Surely by now the most talked about metal festival is France’s Hellfest which has built up a fierce reputation for its varied line up and wise bookings. This year, the festival took another step up booking both Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden (Aerosmith too, but they’re tripe) to headline amongst a host of other names that brought a record crowd.
After the initial excitement of cheap wine and obscure records, the gates of Hellfest opened with the first noteworthy band on the bill being Singapore’s Impiety. Their gritty take on blackened death metal blasted away any hangovers and demonstrated how this type of music should be played, unpolished and uncompromising.
NWOBHM legends Satan followed and showed why they are beginning to gather so much attention with their exceptional comeback album ‘Life Sentence.’ Opening with fan favourite from ‘Court in the Act,’ ‘Trial by Fire,’ Satan seemed almost effortless in their near faultless delivery and gained a few thousand new fans in the process.
Whilst watching Satan one of the few downsides to large festivals became apparent with people pitting that had literally no interest in what band were playing or the people around them. These buffoons are of course everywhere but please don’t spoil the good bands for people who actually want to watch them.
The Valley Stage (or The Sleeping Shaman Stage as it should be called) had its first highlight with German groovesters Kadavar. Since signing to Nuclear Blast, their status has grown to an impressive level and their pure rock energy was exemplified at Hellfest. Most recent single ‘Come Back Life’ was their set highlight and from the crowd reaction it is likely they will continue to carve their fierce reputation from here.
Nocturnus AD’s legendary status drew a monstrous crowd and everything was set for one of the festival highlights. Unfortunately, although their highly technical death metal was played incredibly well, their nonexistent stage presence made them a massive disappointment and clearly impacted the crowd that looked as if they were queuing for a bus pass.
One band that could never possibly disappoint were Iron Maiden. The first night’s headliners were clearly the reason a large amount of the crowd had come to the festival and provided a celebratory atmosphere unlike any that Hellfest had witnessed before.
Opening with the underrated ‘Moonchild’ was a refreshing reminder that Maiden are one of the few bands that have a legendary stature but will still mix up their set list for their generations of fans. ‘Revelations’ and ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’ were two further songs that many Maiden fans will have being waiting years to see and are still being performed with the same passion as when they were originally released.
Multi talented front-man Bruce Dickinson continued to put the rest of the human race to shame speaking fluent French between songs before yelping out fantastic screams and running round the stage as if he was in his Twenties. The rest of the band weren’t too shabby either with bass idol Steve Harris in particularly high spirits.
Closing with the timeless ‘Sanctuary,’ Iron Maiden made the perfect band to headline a festival celebrating heavy metal.
Carrying on the festival atmosphere were Death tribute band Death To All that due to clashing with Slayer had a modest crowd. Tribute bands are often cringe-worthy but with Death To All featuring many ex-members and famous names, their set was a fitting tribute to fallen mastermind Chuck Schuldiner.
The musicianship from Death To All was played with extreme accuracy and the ‘Human’ era material such as ‘Suicide Machine’ in particular destroying any possible preconceptions of this being anything short of incredible.
Closing the first night were everyone’s favourite ‘stoner’ doom band Electric Wizard. Opening with ‘Supercoven’ Jus Oborn and Co. possessed the crowd into a state of slow motion euphoria with their minimalistic take on the Sabbath sound.
The remarkable thing about Electric Wizard is their ability to adapt to an ever changing line up and still put on one of the most atmospheric doom shows available. The two members new to this year’s line up to complement Jus and Liz Buckingham’s bedazzling guitar work with a solid rhythm section that made ‘Satanic Rites of Drugula’ all the more lethal in its live surrounding.
By day two the heat had gotten extreme, especially for Brits used to rain and many members of the crowd resembled cowering crabs but this didn’t stop the devoted from escaping the shade and heading to the desert/ arena.
A band finally making a name for themselves are US doomsters Witch Mountain. The shrieking vocals of Uta Plotkin are the drawing point for this band and her emotion filled display could be heard well outside the tent and into the arena. Witch Mountain stand out from many of their competitors with their sound miles more ballsy than many other female fronted bands and this proved to be their main positive in the live setting.
Providing a pretty massive change of pace were punk/hardcore old timers Bl’ast! Playing these songs again in the live setting clearly meant a huge amount to the band as vocalist Clifford Dinsmore ravaged around the stage and made sure everyone was having a good time. Bl’ast! were incredibly tight and the fantastic ‘It’s in my Blood’ showed everyone why this band is so revered in the punk scene.
Back on the all things riff stage, Clutch made the most of their now massive following by pacing through a typically passionate set. Having played Hellfest a few times now, Clutch knew how to make the surroundings their own and with the driving riffs of guitarist Tim Sult made each song an almost religious experience for some of the audience.
Of course, band ‘hit’ ‘Electric Worry’ is what Clutch are now known for but it was the equally gentle but more rousing ‘Gravel Road’ that proved the strongest on the night.
Everything on the second day had been leading up to classic rockers Deep Purple. Having an undeniable influence on most of this line up, the English hard rock monoliths were either going to be a towering success or massive disappointment due to old age setting in.
Luckily, the band were on tip top form, playing ‘Into the Fire’ with so much gusto that it was hard to believe they have being going so long. The biggest relief was how in shape Ian Gillan’s voice was as he hit impressive highs as well as pulling off perhaps the most bizarre choice of shades possible.
Closing with the unstoppable duo of ‘Hush’ and ‘Black Night,’ Deep Purple were easily the band of the second day.
The closing day of Hellfest continued the good vibes although the levels of dust were extreme with a few Henry hoovers definitely in need.
The first band to make the battle with the dust worth it were Swedish newbies Blues Pills. The band are undoubtedly built around vocalist Elin Larsson’s powerful pipes and good looks which is not unusual. Musically, the band were similar to fellow Swedes Graveyard but with more of a pop tinge and certainly knew how to nail down the seventies vibe on ‘Devil Man.’
One band that have created a huge buzz are America’s fuzz rock/ doom trio Satan’s Satyrs. After some sound issues early on the band launched into a quite impressive instrumental intro that was certainly in line with what you want to see on the Temples Stage.
Unfortunately, from there Satan’s Satyrs material seemed incredibly average and it can’t be helped but noticed that if they didn’t have the occult/old biker movie theme that’s so popular right now they probably would still be playing pubs.
One of the most anticipated bands of the entire festival had to be the band who created grindcore, Repulsion. Their superhuman speed and punishing rhythms were the exact dynamic the festival needed to kick back into gear with an absolutely relentless performance.
It is so rare to see a band with such unforced aggression that Repulsion quickly became one of the bands of the festival. Vocalist and bassist Scott Carlson was clearly enjoying himself as much as in the early days making ‘Maggots in your Coffin’ still completely relevant and unrivalled. Sublime stuff.
Heading into the night, the cosmic jams of Spirit Caravan seemed completely appropriate. As expected, many people appeared to be there due to the presence of front-man Wino and it is impossible to deny how life affirming it is to see the man playing year in, year out with such soul.
However, the band themselves are not Wino’s best project and their set began to drag after the first few songs. With Saint Vitus doing so well and Wino making a name for himself as a master of all trades, it is unlikely that this is much more than a one for the die hards.
The climax of the festival ended with where all things doom began as Black Sabbath came onto the stage for a little known song called ‘War Pigs.’
This reunion could have been disastrous, largely because Ozzy Osbourne has completely lost the plot musically, but the front man in particular appeared to give it his all through cuts like ‘Children of the Grave.’
Tony Iommi looked healthy and proved why he is amongst everyone’s top guitarists with a stunning rendition of ‘Black Sabbath’ that was as haunting as the first time played on the turntable. Bassist Geezer Butler was also as reliable as ever, giving ‘N.I.B’ that unmistakable groove and atmosphere so many bands have tried and failed to imitate.
New material such as ‘God is Dead?’ was played emphatically live but the album has not aged well in the short time since its release and it was ‘Fairies Wear Boots’ and other classics where the band seemed the more comfortable.
Ending with the timeless ‘Paranoid,’ Black Sabbath handed on a plate why they are the most important band in heavy metal and why their legend will live on for decades to come.
Hellfest 2014 was a hot, energy filled powerhouse of a festival that will no doubt come back even stronger next time round.
Scribed by: Alex Varley
Photos by: Vivien Varga (www.metalrecusants.com)