A musty haze hung to the air inside the Main Stage of Hard Rock Hell as though several hundred mid-slumber vampire caskets had been opened up. And indeed, the spectators of Hard Rock Hell looked slightly blinded by the bleached-in-white stage, as if they hadn’t seen the light of day in several years.
Following a fire-spinning opening ceremony abundant with dancing babes bedecked in futuristic bikinis and poorly fitting latex Harley Quinn outfits, Hard Rock Hell Festival 2018 kicked off with the entrance of Eden’s Curse. Entering to a tape of bygone circus music, the denim and leather clad Eden’s Curse produced a wash of clean, sleek and silky keyboard metal in the form of tracks like “Masquerade Ball”. Tracks like “The Great Pretender” and “No Holy Man” shone with a keyboard sheen whilst encompassing guitar riffs that intermittently surprised with a nastier bite. Although the music was nothing refreshing, the zesty chemistry between the band and the charisma of frontman Nikola Mijic and bassist Paul Logue in particular gave the performance a fresh gleam.
Up next, Myke Gray of Red White & Blues and Skin fame donned the stage, offering up plenty of guitar noodling prior to a whirlwind entrance from frontwoman Kim Jennett, who charged on stage with a Lzzy Hale shriek and all the confidence of a lioness. Opening with the pizzazz-aplenty riff of “Stand Up For Rock’n’Roll”, Myke Gray and his ensemble opened their set as you’d expect them to finish it, and continued with this incendiary attack through to the end. Jennett was a total rock’n’roll bombshell, boasting the vocal prowess of a Lzzy Hale and David Coverdale lovechild with her ability to pendulum between mighty power vocals and sultry blues-tinged vocals across numbers like “House Of Love”. Ear-splitting bass machismo furthered the seeming invincibility of this band and their vibrant rumble rock. Myke Gray and co. were a true breath of voltage-seeping air.
Following Myke Gray came Rock Goddess, who perhaps failed to pack the punch they could be capable of thanks to the exhilaration of their predecessors’ performance. Albeit this was not helped by frontwoman Jody Turner’s slightly stiff commentary throughout, which started their set with a sheepish “OK, we’re going to start”. However, their jagged-edged, battle-axe femme metal proved to be mean and lean for the most part, although flashes of seeming self-consciousness waned the power of their performance.
At that point in the night where it’s easy to tell who can hold their liquor and who most certainly can’t, Phil Campbell and the Bastard Sons brought a deluge of raucous rock’n’roll that hauntingly swayed the wilted children’s balloons hanging from the ceiling rafters above the Main Stage. A band of brothers in both the literal and figurative sense (frontman Neil Starr being the only non-Phil Campbell seed), it was a pleasure to see the same mystical music voodoo conjured by two very different generations of musicians at once. From the dark lullaby of “Dark Days”, its noir riff followed by a cacophonous shadow as it snaked in and out of the atmosphere, to the deathly rugged bass within their cover of Hawkwind’s “Silver Machine”, Phil Campbell smirked like Dewey Finn throughout their set, watching his own school of rock conquer. Following an inevitable cover of Motorhead’s “Ace Of Spades” that set the crowd alight like a sea of flame, Campbell and co. finished their set of aggressive, no-leash rock’n’roll to much ovation.
Concluding Thursday’s five-course meal was Michael Schenker Fest. An eerie, atmospheric drone incited anticipation which was followed by the lulled “Holiday”, eliciting even impatience for some Schenker brutality. Eventually, the familiar thundering of UFO’s “Doctor Doctor” rang out across the parched music hall. The one, two, three, four acclaimed frontmen of Michael Schenker Fest (Gary Barden, Graham Bonnet, Robin McAuley and Doogie White) strode on one by one, and then the set became like a revolving door of vocalists.
In a way it was actually cute to experience this gathering of musical history, further emphasised in the way the vocalists hid behind the amps when they were not performing, like school students waiting eagerly to go on stage and impress their parents. The set itself was a jubilant celebration of Schenker’s work, like unloading a time capsule. Schenker held a big grin on his face for the majority of the set as he worked his tantric treatment on the necks of his Flying Vs to make them wail in sweet relish. What stood out the most was the versatility in Schenker’s playing, a spectrum of tonality that went from a whimpering alien creature to euphoric squeals and juddering shreds. Chris Glen’s bass bolstered the music, a burly foundation of groove that complimented Schenker’s stratospheric tones.
Over in Stage Two, a soberingly bright room of coach seat-patterned carpet and gaudy children-oriented shop signs, Dead Man’s Whiskey were employed to kickstart the day. Parading onto the stage with cocksure confidence, first track “Live, Loud And Ready” rifled in with machine gun percussion, gruff vocals and Sunset Strip sleaze groove. Indeed, guitarist Billy Kons appeared to be a devotee to Slash with his skull and top hat tattoo, working his way through Guns N’ Roses style licks with rolling swagger. Dead Man’s Whiskey brought a rich, pervading texture, and although bassplayer James Titley lost his sound at the beginning of the set, this only served to exhibit the density his playing brought to the music. A neck-sliding bass riff in “War Machine” brought an infectiously swinging groove, whilst “Make You Proud” bore an impassioned vocal performance from frontman Nico Rogers following an emotional dedication to his mum, who has been through hell and back with brain cancer.
Second act of the day Blind River offered up the machismo of Monster Truck and Blackfoot with tracks like “Going Nowhere” and “Bonehouse”. “Freedom Dealer” was a track driven by muscle with its hulking percussion and heart-contracting bass, whilst frontman Harry Armstrong’s gravel-soaked vocals brought an extra coating of grit.
Meanwhile, Main Stage openers Vambo presented with a set of blizzardry that was glacial and eerie yet bold and tenacious. Vambo teemed with haunts of Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin, the latter of which was manifested in a “Good Times Bad Times” cover. However, there was a discordance to the band, with frontman Jack Stiles’ attempted on-stage interactions with his bandmates often snubbed. Heavy reverb on the vocals took away the authenticity of Stiles’ vocals, a virtual crutch he certainly didn’t need given his colossal wails in numbers like “Misery”.
Whilst the following two artists on the bill, Renegade Twelve and Thunderstick, proved largely forgettable in their performances, one of the standout offerings of the day came from Voodoo Blood. Fronted by Kim Jennett (of Thursday’s Myke Gray glory), Voodoo Blood opened with a swamp blues jam before bursting into “Headhunter”. A tassel-skirted whirlwind, Jennett’s voice was an effortless pendulum of potent shrieks and elegant metal growls alongside the dirty blues of her bandmates, who overtly brandished their embodiment of their own nasty groove. Jennett now the poster child for contemporary frontwoman in a femme-neglected industry, Voodoo Blood’s set ended with a chant of “we want more” from the hungry HRH spectators.
Subsequent sets fell deep into the shadow of Voodoo Blood’s dynamic performance. From the unremarkable, dull metal warble of Blitzkrieg, to the basic, formulaic rock’n’roll of VA Rocks, who fell flat, but were the sort of endearing band you’d root for in a teen movie centred around a Battle Of The Bands contest. Even the 70s groove of Vintage Caravan, which held all the elements of 70s greats such as Lynyrd Skynyrd and Grand Funk Railroad, failed to transfix onlookers.
However, Stage Two finally elicited captivation via Naked Six. Led by the son of Saxon frontman Biff Byford, Seb Byford, the nigh-on identical looking clan, completed by cousins Tom Witts and Callum Witts, led a storm of vigorous punk-edged, indie-tinged rock. With drummer Tom Witts yelling encouragements of ‘fuck, come on!”, Naked Six were a welcome defibrillator who brought gargantuan, wolfing riffs and elephantine rhythm. City Of Thieves were also a wholly gratifying supplement to the line-up, with commanding, dragged-from-hell bass that brought a bitten-by-grunge sound to their soul-quenching rock’n’roll performance. Frontman Jamie Lailey was a wholly amiable character: sleekly nonchalant yet one of the few – if not the only – performer to bear a Remembrance Day poppy over the weekend.
Dan Reed Network blazed a trail of funk-fused party rock that vibrantly simmered and boiled over, inciting frenzied jives from many ladies in the crowd, whilst Anchor Lane catered to those of a darker shaded musical persuasion, conjuring Hades-curated riffs that strode with confident menace.
The final act prior to Saxon’s headline set were a shambolic Girlschool. Though they may have held a special place of nostalgia in the heart of some spectators, Girlschool performed a set of little momentum and awkward between-song filler sections, even getting booed and heckled by some observers hidden in the shadows at the back of the room. The Main Stage of HRH often lacked the vibrancy and vitality of the thirst felt from performers on Stage Two. Many of the legacy bands appeared to rest far too much on the laurels of their band name and history, and this was garishly apparent when flitting between stages.
However, this worked in the favour of contemporary bands by way of stark contrast, as evident in the crowd responses to the lacklustre Girlschool on Main Stage versus the quake-inducing The Dust Coda on Stage Two. Their concoction of bluesy smog, fleshy voltage and authoritative stature throughout the likes of “Rock N Roll” and “Sun Goes Down” were a gratifying reward of tasty electricity for the HRH congregation, whilst the dusky tones of “Sweet Love Is Coming” brought gentle romance to the bleak weather of Pwllheli.
Following the roll-out of thunderbird emblazoned Marshall amps, Saxon brought their ominous brutality to the stage, albeit an ominous brutality that took some time to fully enflame, having opened with 2018 track “Thunderbolt” and 2013’s “Sacrifice” (we all know the masses assemble for 1981’s Denim And Leather sweet spots).Boasting damsel-in-distress guitar wails, cloven-hooved percussion and the formidable command of Biff Byford, Saxon satiated the baying of the HRH hounds, as evident in the unceasing Mexican wave of devil horns in the crowd.
The final day of HRH seemed to bustle with band-patch denim jackets more than the previous two days – and excessively weary eyes weren’t short of occurrences either. Hungover yet eager spectators clung around Stage Two like denim and leather clad mildew for the midday arrival of The Bad Flowers. A band that perhaps failed to present with true musical earworms yet are enticingly rhythmic in attack (special mention goes to powerhouse drummer Karl Selickis and his illusory octopus arms), The Bad Flowers provided special moments of muscular riffs in tracks like “Thunder Child” and “Hurricane” that frustratingly evaporated all too soon. Soon to follow were Ryders Creed, combining the sounds of Queen, Buckcherry and Guns N’ Roses into a rollicking knees-up of rock’n’roll. Frontman Ryan Antony performed with a knowing glint in his eye throughout, smirking as he declared “everybody loves a bit of sleaze, don’t they?” prior to the lavish filth blues of “Begging For More”.
Opening the Main Stage came a flood of fresh blood in the form of Kaleb McKane. Unlike anything else heard over the weekend, McKane and his bandmates created a dreamscape tapestry of grandiose, space age guitar and luscious electric piano. Illuminant with a slick, professional gleam, McKane’s guitar gliding reached dizzying heights, navigating through post-earth rock that hearkened to the sounds of Pink Floyd.
With thanks to The Rising Souls, Stage Two became abundant with the honeyed soul grit seen from the likes of Phil Campbell of The Temperance Movement and the fuzz gnarl of Rival Sons.“Roulette Roulette” was rampant in rhythm and riff, whilst “Walk On” held the arrogant colossus of Jared James Nichols’ riffs. Stand-out track “Escape” was a haunting acoustic-led track, smokey and captivating in its grip, its exquisite beauty leaving the stale eclecticism of Hawklords over on the main stage emitting an especially grey wash in comparison. Although The Rising Souls were not the most spirited in their stage presence, their music painted a canvas of vivid colour.
A band brimming with zeal, Stand Amongst Giants on Stage Two merrily bestowed shots of radioactive looking alcohol unto their audience (“we thought that if we get you drunk, maybe you’ll like us more!”) before ripping into a stew of destructively stomping rhythm and apocalyptic storm-brewing riffs in tracks like “The Abyss” and “Broken”. In the meantime, the Main Stage was infused with raucous ardour via Massive’s charging speed train rock’n’roll. Frontman Brad Marr a vociferous clamour of blaring energy, Massive romped their way through the vibrant boogie rock of “Lacey” and the rowdy, breathless hard rock of new track “Long Time Coming”. “Burn Down The City” detonated with the strut of an epic action movie track, whilst “Dancefloor” offered up a disco tinge to their AC/DC inspired sound.
Drowning out any attraction that could have possibly been plucked from the groaning ferment of Black Star Bullet’s pub rock, Main Stage rockers Tygers Of Pan Tang led an animated performance of jutting, staccato guitar anthems, extracting head-banging from even the least lively of spectators with the unabashed “Only The Brave” and the perilously percussive “The Devil You Know”, which ricocheted off the walls with fearless might. Although they were in danger of sounding archaic to the fresher meat in the crowd, the Tygers certainly tickled the palate of the nostalgic mob that dominated the demographics of HRH.
As if a warped mirror image of the Tygers, the younger Walkway provided the same fiery energy, incendiary guitar and high-register vocals with their classic metal-inspired set. His bright red trousers almost outshining his kilowatt smile, frontman Chris Ready beamed with nonchalant poise, whilst lead guitarist and brother James Ready bounded through their set with leaping fervour.
Whilst Smoking Martha formed a silvery atmosphere of sultry, breathy vocals and lonely, forlorn melodies, John Coghlan’s Quo worked their way through a set of sunny rock’n’roll, effusing the steady chug of friendly jukebox rock’n’roll that fans of Status Quo know and love. From the sprightly “Paper Plane” to the round and golden tones of “Down Down”, John Coghlan’s Quo were met with lovable cheers, especially when dedicating “Rain” to the late Rick Parfitt, which brought uproarious applause in tribute. The British pride for this band’s legacy was only emphasised further with the smell of fish and chips from the food court permeating the Main Stage area. However, despite the highly spirited tone of the set, frontman Rick Abbs’ performance seemed a little stern and cold, even during the concluding track: the effervescent “Rockin’ All Over The World”. Thankfully, the music overrode the visuals, so the jubilance of the set was not lost.
On the contrary, Femme Fetale’s main stage performance was incredibly spunky, although unfortunately to the point of wincing. Whilst guitarist Courtney Cox played with lightning soul, Lorraine Lewis threw herself into the performance with absolutely zero self-awareness – an attribute that could be captivating were it not based on excessive delusions of grandeur. Having narrowly missed knocking out bassist Janis Tanaka with her tambourine, Lewis’ attempt at reviving the finesse of her performances in the late 80s came across as desperate and misguided.
Prior to the arrival of Main Stage headliner The Dead Daisies, Riders To Ruin hit Stage Two. With rasping, cigarette-stained vocals and hard-hitting, nose bleed-inducing riffs, each member of Riders To Ruin flung themselves into their performance like a violent dust devil. Following suit, HRH guests thereafter made like dust devils themselves, speeding over to the Main Stage to grab a spot for The Dead Daisies.
Sleek, seasoned veterans of rock that gave a polished performance, the well-oiled machine The Dead Daisies gave a strong performance of pummelling percussion and devouring riffs that grabbed spectators by the throat with tracks like the engorging “Burn It Down” and swaggering, talk box-led “With You And I”. From the charming John Corabi (Mötley Crüe, The Scream) to the peacocking blonde bombshell Doug Aldrich (Whitesnake, Dio), The Dead Daisies oozed well-versed musicianship and stage presence.
However, there is a question of morality surrounding The Dead Daisies and their sudden omnipresence in the industry, especially given certain helicopter-related rumours surrounding their bowing out at Steelhouse Festival this year (which brought angry chanting from an attendee beside HEAVY in the crowd). A band of big names, big money and a big reliance on covers in their setlist despite four albums of satisfying original material, some may be unsettled that an industry of struggling newcomers have to sit in the shadow of those that have had their gilded cake and eaten it too. Nevertheless, whether their beholders considered them crooks, posers or legends, The Dead Daisies gave a convincing and dynamic performance that ticked all the boxes of the rock show marking criteria they’ve helped to establish across their careers.
In case a hunger for live music still lingered in the crowd, The Wild! arrived on Stage Two at midnight. Bucking broncos adorned in denim, The Wild! scampered their way through a set of runaway, beer-fuelled rock that swung with a ZZ Top groove. The Wild! were a timely, most welcome riot to top off the weekend.
Photos by Shayne Friessner-Day