UK thrashers Hydra Vein have reformed for a one-off show at Newcastle’s Brofest this month – their first in more than 30 years. Rich Holmes pulled founders Damon and Nathan Maddison out of rehearsals to hear why they’re hitting the stage one last time.
UK thrash pioneers Acid Reign, Onslaught and Xentrix are all enjoying their Indian summers. Andy Sneap and Martin Walkyier’s Sabbat are rightly revered for their otherworldly take on the genre. And Lawnmower Deth are still partying like it was ’87 (albeit with substantially more joint pain).
But most of the bands who took up the 80s Brit thrash baton quickly fell into obscurity, never gaining the fans, praise and label support enjoyed by their US and German counterparts. The UK didn’t conjure up a Reign In Blood or Pleasure To Kill. There was nothing akin to the Bay Area explosion for the scene to coalesce around.
Yet bubbling beneath the surface was some serious talent, as groups of long-haired oiks clad in denim and hi-tops battled hard for coveted support slots with bigger bands, or hit the road DIY-style to unleash thrash mayhem across Thatcher’s Britain.
Brighton’s Hydra Vein – formed in 1987 by bassist Damon Maddison and featuring his brother, Nathan on drums – were one of them. With their 1988 debut Rather Death Than False Of Faith and its ’89 follow-up, After The Dream, they were lauded as a British answer to Slayer. Rather Death… was violent, punchy and raw, After The Dream a more technically progressive affair, resplendent with sci-fi artwork courtesy of Dan Seagrave.
Both records stand up to anything that came out of the UK at the time. Indeed, they could go head to head with some of the best albums from Brit thrash’s noughties revival.
And Hydra Vein will be breathing new life into that material on February 29, at their much-anticipated reunion show at Brofest in Newcastle upon Tyne. Nathan and Damon will be joined by guitarists Stephen Davis and Dan Ranger (both part of the Rather Death… line-up) and Paul Bate (who performed on After The Dream), plus singer James Manley-Bird, who worked with Damon, Nathan and Paul in their 2015 project, Silvaticus.
The Maddison brothers have been attending Brofest for years, enthralled by its mix of NWOBHM veterans and young upstarts proudly carrying the torch for a new generation. And it was a pub chat with Brofest promoter Stu Bartlett which led to Hydra Vein joining the growing list of acts who’ve reunited for the festival, which started in 2013.
Their set at Newcastle University will be a tribute to guitarist Jon Balfour, who played on After The Dream and tragically passed away in 1992, and the band’s original singer, Mike Keen, who sadly died in 2003.
There are no plans, however, for a follow-up performance. Fans of songs like Guillotine and Rabid need to make a beeline for Newcastle this weekend…
“For me personally, it is to put a line under Hydra Vein, to properly sign off with those old tunes and a celebration of the memory of Mike and Jon,” says Nathan. “Then there’s the fact that a fair few people over the years have asked if we could or would gig again. Now they have the opportunity to see those songs performed live. I just hope that they’re not washing their hair that night!”
Damon adds: “We thought it would be fun to bring the curtain down properly and to pay tribute to the guys who are no longer with us. Closure, I suppose.”
So what can fans expect from the show?
“We’ll certainly be playing material from both albums, though the set will likely lean slightly more on Rather Death… than After the Dream,” Damon explains. “That’s down to what we think best suits the short, sharp shock of a set the Brofest format demands from us.
“There are a couple of songs we’re almost honour-bound to play, there are a couple we particularly want to do and then we need to pace and schedule the set properly… and be able to have fun with it.”
Nathan has been taken aback by the revival of interest in Hydra Vein. The band split in 1989: Brofest will be their first live appearance in more than three decades. “There was absolutely no expectation 30 years ago we’d be playing these songs all this time later,” he says. “It’s gratifying and humbling that people still get off on it. But it’s mostly a bit mental!”
Could Hydra Vein have done anything differently, first time out? “How long have you got?” laughs Nathan. “We had absolutely no idea of the industry. We made music, bought records, read the press and went to gigs. That was all the knowledge that any of us had of the business, back then.”
His sibling is more philosophical: “We all do what we do when we do it and have our motives and reasons and drivers, real-time. I don’t think any of it could have gone much differently.”
The brothers, however, are united in their views on the original UK thrash scene. They agree that if a couple of bands has really ‘made it’ it could have been a ‘game changer’. If the UK had birthed a Metallica or a Testament, major label investment could have flooded into the scene as the hunt began for another star act. It would have lifted the British bands who, from ’87 to ’90, were struggling to survive.
On the other hand…
“The primacy of the thrash metal scene wasn’t particularly long-lived, other than for the handful of bands who’d cleared the bar before its relative decline,” Damon points out. “It may have already been too late in the day for most of us in the UK.”
That may be. But for 40 special minutes in Newcastle, Hydra Vein will be taking us back to the halcyon days of British thrash… and a scene that deserved more attention than it received at the time.
“Brofest is put on by genuine enthusiasts, for genuine enthusiasts,” says Nathan of the festival that’s set to host Hydra Vein’s last ever show. “It brings together all sorts of people, from all over, who share a love of the music. Yeah it’s niche, but it also utterly pretension-free.
“Also, it’s great that those bands who’d maybe struggle to pull in ten punters back in the day, get to play on a decent stage to a new audience, and likewise the opportunity is afforded to the young guns to reach the same.
“Long may Brofest, and those like them, continue!”
Hydra Vein play Brofest (UK) 6, Newcastle University, February 29, 2020.