Friday, 21 July 2017

Festival Review: HELLFEST OPEN AIR 2017

Photo: NIWY KOVÁČOVÁ

Hellfest Open Air 2017

Clisson, France || 16-18 June 2017

Review by MARK DEAN || Photos by NIWY KOVÁČOVÁ
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Day 1

Since I hit a milestone birthday this year, I have been actively seeking to embrace new adventures and personally achieve some firsts. As an active gig goer since 1982, I have attended many thousands of shows/festivals, but never outside the UK mainland. Friends have made that step before me – Wacken, Sweden Rocks, etc. One name, however, kept coming up again and again – Hellfest. Set in France, this festival has been around since 2006. When I decided to take the plunge, and after updating my passport, I submitted the media application for accreditation. Efficient organisation ensured that bridge was quickly overcome, all I had to do was to sort out travel to the festival itself. Leaving it late, I feared that I had already missed the boat (I did miss several in Dover at a later date). Securing the last place on the travel package we departed Manchester on the Wednesday – 2 days prior to the festival itself starting on the Friday. Ideally and according to our travel itinerary, we would or should arrive at the festival site on the Thursday lunchtime. Unfortunately, the journey itself was beset with technical issues, missed ferries, and much strained relations all around between the coach operators and the fans themselves. It’s the British way that we rally round in times of adversity, so it was aboard the now legendary Coach 3. Friendships were made between kindred spirits that I am sure will last significantly longer than the coach company that transported us to the festival itself.

Arriving as darkness was quickly approaching, we eventually located small and very isolated patches of grass that were tent free. Exploring the village area, I was very impressed with the organization and effort that had clearly gone into setting up the event itself. This impression was one that was to last throughout my entire Hellfest weekend. From the pleasant and courteous staff in the media area, to the reasonably priced and quality, diverse range of food stalls in the village, I literally could not fault a single aspect of the whole event. The fact that the weather itself was extremely hot and sunny for the duration was a bonus. Thus, no wading through rivers of British festival mud which has blighted my previous summer festival experiences. That single aspect in itself helped to create an audience in a much more upbeat and pleasant mood throughout the weekend. Yes, the slight dust clouds were a mild issue, but I certainly would take those every time as opposed to mud floods.

Having checked out the quality media facilities in the VIP/Media area – verdict extremely impressive. One of the main selling points of Hellfest was the diverse and extremely quality line-up of bands, even though one week after returning from the event I am still noticing bands that I would have liked to have seen. Better organization/forward planning next year, I think. An immediate positive as I made an early start down to the main stage was that both Main Stages were directly beside each other- a quick turnover also reduced waiting times between acts. A basic feature, but also one that many other festivals would certainly do well to copy. Settling to a good vantage point, first band on my “to-watch” list on the Friday were new but classic old-style retro rockers, Inglorious.

Unfortunately, a combination of poor sound, and what seemed to be singer Nathan’s shortness of breath (a leather jacket in the scorching sun!!), slightly blighted the early part of the set. After ¾ songs however, the powerful roar that I know he is capable of kicked in and service was resumed. I was also very surprised by the fact that although Inglorious were the first band on the main stage at the ungodly hour of 10:30am, they had a more than decent crowd throughout their 30-minute set. Nathan and the band quickly set about engaging their audience, including several less than subtle new album plugs. They were firing on all cylinders by the time they played “I Don’t Need Your Loving” and “Holy Water”. Despite only having a brief 30-minute set, I gained the impression that the band had gained many new fans after their Hellfest performance. They even sneaked back on with a brief edited encore. Setting the bar high for all the Main Stage acts that were to follow over the course of the weekend.

Evergrey are a band that I have long admired but to date had not previously seen in a live capacity. They were one of the first bands that I had added to my must-see list at the festival after I had decided to attend. Opening with “Leave It Behind Us” from their Glorious Collusion release. Very apparent from the first song that I was not standing alone in my admiration for the Swedish band, with many band T-shirts in evidence in all directions. From the past to the present and “Passing Through” from their latest album was up next. Huge choruses enhanced by keyboards as singer/guitarist Tom S. Englund poured his heart and soul into a very passionate stage performance. “Distance” quickly followed, again another track from latest studio offering The Storm Within, albeit enhanced with choral backing vocals. For all their melodies, the dual guitars were given sufficient space to soar and fly but also punch brutality. Evergrey’s set was a great combination of old and new in alteration, which had been effectively constructed in a seamless flow. Forty minutes appeared to fly by in a passing moment. They certainly could have deserved a much longer set, but it also had the effect of making me personally vow to catch their next set of headlining UK dates. Concluding with the slightly Queensrÿche sounding “King of Errors”, my verdict was “wow and incredible”. Great band, not particularly well known in the UK, who deserve to be massive.

Mentioning Queensrÿche led me on to the next band of the day. Last time I saw them had been in Dublin and served as my introduction to the incredible Todd La Torre. For Hellfest, Queensrÿche had settled on a crowd-pleasing hit set for their forty-minute slot. Opening with “Screaming in Digital” from the Rage for Order album proved an immediate shot in the arm and quickly had the crowd up and ready to enjoy themselves from the opening notes. Biggest album success, Operation: Mindcrime, then was well represented by a triumvirate of “I Don’t Believe in Love”, “I Remember Now” and the momentous title track itself. The band were supremely talented and all components were allowed to shine individually and collectively. La Torre effortlessly replicated former singer Geoff Tate’s operatic and unique vocal style. Not an easy task in any way. Returning back in time then to the band’s debut EP and “Queen of the Reich”, probably one of the most difficult tracks in the band’s back catalogue to replicate, as it is in almost the highest pitch to sing. La Torre again delivered in spades on this number. Dipping then into the title track from the Empire album next and then into the home straight with “Take Hold of The Flame” from the bands The Warning debut full-length before concluding with the more melodic “Eyes of a Stranger”. Job well done from a band that always have delivered in a live setting, after weathering a period of legalities/difficulties and have emerged stronger and reborn like a phoenix post-Tate.

Tiredness was now beginning to kick in and so I decided to make the legendary Deep Purple my final band of the opening day. Temperatures were now hitting uncomfortable highs, and my efforts to re-hydrate with copious amounts of water interspersed with pitchers of Skol were having limited effect. Legendary band Deep Purple had released a recent quality new album, Infinite, and were currently embarking on “The Long Farewell Tour” (read into that what you will). I was curious as to how the band would structure their hour and a half set. Would it ditch the new material in favour of their classics? Would their trademark solos remain or be jettisoned for a crowd-pleasing set? Opening number was the first from Infinite, “Time for Bedlam” with the classic “Fireball” quickly following. Third track in, and it was a real surprise for the band to play the track “Bloodsucker” from the classic In Rock album. I had never heard this track played live before by the band despite seeing them several times over the years. I certainly could not have ever hoped or guessed that this number would feature in the Hellfest set. A successful fusion of old and new, I did feel that perhaps the keyboard solo could have been shortened in length or even completely removed from the set. Steve Morse was incredible throughout the set, but particularly featuring on the “Uncommon Man” track from the Now What? album. Ian Gillan’s vocals are not quite what they were, less screaming these days, but both he and the other musicians are not in their youth. Their legendary status however, is long assured and the rendition of “Perfect Strangers” itself was a set highlight for me personally. Whether it is truly a final goodbye or just another farewell tour, I look forward to seeing Deep Purple with special guests return and play the UK at the end of the year.

Day 2

After a quality night’s sleep, my slumbers were disturbed at the ungodly hour of 8am by what appeared to be very early sound checks from the arena’s main stages. Seemingly I had no choice but to rise and face the day. Deciding to plan my itinerary, I decided to focus and concentrate my efforts on the two main stages. After a hearty breakfast followed by a shower, I popped into the media area to see which artists would be doing press conferences. More efficiency from Roger and his crew ensured great communication on each artists availability during the course of the day. Private rooms for 1-1 interviews also reduced the risk of external noise from other media sources, which I found to be of great benefit. Other festivals can certainly learn from this, as I found that generally interview environments at festivals tend to consist of a chaotic environment with many media sources having to compete with each other in terms of volume levels. The press conferences themselves also proved to be very popular with media members. I personally attended those by Devin Townsend, Steel Panther, Blue Oyster Cult, and also the Dead Daisies, over the course of the weekend.

First on my list on Day 2 was young and rising blues star Jared James Nichols from Wisconsin in USA. Young, pretty and supremely talented, this man quickly won over again a large audience at an early billing slot. Great sound helped as a wide range of ages in the audience grooved throughout his raw blues-soaked set. Fantastic set blessed by great weather and some cool beers.

Closely following on the main stage was The New Roses, doused in eighties sleaze rock influences. I had actually managed to check out the band prior to my French adventure. The band’s two albums to date were covered by five tracks in a short thirty-minute set. I particularly loved “Whiskey Nightmare” and “For a While” before the band themselves departed the stage to the strains of “It’s a Long Way”. Not quite a typical sound for a band from Germany, relying more on a US-infused type of rock, they played an enjoyable set.

I have been fortunate to see The Dead Daisies on several occasions. Not just a supergroup, they have bypassed that label and released several albums under their own steam. As one guitarist exits and returns to Guns N’ Roses, another quality replacement in Doug Aldrich enters. Seasoned professionals would find it easy to lapse into complacency on the road, but not where these guys are concerned. Each element gives a full 100% in terms of commitment and energy through a frantic thirty-minute set in the now blazing sunshine. Always a party atmosphere when these guys make music on stages wherever they are around the world. I note also that they continue to challenge themselves by playing a show in Poland in the near future with an orchestra. I do feel that it’s about time, especially playing a short festival set, that perhaps they should drop those cover versions from their set – just my personal opinion.

Quick half an hour to replenish the bodily fluids with plenty of water, in addition to applying sunscreen at a high factor, as it was becoming unbearably hot under the blue skies of Clisson. Phil Campbell and the Bastard Sons is exactly as it states. Phil, formerly of Motorhead, together with three sons and vocalist Neil Starr. Opening with a couple of new numbers from the recently released EP in “Big Mouth” and “Spiders” powerfully attacked the crowd from the outset. In total, I think the band covered most if not all of their new EP in a nice mixed set of old and new. Not hanging around, they then delivered a quick four-play punch with some Motorhead classics. A special guest was brought on stage as Ugly Kid Joe’s Whit Crane attacked the stage with the band to blast through a frantic “Born to Raise Hell”. High energy and heavy as fuck brutality delivered and served exactly just what Doctor Rock would have ordered. Anthems and classics were plentiful and the passionate Hellfest audience enthusiastically enjoyed them all. 

Ugly Kid Joe then were next up after yet another water rehydration break. I have managed to see UKJ several times in the last few years. So much more than Everything and the Cats cover they always deliver an energetic and powerfully executed set. Hellfest proved no exception, as they quickly won over an evidently largely surprised audience. Certainly, the two expected numbers were part of the set, but I was more impressed with numbers like “No One Survives” and “Milkman’s Son”. Quality hard rock played by a much-maligned band, in my opinion. Always delivering in a live setting, and I would suggest that if you have not seen them live, then you should certainly avail of any opportunity to do so.

I have never seen Dee Snider either solo or with his former rock legendary band Twisted Sister, so I was keenly anticipating seeing the man himself in a live setting for the first time. Initially the sound for the first part of his set was unfortunately problematic. Cue a quick readjustment of my position then it soon improved. Choosing to focus the major part of his set on his classic songs, Dee quickly engaged the audience in huge sing-a-longs to songs such as “The Kids Are Back”, “I Wanna Rock” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister. A couple of covers were also included including “Outshined”, which paid tribute to recently departed rock giant Chris Cornell. Dee’s band however, remained pretty nondescript throughout the performance, though I expect it would be very difficult to overshadow the larger than life human whirlwind that is Dee Snider. Satisfactory all-round performance in conclusion.

After briefly availing of French legends Trust, who went down like legendary heroes with the largely French audience, but too clichéd for my ears, I chose to wait for legendary British heavy metal legends, Saxon. I think I have seen Saxon around ten times well at least over the years dating back to the 1983 “Power and the Glory” tour, and on not one occasion have I walked away disappointed. That record remains following the band’s Hellfest set. Combining songs from last year’s release, Sacrifice, with more than a fair share of classic anthems, what else is there to say about Saxon. They actually had me headbanging like a kid throughout their set. Heavy metal played as it should be at a volume that causes necks to be exercised and fists to be punched in the air.

From a band that are classic to a band who have based their entire sound on yet another classic band. Airbourne are very derivative of another Australian act in terms of their sound. However, as they once stated to me during an interview, if people enjoy it then they couldn’t care less about criticisms. People are buying the albums and are still buying tickets for the shows. Stage mannerisms tend to be the same each show, from the opening beer cans with his head to the scaffolding climb. Party anthems that get heads banging and people rocking out cannot be argued with, however. Airbourne bring the party and make damn sure that everybody watching them joins right along with it.

Hellfest 2017
Apocalyptica
Photo: NIWY KOVÁČOVÁ

Something different next. Apocalyptica are basically several musicians who play rock music with cellos. The band have quickly endeared themselves to rock audiences all over the world with a mixture of cover versions and original material. They chose on this occasion to play a crowd-friendly set of all Metallica songs. Interesting, different, and yes, entertaining as a concept. Live also it was my debut sighting of the classical rock combo and yes, I was definitely enriched by the experience. Quite a novelty that’s certainly true, but to hear the Metallica classics that I have grown up with reinterpreted and given a different and quite fresh approach, it was certainly different and made me appreciate those old classics in quite a different light.

Finally, on Day 2 there were no difficult schedules to juggle and choices to be made as the mighty Aerosmith were “allegedly” bowing out on their farewell tour. Subsequently refuted as I understand, but none-the-less their set had still a sense of occasion. I first saw Aerosmith back in 1989 when they toured the Pump album in Belfast. I have managed to catch them subsequently a few times over the years with the most recent being at the London Calling Festival in 2014. On each occasion the band have belied their advancing years and delivered in essence what has been a pure rock and roll extravaganza.

After an extended introduction of visuals from the band’s chequered musical legacy, they were up and running with the musical classic “Let the Music Do the Talking”, quickly followed by “Young Lust”, “Cryin” and “Livin on the Edge” -Bam bam bam – a tribute to the band’s quality of back catalogue. A typically crowd-pleasing set on what is purported to be their own “Aero-Vederci”. The band seemed to have tweaked their set since their Download headline a few weeks before. Sadly, omitting “Seasons of Wither” and “Hangman Jury”, as their set had been shortened to play at Hellfest. Personally, I would have preferred the inclusion of those two original numbers to replace the two Fleetwood Mac covers. I would also have liked for the band to have played more songs from their pre-MTV era, i.e., some numbers from their classic seventies albums. However, no taking away from what Aerosmith actually did do during the period when they were actually on stage. Crowd-pleasing anthems aplenty, in essence a great rock and roll performance, with all the band members easily and effortlessly turning back the clock. For many bands that have been around as long as Aerosmith, their best days – their glory days – are well and truly behind them. However, for Aerosmith they are still living those right now in the moment.

Day 3

Unfortunately, the excessive temperature of the previous day had severely impacted on my state of health resulting in me experiencing severe heat stroke. This resulted in much-needed H20 and sleep before I finally roused my shattered body and headed to the arena on the final day of the festival at lunchtime. My schedule of must-see bands today fortunately wasn’t damaged by the later than usual start.

Black Star Riders were my first band of the day. Having long moved on from the Thin Lizzy branding, they are now a band in their own right, having released three albums. This now allows the band to include more of their own material in their live sets and gradually move away from playing a clutch of Lizzy songs. I have been fortunate to see Black Star Riders many times since their very first gig in Milton Keynes. This would, however, be my first viewing of the band with their new drummer who has come in to replace Jimmy De Graso. Chad Szeliga appeared to be a seamless transition into the Black Star Riders line-up. The band always entertain in a live setting, with all the individual components playing their part in a visually and sonically enjoyable experience.

Hellfest 2017
Alter Bridge
Photo: NIWY KOVÁČOVÁ

Alter Bridge are a band that, despite the musical pedigree of the band members, have until very recently only really been commercially successful in a few areas. Over the last few months however, their popularity appears to have significantly increased and now it just appears that everybody is an Alter Bridge fan. The sound of the band is a unity of huge melodic choruses supplemented by the raw metallic edge of Mark Tremonti’s exquisite guitar playing. Soulful at times, brutal at others. Sadly, their set today was just an hour but the band delivered all they had in what I found to be a very impressive set. Myles Kennedy, the man at the helm, is a vocalist of quite some stature. Alter Bridge’s set dips a toe into all of their five-album catalogue from their debut release, One Day Remains, the heavy “Metalingus”. Their latest album, The Last Hero, was represented by a double aural salvo in “Crows on a Wire” and “Show Me a Leader”. I love also the cross section of audience that the band appeal to, from the headbanging Slayer fans to the young teen Myles worshippers. Mark Tremonti’s input both as a guitarist and also vocalist must however be fully recognised and appreciated. It’s not just the “Myles Kennedy show” by any means at all.

Prophets of Rage then delivered my set of the weekend. Consisting of three members of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, with two members of Public Enemy and rapper B. Real of Cypress Hill. I have read many criticisms of their live shows, with the main one being that they are a cover band only. I will however challenge anyone to watch the video of their Hellfest show and then not speak positively in terms of their show. Yes, the set features mostly songs by the band member’s former bands, but when those songs are presented in a form to have a massive and enthusiastic response by thousands of people, then surely Prophets of Rage must be doing something right. To utilise elements of hip hop and rap, and throw them at a mainly rock audience and have them completely get it, then I guess that you know it has become something special and far removed from “just a tribute act”. They had passion, politics, drive, energy and the biggest circle pits of the festival. Prophets preached their musical sermons and the masses soaked up their message and were converted. One word – incredible!

Hellfest 2017
Five Finger Death Punch
Photo: NIWY KOVÁČOVÁ

Five Finger Death Punch have been making many headlines these days, more for their trials and tribulations than anything musical. Vocalist Ivan Moody has departed for whatever reasons, and it’s certainly not my place to speculate how and why. Fact is that there is a different frontman at the mic for however long it may be. Replacement is Bad Wolves singer Tommy Vext. Not being a massive FFDP fan, I cannot really compare and contrast the two singers, only to directly report on what I saw. Ably backed by band members who also handled backing vocals, I witnessed a powerful and really great set which had generated a hugely positive audience reaction. I certainly would have no issues with attending any date on their forthcoming tour. In-your-face brutal music – just what I like.

Linkin Park then brought the festival to an end on Main stage 1. Innovators at one time, they were widely praised for their first two albums. However, as the band have matured and evolved, their sound has also changed. Their recent releases have been largely derided. I think that people expect bands to merely repeat themselves with each subsequent album and not allow any form of artistic development in their musical journey. The audience reaction was 90% positive and the only negativity towards them came from the hardcore element of Slayer fans who had booked an early spot near the stage for their favourites following set. Hence, yes, there were some chants of “Slayer” between some Linkin Park songs. However, in balance I also personally witnessed those same abusive Slayer fans actually enjoying the Linkin Park Hybrid Theory material. Pop elements have infused as part of the Linkin Park sound – either people like it or not. Bands need to evolve rather than stay static, regurgitating the same style. It’s called artistic development. Yes, like many, I love Hybrid Theory – it still stands as innovative and a classic. However, I can also see the relative merits of what they are trying to currently create.

Slayer always deliver live without question, whether in a small club or wide-open field at a festival. You know exactly how it’s going to be – no frills and no bullshit, just Slayer doing exactly what they do. Their set list was a greatest hits barrage of noise, power, and thrash anthems, culminating in a triple encore of “South of Heaven”, “Raining Blood” and “Angel of Death”. I knew that a stiff neck was guaranteed for the coach ride home the next day.

So, how was my first Festival outside the UK? Notwithstanding the travel issues at either end it was incredible. In terms of structure, organisation, and management, if far outshone its UK counterparts. The media area was a step above with efficient and friendly staff always on call to address any questions or difficulties. The VIP area was like stepping into a different world. The Village layout was great and never appeared to be overcrowded at any point during the weekend – except the Free Barber service (maybe next year I will get that promised haircut). Food outlets offered value for money, quality and a variety of choice – again much superior to previous festivals that I have attended. All staff were a pleasant bunch and extremely friendly and willing to assist at all times. I met a great bunch of new friends, and the bands and billing offered a wider variety and choice than many similar summer festivals. With an alternative travel method, I certainly hope to return to Hellfest in 2018!

Photos by NIWY KOVÁČOVÁ

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About Mark Dean

I'm a 40+ music fan. Fond mostly of rock and metal - my staple musical food delights. Originally from Northern Ireland, I am now based in the UK-Manchester. I have a hectic musical existence with regular shows and interviews. Been writing freelance for five years now with several international websites. Passionate about what I do, I have been fortunate already to interview many of my all-time musical heroes. My music passion was first created by seeing Status Quo at the tender age of 15. While I still am passionate about my rock and metal, I have found that with age my taste has diversified so that now I am actually dipping into different musical genres and styles for the first time. Photo: Mark Dean with Jeff Kendrick of Devildriver - Photography by Olga Kuzmenko

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