Some heavy rock festivals are all about celebrity headliners, hip young talents and backstage star-spotting. Hard Rock Hell is not one of those festivals. Marking its eighth visit to the Haven holiday park near Pwllheli on the ruggedly beautiful North Wales coast, the fan-driven HRH is an annual grassroots gathering for the hardcore, the connoisseurs, the loyal lifelong disciples.
Top-heavy with grizzled veterans including Blue Öyster Cult, Girlschool, Krokus and Diamond Head, this year’s Hard Rock Hell has a “Helloween” theme. There are lashings of blood-splattered zombie and corpse costumes on show, plus a trio of glamorous women on stilts dressed like Freddy Krueger, Leatherface and other movie serial killers. Some of the performers seem to have come back from the dead too, with many 70s and 80s veterans on their third singer, fourth guitarist or ninth drummer. At what point does a classic band regenerate into an entirely new entity, like Doctor Who? Or Frankenstein’s monster?
For the diehard fans, such trivial concerns seem not to matter. These are the kind of crazed pilgrims prepared to travel hundreds of miles and spend three nights in a sub-zero caravan in Wales in mid- November purely for the chance to feast on an all-you-can-eat buffet of obscure, hairy-faced bands with names like Witchrider, Thunder Mother, Wolfbitch, Trousersnake and Goatsucker. For those about to Hard Rock, we salute you.
One of the youngest bands to play the main stage all weekend are big-haired Scandi-glam poodles **Santa Cruz (above) **who pull a respectable crowd into the cavernous hall for their early-afternoon show. With just one album to their name so far, and a sequel due in 2015, these Finnish party animals inevitably have a limited repertoire of high-kicking, spandex-stretching moves. But high-gloss trash anthems such as Relentless Renegades, Velvet Rope and new single Wasted And Wounded are such perfect pastiches of 1980s Sunset Strip sleaze that you can probably catch genital warts just by listening to them.
Scandi retro-rock seems to be a recurring feature, with a handful of Nordic revivalists clustered on the second stage. Among Friday’s stand-out acts on the second stage are *The Black Marbles *(below), Gothenburg’s answer to The Black Crowes, who ladle out gloriously sloppy, faded-denim blues-rock drenched in steaming great spoonfuls of deep-fried slide guitar.
They are followed by Vidunder, lanky weird-beards from Malmö, who play vintage valve-amp prog-psych with an almost pathological attention to period detail. Sporting paisley shirts, scarlet bell-bottoms and heritage hair, they appear to have beamed here directly from the Marquee Club in 1967. “Sometimes we like to sing in Swedish,“ the singer says with winningly deadpan understatement. “This is one of those times.”
Back to the main hall for living legends Y&T, who arrive on stage to a soaring orchestral intro like ravenous Viking battle heroes storming the grand banqueting hall of Valhalla. These Californian blues-rock veterans have been active for a staggering 40 years, on and off, but frontman Dave Meniketti, sole survivor from the band’s early-1970s founding line-up, has lost none of his piercing vocal power on operatic riff-slammers such as Mean Streak, Hurricane and Rescue Me.
Sporting possibly the most retro-tastic curly perm in rock since the Great Mullet Cull of 1993, Meniketti is flanked by silky-blond John Nymann and Brad Lang on guitar and bass respectively, looking like an Old English Sheepdog sandwiched between two Golden Retrievers. Even after four decades, the singer promises “we’ve got a lot more years to go playing rock and roll!” Sounds good to us, Dave. See you in 2035 at Hard Rock Hell 27. On Jupiter.
Question: can you name the best-selling Swiss musical export ever? Celtic Frost, The Young Gods or Yello, you say? Wrong. The title-holders remain 1970s veterans Krokus, who have been through so many personnel reshuffles over the past 30 years that they’ve regrouped in their semi-classic line-up almost by default. There are not that many long-haired guitar-spankers in the magical mountain kingdom, after all. “Ready for some krazy krok and roll?” bellows Marc Storace, winning over the beery crowd. Dude, we were born ready.
Krokus are sometimes dismissed as shameless AC/DC copyists, but this belting blues-metal performance has more to offer than that, from the fist-pumping Bon Jovi-isms of To The Top to the sloppy-sleazy Stonesy raunch of Bedside Radio. Their floor-quaking cover of The Guess Who’s American Woman has way more grit and grind than Lenny Kravitz’s, but their choice of Bob Dylan’s Quinn The Eskimo as the finale, feels like a missed opportunity. Surely the rare spectacle of Krokus playing Hocus Pocus by Focus would have been the icing on the Toblerone? Ah well, maybe next year.
Parachuted into Hard Rock Hell as replacements for W.A.S.P., **Queensrÿche (above) **are here for a single overnight blast of prog-thrash histrionics. Still a relatively new recruit following the dramatic sacking of original frontman Geoff Tate in 2012, former Crimson Glory vocalist Todd La Torre is a natural on the microphone with his octave-leaping range and caged-animal prowl. This is a crisp and efficient set, mostly bass-heavy crunch overlaid with superfast twin-guitar squiggles. That said, some of the slower songs drag, and the overall delivery feels a little clinical.
Until recently, there were two groups trading under the Queensrÿche name, but a legal ruling in April 2014 banned Tate from using the trademark. Tate’s wife Susan was also the band’s manager before the bust-up – the spirit of Spinal Tap is never far away. All the same, the current title holders bring an impressive jolt of bicep-bulging energy to Hard Rÿche Hell, with tumescent tracks such as Walk In The Shadows and Breaking The Silence jizzing a hefty payload of pure rock power straight into the eager faces of the adoring crowd.
They came, they rocked, then they flew straight home. Respect to the Rÿche.
The following afternoon brings with it my unexpected personal highlight of the weekend. In a festival overstuffed with grunty old geezers,
LA prog-psych wizards Bigelf bring a refreshing blast of surreal showmanship and otherworldly glamour. Flamboyantly garbed in a top hat and frock coat, dandyish frontman Damon Fox is essentially Russell Brand playing Willy Wonka in panto, but with the effortless stage charisma of Freddie Mercury. For this tour, the band’s ever-shifting live line-up includes Porcupine Tree guitarist John Wesley and Fox’s own son Baron on drums, but this is essentially a one-man show.
Sandwiched between two mighty organs, Fox has figured out that the golden rule of great heavy music is to be both deadly serious and epically preposterous, sweetly melodic and deafeningly loud, all at the same time. From Floydian musings like Money, It’s Pure Evil to the baroque sci-space-rock symphony Edge Of Oblivion, he is the phantom of the rock opera, the faintly sinister ringmaster of a retro-prog circus, playing the crowd like a vintage Wurlitzer keyboard. He even keeps threatening to play Hey Jude, but never quite delivers. “You know The Beatles started all this stuff, right?” he asks. “And Black Sabbath. So we put them together and started a band.” Shazam! And in a puff of smoke, the fantastic Mr Fox is gone.
Sundown on Saturday brings eerily ageless axe warrior Michael Schenker, ostensibly performing under the banner of his current project Temple Of Rock, but inevitably slipping a healthy cheese-plate of vintage Scorpions and UFO material into the sonic smorgasbord too. All laser-beam precision and Zen-master focus, Schenker spearheads a multi-guitar formation of Flying V pyrotechnics that takes in Rock You Like A Hurricane, Too Hot To Handle and the all-instrumental Coast To Coast.
A whirling furball of leather and mischief, Schenker’s Scottish vocalist Doogie White dedicates Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead to both Ronnie James Dio and Jon Lord – Hard Rock Hell always salutes its fallen heroes. “This is a drinking song and a sea shanty,” he adds, introducing the Thin Lizzy-ish new number Lord Of The Lost And Lonely. The epic closing version of Rock Bottom lasts approximately two years, with an eight-month guitar solo wedged in the middle. And yet, with admirable German efficiency, Schenker still finishes precisely on time.
Another band soldiering on at Hard Rock Hell despite recent line-up turbulence, West Midlands proto-thrash legends Diamond Head (above) take the main stage in a fog of horror-movie gloom and creepy blue lights. Their longtime singer Nick Tart, who replaced original vocalist Sean Harris, quit just weeks before the festival. Guitarist Brian Tatler is now the band’s sole remaining founder member.
The good news is, with hastily recruited Danish singer Rasmus Andersen on the microphone, the Head seem to be re-energised with youthful nu-metal swagger on fist-pumping powergrinds such as Wild On The Streets, It’s Electric and To The Devil His Due. These gnarly veterans are famously a key influence on Metallica, but tonight they come close to their stadium-thrash acolytes in skull-crushing firepower. Are they evil? In a wholesome Scandinavian way, yes.
The only serious disappointment of the weekend is **Blue Öyster Cult **(above) who occupy a headline slot on Saturday, but do not give a headline performance. Stretching back almost half a century in their various formations, these Long Islanders have clearly mellowed in their autumn years. Too much of this set sounds like the introductory jam at the start of Later… With Jools Holland extended into an endless Groundhog Day of polished vocal harmonies, boogie-blues licks and lukewarm jazz-odyssey noodling.
Admittedly there is a certain nostalgic buzz in hearing drivetime classics Golden Age Of Leather and Burnin’ For You, but most of the HRH audience are waiting patiently for one song only – (Don’t Fear) The Reaper, which the Cult predictably hold back for the climax. Seemingly under the illusion that they were playing a festival called Soft Rock Hell, they are not just overshadowed by their most famous song, but blown offstage by it.
One serious oversight at this year’s Hard Rock Hell is the tiny number of female performers, which is why Girlschool prove such an uplifting choice of late-night headliner on Saturday. Laughing and joking between songs, the punk-metal Ronettes blast through vintage new wave headbangers like Demolition, Hit And Run and Screaming Blue Murder with infectious irreverence. They also pay fond tribute to former collaborators Ronnie James Dio and Tony Iommi, pointing out that some of these songs were written before half the audience were even born.
This is not the most polished set of the weekend, but Girlschool look like they are having a better time than virtually any other band at Hard Rock Hell, effortlessly blowing away the cobwebs left behind by Blue Öyster Cult. And while these South London riot grrrls never had an explicitly feminist agenda, there is inevitably something in their performance that subverts and deflates the macho phallic symbolism of cock-rock.
At their early shows, Girlschool were bombarded with leering sexist abuse. Today they’re warmly embraced by the rock community as living legends in the punk-metal pantheon. There is a name for this: progress. Hard Rock Hell may not be the most glamorous or luxurious of festivals, but at its best it feels like the biggest, loudest, friendliest family gathering on the planet.