After a particularly muddy and rain-swept series of festivals in the UK, many rock and Metal lovers from around the UK and Europe have been seeking out sunnier climes to rock out and relax.
Words: Kahmel Farahani, Pictures: Aggie Anthimidou
Situated near the gorgeous village of Clisson in the south of France, Hellfest is about as far removed from mud and rain as it’s possible to be. Boasting a truly killer line-up, MetalTalk decided to see for ourselves why many call Hellfest the best rock festival in Europe.
Day 1 – Friday
The promises of beautiful festival weather have all come true thankfully but oddly the day starts with some, not entirely unexpected news; headliners Manowar have decided to pull out at the last minute despite being on site the day before.
Without getting into the controversy, it’s easy to see whose side the festival goers are on, with nearly all of them blasting the absent band.
In an incredible feat of last minute scheduling, Sabaton have been drafted in to save the day. However the no-show has certainly not put even the slightest dampener on the days proceedings as team MetalTalk gets our first Metal fix of the day with US heavy hitters Godsmack.
They are a great festival band and today play a neat, no frills set that leaves everybody happy. The highlight may just be the drum off between powerhouse drummer Shannon Larkin and frontman Sully Erna, closely matched by the climactic nu-Metal growl of ‘I Stand Alone’.
Between the perfect weather and the clean dry grass it’s easy to see why the assembled crowd is so chilled out, watching the two Main Stages from their sun blankets.
The progressive Metal of Dream Theater is just what’s needed this afternoon. The band sound flawless and John Petrucci is simply mind blowing, tearing off riffs and solos that leave many spectators, especially the guitar players, in silent awe.
The languid guitar and bass lines of ‘Peruvian Skies’ is a particular highlight of their set. “How the hell is Hellfest doing out there?” asks frontman James LaBrie, getting cheers and sun drenched smiles in return.
Bravely ending their set with new song ‘Pale Blue Dot’ from their latest album ‘Distance Over Time’, Dream Theater leave devoted fans and newcomers alike thoroughly impressed.
Swedish stoner band Graveyard take to The Alter Stage to weave their psychedelic spell over the waiting crowd. Their blend of ethereal vocals and fuzz laden guitars makes them sound like a fantastic modern take on a late sixties classic sound and songs like ‘Hisingen Blues’ go over a storm today.
Sounding like the glorious bastard child of Black Sabbath and The Byrds, Uncle Acid And The Deadbeats are another festival surprise. Opening with the distorted, feedback driven melodies of ‘I See Through You’, the band are on a roll from start to finish of their ten song set.
Ending with the hypnotic, doomy grooves of ‘No Return’, Uncle Acid And The Deadbeats are a smash hit.
Uncle Acid And The Deadbeats
As night finally falls we make our way back to the Main Stage to see a band who can rightly be called the heroes of this weekend. Sabaton are back for a second show, the day after playing Knotfest on the same stage and do an incredible job, powering through favourites like ‘Carolus Rex’ and ‘The Last Stand’.
While the whole band is obviously working overtime, the unplanned gig understandably takes its toll on frontman Joakim Broden’s voice which he blew out the night before. “Sorry about this,” he croaks, as he steps down, “but we don’t like to cancel”. Guitarist Chris Rörland steps up to the plate and helped by Tommy Johansson, does an amazing job as Sabaton ride into glory.
The band inevitably soldier on until the end and it’s a truly admirable performance that’s sure to go down in Hellfest history.
As Sabaton take their final bow we weave our way through the crowd to the smaller Temple Stage to check out King Diamond. Entering in typically theatrical fashion, the King spends most of his performance prowling the Gothic walkways and stairs of his elaborate stage.
The setlist is certainly varied, debuting new songs like ‘Masquerade Of Madness’ to reviving songs he hasn’t played in over thirty years like ‘The Lake’.
Oddly, the performance is less then the sum of its parts and despite the elaborate staging and squealing vocals the end result is somewhat dull.
The same cannot be said of Second Stage headliners Gojira. Tonight the groove Metal titans are playing a home show and it feels like a truly jubilant moment for the band.
Playing songs from across their twenty year career, they are on monstrously brilliant form. From the slow build up of ‘Flying Whales’ to the heavyweight showstopper ‘The Shooting Star’, Gojira are faultless.
They start their first encore of the night with a thunderous drum solo from Mario Duplantier which leads into ‘Blow Me Away You(niverse)’. By 2.00am the band seems to have matched fans in a beautiful state of exhaustion. As they play their second and final encore ‘The Gift Of Guilt’, Gojira take their bow and receive a local hero’s response. A phenomenal end to the first day.
Day 2 – Saturday
As we arrive for our second day out in the fields, it’s worth pointing out just how well organized Hellfest is. Regular trains and shuttles run to and from Clisson while an extreme market full of Metal memorabilia and the seemingly endless distractions of bars and the food court make it very easy to lose hours in the sun before you even get to the music.
We take front row spot on the Main Stage as Deadland Ritual make their entrance. Between Geezer Butler and Matt Sorum in the rhythm section and Steve Stevens on guitar, the all star band are a thrilling live act.
Blending new songs like ‘Broken And Bruised’ with Black Sabbath and Billy Idol classics is hugely enjoyable, and frontman Franky Perez manages to carry it all off in style.
Eagles Of Death Metal
The real surprise hit of the day, Eagles Of Death Metal, are doing a fabulous job of getting the crowd going with their blend of fuzzy riffs and lively beats.
Frontman Jesse Hughes is on fire, taking a long walk through the crowd with guitar in hand before tossing it back up onstage and continuing his solo from the front row barrier.
A surprise cover of David Bowie’s ‘Moonage Daydream’ is a real treat to hear before the band end with the energetic ‘I Like To Move In The Night’.
It’s now mid afternoon and Whitesnake are just taking the stage. The legendary band are back with a new album, ‘Flesh And Blood’, and are currently storming through an extended European tour to support it.
Their set today blends new tracks like ‘Shut Up And Kiss Me’ with beloved Whitesnake classics like ‘Slide It In’ and the now obligatory ‘Here I Go Again’
While David Coverdale’s voice has certainly taken on a huskiness with age and the highest notes may be gone for good, he still has the energy of a man half his age and a stage presence that remains inimitable. Ending their set with the epic ‘Still Of The Night’, the band take a triumphant bow.
From one legendary British group to another, its Def Leppard’s turn to shine and tonight they burn so bright it’s a joy to watch. With a platinum coated songbook and all the style and ability to pull them off live, even after thirty five years, the Leps are simply perfect.
It’s easy to say they’ve brought the eighties back but that’s selling the band short as songs like ‘Animal’, ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’ and ‘Rock Of Ages’ are timeless classics that still surpass almost anything being produced today.
The twin guitars of Phil Collen and Vivian Campbell flawlessly weave together and the sheer joy on the faces of the band shows they are enjoying the night almost as much as the fans are.
After covering most of the ‘Hysteria’ album, the band end their killer set with ‘Photograph’. “Until next time, and there will be a next time,”” promises Joe Elliot.
From the glamour of the eighties we jump right into the feel-good blues licks of Houston, Texas as ZZ Top make their entrance. Looking achingly cool in matching suits the trio are currently celebrating fifty years on the road and tonight they play a sizzling set of hits from ‘Gimme All Your Lovin’ to ‘Tush’.
Billy Gibbons has his roadie light his cigar while he starts the slide guitar boogie of ‘Just Got Paid’. ZZ Top are truly ageless and they couldn’t sound any better on a hot Saturday night.
After such an unbelievable line-up other festivals may have run out of steam and indeed acts to pull, but Hellfest however, still has one hand to play this Saturday night. The stage curtain goes up and the army of faithfuls come out in force to watch the headliners to end them all – Kiss.
Starting their gig the way most bands would end their final encore, Kiss descend from the ceiling in a shower of flames, fireworks and lasers while playing ‘Detroit Rock City’. It’s almost as if the veteran band is still challenging all newcomers to follow this.
With a setlist that is nothing but hits – ‘Shout It Out Loud’, ‘Heavens On Fire’, ‘Lick it Up’, ‘God Of Thunder’ and tons more – it’s impossible not to smile and sing along.
All the old theatrics are present and accounted for too, from Tommy Thayer firing rockets from his guitar during ‘Cold Gin’ to Gene Simmons spitting blood.
They end their set with the classic ‘Black Diamond’ before starting the encore brings a genuine surprise – ‘Beth’ is sung by drummer Eric Singer on a lone piano before the entire band rejoins and blasts through ‘Crazy Crazy Nights’ and finally ‘Rock And Roll All Nite’ brings the house down.
Whether or not they’re still the hottest band in the world is up for debate, but they are without a doubt the most consistent and dependable, and Messrs Stanley and Simmons rightly take pride in that.
That type of spectacle is impossible to top so MetalTalk make our way back to the intimate Temple Stage for a complete change of pace – a Gothic after-party of a gig.
Bathed in stark white and red light, Goth rock legends The Sisters Of Mercy are playing a brilliant set. While vocalist Andrew Eldritch is still at the helm of the band, it falls to guitarist and singer Ben Christo to provide the energy and charisma.
Running through much loved songs from ‘Dominion’ to the chopping riffs of ‘Vision Thing’, The Sisters provide the perfect end to the Saturday night.
Day 3 – Sunday
By Sunday the heat has started to get to us and festival exhaustion is beginning to creep in and after just five hours sleep it’s not hard say we’ve looked and felt fresher. However it’s nothing a hearty French breakfast in Clisson can’t fix and by the time the Main Stage is coming back to life for the final day, so are we for what may just be the busiest day of them all.
“Good Morning!” announces frontman Neil Fallon, “time to face the day!” as Clutch make their very welcome return to Hellfest and they are nothing less than superb.
With no fanfare, no props and no stage show they deliver one of the tightest and best sets of the entire weekend. From the groovy ‘The Mob Goes Wild’ to a riotous ‘Noble Savage’, even their setlist is perfect. Whipping out a slide for the dirty country blues of ‘Electric Worry’ sends the crowd wild before a thrilling ‘X-Ray Visions’ and ‘Firebirds’ finally ends their set.
Next up are thrash Metal stalwarts Anthrax. Opening with ‘Caught In A Mosh’, the band shrewdly stick to their classics, particularly drawing from 1987s ‘Among The Living’.
Frontman Joey Belladonna does a fine job singing the much loved old school material while the twin guitars of Scott Ian and Jon Donais keep the barrage of riffs coming hard and fast.
This year’s line-up at Hellfest is notable not only for the amazing range of bands playing but also the inescapable feeling that this year represents a real changing of the guard, as some of these iconic bands are on their farewell tours.
As the mid-day sun beats down and produces temperatures of over thirty degrees centigrade we stake our place dead centre of Main Stage to watch some true rock icons make their parting shot.
Southern Rock legends Lynyrd Skynyrd are currently on their ‘Last Of The Street Survivors’ farewell tour. Even after a career that has spanned over fifty years on the road, songs like ‘Simple Man’ or the epic ending song ‘Free Bird’ still have the power to move the crowd.
The true street survivor and last remaining co-founding member Gary Rossington is still leading the triple guitar attack and as the band take their final bows they receive what amounts to a standing ovation from the festival crowd.
We shift our view to catch one of the busiest men in rock’n’roll. Between tour dates with Guns N’ Roses and recording his rather excellent new solo album, ‘Living The Dream’, Slash is back on the road with Myles Kennedy and his Conspirators.
The new songs like ‘Call Of The Wild’ sit comfortably along older material like ‘Doctor Alibi’ and the whole set flows beautifully. Slash himself is still every bit the iconic gunslinger, peeling off solo after solo on his trusty range of Les Pauls.
A rousing ‘Nightrain’ takes energy levels sky high before ending with his now signature showstopper, ‘Anastasia’. In what feels like the blink of an eye the Cat In The Hat is gone again, at least for now.
As the summer night draws on we stake our place for a historic moment in Heavy Metal and as the end of an era of music approaches, tonight we bid farewell to Slayer. After a nearly forty year career, the band are here to take their final bows in Europe, but not before they melt our collective faces one last time.
With the sonic assault of ‘Born Of Fire’ you realize that this legendary outfit are still unmatched as a live force and frontman Tom Araya still has the raw power to bring these songs to life.
Paul Bostaph is a demon on the drums and is silhouetted by the near constant streams of fire shooting out of the stage around him. Watching guitarists Kerry King and Gary Holt trade solos and riffs during the thrash Metal maelstrom of ‘Seasons In The Abyss’ is simply jaw dropping.
There’s little more to be said about the impact or legacy of these Metal legends but watching them perform these songs in France one last time with such ferocious energy is genuinely incredible.
The doomy riff that begins ‘South Of Heaven’ is followed by the savagery of ‘Raining Blood’ as the band themselves are framed against the wall of fire behind them. Slayer finally end their set with the searing ‘Angel Of Death’ as a full fireworks show goes off around them.
As the band bid farewell, many fans are hugging each other and a few are barely holding back tears as Tom Araya gives his heartfelt final thoughts. “I want to thank you for sharing and spending your time with us all these years – I’m going to miss you guys, au revoir.”
Ending their reign with true dignity, Slayer may have played the single defining set of Hellfest 2019.
After the fire and thrash Metal spectacle we’ve just witnessed there is only one way left to go and only one band who can take us there. Tool have made their hugely anticipated return to Europe for their first tour in thirteen years.
As the angry, distorted riff of ‘Aenima’ starts up so does the first crowd-wide cheer of the night. After reading and listening to an almost endless amount of speculation and whispers of new music, it still feels like a surreal experience to witness Tool performing live and playing new music on top of that. Both new songs, ‘Invincible’ and ‘Descending’, are absolutely mesmerizing psychedelic whirlpools that both stretch over the twelve minute mark.
Danny Carey may just be the most technically accomplished drummer on the planet today and between his style, bassist Justin Chancellor’s grit and guitarist Adam Jones swirling dexterity, the band is flawless.
Silhouetted against the big screens behind, vocalist Maynard James Keenan is a fascinating presence, prowling the back of the stage in shadows and moving with the pent up energy of a caged tiger.
A fantastic ‘Forty Six & 2’ is followed by the grand finale of ‘Stinkfist’ as the entire Hellfest crowd watches in awe. Tool brought an unforgettable Hellfest 2019 to a close in epic syle and as we wander towards the after party and a much needed rest, it’s truly incredible to look back on the last few days in France.
With a staggering line-up, superb organization and perfect warm weather it’s easy to see why Hellfest continues to grow and draw fans from all over the world. It’s an incredible festival that needs to be experienced by every rock and Metal fan at least once. We will definitely be back.