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Woah, This Metal Festival Is So Extreme! But What Is an "Extreme" Music Festival?

Would It just be dudes in Slayer T-shirts? Or would someone castrate my balls and shove a rusted nail up my ass? I went to Hellfest, Europe's most "extreme" festival, to find out.

08 July 2016, 10:24am

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.

As men in football tops threw plastic furniture at each other in the name of sport for Euro 2016, a phenomenon combining music and metal was taking place somewhere else in France. Located in a small and picturesque town near Nantes, Hellfest is an annual heavy metal and punk festival where, for one weekend each year, the town is flooded with black T-shirts and the largest collection of combat trousers seen this side of an army surplus store.

The three-day festival enjoys a cult following across Europe and this year's lineup boasted both Black Sabbath and Twisted Sister's last ever shows in France, as well as over 150 other metal and punk bands that fit neatly into creatively named sub-genres, like pagan metal, sludge, doom rock, and whatever else seemed to have been pulled from the arse of a metalhead's music genre generator. The kicker, though? Hellfest describes itself as "one of the leaders in Europe for extreme music concerts."

Seeing as most festivals serve up clandestine, snooze-pad boothes of mediocrity, the description of Hellfest as an "extreme" music festival was intriguing. On the one hand, the word "extreme" is used by acne-ridden teenagers to describe relatively safe forms of disrupting the status quo, like skateboarding off a curb or putting some Mentos in a Coca Cola bottle. On the other, it's a monumental adjective that illustrates the destructiveness of weather storms, abnormal injuries (e.g when a kneecap pierces through the skin of the leg and hangs limply on the floor), and the moment Steve-O stapled his testicles to a table on the straight to VHS classic Steve-O: Don't Try This At Home.

I wasn't sure where Hellfest was going to fit in this venn-diagram of harmless recreational activities and emergency surgery. For a start: What is an "extreme" music festival? A load of ill-looking men pouring beer on one another's foreheads? Someone making a two-pronged salute to a fictional devil? A little bit of pushing and shoving? Some swear words? Or, at the other end of the spectrum, would someone castrate my balls and shove a rusted nail up my ass? In order to answer these questions, I decided to head to France to find out, searching for the most extreme moments of Europe's most extreme music festival.

Upon arrival, everything feels a little tame. There's a vineyard next door, with a calm and soothing view. There's no sign of freak weather, no chance of spontaneous combustion, not even a stray clump of wet yet pulchritudinous animal stool. Nothing extreme to see here, except this Union Jack tent that had been adorned with a comical pirate flag, which is sort of like if Asda did a Brexit themed festival fun pack.

With my tent set up in reasonably peaceful surroundings, I decided it was time to venture into town. Hellfest has a wide selection of merch on offer: nipple clamps, the tusk of a slain mammoth (which was advertised as a "viking drinking kit"), and heavy-duty boots. But general metalhead clobber wasn't enough; I wanted a severely dangerous form of merchandise, an item that would illustrate how extreme Hellfest is. So I dipped my hand into the "Surprise T-Shirt" box. What did I get? A plain white T-shirt emblazoned with a phrase popularised by hip-hop's most damp excuse for a rapper. Even here, there is no escaping the rise of Drake.

Walking further into the festival I came across what is described as the Extreme Market, which is essentially two indoor market halls dedicated to merchandise. If I had a lot of euros I would've bought a guitar pedal, a spikey looking guitar, a Tool patch that had spanners in the shape of a penis, some prosthetic goat horns, metal themed chili sauces, and some obscure vinyl records. But I didn't have many euros, so I bought an Overkill T-shirt that said "Fuck You" seven times on the back. That's extreme, right? Swearing is cool, isn't it? Fuck you, mum!

Before heading into the arena, I decided to browse the local supermarket next door, which was also Hellfest themed. I thought to myself, "I wonder if Morrisons would ever do this for Leeds Festival?" Supermarkets in the United Kingdom can't even handle the flow of unsupervised humans through their self-service checkouts, let alone producing this weird, problematic cake looking thing.

Once inside the festival, it was clear Hellfest had a keen-eye for set-design. I mean, look at this shit: it's like Iron Maiden took over Euro Disney, and kicked out everyone but the dads.

If that megalithic cathedral of doom wasn't enough, then behold the presentation of the various arenas inside. Take, for example, "Hell City Square," which is basically Hellfest's take on Camden Town, except their version doesn't have an excruciatingly sweaty KFC, Libertines jackets, or a man selling knock off Beats headphones from a folding table. Still nothing extreme, though. If you wanted, I guess you could get a tattoo, or a haircut, or a guitar in the space of three shop fronts, but then you'd only be arriving home with the baggage of embarrassment and regret.

I woke up on Saturday feeling fresh. I hadn't seen anything that confirmed Hellfest was Europe's most extreme festival yet, but I knew there was more awaiting me. First though, it was time for breakfast: a metal-themed Maccy D's. Which is basically the same as every Maccy D's, but introduced with a new, mildly interesting logo before chowing down on deconstructed cow remains.

Due to confusion about French time being one hour ahead and two of the bands clashing, I missed the festival's best named bands: Fleshgod Apocalypse, Agoraphobic Nosebleed and Cattle Decapitation. So, instead, I sat around for a bit people watching and keeping an eye on the football – which isn't any more extreme than watching football in the pub, it just involves more denim, questionable hats, and bad breath. Where the fuck are the upper-levels of extreme living that Hellfest had sold me?

Photo by author

One thing you notice when you're wandering around this place is that everyone is either wearing all black, or nothing. So my eye was drawn when the crowds parted and I saw a figure draped all in white. Who was this extreme vanguard of extreme fashion? Daring to disrupt the status quo of AC/DC tees? Wait... Jesus!? Actual Jesus? What the fuck, man. And not even some extremely offensive form of Jesus, all blood stained and carrying a cross, with nails in either hand. We're talking pristine white, cool dude Jesus. Bobble head Jesus. Buddy Christ meme Jesus. When will the extreme cometh?

I decided to head to the Lemmy memorial and pay my respects to a man who epitomised all that is maximum and radical. Below a really tall statue of him holding a trident was a small shrine, decorated with some boots, a bottle of his beer and some candles. People had thrown coins and condoms into the shrine too, which I guess was fitting. I wondered if one day in the future, maybe Wireless would do the same for Justin Bieber or Jason Derulo.

Then this amorphous construction of leather, bones, and Kylie Jenner's lip filler turned up, and finally, things were on a roll. Life was about to get extreme.

A tidal wave of extreme had arrived, and it didn't take long for a man to ask if I wanted to see his tattooed and pierced penis. You know how they say you can always spot the vegan in the room? The same goes for the man who has stuck a needle into his dick. You can never not look at a man who has stuck a needle into his dick, because he will not leave until you look at the dick he once stuck a needle inside of.

I guess I could spend the next few paragraphs explaining what else happened at Hellfest – the performances from Bring Me The Horizon and Napalm Death, the Gutterdammerung film, or a band whose shtick is that their lead singer is a demonic anti-pope with a vibrant backstory – but what would be the point? It was from this moment onward that I'd uncovered the reasoning behind Hellfest being named as one of Europe's most extreme festivals.

Take a look at the following pieces of evidence:

That's right, amidst some glorious scenes of extreme hell-ness were loads of dicks. Dicks, dicks, glorious dicks. Small ones, tall ones, fat ones, and square ones. It appeared that Hellfest had been infiltrated by little todgers rolled up in plastic sheathes, armies of willies, grand-daddies, bursting with unborn children, great big giant cocks, proudly standing Prince Alberts—all of the members were here, at what appeared to be Europe's biggest congregation of men getting their dicks out. A convention for the free movement of the penis.

Of course, it wasn't just dicks I saw at Hellfest. I saw one of the best firework displays I've ever witnessed (dedicated to Lemmy), followed by footage from one of Motorhead's previous Hellfest performances; I saw some punk guy simultaneously play the guitar while getting a tattoo; I saw a band called Ghost do a big monologue about female ejaculation and then bring a children's choir out; I saw Walls of Jericho turn the Warzone Stage into a place of ecstatic punk worship; I saw a man with a prosthetic leg, from which he was drinking beer, get involved in a wood chippings fight.

But it is the dicks that will always remain with me. Perhaps, in this brutal, ruthless and unjust world we live in in 2016—a world of violent unending wars, poverty, shit wages, government surveillance, ISIS, tax havens, natural disasters, and Nigel Farage—to create something that looks truly extreme in comparison to reality has become an insurmountable task. And when nobody knows how to be extreme anymore, a confused man resorts to his final primal act of extreme. He get his dick out.

Good festival though. You should definitely go.