Over the last few years France’s Hellfest has grown from strength to strength to become one of Europe’s largest and most diverse festivals. Determined to exceed last year’s record of 112,000 attendees the organisers sought once again to assemble a line-up that would prove its worth and without a doubt they succeeded – where else could you see Def Leppard, Danzig and The Buzzcocks playing the same field except in the tiny village of Clisson?!
Friday 21 June
Arriving in the afternoon we had missed an earlier heavy downpour and made our way straight for the Temple Stage to witness the Faroese warriors known as TYR. These guys play a blend of Norse / Celtic folk metal that is stirring stuff indeed drawn from ancient tales and played through strong, passionate melodies at a galloping pace. There was also poignant use of powerfully charged atmospheric passages that soon got heads banging and fists in the air to songs like ‘Ramund Hin Unge’, ‘Shadow Of The Swastika’ and the mighty ‘Hail To The Hammer’ – from the final roar of the crowd it was clear that Tyr had made the mark of their tiny islands felt on an entire nation!
I couldn’t believe that SAXON had chosen to play such a short n early set – not even time for afternoon tea but no one needed to tell the massive crowd that had built up around Main Stage 1. It soon became clear that everyone was up for this one and as ‘HM Thunder’ cranked out it was clear that Saxon had come to turn things up a notch. Nigel Glockner’s snare could be heard echoing across the field and the band headbanged in unison together at the front of the stage just like they did back in ’79 to ‘Denim n Leather’. With the crowd equally up for it singing along with their hands in the air to ‘…it was you, you, you that set the spirit free..’ Byford finished the band’s strong set with the classic ‘Wheels Of Steel’, proving there is still plenty of steam in these NWOBHM legends.
HELLYEAH were next – but the crowd had thinned out around Main Stage 2 perhaps as a result of the glaring sun or the hard to swallow groove noise fusion made up by Mudvayne’s vocalist Chad Gray and guitarist Greg Tribbett, and of course Pantera’s Vinnie Paul. With strong elements of the latter especially in the Dimebag guitar wailings and Vinnie’s power drumming, songs like ‘War In Me’ and ‘Cowboy Way’ strongly hinted at the good ‘ol Pantera days, but never really quite kicked off for me especially with Gray’s ugly vocals. Still, the dedicated moshers at the front appreciated it so go figure?
Noticing the sticker on the sound desk that read ‘sound level is 105db max in France’ I did wonder if the storm that Black Cobra were raising in The Valley could entice me away from the Temple but ABSU were something else – I mean, really out there man! Made up of madman drummer / vocalist / inceptor Proscriptor, these guys literally took off like a rocket propelled by his flat out technical drumming – what the fuck was he on!? Complete with some weird headband and babbling even weirder things about Mesopotamian mysticism (and not to mention his insane cackling laughter) I wasn’t sure if I’d just stepped outta Stargate into Chernobyl meets Maiden lol! Theatrical eccentricities aside, Absu’s superior technical black / death laid waste to many a band I’d witnessed before and I was continually awed by the fearsome spectacle of Proscriptor’s flailing shadow and crescendo voice on songs like ‘Highland Tyrant Attack’ and ‘Night Fire Canonization’. Without a doubt one of the most intense bands of the weekend.
And now for something completely different – TWISTED SISTER! Swapping sets with Dave Coverdale cos he obviously needed more make-up than them TS kept it real back on Main Stage 1 to ‘Shoot ‘Em Down’, ‘I Wanna Rock’ and ‘The Kids Are Back’. Mark was still pounding his bass, AJ was still smashing his drums and Dee – well, Dee’s still Dee with his motor mouth not even sparing the poor handicapped people for not getting up during ‘You Can’t Stop Rock N Roll’. Fuckin’ New Yorkers man.
‘…’ere’s a song for ya!..’ uh oh, lock up your mothers, Dave Coverdale was back in town with his WHITESNAKE. Still, I haveta say I’ve never seen him look better and he seemed to be having a ball onstage, relaxed with the sizeable crowd that had stayed and built up after TS. With his trademark wolf howls and insatiable innuendo he whipped out ‘Don’t Break My Heart Again’ followed by an orgasmic ‘Sweet Satisfaction’ as the rest of the band flamboyantly followed with axe hero poses, twirling drumsticks and swanky hair flicks – well, this was Whitesnake! Crowd won over he cheekily called out Joe Elliot and Phil Collen standing stage left to commemorate 35 years of the band and when they refused he instead respectfully dedicated it to the memories of Cozy Powell, Mel Galley and Jon Lord. Dave might be a dinosaur but his mastery of the crowd proved this old lion can still roar.
With twilight approaching it was time to head into the CARPATHIAN FOREST. With the ‘Ave Satani’ intro from “The Omen” film I haveta say that Nattefrost and heavy duty bassist Daniel Vrangsinn play a very canny brand of black metal – with all the trademark blast beats and almost woman-like screaming vocals, yet with a strong catchy groove and almost death n roll passages that get the crowd going to ‘Hymne til Doden’, ‘Black Shining Leather’ and ‘Knokkelmann’. All in all a commandeering performance that had smoke (or the devil) steaming off the Temple stage.
After 17 years amiss from French soil, DEF LEPPARD were the headliners (as Maiden had declined) bringing the evening to a close and I did wonder how it would all end. Right from the off, it was bizarre that Joe Elliott came on in a top hat when next door, Helloween’s Kai Hansen had just finished off in one lol! With a massive video screen backdrop the visual spectacle was almost U2 like but as Vivian Campbell cranked out the mean riffs to ‘Wasted’ I was even more surprised!! Leppard have always been a contentious band even from their early days but that everyone in the crowd from bikers to punks to metalheadz knew songs like ‘Animal’, ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’ and ‘Love Bleeds’ speaks bounds about their success. Love ‘em or hate ‘em Def Leppard had their place in Hellfest history tonite. With a break in between the 2 hour set the TV backdrop skilfully put up a montage of fotos and live clips from their entire career including some moving footage of Steve Clarke before the band closed off to ‘Histeria’ and encored to ‘Photograph’. Although I enjoyed seeing Leppard having not seen them since the 80s my other voice was also saying I wouldn’t want to see Bono up there next year either!
By now in the pitch black of night, the blood red stage of the Altar seemed like a fitting tribute to Chris Barnes and SIX FEET UNDER. With dreadlocks longer than tentacles and his trademark pig squeal ‘vocals’ I have always found SFU style death metal and even more so, Barnes himself irresistible in their possession of my soul. As ‘Revenge Of The Zombie’ and ‘The Day The Dead Walked’ came chundering out, Barnes growled, chuckled sickly and rolled his eyeballs into the back of his head eerily. Those of us in the crowd that he had reached were doing weird shit, rolling about in the mud, skanking crazily and I even remember howling when he said ‘…I’m gonna cut your fuckin’ hand off…’ – oh man, it was magnificent as we bathed in the blood red light to the dance macabre ending in ‘Hammer Smashed Face’. Barnes totally kicked ass cos Barnes is God.
And the heavens opened! Still, it almost seemed like perfect weather for Swiss rockers KROKUS and their chirpy brand of hard rock as Marc Storace prowled the stage like a hungry cat and the two Von’s – Arb and Rohr – cranked out ‘American Woman’, ‘Easy Rocker’ and their classic ‘Heatstrokes’. Even after all these years the material sounded good and the crowd related back well – starting relatively sparsely at the beginning and growing sizeable towards their end. Rather like Saxon the previous day it was a good move to have these veteran rockers on early to get the crowd warmed which they did amidst the by now lashing rain!
With the feedback from Meegs Rascón’s guitar almost drowning out the crowd, COAL CHAMBER launched straight into ‘Loco’ sending the Main Stage 2 crowd into a frenzy. Fronted by Dez and still with Mikey on drums it was straight back to the 90s when I first saw this teen nu metal crew. New girl in the band is goth Chela Rhea Harper who looks as young as when the band themselves started! Doing ballerina twirls in contrast to Rascón’s manic antics (at one stage even spitting into the camera) she seems like the bassist CC shoulda had the first time round playing comfortably to songs like ‘Something Told Me’. As the roof started to go on fire to finale ‘Sway’ CC succeeded in bringing the broken, twisted reality of a dark Tinseltown to the green fields of Hellfest.
Like a lightning storm came the striking tattooed figure of KAMPFAR’s Dolk as he screamed ‘..you want some real shit? This is the way Black Metal is supposed to be!!..’! If Absu were the most intense band of this year’s Hellfest then Norway’s Kampfar were the most moving experience bar none. Emotionally evoking in their pure, unadulterated passion you could not help but go along with songs like ‘Ravensheart’, ‘Vettekult’ and the stirring ‘Troll Dod Og Trolldom’. Dolk is an amazing frontman, utterly captivating in his tall frame and vivid Nordic looks, constantly whipping up the crowd and connecting to it – no one escaped his attention for the entire set – and when he told the crowd that Kampfar only played for the French this summer even though the Germans asked more, not even the disbelievers could stop their hands raising in salutation. Pure energy and passion.
Being a long time fan of Udo Dirkschneider since the early 80s, I was curious how ACCEPT would be now they have former TT Quick vocalist Mark Tornillo on vocals. Well, his voice hasn’t changed and they haven’t either – well, they sorta look like the Scorpions wearing army hats except for Wolf Hoffman proudly sporting his bonehead to the masses lol – so songs like ‘Winners And Losers’ and ‘Metal Heart’ came across more like a subdued cat despite the wall of Marshalls and mega light show. Funnily enough the more sultry numbers like ‘Princess Of The Dawn’ sounded a lot better with Mark so at least Accept have kinda kept their dignity even if they’re no longer leather boys.
Filth, filth, filth! Just what did BELPHEGOR have on those mike stands – um, let’s see…ears, eyes, bone, skin and blood….lotsa blood that had me thinking about more Argentinean sausage lol. In splendid tribute to their namesake demon, Austria’s blackened porno metal come blasting out with ‘Bondage Goat Zombie’ amidst visceral screams of ‘Hail Satan!!!’ and tortured vocal shrills courtesy of main man Helmuth. I dunno who was on drums but he was relentless and clearly trying to give Proscriptor a run for his money as he blastbeated ‘Impaled Upon The Tongue Of Satan’. Belphegor are a nihilistic blitzkrieg of driving furore, clanging metallic melodies and also some slow haunting evil passages that take the Temple way past the 100 degree mark. At the end I notice one of the stage hands holding those mikes as far away as possible as he took them away lol….
In no more starker contrast across on the Altar Stage were MY DYING BRIDE who had certainly changed since I last saw them as a gothic doom band characterised by their melancholic melodies. Well, they still had that but also now a heavy bottom end and occasional blastbeats too! It actually didn’t seem a million miles from Belphegor at times although MDB were more macabre, more funeral with flowers and deffo more theatrical with their Bram Stoker look and vocalist Aaron Stainthorpe’s kneeling and praying to the sombre accompanying violin and piano on songs like ‘She Is The Dark’ and ‘The Snow Is Thy Hand’. The rest of the band didn’t do a whole lot but neither do corpses so all in all a quintessential performance from these English forerunners to doom / death.
Break out the hippy bands people – MANILLA ROAD were burnin’ up the road from Kansas! Founded in the 70s by guitarist and sole survivor Mark Shelton, MR were one of these proto US heavy metal bands who evolved as rock did throughout the 80s, 90s and the next century incorporating a variety of styles from prog to metal to even thrash! Clearly one of Hellfest’s cult acts they drew a sizeable crowd in the Valley from people like myself curious to see more of this elusive band and also some truly dedicated fans, who greatly appreciated and sang along to numbers like ‘Masque Of The Red Death’ and ‘Hammer Of The Witches’.
Having seen all the remaining bands several times over in my rock career, I decided to check out with my old faves CANDLEMASS now with their old friend Mats Levén on vocals. Having kinda grown up with these Swedes and particularly Messiah’s original vocals, this was a job with big, big shoes to fill. Rob Lowe had done a competent enough job over recent years, but never really had quite the spark of Messiah but new boy Mats does the trick. Operatic, angelic and with bunches of sustaining power in his throat old classics like ‘Bewitched’ and ‘Dark Reflections’ are resurrected to their former glory and I leave hearty that Sweden’s original doom merchants are back with a vengeance!
The final day of Hellfest proved to be the most diverse with the addition of more classic punk bands brought a fresh and energetic feel to the festival. Heading to the Warzone, which this year was a larger open air stage, I could already feel the electrically charged atmosphere as SENSER took to the crowd. This South London activist rap rock band started in the 90s and were part of the agit rock movement along with The Levellers and Rage Against The Machine. Based on the rapid fire dual male / female vocals of Heitham Al-Sayed and Kerstin Haigh, songs like ‘Age Of Panic’ and ‘States Of Mind’ had an addictive beat that when coupled with the band’s militant message proved to be irresistible as the crowd lurched and jumped around uncontrollably to their beat!
Having seen IHSAHN with Emperor since the 90s, I was curious to see more of his solo work which isn’t black metal per se but more of a fusion of styles from progressive to classical to straight metal. He still has his raw voice but songs like ‘The Paranoid’ and ‘Frozen Lakes On Mars’ are trippy and heading into Opeth territory but either from his legacy or his present, he was enjoyed enthusiastically by the Temple crowd even if I found it a little contrived.If you grew up in the 70s like I did then the name COCKNEY REJECTS was infamously associated with skinheads and football violence so it was with some trepidation that I walked back to the aptly named Warzone. If things did get out of control as so often they did at a Rejects gig back then, I would haveta bale! Still lead by the Geggus brothers, Jeff ‘Stinky’ Turner screamed ‘you alriiiiiight, this is wot it’s all about – football!!’! Big time West Ham fans, it’s like nothing had changed since the 70s as they launched into ‘We Are The Firm’ and later, their tribute to the team’s anthem in ‘Bubbles’. Like many kids brought up in the rough n ready Custom House area of London’s East End, the Geggus’s were boxers and Turner still shuffles and slips the jab while he’s onstage as Micky roared out their legendary ‘War On The Terraces’. Fast, raw n abrasive that’s how it was back then and the Rejects gave it to you like the old one-two. It was magic mate – and you could do worse than check their movie ‘East End Babylon’.
Shaking the sweat and nervousness off, it was back yet again to the Temple to experience something altogether more jovial in KORPIKLAANI. These Finns play a jolly knees up mix of Sami music and Finnish folk that soon got the crowd going to songs like ‘Wooden Pints’ and ‘Leven Polka’ as the potent mix of rock with accordions and fiddles sent the crowd jumping, air punching and yodelling along with the band – brilliantly enjoyable, these guys should be compulsory at every festival!
Fuck me, THE BUZZCOCKS – even I didn’t believe it when Hellfest announced they were gonna play given they were a 70s punk band more associated with Indie and especially the Manchester scene. Still, as Pete Shelley yanked out the opening riffs to ‘Boredom’ and his off key vocals started I knew I was witnessing history – I couldn’t believe how tight these guys were man, they were fuckin amazing! With Steve Diggle handling the vocals on ‘Sick City Sometimes’ when he wasn’t bopping around the stage I haveta say The Buzzcocks came outta nowhere to take everyone by storm and left to a well deserved roar of respect from many who weren’t even born when these guys started to rock.
By now completely punked out, and with Clutch cancelling, I decided to say for THE TOY DOLLS, another 70s Brit punk band who were more about fun and feel good what with their crazy school boy zoot suits, tacky seaside sunglasses and songs like ‘My Girlfriend’s Dad’s A Vicar’ and a stonking cover of ‘Nellie The Elephant’, which got everyone singing along and beaming huge smiles all around just like their backdrop – lotsa fun mate!
And the fun was set to continue with LORDI on Main Stage 2. I’ve always had respect for these tongue in cheek rock n rollers since they kicked Eurovision’s ass in 2006 and they always bring it on with heaps of pyro and theatrics. Now with a new drummer (Mana) and keyboardist (Hella) there didn’t seem to be much change to their style as they raced thru ‘Devil Is A loser’, ‘Hard Rock Hallelujah’ and the aptly titled “Bringing Back The Balls To Rock”. Mr Lordi beckoned us to jump and I’m just glad he didn’t with those giant stack heels on – again a definite rush of enjoyment.
The mood had to change and it did firstly with SWANS, an 80s New York experimental noise band who actually finished before I even got a chance to see ‘em – maybe I was lucky given their confrontational reputation and sweat drenching shows without aircon lol – as they decided to turn the Valley into Death Valley! With 2 drummers, sole survivor Michael Gira’s monotone voice, their droning guitars and even at one stage a trombone lol they certainly made a racket, although it was more psychedelic trip out rock in songs like ‘Just A Little Boy’ and ‘The Seer’. I guess Swans inspired later bands like Trail Of The Dead, whatever the case this went beyond music at times into trance and almost spiritual ascendency.
And so to the end and the dark lord known as DANZIG. Now with Prong’s Tommy Victor on guitar and this black night joined by the leviathan known as DOYLE this was the unholy triumvirate and the best ending I’ve ever seen at a festival. I think the entire crowd at Main Stage 1 was singing along to ‘Die Die My Darling’, ‘Skulls’, ‘Death Comes Ripping’ and ‘Last Caress’ – yeah, Evil Elvis also did ‘Am I Demon’ and other Danzig songs at the start but frankly everyone was here for the big one – those old Misfits songs. Hell, even the band seemed stoked as Doyle (in his classic astro zombie look) stomped menacingly around the stage and even Danzig seemed more pumped than ever before. With no less than 2 encores this was an amazing ending to another successful Hellfest that already has next year penned in my diary!