After a long delay involving some miscommunication and bad management of shuttles from Nantes to Clisson, I finally made it to the site in time to get some sleep for what promised to be a jam-packed first day of Hellfest.
Arriving on the grounds relatively early, I was greeted by pastures of greenery interspersed with gorgeous and grotesque architecture. There were two main stages, each adjacent to the other while the rest were scattered around in a circle, in the centre of which were several merch and food counters. There was also an attractive fountain device that partitioned the water to spell out the letters of the festival as well as its slogan; 20 million euros of budget account for such extravagancies, further evident in the flaming and fire-throwing stands once the night set in.
The line for the merch was gargantuan, but in-line I got to listen to Toseland, UK rockers who had a vibrant arena-rock vibe, with their vocalist James Toseland having the sort of clear and slightly accented voice that we all love in singers like Myles Kennedy. There were three huge screens on either side of the stages so people from far away could see what was happening on stage while there were extensive audio systems for those who wanted to relax on the lawns yet not miss out on an act.
I was still in the line when TesseracT, UK djent-y prog metal pioneers got on stage, the first must-see band on my list for the day. Even if it was a noon slot, it was a joy to see the relatively young band rock in front of a big audience. The set was short but filled with my favourite tracks – The “Concealing Fate” suite off ‘One’, “Of Mind – Nocturne” from ‘Altered State’ and “King” and “Smile” off the new album ‘Sonder’. On the opening track, “Luminary”, Dan Tompkins sounded a bit off, but soon recovered to deliver his unbelievable balance of soft lower notes, high flourishes and intermittent screams, while the instrumentalists were grooving about with the chugs.
Sons of Apollo were up next, and I couldn’t fault the execution of these prog metal stalwarts, even if the album from which they played off the tracks, ‘Psychotic Symphony’, doesn’t appeal to me. Unsurprisingly “Coming Home” was the best of the bunch, with Jess Soto singing with vigour along snippy riffs and dynamic drumming by Mike Portnoy. Both the guitarist, Bumblefoot, and the bassist, Billy Sheehan were sporting huge, multi-neck instruments. I was hoping for some Dream Theater material but can’t blame the band to push their own when the gig length was this short.
Converge was up next, and this was a newer band for me even though they’ve been banging it in the metalcore scene for more than two decades. I was however prepared with their classic, ‘Jane Doe’ and the newer effort, ‘The Dusk In Us’. Luckily for me most of the setlist was from the latter album, with “Reptilian” being the standout track live. Jacob Bannon is a different beast in person, and the energy that the now quadragenarian person portrayed was infectious, both in vocals and while running about to his fellow members’ tunes. I like how he didn’t spend much time speaking between tracks: He got straight down to business and preferred giving visual cues to the crowd to mosh during an instance.
Saor were also a newer discovery for me, and I had been obsessed with their recent album, ‘Guardians’ for a few weeks then. I shifted to one of the smaller stages, ‘Temple’, where unfortunately the sound quality was quite significantly worse off and instrumentals less discernible from one another. Andy Marshall, the band’s sole songwriter and performer handled the vocals and bass while the session or touring members filled in for the rest to perform the band’s Scottish folk-infused black metal. The set ended appropriately with the wonderful “Tears of a Nation” and its lengthy, almost patriotic, outro. A Converge interview was next followed by a quick peek of Hollywood Vampires as they played “Ace of Spades”.
Steven Wilson was next on the Main Stage and he was in a great mood. Taking the breaks to bring out some sarcastic quips, at one point he mentioned how the band would be the equivalent of Abba being at Hellfest in today’s age. He also promised a heavier setlist, and the Porcupine Tree tracks used, “Sleep Together” and “The Creator has a Mastertape” did add to the overall weight of sound, especially with the roaring low-range vibes provided by Nick Beggs. At one point though, the lower end was completely exposed by the live mixer, trembling both my ears and the ground with excessive force. Songs off the new album, ‘To The Bone’, were limited to just “Pariah”, where Ninet Tayab’s sections were added on screen, and “People Who Eat Darkness”, for which Wilson pulled out a frayed 60s guitar.
Judas Priest was getting closer and closer, and I decided to head to the now packed area in front of the Main Stage well in advance, which meant I passingly heard a few Stone Sour tracks, ones where Corey Taylor was bang on form. It was finally time for the first headliner to entre stage, and for the next hour and half, I was exposed to an incredible and slightly emotional run-through of one of the greatest heavy metal bands of all time. The show was pure glitz, with Rob Halford taking turns to switch from one glossy coat to another, while the background rotated album covers to get the fans guessing the next track. The setlist didn’t really differ from the one expected, but the pyrotechnics and visual elements involved took the show up a notch. Highlights include a ridiculous solo sequence by Richie Faulkner on “Sinner”, Halford, of course, getting the motorbike on stage for “Hell Bent for Leather” and, candidly, every vocal section on the night. For a man in his late 60s, Halford can still scream like a teen, though he doesn’t move around the stage as much to save up on energy, still shaking his hips during a couple of sections. He might have had slightly higher expectations from the crowd, as he hoped his fans would sing along the majority of “Livin’ in Midnight” but they seemed a bit lost during this gig closer. However, by the time the words “I will be back” flashed on screen after the band exited the screen, I had already made up my mind.
Most of the fans then moved along to their left to catch A Perfect Circle, who had prepared a vibrant visual setup of their own. The guitarist and bassist were on the stage while the drummer and vocalist, James Maynard Keenan, who is under scrutiny currently for rape allegations, were on slightly elevated podiums. JMK was draped in a pink suit with clownish makeup, mirroring the cover of APC’s new album ‘Eat the Elephant’ and in the shadows for the entire performance, only visible when the videographer focussed on his silhouette. The first track played, “Counting Bodies…”, one from ‘Emotive’, didn’t work that well as an appropriate album opener, while the rest were mostly from ‘Eat the Elephant’. I was slightly disappointed with the album, mostly because of their puerile lyrics, but the tracks were executed well and sounded great live. “Disillusioned” had a bridge where the guitarists and bassists both switched to keys in a piercing sequence. The final track was an AC/DC cover in obvious tribute the recently deceased, one titled “Dog Eat Dog”.
With that ended a jam-packed first day, and I gave myself a well-deserved rest before a slightly less intense but still promising second day.
Also view out photo gallery of Day 1 here!