Return To Rock City: Hellfest 2023 – Day One
We really hate the Summer. The intense heat, the constant sweating, the annoying mosquito buzz and bites, almost everything is wrong with Summer. Everything except festivals, and that’s about the only redeemable quality that this season will ever have. And the beginning of the festival season always means one thing – we get to go back to Hellfest once again. Last year, we had such a great time attending both weekends of its 15th Anniversary, that we knew we had to come back and enjoy ourselves once more at the biggest metal festival in the world. As is customary, we had a long trip ahead of us – coming all the way from Portugal, we always decide upon the hardest way to get to Hellfest, that being a road trip by car. However, the hard part of it is perhaps the distance itself, as the trip in itself is highly enjoyable. And this time around, we departed way earlier than last time, so we could enjoy the view of France even more as we arrived in the festival grounds and made our way to the campsite to set everything up.
We slept beautifully that first night, as not many people were at the campsite yet and the afterparties weren’t active either. We had plenty of time on our hands before the real activities started the day after, so we wondered around gorgeous and peaceful Clisson, getting supplies as needed, while waiting for the Extreme Market to open. Once it did, we immediately got ourselves some goodies we weren’t able to last year – such as a dazzling Mercyful Fate poster by Fortifem -, and then took the time to absorb all that Hellfest atmosphere that we love so much. We knew we were in for a treat this year, as the lineup looked as impressive as it always does, with a lot of rarities to see. After daydreaming for a bit about what we would be seeing over the next four days, we moved our way back to the campsite and got ready for what was to come.
The actual first day of the festival started in the usual fashion – running as if our lives depended on it because we had to go get some more merch from this year’s edition at the newly-built and incredibly evil-looking Sanctuary. It took us a while and a grand bit of patience, but we managed to snatch a couple of t-shirts. All was going according to plan, so our first stop of the day in terms of shows was at the Mainstage II to see Code Orange. The Pittsburgh experimental hardcore stalwarts were supposed to make an appearance at last year’s Hellfest but had to cancel for whatever reason. This time, they came with a vengeance and it showed. Keen on presenting their latest record, Underneath, Code Orange didn’t pull any punches as they continuously blasted the audience with savage guitar breakdowns, thrashing drum pummels and crazy electronic sounds that are becoming more and more a part of the band’s sound. It served as a really good neck warmup. Next up, we visited the Temple to witness the golden ritual of a band that is very dear to us: Imperial Triumphant. Avid fans of the decadence and debauchery of the roaring 20s, the golden mask-clad trio of vocalist/guitarist Zachary Ezrin, bassist Steve Blanco and drummer Kenny Grohowski employ an incredibly dissonant and brutal sound, chock-full of sonic improvisation, majestic melodies, eerie atmospheres and unforgiving vocals. In the studio, it works immensely well. But how does it translate in a live setting? One of the many great things about Hellfest is the ability for the crew to get the best and most pristine sound out of any band, and Imperial Triumphant was no exception. Everything could be heard in such a clean manner, we actually wondered if we weren’t listening to a recording of the songs. But the improvised pieces that the band plays here and there shatter those doubts immediately, as we watch Ezrin and Blanco dance around the stage like puppets on strings, while Grohowski meticulously and surgically plays in the background. The real surprise came from the decision of the band to not play any material from their latest record, Spirit of Ecstasy, instead opting to play “Excelsior”, “Atomic Age” and “Transmission to Mercury” from Alphaville, “Swarming Opulence” from Vile Luxury, and “Devs Est Machina”, a deep cut from their very first record, Abominamentvm. Despite that little oddity, it was a highly entertaining set and we hope the band returns really soon to the unholy grounds of Hellfest.
We remained at the Temple to see Harakiri For The Sky unleash their post-black metal mastery, and we then moved to the Altar to catch the legends of epic doom metal, the mighty Candlemass. While many associate the band with former vocalist Messiah Marcolin, a lot of people forget that the band’s current vocalist Johan Längquist is also their original one. And despite Längquist not reaching the same unbelievable levels of vocal proficiency as Messiah, it is still pretty impressive to see him sing stuff like “Mirror Mirror”, “Bewitched”, “Under The Oak” and “Solitude” with such relative easy. The audience was particularly ecstatic during the entire set, singing every lyric as best they could, and even we were mesmerized by the entire ordeal. Candlemass are still on top of their game, not missing a single beat both vocally and instrumentally speaking, and we are left in absolute awe after they are done with their set. A long applause in reverence follows, what a great show.
As we return back to the Temple, we ready ourselves for the coming of Dark Funeral, a band we’ve been wanting to see for a really long time but never had the chance to do so until now. And we were not disappointed. Keeping up with the theme of past vocalists vs current ones, we always had a liking for their former master of ceremonies Emperor Magus Caligula. However, current vocalist Heljarmadr is no slouch himself, and he makes every single song justice with his insane howls, as the remaining band delivers punishing riffs and devastating drum beats, neatly accompanied by ardent fire balls that were constantly spewed from the stage. Focusing on their latest record, We Are the Apocalypse, from which they played “Nosferatu”, “When I’m Gone” and “Let The Devil In”, Dark Funeral didn’t refrain from sounding some of their classics as well, such as “Vobiscum Satanas”, “Goddess of Sodomy” and the absolutely frantic “My Funeral”. An all-around great show, without the shadow of a doubt. Ironically, the next band we were going to see back at the Altar was Hypocrisy. We spoke earlier of Emperor Magus Caligula, who not only was the most recognizable vocalist of Dark Funeral, but also the original vocalist of Hypocrisy. But if the former band is much more satanic-oriented, the latter’s interest lies almost entirely on aliens and science fiction. Founded and led by the ever-charismatic Peter Tägtgren, Hypocrisy had quite the stage setup, where even the drum kit was sited upon a throne that resembled an UFO. As for their performance, it is Hypocrisy as you would always expect them – always captivating, always visceral, always impeccable. Getting to see stuff such as “Fractured Millenium”, “Eraser”, “War-Path” and “Roswell 47” played live is always a joy, and Tägtgren himself never refrained from addressing the audience and thanking them for their support over the years. Shows like this one is what makes life so worth living.
After their set was over, we headed to the Mainstage I to catch the second half of a show that ran for about two hours total from arguably one of the most important rock ‘n’ roll bands of all time. Well, not according to us anyways, as Kiss have always been quite the oddballs for us. On the one hand, you have their studio offerings, which can all be described as the purest definition of cheesy and trashy. On the other hand, their live shows always seemed to be impressive showcases of glamour, flashy outfits and bonkers stage antics. It’s a dichotomy that, very strangely, goes hand in hand. And while we could never really care enough for their records, Kiss playing what seemed to be a definitive farewell show – until they need the money again, anyways -, was enough of a premise to grasp our attention. And so, we attempted to see Kiss live, and we got to say, we were highly entertained. Not because we suddenly started liking their music, that would never happen. But as we previously stated, their shows are something to behold, and if all else fails, one can at least enjoy the spectacle they are putting on. Foregoing all the music, all the idiocy and egotistical behaviour of Gene Simmons, and all the controversy that surrounds the band since their inception, we set our focus on the fireworks, the balloons, the huge column-like platforms, the elevated drum kit, the smoke jets, the blood, the flames. We thought we would find it all incredibly cringe, but we enjoyed ourselves. We laughed at the ridiculousness of it all, but we still enjoyed ourselves. And ain’t that what it’s all about? After their set was over, Kiss displayed a heartfelt message towards Hellfest and their fans, stating they loved them. And we suppose they love them back, as the crowd cheered right back at them.
Something that also makes road trips incredibly enjoyable and that we forgot to mention earlier is the meme factor. That is, there are a lot of memes born out of the fun had during a long voyage. This year, we decided to do a little game in which we had to guess songs from artists playing at Hellfest. One such song that ended up becoming a meme for us was “Glitch” by Parkway Drive, simply because of Winston McCall’s line delivery of the song’s first two verses. Not being particularly fond of their music, we still had to make a stop at the Mainstage II just so we could witness the meme live. It’s an inside joke, the band isn’t even aware of it probably, but we were amused by it and by everything that followed, as we went straight to the Warzone to the sound of “Glitch”. We witnessed three different characters on our way there, and each one was more ridiculous than the last. First, we had an old guy in a fisherman hat, with his hands on his head, acting a tad bit demented, as he danced to the sound of Parkway Drive. Then, we found a Nicholas Cage super fan, who had the actor’s face plastered all over his onesie. And finally, we found a Templar cosplayer, standing atop a rock, fornicating intensely with a sheep plushie. Suffice to say, we almost didn’t reach the Warzone, as we were close to simply staying on the ground, exhausted from laughter. But that’s the life of Hellfest for you. When we did finally reach our destination, Fishbone were already playing their set, so we hurried up to the front and partake in the ska funk party the band was so engaged in throwing. There was no better slot for these fine gents to be playing at Hellfest, as the band’s hyperactive, self-conscious diversity, goofy sense of humor, and sharp social commentary always make for a tremendous show. Festive trombones, groovy saxophones and celebratory trumpets blend themselves nicely with punk-driven guitars, neat drum fills and cracking bass lines, as everyone present boogied along to their heart’s content. What a pleasant way to finish the first day of a festival that still had loads more entertainment to give.
Words by Filipe Silva
Photos by Alexandra Ramos