, tonight is a game changer.
While fellow headliners Arctic Monkeys opt for stripped-down nonchalance, Bring Me The Horizon have brought a garish production and the clear-cut promise that they’re here to give the crowd the best night of their lives. Well, they’ve never been ones for subtlety.
2015’s ‘That’s The Spirit’ saw the Sheffield mob hone their craft in arena-rock bangers, while 2019’s ‘Amo’ was proof there was more to the band. 2020’s ‘Post Human: Survival Horror’ saw them do it all, and it’s that confidence that drives tonight’s set. The likes of ‘Parasite Eve’, ‘Mantra’ and a searing ‘Shadow Moses’ whip the crowd into a frenzy of circle pits, while ‘Happy Song’ and ‘Drown’ incite some of the biggest singalongs of the weekend. The glitching drive of ‘Teardrops’ and the industrial rave of ‘Kingslayer’ see Bring Me’s more experimental side shine while the no-nonsense emo rager of ‘Strangers’ and the hyper-pop-infused ‘Die 4 U’ suggest the best is yet to come. Straight to the point and full of grand emotion, it’s clear to see why so many people find hope in Bring Me’s nihilist anthems.
The biggest surprise, however, comes when Ed Sheeran rocks up for ‘Bad Habits’. Bring Me The Horizon came up at a time when the Reading audience would aggressively bottle anyone that didn’t fit within the festival’s narrow rock credentials. Tonight, the global megastar isn’t just tolerated; he’s celebrated. It leads vocalist Oli Sykes to call Bring Me’s fans “the best in the world.”
With the gargantuan ‘Obey’, the gut-wrenching sincerity of ‘Follow You’ and a triumphant ‘Throne’ closing out the set, Bring Me The Horizon raises the bar of what rock music can achieve in 2022 and comfortable claim their title as the biggest and best heavy band in the land. Somehow, almost 18 years after they first formed, it still feels like the band are only just getting started, though.
Also updating the history books is Halsey, who alongside Megan Thee Stallion becomes the first solo female headliner at Reading Festival since Bjork did it in 1995. While Megan’s set on the Friday is a celebration of sexuality, Halsey’s is one of rage.
Sure, Halsey is perhaps the most outward pop headliner the festival has ever seen, following a path blazed by Dua Lipa in 2018 and Billie Eilish in 2019, but there’s been a punk snarl to everything they’ve done. Tonight’s show is apparently “not what you’re expecting” from Halsey.
Taking the lead from 2021’s ‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’, there’s an industrial might to the whole thing. Flames regularly engulf the stage, while horror visuals play on the gigantic screens. A lesser artist might get lost in the expanse, but Halsey is a constantly commanding presence. Opener’ Nightmare’ comes with historic protest messages in support of women’s rights (“end forced motherhood”, “the future is female”) that sadly feel more necessary than ever in 2022, while they scream “are you ready for me?” before the epic ‘Castle’ bundles all of Halsey’s ambition and fury into a searing three-minute riot.
“I think a lot of people thought that after I had my kid, I’d get really boring or something. I feel like it was the opposite,” they explain, before saying how she now gives less of a fuck and doesn’t take herself so seriously.
Finding time for cinematic moments of calm (‘The Lighthouse’) and glitching catharsis (‘Experiment On Me’) alongside the grand pop might of tracks like ‘Without Me’ and ‘Bad At Love’, Halsey’s set is carefully crafted, complex and brilliant. It feels lazy to call Halsey a rock star just because she plays the guitar, because they’re clearly so much more. If you’re looking for an example of how rock can work within the mainstream while still being progressive, political and personal, this set is it. Another game-changer from an artist who’s always been in a lane of their own.
Across the entirety of Reading Festival, the next generation prove that this rock revival isn’t going to be a fleeting one.
At the heavier end of things are bands like Static Dress. Bringing together the blistering, emotional might of post-hardcore groups like Glassjaw but cutting it with big ol’ anthemic moments that gave the Brit-rock scene such a presence on the main stages at festivals like this, their set teeters at the edge of chaos. Elsewhere, Witch Fever call out the “sexist, racist and misogynistic” history of the rock scene before promising to change things for the better. Musically, there are nods to the groove-filled angst of Deftones and the tightly wound fury of Rage Against The Machine, but there’s an agility to the way their songs about belief, power and rebellion are delivered that demands attention.
Beabadoobee’s music might not be as aggressive, but it’s just as emotional. Latest album ‘Beatopia’ sees her continue to toy with grunge and 90s alt-rock, and based on the mighty singalongs throughout the packed tent, it’s clearly found an audience. On the BBC Introducing stage, Alissic delivers her morbid pop with an enthralling, theatrical edge. This is her third-ever show, but she’s already a pro, and it feels like a grander vision is slowly being revealed to the world. She’s already dabbled in emo, hyper-pop and brooding rock, establishing herself as one of the most promising new voices on the scene.
With just a handful of songs to their name, Crawlers have spent the festival season smashing every expectation that’s come their way. Today though, it’s on a whole other level. From the rumbling ‘Fuck Me (I Didn’t Know How To Say)’ through a soaring ‘I Can’t Drive’ to the urgent ‘I Don’t Want It’, there’s electricity in the air. Rather than just a simple celebration of how far they’ve come, Crawlers use their set to announce debut mixtape ‘Loud Without Noise’. For a festival driven by excitement, Crawlers feel like the shiniest thing going.
And it’s just not on the smaller stages that guitar music is thriving, either. Willow is here single-handedly representing the entire pop-punk revival, but with talk of wanting to write a rock opera (“not a popular opinion, but all of my opinions are unpopular opinions,” she grins) and the unreleased, uptempo indie banger she performs, she’s clearly not done with switching things up. “I’ve just been really ballsy lately,” she admits. Two more tracks from upcoming album ‘CopingMechanism’ confirms that, with ‘Hover Like A Goddess’ offering soulful rebellion while ‘Maybe It’s My Fault’ is a dreamy burst of rock’n’roll.
Poppy is another artist who refuses to rest on her laurels. With 2019’s ‘I Disagree’, she blended industrial metal with pop long before Doja Cat started rumours of a nu-metal revival, while 2021’s ‘Flux’ took the same 00s influences that Olivia Rodrigo used for her groundbreaking debut album and twisted them into something more than simple nostalgia. Today’s mainstage set is another attention-demanding moment from a star who looks increasingly more comfortable in the spotlight. Sure, the terrifying might of ‘Concrete’ and ‘Bite Your Teeth’ might get a few bemused looks from people trying to enjoy a giant Yorkshire pudding, but closer to the action, Poppy’s got the festival eating out of the palm of her hand. New revenge anthem ‘FYB’ suggests another exciting new era is just around the corner.
A surprise set from Wargasm sees them continue their “sordid collusion of euphoria and violence”. The duo are now so much more than the nu-metal nostalgia that they were branded as when they first crashed onto the scene (though today’s set does include a cover of Limp Bizkit’s ‘Break Stuff’) with plenty of nods to the rock’n’roll excess of Guns’ n’ Roses. Wargasm have quickly made a name for themselves within the Download faithful, but Reading is a different beast entirely. Still, Milkie Way isn’t fazed. “I don’t care if you don’t know who the fuck we are. That’s not an excuse. Show me that you’ve got,” she demands before a blistering ‘Rage All Over’.
There’s a similar energy to Scene Queen, who’s playing her first proper festival this weekend and will be back to the UK later this year to support Wargasm. She’s already a hit online thanks to the irresistible chaos of her Bimbocore music and her no-nonsense attitude to social media, and it’s clearly translating to real life. Fans turn up wearing pink feather boas, and they need little encouragement to “clap some ass” in a Twerkle pit, which is exactly what you think it is. It’s hard to think of another artist playing Reading as extreme as Scene Queen, but she fully commits to the larger-than-life demands of her ferocious pop-meets-metal, and the packed tent loves every minute.
Over on the main stage, De’Wayne has a tougher job. Bounding onto the stage and launching straight into the pulsating rage of ‘National Anthem’, he’s met with a lot of confused Bring Me The Horizon fans. Taking it all in his stride, he makes time to introduce himself and lets the crowd know what a dream today is for him. “I know a lot of you are wondering ‘who is that, why is he dancing like that?’ but it’s nice to meet you guys,” he says. What follows next is sheer magic. Over the course of 35-minutes, De’Wayne delivers pop hits (‘Perfume’), punk snarl (‘Super 8’) and sexy rock’n’roll swagger (‘Family Tree’). With every track, the crowd gets bigger and more into it. By the time the explosive ‘Me Versus You’ closes things out, there are moshpits, crowdsurfers and people on each other’s shoulders, as De’Wayne ensures people remember the name.
And then we have The 1975, tasked with filling in for Rage Against The Machine. It’s hard to know where the legendary rock band fit in 2022, with even the biggest pop stars in the world delivering more nuanced political takes than “take the power back”, but over the past decade, The 1975 have established themselves at the very forefront of popular culture.
Sure, their ambitious Music For Cars era saw their appeal buckle slightly under the weight of grand concepts and their desire to move faster than anyone else could keep up. Tonight’s set, though – their first in the UK since 2020 – is a chance to reflect and reset with a rare greatest hits set. Anyone watching who doesn’t think they’re one of the best bands to come out of the UK… well.
The always self-aware vocalist Matty Healy wrestles between being a rock star and offering the crowd something more earnest (“the dichotomy of my life”) before deciding to keep the sunglasses on. Elsewhere he shouts, “this is what self-indulgence looks like”, before a blistering, 80s-inspired breakdown and asks why anyone from Reading would want to live in Reading. It’s impossible to argue with the back catalogue, either. From the punishing ‘People’ through the list of everything that’s wrong in 2022 (‘Love It If We Made It’) to the encouraging ‘Give Yourself A Try’, The 1975 can’t help but soundtrack modern life. Then there are the all-out pop bangers like ‘The Sound’, ‘Love Me’ and ‘TooTimeTooTimeTooTime’ that couldn’t be more suited to a festival headline set. Sure, the old blokes on Twitter will complain no matter what but a socially-conscious rock band encouraging a generation of kids to think for themselves, to believe in something better and fight for positive change? Sounds like an apt replacement for Rage Against The Machine to us.
Reading Festival has undeniably changed in recent years, and the 2022 event feels like the start of a whole new, exciting era.