So it’s my 3rd consecutive Hellfest and before I start on the bands, some time must be given to acknowledge in how many other ways there are besides the music that make this festival stand out from the others.
The town of Clisson itself is something that all too few of the festival goers I meet seem to take advantage of while they’re there. If you turn up on the Wednesday like we did, or even the Thursday, before any bands start it really is worth taking a look around this picturesque, delightful and I imagine usually far quieter French town. Many people do not know for example, that Clisson has a castle. The Chateau de Clisson, on top of a hill overlooking the rest of the town which many people do not see as they arrive by one of the main roads, is a really nice site even from a distance.
The stereotypical cobbled roads on tiny streets within the older part of the town are really nice to walk down and sit outside enjoying a beer or wine. This is a trick many miss, and they’re missing out because of it. If you are planning on going to Hellfest next year, take some time to enjoy the place outside of the festival site. It’s ten to fifteen minutes to walk from the site and it’s so worth it.
When we get to the actual festival site, the iconic Hellfest guitar plunked in the middle of the roundabout and next to the Clisson Rock Hellfest sign is a familiar site for many. This year they appear to have chosen a rusting metal colour scheme for the latter. Once inside, the metal market set up from last year and Hell City Square remain as they were, adjacent to the main entrance to the festival with access to the campsite this year being available WITHOUT having to walk up those horrible metal stairs from last year. It was a BIG plus to have had those steps dispensed with.
Inside the arena is the same, with a notable exception being a small skate park close to the temple and altar stands and the fact that tents have been completely dispensed with this year and in place they have actually built up hangars for the Altar, Temple and Valley areas. No more turning around from one area to another in the same tent. A lot cooler as well, because the ceilings go up higher than I remember.
Then there is the cashless system to talk of. This year you can purchase a cash card and top it up so that when it comes to paying for drinks they just swipe the card and you’re done. Saves having to piss about snapping off tokens. You can still use the cards next year too, so I am told. This saves a lot of queuing.
Best of all in the arena is more grass, so as to avoid the dust clouds of years gone by. Last year was difficult for that, but this year, very little dust. They’ve sorted the ground out. Also this year on the gravel path to the VIP area which stretches from one side of the field to another, they have placed brass plaques about a square meter across with the line-up from all the Hellfests written on them. Nice touch, can’t remember if it is new for the 10th anniversary but I cannot remember seeing them there last year.
At night, the same pyro that we all have come to love – the flames rising from all the stands lighting up the arena – this year the flame spurts are multi-coloured too. Girls wielding chainsaws against metal and showering sparks on everything, then spitting fire, all great to see. On the Saturday we get an outstanding firework display to mark the tenth year anniversary. More on that a little later.
All this before I even begin to talk about the bands. Again, before I do, one thing of particular note was that anywhere I stood when I was near the main stages, the sound was balanced so well. It didn’t matter if you were over one side or the other, or in the centre, you could hear things really well regardless. I’ll discuss this in more detail later.
There were a few clashes this year for me and I found myself thinking how could I possibly choose? Well, stay for a few songs of one, and then head to the other. If does mean that I may not be aware of everything that happened but a live review is meant to give people who were not there an idea of what it was like and one of those experiences -for me- was having so many cool things to choose from and therefore just having to do them all – to some degree or another.
This was the biggest it has ever been. 150,000 rock and metal fans. It was Thursday. At this point I have been there for 1 day. I haven’t even watched a single band yet and already I know I’m going back next year. What does that tell you?
Sylosis have come a long way. It isn’t by any means their first main stage festival performance but thus far it appears to be one of the most significant. There’s something rather satisfying about seeing a band that you watched for years playing the circuit to venues that have a capacity of 100-150 and then watching them play to thousands. A great way to warm up and get the adrenaline pumping for the rest of the day. A very good blend of thrash themes and technical ability that is well received. ‘Fear The World’ is perhaps the best example of this from their performance today. In other places, the drums falter slightly.
Armoured Saint have been on my radar for a long time but I’ve never been able to see them live so I had to head over. It’s a solid performance. The vocals and guitar are the highlight – both in tone and ability – particularly ‘Nervous Man’. They also have a great stage presence. They really get in to it and that counts for so much- none of them can stay still and it doesn’t make their performance suffer as it can so often for a lot of bands that concentrate too much on diving around all over the place. That’s experience for you, and the crowd know it too.
After a bite to eat I am set to watch Billy Idol who had a press conference earlier that I was fortunate enough to attend and partake in. Someone kindly uploaded it to the public domain for all to see which you can by clicking here if you wish. Now, his performance. Billy himself states on stage that the star of the show is his friend and guitarist Steve Stevens. Now, it’s true that Billy needs a hand to carry it along in places where the vocals do suffer a little from time to time, and Steve plays no small part in that. Mostly with the back-up vocals and harmonising. However, Billy doesn’t falter that much and the best thing about it is that he owns the stage. Nobody that I saw on the Friday had as much fun as he did, and it counts for a lot. It’s great when people can have a lot of fun and also deliver a faultless performance but if that’s not possible then I’ll take a few shortcomings and great stage presence over a faultless performance that has none at all. Every single time. The expected classics go down well, particularly ‘Dancing With Myself’ and ‘Rebel Yell’. I get the feeling there are a few – only a few – around me that didn’t know who he was until those were played. Doesn’t matter, we all enjoyed it.
Over to The Valley next for High On Fire. Stoner rock. I have always been a live fan of this type of music, and not a sit and listen to the record fan. I don’t know how to convey my experience to those who were not there for this particular band. It sounds like a heavier, perhaps lazier version of grunge but with better lyrics and a dirtier voice. The dirtier voice is a good thing. I hope that grunge think doesn’t come across as a criticism, but I guess it might. They’re very much enjoyed by the people watching and I do include myself in that, it’s just very difficult to give an idea of what it was like. The sound is dirty. I mean it’s fuzzy on the guitar, like it has to be, with a rawness to it that is so much better to appreciate live – for me at least. Really tight performance – the laziness I mentioned is a way of reflecting the sound, not the effort, and that’s a very important distinction. These guys are giving their fans a good time and are anything but lazy.
Main stage again, this time for Motorhead who I don’t get to right at the start. I get there half way through ‘Stay Clean’. I’ve seen them a lot and their performances are so well known by so many after so long that there probably isn’t much to tell. They’re doing what they’ve done for 40 years – a fact that everyone is sure to remember since all the Hellfest pint glasses this year have a motorhead advert for their ‘40 years louder than everyone else’ upcoming release printed on them. No ‘Killed By Death’ unfortunately for me as it’s my favourite song of theirs. Lemmy is thankfully looking and sounding a lot better because as many know he has been ill. There isn’t really anything new about the performance other than changing up the set list to include some that haven’t been played for a while like ‘Rock It’ or including a new one, ‘lost woman blues’. That was interesting to hear, and shamefully I had not and still have not heard the Aftershock album. It doesn’t matter whether you’re used to their shows or not – they do what they do and that’s blow your fuckin’ head off.
After dinner it’s time for Alice Cooper which I am quite intrigued about because I am curious how his show will look in daylight. It’s still very much light in France at this time of year and it stays that way till 10pm, so how will this go down? Well to be honest for me it isn’t the same. Alice still uses the shock rock props to good effect but it’s a night show really, and it isn’t night. It is still entertaining, but I cannot state it enough: If this is your first time seeing Alice Cooper, go again and go at night. It is so much better. That’s not to say it ruined the performance at all – it was still very good, but there’s no getting away from it, it isn’t the same. The music was brilliant, his performance impressive, but just see it at night like he did the last time he was at Hellfest.
I had to leave earlier and not see all of the Alice Cooper set because there were not one, not two, but three bands clashing and it made things very difficult so I saw a few songs of each. I’ll start with Children Of Bodom at the Altar stage. This was not easy to get in to. I had to struggle. Even at 6’3”. I could just about make out Alexi Laihos signature Jackson – sorry I mean ESP – from a couple of hundred feet away, so I actually watched the screen. Now the energy of the performance – and remember I only saw about 15 minutes – was alright. They engage the crowd well and a relatively small circle pit gets a little bigger and during ‘Hate Me’ people come flying over the barriers, but the guitar tone was a bit sloppy on the lead.
I had to catch some of Mastodon who were playing at exactly the same time so again, only a few songs about half way in to their set for a song called ‘Halloween’ which has a great sinister lead guitar riff. I am not that familiar with Mastodon, having only seen them once ten years ago, so I was looking forward to this. No disappointment. The predominantly stoner rock orientated Valley stage makes way for the pace to be picked up a bit – more progressive. The vocals are ok in the slower parts but there is some struggling going on in the faster parts and the lead guitar solos are a little repetitive but not worth taking issue with. The Valley crowd are a lot more lively right now, but again I have to leave earlier after a handful of songs.
That’s because I have to see the last half an hour of Lamb Of God even though it’s half ten at night and still light. I can’t get near because I decide to spend the rest of the performance watching rather than getting to the front. I get there just has he introduces ‘Now You’ve Got Something To Die For’. People are going absolutely mental and I am kinda glad I didn’t try to get closer. Chris Adler has recently joined Megadeth and is sporting a Megadeth T-shirt. It looks a little weird. Don’t know why. Just does. A very well balanced sound and the crowd participation is more than I have witnessed from any other artist today. Evidently a LOT of people were here for these guys. It is the most captivating performance so far and I only saw half an hour of it.
Judas Priest are up next and it’s FINALLY dark. They open with a track from last years ‘Redeemer Of Souls’ which in all honesty, and very embarrassingly, I only know because I looked it up the day after. It is called Dragonaut. Now, Rob Halford has made things work very well with his voice which as everyone knows, is not what it used to be. It works though, he channels what were once high pitched, glass shattering iconic metal screams in to a different kind of energy – like a growl but with tone to it. That’s one of the reasons Judas Priest still have such awesome staying power and still pull in thousands of fans. Because they make things work. It is an electric show – and Ritchie Faulkner fits right in – it’s only my second time seeing Priest without K.K Downing and Ritchie has more than earned his stripes after 4 years with the Metal Gods. I must confess to the worst possible thing. I missed the last two songs of Judas Priest because the long journey and the heat has taken it out of me. As a life long metal fan all of which started because of Priest and Maiden, I consider this unforgiveable.
For the most part, black metal is vomit for my ears. Brutal Death Metal is usually off the cards too, but I always want to give things a shot because live is often great even when you don’t like the genre. So, I venture to the Altar stage for Prostitute Disfigurement. Quite a name. You probably have an idea of what this is going to be about. It is the heaviest thing I have seen so far. The bass played has the hair down to his knees that he has to keep flicking out the way of his bass. The guitarist without hair (there is one other that still has some) isn’t appearing to be too into the music that much. The frontman and drummer are going crazy and that surprisingly holds the crowd. It’s hard to get in to even for fans of the genre. Most are slowly bobbing their heads up and down and not really getting in to it. It’s not bad musically, but I think even if there were better stage presence there still wouldn’t have been much of an effect on the crowd. I don’t know, maybe it’s just the wrong time of day?
Ace Frehley is such a good guitar player and it’s good to see him on a main stage. Usually he is on a later in the smaller stages at festivals. I am pleased to see him on the main stage playing to a well receiving crowd, and not just the KISS numbers which comprise around a 3rd of the set. Aces voice in places struggles a little but it’s negligible especially with such a great guitar tone. I am sharing a beer with a couple of teenagers – probably no more than 16 but I needed a bottle opener, and they are there specifically for ACE and the Scorpions later on. That kinda thing is hard hitting – in a good way. He is the first of two guitarists I am seeing today that have made things their own after leaving well established iconic rock bands. It sets the bar high for the other bloke. If you don’t know who I am talking about, more in a little while.
Onslaught are the UK thrash band. They were the first ones to bring thrash metal to our side of the Atlantic and make it theirs, so it’s embarrassing as a massive thrash fan and being form the UK, that this is my first Onslaught gig. Not many thrash bands do well at having the high pitched screams common in Priest, Helloween and Maiden and transferring them successfully in to thrash. Onslaught can. It’s brilliant. This is a rock solid foundation of what thrash is and still should be. Onslaught stay true to themselves and their fans. Whether its material from 30 years ago with ‘Metal Force’ or the last couple of years with what became one of my anthems of the festival ‘6 6 Fucking 6’, Onslaught own the crown more so than anything I have so far witnessed in the Altar stage. I don’t know if they’re the same people from earlier in the day but if they are they’ve been well and truly woken up for Onslaught. A great performance. Sorry it took me 20-something years guys.
After a bite to eat which I deliberately chose to coincide with the ACDC copycats Airbourne I head to the stage for the last 3 songs. To be fair, everyone there is loving it and these guys are putting a lot of energy in to making sure they and their fans have a great time, and that has to be commended. They are owning that crowd and it’s a damn good rock and roll show but, as good as they are I can never get away from the fundamental criticism that they have faced from day one and which I wholeheartedly agree with: they lack anything original. Even in their last song, Runnin’ Wild, they throw in parts of Black Sabbath and ACDC riffs.
The first time I heard anything of L7 it was because of a rather notorious incident at the Reading festival the year Nirvana headlined. Then after a few more years, nothing, then a couple more and they called it quits. They’re certainly happy to be here and their sound is quite dirty and true to the grunge sound. Nobody is throwing any objects, sanitary or otherwise, either to or from the stage. Excellent – so we can therefore enjoy the music. It was a lot of fun and while they’ve aged relatively well they haven’t let it show in their performances beyond that which you would expect from a band who have been off the grid for over a decade. Grunge was for me what it was for most people – a passing phase – but I think it is to the advantage of L7 that they were gone for so long, cos they can come back as if they never left without having gone through massive experimental phases or trying to change with the times. They’re just up there playing what they play to a very receptive, perhaps more nostalgic crowd.
So, who was that other guitarist I was talking about earlier? He may be considered one of the greatest rock guitarists ever based on the ignorant opinions of people who only know him for 2 or 3 riffs, but for people who have heard perhaps slightly more of his material, Slash has that reputation for more valid reasons. Not simply because someone who professes to be a GnR fan after only hearing 4 or 5 songs from a 30+ year career decides he’s a legend. On the one hand they’re right to revere him so. But on the other hand, fuck off you ignorant hipster pricks. You need to know why and it isn’t enough to say ‘cos I love Sweet Child’ which is possibly THE most overplayed (if not overrated) rock song of the 1980s. Slash does with two or three scales more than a lot of people cannot do with a dozen or more. He has feeling and it pisses me off to hear the bitching elitists say he is not technical enough as much as it does people who have never really heard him saying he’s a legend. Even though he is. Rant over an on to the performance. Well – the one thing I notice is that since Slash is such a prominent guitarist nobody pulls out any stops and makes sure the lead guitar is always loud enough for everyone to appreciate. That’s something that hasn’t happened for every main stage artist and I don’t know why but hey ho. As you would expect the set list is loaded with GnR but there are also plenty of other treats, my personal fave being the title track of his 2014 ‘World On Fire’ album. I prefer this instead of the GnR material because it’s good to hear Myles Kennedy tearing it up with original songs, even though he quite frankly pisses all over Axl Rose for the covers. The audience is almost a third more of what I had seen for earlier main stage performances.
Before having something to eat I decided to take part in the press conference for the nights headline act, the Scorpions, which again someone kindly uploaded online and you can view here if you are so inclined.
Back to the main stage after dinner for Faith No More who have the biggest audience of the weekend so far. The energy of the crowd makes it feel almost like a Maiden gig – everywhere I look people are buzzing and I don’t think they can all be taking drugs. There’s a lot of excitement. I don’t know what’s going on with the stage. Lots of white suits and flowers, you’d think someone is getting married up there or something. They don’t have to try that hard to win a crowd this enthusiastic but the humorous efforts at connecting with the crowd in French is also a nice touch. A cover of Lionel Ritchie’s ‘Easy’ is a surprise, and this whole performance is full of them. A little more than half an hour in to the gig a few of us are looking at the big screen to see what is going on because Mike decided he was going to swap shirts with one of the security personnel. We had the distinct impression that this was not something the security guard was keen on, and for a second we thought there would genuinely be trouble, but there wasn’t and it was all good and for the rest of the show Mike made intermittent jokes about everyone being able to do whatever they wanted since he was part of security. Everywhere you stood – and we were taking the time to go from one side to the other – further forward and further back – the sound was brilliant. Probably the best sound production at a festival I have heard.
I went to grab some beers and on my way back I witnessed the Hellfest 10th anniversary firework display which looks like half the ticket revenue would have been paid for that and that alone because of how impressive it was. It lasted about 10-15 minutes and we were treated to a soundtrack of classic AC/DC and Queen among others. What a way to keep the buzz going in the time between a solid, intoxicating Faith No More show and the headline act of the evening.
The Scorpions have the energy of people half their age. Hard to believe they’ve been around 50 years, well 2 of them from the start…I think…..You wouldn’t know it. A couple of years ago there was another band of their peers headlining and I remember criticising the performance that, while musically flawless, had no atmosphere whatsoever. This is completely different to that. Apart from one misplaced chord in their finale which of course was ‘Rock You Like A Hurricane’, everything was great. They were having a lot of fun and their audience was older for the most part but they were loyal till the last. It was also good to see a number of youngsters in their mid-teens rocking out. I was very impressed by the acoustic medley about half way through, but I do think this turned the pace down a little too much – there was nothing wrong with it but it seemed to come right in the middle of a hard rock buzz. However, there were just as many people buzzing from the acoustic performance as far as I could make out at least, so I cannot criticise their non adherence to what have been my own personal preference. There’s an entertaining drum solo towards the end with James (I had to google, sorry) sporting a rock and roll forever shirt that he took off to reveal an identical tattoo on his back that caused the crowd to erupt into applause. The majority of the set is very heavy on the 80s material considering this is a celebration of 50 years of the Scorpions, but that doesn’t matter. A great way to end my Saturday.
Sunday was obviously a bit difficult for a lot of people from the combination of sun, no sleep, alcohol and being on your feet a lot and probably a lot of other things.
I start the day with The Haunted, some of whom are playing again tonight since they are also members of At The Gates and there are plenty of fans of both bands here. I hadn’t seen The Haunted for a considerable time so I was looking forward to this. It was strange seeing them so early in the day and it wasn’t great to see the crowd so obviously shattered and probably still wanting to rest – however it didn’t stop them from coming down and trying to muster up what was left of their energy to see the band. Sound wasn’t particularly good because it was a little more breezy in the picked up a little, but the performance didn’t really falter.
Dark Tranquillity are not exactly ‘tranquil’. Good thing though. The crowd had started to wake up a bit. It was one thing to have stage presence but it is another to come down among the fans while you’re performing for them. It isn’t anything new of course, it was just – I think – a little unexpected for the fans when it happened, and it seemed to galvanise them and put in much needed excitement making them look like Peter Griffin after a few cans of Red Bull. Some of you might not know what that means so look it up on youtube. The sound issues haven’t been here either. A couple of the band look sunburned, but maybe that’s just the screen colour being a bit too high. Again, strange to see them performing this early.
I was conflicted here, badly, because Exodus and Weedeater are playing at the same time. I chose the latter for most of the set with the intention of seeing the former at the end of theirs. The reason is because I reviewed the new Weedeater album, Goliathan, a few weeks back. The drummer was hailed as having the hardest hitting since Keith Moon. I just had to see if this was true live. It is. He also appears to be just as crazy on stage – I would not imagine his off stage antics are comparable to Keith though. I certainly hope they’re not. It is in some ways almost a disadvantage because the drummer is such a prominent point that someone could easily miss other band members contributions. Even the position of the drums facing the side instead of front pointing out makes him the focal point of the entire show. Drummers rarely get that, so kudos to him. Maybe I am a little biased having really enjoyed their album and the fact that they had been responsible for causing me to look further into other stoner/sludge bands besides the big names, but this is my favourite Valley performance of the weekend so far. A stoner rock stage on the third day of the festival is as you might expect in terms of the crowd and it is a shame that Weedeater, though well received, are playing on the last day in the middle of a time when most people have only just ate, and many are having a ‘chill out day’. I head over to Exodus who I have seen before many times which also influenced my decision to see Weedeater first. I am very pleased that Gary has chosen to continue and not leave Exodus to focus on Slayer. I get there just in time for a couple of tracks from Bonded By Blood, including the title track. A must have for every thrash fan and in my opinion every metal fan – this performance erases all traces of what I was saying before about people being shattered and not having the energy. I only wish I had seen the whole thing but some clashes are not avoidable. It is a welcome return for Exodus with Steve, who many hadn’t seen before.
This is the point where I myself give in to the tiredness and heat for a couple of hours, returning in time for the last half of Epica who have very overpowering vocals. It is only in one or two spots when I am listening so I move around a bit to try to determine whether or not it is to do with where I am standing. It is – the sound towards the left appears to be more balanced so I remain there. They are having a good time – and if the sound issues are any problem on stage then we wouldn’t know. I suspect it was just where I was standing before. Epica haven’t really connected while I am watching but then they say something about their regular appearances in France over the years and being so well received and the crowd appear to take more notice – of course I had seen ONE song before this happened so for all I know there was just a momentary dip from the energy of the crowd – so bear that in mind while reading. There’s something refreshingly novel about watching symphonic metal when the sun is shining so brightly – the growling parts of the songs are executed with less precision than the clean ethereal vocals. Another reason it’s a little novel is the pyrotechnics – the flame spurts. All good, but strange to see in daylight. Nice that they still elected to do it. Perhaps just a smidgeon too much reverb in places but a nice tight set which I suspect had been the same before I arrived.
In Flames have got bigger and better since I last saw them, which was opening for Killswitch Engage in 2009 if I remember rightly. They’re huge now – and their performance is great. Give them a bigger stage and a bit more time and look what they do with it. I was very surprised to see such a large crowd compared to last time – not that they don’t deserve it which they certainly do – only that to see the size to the audience having swelled so much over the course of merely a few years. There is so much energy to take in that I decide to see it from as many different places as possible. We are at the left side then the right. We go back to see the entire stage with the fantastic light display but when it comes to getting to the front it was time to stop moving. For a second having not seen İn Flames for ages I thought Fred Durst was doing guest vocals. Thankfully not. The guitar harmonies give me a buzz similar to Maiden and the tone is faultless. The band is so tight. We were really treated. ‘Drifter’ opens up one of the biggest pits of the entire festival though thankfully people are looking after each other. I do not know how mayday tickets were sold on the strength of In Flames but I guess that most people who have been there as long as I have are giving their last burst of energy for this performance rather than Korn and I have to say I think that is for the best. When they start playing everything is all well and good, but the problem was that Korn for some reason decide to leave a lot of pauses between songs. Leaving people – most of whom are quite shattered – to come down from a buzz instead of keeping it going is a mistake that they make this evening and while it was good when they played, they left too many gaps and the result was that a lot of people appeared to lose interest from where I was. That was unfortunate.
So, I head to my last gig of Hellfest 2015. Phil Anselmo has been here many years in a row wıth one band or another and this time he brings Superjoint Ritual who are hailed as an amalgamation of many different styles including black metal elements. Mostly it appears more thrashy, more similar to Pantera but with the tones of sludge creeping in. They acknowledge that everyone is tired but Phil instructs us to grab things by the certain part of female anatomy and enjoy the last moments of Hellfest 2015. We do – enjoy things İ mean. Not grabbing anything. The connection with the fans is particularly resonating because they acknowledge that there is no better place than to play the first live Superjoint Ritual gig than Hellfest. This means more to the spectators than you might think. The result is probably the most engaged crowd of the entire weekend in the Valley that İ had seen and it was the last show there of the night.
So, in summary the Hellfest guys have done it again. Even better than the previous years. A fantastic anniversary that I do not know how the hell they will possibly top next year. But top it they will. Of that I have no doubt.