Hellfest, that legendary European festival that has taken the world by storm and won the hearts of countless musicians and fans across the globe. For the 150 bands playing and hundreds of thousands of fans at the festival journeying to the small French village of Clisson and uncovering the strangely sublime hellscape that the festival represents is always a pleasure. With these articles I seek to document nothing less than my journeys in hell. Check out our introduction to this series HERE.
I woke up feeling every drop of alcohol from the night before. I had hoped to catch Glowsun – one of the first bands playing Hellfest on Friday morning, but hangovers and jetlag managed to conspire against me. Though I did indeed manage to interview them later I still found myself frustrated – wishing I had been able to find a better alarm (In the last week none of my watch alarms have been able to wake me up – such is the foundation of my burden) This meant that my first band of Hellfest 2015 was to be Midnight Ghost Train, an act I had no real previous affiliation with except for perhaps the odd review or two.
Suffice to say these rowdy (And yet surprisingly sober) Americans left me scraping my jaw off the floor. Their unique brand of loud and proud blues rock shows a band who seek to craft an iconoclastic sound simply by taking what guys like Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson did to the logical extreme. What you end up with is impressively brutal and unendingly punishing rock and fuckin’ roll These guys clearly have a good time when they play live and you can feel the sublime dedication to what they do. This is the kind of music that shakes you to your core – leaving you smiling and in awe of the immortal power that the blues can have on the listener.
When I sat down the bands vocalist and guitarist Steve to talk about the band he was refreshingly joyful, constantly willing to share details about the band and even discuss Derek Jeter’s ass. When you find out that a dude like that has been able to make his living playing this kind of heavy music you can’t help but feel encouraged for the future. After all – if they can do it why can’t you? Glowsun also gave an extremely strong interview, doing their best to express themselves in broken English and share the eternal power that their unique brand of mostly instrumental stoner rock can have on overwhelmed listeners.
Now, I had seen a few minutes of Samsara Blues Experiment last month at Psycho California (Hard to believe that was only 5 weeks ago!) but I hadn’t really had a chance to really lose myself in the music. Here though I couldn’t help but fall in love. Samsara Blues Experiment are truly that, a blues experiment – and one that is both strangely spiritual and oftentimes refreshing. The thing is – these guys are turned on to a much bleaker reality, they understand the primal power of what they’re doing and they channel it to put out some of the most thought provoking heavy music I’ve heard all year. They push boundaries and they shape unique soundworlds, it’s the kind of thing that hints at a bright future for rock and roll.
I had another short pause before Truckfighters came on (I promise, I didn’t spend the entire day at The Valley stage) but the air was clearly pregnant with anticipation. While I still have yet to get really into their music I’ve always found their live shows to be some of the most exciting out there. Now that I’ve seen them three times you’d think I’d start to be able to quantify what they do – but in all honesty it’s impossible. The fact of the matter is that Truckfighters are immortal – they shake rattle and roll far beyond any of their peers. The way the simply go for it – stage diving and leading the crowd on in powerful chants… it’s strangely refreshing and proves that this music will always reign supreme. I’ve discussed in interviews with the band how they tend to be more of a performance art group when they are on stage and that was abundantly clear with this particular set. Truckfighters bring the music to life and are ridiculously fun to watch bring the rage.
At this point I had a fairly lengthy pause and all the free wine I had been imbibing courtesy of the volunteer catering was starting to get to me. I took a moment to sober up before going to interview Mark Morton from Lamb of God – always an honor. It’s surreal wandering around the VIP and Artist Areas at Hellfest though. You bump into old friends whom you haven’t seen in months or even years. Every once in a while you hear someone cry out your name and you find yourself lost in a hug. At the same time, every time you turn around you bump into another musician you grew up loving, or an industry figure you deeply respect. As Phil Anselmo put it “Every year it’s like a family reunion – you see all your brothers and sisters” It was around this point that I bumped into my beloved Nympherno girls, who were just about to do a show before getting absolutely plastered. Suffice to say – things seemed to be coming together nicely.
Now, rather than take even more time off I thought to myself: “Fuck it, I’m going to go watch Billy Idol from the side of the stage” And so I did. The bleached blonde Englishman blazed through an hour of classics in front of tens of thousands of people. His voice is still with him and his stage presence remains dynamic. Beyond that though there was a simply insane amount of stellar musicians running around the side of the stage. Rob Halford was there for a minute and Richie Faulkner stayed for most of the set. Later on both Mikkey Dee and Phil Campbell of Motorhead made an appearance and decided to watch the band for a bit. Suffice to say – Billy Idol clearly has friends in high places and his performance certainly merits it, my inner fourteen year old was shrieking with joy. Idol remains one of the most exciting frontmen in rock and roll, he understands his place as a Rock God and plays it up with pleasure – This is the kind of act you want to see live, even if you’re like me and only know a handful of Idol’s classics.
As Idol wrapped up I had to rush back to the press area to interview Satyr. Before the interview I decided to have a drink for good luck and at the bar bumped into my friend Kim Dylla, a Charlottesville native who used to be Vulvatron in GWAR. This is the kind of surreal experience Hellfest provides, that which I have previously called the “Hellfest Magic”I had no clue Kim would be coming and I did not expect to see her here, four thousand miles from home, and I’m sure she didn’t expect me. Yet here we were, brought together by a love of drinking and metal. The bizarre ties the genre provides are not to be underestimated and often bring people together in strange ways. After all – if I can interview Satyr about wine for fifteen minutes (Which I did) what’s to say that a random fashion designer who I know from Virginia can’t show up at the same exclusive bar as me in some tiny French village?
And so the time came for one of my highlights of the festival, a band I have long worshiped but never seen live – the legendary Motorhead. As soon as Mikkey and Phil took the stage alongside God (That is to say Lemmy) everyone knew they were in for a good time. As with Billy Idol I found myself surrounded by members of Judas Priest (Rob Halford sat three feet in front of me) and other classic acts (Multiple members of Alice Coopers band showed up as well as a contingent from Lamb Of God) That was truly a moment to be reckoned with. After all, here I was, watching one of my favorite bands in the world absolutely fucking slay it, whilst surrounded by members of the greatest bands in the world.
Five Finger Death Punch were also there… so let’s be real… it wasn’t THAT great.
The point being – Motorhead left me with my heart palpitating and I was forced to wonder what kind of weird reality I had stumble into. Hell – I even got a guitar pick from Phil Campbell! The band played mostly classics, and despite rumors Lemmy appeared to be fine. Sure he was a bit tuckered out here and there, but there was never a moment where the crowd was really in doubt as to his supremacy. Motorhead play rock and roll and they will never let you forget it. They represent a sonic force of unmatched proportions and I will truly be surprised if they end up stopping any time in the next decade.
Suddenly it was time for more interviews – but at this point I was on a roll – just finding artists, sitting them down and chatting them up. One of the things that really struck me throughout the weekend was how many musicians said that Hellfest was without a doubt “The best festival” Given my fairly limited experience of European outdoor festivals I wasn’t sure what to make of this – but when aged veterans seem to adore something as much they adore Hellfest that suggests that something is being done right. Right when things were going right I found out mid interview that Lamb Of God had changed slots with Five Finger Death Punch apparently unannounced. I ran over to watch the band in the middle of their second or third tracks and couldn’t help but sing along.
It was only my second time seeing Lamb of God so I didn’t know what to expect from them on a festival stage. Randy Blythe confidently delivered with some of the most triumphantly vile vocals he has ever unleashed. Meanwhile the bands instrumentalists rocked it harder than ever. The one thing that really did surprise me though was the fact that Willie Adler cut his hair… somehow it made the band less intimidating. That being said it (obviously) took little away from the live performance. There was a simply insane amount of crowd surfers – sometimes seemingly dozens at once. It speaks to the power of metal that a band so distinctly American could reach out and touch a French fanbase so profoundly. Heavy metal will never die, and Lamb of God, with their insanely fierce new tracks being put on display at Hellfest, are the ever evolving proof.
Around this time I bumped into the Midnight Ghost Train guys, who, at this point in the day felt like old friends. After all – We’d known each other since that morning, which, considering how fast things can move at Hellfest, is practically a lifetime. We shot the shit for a moment before going off to see Alice Cooper at Mike’s (Midnight Ghost Train’s bassist) encouragement.
Watching Alice Cooper from the photo pit is not an experience that one easily forgets. The fact of the matter is Alice Cooper remains perhaps the greatest live performer of the last 50 years. Though the ideals of French Guignol theater still shone through Vincent Fournier has clearly refined it into something truly great. There is a sense of bacchanalian chaos and grim beauty in what Alice Cooper does. Beyond that – his band is truly great. A particular highlight was his beautiful lead guitarist who has insane stage presence and thrashes her way through flashy solos that got the crowd whooping every time. When the time came for Alice’s decapitation I couldn’t help but smile. Throughout the set he hit every landmark of what it means to be Alice, from the straitjacket to the monstrous zombie version of the famed singer that came out during “Feed My Frankenstein” Sure production values may have fallen since the 70s but Cooper remains one of the most exciting and enjoyable performers to watch in this crazy old rock and roll world of ours.
The hour was rapidly approaching for another one of my favorite bands to take the stage (And the fifth best band of all time by my reckoning) but somewhere in the interim I managed to bump into the Elder guys. This shouldn’t have been surprising but considering the fact that in the last two months I’ve seen them in Philadelphia, Santa Ana and now here, but it definitely seemed like a rather special occasion. After dousing their lips with some more of the wine I had been able to procure we went off in search of a good spot for Judas Priest.
We chose to go to the photo pit to watch Judas Priest take the crowd by storm. A band I’ve loved since I was about twelve years old, seeing them live is always a sort of dream come true. After all – In 9th grade I wanted nothing more than to literally be Ritchie Faulkner, an idea that became increasingly strange over the weekend as I found out we had a mutual friend who proceeded to tell me all manner of bizarre stories about the man. Despite this I was still over the moon at seeing one of my favorite bands twice in three days. Especially one like Priest – whose future remains ever uncertain.
I was delighted to see that Faulkner’s stage presence was crushing as usual, and I felt that Judas Priest did a much better job at this particular show than they had a mere 48 hours prior back at the Zenith in Paris. Halford seemed to have more energy and Tipton absolutely reveled in the attention the horde lavished upon him. In a way it was sort of endearing, their simple bliss showed a certain gentle humanity to Judas Priest, a band who are quite literally metal gods. Proud of their heritage and influence Halford does not shy away from using death growls in a live context now, which is one of the most surreal and yet also strangely satisfying parts of the bands latest tour. The fact of the matter is that at this point, no matter what happens, Judas Priest will kill it. Thy have a truly exciting sound and even their new material fits in fine, it has a much needed energy boost live, proving Priest’s unique brand of soul illuminating heavy metal can remain the basis of the genre for generations to come.
At this point my friends in Nympherno dragged me along to see Slipknot. Before Friday night I don’t think I’d ever heard a full Slipknot song live and my friends could not help but be astounded that a lot of these songs came out when I was just a toddler. The energy was impressive though. The fact that the additional drummers were placed on rising and falling platforms is especially fascinating and adds to chaotic and industrial atmosphere of the whole thing. While I’m still not into the music I have to say, there live show was incredibly well done and speaks to the enduring power these guys have. You won’t catch me listening to them any time soon, but my eyes have been opened and I feel it added to my knowledge of metal. As we danced and drank and then danced some more I had to ask myself “What have I done to be so lucky as to find myself getting drunk with some of the most beautiful women I know in front of a legendary band?” The world is strange at times – and I wonder when it will come back to bite me in the ass. The perfect end cap was the legendary Kelly Sabrina hugging me and saying “And tomorrow night we shall do it all again!” After all, for some the festival never ends.
As I sit here riding this train and trying to understand all that has happened to me in the past few weeks I can’t help but smile at the sort of beautiful might that even this first day of the festival had. Sure I saw a handful of my favorite bands, discovered a few cool new ones and saw old friends, but this was only the first day. There was much more to come and as I lay trying to find a moment of peace in the loud hard partying night I knew that I had at last come home.