Hold it down!! I've shaken the sand from my shoes and put the last load of post festival washing on; so I now have a spare moment to present to you all the ups and downs of our trip to HellFest. HellFest, in case you didn't know, is France's premier heavy music festival. This was the 9th edition, having grown in size every year since its birth as a single day event in a sports hall, it is now only second in size to the mighty Wacken.
Having spent 2 days at Disneyland prior to heading down to Clisson, we were resting on Wednesday night idly watching TV waiting for non-existant World Cup football to appear when a news-flash interrupted our viewing. We translated it using our best school learnt linguistics and managed to come to the conclusion that SNCF; the French Railway company, would be on strike the following day. A quick check of their website confirmed this, for a foreign traveler, most heinous fact: our train the following day was canceled. But due to the unique way that French unions are structured, the industrial action would not actually be starting until 10am. consequentially our train was not a going concern but potentially the trains prior to it would be running.
So my paranoia took over and I insisted to Naomi that we pack and settle in for an early night, so we could rise at 5am, catch the first train into Paris to enable us to be on board the 2nd train of the day to Nantes; which conveyance- it should be noted – was due to pull out of Monparnasse Station at a lark bothering 6:37am. Alarms did their job and fear generated perambulance set into motion, we made the train and sat in our unreserved seats, glaring with suspicion and jangling nerves every time another passenger with a possibly genuine claim to them, boarded. Thankfully we were able to keep them for the whole journey and alighted at Nantes if not fresh as a daisy, then certainly as a Peonie. After a 2 hour wait for our connecting train to Clisson (the town in which HellFest happens), we boarded, disembarked, boarded and then changed trains and platforms, due to a security alert. After which stultifying annoyance, we set off with several hundred other ravenous metal heads for our final destination.
After arrival and the interminable queuing that seems to be a major part and every festival experience these days, we gained our wristbands and set off through the vineyards to select our campsite. We chose what we thought would be a nice quiet area to camp in (Shameful, I know, but we are old and have both reasonable bedtimes and dinner party fantasies). We pitched our tent and did our best to make friends in our vicinity; aided in this endeavour by a couple of spliffs and a bottle of Polish Vodka we achieved this with alacrity.
So with the strains of various local unsigned bands wafting across the campsite we spent a gorgeous evening drinking, smoking and chatting with our new friends on the delightful garden which we had cultivated through both fair means and foul, outside of our tent.
Waking early as is my usual style, I open the tent to find that some sneaky basket has managed to, with apparent ninja stealth, pitch a tent where our garden used to be. But this proximity issue couldn't phase me for long because the festival was starting and we needed to be heading out quick smart to catch my first target of the festival Weekend Nachos.
After fording a crushing queue of almost biblical proportions, we managed to catch the final 5 minutes of this intense Chicago Smash-hardcore outfit. Their rampaging, no-holds-barred style is a perfect wake up call to sleepy eyes and muscles atrophied by the vagaries of an inflatable mattress.
The sunkissed afternoon flowed by in miasmic mixture of cold Kronenbourg combined with delightful cocktail of; Order of Apollyon, Crossfaith, Impiety, and Satan before the next of our prefigured picks took to the stage. Toxic Holocaust has long been a favourite of Naomi's, with their party metal vibe, bleach-blonde accents and absolute commitment to good time thrashing. They tore up the users manual for excitement incitement and had the naturally passive French crowd surfing in the blazing sun.
The aforementioned sunshine taking its inevitable toll on boozy British heads, we headed back to the nylonic sanctuary of the Tent, returning to the main arena as the sun descended to sample some sumptuous samba insouciance from the master of the metallic merengue, Sepultura.
Admittedly with Max as their frontman and Igor on Drums, these guys were a formative part of my youth. Moulding and shaping my love for and understanding of Metal as art and a platform for social change and realisation. But having mentioned the Sepultura Schism it is well worth noting that Derek Green has now been in the band longer than Max was, so an open mind is always needed with these things. They gave a mighty performance; dynamic and soulfully rhythmic. Pouring every ounce of their ability into a truly joyful performance. Their crowd unifying crescendo was the singalong captivation of "Roots Bloody Roots" bringing 40-000 people to their feet in full voice.
Now to what was for me a personal highlight of the entire weekend, no, screw that, it was the highlight of any series of days I have ever had, ever: Iron Maiden. During the day we had spotted a helicopter shuttling back and forth overhead between the VIP area and what we presumed to be the direction of Nantes Airport and our presumption was that Bruce Dickinson has donned his pilots cap with his usual enthusiasm and it was with the same jet fueled verve that Maiden hit the stage with that night. Their 2 hour set passed by in the blink of a hit blurred eye; Aces High, MoonChild, Iron Maiden, Run to the Hills, The Trooper, Can I Play with Madness, Fear of the Dark, Phantom of the Opera all indelibly lazered onto my memory. Different backdrops and character Eddies for every song, they wrapped me up in the blanket of effervescent perfection which they have been weaving for 30 years and 6 days later, I've barely left it.
After an experience like that, the rest of the night dissolved into nouns: booze, chat, friends, smiles, sleep…..
…..noise, shouts, screams. The morning greets us with startling volume as some poor unfortunate fails to negotiate the intricate maze of tents and tripped over a guy rope; plunging them headlong into the privacy of some unsuspecting strangers tent. Upon seeing this, we thanked our lucky stars, bolted breakfast, forswore our ablutions for the time being, filled a pitcher with beer and headed for the sanctuary of the arena.
This time the crowd filing towards the entrance was considerably thinner than the day before, allowing us to gain access with the barest minimum of delay, which was to our great fortune, for the sun was already high and bearing down on us. So factor 50 sunblock slavered on skin and plenty of water onboard we headed for our staging post for the day; the giant Tent containing the Altar and Temple stages.
There is nothing quite like the experience of watching live Black Metal in blazing sunshine. The juxtaposition of summer and sigils, bleak and bronze always makes me smile and enjoy the silliest of metal genres even more.
Nefarium, Mercyless, Temple of Baal and Suppuration cascaded their corpse paint and incantation over us in a bombastic reverie; each band reveling in the sheer scale of the crowds assembled before them. The baking heat must take some of the credit but the marquee was packed with about 6 or 7000 people. Regardless of their reasons for being in the Altar/Temple complex the crowd acted as a living breathing inspiration for each band. Energizing and motivating each act to perform as well as they can. Up scaling the scope of their music which might normally only be heard by 200 people at an average gig into a dome filling celebration of metal existence. Which is exactly what HellFest is, a celebration. Viking and Visigoth, emo and deathhead, Punk and stoner; living cheek by jowl, engaging with our similarities as opposed to our differences and allowing our souls to coalesce into one almighty Satanic roar; and this was just at the supermarket conveniently located 200 yards along the road back to Clisson.
As the sun climbed higher to its midsummer 4pm Zenith, we sought out lunch and headed back to our tent to recuperate ahead of the evenings festivities.
Gorguts was our first assignation of the evening. Doomy and truculent, their sardonic tech death is perfect to experience as the sun starts to sink downwards and the first breeze of evening starts to whip across your shoulders. Odd metres and open phrasing slaking the scales from our eyes, acknowledging that complex music does not have to be presented in a complex manner.
Having wet our appetites for Brazilian Ballistics the previous night with Sepultura, it was only right and proper to fulfill the dichotomy and watch Soulfly as well. High samba funk snare, deep bass rumble and Max's inimitable growl fused together in the dust choked air to give the performance a memorable sheen. The band caked in a golden halo of light as magic hour fell around around the dreadlocked head of Mr Cavalera.
A quick sojourn back to the tent to change shirts and replenish stocks, before we found ourselves shunning the comely entreaties of Rock Legendary in the form of Aerosmith for the Ramaseian Brutal embrace of Tech Death Historians, Nile. Karl Saunders and co were on imperious form; being propelled by the mesmeric brilliance of George Kollias. Each song a master class in the precision and perspicacity of metal. But their ability to craft anthemic hooks on which to hang their brilliance is what sets Nile apart and allows one to revel rolling deep in the fetishised championing of the genius metal musician. And a festival is the perfect church at which to indulge ones worship. I'll admit that I too knelt at that alter; praising and exalting the skill on display, especially from the mighty whirling Greek drum Octopus.
After wandering away from the busom of Cleopatra, slightly stunned we wandered slightly aimlessly and effected for a while, closing in on a stage, only to let the subtle vibrations of the mighty sound systems nudge us gently away in the other direction. Until an hour or so later we had regained our faculties specifically enough to let Millencollin skate us home on the Halfpipe of Love. Back to the tent they punked our backsides, after a joyfully nostalgic half hour, back for as much high jinx as stamina and sobriety (or lack of it) would allow.
I know we eventually slept because I woke up and one cannot engage in the latter without first successfully completing the former, but as to what time we fell asleep I cannot testify. It was a surprise to have slept so long as the inside of the tent was desiccatingly hot, making us into Jerky as we rested.
It was lucky that we had no early planned assignations with bands because the sun was well past the yard arm and probably the mizzen mast too, as we rose like casualties in an invisible war and breakfasted like Champions; me – Warm Beer, cigarettes and a Croissant; Naomi – ever the lady – coffee and the rituals of moisturising and makeup. This done, we slumped down again, exhausted by our efforts and decided to wait until after lunch to venture out.
The scorching sun soon reduced our vigil to a sedentary one as even the most minimal movement induced criminally expectant amounts of sweat. Very quickly our patience for this plastic sauna had been exhausted and we headed out to try and snag some shade in the Alter/Temple Tent. However 20 thousand other people had the same idea and the normally capacious marquee was rendered into a sea of bodies; some twitching some writhing, others staring in caustic glee at whoever was on the stage. The heat and the booze was taking its toll on the huddled masses.
We eventually found a spot next to a Dino Cazares look-a-like who appeared to be dead and thus had a space free of people encircling him. Not being squeamish about these things we availed ourselves of the patch of ground and watched Romanian Black Mettallers Dordeduh, who managed to cool the crowd a little even if it was just simply to invest their hearts with ice.
Whatever cool they achieved was immediately obliterated by the headlong plunge that is the music of Repulsion. No song longer than 90 seconds and no gap between songs longer than 10 seconds. In their 45 minute set they probably played every song they have ever recorded and even included an Iron Maiden cover for good measure.
We then intended to catch Dark Angel on the main stage but due to "unforeseen circumstance" the running order for the central complex had been altered, leaving us standing, stranded with a couple of hours to kill before our scheduled date with Nurgle and the rest of Behemoth. So we wandered and drank, purchased merch (Arkaik shirt and Archspire's 1st album) and ate some delicious French stew; before taking our places and readying our souls for the Polish onslaught.
Now I must admit to often being a bit skeptical about Behemoth, but in just one hour they managed to grind up my skepticism and hand it to me pre-rolled and ready for ignition. They dominated space and time like the titans they are. With precision and prescience they held the thronging crowd in the palms of their blackened hands. Exuding delight at being, both alive and one of Satan's minions. They played 6 tracks from their latest album The Satanist as well as favourites such as the Left hand of God and As above so Below. Sigils and music; smoke, corpse paint and a sky filled with the Devils confetti crescendoed under the droning dedication of O Father O Satan O Sun. The perfect end to a perfect set!
Prior to traveling, if you had asked me to make a top ten of bands that I was excited about seeing, SoundGarden would definitely have made that list but just 5 moments into watching them I began to regret on my own hypothetical choice. In the midst of the pace, power and precision of metals finest musicians SoundGarden sounded basic, leaden, repetitive and irrelevant. I mean, I love bellowing along to Black Hole Sun; but, in the sun, being watched by hoards of Black metal Fans, their performance felt full of holes.
All of which just gave us opportunity to leave Cornell and friends early and find ourselves a good position from which to watch Emperor; who were touring in celebration of the 20th anniversary of their In the Nightside Eclipse LP. They were vibrant and exciting but if I am to be honest, having just recently experienced Behemoth, Emperor's show felt lacking in bombast and devoid of any of the primal silliness that I relish in my Black metal. They were without costume and corpse paint, sigils and arcana; I know these things are silly and cartoonish but to me they are an intrinsic part of B.M, without which a show is reduced to a series of songs, leaving me entertained but without real joy in my heart.
By now we were fading fast and thinking about our return journey to London, which we had to begin before 6am the next morning. But before we could escape the huge throng of people assembled to watch Emperor, Ozzy stumbled across the stage in his inimitable, drug addled way and the mighty Sabbath (as one is obliged to refer to them as) kicked immediately into high gear. We watched them for a rousing 35 minutes as they played a medley of their finest moments. The crowd held captivated by the waves of nostalgia that watching a band this seminal produces in the mind; even with Ozzys voice regularly failing by a quarter tone to hit the right notes. After this blissful half hour was up, they veered to the right and started playing songs from their latest opus, 13.
The night, I felt, couldn't get better than to hear them play War Pigs, so we took our leave and wound our way out of a crowd that size-wise, would not have disgraced a Cecil b. De Mille set. Out past the HellFest Tree, past the battlements, over the stairs of desperation, through the metal village, past the causalities and down through the vines to our tent; our nylon home from home.
The expectation and excitement had come and we had lived it and loved every second. Maybe the fact that there were 40% more people than when we had been here in 2012 had marginally effected our enjoyment, but the same vibe remained; one of pure, stylish French entertainment; of insouciant, debonair class, that regardless of the fact that this was a metal festival, it was primarily a FRENCH metal festival. And they will do it in their way, with high quality food, perfect sound and coffee and pain au chocolate available fresh each morning; with relaxed security, cold beer and local wine.
But the abiding memories for me will be of the music, of the incredible shows from dozens of my favourite bands witnessed in a Riviera climate, of watching these bands with my gorgeous wife by my side, holding my hand, as we look around and see thousands of others captivated in the same way, by our passion, by our creed, by our unity as Metalheads.
Although when the dust settles we may leave and go our separate ways, back to grinding lives and distant responsibilities, but for the committed few that made it, that had to come and made it happen, there will always be a beat of our hearts that reverberates forever at HellFest.
– John Whitmore