Heavy Montréal 2014: Now This Is How To Run A Metal Fest

By on 14 August 2014
Photo: Tim Snow

Photo: Tim Snow

Whilst the heavens opened up on us at Bloodstock last weekend, the sun was shining on Canada’s Heavy Montréal fest. Boasting a stellar lineup with the likes of Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, Twisted Sister and Lamb Of God, we sent Adrien Begrand along to see what all the fuss was about…

I wake up on the morning of Saturday, 8 August, reach over in search of my iPad which is somewhere on the vast expanse of the king-size bed I’m flopped on, and quickly check email and social media. It’s already nearly evening over in England, and practically everyone I know, including several Terrorizer staffers, are posting from a very soggy Bloodstock festival in Derbyshire where they’ve camped for the weekend. Poor sods, I think, wondering if I still have the physical wherewithal in my early 40s to bother camping in the mud just for a chance to see Emperor perform their first album. I force myself out of the luxurious bed, throw open the curtains, and am immediately blinded by scorching sunshine, the pleasant greenery, fountains, and Hector Guimard-designed wrought iron of Montréal’s Victoria Square five stories below. Nah, I think to myself, I’d rather take this instead.

For the only mainstream heavy metal festival in North America that can rival the Wackens and Sonispheres of Europe, Heavy Montréal indeed has a huge advantage over most of its counterparts across the Atlantic in that camping is not the primary option. Held right in the heart of the city in the spacious Parc Jean-Drapeau, situated on an island in the St. Lawrence River and connected to the city centre by a five-minute subway ride, Heavy Montréal 2014 will host 75,000 people over two days, featuring more than 50 bands performing on four stages. Although camping is always an option for attendees, the big draw is the hotel/boarding aspect, which ranges from surprisingly reasonably priced to opulent for those so inclined, and the fact that you can spend 12, 14 hours outside at a metal fest with the knowledge that a dry bed is a short subway ride away is reassuring. Organizers of the fest are well aware of it, and have been busy selling that distinct advantage outside Canada, and this year’s Heavy Montréal will see more people from the United States and Europe making the trip than ever before. From day one Montréal has strived to be a true “destination festival” for metal fans, and in its sixth year it’s clear that’s starting to happen.

Anthrax_TimSnow_20140809-13

Photo: Tim Snow

While Heavy Montréal prides itself on its eclecticism and sense of discovery, combining metal, punk, hard rock, and extreme metal ranging from major labels to indie, the quality of headliners is what establishes a major festival’s credibility, and coming on the heels of a rather tepid 2013 that saw Rob Zombie and Avenged Sevenfold headline, this year’s version makes a much bigger splash with co-headliners Metallica and Slayer. Consequently, ticket sales for 2014 have nearly doubled that of 2013, and that is evident as you make your way on the subway, which is crowded with black t-shirt-clad metalheads, and walk en masse to the festival entrance, where the place is already teeming with people at noon, vendors selling beer nonstop in the humid, 30 degree Celsius heat, the merch area overwhelmed with die-hard fans, which will only die down once Metallica takes the stage nine hours later.

Featuring the traditional European dual-headlining stages on the main grounds, and complemented by a smaller third stage nestled a five-minute walk away in the trees with a cozy fourth stage nearby, once the music starts it’s full-throttle all the time, always bands on stage, always new things to see. Although the afternoon is an eclectic one – Roadburn-approved Monster Truck turning in a bluesy set in the sun, Overkill and Municipal Waste cranking the thrash at opposite ends of the grounds, Pennywise bringing some punk fun, Whitechapel focusing on the more extreme side of deathcore – early Saturday belongs to Japanese viral sensation Babymetal, whose combination of Bodom-derived metal arrangements and J-pop songwriting, fashion, and choreography is greeted enthusiastically by a throng of early arrivals. Laced with wry humour – “If you show true courage, we will show true metal” – the performance is a joy despite a couple of technical glitches, the teenaged trio singing their odes to chocolate and whatnot in front of a surprisingly adept backing band.

Photo: Tim Snow

Photo: Tim Snow

What should be noted is how well attendees are taken care of at Heavy Montréal: cold water is free and very easily accessible, with refill stations located across the grounds. Food choices are ample, ranging from artery-clogging poutine, to many food trucks, to vegetarian options. Squares of artificial turf are scattered about the main stage area for groups and families to settle for the day, and if it gets too hot, you’re only a minute or two away from chill-out areas in the shaded forest where free wifi and charging stations are provided.

Meanwhile, the variety carries on: Protest The Hero noodles in their unfocused way, Dropkick Murphys do everything they could to incite the crowd in the city Bostonians loathe most next to New York, Canadian hard rockers Three Days Grace leave yours truly wondering why in the hell such a boring band could be so popular. However, the real fun is to be had at the tiny fourth stage, where Toronto upstarts Biblical turn in a massive set that focused on its heavier side, Atlanta noise trio Whores convert curious onlookers into new fans with an extremely intense performance, and most pleasantly, Brooklyn child sensations Unlocking The Truth surprise many with a remarkably confident set that already shows so much more growth than the band’s popular YouTube clips.

After an unfortunately mediocre sounding set by hometown heroes Voivod, a rabble-rousing performance from Anthrax that might have stolen the festival on any other day, and a patently lacklustre set by The Offspring, sleepwalking its way through the ‘Smash’ album, the crowd quickly becomes unspeakably huge in anticipation of Metallica’s lone “by request” concert in North America. Typically the band’s “usual suspect” songs are present in the setlist voted upon by ticket holders, including the rambunctious new song ‘Lords Of Summer’ and four snoozers from the ‘Black Album’, but it’s during the band’s classic 1980s material where the show takes off. The fans voted for speed and progressive moments, and they get it, in spades: ‘Blackened’, ‘Battery’, ‘…And Justice For All’, ‘Orion’, ‘Welcome Home (Sanitarium)’, ‘Ride The Lightning’, ‘The Four Horsemen’. Boasting the best sound of all the main stage bands – gosh, I wonder why – and featuring a dazzling stage presentation yet one refreshingly devoid of pyro, the band is crisp and powerful, James Hetfield continually proving during the older material why he is the best rhythm guitarist heavy metal has ever seen. While a few casual fans decide to split once ‘Enter Sandman’ is carted out, the bulk of the gigantic crowd stays to the end, the mood in the queue at the subway station exhausted but still adrenaline-fueled and buoyant.

Photo: Tim Snow

Photo: Tim Snow

The atmosphere is different on the second day of the festival, a little more relaxed compared to the anticipation of the wildly popular Metallica, with flocks of seagulls – the animals, not the band – hovering over the garbage-littered grounds, a testament to the complete inability of metal audiences to pick up after themselves. Although there’s less congestion on this day, 35,000 people is still an awfully big crowd, and once again people arrive plenty early to see the likes of Death Angel, Bat Sabbath, Grimskunk, and Nashville Pussy. An early Sunday highlight turns out to be Exodus, which made waves earlier this summer by replacing frontman Rob Dukes with the erstwhile Steve “Zetro” Souza. While Souza is nowhere near as confrontational and outgoing as Dukes is, it’s great to hear his trademark gravelly voice on songs like ‘War Is My Shepherd’ and ‘The Toxic Waltz’. Epica offer surreal contrast with some symphonic bombast, as usual featuring some sublime and powerful singing by Simone Simons, which in turn is countered by a robust set of progressive power metal by American favourites Symphony X. Sadly I miss Cynic’s show across the park, but fellow Terrorizer writer Kevin Stewart-Panko tells me I didn’t miss much, the phrase, “fucking boring” saying all that needs to be said.

Hardcore punk quickly becomes the order of the day at the main stages, with varying degrees of success. Ice-T and Body Count bring a welcome dose of humour and braggadocio, ‘Cop Killer’ and ‘There Goes The Neighborhood’ getting the crowd moving, while the negativity of Jamey Jasta and Hatebreed feels off-putting on such a pleasantly warm afternoon. Bad Religion, on the other hand, while looking like a bunch of middle-aged dads because, well, they are, turn in a brilliant performance highlighted by selections from the classic 1988 album ‘Suffer’.

Photo: Tim Snow

Photo: Tim Snow

After a typically ebullient and playful set by Scottish pirate metalers Alestorm, Twisted Sister come on and blow every one of Sunday’s bands off the stage, outshining them all with a spirited, delightfully arrogant run-through of the ‘Stay Hungry’ album. Singer Dee Snider is still as confrontational and funny as ever, and engages the huge early evening crowd like a heavy metal frontman should. Better yet, the 59 year-old proves he still has as strong a voice as ever on such standout songs as ‘The Price’ and ‘Burn In Hell’. By the time ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ and ‘I Wanna Rock’ are played, the crowd is fully involved, crowd-surfing, headbanging, fist-pumping, and singing along with pure joy.

LambOfGod_TimSnow_20140809-17

Photo: Tim Snow

After a wildly popular performance by Lamb Of God, making up for the unfortunate 2012 cancellation due to Randy Blythe’s legal hassles and featuring the biggest “Wall Of Death” this writer has ever seen, the opening strains of ‘Hell Awaits’ introduce the almighty Slayer. The band has taken its share of flak for carrying on in the wake of the death of Jeff Hanneman and the acrimonious split with Dave Lombardo, but no matter what lineup, there’s no such thing as a bad Slayer show. Gary Holt and Paul Bostaph are as good replacements for Hanneman and Lombardo as you will ever come across, and while the band’s next album will prove whether or not Slayer is still relevant in present-day metal, for the time being the 90 minutes of oldies the band churns out have everyone beaming. Everyone has their favourites: 30-somethings love ‘Seasons in the Abyss’ and ‘War Ensemble’, Millenials go crazy for ‘Disciple’, but for this old-timer, ‘The Antichrist’, ‘Die By the Sword’, ‘Captor Of Sin’, and ‘Black Magic’ feel like true, classic Slayer, even with the ringers, serving as an appropriate climax to an exceptionally run festival. I make my way to the subway station as the band kicks into ‘Angel Of Death’, and 15 minutes later I’m back at my quiet, air conditioned hotel, relaxing, sipping a cold one, thankful I don’t have a sleepless night in a wet tent ahead of me.

 

Photo: Tim Snow

Photo: Tim Snow

 

Words: Adrien Begrand

Pics: Tim Snow

You can find Heavy Montréal on Facebook.

 

 

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