Arriving at Pwllheli, the first thing that hits you is the sheer beauty of the setting. Admittedly we’re favoured by the weather this weekend (and oh-the-irony that our first indoor festival should have such perfect sunshine), but you could easily imagine this place scintillating even in the pouring rain. Neatly arranged upon a gentle slope, the accommodation (which is made up of well-proportioned, modern mobile homes) is but a few steps from the two arenas that comprise HRH United, whilst a number of food outlets and shops clustered around the central complex. Palms line the roadway down to the second half of the complex and the whole has been so beautifully landscaped that it feels like a haven of peace and tranquillity. The accommodation itself is also magnificent, with comfortable rooms, flat screen TVs, heating and modern kitchens all available to weary metallers seeking a moment’s respite from heavy metal chaos of the arena. Further down the slope, there’s a pub, more accommodation and, eventually, a large expanse of golden sand, the latter providing the perfect spot to walk off a hangover or two. It’s an idyllic spot, punctuated by green spaces, outdoor games areas and lakes, and it offers the perfect setting for one of the year’s best metal events.
Although HRH United starts on the Thursday, work does not allow us the time to escape and so we arrive on Friday morning with festival goers already emerging, somewhat shakily, from their homes. As we’ve come to expect from the HRH brand, it’s typically well organised and, following a quick jaunt to the media area, we head off to the arena for food, music and the first of the day’s many beers served at one of the numerous bars found around the site. Queuing is kept to a minimum, and it’s notable that no matter how busy the place gets, we never have to queue for more than two or three minutes to get a drink. There’s plenty to see and do, with a number of themed stalls selling everything from rare patches to vinyl, two stages and numerous food and drink outlets – it’s hard to imagine anyone complaining of boredom over the course of the three days for which the festival runs. With friendly and helpful staff across the board, it’s the one of the most stress-free festivals we’ve ever attended.
The first band we catch is Skyclad (8), a folk-metal band who come across as a harder edged version of the Levellers. With Martin Walkyier carrying his trusty acoustic guitar and promising party songs, we get tracks like ‘parliament of fools’ with its political-apocalyptical overtones, and ‘Another drinking song’, which seems perfectly suited to the day’s alcohol fuelled endeavours. ‘Parliament of fools’ seems particularly biting in the current political climate and the Hammerfest Arena, which is certainly packed for the band’s entertaining set, laps it up. Skyclad set a tidy pace for those following in their wake and do a fantastic job of getting the crowd going. However, for those seeking a little more bite, there is doom lurking on the HRH United Stage…
Gevauden (9) draw upon elements of My Dying Bride and Thergothon to deliver their dark message, although plenty of other influences also fly through the mix during their short, potent set. Singer Adam Pirmohamed is a brooding presence, shifting from an eerie moan to full-blown roar with ease. It’s a little odd, perhaps, watching an atmospheric doom band in a room with a giant skylight through which the sun filters, casting beams of light upon the black clad audience, but the band wrest the attention away from the daylight and cast a satisfying pall of misery across the venue. Looking for all the world like a refugee from the legendary Isle of White festival, guitarist Bruce boasts an epic beard, purple-striped trousers and a penchant for playing like Hendrix, adding a touch of striking rock ‘n’ roll spirit to the band’s performance. Tracks like ‘Ninth circle’ are really quite astonishingly good and the band are a Friday (and a festival) high point.
It’s back to the Hammerfest Arena and you really can’t go wrong with the furious Viking metal of Grand Magus (9), a band custom made for festival bills with their leather-lunged anthems. From the moment they take to the stage in the packed Hammerfest arena, they have the audience eating from the palm of their collective, horn-wielding hand and tracks like ‘Steel vs Steel’, ‘Iron Will’ and, for the first time ever, ‘forged in iron – crowned in steel’, the epic centrepiece of ‘Sword songs’ which, with its Maiden-esque intro and full-blown riffs, is a show-stopping highlight for all present. It’s all delivered with deafening precision and the band know exactly how to give the fans what they most desire. If there is a fault with the band’s set, it is that the sound is a touch variable for the first couple of songs (although this issue is soon overcome) and, that aside, the band deliver one of the day’s highlights.
Heavy and bluesy, with corroded riffs and demented, jazz-infused drumming, it can only be Slabdragger (8), the highly-regarded sludge metal band whose album ‘rise of the dawncrusher’ so impressed (not heard it? Fool! Check it out here). Tearing away at their songs with a berserker-like frenzy, Slabdrager are another band for whom a daylignt performance seems gloriously incongruous as you expect to see them bathed in red (blood red!) light, and they make good their claim to be “heavier than a thousand bronze Buddhas”. Just brilliant.
Napalm death (7), the legendary grind machine, are not quite their usual selves tonight and this is not aided by the fact that the set endures a lengthy break some three songs in as a result of injury. On record the band are better than ever, the blistering ‘Apex Predator’ (the opening track of which also opens the night) being a taut, metal masterpiece but on stage the initial sound is quite chaotic, rendering their grinding riffs somewhat less clear than usual. Perhaps it’s the absence of Shane Embury (tonight replaced by Jesper Liverod) who’s currently moonlighting with Brujeria but, on the plus side, Barney remains his usual charismatic self as he introduces his devastating diatribes and, with the crisis over, the band return to punish stage and audience alike with their evilly-distorted anthems of rebellion. Hearing tracks like ‘You suffer’ in the flesh can never a bad thing be, but the highlights are saved for the second half of the set as the band truly set their sights upon a variety of social ills, firing off ‘Dear slum landlord’, ‘suffer the children’ and a particularly angst-ridden cover of ‘Nazi punks fuck off’ in a fashion so menacing you would not wish to be the target of their ire.
Over on the HRH stage, Warlord (8) are gloriously brutal. Rather more death than thrash, theirs is a pummelling nightmare of searing riffs, guttural screams and furious drumming whilst singer / bassist Mark White, his microphone stand decked out with skulls, is an imposing presence indeed. One of the sets of the day, Warlord are heavy as hell and they see a seething mosh pit form during their first song that impressively lasts throughout the entirety of the band’s all-too-short set. Clearly revelling in the festival atmosphere, Warlord have an excellent rapport with the enthusiastic crowd and maintain a vital energy right through to their final, explosive song. Find out more here.
It would take an impressive band to top Warlord’s mighty set, and yet the legendary Virus (9) do exactly that. Whilst the band may treat the interview process with more than just a grain of salt, their musical skills are not to be doubted for a moment and Coke, as charismatic on stage as he is completely loopy off-stage, leads his troops of doom through an old-school thrash set with a ferocious precision that should be the envy of any up and coming thrash act. Songs like ‘Multiple Wargasms’ may well tread that fine line “between clever and stupid”, but they leave the audience breathless with their whirlwind riffs and it also helps that their mild-mannered drummer looks like Satan as he batters his drums into submission, bathed in red light and towering over the stage from his riser.
It’s not only on the HRH stage that thrash fans are taking a pounding either. Thrash legends Destruction (8) are busy reducing the Hammerfest stage to rubble with the devilishly tight riffs and bowel-loosening bass rumble. ‘Nailed to the cross’, ‘mad butcher’, ‘thrash till death’ – the classics are all here and no one leaves the Hammerfest arena disappointed in the wake of Destruction’s glorious set. With a career of highlights to choose from, every song is set to stun and, by the end of the show, the audience are starting to look punch drunk as the band land one last blow in the form of ‘Bestial invasion’. Masters of Teutonic thrash with a career spanning over thirty years, Destruction fully justify their legendary status at HRH.
Kicking off day two are Torous (8), a three piece celtic-influenced metal band who initially appear to have drawn inspiration from Metallica’s bludgeoning cover of Thin Lizzy’s ‘Whiskey in the jar’, but who also offer up a wide range of other influences. Initially playing to a small crowd, it’s notable that the band not only drew in a sizeable crowd, but they also managed to keep them hooked with their powerful, yet melodic sounds. All three musicians have impressive skills and frontman Marc Malone is clearly enjoying the ability to roam the stage, taking every opportunity to engage the audience and keep energy levels high. Opening track ‘crow road’ is the hook that draws people in, but (new single) ‘I am’ is the reinforced line that keeps the audience and the band deliver a brilliantly-paced set that draws to an end, all too soon, with the ferocious finale ‘roll the tide’. A band from whom we are liable to hear much more, Torous provided an impressive start to the day.
Diverse and yet endlessly brutal, Kinasis (9) deal in technical death metal but they leap ahead of the competition with the vocals, which range from guttural growl to System of a Down-esque croon via the percussive vocal stylings of Mike Patton and Jon Davies. Tracks like ‘the awakening’ are delivered with considerable aplomb, whilst the highlight of the all too short set is ‘ Mechanical Rapture’ with its rapid-fire vocal delivery and chunky riffs laying waste to an audience still pulling themselves together from the previous night’s exertions. The previous experience of the band members (all of whom have been involved in other high profile outfits) certainly shines through on the stage and their performance is astonishingly precise, but it’s vocalist Tom to whom all eyes turn as he embodies each song. Charismatic and committed, he brings the lyrics to life and I would fully expect to see the band much higher up the bill come next year.
You can always rely on the mighty Left for red (9) for a good time. Melodic metal at its finest, the Midlands’ madmen take to the stage as if they own it and proceed to carve the venue up with their memorable, chunky anthems of doom. Tracks like ‘shattered’, from the band’s debut, certainly fire up the crowd and the whole band are passionately committed to delivering a memorable show. If only we could convince the band to get album number two in the can, we’d all be better off, but for now we have the band’s earth-shattering live performances and the amazing ‘all things known and buried’ to sate our appetites.
It’s off to do some interviews for some time, but we make sure we return for the wonderful Old Corpse Road (9), a band for whom I have shown considerable appreciation in the past and for whom my ardour remains undimmed. Although there are plenty of familiar black metal tropes in the music, there’s a feeling that the band have woven their own distinctive cultural traits into the music and there’s an atmosphere that surrounds OCR that is unmistakably their own. It sets them apart from the majority of their peers and their music has even greater force on stage than it does on record. A most memorable set, Old Corpse Road are one of my bands of the day.
Also spectacularly impressive are Ereb Altor (10), whose incorporate a good deal of clean vocals into their dense, blackened music. With hints of early Dimmu Borgir, ICS Vortex and even Satyricon, Ereb Altor respect their musical heritage whilst moving the music in their own unique direction and they prove an impressive act. The highlight is undoubtedly the band’s epic final song, ‘Twilight of the gods’, with its richly textured harmonies and singalong potential, and it leaves the audience eager for more.
Hecate Enthroned (7) are deadly serious and musically proficient to a Faustian degree. Fresh from their set at HRH Metal, the band leave no prisoners as their cascading blast beats shoot across the venue like tracer fire, but soon it’s time to head for rather more foolish pastures, as Alestorm (7) are set to lay siege to the main stage with their pirate-themed insanity. With tracks like ‘Over the seas’, ‘shipwrecked’ and ‘Magnetic North’ eliciting huge singalongs, it’s clear that Alestorm are here to provide the party for which many festivalgoers have been preparing all weekend and, with steam rising from the packed moshpit, the band certainly deliver. There’s nothing quite like seeing a Scotsman in a kilt leaping around to nautical-themed anthems and Alestorm are quite unquestionably an excellent festival band.
Over on the HRH United stage, Finsterforst (8) do a good job of offering up a darkly metallic take on Rammstein’s precision-tooled metal, capturing the audience’s imagination with their Black Forest metal. Theirs is an impressive and charismatic set and it leads nicely to Hellbastard (7) who close proceedings with some low down ‘n’ dirty rock ‘n’ roll in all its Tourette’s infused glory. Hints of Slayer and Motorhead run through the band’s politically-charged material, but the band suffer from a an overabundance of random metal in-jokes and not enough full-on metal, although the passionate and vocal crowd at the barrier seem to dig everything the band have to throw at them.
Basking in the sunshine on Sunday morning, the festival sadly at an end, it’s amazing to reflect just how smoothly everything has gone. It is a testament to the professionalism of the HRH crew that everything from stage times to interview slots run more or less like clockwork and it is a greater testament to them that the festival is not only one of the most well-organised, but also one of the friendliest events you can go to. The staff on site were ubiquitously excellent with security keeping a weather eye on things without intruding on the good-natured shenanigans that predominated. With two stages more or less active across the weekend, there was always something good to see, and whilst not every band suited every taste, each and every band were exceptional at what they did within their field which says much of the quality control during selection. An unmitigated success, Hard Rock Hell United was a perfect weekend of metal.