It’s been a while since I last attended Hammerfest – three years, to be precise, back when it was still in Prestatyn. So, how did it compare with a venue change to Pwllheli, a small holiday town out on the sticks?
Day 1: 12 March
After arriving at Hafan y Môr in the pouring rain and subsequently getting absolutely soaked on our trip to the Hammerfest stage, Incinery (5/10) kicked off the festival with a good helping of thrash metal. Admittedly, it wasn’t the freshest or most original performance and the band lacked stage presence, but the fans down at the front were very into it and for an opener, they really weren’t that bad and got the weekend off with a bang.
Up next was the excellent Hecate Enthroned (8/10) and the six-piece gave a strong and engaging performance. The atmosphere in the room was magnificent and although the set only featured one song from their most recent (and extremely awesome) album Virulent Rapture which was a bit of a shame, it was a good mix of songs and the performance went down very well as a whole, with lots of people headbanging and throwing their fists into the air in response to the music.
Following Hecate was post-metallers October File (7/10) and what was great about this set was their fantastic frontman, who knew how to work the crowd as he cracked jokes and engaged with people on a regular basis. Although the music itself wasn’t new, per se, it was still a great set from the band and it would be great to catch this act live at one of their own shows.
The whole room was chanting for pirate metal band Red Rum (6/10) as they took to the stage and everyone went mental as the set got underway. There was a general fun atmosphere onstage but it all just seemed a bit too cheesy and over-the-top, with their music focusing more on their ‘gimmick’ than anything meaty and substantial. However, they went down exceedingly well with the crowd so perhaps I just needed to be a bit more drunk to fully enjoy them.
Our penultimate band of the first night was RSJ (7/10), who came onstage to the sound of Montell Jordan’s This Is How We Do It and there was this insanely riotous energy from the entire band immediately as the performance got underway, with lots of movement about the stage as nobody (well, aside from the drummer) ended up being tied down to one specific place. The set ended with their guitarist performing on a box in the middle of the room – and if that isn’t kickass, then what is?
Having seen Irish Pagan metal band Waylander (9/10) perform top-notch sets at both Hammerfest I and Hammerfest IV, there was no way I was going to miss out on this performance and of course they put on a fantastic show. Opening with Echoes of the Sidhe, one of the strongest tracks from their latest album Kindred Spirits, the performance got underway with a bang.
There was plenty of occasions for fun with the crowd – at one point, whistle-player Dave was handed the microphone and requested everyone in the room to “appreciate the whistle” and at another point in the performance, a top hat was being waved about with good chunk of the crowd chanting the words “wear the hat” over and over to frontman Ciaran – which he duly obliged to do very briefly.
One of the highlights was the inclusion of their cover song King Of The Fairies, a track that got a bit of a “dancing pit” going in the room, and it was a pleasure to witness the song live again. As a whole, Waylander just had a fantastic stage presence from start to finish and it was a highly enjoyable set once again.
Day 2: 13 March
On the second day of the festival, my day started at the doom stage, with Gurt (8/10) getting things underway at the ‘bright and early’ time of 1pm (well, early compared to the other stages!) and it was a fantastic start to the day. Frontman Gareth was a fantastic showman who helped give an entertaining performance and joked with the crowd whilst there was an unfortunate problem with the drums. An all-round excellent set, and a great way to get the Saturday of Hammerfest started.
There was no way I was going to miss Spider Kitten (9/10) after how much I’d enjoyed their recent EP Behold Mountain, Hail Sea, Venerate Sky, Bow Before Tree and they absolutely did not disappoint. The music sounded utterly filthy; nice, sludgy and slow with an awesomely fuzzy texture to their tone. It was great to witness Lindisfarena live and the band even treated us to a brand new song which really set the bar high for their next release to come.
Following Spider Kitten, it was time to make my way to the main Hammerfest stage in order to see all the bands performances on that stage for the day and up first was The King Is Blind (6/10). Although it wasn’t the most memorable of performances the music was nice and heavy, with plenty of opportunities to headbang along to. It was just a shame they didn’t really stand out from the crowd.
When it comes to a band like Winterfylleth (5/10), when they came onstage you could tell they were more focused on their music than anything else. With all four dressed in nondescript black clothing, they just stood there and performed the songs and there wasn’t much emotion to the set so after a while it dragged, especially since there wasn’t much variety between the songs. Although it pains me to admit this, since I’m a big fan of the band, it did feel like they were perhaps a band best appreciated on CD.
Thankfully Elvenking (8/10) really picked things up and the set was engaging right from the start to the end. The band put a lot into their performance and it really paid off – the crowd got so into it and there was so many people singing the words back, which was excellent to be a part of! The band looked really at ease with each other and there was a lot of interaction between all the members, showing that whilst they moved as a unit, they also made sure to take the time to ensure the performance was visually fun for the audience too. In addition the violinist had a flying V violin – and that’s got to be a win in anyone’s book!
Up next was Darkane (7/10) and although they weren’t the most striking band with the most gripping of entrances, people slowly started getting into them as the set progressed and there was a lot of people moving about by the end. Not letting a broken guitar string stop them before their final song of the set, they powered through it to rapturous cheers from the crowd and when they were done, the resound chanting of the room wanting more was really something.
The general mood in the room heated up as Angel Witch (8/10) readied themselves to take to the stage and the atmosphere was incredible as they launched into their set. Admittedly to a person such as myself, it was a little difficult to get into at times due to being a little unfamiliar with the band’s back-catalogue, but there was no denying that it was a gripping and engaging performance – and of course, the room came alive for the closing track of the set, their self-titled song, and the roof was practically lifted with the amount of people yelling “you’re an angel witch, you’re an angel witch!”
The atmosphere and energy for Xentrix (6/10) was off the scale, but the performance itself was nothing special despite the fact that practically the entire room was going absolutely insane for them. Their style of death metal was a fairly standard one and whilst the music wasn’t bad, it also wasn’t jaw-droppingly amazing. However, judging by the reception the band got, perhaps I was just a few years too late to fully appreciate them, given that they only recently reformed after a sixteen year break.
It was a magical experience to witness headliners Kamelot (8/10) live. Beginning their set with two tracks from their Ghost Opera album, this pleased me especially as that album is the only one I’m especially familiar with – however my general lack of knowledge of their back catalogue didn’t make a difference because it was a strong performance and was accessible and enjoyable for die-hard fans and casual fans alike.
Frontman Tommy knew how to put on a performance and his voice was powerful and controlled. The way he engaged with the crowd was great – in fact, the way the whole band engaged with the crowd was great because every member got their own chance to shine with solo performances. A particular highlight was when bassist Sean took centre stage for his bass solo – the band had previously ‘finished’ their set, so he got the encore underway by playing the Jaws theme on his bass whilst peeking his head out from the side of an amp. A memorable set to say the least – and it was a pleasure to finally see Kamelot live.
Prior to the festival, I hadn’t heard of Hirax (9/10), the band closing the Hammerfest stage, but to say they blew me away was an absolute understatement. Despite the fact I’m not the biggest thrash fan, that didn’t matter in the slightest because the performance just gripped me from start to finish. Hirax had a magnificent stage presence, with all members putting their all into their set, and the way the crowd responded was phenomenal. Despite the fact the lights went off mid-way through the set, Hirax soldiered on regardless, with frontman Katon proclaiming that they’d rather perform with no lights than drop a song or two whilst waiting for the problem to be fixed, and that is an attitude to be admired. The set finished with a vast amount of crowd surfing – including Katon himself getting involved – and it was a perfect ending to a jaw-droppingly good performance.
Following Hirax, there was a mad dash back to the doom stage, which had now become the ‘sleaze’ stage, and I ended up catching the end of StOp, sToP‘s set. Although I can’t really give them a full review due to only catching the final two songs, the performance ended with the band’s bassist leaving the stage and wandering about the venue, before ending up actually performing from inside the kitchen of the pizza takeaway at the side of the venue – hilariously brilliant to say the least.
Closing the sleaze stage was Sister (8/10). Having been a fan of them for a number of years, it felt good to finally see them live and they didn’t disappoint. Although they didn’t have the largest crowd due to the late hour of their set, they still got a great response and frontman Jamie knew how to put on a show. Particular highlights of the set was Sick and Disguised Vultures, and acoustic number Would You Love a Creature made for a very emotive moment. Sister did themselves proud with this performance and it was a great end to a fantastic day!
Day 3: 14 March
The third and final day of Hammerfest began with a performance from Oaf (8/10), who could arguably be referred to as the ‘Hammerfest house band’ by now having played every year since the third edition of the festival in 2011. There was a lot of banter and teasing to and from the crowd and the two-piece, which somehow managed to make the atmosphere even more unserious than it already was. Playing mainly new material (when am I ever going to see an Oaf show where I know the majority of songs in the set?!) a particularly strong one was their track Disgusted By Your Genitalia, which rather unsurprisingly featured a chorus solely consisting of those four words repeated over and over.
Their performance of “that song about a seagull” saw Evil Scarecrow vocalist Dr Hell join Oaf to scream the line “fuck off seagull” when required, which was a great deal of fun to see, but the highlight of the set was actually closing track Tiny When Erect. Once again, a highly enjoyable set from the band – if you haven’t seen this band live yet, then you definitely need to.
The second band playing on the Hammerfest stage was the mighty Skálmöld (10/10), a band that is always an absolute pleasure to see live. Sadly, the band was plagued with difficulties right from the start after somehow managing to cause a power cut onstage just before they were due to start, and it meant that they had to cut three songs from the set – their introduction, along with Fenrisúlfur and Valhöll. It was a shame, to say the least, as after only seeing them playing 30-minute opening support slots I’d personally been very excited to see a full set from the band.
However, the fact that some songs got cut had absolutely no bearing on the set nor performance because Skálmöld refused to let the setback affect the show and still gave 110% from start to finish. Opening with Að vori, the first track from their latest opus Með vættum, it translated perfectly in a live environment and things progressed fantastically from there. One of the best things about Skálmöld, and arguably something I mention every time I review a live show of theirs, is the fact that every single member looks like they’re having such fun onstage whilst also giving a tremendously tight performance – it’s everything you could possibly want from a band, and from drummer Jón’s permanent (and very infectious) smile to þráinn’s constant crowd interactions, there’s no way you can watch this band perform without a massive smile on your face.
As well as the set consisting of some old favourites such as Narfi and Miðgarðsormur, two songs that have infectiously catchy clean vocal lines simply begging to be sung along to no matter what language you speak, Skálmöld also included a good mixture of songs from their new album. Með fuglum and Að hausti remained in the set following their November UK shows, and the band also added two songs which hadn’t been played in the UK before – the aforementioned Að vori and also Að vetri, which was an absolute joy to see. The song somehow had even more of a kick to it in a live environment and to see guitarists þráinn and Baldur tapping along to the guitar solo was impressive, and was made even more impressive when poor Baldur had to battle with screaming into a somewhat fallen microphone whilst still tapping away! Wow.
The set closed with Kvaðning and to say it was a magical rendition would be an absolute understatement. Kvaðning is always a powerful and moving song to witness live but at Hammerfest there was something even more special about it. When the song reached the acoustic/stripped-back section, the atmosphere in the room was magical with everyone swaying along and waving their arms about to it, and when the whole band joined in, there was something about the instant contrast that made for a beautifully moving moment.
To put things in black and white – it was an absolutely perfect performance from the six-piece and I’m sure I won’t be the only person remembering the show for a long time to come. Skálmöld utterly nailed it from start to finish and it was a joy to be a part of it all and witness such an intensely emotionally moving performance.
Although Skálmöld was a hard act to follow, Einherjer (8/10) gave it their all. The band had recently released their new album Av Oss For Oss, and one of the highlights of the set was their rendition of Nidstong, a song that is both the lead single from the album and one of their strongest. There’s something about that opening guitar riff that makes you simultaneously want to hum along to it and also bang your head. As a whole, it was a great and tight performance from the band, who really did themselves proud with this set.
The next band to take to the stage was Devilment (6/10) and whilst the performance itself wasn’t too bad, the band put on largely the same performance as the last time I’d saw them in Manchester, so it was a bit disappointing that they didn’t pull out all the stops for their festival set, instead choosing just to play it ‘safe’, so to speak. There was nothing wrong with it on a technical level, but it just felt like the band was capable of a lot more than a ‘standard’ show.
Following Devilment was Raging Speedhorn (7/10), who’d reunited last year following their 2008 breakup. The crowd was very involved and the pits were insane at times, but the set was marred with a bad sound balance – although there was a great chunky sound to their performance, there was sometimes way too much bass and it was headache-inducing at times. However despite that, it was a decent set and the band even treated the crowd to a new single entitled Halfway To Hell, which went down a treat.
Orange Goblin (7/10) is admittedly a difficult band to get into if you’re not a massive fan of theirs as there doesn’t tend to be much distinction from song to song. Playing a fairly standard form of heavy metal, it wasn’t the most engaging of sets but the crowd gave the band an excellent response and there was an all-round good atmosphere in the room, so you can’t really ask for more than that.
The funny thing about Candlemass (8/10) was that although the crowd didn’t go absolutely insane for them like they did with Raging Speedhorn and Orange Goblin, everyone in the room was so into the music and it was wonderful to be a part of it all. They had this wonderful layered complex sound and it was nice just to take a moment to fully absorb it without having to worry about being jostled or shoved about by a particularly boisterous member of the audience.
Something that was really great about the set was the fact the band members looked like they were having such a great time up on that stage and that mood in turn filtered back into the crowd, who cheered, clapped and moved in time to the music. It was just nice to see Candlemass giving the show their absolute all and it was a pleasure to be a part of it all.
Closing Hammerfest was Hell (8/10) and they came onstage to the very aptly titled Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll by Rainbow. Hell is always a very visually engaging band and their Hammerfest set was no exception to this. Frontman David in particular is a fantastic performer, making good use of his hands in his vocal delivery to engage the crowd. In true Hell style, they even brought some pyro along and after The Quest, there was a great big burst of fire, with David ‘welcoming’ the crowd back to the 1980s with its lack of health and safety – the band was performing in a room with a fairly low roof, after all!
It has to be said that Hell was a great choice to wind things up on the Hammerfest stage and as a whole, the festival was a good weekend filled with great music, company and atmosphere. Same time next year? Well, perhaps!