After an arduous journey through the, admittedly stunning, Welsh countryside, finally reaching my accommodation was a blessed relief. Especially when said accommodation came with the perk of being made a restorative breakfast bagel by a rock star, namely Luke Appleton of Iced Earth. Obviously, this was a pretty good start to a weekend.
After recovering from a small dose of being star struck, and gleefully rubbing it in the faces of friends back home, the weekend proper started with Massive Wagons. It still being fairly early on the Friday, for the rock crowd the afternoon is the real morning, the crowd wasn’t huge to start with. But this intensified the personal appeal of the band with the easy proximity bringing an almost saloon feel to proceedings as Wagons kicked off their set. Highlighted on stage, the band brought an sense of ease and a certain confidence to their performance. With a classic rock feel, the band are vaguely reminiscent of a heavier Airbourne, and an energetic stage presence the crowd slowly started to swell as more people were drawn in by the sound of guitars being well used. As the band clearly took great pleasure in what they were doing, so too did the crowd. This enthusiasm was in no small part generated by the engagement of the band with the crowd, encouraging them to greater heights of excitement and letting them know just how much Massive Wagons were enjoying themselves on the stage. And their enjoyment was well backed up by performance, the sound of the band being thunderous and delivered with a great sense of style. The highlight of the performance though, had to be the song ‘Hurricane Suzie’. With the perfect introduction, “Gonna do a song about a dirty woman”, getting the crowd whooping with approval, Wagons set off into a song with all the classic signals of the rock genre and a great summary of what Massive Wagons were all about. By the time the band left the stage the crowd had doubled in size and the tone for the weekend had been well and truly set.
And it was a tone that was carried on then well and truly kicked into next week by The Burning Crows. Hailing from Norwich, the band carried themselves with easy certainty and a swagger that was hard not to love. And clearly they love what they’re doing. From start to finish the Crows gave a performance that, while not unsuited to the great arenas, carried the feel of pub rock with a close proximity to the band and an irresistible charm that carried the crowd with the band with each song they played. And with the pure rock spirit of the songs the crowd went along happily, revelling in the interaction the band have with each other, playing off each others’ performances to take the overall band display to new levels of skill and straight up enjoyability. This was probably the overwhelming feeling I got from The Burning Crows’ performance. They don’t set out to warp the mind with the way they bend a guitar to their will or hit notes of operatic levels, though this is not to detract from the band’s skill as they are supremely talented, rather they seek to deliver a performance that they can leave confident in the fact that the crowd had just as much fun as they did. Led by lead singers Whipzz’s lion’s mane of hair the crowd joyfully acquiesce, they were jumping along with the band as they take the performance through their EP with a triumphant loudness and energy into new tracks ‘All The Way’ and ‘The Queen’ from their upcoming album. Despite the risk sometimes attached to putting previously unheard tracks into live sets, the Crows carry off the songs with the same skill and sense of aplomb as they do with their older material and the crowd shows a definite appreciation for these treats. As the band bring the set to a close, they do so with a crowd of new fans eagerly awaiting the release of these tracks and others as the Burning Crows take the same energy they exude on stage to the studio.
Next up was Electric Mary, and with the easy charm that so often stereotypes Australians they immediately took control of the stage. Despite playing the smaller Stage 2 they had efficient effect works with their use of lighting hugely enhancing the already dramatic effect the band have. Complementing traditional hard rock with metal and alternatives tones, Electric Mary present a unique vision of music that they deliver with huge amounts of style in their live performance. Lead singer Rusty Brown takes the stage confidently under his control and leads the band in a performance full of aggression and a dynamism that makes Electric Mary a hugely enjoyable band to watch and a force to be reckoned with on stage. And it is a force well appreciated by the crowd as, following the Burning Crows’ brilliant performance the arena is now packed and the crowd are ready and willing for the assault of rock spirit that is Electric Mary’s trademark. This spirit is most clearly present in ‘Gasoline and Guns’, a song which, quite appropriately, sets the stage alight. It is this song which, for me, best displayed the full range of talent that Electric Mary has and epitomises the aggressive tone they bring to their performance. The crowd seemed to concur as the energy of the band was met full on by that of those watching in a wave of appreciation for the powerful performance that Electric Mary delivered. There was also a large appreciation for Rusty’s interaction with the crowd, joking about the Australians’ relation to the British gained particular approval, and was overall compounded by the way in which the band owned the stage. With their unique brand of music it was a true pleasure to see them perform and, especially to see a foreign band come so far just to play to this crowd in a back corner of Wales was truly amazing.
Taking a wander into Stage 1, locating the Burger King for later use, I accidentally find Estrella on stage. Though an unexpected performance for me it was one I found myself drawn to stay and watch to its conclusion. Though playing to an average crowd response, the band were well deserving of more with their brand of arena rock being played with a distinct and strong skill in a praise worthy performance. Led by frontman Paul Gunn with brothers Luke and Nathan on lead guitar and bass respectively, the cliché of the band being like a family is very much a truth with Estrella and is clearly displayed in the tight unity of the band’s show. This is not to detract from solo performances however, as each band member was confidently capable of independence and displayed their ability with an easy skill. The primary feel to the band was one of unity however with drummer Leo McPherson completing the band’s line up and, working with bassist Nathan Gunn, delivers a rhythm section that truly stands out above similar acts with the pure and simple tightness of the music. The overwhelming display though was one of a band having fun with the music and though I didn’t catch the whole of Estrella’s performance, they are a band I will definitely be keeping my eye on in the future with their energetic version of 70s/80s hard rock rocketing out of the Scottish Highlands.
As the time came for the Idol Dead to take the stage, the booze had started to flow and the crowd were in a good mood. And though their numbers started small, as the band came on and their frenzied, youthful energy became apparent, it became infectious and soon the crowd started to grow as more and more people were drawn to the magnetic stage presence of the Idol Dead. With frontman Polly Phluid at the helm the band quickly establish themselves on stage with both the powerful appeal of Phluid’s hugely apparent enthusiasm and the striking neon green aesthetic that the band seem to employ with items such as ties and, in Phluid’s case, a bandana tied at his waist. And with the energy the band bring to the stage, most obviously apparent in Phluid’s dervish like spinning, it’s a wonder the damn thing doesn’t come flying off. As the band progress through their set it becomes clear that they are a group more than capable of holding their own on the hard rock stage and that their new album, Dark Little Hearts, is something I may have to obsessively listen to for the next few weeks. And while the entire band delivers praise worthy performances, it was the rhythm section, made up of drummer Nish and bassist Dan, that delivered the standout performance for me with consistently tight rhythms and grooves that built the swell of the songs to monumental heights on which the rest of the band could awe the crowd. The highlight of the show had to be ‘Dion’ though. The song is pure rock and delivered with such skill and energy that any argument is rendered pointless. Restraining myself about the sheer awesomeness of ‘Dion’ I must also highlight the Idol Dead’s choice for penultimate song, ‘I’m Drowning’. A combined acoustic and electric song it delivers such pure and powerful emotion with such an anthemic feel that it is designed to be sung to arenas and, indeed, the crowd took to it like a fish to the water. A final note to the overall performance was the inclusion of two of the Nympherno Girls, members of the Area 51 entertainment group, performing a combination of fire eating and dancing that was near mesmerising and showcased the wide variety of entertainment Hard Rock Hell has to offer.
After a quick double cheeseburger, incidentally one of the best I’ve had, I headed outside into the absolutely freezing weather that North Wales had so kindly delivered, enjoyed the sight of the stilt walkers (dressed as cowgirls), more members of Area 51, and headed into Stage 2 to be greeted by Motherload. Though only catching the last 15 minutes it was more than enough to convince me of Motherload’s right to be on that stage. From the first sight of them they’re the epitome image of a rock band, all long hair and tattoos. They then go on to deliver a performance that puts the hard in hard rock and show off a serious talent that is incredible to watch as they dominate the stage. Throughout what I saw of them I was consistently impressed by the guitar work on display, melding an aggressive heaviness with a technical skill that saw hands flying across the strings and the crowd cheering for the band. This cheering intensified hugely when the band kicked into their cover of the ACDC classic ‘TNT’. A brilliantly performed cover that paid ample tribute to one of the founding bands of the hard rock movement and yet still delivered with Motherload’s own unique branding on it and a crowd involvement that saw the chanted “TNT!” chorus blasting out from the arena. It was the finale ‘Hang Your Head’ that saw the true full talent of Motherload though as the song that rings out as a future anthem swept up the crowd and showcased every element of Motherload and the performances each band member was capable. of. And it was rounded out with a rather tasty guitar solo as well. As Motherload’s performance came to a close I was saddened only by the fact that I hadn’t caught more of it.
There was little time for regret though as I had only 15 minutes of Buffalo Summer to catch before an interview the brilliant and aforementioned Burning Crows. The main impression I got from the performance was that of the bass presence, something that would be continually noticeable throughout the weekend. Though the bass provides the essential backing groove to songs it is too often left just about hanging on in the mix so to hear it have such a strident place in the music was very refreshing and allowed for the appreciation of all band members where it is often all to easy to focus simply on the lead guitar and the singer. Not detracting from the rest of the band though, as a unit they deliver a polished and strong performance with an old school rock feel that rings true of the classics and has enough style in its deliver to convince that Buffalo Summer are actually building something that’s their own on the foundations of classic rock. The one negative point I would attach to what I saw of the performance was the lack of crowd interaction. Aside from a perfunctory greeting and thank yous there really wasn’t much interplay happening between the crowd and the band as the set was primarily performance driven. That said the performance was well worthy of praise and it may simply be that I missed the point at which the band started chatting with the crowd.
Returning to the impressive arena that was Stage 1 I found Dan Baird and Homemade Sin running the show with their own brand of southern rock. It’s this feel of the south that dominates the performance, largely because the theme for Stage 1 today is “Southern Heaven”, with the raw emotion in Baird’s voice carrying through above all. Again the bass makes a big appearance in the mix which is a huge addition to the performance considering the bluesy tones that run throughout the set and deliver the gritty tone that has come to be the main definition of southern rock. This tone is abundantly present in the work of lead guitarist Warner E. Hodges on the song ‘Crooked Smile’. Quite probably my favourite moment of the set, this song showcased the impressive ability of Hodges as he managed to deliver guitar work that was hard rocking and technically impressive while remaining true to the southern rock and blues roots of the music, no mean feat to achieve. The group display a very strong sense for what they can do with music though as, throughout their performance, there are nods and references to the music that has influenced them and, though it may seem a far remove from their own style at times, the music they love clearly shines through at times. A moment such as this was when, during a mid song instrumental section, the band suddenly struck into the introductory section of the classic Who song ‘Baba O’Riley’ eliciting a huge cheer from the crowd as it became apparent that those on stage were just as big fans of the classics as those watching them. Rounding it off, the set was ended in brilliant fashion with a rendition of Neil Young’s ‘Rockin in the Free World’ that carried Dan Baird and Homemade Sin clearly into all watching’s memory.
The next act of the day was Slam Cartel. Led by singer Giles Van Lane, whose trips into the crowd add a certain extra level of excitement to proceedings, the band reformed in 2008 after a 5 year hiatus and are currently touring with their album ‘Handful of Dreams’. Though it may be a cliche the band state what they’re doing to be simply “keeping that rock n roll dream going”. And if their performance at Hard Rock Hell is anything to go by, they sure as hell know what they’re doing with that dream. The best way to describe the sound of Slam Cartel is “big”. The sound overwhelms in all aspects, a feeling in no small part contributed to by the band’s use of multiple vocals beyond the norm of backing vocals, creating a near choral effect that serves to give the band an even greater sense of musicality. Undoubtedly this effect is also what lends itself to the anthemic feel that Slam Cartel delivered with each and every song, consistently underlined by the strong bass rhythms of Mark Neudeck. It is this underlining rhythm which built up the excellent guitar work of Terence Warville, Adam Lee and Tom Hendriksen. The oddity of having three guitarists only served to increase the interest in Slam Cartel. The fact that these three guitarist delivered hooks of such grandness and unity only serves to add to the appeal. The true skill of these three however, was demonstrated in the range displayed across the set. The brutality associated with hard rock slipped easily into powerful melodies that carried the emotional reverie of Van Lane and then dipped back into the hard rocking riffs that powered through the huge choruses. Ultimately though, the stand out image of the band was that of all the members on stage, rocking their hearts out, their faces plastered with huge grins as they looked out on a crowd who loved what they were doing.
Honourable mention must go here to Molly Hatchet who, though I did not catch enough of the performance to do justice to in review, delivered a truly admirable set from what I saw. Full of all the verve and vigour of a younger band yet with all the skill and polished technicality of a group with their experience, the band delivered a performance which, while perhaps not representative of them at their heyday, was still more than noteworthy with all things taken into consideration. Undoubtedly, Molly Hatchet still hold a place in the Southern Rock elite canon.
Finally, it became time for the headliner act to take the stage. And then it was announced that practically none of the gear was working and there was going to be a delay. So I went and got another cheeseburger (I’m a fast food junkie, so sue me) and settled in for the wait. By this point the arena had started to fill significantly despite a minor undertone of grumbling, with Seb’s guitarist doing an admirable job of keeping people entertained with some handstands. Though crowds had been good throughout the day it was a Friday and not everybody could get off work. But no one wanted to miss the headliner. As the band started to play excitement was reaching a peak. And then Sebastian Bach leapt onto stage, his 6 foot 3 dominating and damn near terrifying. The man is a freaking giant and up on that stage he looked damn close to a god. And as the set progressed it was obvious I wasn’t the only one to think so. The crowd were practically worshipping Bach at times, effected in no small part that he exuded charisma and had the greatest rapport with the crowd of all the acts that had played that day. Their appreciation was shown greatest when Bach and his band delivered renditions of classic Skid Row material, sending the crowd leaping into the air as the notes of songs such as ‘Slave to the Grind’ and more enjoyably, in my opinion, ‘Youth Gone Wild’ hit the air. ‘Youth Gone Wild’ was my highlight of the performance with Bach leading the crowd into the song by, echoing his actions in the music video, pointing to the tattooed lyric on his arm. Bach has lost none of his ability to wow a crowd as the years have gone by and as the song closes he even manages to joke about the age of the band and singing about the youth, earning an easy laugh from the crowd. This performance was amply augmented by Bach’s backing band. Despite excellent performances from each member, the standout was guitarist Johnny Chromatic who provides truly exemplary secondary/backing vocals on top of his guitar duties. The whole backing band delivers a solid performance but it is, of course, Bach who dominates the stage with a combination of overwhelming personality, giant physicality and huge amounts of talent. He added to this with a certain manic element to his performance shown most clearly when he started swinging his mic to extents where it looked like there was a chance he may decapitate the guitarists. All the band members survived though and brought the night to a superb close with another Skid Row classic ‘I Remember You’. Delivered with a genuine emotion and huge talent it left the crowd on a high as the set came to an end and so did the first day of Hard Rock Hell. After a quick beer in the freezing cold, it was back to the caravan for pink champagne to celebrate the first day of the festival and the meeting of new friends. Because who doesn’t want to meet rock stars and bond over bagels, right?
Felicity: Extreme tiredness, numbness in the extremities and a long drive ahead of me couldn’t put me off staying up for Attica Rage’s album launch set. Their new album, 88mph, was out on the Friday of Hard Rock Hell, and after following Attica Rage for so many years there wasn’t a chance I could miss it! They put on, as always, a fantastic set, and it was hugely gratifying to see the number of people that stuck around long enough to see it. Going onstage at 01:40 am isn’t generally the greatest, but their hardcore fans were there in force to support the band with their latest venture. They’re a solidly great rock n roll band; no frills, no gimmicks, just pure energy and rock n roll passion! Each song was lapped up by the crowd, and they were the perfect end to what had pretty much been a perfect day.
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Review: Callum Tyndall + Felicity Hall
Photos: Craig Hutton