As me and my three friends recklessly drive to reach this controversial place we are now used to going to after three years following the very same pattern at the very same time of the year, I cannot help but feel a sense of pride.
I mean, for a lot of European metalheads, and even for most Europeans in general, a metal festival is something pretty common. Some countries, notably Germany, do not see what could possibly be wrong about a horde of long-haired beer-worshiping people gathering in one place to celebrate their common passion for a specific type of music, all the more nothing spectacular or criminal ever happens during such events.
In France, where a certain degree of puritany prevails, and where you only get to see a guy playing electric guitar on TV at very late hours, as if the media thought rock music is as gross and immoral as the monthly-broadcasted porn movie, things are quite different. Mind you, a metal festival even brings back a long-time gone spiritual (read: Christian) sentiment no one cares about the rest of the year, for the sole sake of standing for morale and world peace with full-on hypocrisy. Hence all these blogs suddenly flourishing on the web, claiming, among other distinguished ideas, that every attendee at this devil worshipper’s procession ought to undergo an exorcism. Some political parties known for their relentless fight for family values and equality (in other words, striving for the maintaining of the riches’ privileges) point their fingers at this gruesome rally of bloodthirsty youth, who could certainly not hope for so much advertisement.
That said, the anti-Hellfest movements tend to rarefy: Indeed, it happens to prove tough to deter a company selling beer or a clothing manufacturer from contracting a partnership with the festival, for obvious reasons. The Devil seems to be richer and more generous than morale and abstinence. Take a pick (wow, a bit pompous. I’ll keep that one anyway.)Fact is, the Hellfest is now a “festival like any other”, and the metalheads we are feel rather proud to have “stood for our rights”, since it proved fruitful.
Anyway, when we reach the small town of Clisson (close to the bigger town of Nantes, Brittany), nothing here could warn you that a three days long festival expecting more than 70 000 attendees craving for loud noise and beer is hosted here. When entering the town, one sees nothing but beautiful landscapes of neatly tended lands, nice houses and quiet people. Even downtown, everything could not be more ordinary, with maybe the exception of some shop windows announcing special three-days-only sales of the “Hellfest cake” or the “Wine from hell”. Definitely, the ones who would freak out when witnessing the arrival of a horde of metalheads a few years ago are not scared anymore. Not all all. Pretty much the opposite, actually. When walking in the street, people do not change sidewalks anymore, they smile, greet you, even praise your presence. You can’t help but cracking a smile when stumbling upon a 4 feet tall grandma surrounded buy three huge long haired rock’n rollers, and overhearing her saying “we soooo looked forward for you people to show up. At least we feel we have some company, if only for three days in the year.”
When arriving at the festival’s doors (a day before the official overture), we instantly notice that, unlike the previous years, a lot of people came in advance, and the crowd is already as big as it was at the middle of the first day last year. Another thing we notice quickly: We hear way more different languages than before. The festival’s aura is growing, and the family is expanding. Some people even make attempts to communicate with people the language of whom they never heard before (yeah…we French have never been good at languages), and the atmosphere feels definitely great.
Right next to the camping area, we can start the party before it has even started in a special area called the “metal corner”. Here, you can find bars selling the Hellfest official beers and other various drinks (including a wine specially made for the occasion), a stage with local bands and contest-winners musicians playing while you’re having dinner (pizzas and pastas available), and a large screen which will broadcast bands performances in real time the next three days. Plus, hardcore and brave merrymakers will get to party until 4 am here : A DJ will play metal and hard rock greatest hits almost until dawn.
The next day, the festival’s doors officially open at 10, but being a privileged so-called VIP bastard, I get to get in before thousands of attendees cramming at the entrance, with my special press pass (thank you AllMetalFest).
Nothing changed compared to last year : Two mainstages, and two additional stages named the Rock Hard tent (hosting extreme metal performances) and the Terrorizer Tent (where hardcore-punk-stoner bands are programmed). There is everything for all tastes, every sub-genre is represented, and with a total of around 120 bands playing, it its hard to complain. There is also a VIP area, around 10 very decent type of food can be bought (you can be full up for an average of 5 to 10 euros, depending of your tastes and what your stomach can endure), a resting place with a few tables and benches, several bars (1 euro=1 token, 2 tokens= 1 beer – if you already have your official Hellfest plastic cup, otherwise, it’s three tokens), a reasonable number of toilets, and a huge Metal Market, where you will get to make a lot of killings (I found quite a few rarities. If you search enough, it proves rewarding, believe me.)
In fact, in its very form, the festival feels like an “exhibition” to some extent, which I think is what makes it stand out among the other metal-related festivals. The Hellfest seems to have been designed as if Ben Barbeau (the festival’s creator and manager) wanted not only to gather a lot of people for them to party, but also to propose a thorough tour of the very specific and diverse world that extreme music is. And so, while some festivals are obsessed by putting top-of-the-food-chain bands on their bill to attract as many people as possible, the Hellfest works miracles by programming obscure bands coming out of nowhere and yet growing in importance every year. Of course, this year’s edition has also its share of superstars (Ozzy, Judas Priest for their not-so-farewell tour, Scorpions for their last tour until the next one, Opeth, Zakk Wylde‘s BLS, and so forth) but you also get unexpected kicks in our ignorant ass when you get to see a very strange Japanese band mixing metal elements with…other things, playing their own asses off on a mainstage in the afternoon (Maximum The Hormone). Regarding the top of the bill, the French audience was very surprised, and even shocked in some cases, to learn that a named “Iggy Pop” would be playing during the first evening. I lost count of all the narrow minded people who called for rebellion, when they learned that a “non-metal act was given a place of choice in the schedule.
Indeed, It is very well known that France is not a rock’n roll country (I’m French, I can tell). As I said in the beginning, you will never see a rock show on prime time hours on TV, and therefore, the day has yet to come when the French Music Awards will also have their “hard rock-heavy metal” category, just like in some Scandinavian countries, just to mention them. So, even a figure as iconic as Iggy Pop is not very much in the public eye, if only in the connoisseur’s. So, when Iggy took the stage (just before Morbid Angel), more than half of the audience did not expect to be taught a lesson by a rock’n roll dinosaur, who proved to be as fierce as a T-Rex, in Iggy‘s case. From beginning to end, James Newel Österberg Jr., 64, also known as Iggy Pop, runs all around the stage (and beyond) like a maniac, yelling like an insane between songs, jump from up-high and falls off flat in the grass just before the crowd which cries in lust, stands up again like nothing happened and proceeds with destroying the place. As a death metal addict, there was nothing else I could say but “wow…we still have a lot to learn.”
I am not going to give you a full report of each and every concert I saw, for a great deal of others will do it for you, don’t you mind. I’d just say that Morbid Angel did their job with a great sound, as the professionals they are, but nothing more, the French band Klone, who bravely opened the first day with their progressive tool-esque metal, have done a great job, Mayhem disappointed a lot of people by resorting to the use of way to many gizmos to hide their inability to play a passionate show and by choosing to let people hear what Hellhammer only was doing (the fan I am left after 2 minutes, I did not want to shit in my pants), and Rob Zombie played a great show, even if the European audience did not seem to be receptive (Zombie did not hide his disappointment when not a single woman of the audience climbed on the stage despite his invitation).
To my surprise, nights were fairly quiet, in the camping site, with maybe the exception of the first night, when some newbies did not realize it would be tough to cope with the whole festival if you made yourself a wreck during the very first evening. That is precisely what some of my direct neighbors did, and they mysteriously kept a low-profile the following days. I only just caught a glimpse of their feet sticking out of their tents for the rest of the festival. You still have a lot to learn, my young padawans…By the way, since,we are in the camping site, let’s take a closer look around. The sanitary arrangements are nearly inadequate, with only about 15 shower cubicles and a few sinks, all located in a small area in which you will have to pay 6 extra euros to be granted access. But after only two days, make no mistake: Even the most neanderthalians of you will not dare putting a foot into this place, where turds and various hairs from various origins are waiting for you. Being quite experimented at this point, I simply brought some babywipes and a lot of pairs of socks, this is way sufficient for three days of festival. But obviously, beyond this term, a real shower is necessary, if you don’t want your family to faint when you get back home, and have your whole house declared as a 5th degree biohazard (yeah, I’m going too far.)
So, for toilets, it is even better to use the ones in the fest’s area itself. But if you are a privileged bastard like me, you move your bowels to the VIP area, where toilets are way more welcoming. Without transition, the VIP area was not as I thought. The unworthy regular festival goer I used to be for so many years expected a bit more magic and opportunities. Like, I don’t know, naked tattooed metal chicks dancing on bars, Ozzy Osborne buying me a drink, you know, realistic things. I actually found out that the VIP area is only comprised of additional premises dedicated to interviews, a few beautiful pieces of art of metallic structures, an Internet bus, an additional bar, a small stage, and…not so very important people hanging out, just journalists sharing their trophies and good-looking girls who know people you don’t know. if one wants to have access to the “backstage” area, where the artists and the humble people are, you need an extra pass…I did not have. So I left the purgatory in between the two worlds and came back on earth, for a few more shows.
At the end of the second night (Sodom ruled, and Kreator surprisingly showed they still could bring about war in the pit without hiding behind a thick artificial fog as usual, urging people to put on the biggest mosh pit of the festival – and succeeding) the usual fireworks traditionally ending the festival blow up in the sky. Yeah, on the second night. But for some reason, this had to be done that night, and this year, a special homage is payed to the late Patrick Roy, an atypical socialist member of the national assembly who would regularly take the floor in front of the persons in charge of this country and claim that heavy metal is a culture that has been neglected for too long. Roy, 53, passed away after a vain struggle against cancer, and the whole “community” accepted him as an iconic figure, hence the portrait of the latter displayed at the very entrance of the festival. AC/DC‘s “For Those About To Rock” storms in he PA, as the crowd cheers for its defender, closing the second day on an emotional note.
The capricious rain which never really made a choice either to fall down on us or not during the past two days finally chooses to fuck off for good on the third day, and so we get to enjoy our last day without fearing to wind up soaked to the bones between the sets played by Morgoth (a successful return, for sure, judging from the warm welcome they were given under the Rock Hard Tent), Judas Priest (Halford‘s voice is OK today, good sign for a good day), and Opeth, who abruptly closes the festival after brief goodbyes, like they are about to play an encore…but never come back. Well…
Me and my friends leave the next day, after a last night of booze…of booking next year’s edition, which is going to take place some place else. Indeed, according to some information, a secondary school will be built here in the course of the year. Where is this country going, eh? Unlike the other years, no name for the next line-up has been announced yet, and the advertisement for next year’s edition says “a new beginning”…Next year is definitely going to be crucial for a festival which success grows year after year, though the Hellfest has now little to prove and to put into question…this year’s edition really drove the point home by strengthening what it was already strong at (great and very varied choices of bands, good products, well-thought out structures and organization…) and the Hellfest came a long way before becoming what it is today, but it was worth persisting. Hope this little sum up of what I saw will incite you people to do the journey to hell next year, and I know most of the ones who already did will do it again. Not just a metal festival, I’m telling you. It has….well, something more. Come and experience it.
Laurent Mur/ Photos: Christian Besse