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. Read our introduction HERE, coverage of day 1 HERE and coverage of day 2 HERE.
By this point in the festival all of my patterns had been worked out, the best way to get to stages, the optimal spots for interviews and the fastest path to the wine were all plotted out and I felt like I had some measure of control over my place in this beast of a festival. For the record – a measure of control is vital if you seek to party with any measure of calm in your heart at these types of things. Otherwise you find yourself being buffeted about by the whims of a hundred thousand drunk people and I don’t need to tell you that that will almost never end well.
I woke up early because I knew I wanted to see Iron Reagan from the side of the second main stage. See – ever since I was in high school and The Art Of Partying was my drinking anthem I’ve had something of an obsession with Tony Foresta and his antics – so I seek his bands out at every opportunity. That being said, I had never had the chance to get drunk with the man. Suffice to say – Iron Reagan played a wonderful set – unleashing their unique brand of crossover thrash at a million miles an hour. The last two songs the band played were special highlights for me. First – the cover of Cannibal Corpse’s classic Skull Full Of Maggots in a crossover thrash style made me smile, but then, the final song, the SOD-esque triumph found in what is in my opinion Iron Reagans greatest song, Four More Years, saw the pit raging harder than ever. As Tony stumbled off stage and gave me a hug I felt overwhelmed to be in the presence of a man I had admired for his alcoholism for so long.
At this point I walked over to the Temple stage in order to see Nidingr. I had not realized how much I had missed seeing true Norwegian black metal live, something we just don’t have in my native Pennsylvania. The way they blazed forth with forceful and truly vile tracks left me with my fist in the air and a smile on my face. Nidingr understand the primal spirit of the genre and invoke old gods with what they do. There is something overwhelmingly beautiful to be had in the Nidingr sound and in the way they hearken back to their almighty roots. Focused on music alone they have been able to incorporate touches of death metal into their sound, which is especially fascinating when you find out that one their guitarists is also in Mayhem (In fact seemingly everyone in Nidingr is in a handful of other groups, their other guitarist is in God Seed) The thing is – Nidingr have been able to fly under the radar for years, truly a band meant to stay underground, but I get the impression they like it that way.
It once again was time for interviews – and perhaps equally importantly – wine. Another part of the Hellfest magic is that as long as the festival lasts hangovers don’t seem to be a thing. Sure some people drink too much and have to get taken to the hospital (I actually saw some poor guy being put in an ambulance before the festival had even started!) but for the vast majority of festival goers it seems like they can drink as much as they want and somehow survive more or less intact. That’s why when I came side stage for Red Fang and started going for it with Tony Foresta and another dude from Iron Reagan everything felt as if it it had come to a glorious head. When I momentarily left Tony with the bottle in order to go grab a bag I had left behind I was not at all surprised to come back to him chugging from it, a sort of fitting tribute to all he stood for and an image that will last with me far beyond the weekend.
At the behest of Michael Berberian of Season Of Mist I made my way over to the Altar to see Ne Obliviscaris, a band who I’d reviewed but honestly didn’t remember much about I was blown away though by their folk-tinged prog orchestrations that proved the eternal power that violins can have in a metal band. The way these guys drove themselves forward, pushing it all to the limit with their crushing sense of purpose was stunning. With two frontmen (One of whom also plays the violin) it rapidly became clear that Ne Obliviscaris are a band with a sense of purpose – a group who push themselves forward at the behest of some sort of strange musical god – one who crafts brave sonic highways and leaves you in a trance. Ne Obliviscaris are bringing forth new waves of metal madness and it is rapidly becoming impossible to deny their dominance.
After another couple of interviews, now with Alestorm and Max Cavalera (Both of whom recognized me! Whee!) It was time for me to kneel at the altar of the almighty Exodus attack. Here is another one of those bands who have been grinding it out for thirty years and whose dedication to volume can not be ignored. The raw energy they bring to the stage is admirable and the fact that Zetro is such a strong frontman, even after years away from the fore makes him all the more impressive to me. Sure – there was no Gary Holt which is weird because y’know – he’s the only founding member left. But there is something strangely charming about watching any lineup of a band like Exodus bang out classics like Toxic Waltz and Bonded By Blood in 2015. It reminds us that thrash metal will never die and gives us the strength to carry on – even in those dark times that may hold us back and make us despair.
It was at this time that I stumbled into one my journalistic highlight of the festival. After Exodus’s set, Zetro (Who also knew who I was! Yay!) said he would be back in the artist bar to do an interview in half an hour. So I went back to the bar to see who I could find. And as is often the case with Hellfest – who did I bump into other than my old friend Steve Taylor, a dude who has been jamming with Phil Anselmo in a variety of projects for years. I helped him load in, not expecting to suddenly bump into an extremely grateful Phil Anselmo who immediately gave me a hug and agreed to an interview. Talking to a legend like that, who is everything you want him to be, deep voiced, friendly, and profoundly intelligent is an enlightening experience. The fact that afterward he gave me a huge and said “You did a good job, especially for a young buck” left me trying not to pee my pants.
Suddenly the guitarist from St Vitus appeared and kissed Phil smack on the lips after a declaration of love – an image that left me smiling and charmed at Phil’s strange humanity. Zetro arrived shortly after and immediately said to Phil “Oh I see you’ve met Matt, he’s a really smart young journalist” too which Phil replied “I know, he helped us load in and he gave me a hell of an interview” I know I may be gushing here, but let’s be real, if this had happened to you you’d be shitting your pants too. Suffice to say the interview with Zetro went very well and he ended up giving me life advice. Seemingly convinced that one day I too would play the main stage of Hellfest I couldn’t help but shake my head in awe. Here I was on the tour bus of one of the most legendary thrash metal bands of all time being told I was a rising star. What had I done to deserve to be surrounded by such legendary talent and treated with such incredible kindness?
I ran over to see Eyehategod at this point – a band who have always provoked an extremely visceral response in me. Jamming along to their classics is an out of body experience. You feel yourself thrash about and there is nothing you can do to control it. Eyehategod are gloriously vicious and it is impossible to deny that herein lies a band of skull rending talent. Their sonic abuse leaves you feeling stronger and braver, in a world of suffering Eyehategod truly get it – they speak to mans most profound pain and want to help carry you forward in this strange fucked up world. Their lyrics are brutally honest, grabbing you by the throat and shaking you about. They speak to a darker world than that which many of us are used too, and yet they understand it because they have been there. I’m not condoning addiction, but the fact that Mike IX has had to claw his way back from the throes of heroin makes his music all the more engaging. Despite the temptation to sell out and become plastified idols Eyehategod remain one of those bands who are honest about who they are – fuck ups to the bitter end.
As soon as Eyehategod wrapped up I picked up some more wine for Alestorm, one of my favorite bands playing the festival. I felt the hours counting down, but every moment seemed grander than the last. The fact that now I was standing side stage with Christopher Bowes reassuringly normal girlfriend and running out periodically during the bands set to give them wine seemed like it would be my greatest achievement of the weekend (And possibly my life). Alestorm blasted through a triumphant set, the kind that had everyone cheering along and screaming the piratey anthems of yore. Although they were only (And I use the word extremely liberally) playing in front of six or seven thousand people any sense of diminution was counteracted by the number of crowd surfers. At any given moment it seemed like there were at least a dozen people surfing using rafts and novelty flotation devices to make their experience even zanier. At times though I estimated there might have been up to a hundred people flying over the crowd, shouting along to music about being on a boat in the Caribbean whilst in a field in the west of France.
Unfortunately I missed Cannibal Corpse because I was busy getting drunk with Alestorm, but let’s be real. Partying with Alestorm was a goal I’ve had since I was about fourteen years old, I’ve already seen Cannibal Corpse. I couldn’t find my other friends so after doing a quick run about the bar I decided to head over for a once in a lifetime experience back at the Valley stage, the kind of thing that Hellfest does so well. It’s a part of what makes the experience so memorable and essential for any metalhead. What I’m trying to say is that, while sure, Wino is stuck in America, I got to see Saint Vitus perform music from their first few records with their original singer, and it was glorious,.
I sat down side stage with my friend Lucy for the Saint Vitus set and was shocked at how triumphantly heavy the band was able to get. Saint Vitus deliver everything at a thousand decibels and are unafraid to tell it like it is Not heavy for the sake of being heavy but merely as a natural extension of the self, here is a band who truly define what the word means. You feel every power chord in your bones and your body is forced into a sort of unholy motion as you jam out to some of the heaviest and darkest tunes of the twentieth century. There is a sense of primal legitimacy too to what Saint Vitus do, they’ve seen the deepest roots and had the darkest blues, and they know just how fucked up middle class America can be. The way they share it – with gut crushing power and a sense of demented pride seems just… right. That’s what I think makes a heavy rock band important – a sense of legitimacy that transcends how good the songwriting is and instead focuses on the personal torment of the musicians, what I’m trying to say is that though it may not be as technical, doom metal, and heavy music in general may very well be the new romantic movement.
The weird thing is, even as Hellfest was in its closing hours I still hadn’t gotten to the best part of the weekend.
I took some time to go back to the VIP area and watched In Flames play Cloud Connected with my friend Gunnar. I was more than a little disappointed by their deliver and so headed over to the artist bar to see what my Nympherno friends would be doing. We realized we’d have to separate because I wanted to see Superjoint Ritual and they wanted to see Korn… turns out they’re not girlfriend material fellows.
Anyway… Now we’re getting to the good part.
I stood backstage as Superjoint were loaded in and even helped out where I could. I exchanged a few words with Steve Taylor about the breakup of our friends in MOD and the enduring power of heavy music. You see- Steve is one of those guys who gets metal on a very fundamental level, probably just because he’s been doing it every day of his life for thirty odd years now. It makes him singularly interesting to talk to and is also strangely encouraging. The fact that a dude like him has been doing it for so long, and now gets to jam with one of the biggest names in the scene… It shows hard work pays off, y’know?
Around this time Phil Anselmo roared up to the backstage and shoved me “Get this fucking journalist out of here!” he cried. I was initially scared, had I offended this bear of a man? When I turned around to him laughing he pulled me into a massive bear hug. “You’re a good kid brother”. I noticed Kim Dylla had wandered up to the backstage and she gave me a smile and a thumbs up… perhaps I really was starting to crack my way into this elite club after all…
Things quieted down once again, Kevin, one of the guitarists of Superjoint Ritual came around and said “Seven minutes till go time” to which Phil responded “Alright let’s get everyone in here” I backed off as I though he was gesturing at the members of his own band as well as those of Eyehategod and Weedeater who were congregated around. But he then pointed at me and shouted “Oh you’re not getting out of this The Enemy!” (Referencing of course Cameron Crowe’s semi autobiographical film Almost Famous) “Everybody put your hands in” He then led us in a sort of prayer with every line empathetically met with cries of “Amen” and “Hallelujah” from the rest of us. “Alright” Phil yelled with a smile on his face and a beer in his spare hand “On three we break, one, two, three, SUPERJOINT!”
As the band took the stage I walked over to Kim Dylla and said “That was the coolest thing that ever happened to me” to which she replied “You’re basically a part of the band now!” When I later told this to Lucy she kissed me on the forehead and said “Cherish these memories forever and write them down” which is what I’m doing now for you my dearest readers. This isn’t a matter of auto-fellatio but rather sharing a magical story that for some reason the gods of steel have seen fit to bestow upon me.
Superjoint Ritual blared through one classic after another as I stood content with a fist raised to the sky. Phil talks a lot between songs and that’s part of what makes it so charming. The fact of the matter is Phil Anselmo has become a sort of figurehead for all that extreme metal represents. His vocal lines are all powerful – crushing the listener, each unholy grunt a fatal blow. The mans understanding of what extreme metal can and should be is incredible and he manages to communicate it wonderfully eloquently in his music. He provided the perfect climax to my Hellfest experience, a sort of saturnalia where every element of what extreme metal can be has been distilled down to just a few tracks. He brings forth an incredibly and glorious and aggressive manner, a true death growl virtuoso, handling Superjoint like a raging bull and brings it home to crush the listener.
As the night came to an end and it came time to say goodbye to everybody I couldn’t help but smile at all that I had witnessed. I walked around the artist bar, with Igor Cavalera referring to me as “The tea drinking bastard himself” I had to grimace – it’s funny how events that took place in a Denny’s thousands of miles away are still haunting me, even if it is in a good way. After all – this is what Hellfest is about – a massive fuckin’ family reunion for all of us who are too screwed up to make it in day to day life. We have this sacred time to come together to meet up and realize that this is what feeds us.
And with these words I close this chapter of my demented journey. This was the kind of weekend that we never forget, that we let ring forth and provide us with courage for all the years of suffering to come. We join together and find ourselves working towards a better future because we’ve had weekends like this to prove that heavy metal is the one true law that any of us freaks, geeks and dropouts will ever need to follow.
My journey to my grandparents house was fairly hellish, with eight hours in unheated trains and then an hour long car ride – but such is life I guess – it’s always better than the fucking nightmare that happened at last years Hellfest….The point being, after a lot of travel and quite a bit of hassle I’m sitting here in my grandparents living room trying to come to terms with all that has happened to me in the last hundred hours.
It seems almost cinematic the number of selfies taken, bands seen and friends made, but in a way that’s kind of what makes it worth it. We’re just cranking along finding our own way in this world and grimacing as we try to come to terms with the fucked up reality we’ve all gotta deal with. That’s why we have Hellfest, because every year, for three glorious days around the summer solstice we can go out, get hammered and smile.