Hafan Y Môr, Pwllheli, Wales
Thursday 12th to Saturday 14th March 2015
Steve Göldby, Chris Nelson, Sean Cameron
The Festival Of Hammer, only this year it is combined with HRH's AOR fest and there's a separate stoner and sleaze stage happening as well.
Two days, three nights, 75 bands, 2,000 beers (and that was just our driver), 40,000 tons of food, eighteen rolling prescriptions for various super-strength painkillers, roughly thirty hours of missed sleep, one MetalTalk caravan that ended up looking like Beirut after a particularly intense shock and awe campaign and an anonymous packet of earplugs that were sacrificed on the barbecue, along with the Cliff Richard tea towel that we saw draped in our neighbours' 'van window.
And in between the debauchery, the hell, the pain and the suffering and the freezing, freezing cold, it really was a jolly good Metalling (and AORing) time.
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Despite setting sail from MetalTalk HQ approximately three days before it was all due to start, navigational issues, baying mobs with lanterns and pitchforks and the far too late realisation that Pwllheli is actually as far away as Botswana or Tibet, we made it on time to catch one of the bands that were marker penned on the rota as "must see" and Blitzkrieg pulled off an impressive performance.
Brian Ross was chatty and jovial and the band stormed through the complete 'A Time Of Changes' album which is celebrating its 30th year since release. This line-up of the band is tight and enthusiastic and were an especially hard act for Cardiff boys The 8th Bridge to follow.
They've got a very modern Metal sound that didn't make them ideal to go on straight after a NWOBHM original but they did well and I'm sure we'll be seeing more of them.
Meanwhile, over to the AOR stage which Chris Nelson had made an early claim to as his own personal domain.
Well what can I say - after fourteen wrong turns (thought I'd switch my sat nav off to save the battery and ended up thirty miles away lost in Dangergolso, to find out I was by a Danger Go Slow road sign) we finally arrived in a country wetter than Carmen Electra's fun flaps and got to our accommodation to find three Black Metal maniacs shouting out the words to Bathory or some other Norwegian death cult.
After dragging our soaking wet carcasses into Stig's Dump, we finally unloaded our baggage and settled into a drinking competition. Me being a sophisticated AOR fan had brought white wine to the party. The sons of Satan came with a 1.7 litre bottle of spiced dark rum, two bottles of Jager and a case of red vino. There was only going to be one winner.
We then commenced our love for the same grass roots appreciation of music and had a sing off to Manowar's 'Battle Hymn', Judas Priest's 'The Ripper' and Diamond Head's White album. Three parts to the wind we then found our way to the main stage to check out the very excellent Fahran.
Well Matt Black succeeded on leaving Serpentine and doing his own niche by spreading his wings and supplying the crowd with a very energetic full on melodic rock show and they played to a very appreciative audience; I predict bigger things.
Daylight Robbery failed to turn up because of illness so it was back to Dracula's caravan for more merriment with the trio of death's iPod. After numerous Scorpions, Venom and NWOBHM bands from the past's back catalogue we staggered back up to the arena for Angels Or Kings.
This band are going places. Their new album, 'Kings Of Nowhere', was voted number one album of 2014 on Powerplay's AOR Undergound column, written by my good friend Rob Evans, and deservedly so. It's fresh, exciting and the band's live performance shows you the true meaning of determination, talent and perseverance to hit the top.
Then it was time to check out a band I'm very familiar with - Serepentine. Tony Mills, ex vocalist for Shy and TNT, did the vocals for the first two Serpentine albums, but now Tony's left its now down to Adam Payne to step into some very big boots.
The new album comes out on Escape records in April, and is co written by Gary Hughes of Ten. I've heard the forthcoming album 'Circle Of Knives' and Serpentine fans are in for a shock. The band has moved on from using Tony's backing tracks to enhance the sound of the the two previous albums and now rock the crowd with a fantastic new frontman who sounds very familiar to Gary, but in a positive way, and pull out all the stops to prove they're here to stay.
And so to the end of the first day and it's time for Tigertailz. Adored as being one of the golden era of UK glam bands, they've been in my life as long as I can remember. The legendary Pepsi Tate has passed away but his songs and legacy live on within the band.
Through numerous line-up changes the only original band member is Jay Pepper, but the band on home turf always seem to be a crowd pleaser, ploughing through favourites from the back catalogue including the timeless classic 'Love Bomb Baby'. So the first day comes to an end, Papa John's is our last supper, we stumble back to our heavenly slumber and get ready for day two.
As Thursday night stumbled hazily into Friday morning, and then blearily into Friday lunchtime, the eyes adjusted just enough to be able to decipher from the rota that today was going to be more than pretty good so after a refuelling mission, off we stumbled to the Hammerfest stage and it was down to The King Is Blind to blow the mist of stale beer that lingered in the air from Thursday night away.
The East Anglians ripped into their set and those who weren't shocked by their extremities of musicianship, especially in the vocal department, were certainly woken right up. This is a band who beat you around the head like an Iraqi prisoner and don't just assault your aural senses, they rip them out, kick them around the room and throw them right back in your face.
So I went to the bar and had some more beer after that and waited for Winterfylleth.
Technical difficulties coupled with a soundman who clearly did not know the band's material meant this was not the Mancunian black/heathen Metallers' finest hour but they still impressed with their dark, brooding setlist and between song violin outtakes. Atmosphere is the name of the game here and Winterfylleth produce it in spades.
And then it was Elvenking who were far and away my personal favourite band of the whole festival. I've done a separate interview with vocalist Damna and guitarist Ayden which goes to press in the not too distant and gives you a good insight into a band who are eight albums in now and barely known on those shores.
Out of all the bands I saw this weekend, Elvenking were the ones who got their name chanted the loudest and their particular unique brand of Italian symphonic folk Metal went down an absolute storm. Uplifting songs with huge choruses really won this crowd over from the off and they've gained a whole legion of new fans now after a performance that was completely rousing.
Darkane had a ridiculously hard act to follow and unfortunately came nowhere close. Singer Lawrence Mackrory made a fatal mistake by announcing the fact that they had arrived late and therefore the opening song was not up to standard. If he hadn't done that, the Swedes just may have got away with it but the truth is they were finished after those words. Let's hope they get another shot.
By now the evening was descending and the venue was filling up and another band who managed to acquire a new legion of followers were Angel Witch. I have seen Angel Witch dozens of times over a four decade timespan and I have to say that this could well have been the best I have ever seen them play.
Yes, they still drop the odd bum note and Kevin Heybourne's vocal can still stray out of tune from time to time but they played with a passion tonight that took us right back to the very beginnings of Heavy Metal. This is a band who used to have Iron Maiden as their support band and who influenced Metallica and other noteables and tonight they absolutely cooked. Angel Witch could be on the verge of a new lease of life.
Northern bruisers Xentrix blasted out a storming set that really had the crowd on the edge and this was probably the most energetic set of the whole weekend. They never let up once and really demonstrated some seriously impressive stage craft. This was hardcore at its finest and with the band now in full swing after a hiatus I can feel some proper success coming their way soon.
One of the highlights of the billing was Kamelot and the excitement of checking out Roy Khan's replacement, Tommy Karevik. Although he doesn't quite have Khan's class, he filled the shoes reasonably well and had the crowd singing along to an astonishing back catalogue.
You often hear about the 'Big Four' of thrash but it could so easily have been the 'Big Five' and it's a bit of a mystery why Hirax never quite made it as big as Metallica, Megadeth and others from the LA/Bay Area as they demonstrated on this, their first ever show in Britain, that they are a cut above most of their comtemporaries.
Vocalist Katon W De Pena had to contend with the loss of lighting half way through the set but Hirax showed consummate professionalism by playing on regardless and no two ways about it, their UK debut after 31 years of being in existence, was a major triumph, even though Katon got the country wrong when he gave his heartfelt thanks to the crowd.
And it seems that Chris Nelson was having another seriously good time over at the AOR stage.
Did I mention it rained? In fact I don't think it stopped for two days but that didn't stop me from checking out some good friends of mine opening up the main AOR stage, Tainted Nation, a little bit of a mini super group featuring members that have played with Helloween, Scorpions, Firewind, The Poodles, Eden's Curse and Steve Grimmett.
They only have one album out at the moment so the set list consisted of the best from this. Being the first band on means you don't always have the most enthusiastic crowd to play to but the band did a great job and with frontman Pete Newdeck, who is always very professional but also very funny, the band did a superb job of getting the proceedings off to a good start.
Next up were the very excellent Psycho Kiss. With only the second female fronted AOR band appearing at the weekend they have, with Helen Clarke, a sassy, charismatic and fabulously gifted vocalist. Drifting through the crowd as I often do, all I could hear from friends and strangers were good words and praise and I urge everyone who's not heard this band yet to check their Facebook page out and see what you're missing.
In between interviews I managed to catch the back end of Vega's set and as always the band were great value for money and are one of the hardest working UK bands on the circuit and well worth checking out live. Next up is one of the only bands I would travel anywhere in the world to see and to say I'm a fan is an understatement.
So a packed main arena waited for Stockholm's finest The Poodles and wow, were they not disappointed. Playing an array of hits from all of their albums, they blew most of the bands at HRH out of the water. Frontman Jakob Samuel has it all, a stunning voice, devilishly good looks, dress sense to die for and he just oozes class and is everything a vocalist should have.
They had the crowd eating out of the palms of their hands and even with a cock up intro to one of the songs could do no wrong and waltzed through hits such as 'Caroline', 'One Night Of Passion', 'Metal Will Stand Tall' and also new songs from the forthcoming album 'Devil In The Details' (out worldwide on March 25th).
Having eluded a lot of the audience before today's performance, all I could hear after the gig was admiration and people asking "how have I never checked this band out before?" They certainly gathered a hell of a lot of new fans today.
So there was a lot of hype about the next band, Starz, who had never played the UK before and have a debut AOR album that is still revered as one of the finest of it's genre but it's a mystery how this band ended up this far up a bill of today's quality.
Following a band like The Poodles onto the stage you had better be a little bit special but the opposite effect happened and the band were a disappointment live.
Then it was time to witness the hurricane that is H.E.A.T. Having seen the band numerous times over the past twelve months, I think personally that I'd just had a little bit of an overload with the band and it affected my judgement slightly. To me it wasn't the best I've seen them but even running on 80% they are still head and shoulders above any other band live at the moment and the heaving crowd lapped up the energetic performance with opening arms.
Apart from the constant spitting on stage by vocalist Erik it was a great gig and I'm sure they will still go from strength to strength in the foreseeable future.
And over at the Hammerfest stage...
Oaf And Friends were brilliant. For the uninitiated, this is Metal journalist Dom Lawson on bass and drummer James Rayment who looks (probably intentionaly) completely out of place. That's it - just the two of them and they're a parody act but what they are parodying is quite unclear. Dom has a fabulous sense of humour and is an excellent bass player and there is some seriously funny stuff going on here.
However, I do find it more than highly ironic that Dom can see fit to write a very serious column for The Guardian absolutely slating the last Mastodon video for being "sexist" (there were some girls doing that twerking thing, that's all) and then perform a song called 'Disgusted By Your Genitalia' whilst opening a major festival.
Dr Hell from Evil Scarecrow was the only friend to actually appear with the band but they had already pointed out early on that they don't actually have any. Catch Oaf when you can because for sure, you will be entertained.
Next up was Skálmöld who got my 'Best Upcoming Band' award for 2014 so I was naturally excited to be catching them live for the first time and they most certainly did not disappoint, despite obvious difficulties getting their stage up and running.
Skálmöld have the songs and the stage confidence to go far and they have five members who sing as well. Huge Nordic and Viking Metal anthems with the guitar of Þráinn Árni Baldvinsson the icing on the cake make for a superb show and an all round enjoyable experience and the crowd reaction said it all really.
Skálmöld were one of the highlights of the whole weekend for me and they have an audience waiting on these shores for when they next return.
The Viking theme was continued with Norway's Einherjer who are also well worth checking out. One of the best things about multi-band festvials is discovering new acts and this three piece are now high on my hit list. It is to their eternal credit that they managed to successfully follow Skálmöld as lesser acts would have crumbled at the size of this task.
Devilment are best known for their charismatic frontman Dani Filth of Cradle Of Filth fame and although he isn't a founding member of this band, he now appears to be fully at the helm and captaining the ship. It's unmistakeably Filthy in places and will definitely appeal to all CoF fans but it also has it's own identity and as always, Dani's unique showmanship is on full display.
Let's switch back to the AOR stage and see what Chris was getting down and dirty to...
First bands on the Saturday were two unknown bands to me called Euphoria Audio and Reach. Both showed potential and could easily improve in time because all the elements are there; they just need tweaking.
Next up was White Widdow whose vocalist Julz also fronts Tigertailz. The band originate from Australia and flew half way around the earth to be with us and they put up a very commendable show.
This was the final night of their mini UK tour and also because he's been singing also with the Tailz at this festival, his voice was starting to suffer. Apart from that, the new songs are great, the band's guitarist is awesome and they know how to command an audience.
Houston took to the stage next, but also the same as Heat, I've seen the guys perform better. The songs are all there, but on this night there also seemed to be something missing, which most of the crowd I talked to agreed with. Shame because I know they are capable of doing so much better and I have really enjoyed listening to the last two albums from them. If they could only have put that over in the live performance I know they would have won the fans over.
Having caught Eclipse many times live I knew what to expect and the band's set was killer. Then it was the turn of another Scandinavian band, Sweden's Crazy Lixx. For the first time ever, and I don't know the reason why, vocalist Danny Rexon had to take to the stage paying guitar as well as singing and this for me affected the band's performance.
Although he did a great job of filling in on the six strings, I would have preferred them to have employed someone to fill the roll, allowing Danny the freedom he deserves. Apart from this little gripe, the songs were great and clearly the band enjoyed themselves.
So to the final two bands, and what bands they are. The last but one band to play HRH are an English institution to say the least and have been, to me, the UK's greatest ever melodic rock band, so welcome on stage FM.
What can be said about this band that hasn't been said before. After all these years they are a band that are still totally on top of their game, can still thrill an audience, have phenomenal songs and in Steve Overland have one of the most perfect voices in the business. They did exactly as they said they would on the tin, they played the hits with ease, showcased the new material and overall just showed why they have been revered in the music business for so long as they have. Long may they rule.
And so it's all come down to this. I've waited a lifetime to catch this band live, they've played London twice recently and I missed both of them but now the time has arrived - Night Ranger are here and it's show time.
The first thing I noticed was that the sound miraculously just got 100% better. I was looking forward to seeing this band for soooooo long, and boy was I not disappointed. With a lifetime full of rock n' roll experience, Jack Blades, Brad Gillis and Kelly Keagy showed us why they are such a well loved band, not just in the USA but here in Blighty too.
From the word go, the band had us frothing at the mouth, with class and hits coming left, right and centre and it was great to here a Damn Yankees, Ozzy, and an Alice Cooper track (due to the second guitarist being Keri Kelli) thrown into the mix. With Jack and Kelly sharing the vocal duties it was just sublime and to hear Mr Keagy sing 'Sister Christian' was worth the admission alone.
To say they were worth the wait is like saying Ali was the greatest - it just goes without saying. Please, please, please come back and visit us on a tour real soon.
And back on the Hammerfest stage, Orange Goblin hit the stage in their usual irrepresible way and with a swagger, a lurch and a half empty can of super strength lager, Ben Ward announced the band's arrival. Not that he really needed to as when Ben and the boys are in town, you definitely know about it. In fact, you know about it when they are in the next town and tonight they were bombastic and bruising.
The Goblin played a career spanning set that demonstrated why they have remained valid for so long now and showed the very best of what they have to offer.
Just one small point though. Here's the ultimate stoner band and they're on the Hammerfest stage, not the stoner stage. No problem though and it was to their benefit that this happened as it meant they played to a bigger audience.
No anomolies or questions at all about Candlemass who absolutely killed the Hammer stage. This was a performance that was totally spellbinding and triumphant and new vocalist Mats Levin completely ruled.
The Swedish doom masters have come a long, long way since the Messiah Marcolin days and the album that is probably doom Metal's finest ever offering, 'Epicus Doomicus Metallicus'. Founding member and bass player and chief songwriter Leif Edling was not present tonight as he is suffering from an undisclosed illness which has grounded him for the rest of the year so Jorgen Sandstrom filled in on bass and collectively, it was an extremely impressive and memorable performance.
Candlemass are the seventh best selling artist coming out of Sweden with album sales in excess of 15 million worldwide. Tonight they showed exactly why.
And so to wrap things up on the Hammer stage, enter Hell and their own unique brand of theatrics. This is entertainment of a unique nature and you most certainly get your money's worth from the Derbyshire Metallers. World renowned producer Andy Sneap is a member of the band and they have a seriously colourful history which has not always been of a happy nature but they are here, still, and very alive and much more than kicking.
They're a fitting act to close proceedings and they did that in fine style and left those still standing with an overriding memory of something quite different and captivating.
And so to the other side of the site to catch the very final act of the weekend, the outstanding Evil Scarecrow and what a show they put on.
We've been following the Scarecrows since the beginning some years ago and it was incredibly heartwarming to see them finally playing a stage as big as their talents. This was effectively the headline slot of the whole weekend and aside from the open-airs they have played, like Bloodstock, this could have been the biggest crowd that the band have played to yet.
And how they worked the audience as well. It was a masterclasss and so refreshing to see something different to the usual cliched "let me see your hands" that almost every band trots out nowadays. What individuality is lacking in Metal these days is made up for by the Scarecrows who just cannot be compared to any other act out there. An utter triumph and an utter blast as well.
So it's all over for another year, songs have been sung, drinks have been drunk and rock and Metal has come out victorious again. Here's to the next one. Now for that long journey home and a chance to give our livers a rest. ROCK ON.
Have a browse through our gallery to see the bands in action. Click an image to see the larger version...