LIVE: Hellfest 2012 (Clisson, France)

By Tom Aylott

Far from being a self-confessed metalhead, my beach-blonde locked 9-5er with a mild obsession with Polar Bear Club gives me away quite quickly, but my open mind was far too curious to give up a spot at Hellfest 2012 and thus, Punktastic went metal.

Located in Roman Catholic Clisson, Hellfest was once feared for rumours of stereotypical ritual sacrifices, but has now been embraced by locals. It boasts one of the most impressive metal line ups of any calendar, and year-in-year-out, it has the ability to bring out the best music fans in the Northern hemisphere. Throughout the weekend, the line up went from the sublime to the absolutely ridiculous.

After an early start on Thursday that involved a plane, a bus, a train and a lot walking, we arrived at the festival sweaty and in need of beer. After a trip to the conveniently located hypermarket and enough beers for twelve people, Thursday night saw unsigned bands over at the campsite’s Metal Corner. We weren’t really sure who any of them are, and mostly just went to marvel at the pre-festival festival atmosphere (+1 for European festivals again.)

After the first-morning-of-the-festival beer breakfast, Bukowski and Molly Hatchet rolled onto the mid-Friday morning Mainstage 01, gently stirring sleepy revellers into full on festival mode. The Bronx, despite frontman Matt Caughthran seeming a little lost on the 02 stage, gave us something to move for before Turbonegro and Dropkick Murphys turned up the heat while the rain showed up and came down in spades. To close off the evening, King Diamond’s hilarious horror metal pantomime stole the show, with particular plaudits going for the creepy lady in wheelchair moments. It’s exactly what festival Friday nights should be about, and a rare appearance from one of metal’s most satanic figureheads.

As an almost signature of the festival, the late finishes (2am) and early starts (10:30) of the bands are fairly brutal, but Saturday’s sore heads stood no chance against thrash metallers Gama Bomb and Steel Panther’s greased up turbo hair metal. Familiar noise from Cancer Bats in The Warzone was more than welcome, and with the crowd being addressed in French, it’s hard not to be impressed further by frontman Liam’s approach. Next, Death Angel’s seismic thrash haemorrhaged any remaining cerebral membranes. As the Bay Area band performed their 1987 classic ‘The Ultra-Violence’ in its entirety, and they proved themselves still relevant and great to watch. A very rare treat and one of the true highlights of the weekend. Unfortunately, Napalm Death didn’t quite manage to muster the same effect in Temple/Altar supertent – ending up incomprehensible and a bit samey where they should have been brutal.

In one of the most surprising moments of the weekend, Axl Rose was simultaneously on time and not actually terrible. An hour of Axl & Friends plodding through the classics was enough, and we had a main event to attend at the ugodly hour of 1am. We’ve crossed them at Groezrock and Download so far this year, and Refused put in the best shift of their comeback yet, stunning yet another psyched European crowd with a spectacular hour-long set. Dennis Lyxzén is possibly the world’s most stylish and enigmatic frontman, and has the crowd eating from his hand throughout. A perfect end to the Saturday night in a muddy Warzone.

After that, it all went a bit fuzzy (might have been the jager), so skipping straight though to Sunday, Black Label Society lent way too heavily on their reputation and left much to be desired from a, dare we say, bland set. Any semblance of waning lunchtime crowds after that soon perished at the feet of Walls Of Jericho. Their sharp, political hardcore lead the muddy into giant circle pits, and though Hatebreed’s brand of ironic and quite ridiculous metalcore ended up paling in comparison today, there wasn’t any complaints to be heard from the crowd.

Slash and Mötley Crue followed with equally predictable sets, but both dished out all the tongue in cheek hits with all the gumption their old loins could muster. We resigned to check out the end of Madball, and weren’t disappointed in the slightest.

Fittingly, Mainstage 01 headliner Ozzy Ozbourne & Friends brought an apocalyptical thunderstorm, and though it had been threatening since the burning heat subsided earlier in the day, it was still a staggering amount of rain in a short time. Ozzy struggled through, and though Lamb Of God faced a smaller crowd than they may have got without the rain drenching everyone, it was a fine end of the weekend.

Hellfest has that special something that’s only ever usually experienced at heritage and boutique festivals, and like a upscale version of Glastonbury’s Trash City, it came alive and alight after dark.

One thing is certain, Hellfest – see you in 2013!