Hellfest 2018 Review

I made it to Clisson on Friday’s early afternoon. To say that it was a hot day doesn’t even begin to cover it. Everyone around me seemed to be desperately trying to hide away from the sun, even while waiting in line to get their wristbands. Whether they were staff, press, or just part of the audience, the general feeling was: “I have to get out of this goddamn heat.” The pale look of most metal heads was certainly not ideal for this weather, and you could already see how some of them were acquiring a shiny, lobster-like look. As I put on even more sunblock on my face, neck, arms, and legs, I offered some of it to the people waiting in line around me, with many them taking me up on the offer (not that it would do them any good at that point; many of them would be struggling to move in a couple of hours).

Just a normal sample of the Hellfest atmosphere

Friday

After getting my accreditation and photo pass sorted out, as well as saying hi to the amazing Hellfest Press Crew, I started my day with Converge. This American hardcore band that was in charge of getting the crowd going, despite the scorching heat. With their mixture of hardcore and punk the band defied the odds of performing at one of the hottest times of the day, and immediately got people crowdsurfing and moshing. Getting people to watch your show at a temperature that is basically incompatible with life as we know it is no small feat, and Converge definitely have to be proud of themselves for managing to engage the crowd like that. Although it was my first time seeing them live, it definitely won’t be the last one.

 

As a fan of classic rock and metal, I was really excited to finally see the legendary Joan Jett . While nowadays seeing female musicians in rock and metal isn’t that surprising, she started at a time where serious gender barriers existed in the scene, and managed to open many doors for future female musicians. All of this, of course, while crafting amazing tunes with The Black Hearts, and becoming a pioneer in blending rock and punk sensitivities into catchy tunes.

Although I had recently seen Meshuggah at Fortarock, it had only been a tent show. Since, due to the bad lighting, I had been left pretty frustrated about my shots, I knew that I couldn’t miss them when they blessed the Hellfest main stage with their presence.

As it was to be expected, I was not disappointed. It’s not just that Jens Kidman is a really entertaining (and absolutely insane-looking) frontman, but also that the skill demonstrated by every single band member is really out of this world. The speed at which they perform their songs, all of which are extremely complex form a technical standpoint, is mindblowing. Although technical death metal isn’t for everyone (plenty of people find the changes in time signatures to be too distracting), there’s no doubt that a Meshuggah show is something that nobody should skip.

Having seen them plenty of times in the last few years, I skipped Europe‘s show to get some rest and something to eat. After a quick bathroom break, I marched back to the main stage to photograph Steven Wilson.

Even though Wilson‘s pale skin makes him the kind of person for whom the sun is a natural predator, he did not let that stop him. Riding on the success of To the Bone, his latest record, he was warmly received by the Hellfest crowd. Although Wilson has, for a long time, been kind of a niche obsession for prog fans, the success of To the Bone has allowed his music to reach a much wider audience. This was obvious just from looking at the crowds of people who, despite wearing shirts that suggested absolutely no connection with the prog genre, were singing along some of Wilson’s hits. It was also a great opportunity to see true virtuosity in motion, as Steven and his band demonstrated why exactly it is that so many people obsess over his musical output. Switching between guitars and bass, and accompanied by the amazing skills of Nick Begg (playing not just guitars and bass, but also the chapman stick) and Alex Hutchings, they absolutely blew the crowd away.

I ran to one of the tent stages to watch Mysticum, whose  stage was a sight to behold in and of itself. Standing in elevated platforms, they seemed like dark lords preparing their troops for battle. Purists will argue that adding industrial sounds to black metal takes away some of the trve sound, but I personally love it.

One of the truly fascinating aspects of Mysticum‘s show was how good they were at conveying true fury with their performance. Throughout their entire set, Herr General Cerastes constantly seemed like he was on the verge of just smashing his guitar and setting the whole place on fire. He definitely takes on a completely different person while he’s performing, and it’s really a sight to behold. If you ever get the chance to see them perform, you should absolutely not miss them!

Although I had seen Alice Cooper and Aerosmith separately before, this was my first time before the Hollywood Vampires supergroup, featuring not just Alice, but also Joe Perry and Johnny Depp.

For a band like this, name recognition is certainly on their side. Everyone I spoke with seemed to know that Johnny Depp was in the band, but none of them could actually name any song by Hollywood Vampires. Despite having this brand recognition on their side, Hollywood Vampires didn’t simply rest on their laurels, instead making sure to entertain the audience with some great tunes (some covers, some originals). Having said that, considering all the hype, I did find the show (the parts I saw) to be a bit underwhelming, at least in comparison to what Alice Cooper or Aerosmith do on their own. It’s not that it was a bad show (I don’t think that’s physically possible with Cooper and Perry performing); it’s just that my expectations were a bit higher than what they ended up delivering. I guess name recognition can also backfire.

Running like crazy from the Hollywood Vampire‘s pit, I managed to catch some of Sólstafir, who were performing at the Temple stage.

A truly groundbreaking band, and which has elevated the post-metal genre to new levels, the Icelanders of Sólstafir really know how to put up a fantastic show. The best evidence for this was how, despite Hollywood Vampires performing on the main stage, Sólstafir‘s audience was massive, filling the entirety of the tent under which they were performing (guess how fun it was to have to go through that massive amount of people while carrying all my gear!).

Addi‘s voice is simply unparalleled in the genre, conveying a deep sense of sadness and dread… which, I assume, go well with his lyrics (unsurprisingly, I don’t speak Icelandic). Devoted to creating an interesting ambience with their music, Sólstafir put up such a terrific show that, despite having other places to be at, I simply couldn’t leave until their set was done.

While I’ve never been a big fan of Stone Sour, I’m aware of the fact that, for better or worse, Corey Taylor sure knows how to get the crowd excited. A truly astonishing number of people crowded in front of the main stage, waiting to see him perform, demonstrating that he can deliver a powerful show without any of the props and gimmicks that he’s used to employing in Slipknot.

Unable to shoot Judas Priest, and aware of the fact that I’d see them live soon anyway, I used the beginning of their show as an opportunity to finally sit down and get something to eat. Hellfest really doesn’t disappoint when it comes to their selection of foods and beverages, so I took my time picking a good dinner.

Having had my plans of photographing Puscifer cancelled at the last minute by virtue of Maynard “doesn’t want any photos tonight,” I was worried that something similar would happen with A Perfect Circle. It wasn’t until I was in front of the stage, as the first chords of “Counting Bodies” started, that I finally convinced myself that I wasn’t going to have the shoot cancelled. Then again, considering that Maynard was completely backlit, and that he stayed in the back of the stage, he might as well have banned photographers altogether. Perhaps I would have been able to overlook that little detail if it wasn’t because APC did not include “Judith” on their setlist… and that’s a bridge too far for me.

SATURDAY

 

Although they definitely target a younger demographic than my own (mine being one of misanthropic old men), I can understand the interest that some people have on In This Moment. They serve as an interesting bridge between the flamboyancy of pop music and the darker themes of heavy metal. There doesn’t seem to be any doubt that Maria Brink takes more than just a little bit of inspiration from Lady Gaga and the stage presence of the like Katie Perry or Pink. It’s a show that truly begs for a bigger stage (theirs was quite reduced due to the preparations for the night’s headliner), and you can see that, even if you are not particularly interested in their music, they definitely offer something entertaining.

 

Natives to these lands of cheese and wine, Rise of the Northstar were very warmly received by the audience. With a lyrical content that takes inspiration from the anime and manga of the same name, it was interesting to see that they don’t use this as an excuse to take their job less seriously (bands like Gloryhammer, for example, while good musicians, seem to be half-joking with their thematic gimmick).

 

With a singer from Cypress Hill, a guitars and backing vocals from Bio Hazard, and a bass player with a stint in Fear Factory, Powerflo are an absolute beast to behold. While they are a supergroup, the dynamic is slightly different due to the completely different backgrounds that every musician has. The variety of backgrounds and influences really make Powerflo an interesting band to listen to.

Despite his career being largely focused on rap and hip hop, Sen Reyes‘ voice lends itself perfectly for Powerflo, flawlessly delivering both the rapping as well as the singing sections. Similarly, despite his straightforward hardcore past in Bio Harzard, Billy Graziadei’s works just as well with the rap-metal style, serving as a perfect complement to Sen Reyes‘ voice.

While I was never a huge Korn fan (my elitist teenage years also prevented me from ever giving them a chance) I was still happy to see Jonathan Davis grace the main stage with his solo work. He knows how to entertain the audience while seeming energetic and fully committed to the craft, so he’s always a breath of fresh air.

Heilung were the biggest surprise for me. Since I didn’t know them, I was just going to skip their show altogether when, by mere accident, I saw them performing from far away. I simply knew that I had to see them upclose and beg my way into shooting their show (which was already underway!).

Performing what they refer to as an “amplified history,” Heilung put up a fantastic and massive show, using many items of indoeuropean paganism, delivering both in the visual and musical front. Although paganism is often used by bands as a gimmick, something to decorate the booklets with, Heilung clearly take it seriously. Theirs is a celebration of their history and culture, and they seem happy to welcome the audience into it.

 

Bullet for my Valentine were definitely a crowd favorite, as the thousands of screaming fans made it abundantly clear during the show. Having played at Hellfest in the past, they are well aware of what needs to be done to get the Hellfest crowd going, and they deliver it in spades.

Having recently seen Body Count performing at Fortarock, I knew that theirs was a show I couldn’t miss. Ice T absolutely knows how to lead a metal band, and they emit such high levels of energy that it’s really easy to forget that Ice T‘s musical origins are not in the Bay Area thrash metal, but in the hip hop and rap scenes.

Judging on the way in which the audience reacted to their performance, it would seem like Body Count‘s mission at Hellfest was to provide a soundtrack for larger and larger moshpits. It’s really incredible to see the audience demonstrate such energy, particularly under such a blistering sun. It absolutely goes to Body Count‘s credit that the crowd was willing to defy the heat just to join in the fun.

 

Deftones were a band that, if I’m honest, I hadn’t even thought about in a very long time. Clearly I was an anomaly there, because the Hellfest crowd was 100% into celebrating this alt-metal legend.

 

I left the Deftones stage to go check Children of Bodom. Since I knew that I’d see them again soon, and that the light in their tent stage was pretty bad, I opted for a tactical retreat: I had to get myself some dinner!

After getting some much needed sustenance (an amazing veggie burger at the huge food area of the festival), I returned to the main stage for Limp Bizkit. Despite theirs not being my favorite kind of music, they continue to be simply amazing at entertaining the audience. Fred Durst really knows how to motivate the crowd, even if it means just playing a lot of covers.

I ended my evening shooting the reason why the main stage had been an absolute bitch to photograph that day: Avenged Sevenfold.

With a platform that extended into the audience, M Shadows & Co. promised (and, to their credit, delivered) an energetic and powerful performance. Despite being a band that seems to be somehow aimed at younger audiences, A7X have known how to adapt with the times, twitching their music and performances in a way that maintains their appeal.

 

 SUNDAY

The last day of a festival is always a bittersweet endeavor. On the one hand, it’s always hard to say goodbye to not only your friends, but also to the amazing environment that is created in a festival. Amazing music, great people, and lots of fun, are all hard to say goodbye to. On the other hand… Jesus Christ, after a few days at a festival you’d probably take hostages in exchange for a comfortable bed and a long, hot, shower. And even though Hellfest is really devoted to ensuring that the experience of the fans is a comfortable one, the fact remains that, after a few days, I really miss my bed.

I’m ashamed to admit that on this, the last day, we only made it to the festival grounds after lunch time. I really wanted to see more of the shows (especially Primal Fear, who were playing at 12:50)… but we were really exhausted. In any case, if you go to a festival with the hopes of seeing every band on your list, chances are that you will end up being very disappointed. The festival experience includes missing out on bands because you’re just doing something else, whether it’s getting something to eat, talking with friends, or simply getting some much-needed sleep.

 

We started the day with Iced Earth, who were still promoting last year’s Incorruptible. Stu Block remains at the helm of the band (no small feat for Jon Schaeffer, whose band has already had 5 singers in its 30-year history) and it’s pretty clear that he is quite comfortable in that role. He has been able to explore his own range and abilities, and to move away from what originally was a very Barlow-sounding style.

Considering the time of their performance, Iced Earth were playing at one of the hottest times of the day. Just like the previous couple of days, the sun kept hitting us with full force, as we tried to somehow escape its more noxious effects. While any band would have struggled to motivate this smoldering audience to move, jump and mosh, Iced Earth were able to do it without any hassle.

 

Joining Hellfest‘s line-up as part of their tour with Iron Maiden, Killswitch Engage were adamant to fully embrace their captive audience. Jesse Leach continues to be a truly fantastic frontman, acting as the master of ceremonies at the most energetic circus out there. Adam Dutkiewicz was truly a sight to behold, spending a big chunk of the show just jumping around while playing.

 

Arch Enemy were as energetic as always, managing to get a surprising amount of crowdsurfers going. Alissa White-Gluz was definitely a great choice for the band, as she definitely knows how to connect with the audience. Just as they did at Fortarock, they constantly interacted with the crowd, actively encouraging their participation. Even though this is obviously a carefully coreographed move by them, it’s undeniable that it’s effective.

It’s always a privilege to see Megadeth perform, and this was no exception. An undeniable trailblazer, Dave Mustaine still possesses the kind of talent that propelled him to fame after he started Megadeth. With a truly justified reputation of being a bit of prick, his attitude while performing is like that of a high school jock. This attitude somehow works perfectly with their show, and it seems to bring out Dave’s younger side… after all, he’s pushing 60.

With a setlist that felt shorter than usual, they were not able to visit all of the songs that I would have liked to hear. “Trust,” in particular, was painfully absent from the show, as was “Skin o’ my Teeth.” Thankfully, “Holy Wars” and “Symphony…” did manage to make the cut. Having said that, as time passes, it becomes difficult for a band like Megadeth to truly cover everything they “should,” by the mere fact that they have so much excellent material out there.

 

A legendary American band that I never thought I’d ever get to see live, Alice in Chains were a pretty fun experience. I had William Duvall is great at the vocals, being in charge of filling the enormous shoes of the legendary Layne Staley, who passed away in 2002.

With the sad news of Vinnie Paul‘s passing still fresh in our memories, it was touching to see Alice in Chains dedicate their song “Nutshell” to his memory.

It is no secret that I’m a huge Iron Maiden fan. I first got hooked to their sound when I happened to stumble upon their Ed Hunter compilation, just as Bruce Dickinson was returning to the band. Then came Brave New World, my first time seeing them perform live… and the rest is history. Since then, perhaps trying to make up for the lost time, I’ve seen them live around 10 times, and listened to their discography a truly unhealthy number of times. Until now, however, I had never been able to photograph them.

Shooting a band like Iron Maiden feels like the Olympics. It’s a unique and glorious event where, for better or worse, you’re going to have your skills put to the test.

Very few bands are able to perform with even a tenth of Iron Maiden’s energy, and being on the pit I could feel that energy hitting me square in the face. It’s seeing Bruce jump at the beginning of “Aces High,” or Steve Harris singing the lyrics just a few meters away from me, while furiously hitting his bass’ strings. It’s seeing Janick Gers throw his guitar up in the air, or Dave Murray and Adam Smith dueling with their own guitars, or Nicko McBrain being buried behind the biggers drumkit around. It’s pure power, and it’s truly awe-inspiring that all of it comes from people who, based on their age, are the “elderly.”

In stark contrast with Iron Maiden, Marilyn Manson‘s show was a catastrophe. Singing off-key, imposing ridiculous rules for the photographers (such as “only photograph Marilyn“), and forgetting his lyrics, he truly let down his audience.

 

Having just seen them at Fortarock, I knew I shouldn’t miss Nightwish‘s show. Floor Jansen is such a fantastic singer, and who seems to be so connected to the music and the audience, that it’s easy to see why she’s taking the band to new heights.

 

As the last night of Hellfest came to a close, I knew two things:

  • I needed to sleep
  • I will be back in 2019. No matter what.

 

Text: J. Salmeron & A. Bosnic. Photos: J. Salmeron