It is traditionally the last great celebration of headbanger hedonism in the festival season, but the ninth annual Hard Rock Hell falls on a grim weekend for fans of heavy music. The day before it begins, news breaks of the untimely death of former Motörhead drummer Phil ‘Philthy’ Taylor. Then in the middle of the festival, terrorists go on a mass-murder spree in Paris, killing 129 innocent people, including 89 rock fans at an Eagles Of Death Metal show at the Bataclan. The initial reaction across Hard Rock Hell is one of shock and sadness, especially as many of the weekend’s bands have previously played the Bataclan, and now have to cancel upcoming Paris shows. Several make a point of paying tribute to the victims from the stage. But the prevailing mood is also one of defiance and celebration. When murdering extremists hate rock this much, all the more reason to cherish this music and squeeze every last drop of pleasure from it. By Saturday afternoon the HRH massive are partying hard again; lust for life wins every time.
“What a good-looking bunch out there, I’d like to fuck every one of you,” says a grinning Aryn Jonathan Black of Texan party-rockers Scorpion Child. “Speaking of fucking, here’s a song about drinking…” Hell yeah. Respect for their attitude, not so much for the music, which adds little to the well-thumbed catalogue of booze-soaked southern-fried retro-rock cliché. These young pups could could learn a few tricks from German power metal veterans Helloween, who get the main arena bouncing with their winning mix of triple-speed guitar solos, operatic vocals and dramatic pointing at faraway objects.
Also underwhelming are LA glam-metal survivors Faster Pussycat, whose bloated Sunset Strip anthems lack the tumescent thrust and slutty swagger that once made them alluring. But it is heartening to see the original line-up of London power trio Rock Goddess finally back together after their previous aborted reunion at Hard Rock Hell six years ago. Musically, the recently reunited trio still appear to be a work in progress, with a few clunky trundlers in the mix. Even so, it still feels like a positive statement to have an all-female band on this otherwise sausage-heavy bill, especially after last year’s well-received Girlschool set.
With a history stretching back almost half a century, Saturday night headliners UFO are the elder statement at Hard Rock Hell. Still in charge of the microphone despite several sabbaticals over the decades, 67-year-old Phil Mogg looks every inch the louche English gentleman with his crisp waistcoat and wry stage quips. He gives the impression of having rushed here from a charity polo tournament on the lawn of a country house, which is a tough trick to pull off in a caravan park in North Wales. Dapper geezer.
UFO almost pre-date heavy metal itself, their bluesy hard-rock roots showing through on dirty great riff-scorchers like Lights Out and Only You Can Rock Me. Much of this antiques roadshow retains its vintage lustre, but with a few notable exceptions. Like their former guitarist Michael Schenker’s Hard Rock Hell set last year, this performance features a marathon extended version of Rock Bottom that threatens to trundle on indefinitely, possibly petering out some time next year. Too much of a good thing can be a tooth-grinding bore.
At the poppy end of the Hard Rock Hell spectrum, Gun play a slick and tight show which feels at times like watching a Glaswegian Bon Jovi in scuffed jeans and stubble. They arrive to a blast of Cypress Hill that morphs into the gospel-fired roar of Let It Shine from their latest album, Frantic. The band formed in 1987, and these Scot-rock survivors are currently eight years into a second-act comeback with former bass player Dante Gizzi now firmly installed as their vocalist, his coarse-grained voice lending an edge of blue-collar soul to Springsteen-lite anthems such as Better Days and Something To Believe In.
Gizzi dedicates new single _Hold Your Head Up _to the rock fans murdered at the Bataclan, where Gun themselves played with The Cult last year. But their set is more celebratory than sombre, with a free-ranging musical menu that incorporates The Police’s So Lonely and the band’s biggest hit, a beefed-up cover of Cameo’s funk-rock classic Word Up. They may only have one foot in the metal world, but Gun bring energy and warmth to Hard Rock Hell.
The biggest crowd crush of the weekend comes on Saturday night as Saxon arrive to a fanfare of AC/DC riffs. With their solid wall of pristine Marshall amps, spaceship-sized lighting rig and belching smoke cannons, South Yorkshire’s stainless-steel veterans affirm their HRH-headlining status. Although still fresh from last year’s 35th-anniversary tour, the band are actually on the verge of being around for four decades, and still make a reliably punchy NWOBHM mix of classic hard rock with punk and thrash elements.
With Byford garbed like a 19th-century Prussian military officer in his knee-length military-style overcoat, his stage banter comes with an agreeable edge of self-deprecating Yorkshire humour. “This is one of the songs that started thrash metal, apparently,” he shrugs before detonating the clobbering speed-punk racket of 20,000 Ft. “This one was a big hit on Radio Barnsley,” he adds before an ear-pummelling Never Surrender.
The first half of their two-hour set is dominated by material from Saxon’s new album Battering Ram, chiefly lean and muscular headbangers like Hard And Fast, Destroyer and Eye Of The Storm. All are solid stompers, but as generic as their titles. “Thank you for listening to our new songs,” Byford announces midway through the set. “Now we’re going to play some old songs: Smoke On The Water, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, Highway To Hell…” More Yorkshire wit. He actually means Saxon classics such as 747 (Strangers In The Night), Wheels Of Steel and Denim And Leather, which bring the ninth Hard Rock Hell to a pleasingly crunchy old-school climax.
Of course, the lifeblood of the whole festival is classic metal and vintage rock, so it would be churlish to complain that this year’s HRH bill feels a bit creaky and samey compared to previous years. That said, most of the more exhilarating performances come from younger, more iconoclastic acts on the second stage. Bands like the Brighton-based Black State Highway, fronted by Latvia-born Liva Steinberga, who whip up a ferocious, groove-driven maelstrom of swampy blues-punk and primal sexualised energy. Or the combustible grunge-meets-Zeppelin blast of Sky Valley Mistress, from Blackburn in Lancashire, whose magnificent singer Kayley Davies is all hair and swagger and gobby northern attitude. Two great bands, two charismatic frontwomen, both names to watch in future.
Dendera, a maximalist five-piece from Portsmouth, also punch above their weight on their first visit to Hard Rock Hell, throwing off the ‘New Iron Maiden’ label of their early reviews with multi-tracked guitar solos and octave-leaping vocals that borrow from the full spectrum of metal. But easily the most explosively gripping performance at Hard Rock Hell comes from German duo The Picturebooks, whose visceral brand of seismic garage-rock makes The White Stripes sound like the Carpenters. Making their Welsh debut, the hairy caveman duo of guitar-playing vocalist Fynn Claus Grabke and drummer Philipp Mirtschink seem to suck the entire history of rock into their molten maelstrom, from sloppy slide-guitar blues to lyrical steals from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and even The Smiths.
Impressively, in the thick of this chaos, these Germanic street screechers hold a one-minute silence in tribute to the Paris dead. A small oasis of quiet in the depths of a deafening metal show can be an intensely moving thing. And then, of course, the rowdy roar of pleasure and music and human joy begins again, louder than before. Even in the shadow of mass murder, lust for life will always win.