Festivals – a celebration of music and togetherness, what a better topic of discussion considering the entire world seems to have been populated by isolationist turbo-cretins. But it’s easy to get caught up in the world today and forget that great events like this happen.
Festivals bring together people from all around the world whose only common ground is the music that makes them happy, and that’s a beautiful thing that, even in these bizarre bleak days, is hard to wipe the shine off. So with the goal of doing just that for you, Astral Noize sent a reporter and some sort of barely-functioning husk of a man to France’s greatest achievement since they stopped guillotining billionaires’ heads off… Hellfest!
Taking place deep in the heart of France’s wine region, the town of Clisson has hosted Hellfest since 2006 and each summer thousands of hairy, scary metalheads descend upon the quiet piece of the countryside for a weekend of circle pits, questionable life choices and some of the heaviest music out there. To increase the metal feast this year, Slipknot’s own Knotfest took place on the site on Thursday and Astral Noize were there to take it in…
Before Hellfest kicks off officially, Slipknot themselves curate the Thursday with their very own Knotfest taking place in Europe for the first time. Our day opens with perhaps the worst performance of the weekend as a ropey Ministry take the main stage. Not only is the sound uneven, but it feels like Al Jourgensen is phoning it in with lyric sheets and a guitar flopping by his waist that he barely ever touches. Nobody seems bothered that their set ends a little shy of their allotted running time. In a weird but welcome nostalgia trip, Papa Roach are full of energy and passion today, opening with their breakthrough hit ‘Last Resort’. Even a crowd full of hardened extreme metal fans can’t help put raise their voices along, conjuring much more enthusiasm than Ministry could! Slipknot dominate the whole of the stage with a very physical performance. Songs from their first three records such as ‘Spit It Out’, ‘Before I Forget’ and ‘Surfacing’ go down a storm, but it’s easy to notice the momentum of the crowd dropping when newer songs are played, leading to a lopsided performance. Still the highlight of the day nevertheless, but compared to the days to follow, Knotfest is merely a taster…
Hellfest officially kicks off with six stages and bands running from 10am ‘til 2am. It’s worth waking up at a semi-reasonable hour and working out how much sick you’re likely to produce as you recover from the previous night’s questionable festivities, so you can catch US sludgy hardcore outfit Cult Leader, who smash it at The Altar stage. Their set begins with their most savage and raging hardcore-influenced numbers, but as their set winds on, the tempo slows down as they showcase some of their more introspective and atmospheric post-metal influenced works, resulting in a dynamic and intense set. Having a hardcore band so early-on in the day is a sure-fire way to ignite the atmosphere at any festival, with the fans guaranteed to bring 100% of their energy to the pit no matter what time of day it is. There’s a personal feel to hardcore sets that you struggle to find anywhere else in the metal genre (except perhaps Yob, but more on that later) and you can get a sort of mass hysteria that can fizzle throughout the rest of the shows on that stage. Over at The Temple stage next door, one of US black metal’s most exciting new bands Uada deliver a masterful set of frantic blastbeats, icy cold melodic riffs and a punky delivery reminiscent of Dissection.
With such an insane amount of bands playing at Hellfest, there are always going to be some heartbreaking clashes, and Daughters and Conan playing at the same time is certainly one of them. Luckily we split ourselves in two to catch both. UK sludge titans Conan fill out The Valley tent with a loud and slumberous sound, showcasing a fair mixture of their newer thrashier songs, and their agonisingly slow doom numbers of old. The trio captivate the crowd with Jon Davis’ caveman shrieks sounding on top form.
Daughters surprisingly draw a slimmer crowd, but captivate with one of the most physically exhausting performances of the weekend as vocalist Alexis Marshall smashes the mic into his bleeding forehead and spills out into the crowd. Their live translation of new album You Won’t Get What You Want is menacing and claustrophobic, even in such large premises. Smashing a mic into your own noggin isn’t all that uncommon in the extreme music scene – there’s a little bit of a masochist in everyone who takes solace in the sounds that make most people either laugh or back away slowly into the corner.
Over at the main stage we witness something totally different as US prog-metal veterans Dream Theater turn the ridiculous levels up to eleven. The virtuoso circle-jerking of each musician is a fun sight to behold in the live setting, with each member making it look effortless, but it’s a real shame that vocalist James LaBrie is murdering every high-note today, killing the vibe entirely. Things are more relaxed over at The Valley as retro-rockers Graveyard offer a welcome restraint with their soulful, gravelly blues rock stomp. Irish punk rockers Dropkick Murphys turn the energy back up to 100 with a gleeful set full of rocked-up traditional Irish drinking songs and bagpipes; exactly the kind of band a summer music festival deserves. Possessed lurk onto the stage like a bedraggled phoenix with Jeff Becerra showing that literally nothing is going to kill him as he wails maniacally from his metal throne – this is a serious testament to the unrelenting talent this outfit bring in whatever manifestation time dictates. The pit is ruthless and you can really tell you’re in the presence of true metal majesty throughout. Elsewhere, old-school black metal veterans Hellhammer are sounding particularly evil this evening, with a slower, doomier take on the genre that oddly recalls old Melvins. OG UK grind legends Carcass light up the stage with a fierce performance favouring their later melodic death metal sound, with glorious harmonised guitars and gruesome growls.
Now for a special moment in Hellfest, as the home team take to the stage whilst everyone physically fastens themselves to the floor for the mighty Gojira. This band are an event in themselves and have pushed the boundaries of FUCKING HEAVY in a way few bands can match. Fittingly, their show basically sounds like the world’s ending for an hour and a half. The sonic picture they create is nothing short of awe-inspiring. The entire set is spoken in French, which for us monolinguals actually adds a sense of mystery to the entire extravaganza. There’s still room for more, though, as influential Danish legend King Diamond turns the stage into a haunted house musical, complete with characters and costumes. Though it’s cheesy and silly, in terms of performance, King Diamond and his band are astonishing from start to finish, with a magnetic stage presence. His vocals are still pitch-perfect, with every angelic falsetto taking us further into the spectral void.
The performance of the weekend belongs to Sumac. Over a mere 40 minutes, the trio destroy and reconstruct the entire fabric of metal itself, with their free-form, manic stream-of-consciousness take on sludge. A rugged-haired Aaron Turner flails about the stage like a man possessed, violently beating out noisy, discordant madness on his guitar and bellowing like a roaring lion. Their performance is completely wild, utterly primal, dense, cacophonous and so intense, exploring the extreme time signatures and abrupt tempo changes you’d expect from an avant-garde jazz band. The whole experience is spiritual, mind-melting and transcendent, from a band that exist completely in their own realm of the metal genre.
Another brutal clash sees Candlemass go toe-to-toe with The Ocean. The former are sounding big at The Altar stage, bringing the Epicus Doomicus Metallicus and welcoming back their original vocalist Johan Langquist after more than 30 years away! It’s great to see them take on the majestic ‘Bewitched’, which enraptures the Hellfest crowd. Meanwhile, German post-metal collective The Ocean bring one of the most dense and atmospheric sounds of the weekend, building up huge walls of sound, buried in smoke, laced with crushing tones and glistening synths.
Cellist Jo Quail, a late addition to the bill, steps up to the plate with a magnificent performance. She confidently fights through some technical issues to enrapture the crowd with semi-improvised pieces that draw more from the realms of drone and dark ambient. Her ability to layer up eerie Middle Eastern scales and tap the cello to sound like a pulsing kick-drum is out of this world. As a finale she is joined by Cult Of Luna drummer Thomas Hedlund for an unrehearsed, yet smashing send-off.
One of the most breathtaking performances of the weekend comes from cult Japanese outfit Envy. Their long legacy of fusing screamo with post-rock has often flown under the radar in metal circles, so it is fantastic to see a packed out Valley tent feeding off every moment tonight. Whether that includes arms stretched in the air during their euphoric, larger than life post-rock sections, or raging pits during their wilder post-hardcore sections, the crowd is left in awe tonight. A premiere of a brand new song is met with rapturous applause, and this awe-inspiring show becomes one of the weekend’s most fondly talked about performances.
Next an act of truly immortal standing take the stage in the form of bearded (most of’em) crazy Texans ZZ Top. Astral Noize were lucky enough to catch a press conference with Billy Gibbons earlier in the day and the frontman’s attitude has not even started to wax. As they take the stage there’s an air of cool and practised brilliance throughout the whole performance – they’re truly some of the masters of their craft, and from the shouts in the crowd it certainly seems true that ‘Every Girls Crazy For A Sharp Dressed Man’… Urgh.
Hellfest’s strangest clash then sees Kiss duke it out with England’s longest standing symphonic black metal crew, Cradle Of Filth. Cradle feel like they are in the midst of a second wind lately, and they absolutely nail it with a well balanced sound mix and a ferocious and passionate display full of frantic riffs and blasts. A nostalgic finale of ‘Nymphetamine’ and ‘Her Ghost In The Fog’ sounds epic, with Dani Filth turning in a truly on point and versatile vocal delivery. Kiss, despite their gargantuan presence (budget), manage to sound tracing-paper thin. The songs are played well but honestly… they’re not hard. Definitely a “see to say you’ve seen them” act rather than giving anyone anything lasting to take away, perhaps the Coca-Cola of rock. They have their loyal fanbase and you can hear the sing-alongs all across the stadium so it’s not all bad news, but really it’s difficult to stand in awe when you’re basically watching a corporate for-profit company play.
There is a special atmosphere in the air as we dash to The Valley stage to witness Swedish post-metal pioneers Cult Of Luna. Just like The Ocean earlier in the day, they are a force to be reckoned with, creating a cinematic wall of sound. The septet perform with two drummers in sync, adding to the thick sound. Opening with new single ‘The Silent Man’, and running through discography favourites, their riffs keep mounting in weight and density, creating a colossal and atmospheric sound, loaded with texture.
It’s now 1am and thankfully The Sisters Of Mercy feels more like a goth rave. Perhaps in tune with the guitar-dominated landscape of Hellfest, their classic songs feel more guitar heavy than their studio counterparts, with the gothic synths not quite punching through. But frontman Andrew Eldritch is still a presence on stage and his vocals sound on top form. Songs such as ‘Dominion’ and ‘Vision Thing’ allow the crowd to sway, and of course their pièce-de-résistance finale of ‘This Corrosion’ gets the whole of Hellfest singing their hearts out!
We skip the Sunday sermon in order to catch Municipal Waste wreak havoc on the Main Stage in the roasting heat, becoming a frenzy of circle-pitting and crowdsurfing as their trashy, thrashy goodness gets heads a-banging. The pit is practically a 200-metre jog around the dust and the early morning antics matched with the old schooler’s catchy hooks really serves to set a cheerful tone for the day. Over at The Warzone stage are some real giant-killers in the form of Employed To Serve, a hardcore outfit from leafy Woking. Its nice to see them absolutely tear it up and they give a performance worthy of the Main Stage.
Meandering over to The Valley stage for one of Astral Noize’s must sees then lets us encounter the mighty Yob! Mike Scheidt heralds everyone in to a world of sonorous doom-filled beauty. Their shows are often noted for their incredibly moving nature and this is no different, as wave upon wave of despair and beauty reign forth. After such a cathartic journey from the Oregon maestros, Clutch on the Main Stage feels comparatively breezy. Their high energy in the sticky heat is commendable, as their helter-skelter snarling blues stoner rock hits the sweet spot.
Bringing us back to bleaker and headier territory are Belgian Church Of Ra affiliates Wiegedood, who are utterly mind-blowing today. From start to finish, their nail-biting intensity and insane blastbeat attack never lets up. Their swirling, cyclic riffs become hypnotic in their delivery, with wild, howling screams. The trio may not have a lot of variety in their approach, but they still manage to find dynamic and atmospheric heights within their limited sound pallet, and more than capably sit alongside the big-guns of black metal at this very festival. Speaking of which, there is a huge buzz in the air as fans patiently get to the smaller Temple stage early to catch a glimpse of Emperor; one of the most significant bands in the genre’s storied history. Tonight they perform their classic album Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk in full, and still manage to squeeze in an encore of ‘I Am The Black Wizards’. In particular, vocalist and guitarist Ihsahn turns in a sublime performance, with every scream and majestic clean vocal sounding operatic. The crowd can’t take their eyes off him in this very special performance.
In the tent next door, US death metal legends Cannibal Corpse cook up something equally special, running through deep cut highlights such as ‘Devoured By Vermin’, ‘Make Them Suffer’ and ‘I Cum Blood’. As they deliver one of the chunkiest and most brutal sounds of the weekend, we feel like we’re being repeatedly smacked in the face with a brick. The quintet have a knack for driving an entire crowd absolutely mad, allowing them to let loose and devote all their energy. Bodies fly as George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher delivers an atomic bomb of a vocal performance, still possessing one of the most guttural and unforgiving death growls in the game. Naturally their finale of ‘Hammer Smashed Face’ becomes a Hellfest anthem, proving that Cannibal Corpse are still one of the most remarkably consistent and important acts in the genre.
Delivering one of the most heartfelt performances of the weekend, though, are seminal post-hardcore icons Refused. After their split in 1998, they don’t play too often these days so they prove to be an unmissable band even if they do clash with the start of Slayer‘s set (and cheekily they play a rendition of ‘Raining Blood’ to make up for it!). Dressed in suits and looking suave, their set is nowhere near tame as they conjure up the most brutal (and painful) mosh pit of the festival. Having crowdsurfers tumbling onto your head is a constant threat at the front of the Warzone pit, as they belt through many of the classic tracks from their landmark album The Shape Of Punk To Come. But a performance of brand new song ‘Blood Red’ goes down with aplomb. Vocalist Dennis Lyxzen delivers a commanding speech with a big “FUCK YOU!” to Hellfest for having such a male-dominated line-up this year.
To finish it off is a moment of musical history as forefathers, craftmasters and overall genre-shifting titans Slayer take to the stage for perhaps their last ever European show. The crowd is absolutely electric as thousands upon thousands of fans amass in the Main Stage arena for one last time in Europe. With only dates in November left to wrap up their Final World Tour, the emotions are all over the place as the band march dutifully through the songs that have shaped so many lives young and old. It even starts raining a little bit when ‘Raining Blood’ comes on and the tears from die-hard fans eyes mix with the dust from the pit. It’s truly a magnificent way for these overlords to finish their careers and even a fan with the most casual of knowledge surely can’t help but get caught up in it all. The thank yous are long and the band get emotional as the horns are raised one last earth shaking time… to Slayer!
As the festival comes to a close later in the night there’s plenty of tired but satisfied faces in the campsite. The festivities go long into the night and eventually society breaks down as people start ramming shopping trolleys into each other to the mirth of hundreds of feral onlookers, a welcome break from the seriousness of the world situation at the moment. Until next year Hellfest!
Words: James Clarke, Chris “Frenchie” French
Photos: James Clarke