Friday 19th June – Sunday 21st June 2015
Review by Chris Brown
Photography by Richie Birnie and Gavin Lowrey
Having now risen to the peak of it’s prowess in this, its tenth year, Hellfest had once again descended on Clisson Rock City with a line-up unrivalled throughout Europe this year. As the masses emerged from the camp site and flooded through the gates, the late morning sun rose to its peak in a cloudless sky and people slipped effortlessly into that pattern of early morning drinking that’s so easily brought about at all modern festivals.
As we crept our way slowly beneath the arches of the monolithic castle entrance, the view that greeted us of the main arena gave instant assertion to a suspicion that this weekend was going to be one full of pleasant surprises. From the rusted iron architecture of the iconic Hellfest tree and the bars and merchandise stands to the hidden bars and stage in the forest area, the whole place emitted a character that was simultaneously tranquil as much as it charged with freneticism.
For those getting their first glimpses of the simply awesome dual main stages, the crowd were greeted with an early offering of intent from Reading based symbiosis of the progressive and thrash persuasion; Sylosis [3/5]. This proved to be an astute choice from the organisers to harness the brewing anticipation and ensure a rapture of a appreciation from those eager to get the party started.
Despite the barrage of heat bearing down from the sky to punish the uninitiated, the dynamite riff-laden composition brought forward by the band slowly dispersed an energy throughout the audience. Like a butterfly effect, what began with a ripple of head nodding culminated with bodies flying through the air.
Having seen previous festival performances by the band, the impression I had of them then is the one I still maintain, in that they are certainly one that impress you in the moment, but don’t seem to be one that last too long in the memory thereafter. While their performance was hampered slightly by the sound production staff not quite finding their feet in terms of how much prevalence in the mix should be given to the low end, the overall sound was much heavier in the live performance than it was on the record.
It was perhaps still a little too early to instigate in the mayhem for some, and Hellfest’s notoriety in catering for taste offered up a change in pace at it’s Alter stage. Hailing from Helsinki, funeral doom outfit Shape of Despair [2.5/5] had already begun to swell a chilling ambience at odds with the weather outside.
A steady trickle of simple but satisfying chords rang out in drawn out and doomy fashion beneath the harsh throaty bellowings of Henri Koivula along side a more anthemic vocalisation from Natalie Koskinen, while some pre-recorded synth was delicately draped over the top that really fleshed out the overall sound.
While the Alter stage was filled to about half capacity, already there were lost souls lying in the shade and groups of people talking amongst themselves. Sadly, the band failed to energise the crowd in the slightest, with the exception of one or two who were doing all in their power to make their presence felt. It’s a shame that besides a ripple of applause after each song, it was the funeral aspect was the pertinent part of the atmosphere as the crowd were left about as captivated as the vacant expression on the band’s faces.
The first of the aforementioned surprises came directly via a thoroughly impressive performance from Lativan pagen thrash rockers Skyforger [4.5/5]. In stark contrast to the performance that preceded next door, the Lativan contingent of Hellfest led the charge among a swelling crowd rife with enthusiasm and support that was there for all to see.
The overall sound put forward by these warrior monks was as self contained and as it was wholly uplifting. A blend of galloping triplets and solo-laden heavier moments marched forth like a cavalry of melody, which was reminiscent of Rainbow and Iron Maiden at times.
Draped in robes that went so in character with the man’s beard, the front man known as Peter took to the plinth centre stage to captivate his conclave. Preceding each track they would indulge the crowd with little aside tales that inspired the song they were about to play, including one about a soldier in a victorious battle back home in the First World War. Where other bands might come across as a gimmick in this vein, the passion for their music was clearly close to their hearts and the charisma swept up all who were there to witness it.
The completion of my tour of the tent stages took me to the the stoner rock focused Valley stage where San Francisco based heavy metal enthusiasts Orchid [2/5] were setting up for their set. In scenes that would later leave me feeling a bout of confusion, the tent was packed out. This was your classic American rock band performance, the kind you can imagine the singer bellowing ‘Oh Yeah’ after every other line.
Perhaps if with particular pertinence that the resonating bass drowned out a large amount of the guitar as he was perhaps the stand-out member of the band in my opinion. His unusual ‘thumb-strum’ style and his shifting animated facial expressions somehow became more mesmeric than the rest of the band’s performance, which largely fell flat throughout. The band’s sound would struggle to fill a venue half the size of the one they were in and, steadily, some began to agree with me either by drifting off or leaving entirely. The drums were neither thunderous, nor were the vocals sufficiently dynamic, and this really made the performance drag its heels through ambivalence.
While making our way past the Alter stage back towards the main stages, perhaps one of the most memorable phrases of the festival shrieked through the PA – “Pretend that your family are dead!”. While some may be unaware of the in-your-face and aggressive stylings of UK based metal act Vallenfyre [2.5/5] and their own bruising brand of entertainment, that is one sure-fire way to announce your intent on proceedings.
Ex-Paradise-Lost and dreadlock-laden-advert-for-needing-a-good-wash front man Gregor Mackintosh, asserted his authority on the mic with an array of other brilliant sound bytes accompanying his brutish vocal style.
While officially clad as a death-metal outfit, the onslaught was well bridged with a doomy underlay that nicely set up blast beats amongst other rusted jagged-edgery. Cheering at every breakdown, this frenetic cascade was evidently well received by the crowd, some of whom may have been equally thankful of the breeze caused by the drummer’s impressive off-beat hair windmilling.
As the eyes adjusted to the light outside, what had previously been an amble across the grass to the main stages had become an arduous tirade through a sea of bodies as a modest gathering had swollen into a crowd much more fitting of the headline acts. Now barely breaking into their performance were Boston’s own straight-up rock band; Godsmack [2/5].
What immediately struck me about the set was how it was emanating an aura of ageing rockers, a desperate attempt to remain relevant, a feeling that was only reinforced by an intent reliance on reeling through the cliché text book.
The set was delivered with the professionalism that you would expect but was littered with examples which made it entirely run of the mill. Charisma is something that is honed, not emulated and spouting lines like ”Great audience we have here tonight” during the mid-afternoon slot does little but further the idea that they are going through the motions.
The closing track ‘I Stand Alone’ was always going to be the obvious highlight before the show began, as it encapsulated the brief glimmer the band had in the mainstream limelight. However, there wasn’t much in the way of sustained momentum in the build up to this. At one point as the crowd went mild after a track and they broke into a singular riff from Pantera’s ‘Walk’. While it certainly achieved the aim of perking everyone up a little bit, why bother for a single riff? It just seemed cheap.
Back in the Temple stage, an unrelenting peddle stomp was already underway as Sumerian thrashing black metallers; Melechesh [2.5/5] were spitting wasps tails out upon a captivated gathering. For those who like their bass drum to come with a side of bass drum this was a charged and frenzied display where walking into the tent was like getting a face full of brick.
Melechesh’s sound is one that is fast, frantic and heavy; weaving a sonic tapestry that blends black metal riffs, blast beats and serpentine vocals with Middle-Eastern melodic elements. The awkward and confused movements of the crowd was enough to portray that this isn’t the easiest music to get down to, but the set was delivered with a competent precision that is worthy of note.
Working hard to enhance the reputation of the Valley stage from the other ones we’d seen today were a band certainly enjoying an upward surge in notoriety in recent times; High on Fire [3.5/5]. Having previously toured with tonight’s Valley headliners; Mastodon, a bout of confusion arose during their sound check as it became apparent that (even down to the beard) bass player Jeff Matz has become a dead ringer for front man Troy Sanders. Some have pointed to parallels between the two bands in the past, but High on Fire were certainly looking to elevate themselves into a similar realm with this performance.
Bridging the line between groove and heaviness, the band have refined their sound to a satisfying conclusion. While a minor point in most performances, the thud behind the kick drum was fantastic and gave a solid base for everything else around it to flourish. The sound mix as a whole had drastically improved since the last performers and while the bass was dominant, the guitars were certainly given room to manoeuvre – a fact that was certainly enjoyed by Brent Hinds, who could be seen lapping up the solos from the side of the stage.
While the crowd appeared to be quite apathetic at times; there were ripples of appreciation throughout the set, the heat of the desert sound was well reflected through real-life conditions at the time. This was a professional performance from a group who could be most honestly described as ‘a real band’.
Let us now take a moment of silence for all the bands whose sets were clashing with the first offering of mortal legends to be appearing on the main-stage this weekend. There was only one band anyone who was anyone was here to see, and to introduce them by their full title; ”We are Motörhead and we play Rock and Roll” [4.5/5].
It was fantastic to witness first hand Lemmy, Phil and Mikkey being as well received on the continent as they are back home. Even from as far in as we were able to clamber, it was abundantly clear how brightly experience shines as the whole experience was elevated far and beyond the three men on stage. The no nonsense attitude that embodies the man at the front of it all was engrained in the fabric of the performance, with a solidity and energy that resonated throughout in a way you wouldn’t think was possible if Lemmy’s health concerns are to be fully understood.
While the inevitable conclusion of the set was realised with invigorated performances of ‘Ace of Spades’ and ‘Overkill’, the newer material also went down well. As well as an extended drum solo, the crowd were also treated to an interlude of Phil Campbell simply being brilliantly Welsh before enthralling with a solo of his own. We wonder how many more times we’ll get to see this, but we pray long may it continue.
One band I feared that I wouldn’t be able to catch due to set clashes were Richmond, Virginia’s circle-pit pedlars Lamb of God [4.5/5], but thanks to a switch around with Five Finger Death Punch, this event was met with eager-eyes by many, as well as my own. This was a charismatic return to form after the drama of the well publicised legal proceedings were well put behind them, and a careful warning to the crowd from Randy Blythe was well noted.
From start to finish, this was as solid of a performance as they come. Chris Adler (sporting a Megadeth shirt following his recent appointment with the band) was mesmeric in his precision as every beat resonated through the crowd and made everyone lose their minds. In a set laden with well defined modern classics, there was also space for new tracks from their upcoming record; ‘512’ and ‘Still Echoes’.
The former, named after the cell number Randy found himself in after his arrest in 2012, churned like a freight train steaming through turbulent waters with a breakdown that erupts like a laser show cascading in all directions at once. A premier performance for ‘Still Echoes’ continued in similar fashion, with those little characteristic guitar licks fans have become so accustomed to, and gave a real flavour of the direction that the band is taking. More of the same I guess, but no one seemed to mind.
Before the hour drew upon us to soak in the evening’s headline acts, there was time to indulge in a moment of personal nostalgia and nip back to the Temple stage for the night’s performance from East Anglia’s finest Black Metal pioneers; Cradle of Filth [4/5].
With the sunlight having dipped a little, then tent had already become more well suited to the black metal ambience and we were able to see the first proper use of lighting on the stage. Hosted by a usual barrage of antagonism aimed at the crowd from front man Dani Filth (trying to elevate himself above the stature of the well spoken short man that he is), it was the band who were in particular form on this occasion.
Despite having several line-up changes over the years, they appear to have settled on a drummer who can definitely deliver on performance. This was none more apparent than on the set opener ‘Cthulhu Dawn’, which was laden with nuance and combined perfectly with the intricate guitars and was as slick of a rendering as I have witnessed.
Although he didn’t get the circle-pit that he was trying to rile out of everybody, bodies certainly found themselves hurling towards the front. The set list was satisfyingly saturated with older material and the audience were as animated at the smaller stages as I had seen them all day.
While the band’s sole-surviving founding member is usually the credence for their notoriety, there were a few moments where Dani’s exemplary vocal shriek was wavering or had to stop entirely. You could suggest the years of toil is finally affecting his potency, but the extent he overcame this demanding performance was still worthy of respect.
One band that perhaps encapsulates the Valley stage’s raison d’être like no other would be the night’s headline performers; Mastodon [3.5/5]. With each new release, the Atlanta based quartet seem to evolve their sound without compromising their integrity, and that’s been none truer than with their latest release ‘Once More Round the Sun’ which seems to have been met with near universal acclaim.
As to be expected, their set tonight was heavily saturated with their new material. But while many still relish their older material in recent memory, a strange enigma emerges with Mastodon in that each track they play outside of their current roster feels like a finely crafted gem, preserved as a sound that they have since moved on from.
One of the band’s hallmarks on the band’s meteoric rise to power has been the level of consistency they have been able to achieve with their live performance, which is why it leaves me heavy of heart to say that this show was an exception to the rule. This was uncharacteristically sloppy when compared to the impeccably high standards they will have set for themselves. The statement comes with particular emphasis on the vocals (now being provided by all four members of the band at various stages). It probably didn’t help that the tracks appeared to be played at a good few bpm above their recorded counterparts, which led to them being either out of breath or off-key. Less noticeably it affected other aspects of the execution, but the good aspects of what they did outweigh their relevance.
Whatever Brann Dailor was infused with in order to raise the tempo to such an extent did little to affect his precision. He is fast establishing himself as a premier drummer in modern music and with drum rolls that could start tsunamis, this performance was as good as any to see why.
Troy Sanders and Brent Hinds encompass an impressively broad stylistic palette between them, and lead from the front line in virtuosic fashion. With a lightness in its delicacy, the mood fluttered between complex instrumental breakdowns (now being combined with pop-like hooks that any postman could whistle) without ever fringing on being obnoxious.
Making their anticipated return to Clisson Rock City, the guests in town tonight are of the highest calibre. The ‘Redeemer of Souls’ tour is the second for Judas Priest [4/5] with the current line-up of founding members; vocalist Rob Halford, guitarist Glenn Tipton, as wells as long time drummer Scott Travis. However, it’s perhaps the band’s newest member; Richie Faulkner, who the fans should show the most gratitude towards as without his passion for the band’s legacy, they might never have recorded the new album and embarked on the tour that proceeded it.
The Priest performed a set which had as much emphasis on contemporary as it did classic and interspersed the likes of ‘Halls of Valhalla’ alongside ‘Turbo Lover’. The real test of any album is how it is performed live and the sounds that resonated from this one would imply that this record is another seminal slab of Priest to add to the collection.
Throughout the set, Halford was seen pacing around the stage with more energy that people have seen in quite some time. A recent bout of back surgery appears to have re-invigorated the man’s passion after spending over 35 years on tour. Whilst changing outfits more times that a pop-star princess, his eyes lit up as he took a moment to talk about the band’s history, which set the stage for a moody rendition of ”Beyond the Realms of Death”.
As the main set predictably closed with renditions of ‘Breaking the Law’ and ‘Hell Bent for Leather’, the latter featured Halford riding centre-stage on his rumbling Harley. It was all less a case of rolling back the years with this performance and more rolling back the rest of the world to show them how it’s done.
Gathering every last scrap of energy you have to make it through the headline act, which unlike UK festivals don’t get going until around 1am, is where Hellfest becomes an endurance. The juxtaposition between the two final bands to take to the main stages that evening could not have been much greater, but shows quite an accurate depiction of how the genre have evolved over the years. I wonder what it would be like to see Slipknot [4/5] wheeled them out on stage 40 years after their inception, and see if they would still be able to resonate the same level of relevance. What you can be sure of is they certainly know how to captivate a modern audience to near fanatic proportions.
It’s impossible to mention the band’s unprecedented charisma without mentioning the man who does exceptionally well to keep the spotlight in a band comprised of nine members; Corey Taylor. Whatever your feelings are about the man, he is undoubtedly a performer who has crafted engaging a crowd down to a fine art. Its a raw formula of aural simplicity really; weave the word ‘f*cking’ like silk through every utterance, touch your hand to your chest when you want to show how sincere you are and pause for applause after every other sentence. It literally is a case of ‘I say jump, you say how high’ for the man who looks like he’s just escaped a Mortiis convention in his latest incarnation.
The set list had a largely familiar feel to it for anyone who has seen Slipknot before, with the exception of a few spatterings from last year’s release ‘.5 The Gray Chapter’. From the familiar bruising sustained from the early recital of ‘The Heretic Anthem’, right through to the ever-unholy sight of bringing 25,000 people to their knees only to ‘jump the f*ck up’ on command during ‘Spit it Out’, Slipknot are a band synonymous with their main event credentials and it’s an experience that stays with you. The whole set was an emphatic release for everyone after a gruelling day, and not a single festival-goer would have gone back to their tent with anything but an appetite for more.
Even as early as dawn of the second day, it felt like an event that was slipping away from you, but this only led to a desire to re-double your efforts to soak up every last moment. This one began with a different change of pace entirely from the stage that had wrought so much havoc the night before.
For those looking to massage some degree of zen back into their sanity would welcome the early appearance of London based progressive rock outfit; Haken [2.5/5]. For some, anyway. A Hellfest audience is one that demands a low-end saturated experience throughout, and the appearance of these guys did seem to leave a plethora of bemused faces among the fragile looking morning crowd.
It is unfortunate that a few issues of distortion and feedback through the PA system did mar the performance to an extent, although they did power through it with distinction. This was even more impressive given the technicality of their play style and how distracting the sounds were. Having said this, the soaring vocals were carried off very well and were well suited to the morning sun. A particular highlight was during a solo rendition of ‘Cockroach King’, which seemed to resonate far and uplift everyone it touched. And irritatingly serenaded your conscience for hours afterwards…
While the crowd had been reasonably mute and modest in the build up to this point, that was all about to change with the impending detonation brought about by Los Angeles metal outfit Butcher Babies [3.5/5]. Seemingly out of nowhere came a full frontal explosion brought about by the energy and dynamism of front pairing Heidi Shepherd and Carla Harvey. It seemed these two leather-clad lovelies were just the injection of adrenaline everyone needed to get back on the same page. For those who had been able to resist the allure and charm of the previous band, this was to be their rude awakening.
Between the two of them, their grip on proceedings was seldom replicated throughout the weekend. Their animation and enthusiasm, as well as their surprising ability as metal vocalists, was infectious and quickly had everyone losing their minds. At one point the crowd surfers among us were challenged to come forward and claim a high five, and I have never seen so many clamour for so little.
Such was the extent of the emphatic domination of their stage presence, you actually started to feel a little sorry for the rest of the band who, despite being competent musicians in their own right, had very little limelight of their own and were seemingly told to stand at the back of the stage and not look anyone in the eye. But an audience is only receptive to authenticity, and that was precisely what was on show here with a competent performance throughout.
With the ship now steadied and the course laid in, it was time to venture back to the Temple stage for Bavarian black metal beasts; Infestus [1.5/5]. If form was to be believed up to this point then there could be no doubt in that if you wanted to spend all weekend watching bands who have mastered the art of the blast beat, then look no further than the temple stage.
The other thing that was abundantly clear from the start, is that these guys were excessively loud. There was little to no distinction between the instruments throughout the set, and only an overbearing wolf growl emanating like a flag sinking in a tar pit. Sadly, despite all the noise, Infestus offered little to shout about.
Along a similar vein of brutality, albeit superior in terms of execution, French outfit Crusher [3.5/5] were brewing their brand of unholy venom as they took to the Altar stage. Fronted by man-mountain; Crass on the vocals, Crusher announced their arrival with bludgeoning disdain. His vocal delivery was exemplary, and even more so considering he did so while being skewered with needles through the arms by two female counterparts as part of the performance.
In contrast with the previous slot, the mix was perfect to allow both the grooves and riffs to resonate through. The band have a clear following in their home country as legions seemed to surge forward with eager anticipation. While the execution of the set was a little sloppy on occasion, when it worked it really did. The relentless peddling of the kick drum rained down like hammers, perfectly complimenting the down-tuned derision on guitar. Those who wandered in looking for something honestly heavy and well executed did not leave disappointed.
Floating back and forth between the Temple and Alter stages was achievable with satisfying ease. The level of smooth precision being executed by the organisers and is a testament to just how well put together the festival is. Next up on the Temple stage were Swedish black metallers; Craft [2/5], who were hoping to restore a little ‘amour propre’ to proceedings.
Judging by the faces that sauntered into the tent as the set began, it became clear that the band had found their niche audience among old bruisers who’s fists were already swinging before the first chord had rang out. The set was saturated with moments of brutālis, offset against doomy sections and was essentially everything you would have expected having heard of the band.
Again, the sound in the Temple stage left a lot to be desired, as the overall sound mix across as bland noise that was just distorted and heavy. Surprisingly, it was the cymbals that were given a dominant presence in the mix over the rest of the kit. Judging from the look of the band’s drizzled deformation, I think the main lesson to take home from this one is that face paint and sweat are not a potent combination.
The first few steps outside betrayed an impression that the afternoon sun had sapped the life out of everyone, as bodies lay scattered throughout any patch of available shade. For those of them able to crawl their way across to the Valley stage for the afternoon’s performance by ASG [4/5], they were treated to a breath of life that everyone was in dire need of.
The mood was set perfectly for a dose of southern tinged swamp rock with a heavy leaning towards solid grooves and minimal head-banging. It became suddenly invigorating to hear a beat you could stamp with your foot or with a fist in the air and this sonic cascade was revelled in by all who were able to witness it. The atmosphere contained an air of bourbon-soaked revery that had everyone transfixed as they readied themselves for ZZ Top’s performance in the evening, but this had more of a hallucinogenic quality to it rather than being overtly bluesy.
In similar fashion to Motorhead the day before, the journey venturing towards the main stage to see Slash perform with Miles Kennedy was nigh on impossible unless you were already there. The venue had not looked as packed all weekend, literally everyone had gone down to see this one. After hearing a vague recital the classic tunes you’d expect hear from the former Guns ‘n’ Roses and Velvet Revolver man, we afforded ourself the chance to slip back into the Altar Stage for a better view of Japanese band Coffins [1/5], for a set that was memorable for all the wrong reasons.
This one bore all the hallmarks of a bad battle of the bands performance and the reasons for this were plentiful. The initial moments were well drawn out but quickly descended into a nonsensical drown. The songs were short, offering little in the way of structure or definable moments and although you could tell they had ended thanks to a brief pause, each of them could have been consolidated into a singular barrage of slurry that would have ended this ordeal faster than it eventually was.
The guitar tone missed the mark by a long shot and offered no collaboration with the drums during the solo sections. The vocal performance had some power behind it but was continually reminiscent of Kurt Cobain’s Top of the Pops performance where he ate the microphone, and after about a quarter of an hour he sounded like he needed a lie down. The rhythms were arguably solid on the most part but lacked any degree of flair and any attempt to do so was counter-productive. The bassist had been given license to roam in moments where he utilised his waa pedal, and was so awful in it implementation it became almost iconic of the band’s set as a whole.
It had become an almost formulaic pattern of the festival so far to be let down by the Alter Stage and picked back up again in the Temple, and as we were swept up by the surge heading there now to see Finnish melodic folk metal pioneers; Ensiferium [4/5], it seemed all the more likely that this trend was likely to continue.
While many of the bands on the overall itinerary share a love of all things heavy, there are one or two examples that transcend the mood entirely and remind people why they are here; to rejoice in revery, to have a good time. Ensiferium were undoubtedly a shining example of this. Rhythmic chanting dominated the sound scape while galloping rhythms led you dramatically down a late solo-laden surge.
It may not have been entirely the feel that the band were going for but in all of it’s uplifting qualities it had a real feel that was simultaneously melodic and epic. If Petri Lindroos had demanded his followers to march to war, there would not have been many who wouldn’t have answered the call.
In leaving the tent slightly bruised in body, but not in mind, we made our way back down to the main stages for the evenings headline acts. It was indeed time to beats those fists in the air and let the hips start swinging, as none other than Texas blues rock legends; ZZ Top [4/5] were in town to inject a little bourbon soaked class to the occasion.
Seemingly having their beards scientifically preserved from their heyday, Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard (still the only member of the band to not have a beard) were greeted with rapturous applause as they took to the stage. You could feel a definite shift in the atmosphere from the previous night as everyone took it down a peg.
With a set packed with fantastic renditions of ‘Got me Under Pressure’, ‘La Grange’, ‘Tush’ and even a cheeky cover of ‘Foxy Lady’ thrown in for good measure, these guys were on top form and throwing out riffs with enough hook to captain a fictional pirate ship.
And so it became as the sunlight began to descend, then cameth the hour to bring a little heaven to the Hellfest. As the members of Californian hip-hop laden metal-funk pioneers; Faith No More [5/5] emerged onto a stage draped in enough flowers to satisfy a Saturday night at Eurovision, and while dressed in pristine white they launched straight into a song called ‘Motherf*cker’.
With ‘Sol Invictus’, the band’s first release in 17 years, now saturating Spotify playlists throughout the world, their new material had now become a core part of the set, as opposed to being nervously tacked on at the end as it had been at British Summer Time the previous year. As well as return-to-form neo-classic; ‘Superhero’, a powerful rendering of malign funk anthem ‘Separation Anxiety’ allowed a thumping bass sound to flourish. As expected though, the main hysteria focused around a set extending into the full reaches of the band’s repertoire.
Despite the band’s hiatus, it was almost immediately clear that little beyond the depleting hairlines and expanding waistlines had changed. Mike Patton remains every bit the hyper-charismatic front man; at moments ladling bile and malice over ‘The Gentle Art of Making Enemies’, or inspiring a chorus of ‘Aahs’ during their notorious cover of Commodores classic ‘Easy’. Also, a sumptuous rendition of Angel Dust’s ‘Everything’s Ruined’ betrayed a mesmeric synergy between a bass-led rhythm and an angelic piano overture, which shattered even the hardest heart standing on ceremony.
With the stars firmly now planted in the sky, the question was suddenly asked ‘is one of them ready to fall?’ In having a notoriety founded on controversy and antagonism, as well as a reputation for a dwindling enthusiasm put into his live performance, the main stage no longer seemed like a great height for anti-christ superstar Marilyn Manson [1/5], who put in one of the most hilariously poor performances of the festival.
Throughout the set, as he brooded around the stage, it became immediately clear that his singing voice had diminished with age. Perhaps it was a side effect of pushing his throat beyond it’s natural limit but while his screams still had some potency, as a talented vocalist he failed to hit the mark. Often there were moments he would delegate vocal responsibility entirely to the crowd or other band members as he would saunter off somewhere else.
Manson remained a towering presence as he held the microphone like a sandwich he was about to take a bite out of, and jutting about the stage like a man simultaneously caught in the zip while prodding a plug socket. Harnessing a degree of ‘look at me’ spoilt-brattery, he would announce the end of each track by throwing the mic on the floor as he marched off stage and the lights went out. This is obviously a trademark thing for the self-crowned king of controversy, but it was simply awful. It detracted from any pace and momentum the set had built up and heightened the frustration of the experience.
His use of props included a microphone shaped like a knife, which in one moment he began to use to bludgeon the bass drum a bit. With his lust for blood still as yet unsatisfied, the same fate also fell upon an inflatable turtle that found it’s way his eyeline before its dismembered cadaver was then cast back into the crowd. The set fast descended into a series of set pieces and it didn’t take long for some people to have had enough and led a moderate exodus towards the camp site – any memories of their fallen idol now tainted.
With our bodies kindly putting off feeling the totality of the exertion we had endured so far for another day, the final day kicked off in unforgiving fashion. Emerging from a rich tradition of hailing from Gothenburg in Sweden, such as tonight’s Alter stage performers At the Gates, The Haunted [4/5] gave a lesson in picking yourself up to do it all over again.
Once again been fronted by Marco Aro, the twice instated replacement vocalist for Pete Dolving, this brutish specimen might lack the vocal ability for singing that Dolving possessed, but certainly makes up for it with all out power. Their set became an exemplary perdition of organised chaos. The band were afforded a clarity in their sound which hadn’t always been consistent throughout the weekend and this aided massively with helping this performance realise its potential.
Telling the same story as 25,000 red necks, the blistering heat had also baked the ground into dust, which added massive amounts to the drama to the circle-pits swarming all around us. And why not? The forcefulness of the display was simply Herculean and demanded this kind of appreciation.
Having first witnessed their rise to power supporting Mastodon on a tour through the UK a few years back, Red Fang [3/5] had now ascended to being one of the co-headliners at Desert Fest (Camden’s premier annual outlet for all things stoner rock), as well as a slot on the main-stage here.
Fans were packed for quite some distance and with both Bryan Giles and bassist Aaron Beam’s voices both raging in unison throughout most of the material, they managed to create a kind of vocal maelstrom that swept over everybody. As was the case with the set list, their combination of raw and hard hitting words offered great variation throughout the performance.
The four band members can be seen visibly putting everything that they’ve got into their implementation, leaving the crowd to thrash around and lose themselves in the groove, of which there was plenty to go around. However, I found the band to be a slightly strange choice for the main stage as, while satisfying in it’s own way, their sound can be overtly plain and quite predictable. In essence, it’s a kind of no-threats stoner rock that you most likely wouldn’t find a teenager hiding from their parents. But while I know that the band are capable of better, this was still a decent performance from the Portland groove merchants.
Whilst the proceedings on the main stage didn’t quite capture my imagination in the way that I’d hoped, there was still potential to be found at back Valley stage to be swept up in the wave of intrigue emanating from instrumental groove outfit; Russian Circles [3/5].
What is always fascinating about instrumental music is how the shackles of creativity are cast to one side when not having to cater to a vocalist. While there are plenty of bands out there who are master craftsmen in the artistry behind the build up and climax of a song, many of those would struggle to create such a fascinating array of textures with so little.
While the set started out strongly, it fast became apparent that this was music catered for a particular state of mind that my sweat saturated brain was unable to comprehend and fully appreciate at the time. Between the three of them, the Chicago based trio craft an atmosphere that creates an emphatic release of the senses, and has an almost hallucinogenic quality to it. However as stated earlier, the state of mind is paramount as, without it, the performance quickly became quite mundane.
The main stage had become a sort of proving ground for the initiated during the searing heat of the daytime, and scenes of post-carnage seemed to be in every direction as Californian thrash metal sensations Exodus [4/5], took to the stage. The air had once again become saturated with dust as circle-pits swelled and dispersed with compelling ease as the euphoria the band enticed was infectious.
The set opened with a relentless rundown of ”Black 13”, announcing with no uncertainty that the wrecking machine was in town. The venom laced in every guitar squeal stung like a scorpions tail sat against a flurry of face-melter riffs and competent solo sections, and the crowd was impressively responsive.
In a brief retrospective spanning 30 years, the crowd were also invited to join in ‘The Toxic Waltz’ before everyone lost their minds in a pacey furore for ‘Strike of the Beast. The energy through the set was positive and straight-up contagious. Exodus proved yet again what a class act they are in a performance that exceeded my exceptions.
With the final bout of anticipation for the headline acts reaching full saturation, there was still time to catch Dortmund based death metal drones; Morgoth [2.5/5]. Cleanly picked patterns from the guitars helped to emanate a feeling of haunted calm as the set began with a tempered, doomy opening during ‘Ungod’; the title track from the album with the same name. Then, how quickly the rug became swept from under you feet as a chaotic rendition of ‘Sold Baptism’ managed to force it’s way it to proceedings.
The set then lurched forth with a sour temperament throughout, optimised by the sour guttural roar from Karsten Jäger. Down-tuned tremolo riffs perforated their way through the senses while solid, chunky bass-lines defined the groove and gave some order to the chaos emanating from the drum kit. Hair became whipped through the air as momentum managed to carve its way through it.
You began to sense a staleness in the air that was furthered by the bruising atmosphere that appeared to be leaving casualties in it’s wake. Not for the first time during the festival, bet never to quite the extent, bodies became strewn everywhere over the rear half of the tent (and another semi-buried beneath the summery earth just outside).
Suddenly, in scenes resembling the abolition of a ban on chip shop batter, a wave of jaunty fervour swept through the arena and replaced the sullen atmosphere with a fresh pint of lager in every hand. The Temple stage had become a wash of mischief as everyone prepared to unleash the scurvy ridden sea-dog within for one of the most stand-out performances of the festival with patagonian pirate polka practitioners; Alestorm [5/5].
As Christopher Bowes took to the helm, the tidal-wave of tartan-clad titillation that stood before him would have made anyone a little seasick. In a kind of parody betwixt a sea shanty and a gyrating heavy metal octopus, accordion draped metal riffs were enjoyed by man and beer-soaked wenches alike. You have to take your tri-corner hat off to the band for being so musically ambitious while maintaining being so accessible.
Thrashy riffs accompanied quirky keytar compositions sat behind lyrics about drinking, piracy, giant squids, and varying combinations of the above. With crowd surfers hurtling in every direction, the term ‘man overboard’ took on a much more literal meaning during this performance. It can be noted that the smaller stages had not been prepared for a crowd of this magnitude, or enthusiasm. Surely Alestorm must be ripe for a set on the main stage next time out. In the mean time ”Oi you! Geez a beer!”
Whenever anyone mentions Limp Bizkit [3.5/5] to me now, I recall from a humbling interview with Fred Durst last year in which the band fully accepts their dwindling relevance in the contemporary music scene. That being said, they still found themselves being very much part of the main event here at Hellfest, so how would the band respond?
What we then saw unfold on the main stage was perhaps one of the most fragmented and confused performances ever witnessed, which in places could only be likened to a live mental breakdown, and yet on reflection could still be considered a massive success.
Despite not really looking like a cohesive unit on the stage, when they came together they had the whole place bouncing from the off without any need of an invitation. Breaking immediately into a surprise cover of Ministry’s ‘Thieves’ as the second track certainly showed the intention that they were more than ‘Rollin’ regurgitators… at least until the fourth song anyway.
It was in between each song that the cracks began to show. Durst’s expression still retained the lost, thousand yard stare that he had in the interview, and his audience interaction was nervous and at odds with his ‘hard-man’ persona. It was hard to tell if he was interrupted or rescued by Wes as he broke into a medley of Metallica riffs, which then drew a bigger cheer than their own material. It certainly went some way to explaining the Master of Puppets themed back-drop on the stage. One section included a DubStep oriented solo that was mercifully cut short by technical difficulties, a fact that was applauded by Durst as the camera focused solely on the DJ’s shattered pride.
But despite all of the above, the band appear to have learnt one important lesson that has carried them this far – give the crowd what they want. And they did just that. Nostalgia is a business of its own these days and this set was saturated with it, even that which was not theirs to claim. The set list featured two covers medleys as well as a complete rendition of Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Killing in the Name of’. As the set came to a close after an extended rendering of ‘Take a Look Around’, the sound of ‘Staying Alive’ by the Bee Gees pulsating its way into everyone’s collective consciousness no longer came as a surprise.
Having recently released their first album in 19 years, it was a surprise for many, albeit a welcome one, to see At the Gates [4/5] touring again. When the band first reformed in 2007, they had released a statement that there would be no further records under the name ‘At The Gates’, evidently with their fingers crossed behind their back.
There was no hint of uncertainty on the night though. What there was instead, however, was an unrelenting anticipation for a band that has rarely failed to deliver, and this was no exception. The roar from the crowd when Lindberg took to the stage was parallel only to the sound these guys make live. While the vocals were largely unintelligible but Lindberg’s stage presence was great as he frantically paced about the stage, clearly lapping up every minute of it without pretension.
The power behind each riff was unreal, yet remained laced with intricacy. While the new material retained the essence of what made them so popular to begin with, this was no mere replication of their ‘Slaughter of the Soul’ record and it was refreshing to be able to see visibly how the band had evolved.
Having toured with At the Gates across Europe at the tail end of last year, it’s perhaps of little coincidence to see Triptykon [4/5] sitting side by side with them on the bill again on this occasion. With the stage draped in bellows of purple smoke the atmosphere was already saturated with an ethereal quality, even before the towering and foreboding presence of Tom Gabriel Warrior arrived centre-stage – who’s presence alone is usually haunting enough.
An early rendition of recent release ‘Tree of Suffocating Souls’ certainly ensured the modest (but not spectacular) following had their fists in the air. On the most part, this was not music to be thrashing around to but that doesn’t mean that it’s overall impact was lessened in any manner or form. The chill this sent through you was emblematic of the atmosphere that they had created. Like a kind of charismatic anti-christ, Warrior’s raspy vocal style carried a similar aura of intimidation as the music that accompanied him with it’s own drawn out, often paceless intensity.
It’s the heaviness that’s wrought from overtly simplistic riffs that is a real strength of the band. A blunt tenacity with an atmospheric current running throughout. It’s the way that this comes through live, even more-so than it does on the record, that really blows you away.
Arch Enemy [5/5] have been gratified with a new peak in the hysteria surrounding them with the arrival of Alissa White-Gluz on vocals after so many successful years with Angela Gossow, and the anticipation was plentiful to see if her form could be replicated. The short answer based on the evidence on display at the Alter Stage was a resounding ‘Yes!’.
In a feat attempted with varying success throughout the weekend, a few token sentiments spoken in Hellfest’s mother-tongue did wonders to establish a connection with the crowd and ensured they were all on side for one final ride before it was all over. Despite some mightily impressive performances contributed by the rest of the band, Alissa absolutely stole the show. The extent by which she was packed full of aggressive energy, as well as the composure to carry it off, was as exhilarating as it was frightening.
The whole set darted forward at such a pace it left some of the battle-worn audience like the man in the chair listening to ‘Ride of the Valkyries’.
This set in particular was perhaps best optimised the spirit of the festival and, as such, it was fitting that they were among the final performers of the weekend. With so much going on all at once, you had the choice of either standing back and admiring the mayhem, or get swept along with it, and both were equally as compelling.