To echo the sentiments of Mr Dee Snider: “a festival in November – what the f$%k?” But having just closed its gates following a weekend of hard-hitting rock for the eleventh time, Hard Rock Hell is now a calendar event carved in stone, embossed with gold and stained with the promised blood of many of its loyal followers in vigorously volunteered covenant. With punters safely housed in accommodation with a roof, a bed and heating (Downloaders, I can see your faces glowing green from here), and bands staged within the entertainment halls of Hafan y Môr holiday camp, Hard Rock Hell is comfortably enjoyed with the absence of icicles forming on noses.
This year’s main stage headliners came in the semblance of Dee Snider, Airbourne and Black Star Riders, whilst the remaining line-up offered a rock’n’roll jambalaya of talent old and new.
In the absence of the families with fixed smiles and the overzealous staff associated with holiday parks, Hafan y Môr didn’t look far off a Scooby Doo-style ghost town. With the yawn of gaudy paint and the faded zest of summertime fun, Hafan y Môr was a strange juxtaposition to the fierce werewolf rising in the form of HRH.
As the fellowship of HRH gathered before Stage One awaiting the Opening Ceremony, a further deformation of the usual holiday park stereotype was shattered. Draped over chairs were several exotic babes bedecked in feathers and kitted in barely-there attire and platform heels – not quite the dopey-faced furry mascot animals that ordinarily decorate the stage. These birds of paradise opened HRH in a flamed frenzy of fire dancing, flamethrowing and aerial acrobatics. Although more of a treat for the gentlemen in the crowd, the female spectators were kept on tenterhooks out of fear for the bearded photographer who came inches away from setting his bewhiskered chin alight at several junctures.
Following the babe bonanza, Ryders Creed were the first to parade onto the stage to surrender their music to the hungry crowd. Whilst expressing a spectrum of fashion culture – from bohemian chic to roguish outlaw to straight-laced mod – Ryders Creed grafted as musicians of the same soul to produce the groove rumble of Blues Pills and sincerely heavy riffs of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Their rhythms riddled with sex, Ryders Creed produced a texture juicy enough to bite into and savour the soundwave nectar as it rolled down the body in sticky delight.
In the quickest set change this reporter has ever set eyes on, the warm glow of Ryders Creed soon dissipated as the solemn menace of Idlewar arrived on the scene. In a kaleidoscopic shift from fervent reds to cold greys, Idlewar bestowed sludgy, foreboding riffs tinged with grunge crunch in tracks like “Hang” and “Feel The Pain”. Although understated in stage presence, Idlewar were delectably over-stated in power.
Next to grace the stage are the slick misfits from Killcode. In a hullabaloo of sweat, leather and denim, Killcode caused a ruckus that would have undoubtedly earned them membership into the Hollywood Vampires had this been thirty years prior. Fronted by the audacious Tom Morrissey, Kid Rock’s next incarnation, Killcode’s bruising riffs rose like an albatross cloaking the crowd in shadow, as in “Shot” and “The Answer”. Although perhaps all too enamoured with rock show gimmicks (enter the recurring demand of “when I say Kill, you say Code!”), the crowd lapped Killcode up with sheer tenacity.
Hot on Killcode’s tail were Black Aces. A clan of lads plucked straight from the Almost Famous film set (with the exception of frontman Tyler Kinder, who opted for a more just-rolled-out-of-bed guise), Black Aces exhilarated with gutsy, obtrusive rock’n’roll. From the jet-speed, whiskey-soaked “On The Rocks” to the juggernaut “Anywhere But Here”, Black Aces proved themselves as esteemed dukes of AC/DC embodiment where headliners Airbourne have achieved prince status, as further punctuated by their cover of “Rock’n’Roll Damnation”.
Unlike the preceding bands of new talent, it was clear that many spectators were eagerly awaiting the entrance of former Little Angels vocalist Toby Jepson’s Wayward Sons. Having described his new venture as a project that “wasn’t a choice, [but] more of a need”, it was clear from the ball-grabbing get-go of “Alive” that Jepson has committed everything to the Sons in a sacrificial signing away of the soul. A cocktail of style aesthetics, Wayward Sons exploded like a firework that stayed lingering in the sky as opposed to fainting to the ground below, illuminated further by Sam Wood’s eternal kilowatt smile throughout. In tracks like “Something Wrong”, the Sons offered an expansive yet tight-knit mesh of intertwining guitars, like a woven cloth of Van Gogh swirls.
Although the previous bands stole the show in terms of musical intricacy, the eruption of Dee Snider amounted to a convulsing horde of rock fans swarming around Stage One. Despite a detour via some self-indulgent preaching and a divergence from hard rock in the form of “Rule The World”, the Snider snarl, complemented by clunky, metallic bass lines, rang out strong at Hafan y Môr. Unsurprisingly, the infamous “We’re Not Gonna Take It” was met with elation and enough chanting to compete with several hundred football crowds.
Thus concludes the first day’s single-stage line-up. Now vigorously warmed up for the two-day, two-stage marathon due to come, rockers made their way down the winding hill towards their cosy accommodation, melting into the shadows of the night.
Friday, the day HRH rolls out the red carpet (read as: slightly cleans the musty, sticky red carpet laden with abandoned plastic cups) for the aforementioned princes of AC/DC legacy continuation, Airbourne. As if to evoke a tantalising phantom taste of what is to come in 10 hours time, HRH exhibited an Airbourne rockumentary, It’s All For Rock’n’Roll, within Stage One. Here, the earnest O’Keeffe brothers talked us through their plan B in case their rock’n’roll dream didn’t work out (there was none) and proposed an ethos to pursue both within and without the music industry: “Take no bullshit, don’t compromise”. Got that?
In moving from the comforting blanket of dark in Stage One to the sobering, harsh daylight that flooded Stage Two, one felt a little dazed and was left fully vulnerable to the punch Those Damn Crows were about to pack. Pacing Stage Two with the assertiveness of a seasoned predator, vocalist Shane Greenhall delivered his vocals with the smooth nonchalance of Queens Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme, whilst blonde-maned bassist Lloyd Wood silently roared with the might of Aslan to enunciate his Herculean bassline delivery in tracks like “Breakaway” and “Rock’n’Roll Ain’t Dead”. A band lost within the abyss of promotional pitfalls, Those Damn Crows are true diamonds in the rough awaiting a little polish for delivery into the music market.
From the good-time delivery of Those Damn Crows followed a more sinister twist in the form of Kingbreaker. Fronted by Spinky, whose makeup was comparable to the image of deadly fungi spores engorging her face, Kingbreaker executed siren songs formed under the structure of organised chaos. Across the pond of beer spillages in Stage One, Goldray presented with the yang to Kingbreaker’s deathly black yin. Against a backdrop of amps adorned with fuchsia-enflamed flowers, frontwoman Leah Rasmussen floated on stage, the image of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, alongside luxuriously decked ex-Reef guitarist Kenwyn House and bassist Geoff Laurens. A flurry of chiffon, gold and sequins, House and Laurens emanated psychedelic mystification via shimmering riffs, whilst Rasmussen’s ethereal vocals rang out like otherworldly submarine sonar. Although Rasmussen’s Stevie Nicks-style dance embellishments bordered on uncomfortable viewing, Goldray can be praised for their distinctive and memorable show experience.
Meanwhile, Stage Two saw the arrival of The Jokers. Despite their donation of palatable, sprightly rock’n’roll with the likes of “Rock & Roll Is Alive” and “Find My Way Home”, The Jokers tended to be more concerned with obtaining yelps of excitement from the audience via light bullying rather than working for such communications of affirmation using their music. The magnetism of other bands from the HRH line-up drowned The Jokers in a wash of grey, with their main source of enticement deriving from a bottle of Cloven Hoof launched into the audience. Similarly, vixen-fronted Syteria appeared to prioritise style over substance, performing good-willed rock that fell limp and lifeless, despite their jagged-edged Nasty Habits-alike garb.
Vivacity returned to HRH with the landing of Fire Red Empress. Although their live performance lacked the sharp clarity of their recorded material and was placed on the shoulders of frontwoman Jennifer Diehl to bear, Diehl was more than adept at carrying the other members of the band via her witchy whirlwind. Exuding lonely riffs beefed up with devilish bass and climactic drums, Diehl’s inky black, chasmic eyes of rage formed the centre of the FRE storm.
The exudation of fuzz emitted by The Graveltones drew many a rocker bee to the main stage hive. With a devil-may-care stage presence in tow, Mikey Sorbello’s factory-heavy drumming ferocity and Jimmy O’s skilful ventriloquism of his 6-stringed partner produced a musical dialogue akin to The Black Keys’ Thickfreakness era (“Can’t Tell A Man”) or Jack White’s Blunderbuss (“Forget About The Trouble”).
Thereafter, The New Roses hijacked Stage One and held it hostage to Les Paul peacocking. The New Roses unleashed gnarly riff phoenixes that rose up, perched upon the lighting rigs, and poured out ripples of flame in the midst of the shadow-drenched venue during strutting tracks like “It’s A Long Way” and “Dancing On A Razor Blade”.
Next up were nostalgia-riddled hard rock sagas Tyketto and Y&T. Employing guitar sounds analogous to operatic lobsters to the boil, both bands blazed a trail of fret board friction-induced smoke and an abundance of loyal fans recited each lyric with relish. However, for those who did not hold fond memories of Y&T, their slightly stiff deliverance lacked the glow of sentimentality, and thus their performance appeared jaded and over-rehearsed, at least compared to the flowing animated performance of Tyketto.
The time for the finale to the main stage buffet was now nigh: Airbourne were due to land. A monstrous measure of Marshall stacks were wheeled on, and sound check alone was enough to force the heart into the throat and conduct hairs to stand on end Tom & Jerry style. Bursting onto stage as if they’d rocketed through walls to make it there, Airbourne recklessly flung themselves headfirst into opening track “Ready To Rock”. Clutching their Flying Vs as if preparing to tour the venue on them broomstick-style, these warlocks of rock took no time to warm up before reaching levels of performance energy that were dangerously close to self-combustion. Loud with an extra dose of tinnitus, Airbourne led us through a tasty dollop of bullish rock’n’roll at breakneck speed in the form of tracks like “Girls In Black” and “Breakin’ Outta Hell”. Nutty as a crate of Walnut Whips, frontman Joel O’Keefe jumped on the shoulders of a willing member of crew and conducted a charge of rock’n’roll, subsequently performing his infamous party trick of opening a beer can with the brute force of his skull.
Airbourne are often accused of being “a poor man’s AC/DC”. If that’s the case, there was not a wealthy soul present at HRH. Each peasant now filled to the brim on sans bullshit rock’n’roll, Day Two of HRH was concluded with entire satiation.
With 13 hours of line-up available to the HRH congregation, Saturday’s banquet of diverse genres was more than sufficient to satisfy a variety of musical cravings. From prog curveballs to shimmers of southernality to the tough swaggering rock of headliner Black Star Riders, no stone was left unturned.
Launching at the chime of midday, Beth Blade and the Beautiful Disasters kicked Saturday off with a rumbling stampede of evilly heavy riffs. Although perhaps too overly conspicuous with regards to her Lzzy Hale worship, Blade was the driving force of the band, fronting it with the commanding might of Boudicca.
By the time Western Sand took to Stage Two, the denim-backed patchwork of rock history had doubled in size now that those who rode the night train all too vigorously had braved the daylight. Boasting burdensomely heavy riffs, bass lines to crack the foundations of the earth and percussion with the force of several dust devils, it was evident that the respectable mass formed around Stage Two were smitten with the Bournemouth-born four-piece. Vocally analogous to Dan Patlansky, frontman Tyler Hains added the garnishing sprinkle of gravel to the Southern-inspired gumbo as Western Sand thundered through ear candies like “Black Water Resolution” and “Nothing To Lose”.
Continuing the southern drawl of Western Sand, Buffalo Summer flirted with elephantine chugging guitar a la Black Stone Cherry in tracks like “Truth From Fable”. Not far off visually from Wacky Races’ Slag Brothers at some points in his performance due to his flowing brown hair, Andrew Hunt’s vocals channelled the soulful delivery of Raging Slab’s Greg Strzempka, as in “A Horse Called Freedom”, which was injected with a healthy fix of Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti.
Following the heart-scrunching metal of Syron Vanes, former Superbike world champion James Toseland took to the stage with Toseland. Sporting a Myles Kennedy twang, Toseland and his fluidly animated band mates laid bear authoritative rock in tracks such as “Renegade” and “Life Is Beautiful”. Announcing their recent signing with Frontiers Music Srl and performing the inspiring “We’ll Stop At Nothing”, which has been assigned as the 2017 Special Olympics G8 National Games anthem, the main stage momentarily became a shining beacon of celebration.
Succeeding this shining beacon of celebration was the incandescence of the Von Hertzen Brothers’ prog rock. Descending upon HRH like a crepuscular ray, VHB’s crisp harmonies and lullabaic keys during songs like “New Day Rising” and “War Is Over” engendered a higher level of atmospheric transcendence than any of the previous artists. In an about-turn of genre, next up are GUN. A checkerboard of platinum blonde and jet black hair, GUN’s dusting of 80s beats and funk made for highly easy listening. A swinging pendulum of smooth serenades and crackling angst, frontman Dante Gizzi’s vocal versatility greatly assisted in their well-received adaptations of Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)” and Cameo’s “Word Up”.
A whole half-a-minute away on Stage Two, the extra-terrestrial The Blanko created an atmosphere that could be cut with a knife. Conveying the intensity of Thirty Seconds To Mars, opener “September” unsettled and intrigued, perhaps only gaining the musical empathy of a niche selection of HRH spectators. On the other end of the spectrum, Lynch Mob served up a hearty meal of hard rock. Although Lynch Mob seemed to lack the showman pizzazz they so fervently had a grasp on in the ‘90s, they were the firestarters to many a dad dance amongst audience members.
As the stage sighed with disbelief that HRH was nearing its end, the penultimate main stage act breezed on. Reef dazzled with opener “Just Feel Love”, a track that penetrated every chasm of the venue with its imposingly majestic riff. The intimidating yet enticing demeanour of frontman Gary Stringer grasped eyeballs in his direction for most of the set, save for when bassist Jack Bessant’s soared his bass guitar overhead. Entranced by the saccharine breeze their music seemed to emit, chants of “Reef! Reef! Reef!” rang out across the concert hall hand-in-hand with the glimmering guitar and salty bass. Whilst the infamous “Place Your Hands” was a show-stealer, it was “Naked” that truly caused a landslide of indelible groove.
A final aperitif before headliners Black Star Riders, Black Whiskey hit Stage Two with their nastily crunchy riffs and relentless basslines. Black Whiskey were just about loud enough to be heard over the baying of the HRH hounds, but not quite enough to appease them, and thus many traversed across the way to secure their spot in preparation for Black Star Riders.
Marching on with the air of battle menace splattered across their faces, Black Star Riders were strikingly confident (as it could be supposed that any band inhabiting Scott Gorham should be). Fronted by the scowling Ricky Warwick’s handsomely gruff vocals, BSR struck with the force of a dragon’s wings in numbers like “Heavy Fire” and “Soldierstown” (which followed an endearingly sincere moment of 11/11 remembrance from Warwick). Perhaps not totally convinced that the sound system could cope with drummer Chad Szeliga’s Joey Kramer brawn or Gorham and Damon Johnson’s guitar howls, BSR employed the tender murmur of “Blindsided” to offer it moderate respite. Not wishing to ignore the legacy that morphed this band into what it is, Thin Lizzy’s “Jailbreak” was performed with grandiose gusto.
In the meantime, swooping over to Stage Two amounted in a greeting of cackling, cacophonous instrumentation from Wicked Stone. Hurricane-heavy racks like “The End” and “Another Round” blew a gale forceful enough to provide anyone with hair like Garth from Wayne’s World. The clock struck midnight, yet the magic of the HRH fairy godmother (otherwise known as chief booking agent Seven Webster) was still to wear off. A final strike of lightning for the weekend came in the form of the ever-suave Tax The Heat, who swiftly dusted the cobwebs from their tired-looking eyes. Implementing sultry falsetto and sharp, nippy riffs, these gentlemen of rock introduced tastefully heavy tunes in the form of “Learn To Drown (You’re Wrong)” and “Animals”.
Once the final note of HRH was plucked, the world suddenly seems that little bit lonelier. A festival like HRH offers a communal haven from rude reminders that our world has been intruded by digressers of music: contrived puppets on strings who stand for anything other than the liberation that rock’n’roll stands for. Although HRH leads with a devilish forefront, it’s not far off a blessing from the angels. Here’s to another year of HRH, the curious festival in November.