I was really looking forward to this weekend as I was lashing my big old V8 Land Rover down the fabulously fast French motorways, cutting through some amazing countryside on roads with no potholes, no road works and no traffic jams and over stunning huge aqueducts on my way down to the beautiful Loire Valley in the west of France.
This is the home of Castles, Muscadet and the rather tasty Sancerre and for 51 weeks of the year, Clisson is your typical very pretty, quiet French village of pastel cream stone houses, cherry trees and vineyards where ever you look, but for that other one week, bend over and kiss your sanity goodbye 'cos THE HELLFEST IS IN TOWN!
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Somewhere between 25 and 30,000 hardcore music fans converge here for one of the most extreme Metal festivals of the year and as they are almost all clad in black, tattoos, studs and leather they must seriously put the wind up the locals!
As I arrive, along with just about everyone else at the same time, there's the initial obligatory chaos as very stressed, green jacketed officials try to get people parking and camping in the right places, but a couple of hours into the influx they have to give up and there are cars and tents EVERYWHERE! Up banks, on the roads, pavements, in the vineyards, anywhere there was a spot big enough there was something parked on or put up in it!
And virtually no Gendarmes anywhere. The Old Bill leave everyone well alone here and there's not even a sniff of trouble the whole weekend.
This dark swarm of festivallers coming in from all corners of Europe may look intimidating but they also happen to be the nicest, most welcoming fun people I've ever had the pleasure to meet and as they're all here for the same reasons - the music, the beer and a damn good time, everyone gets along famously.
Although this is a three day festival, I was basically here for the Friday line up which was one of them most exciting I'd seen in decades. With two big main stages and two tented stages, my main running order across all of these for the day was The Cult, Down, Corrosion Of Conformity, Clutch, Rob Zombie and Monster Magnet, with the hope of catching a few others as I legged it between them all, but with Iggy And the Stooges, Meshuggah, Morbid Angel, In Flames, Possessed, The Exploited, the Dwarves and many others, the choices were there for every type of Metal head possible.
First order of the day was, of course, the media beer tent and this was bloody exceptional here. Within minutes I was being plied with test tubes full of Jagermeister (foul, foul stuff!) by a very fine bunch of Belgian and German journo's that I'd just met, saw Ginger Fish happily pottering about incognito and then after a few beers catching up with the charming Woodroe from COC managed (thankfully, before things got too messy!) to escape after the end of a great set by Indie Metallers Alter Bridge, and on came The Cult.
A seemingly odd choice for such a hardcore line up but they went down really well, a fine set including 'Wild Flower', 'Electric Ocean' and 'Love Removal Machine' getting the crowd nicely warmed up. The ageless Billy Duffy still plays like a demon and although admittedly Ian Astbury doesn't quite have the crystal voice that he used to have, the guy still rocks as hard as ever.
The weather wasn't playing very nice through the afternoon and Down got the worst of the belting rain but their fans didn't give a monkeys and went mental enough through their slamming, brutal set of, amongst others, 'The Path', 'Lifer' and 'Stone the Crow' to please even the feisty Phil Anselmo. That's the closest I've seen to him smile in a long time as he conducted the mayhem from the stage, especially when the drummer ended up wearing a bra thrown up on stage. Not a pretty sight!!
A quick scoot over to the Terrorizer tent and Corrosion Of Conformity were next up. Now I love the craziness of the three piece COC as they slip between doom, punk and hardcore thrash, but the big buzz going round this night was about whether Pepper Keenan would join the band, and we didn't have to wait long to find out.
As they smashed into 'Mad World', a hoodied Pepper, grinning like a Cheshire cat, bounced onto stage guitar in hand and never missed a note as they pummelled their way through, looking like they'd never been apart. Off he went after that but was back on to sing 'Holier', then finally they finished as a foursome with the blistering 'Vote With a Bullet'.
I hate to say this as I really love the band as a three piece but when Pepper gets with them with his big guitar riffs and that phenomenal voice he's got, he really adds another dimension to the band and gives them more depth. Will he be back? Who knows, but with a voice like that he's wasted as just a guitarist and I for one really hope he does.
Now, one of my favourites, the insanely wonderful Clutch were on and playing their bluesy stoner rock to a ridiculously rammed in crowd under the big smoke filled tent. 'Mob Gone Wild' and the wickedly wonderful 'Electric Worry' had everyone going ballistic, Neil Fallon in superb voice again and it never ceases to amaze me how this band can play to just about any crowd and get them going bonkers in seconds. Truly stunning.
Mad dancing stint over and after ploughing through the mass of bodies, I manage to leave the murky Terrorizer tent and shimmy my way over to the main stages, catching Morbid Angel thrashing their way through their set in fine style, and a bit of Exploited playing some outstanding punk as only they can. With a quick break before the main man hits the stage with his show, it's back to the beer tent for a quick refill before hustling my way down as far as I can to the front of stage to catch the master of the macabre, Rob Zombie.
After seeing him at Download the week before and being totally blown away, I swear he was even better here and this crowd made the one at Download look positively apathetic. Damn, they know how to party here, and they seriously appreciate their music.
The show was as huge as ever, flame pots lighting up the sky, huge images from sci-fi and horror B movies lighting up the backdrop and the dementedly sinister Dark Lord himself, flanked by Piggy D and the genius John 5, creating this amazing musical spectacle with relish.
Pounding through the wild 'Superbeast' and the malevolent 'Living Dead Girl', the massive grinding riffs from 'Demonoid Phenomenon' punch searing great holes through the body. On through 'Pussy Liquor', the phenomenal 'More Human Than Human' and the bizarre, anthemic 'Mars Needs Women', they blast into a couple of White Zombie numbers, 'Thunderkiss 65' and 'Devil Man', which go down to tumultuous applause.
Every one here is transfixed by this man and his music and it's not hard to see why. With John 5 alongside him playing some of the most incredible guitar work and monster riffs, Ginger Fish pounding the living hell out of his skins and Piggy D keeping the bass pumping to the max, this is a truly incredible, unique band the likes of we'll not see again for many a year, if ever.
Finishing their set with the immense 'Dragula', It suddenly hits me what this all is. It's Heroin music, utterly and totally addictive. During the show it's a massive, all encompassing high of euphoria, pounding music, dancing, power and adrenaline and as soon as it's over, which always comes too quickly, it leaves a big empty hole that you immediately want filling with another fix. Straight away.
Coming down from the RZ high and heading back towards the Terrorizer tent again for my last band of the night, the ever brilliant Monster Magnet (who were as terrific with their riff riddled chunky stoner rock as ever but sorry, I was way past set lists and song names at this point in the evening!) it's only now it's pitch black that I notice just how amazing the Hellfest looks.
Huge fires swinging from Metal arms, stunning Metal latticed torches lighting up the sky and some wild Metal artwork statues littering the fields - dragons, beasts, twisted iron artwork, even a Metal band (literally). They've gone to huge lengths to make this so much more than just a festival and, fantastic line up aside, visually it's totally awesome; a real treat.
I now have a deep love for the Hellfest, for the bands playing and the effort that has been put in to make this an all round and utterly wicked experience and will definitely be back next year and dragging all of my friends along too. Well, if I'm going down in Jagermeister fuelled flames then I'm damn sure I'm going to make sure I take everyone with me!!