European correspondent Roberto D’Onofrio reports on France-based horror metal show Hellfest 2016
For the eleventh year the small French village of Clisson (in the north of France, approximately 40 miles from Nantes) has become again the European headquarters of Rock & Metal music.
From June 17th to 19th more than 150.000 headbangers from all over Europe have convened for Hellfest 2016.
After more than a decade the festival has established itself as one of the leading Rock & Metal festival in Europe, the event first came together in 2000, when a bunch of friends from the town of Clisson, all fans of hardcore-punk, due to the scarcity of concerts from theirs favorite bands, decided to organize a music festival themselves. As the old saying says: “If Mohammad will not go to the mountain, the mountain must come to Mohammad”, and beginning with the name Furyfest they started to gather together Punk and Metal bands to play in Nantes small clubs. Then, in June 2006, thanks to an agreement with the far-sighted municipality of Clisson, the first edition of Hellfest took place in a big open area just outside the town.
Hellfest! What a better name could be chosen for a place that in eleven years has seen bands as Kiss, Slayer, Alice Cooper, Motorhead, Lordi, Judas Priest, Deep Purple, ZZ Top and Helloween playing in front of a massive crowd of 40.000 headbangers? Year after year, the area has been filled with amazing installations, enveloping the crowd with a weird and wonderful scenography of sculptures, stage decor, design of stands, a skate park and even a big wheel. Everything has been meticulously conceived and mixed beautifully with the immense stage lighting, pyrotechnics, and fireworks, immersing the audience in a full 360° experience. This year, thanks to “Red Bull”, festival-goers could embark on a new extreme experience: “The descent into Hell”, hanging on a steel wire at about 30 meters (98,42 ft.) in the air, you would sliding in front of the two mainstages.
Rock and Metal music have always been influenced by horror movies and their thematic, blood, violent imagery, skulls and monsters have been used on the covers of bands inspired by the Cinema of Terror, while often even the live sets of many Metal groups look like a horror film, with the musicians dressed like zombies or Ddmons. As it is for the shows of King Diamond, who featured inverted crosses, pentagrams, make-up, gargoyles and a Witch, and songs as “Abigail”, from the eponymous concept album, narrating the story of a stillborn child and a haunted house, or for the diabolical on-stage presence of Ghost, with their lyrics blatantly Satanic, with five of the six members of the band wearing virtually identical masks and costumes, and the vocalist putting on a prosthetic face with skull face paint, appearing as what can be described as a “demonic anti-Pope” and calling himself “Papa Emeritus”. Their live set included twenty young nuns offering communion wine to the audience front row and the distribution of a 666 dollars banknote, with the image of Papa Emeritus on it.
“We chose the name Ghost and decided to use our love of horror films and the traditions of Scandinavian metal in the band’s imagery”, explained us a member of the band about the birth of the group, “Everything started with a bunch of songs. We knew very early that to make this material work we needed to fulfill our dream of putting a horror show together with music”. Stressing their fascination for Horror Movies, they admitted loving John Carpenter both as a filmmaker and as a musician, considering his “Lost Themes” tour as one of the most refreshing and innovative live set around. Emphasizing the strong interconnection between horror movies and Metal music, this year edition saw, on the festival “Mainstage 1”, the live act of Ozzy Osbourne, Geezer Butler and Tony Iommi’s Black Sabbath, who are considered the pioneers of Heavy Metal music and, back in 1969, began incorporating occult themes with Horror inspired lyrics and tuned down guitars. Even their name comes from a Classic terror film, when a cinema across the street from the band’s rehearsal room was showing the 1963 Mario Bava horror film Black Sabbath starring Boris Karloff, the band changed their name from Earth to Black Sabbath, and made the decision to focus on writing similar themed material, in an attempt to create the musical equivalent of Horror films.
Hellfest was one of the last chances we had to see Iommi and Ozzy’s musical monster, as sadly they announced that this would be their final tour, appropriately titled “The End”, with the final shows taking place at the Genting Arena in Birmingham on February 2 and February 4, 2017. A life of excesses, chemical dependency and the “Parkin syndrome”, which affects Ozzy, the symptoms of which are very similar to “Parkinson’s disease”, made very difficult for him to continue touring with the band.
For different reasons (the death of drummer A.J.Pero), also Twisted Sister embarked on its final tour, dubbed “Forty and Fuck It”, in 2016. The group, led by Dee Snider, who is no new to Horror fans having written and starred in the scary film Strangeland and hosted, together with iconic actress Debbie Rochon, Fangoria Radio on Sirius Satellite Radio from 2006 to 2009, played all their most famous hits, from “We’re Not Gonna Take It” to “I Wanna Rock” and welcomed on stage Motorhead guitarist Phil Campbell who attended Hellfest for the inauguration of a 15 meters statue to commemorate Lemmy Kilmister, legendary founder of the band, died on last year December 28th.
In the VIP Corner, while watching the show, my eyes are hypnotized by the beautiful portraits of Nice artist and friend Didier Deveney, whose “Rock Like Hell” exhibition has graced the walls of the Press Room since 2013. His paintings of Rob Zombie, Billy Idol and Ozzy Osbourne, just to name a few, are magnificent. The 2016 Hellfest line-up included Bjön Tagemose’s Gutterdammerung, an amazing cinematic and musical experience, a rock opera for the 21st century. Gutterdämmerung is a silent movie presented as a rock show, with an awesome live band and firework explosions in a unique combination. Starring an awesome list of iconic Rock stars, which includes: Iggy Pop, the late Lemmy, Slash, Grace Jones, Tom Araya and Henry Rollins.
“It’s a mixture of media, sort of like going to a Rock concert, but it’s enhanced. To me it’s a very emotional journey to something that is already familiar, like me and Rock ’n’ Roll have been digging since I was very young, but I never thought about in this way”, explains enthusiastically Rollins, who co-wrote the screenplay and attended Hellfest with Tagemose to promote the project, “when you see it the way it’s set up, you actually will feel it. And there is fire, and there’s smoke, and there’s a band, and there are things to watch, and there’s people you’ll recognize, there’s Lemmy and Iggy Pop with angel wings, Grace Jones is amazing, it’s an incredible show. What you get it’s an extremely eclectic environment, and I think the different kind of music you will experience going through Gutterdämmerung, comes from a desire to get a life, and when you bring all this music together, I think it’s a good musical lesson, that is all different, but it’s all the same”, continues Rollins, who in the story is a sort of a priest, “my character doesn’t like Rock’n’Roll because he can’t control those who think for themselves, and Rock ’n’ Roll helps you think for yourself, but thankfully Rock ’n’ Roll always wins. The main character of the script is a guitar, and everyone is trying to get it and liberate it or destroy it, and destroy Rock ’n’ Roll, because it’s the gateway to freedom”.
Although Heavy Metal, Hard Rock and Horror Movies have been, and still are, considered a “B” kind of art, I strongly believe, as Henry Rollins does, that it’s because they all comment on the world in which we live and encourage to think for yourself. These musicians are more aware of what’s going on in our society than people might think: “I like to read, I encourage everybody who is a Metal fan to learn as much as they can about their country, about what they like, if it’s a sport or a mystical stuff, writing fictional stuff or a love song, but take a close look at what’s happening around you”, is urging us to do Dave Mustaine, frontman of Megadeth, who was in Clisson supporting “Dystopia”, the band new album, and whose 1992 hit song “Symphony of Destruction” is as topical as it was before. This music has been picked out as a threat to young people minds, a thing perpetrated by Satanists and twisted minds, cheering on violence, sex and human sacrifices, but it’s all just make-believe, a way to face and exorcise our fears. Dee Snider recalled the recent terrorist acts all around Europe, and called on the audience to oppose to the religious wars among people, singing loud Twisted Sister hit song “We’re not gonna take it”, while Glenn Hughes, former bassist and singer for Deep Purple, as well as working with Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi as a solo artist, who was at Hellfest with his own band, stated: “I’m a bit of a hippy and I always say that music is the healer and love is the answer”. So, if you take a different look at these musicians, and you see past their denim and leather jackets and spiked wristbands, you will be amazed by the smart way they comment on our society, opening their fans eyes while entertaining them!
Hard Rock and Heavy Metal musicians are often taking inspiration also from Science Fiction, guitarist Joe Satriani, another big name in Hellfest 2016 line-up, used the “Silver Surfer” comic book character for the cover of his certified Platinum album “Surfing with the Alien”, and in many of his works he made references to “Star Trek”. With a Dantesque show and an extensive use of pyrotechnics, Berliner Industrial Metal group Rammstein, considered the contemporary incarnation of the greatness and dark work of Richard Wagner, headlined the first day at Hellfest, with a stage act that almost overwhelmed a KISS show and turned the audience hot…especially the ones in the first rows, aided by lyrics related to controversial and taboo subjects such as sadomasochism, homosexuality, intersexuality, incest, necrophilia, cannibalism and religion. To bring the crowd to more romantic and love songs, the festival brought to Clisson one of the world’s best-selling bands of all time, with worldwide sales of more than 80 million records, Foreigner which, incidentally, are commemorating 40 years of career and enchanted 40,000 headbangers with such classic hits as: “I Want to Know What Love Is”, “Juke Box Hero” and “Urgent”.
Every year at Hellfest I discover a band, previously unknown to me, that makes me fall in love for its music and wondering why I never heard any of their songs, it was love at first sight with Danish group Volbeat, which also was on stage this year, then I was amazed by all women Rock-Grunge band L7, next were Ghost and in 2016 I was impressed by American act Dropkick Murphys, whose song “I’m Shipping Up to Boston”, was featured in the 2006 Academy Award-winning movie “The Departed”, their unusual blend of Irish Celtic Punk Rock played with electric guitars, a banjo, a flute and even a bagpipe, did astonish me.
Clisson is already at work on the twelve edition of Hellfest, which will take place from 16th to 18th June 2017 and judging by the long line of people which was waiting to buy already the tickets for next year, I am pretty sure that it will be soon crowned the biggest Heavy Metal festival in Europe.
Thanks to Roger “Press Wizard” Wessier and Didier D. Deveney for their support at Hellfest.
Photos by Roberto D’Onofrio.