HELL’S HEROES 2024 – Come Hell, Or High Water!

March 28, 2024, 3 weeks ago

By Mark Gromen

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To bastardize the lyric of a well-known ‘80s play/movie (starring Burt Reynolds & Dolly Parton)... "Texas has a metal fest in it!" Although there continues to be more and more festivals popping up, in short time, Hell's Heroes has become THE metal event in North America, sampling from genres, both heavy and more traditional minded, as well as importing overseas boutique acts (that could only afford to play a show like this, not a state-by-state tour) and classic big names. 

The three day line-up even rivals the various metallic oriented cruises, albeit without the exotic locations. There's new acts & old, big/small, imports/domestics...what's not to like? The only drawback seems to be the relatively short sets afforded many of the once-in-a-lifetime performers (and absence of time between performances, one abuts the next), but that's sort of like saying, "There wasn't enough champagne at my lottery winning celebration." Such complaints usually fall on deaf ears, especially to those who can't attend. Truthfully, it has become a destination showcase, worthy of a trip, regardless of who is on the bill.

2024 was just the second year utilizing the (unprotected) outdoor stage. As (bad) luck would have it, the weather gods weren't completely compliant, as thunderstorms permeated the initial (Thursday) line-up. Yet to battle test their weather preparedness, but they got a real chance. This is not a drill! Despite a mini-monsoon, accompanied by threats of a tornado and hail, like the Wacken motto, the show goes on, rain or shine. True, there was a temporary evacuation: some sheltering inside the venue (oblivious to what transpired), but those outside were instructed to temporarily leave the premises and hide safely in cars, or nearby structures. While work and airline woes conspired to make me miss all that, my spies on the ground report that highlights included Doro playing some Warlock material, as well as songs not typically heard in North America, the mighty Candlemass, doing the entire Nightfall album and other hits (even though they ran out of time, outdoor stage has automatic power shutdown, midway through concluding "Under The Oak") and perhaps the set-of-the-day, by Night Demon, who performed all cover tunes, including "Killers" (Iron Maiden), the supposedly retired "In Trance" (Scorpions), "The Sun Goes Down" (Thin Lizzy), "Evil Like A Knife" (Midnight frontman Athenar joining them onstage) and early concert staple, "Road Racin'" (Riot). Musically, sad I missed the day. Weather-wise, not so much so.

Day 2

Third time seeing Intranced, fronted by ex-Holy Grail singer James Paul Luna. Man can that guy sing! Early Alice Cooper inspired eye black, tiger print shirt, forearms wrapped in studs and low cut, sparkling silver booties, he strikes quite an image, even before donning a white satin cape ("La Fuerza Negra") and then wielding a spiked, oversized Bam Bam Rubble cudgel (during "Muerte y Metal"). This close to the border and numerous folks who attend from Mexico, the self-professed Satanic Hispanics made friends, often speaking a few words in Spanish, between songs. "High Speed GTO" (from White Wizzard, another of Luna's former bands) kicked things to another level, plenty of fist thrusting and heads shaking, in the crowd. Behind the singer, guitarist Fili Bibiano and bassist Nic Staub (he of the floppy hat) played off one another, repeatedly criss-crossing the stage. The former even taking a short solo spot, during which he dropped to his knees. The purple lit signature tune ended the all too short set, with Luna unveiling his heretofore high pitched scream. Bigger things ahead, for this group. Surely.

Always (incorrectly) recall Morbid Saint as one of those late ‘80s/early ‘90s bands from Mexico, on the long defunct JL America label, when, in fact, they are from Sheboygan, Wisconsin. It's been almost a decade since the last release, but Swallowed By Hell was issued last month. Today, they included a heavy sampling of debut material (like "Assassin"), beginning with "Lock Up Your Children" and concluding with "Damien". Love the message emblazoned on the guitar fretboard, but have to say, vocalist Pat Lind's patch adorned battle vest looked a little new/pristine, especially in this crowd. 

Omen kicked off with "Death Rider" to great response. Kenny Powell still utilizes a wired guitar, plugged directly into a distortion pedal and from there, his amp, restricting some motion around the big outdoor stage. "Teeth Of The Hydra" was a little more restrained, as the vocals were down in the mix (as they were throughout). The lengthy "Hell's Gates" was slower, more meandering, but "March On" picked the pace up. Winning back-to-back pairing of classics "The Axeman" and "In The Arena" (the bassist moving center stage for the latter). Strains of "Battle Cry" were fading out, so headed inside, to catch a bit of Stygian Crown (whom I'd seen at LA Gates Of Metal, last fall). The indoor, low lit atmosphere was a more conducive vibe for their doom metal. They started with the same one-two punch as the Feb. '24 release, Funeral For A King (title track and "Bushido").

As Helstar singer James Rivera coyly announced from the stage, "We all knew Agent Steel was going to cancel," thus the Texan legends were pushed into service, for a second night running. Thankfully, they knew well in advance and were able to work up a completely different, second set. To begin, pallbearers carry a casket onstage, then depart. The lid opens and there sits Rivera, fang-toothed grin, in full vampire garb. Rising from the dead, quite an entrance! Not sure if it's the song, or the idea of it being new material, but the jovial frontman unabashedly announced, "When I listen to it, I get wood." Longtime guitar partner Larry Barragán, is stage right, churning out the wicked licks to old school classics like the "Conquest" opener, "Evil Reign" and "The King Is Dead". The frontman is beyond a cult figure in Texas, as he worked both sides of the stage, flashing/gnashing his pointed incisors. As the show is winding down, Rivera calls out Agent Steel guitarist Juan Garcia, for a run through the canceled act's signature track "Agents Of Steel". The circle pit goes crazy and Garcia adds some backing vocals. Apparently, Helstar has 15 songs ready to record later this year.

As 5 PM approached, plenty of folks seeking the little shade available, ringing the field, hiding in the shadows. Still a long way to go. This is no local show. Have already spoken about people invading, from both the Northern and Southern borders, but some fly in from overseas too. Plenty of out-of-towners, just ask security, at George Bush Airport. Sunday, going home, was crawling with the black shirt horde, so much so, even people who (admittedly knew) nothing about rock music, recognized there had been a concert nearby. One of the cool aspects of Hell's Heroes is that many of the artists who have played (in years past) return as fans: spoke to members of Midas and Saber, in the crowd. 

Spotted other band members, possibly looking to get on the bill, moving forward, like Mega Colossus (Raleigh, NC), Olathia (Cleveland, OH) and Blind Oath (Tulsa, OK), to mention just a few. At any given time (before/after their allotted time) might also run into one of the weekend's performers, mingling about (some staying a day or two extra), like Destructor, Tank, Stygian Crown and the ubiquitous "sheriff of Hell's Heroes," James Rivera. All are approachable and usually ready to have a word, or share a drink. Just remain civil. Engaged in chatter so long, missed WatchTower (but will see a headlining show, in Chicago, at Legions Of Metal, this May).

Eternal Champion got the upgrade to the outdoor stage (having played indoors, a couple of years back). Sharing some members with Sumerlands (who'd play tomorrow), both were highly anticipated. Manowar's "Fighting The World" blared from the speakers, a call to arms, as the band took the stage. Almost from the first notes of "A Face In The Glare", the pit action, on the lawn, in front of the stage, looked like a colony of ants gorging on an overturned ice cream cone: an ecstatic frenzy of semi-organized bedlam. It only got busier when "Ravening Iron" followed, Jason Tarpey (no chainmail headgear, but several in the crowd wore replicas) gave a few grunts and got the fans to add "whoa whoa". Couldn't think the fans could get any wilder, but "Skullseeker" took them to the top, especially in the sing-along portion, the collective body belting out the titular chorus.

To say there's was much anticipation, surrounding Solitude Aeturnus, was a bit of an understatement, this being the first show since 2011. Most were unsure of precisely who would be involved, apart from founder/guitarist John Perez. As it turns out, all the Into The Depths Of Sorrow line-up was included in this one-off, making it a triple guitar threat (original Edgar Rivera, joining Steve Moseley). A leather jacketed (at dawn, the warm daylight sun dissipated, there's a bit of chill in the air) and bearded/bald Rob Lowe came right out front, pointing and gesturing at an enthusiastic crowd. Perez has something of a center stage perch himself, bobbing in time to the pulverizing rhythms. Back in the early ‘90s, when there wasn't much traditional sounding metal being produced domestically, I was a huge fan of Solitude Aeturnus and did a couple of interviews with Perez and met him at the few shows they were able to schedule. 

Great to witness it all again. Not for the last time this weekend, it's all about dynamics. Although "Opaque Divinity" hammers home it's point, just the briefest moments of upbeat riffing, provide contrast. Same is used, to more dramatic effect, later, on "Destiny Falls To Ruin". The silver haired Perez gets animated during "Haunting The Obscure" and nearly falls to his knees as he moves about the stage. Green lit "Days Of Prayer" sees crowd surfers breech the barricade, as the guitars gets aggressive. While not as epic/operatic as Messiah Marcolin (Candlemass) can definite hear that aspect/inspiration in Lowe's voice. The singer gets the fans riled up, fist pumping and more pit action during a red hued "The Hourglass". Great to witness this again.

Camera/battery issues prevented any photos of Queensrÿche, but then, only anticipated checking out a few songs anyway. Probably stayed longer than planned, as they played the EP material first. As heretical as some will find it, left when those four song finished: just like back in the day. For as much as I loved the EP, always felt The Warning couldn't compete and my interest waned, thereafter. My, how times have (not) changed.

Day 3
Traveler took to the outdoor stage at 12:45, in bright sunshine. Members of Night Demon and Exciter were awake early, watching from the wings. After the opening "Starbreaker," Jean-Pierre Abboud (singer) ran through some of the Prequel To Madness album, just a month old. "Dark Skull" sees the two guitarist’s face-off, center stage. Toryin Schadlich adds falsetto vocal accents throughout. The video single "Heavy Hearts" caused Schadlich to break into a frenzied bout of headbanging, before joining Matt Ries, center stage, for more twin lead actions, as well as a brief bass spotlight. Mid-tempo "Rebels Of Earth" has more of a rock feel (not metal). The 30 minute set ended with "Street Machine", as I left to get in the pit for Early Moods.

A heavy dose of Ozzy-era Sabbath, courtesy of the young guys in Early Moods. A half hour was only enough time for five tracks, but glorious heaviness. First up, "The Last Hour", where singer Alberto Alcaraz strolled onstage, afro picked out to maximum height, in a fringed, buckskin jacket and bell bottoms, beer in hand. From jump, he challenged the crowd to move, stomping his foot for emphasis. To his right, southpaw guitarist Oscar Hernandez lays down the pummeling riffs. "Blood Offerings" was up next, as the frontman bends at the waist in an exaggerated bow/headbang. Time for one more ("Return To Salem's Gate") before returning back outdoors, to catch Sumerlands. 

There's no time buffer between bands. When one ends, the next starts right away, on the opposite stage. Noticed the White Oaks security people were now regulating how many people could enter the hall, a line of fans anxiously waiting the opportunity to see the Moods. Same thing happened in the old days, when Hell's Heroes was entirely inhouse. The small, upstairs room could only accommodate a couple hundred, so people left the downstairs stage early, to camp in front of the minute, upper stage, lest they miss the band completely. 

Unlike yesterday, guitarist Arthur Rizk doesn't let his face be seen during the Sumerlands set, hair draped across his face, even when swaying to the music. There is an infectious melody to the music, with the earworm "Force Of A Storm" (ironic title, given two days ago) greeting a rabid throng. Singer Brendan Radigan jokes that he'll offer radical hangover relief, if people talk to him, after the show (as a runner, sure it has something to do with extreme physical exertion). "Twilight Points The Way" and the title cut off the stellar Dream Killer CD, continues the audience sing-along, complete with twin leads courtesy of Rizk and guitarist, side opposite, John Powers. Off the first disc, they opt for "Blind". In Texas? Get the pun? Think Sumerlands did. After "Seventh Seal", a hit single in waiting, "Edge Of A Knife" sends everyone away happy. Well, apart from it being over too quickly. Just enough time to sneak indoors, to check out Blood Star.

Singer, bass and guitar, all with backs to the crowd, as they face the drummer, until "Going Home" kicks in. Then, Bang! It's hard driving action. Interesting tidbit, the hand written setlist bastardizes their own titles (fun for band, or attempt to trick unsuspecting reporters?) Definitely a sense of humor, as "Fearless Priestess" is abbreviated as Fee Pee, "No One Wins" becomes No Onions and instead of "Wait To Die", it's Wait For Fries. Reading back that alternate running order, maybe they were just hungry and it's a food rider? Regardless, fun band.

Cirith Ungol, now with 2/3 of Night Demon performing in the band (Jarvis Leatherby, bass and Armand John Anthony, guitar, who give the Ungols a lively animation they never possessed), are on their farewell tour. They gather under a wordless backdrop of two kneeling skeletons, face to face. Early on, WKRP In Cincinnati TV show, disc jockey look-alike Dr. Johnny Fever, aka Tim Baker, announces this is "one more ride together," cue "Black Machine". The singer wanders offstage when he's not needed. "Atom Smasher" features the patented Baker's raspy scream. The sing-song melody of "Frost & Fire" is special, but this band has always been about shifting dynamics. Case in point, the meandering introduced "I'm Alive", which eventually soars. During which, the singer moves from his center stage bunker (surrounded by wedge monitors), venturing stage right, as Armand takes a solo, on the makeshift gangplank, atop the stage front speaker cabinets.. Plenty of fists aloft, as the song finishes. 

People talk about muscle memory, well four notes in, instantly recognize and recall the title, "Master Of The Pit", even though it’s been decades since I put a physical/digital version of the song on some listening device. Little wonder that music is effective with Alzheimer's/dementia patients, in eliciting recall. By now, Baker has loosened up, infusing a live element that heretofore not been present, as he does deep knee bends, center stage. A title like the "Join The Legion" finale, is bitter sweet, given the band's impending exodus, but the singer says, "Thank you for everything. There's nothing left to say. Goodbye." Thanks for the memories, guys.

Now, I've seen Tank before: back in the ‘80s, with Algy Ward, at the Showplace, in Dover, NJ and several incarnations in the current millennium, at German festivals. Still, had no idea what to expect from the current line-up, who had only played their first show, a couple of days earlier, in London. Say what you will about "No Algy, No Tank" mantra, but if you're going to try to win over fans, 99%+ who were seeing the band for the first (possibly only) time in their life, you'd want to construct a setlist like the one at Hell's Heroes, exclusively from the early albums. Yeah, some of these versions have less power/more "groove" than the originals and "Turn Your Head Around" was conspicuously absent, but it was only deep cuts and vintage Tank material.

"Shellshock" was a fitting calling card, signaling what was to come, as well as folks' reaction to 1) finally seeing Tank and 2) kicking off with such a well-known heavyweight. It didn't let up. "This Means War" and "Echoes Of A Distant Battle" unleash a stream of crowd surfers, so many people going over the wall, it looked like news footage from the southern border! Regardless of rendition, there's an inherent melody in these classics that was overlooked during the volume heavy ‘80s. Take "Walking Barefoot Over Glass", for example, with three part backing vocals, come the titular chorus. The guitar tandem of Mick Tucker and Cliff Evans have helped flesh out the musicality, taking the emphasis away from gruff vocals and bass (of the Algy era).

"Blood, Guts & Beer" is more about feel, than speed or heaviness, and "Don't Walk Away" is minus the power of the original. A sea of fists fly skyward for "That's What Dreams Are Made Of". When the singer announces, "Honestly, this is the best crowd I've played to," it's not a lie (given the short track record). The mosh pit didn't need any invitation, so once "Power Of The Hunter" starts, the fury of humanity swirls, stagefront. "(He Fell In Love With A) Stormtrooper" seems like an odd one, to end the night, but it was a complete fan sing-along, start to finish. Again, multiple band backing vocals, come the chorus. Overall, a rousing success, for band and fans alike.

Maybe they are "knackered" after Tank, but by 6:30 PM, there's a lot of bodies sitting down, on the embankment that overlooks the stage. Guitarist Craig Locicero has reactivated Forbidden, with ex-Machine Head guitarist Chris Kontos. Somewhat like Tank, they face the proposition of a new singer, Russ Anderson having been such an integral part of the band, visually, as well as vocally. In his place is Norm Skinner, long a member of the underground. Although their most recent album, Omega Wave, is almost 15 years old, the guys opted for a sweeping, career retrospective, commencing (much to everyone's delight), with "Twisted Into Form". Initially, it was a string of Combat Records era flashbacks: "March Into Fire", crowd chanted "Step By Step" and the band's original moniker, signature tune, "Forbidden Evil". Great stuff. Truthfully, they probably over-estimated the worth of including back-to-back airings from Green ("What Is The Last Time" and the title selection) as things bogged down a bit, in the middle. From the stage, they acknowledged, "We hear you guys calling for 16 or 17 different song titles," so once they brought it back to the late ‘80s/early ‘90s catalog, most were happy. Whammy bar action leads into a blistering "Through Eyes" Of Glass" and "Chalice Of Blood" climax erased any bad feelings.

While the event was winding down, to the last few bands, the excitement level was still ramping up, as the Final Four were some of the most anticipated of the weekend. Hard not to be captivated by Wytch Hazel, even if their traditional metal stylings aren't your thing. The band smiled throughout, clearly enjoying their North American debut and the fans ate it up. Dressed in all white Robin Hood tunics, with plenty of crucifixes (to ward off all the perceived evil?), around their necks and emblazoned on each instrument. Due to the outfits, some reference ‘70s hard rockers Angel, but there's no keyboards to be seen and there's no comparisons, in terms of presentation. The live energy was electric, even if not completely versed in their music. 

They open with "The Fire's Control", curly black haired frontman/guitarist Colin Hendra, he of the bushy moustache, looks like he stepped out of a ‘70s video. "I Am Redeemed" is also spirited (pun intended). Audience participation is required ("whoa whoa") right at the start of robust "Still We Fight" and then again, later. Some are avowed fans and know the words, or at least the titular chorus. "Archangel" is not as immediate, but still rocking, whereas "Dry Bones" is a change of pace, dropping to a slower, mid-tempo, with a bit of Hendra falsetto. Other axeman Alex Haslam begins "Spirit And Fire", which offers some tasty twin leads. Definitely more of a "live" act. Fantastic first step in North America. Word will spread and based on the reaction they received, have to believe they'll make every effort to return, in the not too distant future.

The Wytch's set cut into Rotting Christ, by ten minutes, the Greeks set to destroy Hell's Heroes, with powerhouse black metal and Sakis Tolis' strong, bellicose throat. "Archon" comes storming out of the gates, Sakis left foot casually atop the wedge monitor as he plays. Red & yellow streaks sweep the stage. Early on, he apologized for his English (unnecessary). We came to hear his compositions, not his elocution (or his perceived inadequacies, in such). Honestly, in terms of pronunciation and commitment to his ideas, Sakis came across much like Behemoth's Nergal (a worthy compatriot), especially introducing "The Sign Of Evil Existence", then tearing into the music. Lots of screams from the frontman and headbanging/pinwheeling hair, by all onstage. 

A couple of scrims, either side of the drummer, as a pair of lit candelabras were situated, center stage, for Attic. Once again, all but a few of us were experiencing the Germans for the first time. The prospect of their first US show, in the red bathed depths of White Oak Music Hall, invigorated them, as they were more active than witnessed on two previous occasion, in their homeland. The balcony was crammed, to capacity, everyone seeking a glimpse of Attic. They opened with video track "Darkest Rites" and never looked back. Meister Cagliostro incorporates much from King Diamond (including corpse paint and falsetto vocals), but the sound is more akin to classic Mercyful Fate, an act (until recently) most never thought they'd see/hear again. Listen to "Join The Coven". For the last 15 years, Attic have filled a void, but moving forwards, in terms of frequency (year in, year out) and accessibility, they serve a purpose. It's insulting and too easy to dismiss them as "clones" (as some were heard to say). Check 'em out.

Some boogied early, as the Attic set overlapped the start of Sodom, out on the lawn. Had just met up with the German thrashers on 70K cruise, where they performed Agent Orange, in its entirety, as well as a set of DEEP cuts. Texas got a bit of both, diving right into the obscurities with "Among The Weirdcong". Strobes aplenty, as Tom Angelripper sidles up to the mic. On his right is guitarist Frank Blackfire, contemporaries, who remember the ‘80s, together. "Jabba The Hut" and "The Crippler" make my friends look at me in amazement. "Are we really hearing THESE tunes," is the unvoiced inquiry. If I hadn't seen it a month ago, I'd be just as astonished. Not quite hands of hips, but Tom stands, (feigning?) disgust, awaiting a response, prior to "Sodomized".

A green lit "The Saw Is The Law" (which I'd seen/heard at every Sodom show, since it was issued, apart from the cruise), sees the guitarist adding backing vocals and a short solo. Tom laments it took 42 years for Sodom to finally play anywhere in Texas (can that really be true? Wow!) The brutality of "Blasphemer", off the original EP, still shines through and about a third of the way through the set, was the first old school moment. "Surfin Bird" fits, in the context of the M-16 album (concerning Vietnam War), but hardly essential Sodom, especially at a one-off, overseas concert. No worries, the second half of the running order is almost exclusively from the 80s, including a trio off Agent Orange (the title number, "Remember The Fallen" and "Ausgebombt"). Virtually non-stop strobes accompany "Nuclear Winter", Blackfire laying down a speedy display as Angelripper barks the lyrics. A cover of Venom's "Leave Me In Hell" is unexpected, but precedes "Sodomy & Lust", which kicks off with Blackfire's gritty riffs. Blue lights pendulum towards the audience, for like-minded, old school speedster "Outbreak Of Evil". It all ends, as usual, with a quick run through of "Bombenhagel." Wunderbar!

Another Hell's Heroes is in the books. Can't wait for the next one. Make plans to join the fun!

Additional photos:
Day 2
Day 3

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