HELL'S HEROES FESTIVAL 2022 - Hell Ain't A Bad Place To Be...

April 29, 2022, 4 weeks ago

Mark Gromen

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Deaf, dumb & blind, in Texas, courtesy of a two-day, late April confab, called Hell's Heroes. Essentially Spring Break, for the black shirted horde! While the fourth installment overall, this marked my maiden voyage. With ProgPower USA winding down and Maryland Deathfest uncertain about continuing beyond this year (definitely on hiatus in 2023), where's the next boutique American festival, fertile grounds to nurture the growth of baby bands? The mega-colossus Ozzfest replacements that are Epicenter/Carolina Rebellion, Upheaval, Rockville, Rockfest, Louder Than Life, Blue Ridge, Aftershock, etc. cater to commercial/big label acts, most of whom wouldn't be considered "metal" outside of America. So trve, kvlt, underground darlings (esp. from overseas, once the pandemic backlog of visa applications can be sorted out), as well as long running fan favorites, have discovered a much needed haven, in Houston.

The main room holds 1200, the upstairs "hole-in-the-wall" stage, just 250 and each day's running order dovetails the two venues, with no overlap between: when the downstairs ends, the upstairs starts, and vice versa. So it's impossible to take in the full sets of successive acts. Just traversing between the rooms, you have to miss something. Thankfully there was some space in the massive line-up during which to socialize, eat, etc (had previously seen more than half of the 27 bands performing, over two day, so it wasn't deemed necessary to see/hear everything onstage). Most are afforded 30 minutes, the nightly headliner, an hour. A review of the pre-party (another six bands) can be found here

On Friday, the music kicked off at 3 PM, with War Cloud. Their guitarist pulls double duty, in Savage Master, who were scheduled downstairs, immediately following. That, plus a five minute sound effects intro tape, plunged the main stage into scheduling overruns from which they'd never recover. And it's just the first band of the day! It was sort of funny, seeing the Savage Master musicians setting up/checking their gear, only to return onstage in hoods/robes. All anonymity lost. The guys were adorned in pink capes and what seemed to be potato sack hoods, with crudely hacked eye holes, encased their heads, while singer Stacey Savage had a leather ensemble and a red trimmed, black satin cowl, the hood would be on her head, for the finale. Got the crowd involved, right from the start, with a rambunctious "Ready To Sin", the fans screaming "under the banner: six, six six" chorus as Stacey repeatedly made an inverted cross, with her arms. More sing-alongs for "With Whips & Chains". For "Lady Of Steel", Savage was joined by fellow femme fatales from Lady Beast and Solicitor, dedicating the song to the pioneering, late Cleveland legend Sandy Kruger (Sacred Few). Because of the aforementioned timing issues, band was going to be onstage at the same time as Lady Beast, so headed upstairs to catch a portion of their set too. 

Lady Beast opened with "The Poisoned Path", off their latest, Omens EP, released last year. Orange haired frontwoman Deborah Levine might as well be an aerobics instructor, the way she bounces around onstage, punching the air. Quite the workout! The twin guitar quintet also features Amy Bianco, on bass. "Reaper" gave way to "Runes Of Rust", the Pittsburgh area outfit making the tiny upstairs stage their own, as the room filled throughout the set. Why is it that when people enter a room, they feel compelled to just stop in the doorway, regardless if there's anyone behind them (also seeking entry)? Both "Vicious Breed" and "Betrayer" were also in the mix. Good stuff.

One of the weekend's acts witnessed, start-to-finish, was an all-too-early, 4:30 in the afternoon set from Night Demon. Fresh from a record release gig, also celebrating their newly brewed Year Of The Demon beer, just the week before, the trio crammed as much material as they could in a 30 minute window, although the double intro tapes (Demon's "Night Of The Demon" and then Conan theme "Riddle Of Steel") may have cost us another song, but I digress. As usual, they boys were shot from a cannon, commencing with "Screams In The Night", a high energy attack that had Jarvis Leatherby (bass/vocals) and Armand John Anthony madly headbanging, when not racing from one end of the stage to the other. Armand likes to play close to the fans, on the wedge monitors at the lip of the stage. Working newer material into a shorter set s no easy task, but the Demons make it work, the first being "Empires Fall", where  everyone not named Dusty Squires (drums) side-by-side, center stage. The bass and guitar swap sides during a stomping "Hallowed Ground". Initially purple lit when their rendition of Thin Lizzy's "The Sun Goes Down" opts for its high octane finish (without any warning), a full array of color lights are unleashed. Jarvis, his legs splayed widely (even dropping to one knee), headbangs furiously. Under a green tint, Squires rifles off the start of "Kill The Pain", which will see another unified headbang, stagefront. Armand takes a wicked solo spot in the pink lit "Dawn Rider" and then it's time for Rocky (Yo, Adrian!). Heralded by the creepy organ recording, the skeletal mascot makes his appearance during "The Chalice", wandering the stage with the namesake "unholy grail." The house lighting tech had the stage backlit, with oscillating blues and greens, creating a more ominous feel. Then, he lit the musicians only in red, Nice effect. Speaking of reds, that was the hue for the concluding signature track, which sees a reprise of the flailing hair intensity that began the show. Leatherby and Anthony again meet, both playing the same lead, one on guitar, one bass. Eight songs (and two intro tapes) in an "allotted" half-hour time slot? Not bad.

Speaking of grails, ran into clean shaven James Paul Luna, (former?) singer of Holy Grail, who informed me he's in the process of starting a new (as yet unnamed) band that will be "70s hard rock/traditional metal". He mentioned U.F.O. as a reference point, which should fit his voice perfectly. 

If you didn't know Whiplash had never been to Texas before (Tony Portaro, guitar/vocals, acknowledged as much, from the stage) you could tell from the fanatical support and crowd surfing/stage diving maniacs, from the word "go." A lot of pent up frustrations released, however the chant, to begin "The Burning Of Atlanta" didn't go down to well with our southern guests. Upstairs, Sölicitör (double umlauts!) were laying a punk infused, speed metal smackdown on a claustrophobic inducing gathering. Spiked hair and well tatted frontwoman Amy Lee Carlson in stark contrast to Matt Vogan, the Buddy Holly glasses wearing guitarist. 

Speaking of over-the-top antics/performances, another hooded outfit emerged as the unannounced secret guest, Cleveland's own, Midnight. Might be only three guys onstage and only two that move around, but there's more action filling the stage than most bands with twice as many members. From the old days Raven school of visual performances (and maybe just as loud). Athenar and especially Commandor Vanik run around the stage, launching themselves off the wedge monitors, rolling on the floor and basically assault the crowd, at close proximity, cranking histrionic Motörhead volume. Aural/visual simulation overload! Some people can't get beyond the bombast, but they possess all the stadium rock tropes, just amplified to ear-splitting levels of the nth degree. Blue/red lit "Szex Witchery" seemed extra special to those in attendance. Athenar and Vanik engage in a bit of "sword play", using the headstocks of their respective instruments.

Bewitcher deserved to be on the main stage. Most pack room of the weekend, as far I could tell. Just wish there was more off Cursed Be Thy Kingdom. Only heard "Satanic Magick Attack" and "Death Returns". Maybe there was more after I left. 

Although this was the continental USA's initial opportunity to see Candlemass with "new"/original vocalist Johan Längqvist (he was on 70,000 Tons cruise, pre-pandemic) have caught them a couple of times, performing all or the majority of Epicus Doomicus Metallicus (as has been the case, regardless of who fronted the band, the last 36 years). Each time is a treat. Is it the soundtrack of the Covid 19/pandemic era? After hearing it again, seems so right. In post-gig conversions, the band too is happy, professionally and personally, somewhat shocking, given the musical tonality. Leif Edling (looking professorial, with spectacles, a fedora and long gray hair, which, "gets caught in my bass strap!") had a period where he didn't want to play live, but those days are gone. Have to sort of have a laugh when you look at guitarist/fashionista Mats "Mappe' Björkman, resplendent in tartan print trousers! He's taken a more prominent role, onstage of late.  

Bathed in crimson, the set begins with thumping "Well Of Souls", the initial lyrics delivered a cappella, although the crowd quickly joins Längqvist. The bowel rumbling "Mirror Mirror" is broken by a Johansson flourish. Practically bouncy, by comparison to its neighbors, "Bewitched" is fluid, fun and appropriately heavy. The depressive glory of "Samarithan" creeps along, under dark (deep?) purple hues. Red and copper lit, "Dark Are The Veils of Death" sees Mappe and guitar partner, lefty Lars Johansson center stage. These songs are all well known and many in the crowd sing along, religiously. "Crystal Ball" is framed in blues and greens, with both the bass player and Johansson getting a short solo spot. Then whole band briefly chugs like a locomotive, before eventually returning to the inherent doom. Before plucking out the sporadic opening to "A Sorcerer's Pledge", Mappe hugs the singer and implores the audience to show similar gratitude. Edling is seated on the drum riser, but Längqvist notices Björkman's guitar is out of tune. A quick fix and their back, audience clapping along to the belabored opening, sans drums. BOOM, eventually all Hell breaks loose. Yes, C-mass can blaze away on their instruments: witness the "whoa whoa" section of that lengthy tune. The Swedes leave the stage, only to return for "Solitude" encore, a hammering, wood chopping tempo. Legendary is not even a strong enough compliment. 

After a few cursory photos and taking in a couple of songs, missed the remainder of the Dark Angel set, as I was backstage, catching up with old friends Candlemass and James Rivera who had performed earlier, as part of the South Texas Legion, alongside members of Militia (man, can Mike Soliz still hit those high notes!). But I wasn't the only one, as mainstay Jim Durkin was unable to make the show and was replaced on guitar by drummer Gene "The Atomic Clock" Hoglan's wife, Laura Christine. Even at this late hour, after hours of thrashing and banging, this crowd demonstrated how big a hotbed Texas was/is for blacken thrash/melodic death. Sure they slept soundly, after that display. 

Day 2
Promoter Christian Larson humbly had his band Night Cobra on first. There's something to like about the dirty sound, Larson atop the wedge monitors like a southern fried Rob Zombie (minus the big bucks wardrobe), wielding a shamanism cudgel. To his left is a curly hair, hot shit lead guitarist. Brandon Barger. The music tends to be harsher than its commercial leanings, just the opposite of Haunt (also on the day's bill), whose centrist metal opts for a lighter, more commercial edge. Too hard, too soft, between the two of them, there's great album in there, somewhere. Then again, maybe this Goldilocks is just too picky. After a couple of songs ran upstairs to see one of the main reasons I flew to Houston.

Among the recent spate of young traditional minded outfits, make no bones about my affinity for Saber. Currently wrapping up their initial tour (alongside Haunt, Screamer and Traveler), it's been four months since first witnessing them live. My, how they've grown. They've also had a couple of line-up changes, with Jesus Decay guitarist taking over the drum stool, once six-stringer Quinten Lawson came onboard. The new gunslinger has the looks and chops, and as a result prompted Yolo (aka Joel Dominguez) to not only step up his (already admirable) game, but become something more of a live focal point, stepping of of the shadows (group dynamic) alongside singer Steven Villa (he of the impressive vocal sustain: wow!). Apparently many others share my enthusiasm, as despite being the first band on the tiny upstairs stage, it was packed. A couple of technical issues aside "Storm Of Steel" proved its worth as an, ahem, storming opener. "Without Warning" followed, as Yolo positioned himself center stage, hair flying as his digits blazed up & down the frets. Between he, newboy "Lawless" and Villa, the band really sells it live, an enthusiastic, take-no-prisoners approach. Villa removed his shades for "Leather Laced Lady". Highlights of "Midnight Rider" were the titular falsetto sustain and another solo spotlight, while the rest of the band engage in a group headbang. For "Outlaw" the guitar tandem meets center stage, then employs the road cases fronting the stage as a de facto gangplank, venturing into the crowd. The singer kills it with the held note on this one! After introducing each member of the band, Steven karate kicks into "Strike Of The Witch". Stage right, he drops to his knees, singing right into the faces of those pressed against the rail. One song left and people are calling for "Speed Racer" (a title accurate, in both words). Villa is shirtless for this one and living up to the titular phrase, the solo smokes, as the guitarists again venture onto the makeshift catwalk, armed with twin leads. The crowd sings along and everyone leaves happy, both sides of the barricade. In conversation later, we were repeatedly "interrupted" by well-wishing fans who offered accolades like "You guys were great"..."you ripped it up"..."I was impressed," etc. Word is getting out!

Rest of the day was a smorgasbord of sounds and styles, sampling a little here, trying something else there, beginning with Haunt. Trevor Church is prolific: three albums last year and Windows Of Your Heart poised for a July release. While his style should appeal to me more than it does, there's an accessible/commercial streak that's a bit off-putting, for an underground act. His live band, a two guitar foursome, with Church handling axe and vocals while his burly drummer (bleach blonde hair and jet black beard) looks more like an ‘80s NWA wrestler. Today, "Mind Freeze" and the speedy "Hearts On Fire" stood apart from the others. Have seen the name Slough Feg for years, but never really paid them any mind. Houston was my chance. What was delivered was a LOUD display of histrionics: feedback induced, fuzztone wall of sound from a crazed cast of characters. Their angular stage motions were almost as twisted, left-of-center, as the music they produced. The history of Memphis, Tennessee based Medieval Steel is a somewhat unbelievable story: a career resurrected in Germany, thanks to their signature tune, on a uber rare, 1984 eponymous entitled Ep. Grown men crying, when they actually played the Keep It True festival in 2013. Has to feel gratifying, receiving such love/recognition, even if so far removed, after the fact (nearly 40 years now). While the chorus in Houston didn't rival that momentous night a decade ago (check it out on YouTube)."Battle Beyond The Stars", from said four-tracker, was aired tonight, singer Bobby Franklin (the lone original member) still fronting the band. They've just issued an album of all new material, Gods Of Steel independently and have become something of a more consistent presence at specialized metal events, like Hell's Heroes. The setlist drew heavily from the new album, leaving "Medieval Steel" for the finale.

Although I'd seen the Swedes overseas, there was no chance I was going to miss Screamer, especially since they'd asked me to provide some written documentation for their case with the US visa panel, ultimately allowing them to tour domestically, including the stop in Houston. A far cry from the outdoor venue at Bang Your Head, they were relegated to the small, upstairs stage. No matter, the curious and faithful alike crammed in, side-by-side, like affectionate sardines (and, in some cases, smelling just as "inviting"). Actually, only three members could make the trip: drums, guitar and (thankfully) vocals, the remaining two posts occupied by members of Traveler/Saber, who were part of the touring package. There's a danger there, in that the North Americans present a different (dare I say, more dynamic/flamboyant) stage presence, one that may be difficult to replicate by the (eventually) returning bandmates or, having seen what "can be", becomes demanded of those who remained at home. Only time will tell. Regardless, they warmed to the task, starting with "Ride On", followed hotly by "Demon Rider". Dejan Rosic used the road cases as a stepping stone, into the crowd, wielding his guitar as he met his public, up close, and personal, for "Keep On Walking". Might have been crammed, but that didn't prevent a couple of intrepid souls from crowd surfing, as the guitarist switched sides of the stage, during "Rider Of Death". The six-string pair were poised behind singer Andreas Wikström as they traded licks on "Can You Hear Me". The trio partake in a group headbang. High tempo "Shadow Hunter" has audience shouting the titular chorus, as the two Swedes not anchored to the drumkit venturing into the crowd once more. Concluding with infectious "Out Of The Dark", it's impossible to be a fan of this music and not uncontrollably finding yourself banging to the rhythm. Great end to a fun performance. Come back soon!

Even with a list of anticipated act, Traveler were perhaps THE revelation of the weekend. While favorably reviewing their albums in the past, had no indication that they were such an incendiary live element, ripping from start-to-finish. Wow, great stuff, beginning with "Shaded Mirror", the same position it holds on 2022 issued Termination Shock. Jean-Pierre Abboud's enthusiasm was infectious, the guys happy to be on tour again, the previous (European) jaunt having been curtailed by the sudden outbreak of Covid 19. Like the high speed engines of its namesake hot rod, "Street Machine" smokes, off the line and never hits the brakes. The guitarist meet center stage, for twin leads. "Are you ready for ludicrous speed," asked the singer. Damn, I thought we'd already experienced it. But no, bring on "Deep Space." Said something about the first time for "Behind The Iron", but certainly didn't come across as a debut. "Starbreaker" and, living up to its name, "Speed Queen" had me headed back to the studio albums to re-evaluate both albums. If you're a speed freak and haven't checked out the Calgary-based outfit, do so immediately. If there were any doubt in the big, supposedly influential music/media capitals, like NYC, LA, Toronto or Philly, where's there's a dearth of live metal shows, there's a movement happening throughout this continent and the "taste makers" have NO CLUE about who these young bucks are, or where they come from. Although some have tried their luck, touring great distances, hats off to Hell's Heroes for giving them a first class, global spotlight.

Always good to see Riot V and tonight (maybe because they were "home"), they pulled out a few surprises, although the lengthy set-up cost us "Outlaw" (on the printed playlist, but skipped: Damn!) Singer Todd Michael Hall has fronted other bands before and was on TV song-contest, The Voice during the pandemic. Not only does he possess an underrated voice (never really given credit, in a band with a history of great singers) but seems like one of the genuinely nice guys in the business. An expressive face, he also utilizes hand/arm gestures to accentuate, throughout a performance. Following "Victory" opener, it was right into "Flight Of The Warrior", many singing along, to every word. The song selection sampled all eras of the band, apart from the Rhett Forrester days, but the Thundersteel album (a classic) receives the most love, onstage and in the crowd. Don Van Stavern (he of sequin & studded loafers, plus cap, with brim pulled down over his eyes) played bass on that record. "On Your Knees", minus the original horns gets a workout, then the mid-tempo stomp of "Sign Of The Crimson Storm" (a rare moment of subtlety). "Johnny's Back" sees the bassist and guitarist Mike Flyntz stage right. "Bloodstreets/Take Me Back" leads into oldie "Altar Of The King", which was unfortunately lost of the young crowd that wanted the high pitched speed of that '88 disc. Don't worry kids, it's coming. "Road Racin'" was another nod to the Guy Speranza fronted band, which fared better, thanks to an updated version by Night Demon. In Houston, their frontman Jarvis Leatherby made an appearance, briefly offering vocals alongside Hall. Once upon a time "Swords & Tequila" would have been the show stopper, dedicated to the trio of fallen former member (Forrester, Speranza and founding guitarist Mark Reale). Still regal, but followed by a "Warrior" sing-along and the (long awaited) concluding "Thundersteel". While the crowd surfing had ebbed throughout, but the speedy finale unleashed a renewed zeal (even some old school stage divers), much to the consternation of the overworked security in the pit. Great musical career, glad to see most of it not only surviving, but appreciated. Shine on, indeed.

One of the legendary reclusive/cult acts, the reactivated Cirith Ungol has gained a prominence they could only have dreamt of, in the ‘80s. Looking a bit like WKRP Deejay, Dr. Johnny Fever, singer Tim Baker wore mirror sunglasses throughout the set. Initially in black denim jacket (removed by "Join The Legion"), but we're getting ahead of ourselves. Opening with "Legions Arise" signaled this isn't only a nostalgia act, although follow-up, "I'm Alive" received a thunderous crowd response. "Frost & Fire" came next, lit in red and purple. Not sure how many fans were siphoned off, by High Spirits playing upstairs, concurrently (although that was never the plan, but damn those pesky time overruns) and situated after those home staters, Riot, but the depressive doom of Cirith Ungol is always a mellower moment in a festival schedule, and after 2+ days of metallic overload...just saying. "Black Machine" comes with the quixotic frontman's amped-up, emphatic vocal emphasis, between stiff, almost robotic stage movements. Never can tell if it's just shtick. He continues the forceful delivery on "Blood & Iron". Seemingly straight jacketed, at times, Baker sings with his arms "strapped" at his sides, yet during "King Of The Dead" he stalks around the stage, hands to his head (feigning agony) or pogoing in place. It's quite the eccentric performance! As the night progresses, he seems more in-tune (pun intended) with the music, as opposed to his initial aloof demeanor. Stage left, guitarist Jim Barraza grinds out the gargantuan riffs. 

"Chaos Descends" is the last oldie for a while, as the band offer a string of four songs released this decade: "Brutish Manchild", "The Frost Monstreme", "Fractus Promissum" and (paradoxically green hued) "Forever Black", the latter with a particularly histrionic Baker. No problem with them airing new music, but as much as I like the 2020 return, the back-to-back nature, late in the set?  Red lit "Atom Smasher" returns to the glory days (if there ever were any, given this band's hard luck story), Baker in his element. In fact the closing run offsets the earlier stretch, but it almost didn't happen. With the overhead lights spelling out "Hell Yeah!" it was announced that the club was staying open later (than anticipated) so Ungols could finish their set and with "Master Of The Pit", "King Of The Dead" and "Paradise Lost" yet to come, it's a good thing they did. Can't imagine a show without any of those (nor the reaction, if they'd been nixed). 

Finally, some comments/suggestions on moving forward. Hell's Heroes has done an excellent job carving out a unique niche on the American festival landscape, hopefully they want to grow the event and thereby the music we all love. This is not just some ideal wish list, but hopefully concrete ideas from someone who has attended concerts for almost 45 years, run a few and been privy to the inner workings of many, both here and abroad. First and foremost would immediately investigate the possibility of utilizing the outdoor stage (in tandem with the current main hall), while scraping the upstairs room. There are many reasons. You currently sell out annually, with people willing to cross the southern and northern boarders, as well as fly in from Europe, so there's definitely untapped potential. That might be the bigger bankroll needed for a larger sound system/lights, the additional attendees (maybe up to 50%) also mean merch dollars. Not sure how the contract reads with the White Oaks venue, but more fannies in the door guarantees more alcohol sales, so maybe the promoter's hall fee could be negotiated downward. But the most important reason is that as successful as the event currently is, almost every guest mentions the same negativity (regardless of how much they enjoyed the show), "I had to make a choice between seeing X or Y", mostly because of the layout, as people virtually camp out upstairs (in order to be able to catch band X) while Y plays downstairs. Don't need that negativity in association with your success. The upstairs room could even be quartered off, with dividers, to have a series of small dressing rooms for bands lower on the bill, while still utilizing the two big dressing rooms behind the main stage. 

Again, not sure about the stipulations, but metalheads are not gourmets, so vegan soul food is nice, but... The food trucks are probably on a seasonal contract w/ White Oaks, but would try to negotiate a weekend exception/addition, or two (as you are basically renting the facilities as a subcontractor). A couple more options to feed the current population, not to mention any increased capacity, seem warranted. What about a Chinese/ramen noodle truck, just pumping out take away cartoons all day? Can they set up a grill/spit for brats/pulled pork, BBQ? Even a giant skillet of paella. Seen it all, elsewhere. For 2023, with the announced hiatus (and uncertain future) of Maryland Deathfest, without destroying the traditional metal core of Hell's Heroes (but the likes of Dark Angel, Exciter, Whiplash prove at least a portion of the crowd loves it loud!) would pepper a few "heavier" acts into the line-up. Might be able to get a few new fans (with money burning a hole in their pocket) to show up in Houston. easier to do on pre-show, so that current Heroes fans could opt out (if it's too lopsided towards the heaviness) and those enticed to make the trip might want to stick around for the whole weekend.

Lastly, regardless of any changes, need a quality, committed crew, especially a stage manager who is willing to make the difficult decisions (cut set times, confront bands/managers) when necessary. Hell's Heroes seems like a fairly DIY event, with many of the (smaller) bands setting up & line check their own equipment, but there are now some international big names amongst the roster. Even without striking a drum kit for each band and a shared backline, there never seemed to be any staff around, to help hump equipment on/off stage, assist, etc. The monitor guys seemed to pull double duty. When the first band of the day is 10 minutes late, getting set up, then opts to play a 6 minute intro, there's bound to be overruns, the rest of the day. Someone needs to be aware of the situation and let the band know, "OK, you can play the intro, but you need to cut one song," and if they don't, pull the plug. Seen it happen to some of the biggest names in the industry. Yes, sometimes there are unavoidable delays, but there should be an army of local staff canvassing the stage, attempting to remedy, not pulling the monitor guys away, to check pedal boards, then still have to check the levels on each mic, when they get done. Should be duplicate personnel, so one can fix an issue, the rest of the check can go on, concurrently. A half hour late start calls for all-hands-on-deck, to fix ASAP (doesn't help that bands don't bring/have adequate help, as well), but then also radically alter the proposed musical set.

Can't wait to see who they'll book for next year. Hope to see you there!

Day 1 photos
Day 2 photos

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