***Check out the full vlog of Hellfest Openair 2023 at the bottom of the article!***
Hellfest Open Air is one of Europe's largest Heavy Music festivals with a capacity of 180,000 festival goers spanning across a long, 4-day weekend. Boasting an absolutely monster lineup of 179 bands, the festival covers all sub-genres under the vast metal and rock umbrella.
Before arrival, you're required to set up a Cashless Account. The festival grounds operate on a cashless system (for the most part) to ensure there is no theft, loss of cash or hellish queues at ATMs/merch stands/vendors/bars. Setting the account up via Hellfest's website/app is extremely straight forward and only takes a minute or two. It takes even less time to top your account up (it automatically translates to English if you use the Hellfest app which is also very handy!) You only need to enter the barcode from your festival ticket to match your cashless account up and you're set to go.
Upon arrival, you're met with the grand gates to the "Hell City Square" and "Metal Corner." You are scanned in with your tickets and provided with a corresponding Cashless wristband. For each subsequent day, you need to scan yourself in at the barriers with your wristband. In this area, you'll find various bars and vendors including Nuclear Blast's signing area, the Extreme Market selling all kinds of clothing, trinkets and records, Kraken Bar, Craft Beer bars, Harley Davidson, guitar demos and a Game of Thrones replica throne made of computer parts; because why not?
After exploring this area, you then enter the unholy ground of the Hellfest concert area itself. It was honestly like walking up to the famous castle at Disney World but for Metalheads and the atmosphere was nothing short of absolutely buzzing. Yet despite the excitement, there was also a very relaxed feel to the place. It's here that security perform their usual pat-down and bag checks for contraband such as selfie-sticks (no, I'm not joking. They're considered as weapons apparently), unauthorised professional cameras, bottles and alcohol (*cough-cough*). The queues went down quick enough and despite the mass crowds, waiting was minimal. One of the first structures you see as you enter the concert area is the massive Grecian style Official Hellfest Merch area called 'The Sanctuary' and it's safe to say that if I ever win the lottery, I will be building my very own house based on this design because it was totally badass. Naturally, the queues here were a bit mental but after an hour or so of waiting, we were granted entry to spend money we didn't have. But it's fine, because to be honest the cost of the merch wasn't all that bad; however that just encouraged us to buy more.
A great deal of care and effort has been taken in to setting the entire area up. Not only do you have the stages here but seated areas, scenic structures, a massive food court, extravagant and grandiose decor, an enchanted wood to escape to for some shade (which also lights up in fibre-optic colours in the evening) and a water vapor bar to cool down in. There's also what I can only describe as a huge gothic wheel pully that you can operate with massive ropes (see the video below; I don't know what the purpose of it was but it was pretty damn cool). A decor highlight for me was seeing the famous Lemmy statue that casually smokes a cigar all day (billowing cigar smoke and everything, it was absolutely brilliant).
In anticipation of the warm weather which peaked at 31°C every day (even on the rainy last day) the festival set up designated fresh water areas where you could top your water supplies up for free; this was a definite life saver for the entire trip. The toilets were the cleanest I have ever seen at a festival with dedicated teams cleaning them on an hourly basis and large groups of volunteers were often spotted traversing the grounds picking up litter and emptying the bins. Despite the vast crowds and the huge grounds, the place was immaculate.
In terms of food and general survival at the festival, you had two options. The first option was to go to the snack area close to the main stages where you could get small snacks such as toasties, small potato burgers or small hot dogs for about €6 (£5.14 / $6.54 USD) which were tasty enough for a quick 'on the go between shows' fix. However, the main area was the food court at the top end of the concert area; it was absolutely massive. Everything from Mexican, Argentinian, pies, crepes, desserts, pizzas and burgers. There were also vegetarian, vegan and gluten free options. All vendors used locally sourced produce and was freshly made every single day. The main highlights for me in terms of food was the beef/chili burrito or the "666 Burger" (pictured below). Prices for these ranged between €11 and €14however the cost was worth it due to the quality and the portion sizes. A word of warning however; the food court was absolutely packed with limited sitting areas so it was usually a case of finding a spot on the ground and eating in hope that you wouldn't be kicked or knocked by the passing crowds. Also, as a side note: I managed to find the one and only coffee vendor in the entire festival area because of course I did.
The great thing about Hellfest is that the stages are grouped in to pairs; Mainstages 1 and 2, Altar and Temple and Valley and Warzone, each pair alternating with it's respective partner i.e: Mainstages 1 and 2 never clashed so on and so forth. However that isn't to say that stage clashes don't happen. The smaller stages will inevitably clash with the bigger stages depending on your preferences; an unfortunate occurrence I experienced a couple of times over the weekend. But it's going to happen, you can't win them all!
Now with each set of stages comes particular genres apart from the Mainstage area. The Mainstage area catered for all genres of 'bigger/crowd grabbing" band names such as (but not limited to) Kiss, Slipknot, Iron Maiden, Motley Crue, Arch Enemy, Amon Amarth, Papa Roach and Tenacious D. The next set of stages (Altar and Temple) catered for Black Metal, Gothic Metal, Metalcore etc whereas Warzone and Valley were secured for Doom, Funeral Doom, Hardcore, Punk and Folk. The layout of the festival itself made sure that if you were standing at one of the smaller stages, the sound wasn't drowned out by the main stages.
Speaking of the stages and the bands, here's a quick review of each live show I saw over the course of the weekend. Videos of some of these bands can be found in the vlog I've included at the bottom of the article!
Blackbraid: the first day of the festival started off strong with an incredible performance from Blackbraid; probably the only opportunity I will ever have to see this band live and they were the very first band I saw over the weekend. Performing on the tented Temple stage, Blackbraid were both ferocious and incredibly atmospheric; an absolutely flawless show.
Coheed and Cambria: I will be honest, I'm not the biggest fan of this band. I like 3 tracks from their earlier days but it's not really a band that has ever captured my attention. However I will say that they are brilliant live and know exactly what they're doing. Despite only knowing 3 tracks (all of which they played) I really enjoyed their show and I'm now compelled to explore them further.
I Prevail: a band I've heard of but haven't explored previously. Metalcore isn't normally a genre that I delve in to (although other bands over the course of the weekend may have changed that). I Prevail had excellent energy on stage and really knew how to get the crowd going.
In Flames: I adore this band and was very excited to see them live again. Although their setlist wasn't the strongest, it was still stronger than the last couple of times I've seen them. Their performance however was nothing short of incredible and the crowd were absolutely wild.
Kiss: Headlining the first night of the weekend, Kiss are probably one of the most iconic bands to play Hellfest. Their stage presence is huge and the stage show itself was grandiose and fantastic. Banging out hit after hit, their setlist was jam-packed with the biggest tracks of their extensive discography. Perhaps a bit dated in parts with the same stage gimmicks whenever the camera panned over a band member and a setlist of 2 hours which was a bit too long; nevertheless, the band delivered and closed what can only be described as an explosive first day.
Parkway Drive: Another one of those bands that I've heard of but never explored; seeing them live at Hellfest has definitely changed that. Considering they weren't scheduled to come on stage until 1am after Kiss had performed, I can only imagine the pressure they would have felt. However the turnout was incredible and the crowd stretched across the entire festival grounds to the point where the band themselves were completely overwhelmed. An incredible performance full of explosive energy and catchy, addictive hooks.
Escape the Fate: Again, not a band of my usual taste and although they had a few interesting points throughout their setlist, it wasn't for me. There's nothing wrong with their music, it's just different strokes for different folks and the style didn't grab my attention.
Unearth: At the opposite end of the spectrum, this band absolutely blew me away. I was heavily in to Unearth in my younger days but lost track of them over the years and never had the chance to see them live. Their live performance was tight, near flawless and the energy from both the band themselves and the crowd was EXPLOSIVE. A great balance between old favourites and new material from their recent album "The Wretched; The Ruinous." Pits were erupting everywhere, the sound quality was amazing and the crowd engagement was perfect. Seeing them live has certainly rekindled my love for them and I can't wait to see them again.
Motionless In White: This band have all the hallmarks of what I love about music; epic guitars, thunderous drums, discernable but hard vocals, groove-laced melodies and all that synthy goodness. But there's something about them that has never quite hit the mark for me and that has stayed the same now that I've seen them live. There's nothing wrong with them, they're just not for me.
Papa Roach: This band have always been about that high school nostalgia for me and even 20-odd years down the line, their live performance and stage presence is still as solid as ever. Jacoby Shaddix is an expert showman through and through who really knows how to get the crowd going. The band themselves were incredible and the crowd went wild. Their iconic track 'Last Resort' closed their set which was explosive but the highlight for me was their cover of The Prodigy's 'Firestarter.'
Flogging Molly: A complete curve-ball for the weekend but not one I'm complaining about. Seeing this band was a great palette cleanser from all the heavy chaos. A 'Celtic-Punk' band that was energetic and fun; their performance did not disappoint. Definitely a band that I want to see again.
Motley Crue: an iconic band set to headline the second night of the festival. A band that everyone has at least heard of throughout the years regardless of their walk of life. However their performance was less than iconic. Musically speaking they sounded amazing, especially with the recent addition of John 5 on guitar. However the vocals from Vince Neil leave a lot to be desired and really let the performance down.
As I Lay Dying: considering the band weren't scheduled to come on stage until 00:45 after a full day in the blistering heat, their performance was incredible and the crowd battled on with the same level of insane energy. The setlist was strong and the sound was incredible. A real connection was felt during their performance and they confirmed they would be returning next year with a brand new album.
Saor: A huge highlight for me over the weekend and one of the band's that I was most eager to see live. Their performance was one of the most atmospheric of the festival and a great rapport was built with the crowd in the tented stage by starting their show by stating "it's too fucking warm" which was 100% true and as a felloe Scot, completely empathised with; temperatures peaked at 31C with zero breeze so to say the place was like a furnace is an understatement. Starting their setlist off strong, the band delivered everything I expected of them until the halfway point where I felt the setlist could have been stronger and some instruments were noticeably louder than others. Nevertheless, I was happy to have finally seen them live.
Arch Enemy: WOW. Absolutely blown away. The sheer ferocity, precision and pure talent coming out of this band right now is beyond insane. I always stated that the Angela Gossow era of Arch Enemy was the strongest but Alissa White-Gluz completely nuked that. Her stage presence is out of this world; the ability to change guttural style, switch to clean vocals and speak both English and French throughout the show and back again without even a hint of struggle is incredibly impressive. A demanding stage presence with a killer setlist, the crowd was WILD.
Born of Osiris: A relatively new band for me; I only knew one track which they played towards the beginning of their set however their show was incredible. Their music definitely translates better live than it does in the studio. The crowd were vibing hard with the band's thunderous musicianship, technical prowess and cool synthy moments. Definitely a band to watch out for, especially live.
Iron Maiden: What can I say about these absolute legends? My wee heart was so happy and full of joy seeing them play again however what I wasn't expecting was to hear them play 'Alexander The Great;' a track I never thought I'd hear live so my wee history nerd self was overjoyed. The band are as tight as ever, completely unrelenting banging out track after track without slowing down. Iconic tracks such as 'Can I Play With Madness,' 'Fear of the Dark' and 'Wasted Years' bound the crowd together in a unified community of mutual love for metal. What a perfect way to headline the penultimate night of the festival.
Hatebreed: My wee teenaged self was over-joyed to see this band for the first time after all these years however they weren't as energetic or commanding as I thought they would be and their setlist was a bit safe and 'samey.'
Electric Callboy: On the surface, Electric Callboy are a fun, energetic and entertaining band with their stage antics, outfit changes and suggestively hilarious lyrics and dance moves. But they're so much more than that; musically crushing with a ferocious techno party-hard energy mixed with blistering breakdowns and addictively catchy hooks. This band were beyond phenomenal live, definitely give them a go and you won't be disappointed.
Amon Amarth: Melodic Death Metal/Viking Metal at it's finest. A stunning stage show with changing props and pyro at any given opportunity. The crowd engagement was amazing to see with the iconic mass crowd row with "Put Your Back Into The Oar" to everyone bouncing to "Heidrun." A band not to be missed.
Crisix: A thrash metal band from Spain, they took the place of Incubus when they pulled out at the last minute (presumably due to ill health within the band which they had posted about on their social media pages a few days beforehand). I had never heard of Crisix before but I'm glad they I had the opportunity to witness a band live before streaming their music. Epic old school thrash metal with a modern approach, the smiles beaming from the band's faces radiated with enthusiasm and gratitude as the crowd went wild for them.
Tenacious D: The first time I saw Tenacious D live, they were supporting Metallica during a show at Marley Park in Dublin, Ireland around 2008. They were amazing then and were even more amazing now. With a full band backing them up this time with hilarious on-stage antics, crowd rousing entertainment and epic tunes such as 'Tribute,' 'Wonderboy,' 'The Metal' and 'Fuck Her Gently,' Jack Black and Kyle Gass are masters of their craft even after all these years.
Pantera: Probably one of the most highly anticipated bands to play Hellfest this year. The announcement of Phil Anselmo and Rex Brown teaming up with Zakk Wylde and Charlie Benante (replacing the Abbott brothers respectively) split opinion between fans. I was both excited and intrigued to see them live having missed the opportunity before their disbandment in 2003. Musically, their performance at Hellfest was amazing and their chosen setlist was incredibly strong, banging out tracks such as 'Mouth For War,' 'I'm Broken,' '5 Minutes Alone' and 'Cowboys From Hell.' However, despite the band being musically impressive and unrelenting, the same can't be said for Anselmo. Whether it was due to hardened years or not looking after his voice, he lacked his previous power for the most part and appeared to slur his way through some tracks before suddenly coming alive again. The set ended around 10 minutes earlier than advertised with a brief rendition of 'Stairway To Heaven' followed by a mic -drop before Anselmo wandered off stage. I have mixed feelings about this; on one hand I was ecstatic to hear and see Pantera tracks live but on the other, Anselmo's performance was more on the disappointing side.
Slipknot: You always get a stunning show from Slipknot; they are perfectionists and their energy is otherwordly. Clown briefly joined them during their set before flying home to Iowa to be with his family and we were graced with their mysterious new member following Craig Jones' departure from the band recently. A great mix of old favourites and new material but the most surprising part of their setlist was their performance of 'Snuff' halfway through their show. Slipknot were the last headliners of the weekend and they closed the festival with a fiery presence of both rage and beauty before an epic fireworks display.
In conclusion, everything you've seen and everything you've heard about Hellfest is true; but better. It's not one of those situations where the promo material for a festival looks a lot better than the reality of it. The reality is EPIC, everything from the effort put in to build a literal festival city from the ground up to the sound production, organisation, entertainment, vendors...EVERYTHING. If you ever get the chance to make the pilgrimage to the Great Unholy Land of Hellfest Open Air, grab it by the balls and run.