The late 90's/ early 00's weren't great in terms of metal festivals in the UK. What fests there were were largely dull corporate affairs, often headlined by Ozzy Osbourne and featuring whatever trendy US stuff Kerrang were fawning over at the time. Bar Ozzy himself, anything vaguely 'traditional' be it thrash, power, prog, death or black metal was almost entirely absent. This is why it was such an eye opener when, in 2004, I came across an advert somewhere for a festival in Germany, Wacken Open Air. This looked like Heaven! Loads of big bands from Europe and the US who barely if ever made it to the UK, for a very reasonable price (obviously excluding the travel but hey going to other countries broadens the horizons, no?). Despite perhaps hitting the strong German beer a little too hard, I thoroughly enjoyed my experience, and have been to numerous European fests since. Whilst Wacken has possibly become a victim of its own success and has become overcrowded and a little sanitised, there are plenty of other festivals to fill the gap. Hellfest is a relatively new one, starting in 2006 (although it is effectively a rebranding of the earlier Furyfest.) Situated just outside the small town of Clisson, in North-West France, I enjoyed my first visit last year so myself and a mate were more than eager to go again, especially given the stellar line-up this year.
HellFest has four stages two main stages, where the bands alternate, and two 'tents' (massive marquees really), the RockHard and Terrorizer tents. Pretty much every style of metal was represented, from classic hard rock to metal, to thrash, to death, to black, to doom, to hardcore, to stoner, to doom
. The list goes on! Often a particular stage or tent would cater primarily to one or two styles on a particular day, particularly the tents as a rule RockHard had the more extreme death and black metal bands, Terrorizer the stoner/doom/sludge/hardcore side of things, for instance but this wasn't a set rule. In any case, for any broad minded metaller there was almost always something going on, and boredom simply wasn't an option! Below is a brief report of the bands I saw in some cases, not for a whole set, but enough to be able to form an impression. I should say that the camping area is close enough to the stage that you can clearly hear the main stages from it I won't cheat though and review bands I merely heard whilst sitting outside my tent downing a cold one; that would be cheating!
Despite threatening heavy rain, in the end it was lighter and in patches, meaning not too much inconvenience in terms of muddy festival grounds and people sheltering from the rain and clogging up the two marquees even though they've no interest in the band, always a pet hate.
The first band I caught was My Sleeping Karma in the Terrorizer tent, their instrumental stoner/ post rock going down well with the crowd. A quick nip across to the RockHard tent for long-running US death metallers Malevolent Creation; the band have the chops but the songs to me sounded rather run of the mill. The Dwarves were on the main stage and sounded awful so we headed back to the camp site for a while for a few (cheaper!) beers. Back in time for a couple of songs from Japanese outfit Maximum The Hormone who were, er, weird
intrigued to hear more from them though. Irish Pagan/doom metallers Primordial looked one of the picks of the day on paper, but although I've witnessed impressive shows from them in the past, this one seemed to lack something probably due to the sound more than anything, as I couldn't fault the performance itself. The Cult, on the main stage, sounded in better nick sound-wise, running through some familiar cuts ('Rain', 'She Sells Sanctuary', 'L'il Devil') amongst newer material. Unfortunately the crowd reaction were rather muted and Ian Astbury (looking more than ever like a latter-day Jim Morrison) didn't help matters by not bothering to sing all the songs properly. Over in the Terrorizer tent, reformed US stoner outfit Karma To Burn impressed with some powerful, driving cuts from across their career I can't really remember the names that well as all the tracks have numerical titles! Next up, some Polish death metal from dependable scene stalwarts Vader; the new track aired indicates that the quality of their releases is likely to continue. This was a professional and powerful performance.
Meshuggah, over on Main Stage 2, were one of the band's I was most looking forward to on the Friday, and they didn't disappoint, playing a typically fine set of fiendishly complex technical metal that is almost impossible to headbang to! In contrast to the instrumentalists, vocalist Jens Kidman is a more straightforward, almost brutish presence, but his monotonous barking works in the context of the band's sound. I would have liked the band to have varied the set a little (seemed to be the same one they were touring Obzen with, and leans a little heavily on that record) but that's a minor criticism.
Over to the Rock Hard tent for some quality death metal from Belphegor; in contrast to the military theme of many of the DM bands playing here, the Austrians are very much from the satanist end of things, and indeed their music mixes elements of black metal in with the DM. Streaked in (assumedly fake!) blood, Belphegor put in a strong and enthusiastic performance that went over well. More death metal next from Morbid Angel or would we get material that would be more suited for the headliner, Rob Zombie?? Given the industrial leanings of their widely vilified new release Iliud Divinum Insanus, there was no doubt some concern about what we'd get from David Vincent and co, but no doubt a collective sigh of relief went up as the band steamed in to the classic 'Immortal Rites'. With a set drawn primarily from the first three studio albums, plus the mid-tempo crunch of Domination cut 'Where The Slime Live', it's in the mid-section where the set slumps a little with three back-to-back new tracks; both 'Existo Vulore' and 'Nevermore' don't stray too far from the death metal blueprint they helped to invent, but would-be 'stadium death metal anthem' 'I Am Morbid' is a more risky proposition, and doesn't look like becoming the big chant-along the band are clearly aiming for. What would have happened should Morbid Angel have foisted 'Too Extreme!' or 'Radikult' on the masses probably doesn't bear thinking about; anyway, thankfully they didn't and this was ultimately a decent, if not exactly pulsating, set.
With Rob Zombie on the main stage (apparently playing for the first time in France for many, many years) I took the opportunity to fuel up on both food and beer, before heading over to the Terrorizer tent to catch some of the Melvins set. A defiantly uncategorisable band, watching them is a slightly disorientating experience, but an interesting one none the less. With two drummers, the sound is percussion-heavy, but fuzzy-haired main man Buzz Osbourne's guitar still cuts through impressively. Leaning on a variety of genres drone, stoner, sludge all of which they helped to invent, this was a slightly unsettling but nonetheless quite impressive performance.
With the clock nearing one in the morning, I'd pretty much had my fill of metal for the day, but resolved to catch some of the final shows for this first day. Legendary Norwegian black metallers Mayhem had one of the most impressive stage sets I saw over the weekend, but the music couldn't live up to it; not really helped by a rather muddy sound, the performance sounded distinctly one-note if there were any individual riffs, I couldn't discern them. It was quite amusing watching the stream of 'fans' who clearly didn't know what they had let themselves in for racing away minutes after the band had commenced! I soon joined them though
I caught a couple of tracks by In Flames on the main stage, but must admit that since their change of direction to a more metalcore-styled sound in the early 2000's, they've rather left me cold, and with another packed day ahead I called it a night.
Saturday promised a feast of metal, not least of the thrash persuasion; not only did we have the big three of German thrash (Destruction, Sodom and Kreator, should you need reminding!) all in one day, but also the return of legendary Swiss technical thrashers Coroner. First band of the day for me, though, were grindcore stalwarts Total Fucking Destruction, living up to their name with a violent set of frenetic noise, songs rarely lasting more than one minute (the final cut, which drummer/ main man Rich Hoak said 'was written by my dog' barely lasted two seconds!). A great way to blow away the cobwebs and make sure you're fully awake!
Main stage 2 was largely given over to thrash today, and Whiplash were the first of these bands I saw. Yet another in the long line of re-formed 80's thrashers, this was a decent if unexceptional set of fairly standard fast paced US speed metal. Following them, on the other main stage, were another reformed outfit, the legendary NWOBHM band Angel Witch. Having only ever recorded one album in the early eighties, I'm pretty sure they played all of it, ending with (what else) 'Angel Witch' itself, which got a rousing sing along from the crowd. The second guitarist role is filled by Carcass/ Firebird man Bill Steer these days. German odd-balls Mekong Delta actually made their comeback, after a decade's absence, in the mid-2000's, although I'm not sure they've ever played that many live shows. Not that it showed, mind; their set was a fine concoction of progressive power metal and technical thrash. Direct comparisons to other bands are difficult to find; I suppose you might use the same sort of description for the music of Voivod, but the two bands don't really sound alike. Original member and the man who to all intents and purposes is Mekong Delta, Ralph Hubert, impresses with his fretless bass playing, as does newish vocalist Martin LeMar, whose voice bears some resemblance to a young Geoff Tate. All in all, an unexpectedly pleasant surprise.
Over to the RockHard tent next for some impressive war-themed death metal from Hail Of Bullets, the band's ultra-heavy grooves and Martin van Drunen's powerful voice and stage presence winning over the packed marquee.
After a bit of a break, I headed back to catch Thin Lizzy on the main stage. I've been sceptical in the past as to whether this is much more than a cash-in/ tribute act, given that Scott Gorham was the only member of the 'classic' line-up there for many years (and he himself wasn't an original member) but there's a little more credibility with the return of Brian Downey to the drum stool, and you can't argue that the band put on a good show and play the classics well. New frontman Ricky Warwick (from Scottish hard rockers The Almighty, a big name in the UK in the late 80's/ early 90's) is a good choice, with the right amount of swagger and passion in his vocal delivery to get the crowd going. Towards the end I made a flying visit to the Rock Hard tent to catch a couple of songs from Skyforger, who play a robust form of folk-metal, more Tyr than Turisas.
Back to main stage 2 for the first of the German thrash trio, Destruction. I've seen the band play numerous times in the last few years, and they've always been great, except for the last time, late last year; a support slot at a London club show where they suffered from equipment problems and seemed to be going through the motions. Thankfully they seem much more fired up today, and blaze through a set made up mostly of 80's classics ('Curse The Gods', 'Mad Butcher', 'Eternal Devastation' etc etc), plus the more recent fan favourite 'Nailed to the Cross' (or 'Nailed to the F-----g Cross' as everyone knows it!). Bassist/ vocalist Schmier is a typically dominant presence whilst the more diminutive guitarist Mike Schrifinger blazes through his solo's with typical dexterity.
Following them is no easy task, but Sodom seem up to the challenge, kicking off with the powerful title track from their recent In War and Pieces album, before delving in to their back catalogue for the likes of 'The Saw Is The Law', 'Outbreak of Evil', and 'Agent Orange'. Sodom's more recent albums are a little stronger than Destruction's so they are able to integrate more songs from across their career; 'M-16' from the album of the same name, from 2001, is particularly strong. Overall a good performance, although in the live arena I think Destruction just about shade it.
Definitely the biggest of the three in terms of album sales, Kreator are another band I've seen numerous times in the years since they 'came back to thrash' with 2001's Violent Revolution. I've not seen them put on a bad show, but they can seem to go through the motions some times, which was the case today. Not helped by a set list which seemed to focus on some of the weaker, melodic death-influenced cuts from recent albums ('Destroy What Destroys You', 'Voices Of The Dead'). As such the set only seemed to get going sporadically, with the likes of 'Enemy Of God' and 'Flag Of Hate' getting some of the biggest mosh pits of the day.
Before Kreator had finished I made a dash to the Rock Hard tent to get myself a good place for Bolt Thrower, one of my favourite death metal bands playing a rare festival show. Despite not having played live for about a year, they put on an explosive set, racing through an hour of chunky, riff-heavy mid paced death metal anthems such as 'The IV Crusade', 'The Killchain' and 'For Victory'. The intensity never lets up and the reception the band received confirmed my feelings that this was one of the strongest sets of the weekend.
Over on Main Stage 1, there wasn't much alternative to the Scorpions, so I listened to them running through well-worn anthems such as 'Still Loving You' and 'Rock You Like A Hurricane' for (supposedly) the last time whilst waiting for the much-anticipated return of Swiss tech-metallers Coroner. Dormant for over fifteen years, many are no doubt unfamiliar with the band's material but they went over very well. Boasting a crisp and full sound, particularly given that they are a trio (albeit augmented by a stage-left keyboard/ effects player), this was impressive stuff much of the material was complex but accessible; style-wise it's difficult to pin-point other acts as direct comparisons, although the likes of Voivod, if not particularly similar in sound, at least work within the same parameters (thrash, industrial, prog, with lyrics often looking at sci-fi type themes). It's not all overtly technical though, more straightforward cuts such as 'Masked Jackal' allow the listener just to have a good old fashioned headbang. An impressive end to another impressive day (and night) of metal.
Getting to the arena around mid-day, first band up were France's own Sup, who my friend wanted to watch having listened to some of their stuff. Not bad, a fairly original take on the industrial metal genre. The performance was a little robotic, though. Nothing robotic about Atheist; the technical death metallers first came back in 2007 to play a handful of festival shows, and were so enamoured with the reception they received that they stuck around. A new album, Jupiter, was released last year, and songs from this album stand up well to evergreens such as 'Mother Man'. Vocalist Kelly Schaeffer is a lively frontman and the band put in a strong performance that went over well with the crowd, despite the relative inaccessibility of the band's material.
Over to the Terrorizer tent next to watch The Ocean, a band I've never really checked out before but will certainly look out for in the future. Playing what is probably best described (if rather unhelpfully) as post-hardcore, their music is both melodic and powerful, and they put on a full-on performance, jumping around and putting their all in, certainly enough to win over the crowd.
After a mid-afternoon break, I checked out some of Pain of Salvation's set. The Swedish progressive metallers shined on classics like 'Ashes' and 'Ending Theme', but their newer material, with its seventies bluesy-hard rock vibe, leaves me rather cold. Kylesa , playing in the Terrorizer tent, were excellent. Their blend of spacey psychedelia and stoner doom, replete with some powerful grooves, was enthusiastically delivered and well received.
Anathema are one of my favourite bands, and manage to appeal to a wide audience. Hence, despite the fact they haven't really been a 'metal' band for well over a decade, they get a good reaction from the crowd. The band can appear a bit surly at times, but today they were all smiles and seemed to be enjoying themselves. Set-wise, the majority of tracks were from their latest (and excellent) album We're Here Because We're Here, with the powerful 'A Simple Mistake' a highlight; from their back catalogue, we get the electronic 'Closer', the slow burning, bluesy 'A Natural Disaster', the pulsating 'Deep' and, of course, fan favourite 'Fragile Dreams', easily the heaviest track they played. Unfortunately, the sound mix wasn't great (the bass being way too up front in the mix) but performance wise this was a strong set.
German true metal survivor Doro plays at a time when, oddly, there is little else going on, so therefore she gets a large audience; I admire her spirit and she has a powerful voice, but I'm not sure the material is all that great. One band who certainly DO have the material is Judas Priest. The last couple of times I've seen them have been a little disappointing, with Rob Halford really struggling with his voice. Today, he still bends over to reach some of the high notes, and his voice is obviously showing signs of age, but he puts in a stronger performance. Set-wise, we get a truncated version of the set they've been headlining with (where each Halford-era album is represented); there are some surprise choices ('Never Satisfied' from their first album Rocka Rolla, the powerful 'Starbreaker' from Sin After Sin, the more recent 'Judas Rising' from Angel Of Retribution) plus more obvious fare ('Breaking The Law', 'Painkiller', 'Victim Of Changes', 'You've Got Another Thing Comin''). Following K.K. Downing's well-publicised exit, Ritchie Faulkner puts on a good performance, a bit flashy maybe (well, wouldn't you show off if you'd been given this opportunity?) but full of energy. Overall, a good, solid show from the Metal Gods.
It was a straight switch to Main Stage 2 for next band Therion; something of a contrast to Priest, and it took a couple of tracks for me to get fully up to speed with their symphonic, bombastic style. Yet once immersed, the band's grandiose music and theatrical stage presence soon grips you. Whilst once they had 'guest' vocalists who would come on and off for a few tracks, and a small choir at the back of the stage, now there is a four-piece vocal troupe, two male and two female, who handle everything, which makes for a more dynamic show. The blonde-maned Snowy Shaw, in particular, is an ebullient character who does most of the audience participation stuff, and easily gets the crowd on the band's side. Main man Christopher Johnsson, meanwhile, has shed his hair and seems to be going for the Victorian professor look, but is still the beating heart of the band. A strong set focussed on recent albums from Lemurius/ Sirius B through to last year's Sitra Ahra, but headed back through their catalogue for gems like 'To Mega Therion', whilst the unlikely cover of 'Summer Night City' by Abba suits them surprisingly well. A great show by this ever-entertaining band.
With Ozzy Osbourne on the main stage (a man who I personally think lost it well over a decade ago), I headed to the Terrorizer tent to catch the legends of space rock, Hawkwind. Bathed in green light and featuring a couple of dancers in a variety of costumes, this was a great trek through their illustrious back catalogue, with opener 'Warriors on the Edge of Time' an early stand-out, whilst a few newer selections such as 'Prometheus' from latest album Blood Of The Earth fit in well. Needless to say, the timeless riffing and swoosh-y synth sounds are present and correct.
With the clock edging one in the morning, it's time for the final band of the night, and who better to play out the Main Stage than Swedish masters Opeth. I've been a fan of this band since their 1999 Still Life opus, and still remember fondly the first show I saw by them, at the cramped London Underworld on the Blackwater Park tour, where the walls were literally dripping with sweat, Since then the band's popularity has obviously massively increased, but thankfully their sense of adventure remains undimmed; it's telling that the two tracks aired tonight from most recent album Watershed, namely 'The Lotus Eater' and 'Hex Omega', are probably the most interesting and unusual in terms of structure. Elsewhere, there are some well-chosen favourites such as 'The Drapery Falls', mixed in with less-heard but welcome tracks such as 'Master's Apprentice'. Personally I could have done without opener 'The Grand Conjuration' but you can't please all of the people all of the time! Mikael Akerfeldt is his usual droll self, and new keyboard player Joakim Svalberg is a lively stage presence (Akerfeldt proudly announces that he used to play with Yngwie Malmsteen, so maybe that's where he learnt his stage craft!). Overall, a strong set to end a great festival.
Overall, I'd have to say this was the best line-up I've come across at one of these Euro metal fests. I could honestly have seen completely different bands over the three days and am sure I would still have been writing enthusiastically about it. Yes, it probably is a little crowded now (the camping site was bursting at the seams), although I'd hope when they move down the road next year they don't lose the essence of what they have now, as the layout really works. What's more, bar the odd moment, the stage times pretty much ran to order, vital at a festival like this crammed as it was with excellent bands. All I can say is bring on next year!
Tom De Val, July 2011