So we come to the final day. A day that had one of the sickest lineups that I have ever seen on any festival ever, and I’m not just saying that because of Black Sabbath. I was running around all day – sweating, yelling and stressed beyond belief, but loving every bloody minute of it. As much as this industry can be a thing of tears and sacrifice sometimes there is a very poignant beauty to embracing the bleak realities and darting between stages because oh my god you guys – heavy metal is so much fun. Getting lost and drunk is simply a part of the Hellfest experience. Yet at the end of it all – we found peace in our drinks and the knowledge we had seen some of the best bands ever.
First up on the day for me was The Skull. I’ve known their guitarist Rob Wrong for years now, and watching him rock out with some of his musical heroes was a pleasure – it was the happiest I had ever seen him. Roadieing for a band like that is always an honor since there are just so many years of history in the music that it reminds you why you fell in love in the first place. Erik’s trademark vocals and Ron’s bass swagger invoke all of the power of Trouble, and as a matter of fact, The Skull are more Trouble than Trouble at present. The point being – the band put on one of the hardest rocking sets of the entire festival and digging into what they had done was far too much fun. The Skull understand the fundamental power of rock and roll – they want to spread the magic to the masses, and on that beautiful Sunday they did – they did it on a level that they are proud to have been doing since all the way back to their inception in the 70s.
From there I had a chance for a bit of a sit down and an excellent chat with Lothar from The Skull. He, like everyone in that band is incredibly intelligent and a product of one of metals most storied scenes. This particular Sunday seemed to have everybody who was anybody running around the backstage. Even Henry Rollins made a brief appearance. The only fixture missing was Phil Anselmo – a man whose fuck up earlier this year was so big that multiple people who had never even been to America asked me about it and my opinions on it. If you can screw up on a level that has people in Lithuania are talking about it – you need to start worrying. That being said – I’m certain that even he will be back to these hallowed grounds. You can only escape the vortex of Hellfest for so long after all.
Suddenly it was time for Blind Guardian. They are one of those bands whose records I never especially dug (Though there are selections I treasure) but I have always loved their live shows. Getting to stand on stage for that was a beautiful experience. The guys were on point with their performance too. Hansi has a brilliant understanding of how to work a crowd and watching him guide the punters through chorus after massive chorus was a true pleasure. It’s stunning to see how easily this man delivers and how clean the bands execution is. In many ways their music was designed for festivals with big simple lines capturing the imaginations of thousands. Best of all was the chorus for “Valhalla” the bands trademark song. Looking out on fifty thousand people screaming a chorus with absolutely no musical encouragement from the band is absolutely stunning and the kind of experience that you simply are not able to forget. So much of the scale of it is beyond human comprehension.
That’s the thing about Hellfest – it transcends your reckoning. As much as you can calculate the numbers and figure out how much each band costs and how far each person traveled and all that fun stuff, there is something far greater going on here. When you go to Hellfest you are privileged with the opportunity to see a fundamental part of the human experience that is far too often ignored. You are seeing the power of tens of thousands of individuals to come together and revel in the ethereal magic that heavy metal can bring. When you come to Hellfest you are becoming a part of an overarching thing – a transcendent spiritual experience that can not be put into words and which you will never understand yourself. What I’m trying to say is that after Blind Guardian I got to see Slayer from the front row.
I mean – who doesn’t want to see Slayer from the front row? Especially when they only play a pair of songs from their par for the course new record and then turn to focus almost exclusively on the classics. While it’s impossible to shoe-horn every Slayer classic into a mere hour long set, the band sure did their best. One thing that always strikes me when I see Slayer is how ridiculously vile the band is. I love it – it reminds me of why I got into metal in the first place. The sense of evil in the music is cleansing, its powerful, its in many ways far too much, over the top even, and that makes it glorious. In a world where most just want to engage in dull auto masturbatory thrash metal Slayer remind us how fucking evil their music was meant to be, and even as Tom Araya turns into thrash metal Santa Claus and the band continues to perform while missing half the lineup, Slayer maintains something from back in the day that means whenever they play they absolutely crush it and are going to make you honor their soul searing sacrifice to the heavy metal gods.
I missed Amon Amarth because I had to go interview Enslaved, but even as I heard them wrapping up their set as I wrapped up my interview I realized that they are the perfect example with regards to what I said earlier about not seeing a band who will be on tour near you. Don’t get me wrong – I love Amon Amarth and would love to see them on a festival stage. But when it’s the choice between seeing six bands in a row or missing a band you will see in the next few months and having a sit down instead the choice seems to start to become fairly obvious. Conserve your energy – those headlining sets are critical. (Editors note: The day this article went live, five days after Amon Amarth played Hellfest, the band announced a US tour with Megadeth featuring a date twenty minutes from the authors apartment)
Speaking of which, I did end up seeing Megadeth for a few minutes. Asides from my initial surprise that they had been billed above Slayer, Megadeth pretty much did what it says on the tin. Dave Mustaine remains a great guitar player, as is Kiko Louriero, who I am pleased to say was given more than a few solos by the ginger haired legend. All that to say, the vocals were horrid. As much as I would like to love Megadeth, I’ve never been able to dive in because of Mustaine’s singing and the live context didn’t help at all. While the guitar solos were certainly fun for the first minutes, things got dull pretty quickly and left me wondering how Megadeth is planning on evolving over the few years given their recent lacks. Still people seem to be into it- and though I didn’t force myself to watch the whole thing I definitely think I’m starting to better understand the appeal of the band.
The hour was nigh suddenly for three of my most hotly anticipated bands of the weekend. After two days of heavy interviews I only conducted four on Sunday and that gave me a lot more time to see the bands I had wanted to see and prepare myself mentally for the triple whammy that would be Ghost, Black Sabbath and King Diamond. I feel like that booking should be lauded in and of itself. That’s insane. It’s a lineup that most metalheads would only fantasize over – but if you were standing in the right spot of the right field last night in France you could get a decent view of all of them without even moving. That’s how good Hellfest is.
So first up was Ghost. They’ve been one of my favorite live bands for a minute now and for good reason I think. In a world where far too few bands give in to the sheer spectacle of heavy metal Ghost deliver with pride. The Faceless Ghouls, while at once one of the most subtle and minor touches are one of my favorite aspects of the band– especially when you consider that Dave Grohl has admitted to performing live with the band several times. When you consider that this band only really came up a few years ago and now have tens of thousands of people swarming to their shows and screaming their lyrics it’s hard to ignore what the band has done. They are the heavy metal icons of their generation and are going to be dominating similar sized stages for years to come – and sooner than we think they will even be the main headliners on all of the main festival stages of Europe – be they metal or not.
It was cool then after seeing the future to go see the past. Black Sabbath. The greatest band ever on what is allegedly their last tour ever. I stood with Rob and Ron from The Skull, and all three of us, grown men with years of experience in the scene under our belts let the tears flow freely. We all knew this would be the last time and Black Sabbath killed it. Not only did they break out ‘Dirty Woman’ they otherwise didn’t even stray from the first four albums. When the band played Beyond The Wall Of Sleep and let that turn into NIB I lost my shit. This was the moment I had been waiting for for my entire life. To be young, drunk and beautiful and watching my favorite band change my world, one chord at a time. Obviously with a band like Sabbath there are a ton of songs I would have liked to have seen in addition but as is I couldn’t have been happier with the performance. Not only was I in the front row, but the last time I had seen Sabbath Ozzy had barely been able to sing. This time – though he did miss a few notes, he seemed to be much more capable of invoking what the band was all about and that left me with a smile on my face even now as I write this. The metal gods survived and nothing will take them down.
I bumped into my buddy Ernest from Awakening Sun during my post-Sabbath comedown. The last time I had seen him he had been a sprightly 20 year old. Now he had grown a beard. Had kids. Come to embrace the world as it was. Bumping into people like him is my reason for doing Hellfest. Another example was my friend Marcel who I hadn’t seen in two years and who seemed to have taken all his dreams by storm. You’ve got to keep pushing because it works out, and now where is that more clear than Hellfest – where apparently dreams do come true and you see that one day hard work eventually pays off. This is where we meet up, take care of each other and share out war stories – the friendly oasis after a year of pain.
The last band I saw was King Diamond. I sat far in the back with Ernest – chatting quietly and watching the King rock thousands of metalheads still recuperating from Black Sabbath. The man is a great performer and watching him navigate the castle on stage was a lot of fun. Meanwhile the stunning vocal lines remain ever more powerful live and force you to ask ‘how the hell does this man do it time after time?’ King Diamond is one of the most important people in metal because of his incredible stage show. The fact that it remains incredible even after his myriad health issues makes him almost superhuman. His music is the sort of thing you can and should fall in love with. Ernest turned to me mid set and said, “Man, I never really got into the records, but live it suddenly all makes sense’ After all – King Diamond is god and his word is gold.
And so Hellfest came to an end. By way of closing thoughts I am merely grateful that on the last night we get home reasonably easily and cheaply. The weekend had been defined by wonderful conversations and great bands. Beautiful people and radical music. In some ways I was glad it’s over – I’m not sure how much of that I could maintain – especially since I’m doing yet another festival next weekend. Still – we manage to struggle on. I wrote the whole first draft of this document on a seven hour train ride to my grandmothers house and now I’m hungry and tired. It’s been quite the adventure Hellfest has, and perhaps now it’s time to hop into a comfortable bed and appreciate life for what it is – weird.