Just 2 hours by train from Paris and 15 minutes from Nantes, in the west of France, in Bretagne to be more exact, you find the little town of Clisson, population 6632. Its chateau, dating from the 13th century is overseeing the river La SevreNantaise. Being part of historical Brittany, it had a key position in the defense against Anjou andPoiteau. It is known as the ItalianClisson because of its Tuscan-inspired architecture. When you travel here for the first time, you don’t expect to find a charming town with breathtaking sceneries, beautiful castle ruins and lots of nice people. People so nice that since 2006 they’ve accepted in their midst a festival that would become THE FESTIVAL for rock and metal music worldwide.
(Photo by Paul Voicu)
Hellfest started as Furyfest and was held in different locations throughout Pays de la Loire between 2002 and 2005. 2006 was the year of its birth, bringing together 22 000 metal heads to witness Motorhead and Apocalyptica and ending up 200 000 euros short. Battling obvious restraints from all sorts of political and social circles, for fear of the devil himself appearing and taking the souls of all the youngsters, the festival’s brains, Ben Barbaud, a local hardcore punk fan managed to bring Hellfest to a whopping 13thedition in 2017. Let’s take a look at the numbers this year: 240 000 visitors from 60 countries all gathered on 63 ha were ensured a good festival by 3500 volunteers and 1500 technicians for over 3 days.
Arriving at the scene you soon start to realize that there’s some effort being put in the planning and the details of the statues and buildings, some dating from older editions, some being brought on this year; they are simply amazing and they add to the overall atmosphere of fantasy metal world. To which the wonderful attitude of the people is added even though it is difficult, in such an eclectic mix of genres and styles, to find peace and eventually love. The VIP area was revamped and the Metal Square enlarged. More food stands were added, the entry to the festival grounds was more fluent. Most importantly, and I find this a coup of genius, the organizers ensured cold drinking water all throughout the 3 days of plus 30 degrees Celsius with not a cloud in sight!
To kick things off, our wonderful metal team started as always with a little pre-festivalwarming up, as always, on Thursday night. On Friday, from early dawn the guitars were picked up, cameras were raised and rested eyes prepared to engorge over 14h of music every day.
Friday, June 16th
We started with The Decline! At the Warzone, a hearty west Australian punk rock band, uplifting and quite easy going with and interesting raspy voice. Next the Parisians of Betraying the Martyrs brought on their metalcore from the banks of the Seine on the Mainstages. They’re already on their third album and they even recorded the video for its title song at this concert. Quite a number of people showed up and we even had the pleasure of witnessing our first wall of death for the day. Atmosphere, keyboards, lots of singing vocals and you can’t even tell these guys aren’t Americans! Next up, Nootgrush and their grinding sludge came to the Valley and really let us have it! Theirname is a reference to a Dr Seuss Book ;) The Americans just have one full length album and quite a number of EP’s put out, they’ve been around since 1994. A must for any doom related fan out there. I eagerly waited to see Animals as leaders with their so called djent metal. Seeing them pick at their 8-string guitar is hallucinogenic, and the way they exchange the role of bass and guitar form on guitarist to another many times in the song is quite exquisite. No need for vocals to pass on the musical message for these guys. Main-stage worthy! Subrosa were introduced to us by a one of our Scottish friends some years back and seeing them live was quite a feat. Girl-fronted doom/sludge with 2 violins is nothing to fuck around with. Crunching guitars and a heavy atmosphere, a great pick for The Valley all the way from Utah. Queensryche need no introduction. Their Operation Mindcrime album sits proudly along classic rock albums and gives me shiversevery time I listen to it. Not quite as shivering hearing songs from this album sung with a new vocalist after Geoff Tate was fired but still the new guycan hold his ground and all in all it is a decent effort. Main stage material from Queensryche. Stoner metalists Red Fang made the valley tent seem like a Quechua-2-second tent. In 2015 they played the Mainstages and that was quite a surprise. This year they played The Valey and it was fully packed with stoner lovers; it was quite difficult to go in to witness their concert. But it was worth it, as these guys never let down. Straight up from Oregon onto Clissoniangrounds and a hell of a concert. Up next on the Mainstage there were Ministry. Quite a history behind these guys, they are revolutionaries in the industrial metal niche. To be honest I wasn’t expecting much but the Irishmen blew Hellfest away. One of the highlights of the day were Baroness and their progressive sludge metal from Savannah, Georgia. Packed with feeling and heavy guitars, their show is a must see for any metalhead. With a nice backdrop of images we were administered a good dose of southern metal. And guitarist Gina Gleason was in the top 3 of hot female metalists in bands this edition! The daddies from Electric Wizard didn’t disappoint, nor did the number of joints per square meter in the Valley. From across the channel the brits brought yet again some good old stoner metal. Rob Zombie Headlined Friday on the Mainstages and seemed to enjoy himself. Dragula, of course was sung and at the end a nice exchange of instruments took place as every band member took up another instrument. Last band at the Valley was Monster Magnet from the states which we all know as the band that opened up for Metallica in 98 in Bucharest. Just a bit older but still dirty as fuck, in sound as in backdrop videos showing half or even fully naked ladies. We ended the evening as always some 10 minutes’ walk from the site, in the living room of our host, chewing over the best moments of the day.
Saturday, June 17th
The day started strongly, with the Americans from Bongripper and their doom/stoner metal from Chicago. Forty minutes, away from the scorching sun in The Valley, enough to witness a hypnotic display of pachyderm-like tenacity. As we were all brought up in the 80’s and 90’s we couldn’t have missed Ugly Kid Joe and under the searing heat we saw them on the Mainstage I at 15h00. We enjoyed all their MTV-ish famous songs, including ‘Cat’s in the cradle‘ and‘Everything about you’. Pretty fresh and funky. Next up, 16 o’clock and again time for a trip to The Valley for we couldn’t have missed the witchery of Blood Ceremony. Alia O’Brien please give us our hearts back! Beautiful girl but more than that, a beautiful voice and great stage presence. Blood Ceremony’s songs seem like something coughed up from the high days of Salem with their folkish doom and flutes. Yes, we all see the JethroTullresemblanceJ. Bordeaux was really well represented because Mars Red Sky always make a good appearance. Hypnotic desert rock, just right for a trip to the sun. With a bottle of good wine. Yet another great French band; and you couldn’t tell they’re not from Arizona or something. D.R.I. sure need no introduction. Cross-over thrash from another era but still these guys will kick your teeth in. And also you could have gotten your teeth kicked in in the mosh pit. In a friendly way, none the less. 20 songs in an hour at the War Zone. Chelsea Wolfe, another jewel that we were introduced toby one of our Scottish friends a while back, did not disappoint. We went back to the shelter of the Valley and prepared for a trip down a musical translation of some David Lynch scenes. I find it difficult to pin it to a certain genre. Doom rock? Who cares? Shining in a neofolk cape, ha! Next, for a trip to the Temple, Alcest made us gaze at our black shoes as they delivered their usual tremolo atmospheric black metal with post-metal touches. All their friends from Bagnols-sur-Cèze must be proud of them for they have gathered quite a following because of their blackgaze sound. Not a full tent but maybe because Saxon were banging away at the main stages. An easy to swallow black metal. We returned to our home, The Valley to check out Primus and their funk metal from San Francisco. Don’t need a lot of beers to warm up to their music. I stayed rather cool, however. Next up at the The Temple the band that played keeps making waves in the metal world. The Norwegians from Wardruna mix folk and ambient to take us on a Viking spiritual trip. We enjoyed the end of a good Saturday under the beautiful desert ballads of Slo Burn (who resemble late Kyuss in sound - and being from California sure does help) and of course, a band that maybe is surpassed only by Slayer in the number of times they played Hellfest, the cross-over gods from Suicidal tendencies. They moshed all over the War Zone at 1 o’clock in the night.
Sunday, June 18th
The third day and the hottest of them all but we managed to get our sorry asses up to the Mainstage II to witness the mighty Prong and their thrash metal with a twist. Tommy Victor has been leading the New York ensemble for quite a while now and is the sole original member. Revitalizing thrash from the good old day is not an easy feat but this guy is, as we like to say, a real daddy when it comes to it. One of the few surprises of this year’s festival were The Vintage Caravan, with a refreshing take on stoner rock. And what a surprise, they’re from Iceland. Right after them on the same stage we witnessed Crippled Black Phoenix, a musical ensemble formed around Justin Greaves. They have a dark psychedelic sound but I hear some late Katatonia in their songs. If you like Deafheaven, you would have enjoyed Ghost Bath. It’s almost the same, minus the fireworks and the jolt and the edge. Bland but well executed post black metal from North Dakota. If we don’t have Hatebreed, we might as well have Ill Nino from good old Jersey. They had 40 minutes on the Mainstage II and despite the heat the fans stubbornly enjoyed a good old fashion mosh pit. Back to the Valley to see the great Italian trio Ufomammut. What a diamond on the crown of doom metal. With every song they were sinking us deeper and deeper into a pit at the bottom of which we found the doom gods of Pentagram. The Virginia based trio have been around since ’71 with Bobby Libling behind the wheel of this rusty doom caravan. What a treat to get to see some of the pioneers in action. One of the bands I never hoped I would get to see live was Sanctuary. Warrel Dane, some say the inventor of high pitched heavy metal vocals before Rob Halford, can still keep up the irons and has a unique grampa-ish attitude on stage. Too bad not many songs from Refuge Denied were sung. The end of Hellfest this year was enjoyed in the best of company possible. Who else but the trickster of doom, the raspy voice from New Orleans, the Kid, Phil motherfucking’Anselmo with his new band, Scour. Having quit booze and having lost some pounds, Anselmo is reborn and back to kick some ass with a new outfit alongside death metal masters from Cattle Decapitation, Animosity and Pig Destroyer. A devil in disguise, Anselmo showed us that he has a wide range of metal voices to show off. Blackened death metal with terrifying solos and nice comeback from the hearty Phil.
There is a moment when all guitars stop, when the fires from the bars still burn as bright in the French night sky and you take another look down to the Mainstages, past the devil’s horns hand statue and past the Hellfest tree; it’s the moment when you turn your back to get to the exit and realize that, god damn it, you can’t wait for next year!