France’s 2014 edition of the annual Hellfest festival in Clisson boasted that “never before have so many metal legends been assembled in one place.” Well they were right. With one of the best metal lineups a festival has ever seen, over a hundred thousand metal heads descended on the site over the three days to watch an absolutely legendary festival in the beautiful French sunshine. With 152 bands it was impossible to see everything, but here are thoughts on the bands I did manage to see over the three days.
Friday 20th June
After an hour queue to get into the arena meant missing Weekend Nachos, I could hear the mighty roar of Conan kicking off in the Valley tent with an intense volume. Getting into the arena not long after they started I was completely blown away by the loud sound (the valley was the loudest stage for the whole weekend) and how fantastic their production was, the sound was perfect. After seeing them destroy in London back in March, I had them down as one of the potential best of the weekend from the start, and they delivered on that even despite their 11:40 in the morning start. Massive riffs, piercing battle cries and devastating bass were the order of the day, and Foehammer from latest album Blood Eagle was an absolute neckbreaker, with the speed of the drums and the thick catchy guitar riffs combining into what was seriously one of the best headbangers of the weekend. Up next in the Valley were Caspian and despite not being over familiar with them, they were very enjoyable. Their combination of post-rock and heavy doom went over well, the soft atmospheric sections being the antithesis of the heavy doom/sludge, but the layering of the tracks and the way it built up made it a good performance.
On the main stage, Satan‘s NWOBHM was only decent, with the great powerful vocals being the only redeeming feature in a set that while not terrible was underwhelming from the old guard trad metallers, whose performance was a bit unmemorable. Still, they faired better than the next band Toxic Holocaust, who’s bland party thrash and badly written songs wasn’t improved upon in the live environment, moshpits or not. With the bad cheesy War is Hell, I decided to abdicate the Main Stage and head to The Altar stage in order to see the end of Gehenna, whose primitive black metal was a lot of fun with good riffs, while not doing anything drastically original.
Destroyer 666 played the Temple stage and were absolutely brilliant. Their blend of thrash and black metal resulted in a maelstrom of choppy riffs and powerful searing solos, and the massive metal 666 above the stage made it seem like it was simply made for their intense set. Hail of Bullets followed in fantastic fashion though, with their caustic scalding death metal riffs served with a side dish of ugly punk grit making for another great set, with vocalist Martin van Drunen really getting the fans involved and thanking them for their support of death metal. While Impaled Nazarene might be incredibly intense on record, live they’re an absolute disappointment. Really sloppy, and with just two minute songs that stop as abruptly as they start, they’re definitely a letdown, especially following the two excellent proceeding bands.
Rob Zombie was very dull and seemed to play more covers than they did their own material in a set that was really poor, and Sepultura are a long way from the death metal force they were in the early eighties when albums like Beneath the Remains cemented their place as one of the DM best – in fact they played nothing from that, their best period. Their nu-metal antics are just old, and with the predictable closer of Roots Bloody Roots never having been all that good in the first place, their dull set just left me waiting feverishly for Iron Maiden to take to the stage. More than worth the wait, the British legends of heavy metal put in none other than the best performance of the festival with their Maiden England setlist. With Bruce on outstanding form they performed every song with as much fervour and passion as if it would be their last ever performance. With Bruce speaking French, getting the crowd involved and fantastic backdrops for all the songs, giant Eddies on stage and, of course the massive pyros prompting Bruce to shout “hellfire for hellfest!” the onstage antics were a sight to behold, but the music was incredible too. The band were so tight and were having so much fun feeding off the energy of the crowd, that every song went down well. Highlight’s of the set included a phenomenal performance of Revelations, a spine chilling rendition of Fear of the Dark and the punky set closer Sanctuary, the performance of which had Bruce running around like a mad man, and the band pausing in the middle to gear up the crowd for more. Iron Maiden are simply one of the world’s top live acts, and should never be underestimated, no matter how many times you’ve seen them, they’ll still blow you away every time. With some of the best metal songs ever written, performed by the some of the most fun loving entertainers in metal, they’re just unmissable.
How do you follow Iron Maiden? Not many could, but the task was left up to the mighty thrash legends Slayer. The only band of the American big four that is still, and always has been, playing aggressive angry thrash the way it should be without compromise, they played a great set, even without Jeff Hannemann after his passing last year, and Dave Lombardo after being dismissed by the band the year before. Not letting that slow them down, they recruited Exodus guitarist Gary Holt, and ex-drummer Paul Bostaph back, and absolutely owned the place. Setting a precedent when coming onto the ludicrously heavy Hell Awaits they ripped their way through a fantastic setlist, with Antichrist and Captor of Sin being a particularly brilliant showcase of their early material. The perpetually smiling Tom Araya’s always been a great vocalist but the energy he put into the mighty shouts on War Ensemble definitely made it the highlight of the set, with Gary Holt tearing his way faultlessly through the brilliant solo, while Kerry King’s aggressive headbanging and huge stature made him look like Satan himself minus the red skin. Along came a few more recent songs in the brilliant Hate Worldwide and Disciple, the latter with Tom shouting menacingly during the slow outro gave way to a performance of the new song Implode which while not great, at least was performed with fervour. Travelling into the abyss for two songs, Slayer brought an unsettling atmosphere to Clisson in the form of the slower Seasons in the Abyss and Dead Skin Mask, before the inevitable, but fantastic Raining Blood. Many people thought they might quit after Jeff’s death, but even if the new song isn’t up to much, they’re still a force live and any fan will definitely not be disappointed. Electric Wizard was next, and were one of the bands I was most excited for over the whole weekend. However, they were something of a disappointment. They were ridiculously loud, probably the most so of the whole weekend, but it didn’t make them as heavy as you’d like. With a muddy sound and a very sloppy performance, Jus Osborn seemed to be off his face, and his vocals were pretty bad. Rather than being the intensely heavy doom act they sound on record, they just sounded like a wannabe seventies metal band, but louder and with more distortion. They had the volume, they had the distortion, they just didn’t have the character or the evil to really bring everything to life with any real heaviness. Dopethrone and Black Mass went down well where the band were a little tighter, and of course, for the closer Funeralopolis Jus managed to ramp the aggrssion up a bit and the band delivered a good performance, but not as great as you’d like from The Wizard. They were decent by the end of the set after a bad beginning, but compared to the acts they followed they were ultimately a let down.
Saturday 21st June
Subrosa were the first band of the day for me, and ultimately the best. With their 2013 album More Constant than the Gods being one of the best releases from last year, their intriguing and original brand of doom metal was fantastic. With vocalist/guitarist Rebecca delivering punishing riffs and emotionally charged vocals, the heavy stoner doom riffs had an air of melancholy, only increased by the dual violins and soft backing vocals of Kim and Sarah. With powerful lyrics and a crushing atmosphere, as melancholic as it was heavy, when they moved into set closer The Usher, the Salt Lake City band delivered simply THE best song of the weekend. The way the song builds over the fourteen minute length, the weight of the lyrics and riffs, and simply the great performance was mindblowing.
Incantation are a well known death metal name, but they were somewhat average on the day, with their songs seeming to run into each other, albeit despite a ripping vocal performance. Unfamiliar with Skyclad, they were however a lot of fun, with their folky power metal songs definitely cheesy, but the mid paced drums were catchy and they were very enjoyable. Unfortunately I only caught the end of Acid King which is a shame, as they were absolutely fantastic with chunky stoner riffs and great searing vocals. I was unfamiliar with them, but so impressed with the two songs I heard I’ll definitely be checking them out for some great stoner doom. Gorguts’ technical death metal has never been my style, with their incoherent dissonance being a bit too “clever” for their own good, and their overly complex riffs just took away from any heaviness they might have created, and their songs didn’t seem to go anywhere.
Tsjuder were surprisingly brilliant, with their riff heavy black metal going down a treat. Searing vocals, great catchy songs, and really punchy drumming all led to a really fun and engaging black metal performance, especially on Killed By Satan. Brutal Truth followed, and on their last ever tour they really brought it. Kev Sharp is a great frontman, with lots of great banter and stories between songs, and Danny Lilker looking like he was having a blast the whole time. With dirty, grooving riffs and sharp vicious barks, their brand of grindcore is all their own. Their setlist was great, with Evolution through Revolution and Choice of a New Generation being particular highlights. They were a lot of fun, and it’s a real shame that it will be the last time seeing such a fantastic grindcore band. Deep Purple if anything though, showed though why it might be better to quit when you’re ahead, their tired, sluggish performance doing little to get the audience going. Ian Gillan put in a good performance, but the rest of the band seemed to struggle and they just weren’t as fun as you might like. Even a rendition of Smoke on the Water did little to get the crowd going, and it wasn’t until a great performance of closer Black Night that they were at all enjoyable. Shame.
Nile though are one of the best death metal bands of the last fifteen years, and they really showed why on the night. With George Kollias’ machine gun drumming and a fantastic array of technical riffs throughout, they played a career spanning set, with only Ithyphallic not represented. Every song was completely bludgeoning and their thick Egyptian atmosphere never broken, and the highlights were The Blessed Dead and the almost catchy, yet still intense closer Black Seeds of Vengeance. Gorgoroth are a fantastic black metal band live, especially fronted by Hoest, but Nile are a hell of an act to follow. Not quite as intense, but with a great sense of melody and atmosphere, they weren’t as fantastic as in London last April, but still put on a great performance and were a lot of fun, their song writing is fantastic, and they delivered on that in the live environment. Carcass closed the day, and though they were fantastic in support of Amon Amarth last year, they were definitely lacklustre on the night. Without the grit to the bass and the intense double bass drumming of the aforementioned show, the guitar lacked a heavy edge too, and they didn’t go down very well despite their slot on the bill. After forty five minutes and their still being decidedly average, I left to get some extra sleep before the insane lineup of day three.
Sunday 22nd June
Year of the Goat opened the final day with some great chilled psychedelic rock, bringing the seventies back to Clisson. Great riffs, fun solos and a laid back, tight performance made them a good, interesting watch and a great way to open the day. Blues Pills, fronted by the staggeringly talented Elin Larsson were absolutely fantastic too, their bluesy vibe gelling well with heavy sabbathy riffs. It was a great performance with songs as danceable as they are headbang-able and catchy, and with unbelievable vocals. Elin’s voice is incredibly soulful and powerful, and on Devil Man especially she and the band were on fire. They haven’t even released a full length yet, but have played the main stage of Hellfest, and they’re definitely a band to watch. Satan’s Satyr’s are another modern band, playing great heavy/doom metal, bringing to mind a more modern, tighter sounding Angel Witch. Big fat riffs, energetic fun solos and a charismatic performance made them a surprise hit.
In Solitude may have been poor supporting Behemoth back in February, but on the Hellfest main stage they were a lot better, their epic doom metal coming across great, with a tight performance and good sound. Not completely perfect, but with good songs such as Sister and Buried Sun they powered through with some infectious riffs to an energetic crowd. Powerwolf might be the definition of cheese, but while they’re cringey on record, at least they know how to get a reaction from a crowd, with lots of singing and banter in between songs, and like it or not, we all know the words and all sing along to We Drink Your Blood. Surprisingly good fun. Annihilator and their brand of thrash with a power metal edge were a lot of fun, especially when they got down to the classic Alison Hell, definitely a crowd pleaser. Dark Angel had big shoes to fill as a replacement for Megadeth, and for the start of the set they weren’t looking like a worthy replacement, with some fairly boring songs and mostly chugged riffs, and even a somewhat dull performance, frontman Ron Rinehart’s boundless energy aside. As soon as they kicked into Death is Certain (Life is Not) though, they instantly upped their game with Gene Hoglan putting in a performance behind the sticks to match his legendary status, while the rest of the band delivered great riffs. Best until last though, with Perish in Flames being far and above their greatest song, with a rifftastic masterpiece, and incredible energy on that particular track. When they’re great, they’re really great.
Behemoth were next, and by the time they take the stage the crowd is huge, and with Nergal’s excellent showmanship, the band in full corpse paint, and the great stage setup with lots of pyros, we were definitely in for a great show. Kicking off with Blow your trumpets Gabriel! the band ripped through a fantastic setlist, with Nergal at his venomous best, his vocals up there with anyone else at the festival. The brilliantly blasphemous Christians to the Lions was one of the highlights of the set with the razor sharp riffs backed up by an intense performance, and Nergal getting the crowd involved (“You can be MUCH louder for me Hellfest!”). Finishing with O Father O Satan O Sun!, they saved the best until last, with the atmosphere and fantastic guitar solo being just spectacular on the live stage, especially seeing Nergal give it everything in that performance. Donning the black masks at the end, they looked absolutely demonic to match the great evil music. Behemoth are one of the best black metal acts live these days, and they don’t disappoint whenever you see them. Emperor managed to one up them though, having reunited for the first time in seven years to tour for the twentieth anniversary of their seminal debut album In the Nightside Eclipse, playing the album in full. Emperor have always been a killer live act, with vocalist/guitarist Ihsahn being one of the best musicians in black metal. The first album is incredibly dark and atmospheric, and they played as the sun set, setting the atmosphere for a great set. With a fantastic on stage performance, they went through the album with aplomb, but with the songs being more atmospheric than in your face, the set really kicks off when they go into I am the Black Wizards. An absolutely incredible track, well put together with fantastic riffs and structure, they really bring it live with an intense yet professional performance, that main riff being staggeringly good. Inno A Satana with its chants and great atmosphere sent shivers down the spine, and it was a great song to close the album, and a fantastic one to close the set. Coming back for an encore, they went back even further for two demo songs, Ancient Queen (this tour being the first ever performance of it) and Wrath of the Tyrant. More primitive than the album tracks, they went down well fora great spot of headbanging, being legendary songs, and great way to end their performance. Twenty years on and ITNSE has never been matched in it’s majesty, atmosphere and song writing, and they showed on the night just why, they’re a special band who can’t be copied.
It was left to the legendary Black Sabbath to close the weekend’s main stage, and they were on great form. Kicking off with the War Pigs sirens they rattled through a set of classics, with a few from last year’s album 13. With Tony Iommi delivering his unmatched riffcraft and searing solos through such classic songs as Into the Void and Snowblind, Ozzy shows he’s still a great frontman, with not just a brilliant voice, but getting the crowd involved too, shouting “go fucking crazy” and “I can’t fucking hear you!” really making a party atmosphere. With the eponymous Black Sabbath bringing some slow gloom to the festival before kicking off into that fast paced riff, the band just know how to get a crowd going. The only slight downside is the band took a while to get going in between songs, Ozzy introducing them before the band was ready and looked silly waiting for them to start. That aside though, their performance is tight and so much fun. NIB has that bass solo introduction before kicking into one of the most fun songs of the night, with the crowd singing along and going mad. There might be no Bill Ward in the band, but Tommy Clufetos does a fantastic job, shutting up the doubters by playing an absolutely fantastic solo in Rat Salad, getting us cheering and clapping along while the band had a breather. God Is Dead? was the best song, with fantastic lyrics and more great riffs, even standing out while sandwiched between Iron Man and Children of the Grave. As an encore they came back to play the intro to Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, before breaking into none other than Paranoid, that riff driving the whole place crazy like nothing else that weekend. All in all it’s a fantastic performance from the band that every other act on the bill owes a debt to in some way or another, the band that started the whole metal scene off. It’s great to see they’ve still got it, and may Tony and co. still be unleashing riff after riff for a long time yet.
Overall it was an absolutely fantastic weekend with probably the best lineup a festival has ever had. There were so many great bands, but special mention definitely has to be given to Iron Maiden, SubRosa, Conan, Black Sabbath, Brutal Truth, Emperor and Behemoth. I’ll definitely be coming back to the festival next year after the fun of this year’s instalment!