Hellfire Festival (07/11 And 08/11)

As some of our readers may be aware we are a relatively new website, so for us a trip to the Hellfire festival was something to be treated with great excitement. One look at the line up showed that there would be ample opportunity to check out a wide variety of bands including classic acts like Saxon, My Dying Bride, Anathema and many more over a two-day show case of hard rock and metal. Furthermore the day-time element of the show included Music Live, a festival celebrating all aspects of music making and production with plenty of displays, deals and hands on elements as well as demonstrations from experts in their respected fields. 

Arriving early on the Saturday to conduct interviews we initially had an hour to check out music Live which, for anyone with a passing interest in making music was akin to a very expensive version of heaven with just about every imaginable manufacturer represented along with row upon row of gleaming guitars. Passing through the hall like a child in a sweetshop was a painful experience and this reviewer required the forcible confiscation of his credit card before all hell was unleashed upon it. 

However, the main reason for our trip was Hellfire and the festival did not disappoint. Featuring four stages (three separate smaller stages and the main stage which took over from Music Live) there was plenty of choice but due to interview commitments the first band we got to see was Blaze Bayley. Blaze is an artist whose passion I have always admired and who I truly want to like, but the truth is that while his band are clearly all very talented musicians, there is something lacking in Blaze himself who seems to have increasingly modelled himself on Bruce Dickinson, mannerisms and all, but sadly lacks the tunes to carry this off. Only one tune raises its head high and that is the genuinely catchy ‘Alive’ which always takes off in the live environment, while a version of ‘Futureal’ is also rewarding in its own way. In contrast ‘past voices’ (dedicated to Evile’s tragically departed Mike Alexander) is dire – with insipid lyrics topping a horrible melody that belies the fact the Blaze has been doing this sort of thing for almost two decades. The rest of Blaze’s show is fairly bland and while the man himself does everything humanly possible to engage the crowd, his vocals are far too high in the mix and you can’t help but feel that if attention was focused more on the solos and less on Blaze’s adequate, but far from remarkable voice, then the show would be much improved. 

A brief trip to Savage messiah shows them to be a more than capable thrash act with attitude and talent in spades and while they are more than a little close to early Metallica and Megadeth in places, that is no bad place from which to be starting. Expect great things in the future if they continue in this vein. The same can not be said of Anvil. Now, it is a well known fact that everyone loves and underdog but the truth is Anvil are purely as big as they are because of the ignorant, line-towing nature of the popular press. Ok they were in a film that was big in a Spinal Tap sort of way, but when a band this bad grace the main stage you can’t help but think that the joke is on you. Tuneless, talent-less and horribly out of time for the majority of the set, it seems that Anvil rely more on Steve’s facial expressions than on his ability to play his instrument. You can almost forgive the fact that their tunes are terrible, but after twenty-eight years you’d imagine they’d at least have learnt to play the songs properly. ‘666’ proves that Steve can’t sing and ‘School love’ proves that when he does open his mouth what comes out is largely purile, while the less said about ‘winged assassins’ and the ‘humerous’ asides the better. While you have to admire the tenacity of a band who have doggedly refused to give up you ultimately end up wishing that Anvil would have had the grace to fade to black a long time ago. 

A newly reformed Senser restore our faith in metal by providing a blast of refreshingly old school cross-over with a heavy guitar sound counterbalanced by a truly talented DJ and, of course, the vocal interplay between the spiritual Kerstin Haigh and the sorely missed Heitham Al Sayed. The crowd clearly love every minute of the show and it all passes too quickly as we have to leave to check out the mighty Saxon. Masters of the stage, Saxon close the day with the kind of show that simply pisses over lucked-out amateurs like Anvil. From the moment the band take to the stage with a grace and energy that bands half their age would envy, you know you’re in the presence of rock and roll greatness as they fire off classic track after classic track from ‘Heavy metal thunder’ to ‘hellcat’ before laying waste to an exhausted crowd with ‘Denim and leather’ and the ever-green ‘crusader’. Playing the crowd with complete confidence, Biff rips up the set-list half way through the set to respond to requests from the audience. Even if it is orchestrated it’s a masterful move that has each and every member of the audience feeling that tonight is something special, and the band provide a majestic end to a long day. 

After staying a night courtesy of SonicAbuse in what can only be described a the worst hotel in Birmingham we returned to the festival with slightly renewed vigour and an urgent desire to be showered down with bleach ready for some of the best band of the doom and death metal genre to grace the stage. Due to an over-running interview with My Dying Bride (which we’ll be posting later this week) we tragically missed No Made Sense and No Consequence for which we can only apologise because both bands are destined for greater things and we’ve had their album jammed on the stereo since they arrived. We did, however, manage to catch the mighty TesserAct who took to the stage like seasoned pros and proceeded to deliver and astonishingly powerful set. New vocalist Dan looks like he’s made to be a star, delivering note-perfect melodies one second and a monumental roar the next, while prowling the stage with confidence. The band successfully integrate backing tracks and live instrumentation to create a mesmerising wall of sound and there’s an energy coming off the stage that fed the audience perfectly. Intelligent, exciting and with an enviable catalogue of tunes already this is a band to watch and you can guarantee that we’ll be in the audience every time they come close because on the strength of this show their forthcoming album ‘one’ is going to be immense. Leaving slightly before the end to catch the marvellous Katatonia we are treated to an exquisite set laced with stunning vocal harmonies and heavy riffing. Treating the crowd to a mixture of classic tracks such as ‘Soil’s song’, ‘Consternation’ and ‘July’ as well as choice cuts from their stunning new album (night is the new day) including the fantastic ‘forsaker’ the crowd are left in no doubt that Katatonia have been going from strength to strength lately and we hope that there will be some headline dates in support of their new album soon. 

Anathema seem physically incapable of playing a bad set and they attack the hellfire stage with rare glee. Opening with the beautifully contrasting ‘moment in time’ and ‘fragile dreams’ the band storm through ‘Panic’, ‘A natural disaster’ (with Lee’s soothing vocals providing welcome respite from the metallic crunch found elsewhere) and a revelatory ‘Sleepless’ from first album ‘Serenades’ with original vocalist Darren White (who was also here with his own band seratonal) taking the stage to perform with his former band for the first time in aeons. It is almost overwhelming for long time fans of the band and Anathema delivered a set that was astonishing even by their own high standards. That just leaves the stately My Dying Bride before we have to depart (tragically missing Fields of the Nephilim) and they put on a show of crushing intensity the like of which is rarely seen. By their own admission they rarely play these shores, but when they put on a show this spectacular then it is clearly a case of quality rather than quantity. With standout tracks including the stupendously heavy ‘Vast choirs’ (well documented on their new EP), ‘Bring me victory’ and (my personal favourite) ‘the cry of mankind’, my dying bride stand alone as a unique and peerless example of doom with a deathly twist. The sound mix is pristine throughout and the bands performance is revelatory with Aaron in particular writhing in angst and despair as the music flooded over him. With the crowd seemingly entranced by the wall of sound pouring off stage and the band held in thrall to the music, MDB provided a thrilling climax to a weekend that housed some staggeringly good bands. 

Arguably the NEC as a venue is not the best choice for an event such as this, not least because its sheer size (each hall is essentially a vast cattle-shed) and location (there is sod-all to do outside of the festival apart from purchase over-priced beer from the on-site Weatherspoons) but in this instance it served the purpose tolerably well. The stages themselves were all well-laid out, with great sound quality on each one (the benefit of being held at a music gear fest one supposes) and everything ran reasonably to time. Hellfire has a few kinks that need to be ironed out, but as a showcase of some of the best music on the scene today it’s a fantastic event that will hopefully return year on year, getting bigger and better as it goes. Excellent work.

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