Now firmly established as France’s premiere rock and metal festival and fast taking root as becoming an international festival to attend judging by its growing numbers – 240,000 – this 13th Hellfest (and 8th visit by us) once again proved the continuing lure of this festival’s motto of ‘extreme, diverse and eclectic’!
A crowning achievement for local boy Ben Barbaud, Hellfest is the stuff made from dreams and turned into legend that has taken on all obstacles and at times a hostile political establishment to now make this annual pilgrimage an embrace of all appreciative of what it stands for with overseas visitors this year from apparently 60 countries and 35% of all attendees being women, not to mention a very visible elderly crowd. I have to say that this is an uncommon phenomenon, and undoubtedly owed to the friendliness and hospitality of the local French people, including the 3,500 volunteers serving the festival and 1,500 roadies and technicians who kept the production on course.
In moving to meet this, the infrastructure has taken on greater – and bizarre – proportions from a Lucha Libre wrestling ring in Hellcity to incredible metal and stone sculptures, not to mention a goddamn swimming pool backstage – not that we had a chance to sample it giving the once again amazing line up!
Friday 16 June
Having seen HELMET back in the early 90s when their refreshing but bruising brand of ‘alt’ metal took the world by storm, it felt very nostalgic to see Page Hamilton once again onstage. Not so for this dude with his mix of ‘cocaine and Buddhism’ ha ha ! He simply tore straight into a ‘best of’ set that soon had the crowd headbanging in unison, arms aloft to the chopping beats of ‘In The Meantime’, ‘Bad News’ and ‘Wilma’s Rainbow’ in what was a rousing performance back from the dead – very moving indeed!
Bring on the Hinduism! I mean, DODHEIMSGARD were a full on Norwegian black metal band, notwithstanding the tantric chanting and the fact that they all looked like sadhus (i.e. hindu holy men) ha ha! This was truly bizarre although it became clear that the cat screeching mixed with moog sounds and ambient interludes were clearly targeted at the chosen few on ‘Sonar Bliss’, ’21 Century Devil’ and ‘Architect of Darkness’. Definitely going well beyond your average gravestone kicking crew….
OMG, how much religion could I take – and it was only Friday – first day of the festival! Thankfully coming to my rescue on Mainstage 2 was Attila Dorn with his rabid power wolves who themselves came armed to the teeth with their own ‘best of’ set that soon set the massed crowd ablaze as we rocked to ‘Armata Strigoi’, rolled to ‘Werewolves of Armenia’ and well, got off on ‘Coleus Sanctus’ heh heh. Needless to say as with any POWERWOLF savaging, cue mass singalongs and a crowd work out to ultimate conquest!
Fitting in line with the festivals promise of diversity, CORVUS CORAX were a neo medieval band that I’d never heard of, although clearly many had as the Temple filled to the brim of worshippers! Resplendent in rich, flowing robes and playing some truly fantastic instruments like big frame drums, basscitola and sistrum (among just a few!) they were truly a sight to behold befitting their title of ‘The ‘Rolling Stones of the Middle Ages’! Led by the sex beast Castus Karsten Liehm whose vocal prowess matched his rampant gyrations as appreciated by the cheering female masses there was actually a serious side to the music which took on almost ritualistic proportions enhanced by plenty of ‘hei hei hei’ chanting that soon had the crowd heaving in unison. It may not have been metal but it was definitely moving in its pagan celebration (and loins).
Back in the Valley, a huge roar greeted BARONESS who now have renowned guitarist Gina Gleeson in their fold and were another long awaited ‘alt’ band whose albums were titled by colours! Led by guitarist vocalist John Dyer Baizley, they took to the stage amid the ‘Conan The Barbarian’ warrior soundtrack, although strangely their music melded hard rock with god of heavy metal riffs and prog harmonies amid thundering drums and some of the most blissful melodies I’d ever heard on songs like ‘Take My Bones Away’, ‘Tower Falls’ and ‘The Sweetest Curse’. With the band looking well deep into the music, it didn’t take a moment for the crowd to take them to heart – myself included – in what had to be the most emotional set of the entire festival.
As Deep Purple boogied to ‘Space Truckin’ the roar from John Tardy signalled the old school death grind of OBITUARY. Doubtless a Hellfest favourite with myself having seen them at the festival no less than 3 times, it was clear that the ugly but hugely catchy grooves from Trevor Peres soon possessed the rabid Altar crowd over songs like ‘Chopped In Half’, ‘Don’t Care’ and ‘Slowly We Rot’ with my jaw dropping more than once to witness the fearsome drumming of Donald Tardy, not to mention Terry Butler’s nausea inducing bass reverberations – Florida was in the house man!
Onward to glory, heroes and victory with SABATON! Following many of the earlier bands, these Swedish warriors came on with their full tank fortification stage set and equally their own ‘best of’ numbers from ‘Carolus Rex’, ‘Shiroyama’ and of course, the massive singalong led by Joakim Brodén to ‘Primo Victoria’! Same old show some might say but you never get tired of these catchy and rousing songs especially when you’re in a field with your metal brothers and sisters singing along together just like marching off to battle.
When “Severed Survival” came out at the end of the 80s, it was regarded as one of the sickest releases in history, despite it being a critical milestone in death metal circles. Clearly as crazed with anticipation of a return after 27 years was AUTOPSY’s founder drummer vocalist Chris Reifert, who these days looks more like the late GG Allin – complete with a ‘fuck you’ dog collar – shocking in itself! In the early hours of the morning, no one was going to sleep when this sick puppy unloaded with Reifert downing brews and inciting the crowd to ‘burn the hairs off their assholes’ while nuclear drumming his way through an OTT set of ‘Strung Up And Gutted’, ‘Voices’ and naturally, ‘Severed Survival’. Reifert was one perverse fucker and I’m really not sure if the crowd understood or truly appreciated what they were witnessing but either way, Autopsy got the most depraved band of the festival award covering Hellfest’s other promise of extremity.
After witnessing that, I could only hope that the pirate jingle of Scotland’s ALESTORM would cheer me hearty. Sadly, t’was not to be with Cap’n Christopher Bowes coming across as a tad flat in the bagpipes although to be fair as one of the last bands on, they were playing to a zonked out crowd by 2am. Still, they buckled up and heaved and ho’d to sound of ‘Shipwrecked’, ‘No Grave But The Sea’ and ‘Mexico’ as keytars rocked with fiddles and accordions as we sailed into the wee hours and some much needed sleep.
Sat 17 June
With many people still lamenting the late but legendary Lemmy, it didn’t come as a surprise to see PHIL CAMPBELL and his bastard runs revving up their raucous Brit hard rock and pulling in a massive crowd on Main stage 1. While not as brutal as Motorhead the fuck you attitude was aplenty judging by the sound of ‘Big Mouth’ as (unrelated) vocalist Neil Starr confidently strode the stage. Clearly the faithful were there to hear some oldies and Phil respectfully obliged by delivering the rattlesnake rock n roll of ‘Going To Brazil’ and the unforgettable ‘Ace Of Spades’ to a roaring crowd.
Prior to hearing NAILS I’d never heard of ‘power violence’, but front man Todd Jones was clearly going for the psycho award from his totally crazed look and bestial roars, all of which matched his brutal feedback n ultra power riffing. Ably backed by his equally mental looking buddies, the trio bludgeoned their way through ‘You Will Never Be One Of Us’, ‘Unsilent Death’ and ‘God’s Cold Hands’ ending with Jones showing a rare glimpse of emotion in thanking the crowd saying it had been ‘an experience’ – needless to say a follow up show is definitely on the cards ha ha!
Anyone remembering what has become the cult band Holy Terror will know that founder guitarist Kurt Colfelt now plays bass in punk band ZEKE so having met the great man himself in Seattle over a corn beef sandwich a trip to the aptly named Warzone was next. Notorious for its dust storms, I’m not sure why Hellfest has not sought to alleviate the massive poison wafts given the obvious investment that has gone into the rest of the site, but clearly a warning to bring a mask is needed. Still, Zeke matched the ferocity of the ground with their own frenetic set! Having ‘not slept for 4 days without speed or cocaine’, you may not have believed it given Blind Marky Felchtone’s insane machine gun vocals, Kyle Whitefoot’s screaming guitar and of course, Colfelt’s own ‘Boogie Nights’ karate poses and stances while racing through ‘Highway Star’ and ‘302 Cubic Inch V8 Powered Blues’ in a blurring binge of redneck rock, punk and white boy prison blues – simply unmissable!
With my heart still racing from the Zeke angina, I figured the cool, hippy rock of BLOOD CEREMONY would give me plenty to chill out to. Sadly not! Led by Alia O’Brien’s fantastic flute and alluring femme vocals, their witch rock soon had me in a powerful trance with its wickedly catchy riffs and soul possessing melodies – not to mention that possessed pipe when it got going on ‘The Magician’, ‘Goodbye Gemini’ and the truly mesmerizing ‘Half Moon Street’. An incredible set with some truly powerful music.
Thankfully SKEPTICISM came to my rescue in calming things down, though in their own grim plodding fashion! One of the pioneers of the doom death style, these Finns came on in black tie suits with the vocalist even bringing some white carnations – well, they did say ‘funeral’ ha ha! From guttural growls to plod drumming and melancholic riffs and somber keys they took the Temple through the rites of ‘Forge’, ‘Oars In The Dusk’ and ‘Sign Of A Storm’ to what seemed like an initially sceptical crowd (now that’s irony!) to worthy applause as they melted away from the stage. Bravo.
A well known band in France, MARS RED SKY were more than the stoner band I’d been led to believe. With an Aleister Crowley inspired pagan visual backdrop and dark, bass driven soundscape contrasted by high vocals but more expectedly wah n fuzz guitar, the band took the Valley through the galactic mind melt of ‘Alien Grounds’, ‘Myramid’ and ‘Mind Reader’ much to the partisan crowd’s satisfaction.
Still with the smell of the dust in my nostrils I headed back to the Warzone to catch the legendary crossover thrash of DRI. Still with founders Spike on guitars and Kurt Brecht but now with equally esteemed underground photographer Harald Oimoen on bass, the pit started well before the music amid Oimoen’s belches and at one stage the dust clouds enveloped the stage with even the security taking cover, not that it bothered the band as they skanked and raced their way through ‘Who Am I’, ‘Couch Slouch’ and the 80s burner of ‘I Don’t Need Society’.
Although on the line up a few years back, TRUST disappointingly pulled out – a national disgrace considering they are (still) France’s premiere rock band! Still, it would all be made up today on a packed field of honour on Mainstage 1. Still with founders Bernie Bonvoisin on vocals and Norbet Krief on guitars moving about enthusiastically all over the big stage and ramp, they soon had everyone’s hands in the air, singing to ‘March Ou Creve’, ‘L’elite’ and of course, the alternate national anthem ‘Antisocial’ – with everyone singing. All was forgiven, and France’s sons had returned to bask in the sunshine and glory that made them the legends even still to this day!
Sunday 18th June
Man, how many people could CRIPPLED BLACK PHOENIX fit onstage?! At one point it was 8 including 3 guitarists, 2 keyboardists, 2 vocalists and of course a drummer – looks like this Valley was filled ha ha! Formed by former Iron Monkey drummer Justin Greaves, these days that madness has been filled by deep n lengthy songs of radiating harmony and spiritual melancholy played through lots of emotional fret board work. With so many players you got the full shebang from clanging melodies building to shoegaze crescendo riffola on songs like ‘We Forgotten Who We Are’, ‘Rotten Memories’ and ‘No Fun’, along with soothing vocals and tribal drumming that left me in bliss over their dark poetry.
Jump! Wicked! Listen to tha mon! From Carly Simon’s ‘Nobody Does It Better’ intro you knew that someone definitely different was in tha house – SKINDRED! A dub, rock, reggae band (to name but a few styles!) from Wales (!) led by the big mon Benji Webbe spinning and weaving raps, the band immediately got the crowd going to the addictive beats of ‘Kill The Power’, ‘Pressure’ and ‘Under Attack’ in what was to be a minimum effects, maximum affect set. When the infamous ‘Newport Helicopter’ was launched with Webbe screaming ‘just do what the nigga sez!’ all you could see was a sea of twirling t shirts – yeah, that intro of nobody does it better was aptly chosen!
Knowing they had a hard act to follow, the BLACK STAR RIDERS just let rip with ‘Heavy Fire’ and ‘All Hell Breaks Loose’ with Ricky Warwick stalking Mainstage 1 like a prowling beast in his muscle bound tattooed frame. It may not have quite the fun we’d just experienced, but the classic riffs and heaviness soon stirred the heart and loins that only pure, red blooded rock could do – when the singalong for ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ arrived you couldn’t have cued it with the crowd singing along any more perfectly.
Back at the Temple, GHOST BATH couldn’t have been a greater contrast with their post black metal of frenzied soundscapes brilliantly contrasted by plucked mandolin like guitars. Along with pagan melodic tinges and dark vocal drawls, pieces like ‘Seraphic’, ‘Thrones’ and ‘Luminescence’ were more like works of art than mere songs….
Hellfest’s final promise of eclecticism had been already attested throughout the day, but if there was one band that summed it all up then it had to be CANDIRIA! Led by cool Carley Coma, these guys might’ve been labeled ‘metalcore’ but they were a whole lot more, with jazz, hip hop and even prog being included in songs like ‘Blood’, ‘The Nameless King’ and my personal fave ‘The Whole World Will Burn’. Considering the late afternoon heat was at burning levels of intensity, Candiria did an amazing job to draw in the Warzone crowd through their positivity as they repeatedly pushed out the boundaries with their inspiring fusion rock.
Before Nevermore there was a band called SANCTUARY. Clearly remembered by many including myself, it was great to see Warrel Dane, Lenny Rutledge and Dave Budbill tread the Altar stage – and worshipped they were with each song greeted by roars and afterwards, massive amounts of applause. Dane’s flailing blonde hair may have gone but his voice was still soaring to the likes of ‘Soldiers Of Steel’, ‘Frozen’ and ‘Die For My Sins’. Through a deafening volume that brought forth wailing solos and thundering drums the band raged a storm, clearly encouraged by the loyal following – a truly impressive set!
One of the things I’ve noticed over the years coming to Hellfest is that no band I’ve seen has played either a mediocre or duff set – not to mention been late! I dunno what it is but Hellfest seems to bring out the best in all the artists who play here (including Axl Rose ha ha!). As such, ALTER BRIDGE played their asses off! With Mark Tremonti’s guitar on fire from the start cranking out those heavy metal hero riffs and amazing solos, Miles Kennedy soon had the crowd in clapping hysteria while rocking to ‘Blackbird’, ‘Come To Life’ and the massive singalong of ‘Show Me A Leader’ – with his own pipes strained to bursting! Clearly a band built to destroy arenas and conquer large crowds, the band actually looked relieved at the end beaming smiles all around – feeling the Hellfest effect no doubt!
Definitely a ‘character’, Dwid Hellion of INTEGRITY has been a legend in the hardcore community since the late 80s. With their own blend of dark crossover that mixed in religion, the occult and supernaturalism, Integrity’s music has taken on cult proportions over the years, adding to the mystery of the enigmatic figure of Hellion himself. With a new signing to Relapse, the beast has recently emerged out’ve his cave to bring unto us his self titled ‘holy terrorism’ once more! Looking heavier these guys but far gruffer, Dwid roared….and the faithful came calling to ‘Those Who Fear Tomorrow’, ‘I Am The Spell’ and ‘Diseased Prey Within Casing’. With the largest drummer of the entire festival (!) along with heavy raw guitars that were shredded so badly the instruments had to be tuned after each number (!), Dwid prowled the stage with arms aloft like a triumphant beast – and why not when you have as many admiring members of other bands crammed on the stage sides as the rabid Warzone audience itself – ultimately fulfilling Hellfest’s final pledge of extreme!
Going well beyond a festival, I couldn’t help but agree with what Nail’s Todd Jones had said about Hellfest being ‘an experience’ be it for its consistently good line ups and superb professionalism, to quality facilities and safety. However, its warm embrace, friendship and humanity are truly what sets it apart, with many first time attendees vowing to return back even from far off countries. That, my friend, is ultimately what makes Hellfest a sure winner!