Review: Hard Rock Hell XI
Hafan-Y-Mor, Pwhelli 9-11 November 2017
Reviewer: Peter Scallan
I have regularly attended the HRH AOR events since they started, but this was my first time at the main HRH event of the year. Personally speaking, the bill for this event was actually more appealing than the last HRH AOR event in March and the forthcoming event and I was very much looking forward to it!
Day 1 – Thursday 9 November 2017
The first day isn’t a full day but did consist of six bands. However, with travel and getting settled into the accommodation, I only managed to catch four of the bands. The first of these was Killcode, a five-piece hailing from New York. They have been described as southern-infused rock/metal with a modern vocal twist. I found them more grunge than anything else but musically very good at what they did. Vocally, I found Tom Morrissey’s voice limited in terms of range and feeling but he was an excellent frontman. While they didn’t really do it for me, they did get a reasonable reaction from the crowd. They were quickly followed by Back Aces. These guys are another AC/DC-inspired Aussie band. Based on the evidence of this performance I would say they are more of an original tribute act. They even covered Rock’n’Roll Damnation in their set. They also covered The Rolling Stones song Happy and didn’t really do it justice. They were totally uninspiring for me and not main stage material in my opinion, but seemed to go down reasonably well.
Next up was Wayward Sons, Toby Jepson’s new band. I was never a fan of Little Angels or even that keen on him during his stint in Gun, so it was going to be interesting to see him with his new band. Drawing from their debut album, they are quite a different prospect live from Little Angels. They were tight but at the same time raunchy and very loud! Extremely good at what they do, some of the songs sounded like Jepson was drawing on his Gun experience with Gun-like riffs in some of the songs. The band delivered a great set, despite Jepson’s amp blowing and getting what appeared to be a bit of strop, launching his guitar at his guitar tech. Ironically it was a Flying V – or maybe he was just being rock’n’roll! These guys went down a storm with the crowd, but did little to change my mind about Toby Jepson.
Headlining on the Thursday night was Dee Snider. Using George Thorogood’s Bad to the Bone as an intro when Dee hit the stage he looked lean, mean and keen to get right on with it and that is exactly what he did! Quite amazing as he told the crowd his elderly mother had been involved in an accident and was seriously ill back in the US. With his four piece band he rattled through a mix of his solo material from his latest album and classic Twisted Sister numbers and brought the day to an energetic close. This is more than can be said for myself as I had been on the go for 18 hours straight – I would like to tap into some of his energy!
Day 2 – Friday 10 November 2017
The second day was off to a sluggish start as I caught up from the previous long day. In the main arena the first band I caught up with was Syteria. Got to say I was a bit at a loss as to how this mainly female-fronted band managed to get on to the main stage. I found them poor vocally and musically, although they did look the part with their glam/sleaze image. Quite possibly I am doing them a disservice as maybe they were on the wrong bill and may be better suited HRH Sleaze or Glam. Next up was a band I had never heard of in The Gravel Tones. There can’t be many festivals that can go from a band like Syteria to one like The Gravel Tones as they were so different in both style and content. The band consists of a duo with Jimmy O on guitar and vocals and Mikey Sorbello on drums. This initially filled me full of dread but when these guys struck up they made one helluva rock’n’roll racket! Not only that, they generated enough energy on the stage between them to light a small town. Sorbello in particular was impressive with his strangely-angled drum kit, so much so, you hardly noticed the lack of bass player. These guys play a mix of rock with blues, rock’n’roll and bit of R’n’B thrown in for good measure. Very impressive and definitely a find for me. These guys have got some good shit going on!
And as if to further reinforce the variety of rock on display at HRH, next up was Tyketto. My admiration for Danny Vaughn as a singer and songwriter has been well documented over the last four or five years. The release of the latest studio album only reinforced this admiration as it is in my books the best album they have recorded. This was the first time seeing the band since that release and they didn’t disappoint. Opening with the title track from that album, what we got was a masterclass in melodic rock. Danny’s vocals and showmanship were second to none; Chris Green’s guitar playing was exquisite; Ged Ryland’s keyboards and vocals added extra texture and colour and the rhythm section just nailed it, even with deputising a bass player. They gave us a set that perfectly balanced the old and new and were just superb!
And just when you think, that can’t be topped, along come Y & T. Back in the day I was never a huge fan, resulting in much abuse from my mates, but over the last four years or so I have wondered why these guys didn’t click with me previously. With only Dave Menketti still in the land of the living from the original line-up, it matters not a jot. These guys deliver every time. Running through a set consisting of songs mainly from the first five albums, they have set of classic rock songs second to absolutely none. If Tyketto provided a masterclass, this was paying homage to a living legend! Dave Menketti’s vocals and playing were just sublime. And how many bands can close a set with songs like Rescue Me and Forever? My conversion to Y & T fan was completed with this performance tonight!
And the poor buggers to follow the preceding two sets were headliners Airbourne. I do have a soft-spot for these guys and have a few of their albums in my collection, so I was looking forward to them. They were tight and ferocious and they just didn’t let up at all! However, they fact that didn’t let up at all, was probably the downfall of this set in my humble opinion. It just started merging into one big blur and a little bit of light and shade would have been good. After about six songs, I remarked to the love of my life that there had been a lot of songs with the obligatory woahs. Her reply kind of summed it up as she said she thought it was still the first song! Regardless of what this pair of old gits thought, they band ran through a great mix of songs from the new album and previous albums, battering the crowd into submission. The place was absolutely rammed like I have never seen before, and they just lapped it up. Fair play, to Airbourne as they certainly know their audience and gave them exactly what they wanted!
Day 3 – Saturday 11 November 2017
So far, covering the whole weekend on my own I hadn’t managed to get across to the second arena. However, I was determined to do so today. This was only made even more difficult by the stellar bill that was on the main stage. I also caught most of the documentary about the HRH journey which was very informative and well put together – well done HRH!
The opening band was Buffalo Summers. These guys are as close to a local band as you will get at HRH hailing from South Wales. With two albums under their belt, they drew from these for their set and also played a new song from a new album due out next year. They delivered a set of groove-laden blues rock and got a pretty great reception for an opening band. I thought they delivered a solid set. My only criticism would be of singer Andrew Hunt. His vocals lacked a little in dynamics considering the groove going on. The annoying thing was, that he clearly could stretch out a little as he did in a few songs, so he needs to do it more to match up with the groove the band are laying down.
Good opening set though! Toseland were next on the main stage. I saw these guys some time ago supporting Reef and was impressed that night and liked the debut album too. I haven’t heard the second album, but was looking forward to seeing them. However, this time round I found them rather disappointing. The vocal sound was very tinny and made James Toseland sound rather nasally, and I just struggled to get into their set. The band is clearly a well-oiled live act and certainly covered every inch of the stage, but their enthusiasm just didn’t rub off on me.
This made it all the easier to make my first visit to the second arena to catch Burnt Out Wreck. Fronted by former Heavy Pettin’ drummer Gary Moat, these guys ply a raunchy, groove-laden melodic rock sound. While the single Swallow drew the obvious AC/DC comparison’s, there is more to the band than that with elements of the likes of Def Leppard and Dokken thrown in for good measure. Listening to the set it is also obvious how influential Moat was in writing the Heavy Pettin’ material, which makes it all the more surprising that he isn’t involved in the reformed band! Drawing on the recently released debut album, Moat demonstrated why these guys merit a shot on the bigger stage with his superb voice, more so than a few of the bands who had already graced it so far.
I returned to the main stage to catch the already started Von Hertzen Brothers, whom I knew very little about. My second find of the weekend, these guys play a hard edged progressive style with a modern alternative rock twist with some glorious harmony vocals which is very difficult to categorise! I didn’t know any of their material but it was delivered with precision, power and passion. Front-man Mikko Von Hertzen can also work a crowd and has humorous line in banter. Despite being very different from the previous acts, they got a great reception. They are also playing HRH Prog and they will certainly go down a storm there. I definitely need to get to grips with these guys back catalogue! And to continue with the theme of each band being different from the previous,
Gun followed the Von Hertzen Brothers. Gun are riding the crest of a wave at the moment with the critical and commercial success of their new album Favourite Pleasures. The opening song of the set was She Knows from that opus and set the tone for a serious kick-ass set from the Glaswegians. This was band completely on fire with Dante Gizzi sounding the best I have ever heard him. Added to that was the rising star Tommy Gentry with his swagger and stellar playing; the obvious fact that Jools Gizzi has seriously upped his own lead playing and a rhythm section of Andy Carr and Paul McManus who were tighter than a duck’s arse! The band drew on their considerable heritage of material including playing the obvious classics from their first few albums and finished on a role with Steal Your Fire, Shame On You and their version of Fight For Your Right with the front of the audience pogoing like mad! On the evidence of this set Gun should have been much higher up the bill and were easily band of the day and definitely my set of the weekend.
The unfortunate band to follow Gun was Lynch Mob. I was a huge fan of George Lynch in his Dokken days, but I haven’t heard any of the Lynch Mob albums. However, I was looking forward to seeing the band. What I did hear of the Lynch Mob material sounded good and the band were superb. However, with extended solos and endings it was all a little too self-indulgent. It was no coincidence that the biggest cheers of the set were for the Dokken songs which included Heaven Sent, Into the Fire and the closer Mr Scary. The band appeared to make the assumption that the crowd would know their set and quite possibly this was the wrong festival for them and they might be better on the HRH AOR bill. They may well have thought they were on another bill as the singer kept thanking the ‘Hellfest’ crowd!
To keep on the theme of variety, Reef was next up on the main arena. Like Gun, these guys have got a great pedigree. Consisting of three original members the band proceeded to bring the crowd back up again drawing predominantly on the Glow album and their hits. Bass player Jack Beassant cut a striking figure as he moved his huge frame across the stage and provided a huge bass sound simultaneously. In fact, so much so that during the song Higher Vibration the whole venue appeared to be vibrating with bass! A highlight for me and one of my Reef favourites was Consideration. A new song from the long-awaited fifth album was also played called Precious Metal, which sounded great too. I for one am delighted these guys are back recording and gigging and look forward to the new album.
As soon this set ended I jumped over to the second arena to catch some of the Black Whisky set. I was pleased to see they had a good crowd and held most of it beyond the start of the Black Star Riders set, including me for a short time, before heading back over. These guys have an infectious brand of classic rock which draws on real classic rock influences such as UFO and Zeppelin without sounding like clones. They delivered a set of tight, well played songs and appeared to be going down well and I look forward to seeing the full set some time soon.
Saturday night headliners Black Star Riders have had a pretty meteoric rise since their debut album in 2013. They have released two further albums since then culminating in their latest album being in the Top 10 in the UK. I liked the first album very much, but if I am being honest I have not been too keen on the subsequent output. Regardless of my opinion, the band put on a superb show and it was lapped up by the HRH crowd. Playing a chunk of the new album and songs from the previous two albums, the Scott Gorham/Thin Lizzy influence is clear for all to hear. The set also included the Lizzy number Jailbreak. Harking back to a time when the song was king it is great that a classic rock band is getting the success that Black Star Riders are having and hopefully this can pave the way for new younger bands to do likewise. It also included a drum solo, which for me added very little to set as I would rather hear another song. Finally, the biggest cheer of the set was saved for the last song of the evening which was Whiskey in the Jar. The band milked every last drop from it and quite right too!
So was HRH XI the rip-roaring success it looked like on paper? Regardless of my opinion on individual bands, it was a stupendous event. So much so, that I think I might switch from attending the HRH AOR event to HRH as the bills for this are far superior and provide greater variety of acts. The Saturday main stage line-up couldn’t have presented seven more different more bands representing the spectrum of rock.
In an age when everybody sounds like everybody else, HRH as an organisation should be commended for putting on a schedule with such diverse bands. Obvious highlights for me were the sets from Tyketto and Y & T from the Friday. However, for me Gun completely stole the show with their absolutely stunning set on Saturday afternoon and surely at some point must be a headline contender for HRH? In terms of finding new music, I will be exploring the back catalogue of the Von Hertzen Brothers and The Gravel Tones. Finally, my only regret was not getting over to the second arena more often. For me Burnt Out Wreck have got to be contenders for getting a slot on the main stage as they were easily more suited to that than a few of the acts who were on it!