Review by Olga Herndon
The journey from northwestern Germany to northwestern France after a Killing Joke performance the night before was quite a long one. Bus and train and a whole day later, I finally arrived and rested my feet in Nantes on Thursday night. Every sidewalk, every pub was filled with metalheads gearing up for Hellfest the next morning!
In the morning, I set off on a journey to Clisson, the nearby small city of 7,000 people that was prepared once again to host over 180,000 people in the temporary man-made town called Hellfest. As there were no shuttles to the festival, I took the train full of people wearing black shirts - that's how I knew I was going in the right direction! From there, I got into another queue to catch a shuttle to the festival grounds. Eventually, I got to the press tent and received my photography pass for the weekend. I found the camping ground, found my friend, and set up my tent.
The first band I shot was a black metal band Valkyrja from Sweden, which is nothing like folk metal, as the name may suggest. Straight after that, I went next door to jump into old school death metal with Exhumed from San Jose, California. To change up the pace, I watched viking heavy metal by Týr from Tórshavn, Faroe Islands - that's between Iceland, Finland, and the UK.
Finally, the first band I was waiting for - Helmet! I went out of their way to see them in Luxembourg at Kulturfabrik just three nights prior, and they were surprised to see me come back all the way from Sydney just two months after a performance there. Five minutes after their set ended, Devin Townsend descended upon a full crowd in front of the main stage - no metal hair, no drugs, and all pure music - he shared his range of vocal and musical creativity he uncovered while sober.
I took some time to discover the festival grounds - found the press area and got some beer. The drink selection included Kronenbourg lager and Grimbergen blonde beers, a few wines, and soft drinks. I believe that liquor was available as well. There were plenty of bars so the lines were never too long. I also noticed that the two main stages are next to each other, while the Temple, Valley, and Altar tents are 5 minutes from the main stages, and are all next to each other.
I returned to the main stage to watch Ministry, Behemoth, and Deep Purple, giving up Belphegor for another time. Stoner rockers Electric Wizard played at the same time as death metal band Obituary. Rancid played in the War Zone, a stage I couldn't find at first - factoring in crowds, it takes 10 minutes to get to the stage. It's located away from all the main stages, behind a Ferris wheel and next to the food stalls - it's the only stage that's far away. I saw Marduk before, so I had to skip them this time – it’s hard to see it all – when they say Hellfest is famous is for its lineup, I can really see why.
I returned back to the main stage for Rob Zombie, who was a fantastic reminder of what the 90s were like. And finally, the great finale - for me, anyways - was a midnight showing of Monster Magnet in the Valley! They played a spot-on set of their space rock tunes, and I walked away with a set list and a smile on my face. After that, I caught a glimpse of In Flames on the main stage - they have changed over the years, and I had to see what they’re all about now.
I haven't slept all week because I was overly excited about being in Europe again, so finally, when the clock struck 3, I was out cold. My tent was set up next to one of my friends from Denmark, also a fellow photographer. It was quite chilly that night, but thankfully, my thick thermal sleeping bag kept me warm.
I tried getting back onto the festival grounds at 9 am, but was told that perhaps they'd reopen at 9:30. Half an hour later, they said 9:45. Then, of course, they said 10 am. The ambiguity of festival opening times and the limited access to an area to catch up on my photos and writings was a bit stressful.
Once I was in the press area, I edited photos and put together reviews, and the first band I watched was Bongripper - yes, the name does say it all. I prefer the stoner, sludge, doom, space, 90s rock, and this festival had a lot of it! The band played at the same time as Nails, so I had to make a choice. Next, the main stage was taken over by a wild performance by rockers Ugly Kid Joe, with the frontman Whitfield Crane using Aerosmith's walkway to walk into the crowd. I watched Steel Panther on the screen while drinking a beer in the lounge. Out of curiosity, I caught a bit of Mars Red Sky to see if I’d like them, then ran over to photograph Dee Snyder of Twisted Sister with his own project.
I mozied on over to the official merch stand, which I didn't find until late the night before - it's to the right of the main stage - and while the selection was already limited, I picked up a Nails shirt for my boyfriend and a Primus shirt for me. Next time, I'll do my shopping early! I grabbed a burger with a hashbrown patty at the cashless food stand, which I found to be an odd food combination - why not leave the side of potatoes where it belongs - on the side? Later on, I discovered the food stall area and had an aromatic meal of rice, lentils, veggies, and chicken, so that was a better, healthier option.
I wandered around the market area, which is before the main entrance. Points of interest were a barbershop that offered free haircuts, a man playing the cello above a bar, the famous Hellfest metal tree sculpture, and a large merchandise tent. Some of the downsides, however, have been the insanely long lines for showers, meals, merch, cashless stands, and an ATM. I had often skipped certain luxuries just so I didn't have to stand in line for 1-2 hours.
And back to music again! Soilwork had lured in a major crowd that evening. A bit later, at 9:50, I watched Primus for the first time, and was impressed with their theatrics and sound experimentation - for example, the lead singer and bassist Les Claypool put on a pig head mask and played the upright bass with a cello bow. The rest of the night was full-on. Hardcore band Agnostic Front took over the War Zone, then the renowned Aerosmith filled most of the festival grounds with Steve Tyler's vocals pouring from the main stage. Unfortunately, too many fantastic headliners played at once, so I had to cut this pleasure short and watch Slo Burn, the newly reunited (after 20 years!) desert rock band with John Garcia of Kyuss. I headed early to War Zone and skipped a surely powerful performance by Kreator so I could watch punk and thrash Suicidal Tendencies for the first time, especially with Dave Lombardo on the drums. It was a lot of running around from stage to stage tonight, that's for sure, but the photos and performances are more than worth it!
It's the last day of the festival already?
I shopped for some Hellfest merch - believe it or not, cute girlie shirts still remained! That, and there were no lines. I’m quite happy with the fabric poster too.
I skipped Ghoul to see Prong, a band quite beloved here in France. I went to see the sludge band Ufomammut for the 3rd time in the last year. Another sacrifice followed - since I saw the groove metal Devildriver so many times in my life, I watched them for a moment, then went on to catch 70s doom and heavy metal pioneers Pentagram perform, without their lead singer at that. Equilibrium, a symphonic black folk metal band, put on a high-energy show. Hugely influential Blue Öyster Cult, followed and played many popular favorites.
The night had so much more in store! Prophets of Rage played some music of their own, as well as old RATM classics. Clutch, the psychedelic blues band also from the US, put on a perfectly executed show with multi-skilled frontman Neil Fallon doing a cowbell solo. To bring back the memories of our teenage years, the mainstream nu metal band Linkin Park played radio-friendly songs like Crawling and Breaking the Habit. Bringing the festival back to heavy metal, Coroner, the thrash band from Switzerland, played a menacing midnight performance. But to top off the whole festival weekend, well-deserved headliners Slayer shredded and wailed away on their instruments and left you feeling both like you wanted to smash something next to you, and yet completely content because you saw pure, raw heavy metal at a festival full of like-minded individuals.
The festival grounds closed up around 2 am, but a party tent stayed open with DJs playing, Hellfest bars were open, and people ate dinner and mingled until the wee hours of the morning.
Here it is - our final day. I had a bus to catch from Nantes to Rouen to see Monster Magnet once more (yes, maybe I'm a big fan!) at 10 am, so I woke up at 7 am, put away my tent, and got to the main gate at 7:30 to return my Rock'N'Lock key and retrieve my laptop and camera. The sign in the locker room said it would be open at 7 am. Now here's the part that left a bitter taste in my mouth after the festival - the gatekeepers said they would not open until 8 am! Considering the fact that shuttles are hard to come by, I began counting down seconds and panicking about missing my bus. I was one of the first in line; 20 minutes later, I looked behind me and saw a sea of people waiting impatiently to get out. The non-empathetic attitude of the security guards was the worst part. People had planes to catch, buses to take, cars to drive. 8:00 arrives. Nothing. 8:08. The organizer pulled up and said he is not ready to open the gates just yet. By around 8:15 we were finally allowed to stampede onto the festival grounds. The catch? We had to return to the camping entrance - yes, the same one where we stood - to exit the festival. I made a mad dash to the lockers, and when I was told the queue I was standing in was no longer the proper one, I lost it and left, of course donating my 5 euro deposit. I retrieved my suitcase, walked up to where the shuttles were, was unclear about which bus or shuttle went where, and through a force of luck, was able to secure an empty seat on a departing shuttle that was going to the Clisson train station. I took the SNCF train back to Nantes, grabbed a cab to the bus stop, and was finally able to breathe - I had 15 minutes to spare! On the plus side, I had a fantastic female taxi driver that put me at ease on the way to the Flixbus stop.
Hellfest, you happened so fast, and how I miss you! Now that I know what to expect, I am sure to return and enjoy it even more next year! My top 3 performances were by Monster Magnet, Suicidal Tendencies, and Pentagram, and my top 3 highlights were the overall layout and atmosphere of the festival grounds, the politeness of everyone around me, and the sunny, cloudless, warm weather. Thank you, and I look forward to returning next year!