By now the entire festival ground is completely covered in a thick layer of dust, and barely a hint of rain has meant the place resembles more a French desert than the stereotypical mud bath festivals usually turn into. The term ‘shower’ seems more a fable than a morning routine, considering the queues for them, so we make best with what we can and trot over to see who can make the best noises onstage today.
Claiming the award of the festival’s Most Misleading Band Name, the Swedish act Year Of The Goat are not in fact a grim Satanic black metal band, but instead crank out infectious occult heavy metal with very soulful vocals. There’s a strong turnout this early in the morning, and the audience dig the Ghost-like atmosphere of tracks like “For The King” or “Spirits Of Fire”. In true 70s spirit, there’s also a Mellotron employed by the amiable Mikael Popovic, whose backing vocals complement Thomas Sabbathi’s emotive style, the latter also proving himself great at solos. While Year Of The Goat are not the most visually engaging band, remaining rooted to the spot for their 30-minute set, the music more than counteracts this and leaves a solid positive impression as they round out on “Thin Lines Of Broken Hopes”.
Blues Pills (Main Stage 1) manage to do something quite spectacular: for a brief 30 minutes, Hellfest is transformed into Woodstock with their psychedelic rockin’ jams. After a simple introduction of “Hello! We are Blues Pills!”, willowy frontwoman Elin Larsson showcases a powerhouse of vocals, channeling the blues just as well as her Swedish compatriots Graveyard. The instrumental section of the band look and play every inch the part: guitarist Dorian Sorriaux nods and shakes his head as though lost in a haze of his own riffs, bassist Zack Anderson is pure hippie and drummer Cory Berry is faultless in his rhythmic jams, lost behind his hair curtain. The crowd has really filled out by now, and they’re completely onboard with the tunes, particularly going nuts at the flawlessly executed intro to “Devil Man”: Larsson wails the chorus a capella and the crowd attempt to follow her shrieking notes. Suddenly, the band explode into action and the song gets underway, with a lot of clapping along. As Blues Pills round out their set, they seem a bit bashful at the roars of applause, but it’s all deserved for such a class performance.
Speaking of class performances, The Black Dahlia Murder (Altar Stage) give a masterclass in engaging with the audience, and it pays dividends. Their show is one massive fist-shaking, horns-throwing celebration of melodic death metal, and Trevor Strnad is the animated master of ceremonies, bouncing around the stage to make sure every single person in the crowd is onboard and loving it. The biggest circle pit of Hellfest gets underway soon after “In Hell Is Where She Waits For Me”, stretching between both the support pillars, and security have their work cut out for them catching all the crowd surfers. They also seem to take some kind of perverse pleasure in spraying the front row constantly with bottles of water, leaving them the most drenched they’ve been for the whole festival. Meanwhile, the Murder’s setlist is as varied as we’ve come to expect from them: newer numbers “Raped In Hatred By Vines Of Thorn” stand proud next to “Statutory Ape” and “Miasma”, although there’s a conspicuous absence of the usual “Funeral Thirst”. The musicians know exactly what to do, working as a cohesive unit and engaging with the crowd, mouthing along to the words while still playing everything note-perfectly, not an easy task given some sections. There is a sense of balls-out catharsis when the blazing grind of “Den Of The Picquerist” rears its ugly head, and the moshpit hits a whole new level of insanity. Strnad meanwhile is having a whale of a time, throwing pelvic thrusts and heart shapes to the increasingly-mental crowd, and exhibiting his incredible harsh vocal range. While not every track is a surefire winner (“Malenchantments Of The Necrosphere” drags in its chugathon), you can be sure the crowd will go nuts if you end your set with “I Will Return”. This crowd redefine ‘nuts’, resulting in one happy sweaty band leaving the stage and one very happy sweaty crowd staggering out of the tent.
Despite the recent flurry of events that has engulfed their vocalist over the past few years, it’s a testament to Behemoth (Main Stage 2) that their reputation for live shows has only increased since Nergal shook off the chains of leukemia. However, seeing the band in full black metal regalia during sunlight is a very strange experience. Walking out onstage to a horrific shrieking intro, the band take their sweet time starting the cogs turning for “Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel”. Flames are their middle name, as fire burns brightly onstage or shoots up in spurts at opportune moments. Soon the blasts are in full flight, and everything is just as devastating as you would imagine. The set they run through feels a little by numbers, but every song is a classic, from the tribal shouts of “Slaves Shall Serve” to their arguably most famous track “Ov Fire And The Void”. Nergal himself stands imposing as he growls through their blasphemous texts, occasionally aided by bassist Orion like on the infectious “Ora Pro Nobis Lucifer”. The crowd are mostly held together by the diehard faithfuls, who whip up the pit and relentlessly show their devilish support. As guitarist Seth lights the inverted crosses onstage, Nergal muses about a connection between the past, Ancient Rome and Christians, finishing with the immortal phrase “We’re going to take you back 2000 years in history, to a time where they used to say ‘CHRISTIANS TO THE LIONS!’”. The track itself is suitably punishing, but the audience lack some oomph in properly engaging with it. “Ov Fire And The Void” goes partway to winning them over, but it’s the last track that does the trick. As the opening triumphant notes of “O Father O Satan O Sun!” ring out with a massive confetti shower, the crowd stand in awe. When the band briefly disappear offstage to don intimidating masks for the grand finale, the performance turns from engaging to inducing shivers down the spine, and as the final spoken word section rings out over Hellfest, there are doubtlessly many now-converted fans to Behemoth’s blackened cause.
Shooting for perhaps Strangest Atmosphere Shift at a festival ever, it’s time for a return to the 90s grunge scene (I know, right?) with one of the pioneering acts of that era. Soundgarden (Main Stage 1) thrive in the sunshine, which is more than can be said for the crowd, rammed together like dusty sardines as far as the eye can see. No problem for the band, who set up the perfect intro track with “Searching With My Good Eye Closed”, complete with the rather bizarre spoken intro from DJ Damon Stewart. Hid behind his floppy hair, Chris Cornell is the quintessential grunge frontman with his trademark baritone voice and rockstar poses. However, both band and crowd really hit their stride on the famous “Rusty Cage”, featuring that famous belted chorus line and driving anthemic verses. Unfortunately, there we have to leave Soundgarden and check out the Altar Stage for another odd shift in ambience.
Anyone familiar with Paradise Lost‘s history may have been a touch surprised to hear their announcement for the Altar stage. Firstly, the band haven’t released anything death metal-related for over 2 decades, and secondly the band are renowned for a genre-bending back catalog. This makes for a hell of an intriguing setlist, started off with the eerie “Persephone (The Gathering Of Flowers)” from Dead Can Dance over the PA, and launching into their own “Mortals Watch The Day” for a gothic-tinged start. Nick Holmes is a top-notch frontman, both in his humor (introducing “Tragic Idol” he remarks it’s the band’s 65th album) and in shifting styles as the band pass through each era, from the doom-laden “Enchantment”, through the growling doom-death of their past in “Gothic”, to the pure unadulterated industrial thump of “Erased”. More surprisingly, the crowd adore each track: they pogo and clap along when appropriate, and have their fists up at every opportune moment. The band feed off this energy, Aaron Aedy in particular when he headbangs maniacally, thrilled by the reception. As the audience go nuts to the infectious “Say Just Words”, their last song of the night, Paradise Lost may be out of place but they’re not giving a fuck, having received a full Hellfest welcome.
As the lights go blue on the second main stage, history is being written. For only the second time ever, Emperor are to perform In The Nightside Eclipse in full as part of the 20th anniversary of this pivotal début. A blow-for-blow of the setlist is thus pointless, as every track is executed flawlessly, with giant bursts of pyro punctuating key moments. The band, reinforced by Einar Solberg (Leprous) on keyboards and Secthdamon on bass, re-establish that same extraordinary atmosphere on record, only amplified through the gigantic speakers. The guitars are piercing, the keyboards are stirring, and the kick drum carries a warning of heart palpitations. Front and center, Ihsahn recreates his biting shrieks and rasps, every inch the black metal luminary as he is often portrayed. As “The Burning Shadows Of Silence” kicks in, an elderly lady stands stunned with her fingers in her ears, trying to puzzle out this symphonic cacophony. It proves too much, and she leaves shaking her head, but the remaining thousands watching are either headbanging, holding horns in the air or moshing, or all three simultaneously. Their set unfolds with a pummelling grace, right until the “I am them” that ends “I Am The Black Wizards”. By this point the sun has set completely, and everyone knows what’s coming: “Inno A Satana” arrives in its full majesty. The legendary clean vocals are stunning, the sparks are literally flying, and by the time the song hits its famous chanting finale, the mood is nothing short of breath-taking. You would think after such a set, any other band would be able to rest with a job well done. Emperor, however, are not done yet: two tracks follow, one from their first demo and one from the EP. The final notes of “Wrath Of The Tyrant” ring out, Emperor exit the stage, and the crowd are completely stunned. A truly magical set.
It is never rewarding to take the position of last performers, and although 1349 aren’t the last on the bill this year, they had the privilege of closing the gate of hell at The Temple. Anyway, it is too late (or is it just me?) to thoroughly enjoy another ungodly furious Norwegian horde. The heralds of great pestilence remain true to their profession and don’t spare us tonight, and the crowd has to pull themselves together in order to survive. 1349 stepped over the frames of traditional black metal, and started to interpret the genre on a higher level and increase the dosage of their incredibly cruel music. During the kick-off track “Maggot Fetus Teeth Like Thorns” it was already clear the sound was tuned crystal clearly. The bass strings clatter well, and of course Frost’s grim hammering on the drums is always a guarantee for quality. Just like many other bands during the weekend, 1349 promote their forthcoming new album “Massive Cauldron of Chaos” with the already released EP track entitled “Slaves”. The selection of the performed tracks couldn’t be better, as the setlist passes through the whole 1349 discography. With this final demonic show the black metal presence at Hellfest comes to an end, but I’m sure we’re already looking forward to the next chance when those gates of hell will be opened.
(Written by Laszlo Hegyi)
There is an undeniable sense of closure seeing Black Sabbath (Main Stage 1) last, the band with whom at least 85% of the lineup would not exist if they had not brought out that classic titular album. The whole place is teeming with generations of metalheads, all singing along to “War Pigs”, the band’s opening number for tonight. Considering Ozzy is 65 and with a patchy live history of late, this performance of his is incredibly impressive: he runs and jumps around the stage to get the crowd fired up, and his vocals are completely on point on most of the tracks. The poignant way he tells the kids not to mess with cocaine before “Snowblind” is firmly juxtaposed with the cuckoo noises he makes at other intervals, and the frightened child-like performance of the band’s mammoth eponymous song. Naturally the two new songs performed, “Age Of Reason” and “God Is Dead?”, don’t get quite the same roaring reception, but they sound great nonetheless. There are of course other members in Black Sabbath: Tony Iommi is in fine shape considering his recent health ordeals, smiling to himself as he pumps out riff upon classic riff in his massive leather coat. On the other side of the stage, Geezer Butler is as incredible a bassist as ever, especially when ripping out the “Bassically” solo before the swaggering groove of “N.I.B.” slides into view. And as for Tommy Clufetos, the man is incredible behind the drum kit as he smashes his way through the set, even with time for a lengthy drum solo that leads into the thundering “Iron Man”. The grin that hits Iommi’s face is priceless, spurring the crowd on even further. Departing the stage after “Children Of The Grave” for a breather, the encore of course has to be “Paranoid”. One of my first metal songs, it’s a fitting final track of the night, having come full circle both in the festival and my metal education. The band wind down and exit the stage to thunderous applause, leaving the crowd to reflect on such a marvellous performance.
Despite the heat and dust and any number of other complaints that arise during these four days, Hellfest is nothing short of an incredible experience. While it’s undoubtably a trial by fire for newcomers to festivals, particularly the heat, it’s counterbalanced by the sheer amount of quality spread across the stages, as well as the catering and bars and everything else that comes with the package. While no bands have been announced so far for next year, you can take it from MetalRecusants that it will be one hell of a fest. We’ll see you there.
Our thanks go to Roger for the press opportunity, as well as all the wonderful people we met at Hellfest. Mark also thanks his camping buddies Michael, Rüdiger and Kai for the fantastic company and great rockin’ music. Same time next year, everyone?
All live photography in this article courtesy of Vivien Varga. Check out Vivien’s photo report for Day 3 here.