It's that time of year again, and as the rain pours and the wind blows we squeeze into the Metal Machine for the long drive to Prestatyn, North Wales. Our erstwhile driver is Kardasz, rumoured to be ex Polish special forces. Whether this is true or not is a matter of debate, but there is a definitely glint in his eye, a glint that says he has killed a man with nothing more than a broken drumstick and an Iron Maiden wristband. With this in mind we don't dare make fun of his dinosaur lunchbox, and the less said about his Rupert The Bear pyjamas the better. Also along for the ride is Muttley, who is as likely as not to miss plenty of bands due to the absurd length of time it takes him to put on his “ guyliner ”, tart that he is.

As we drive down, Kardasz experiencing paranoid flashbacks after a particularly strong cup of coffee, we debate the big questions in rock music. For example, what is a Goatwhore? How is Dumpy (he of the Rusty Nuts) still alive? And, most importantly, just what is a Monster Magnet? Is it a really big magnet, or a magnet that, literally, attracts monsters? If it's the latter then we vow to be extra alert when they headline later tonight, just in case the place is besieged by Orcs, Trolls and Katie Price impersonators.

Last year, I was a little horrified by what I called “ Stalag Prestatyn ” , and very little has changed. As I now know what to expect, however, it doesn't seem so bad, like an old slipper that the dog has chewed and shat in a bit but is still comfy. It's still beyond belief that anyone would actually come here for a family holiday, but for a few days of rocking it does the job well enough.

The first thing we do after unpacking is head for “ Stage 3 ” , otherwise known as the on site pub, the Queen Vic. I wanted to catch Voodoo Johnson after enjoying their recorded output, but as it's the only place with music it's packed tight and hot as Rob Halfords sweaty leather pants (and twice as whiffy). There seems little point in staying, especially as getting to the bar would require a pickaxe and crampons, so we bugger off. As we relax over tea and biscuits (this is a British festival, chaps, after all), I resign myself to the fact that I'm only going to be covering the two main stages again this year. Luckily, there's some very good bands on, so it should be fun.

Finally, we wander into Stage 2 and catch a bit of Die Apokalyptiscien Reiter, but they are very german and pretty crappy so we have a meander around the merch stalls, which are okay but rather limited in space. There are a few people who have dressed as authentic Vikings for the weekend, as long as Vikings had made their weapons out of plastic and bought their clothes in novelty shops. Less explainable is the presence of some Star Wars Stormtroopers joined by Boba Fett and Darth Vader himself. Whilst it is nothing to do with rock or Vikings, they prove very popular, posing for photos and pretending to choke people with the Force. As you do …

It's 6pm before we eventually catch a band, with Scottish rabble rousers Logan opening the main stage. It's not the easiest of jobs, but they perform it admirably, aided by a very clear sound mix and an appreciative crowd. Finally, it feels like the weekend has begun. Frontman Kenny Collins tells us that the band have decided to play only rockers for the duration of their 45 minute set, and this is a good idea indeed. In the studio, Logan come across rather like a cross between Creed and Pearl Jam, mainly thanks to Collins' deep vocals, and I must admit that live they have much more life to them. Their best known song “ When I Get Down ” stands out as a highlight, although their version of “ War Pigs ” really doesn't work with Collins' vocals. Nonetheless it's a really good, solid set, catapulting Logan into my ‘ bands to watch' list.

Next up are Gun, a band who recently impressed me with their comeback 5 track “Popkiller” CD. A big part of Gun’s resurgence is one Toby Jepson, with the legendary Little Angels front man breathing new life into a band in a mutually beneficial arrangement. Gun get a top class singer, whilst Jepson gets to front a group with a top class back catalogue. Everyone’s a winner and all that. Jepson still looks as good as ever, and sounds even better. They deliver what seems like an effortless performance, hitting all the right notes with classics such as “Don’t Say It’s Over”, “Steal Your Fire” and “Better Days”. There’s time to throw in a couple of new tunes, “Seraphina” and the catchy “Let Your Hair Down”, with Toby reminding the audience that the band still have a future. The audience seems quite happy with this. Whilst the band are going through a marvellous mash up of “Inside Out” and The Police’s “So Lonely” some wag throws a lovely wig onstage. Jepson promptly puts in on baldy guitarist Jools Gizzi, and there is much giggling and missing of words. Fair play to him, Gizzi gets a roadie to put in on properly and proudly sees out the set as a hairy hippy. Gun end on their most famous song “Word Up”, rounding off a set that has obviously pleased a lot of people, with the packed hall resonating to well deserved applause.

As a fully fledged classic rock freak, I really have no choice but to see Ratt. I remember buying a few of their albums in the Eighties, even a rat shaped picture disc, but have never seen them live. They’ve been through plenty of line up changes over the years, but with original main man Stephen Pearcy back in the saddle again (replacing Jizzy Pearl) they should be worth a look. There’s plenty of people of a similar view, and Pearcy looks great as he belts out a greatest hits type of set that ticks all the boxes. The likes of “Wanted Man”, “So You Think You’re Tough”, “Body Talk” and my favourite “Lay It Down” keep everyone rocking, despite the Black Spiders apparently kicking arse n stage 2. Ever present guitar maestro Warren DeMartini pulls out some nifty licks and solos, with original drummer Bobby Blotzer keeping it all in good time. I have to say, the last place I’d ever expected to see Ratt was in a holiday camp sandwiched between Gun and Terrorvision, but here they are and it’s pretty good fun. If I’m honest, the songs haven’t all dated that well, and I’m not holding out too much hope for the new album “Infestation” due out in March. As an exercise in nostalgia, though, it’s good fun, made better by the band putting in a great performance.

Next up there’s another blast from my past, The UK’s most irrepressible band, Terrorvision. The Bradford boys were a bit of a favourite of mine back in the 90s, delivering some fun stuff and generally being the band that always cheered you up. It’s pretty obvious straight away that this isn’t going to be remotely po faced, as front man Tony Wright bounces around the stage like a terrier at feeding time from start to finish, decked out in a natty grey suit. It’s been a while since I listened to the band, but as they churn out a superlative “best of” set I find myself singing along and generally having a fucking great time. I’m not the only one, and the crowd bounces and sings along with Tony all the way through. We get the lot, including “Discothèque Wreck”, “Alice What’s The Matter”, “Pretend Best Friend”, “Do You Wanna Go Faster” and the brilliant “Josephine”. The sheer energy released onstage is phenomenal, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a band so full of the proverbial beans before. The standout has to be the crowd joining in with the “Doo Wop” part of “Oblivion”, run closely by the full tilt “My House” and set closer “Perseverance”. It’s going to take something special to beat this lot, although it’s a shame “Fists Of Fury “ couldn’t be squeezed in.

I have to say that I’m liking the hour long sets at the moment. It means that the bands with a good back catalogue have to think carefully about their setlist, and as a result we’re getting some absolutely cracking performances full of all the best songs. As a bonus, it should also mean that no one has time to do a bloody drum solo, which is always a good thing as far as I’m concerned. It’s time for Friday headliners Monster Magnet on the main stage, but I’m not really a fan so I scamper off to see Eden’s Curse on stage 2. Unsurprisingly it’s not at all busy, but this at least means I can get a good look at the band without fear of injury. For two songs anyway, as during “Judgement Day” I’m whacked in the face by a drumstick! Pete Newdeck obviously heard Rock United were in town and, thinking I was Wally, hurled his broken stick right at my noggin, leaving a nasty scratch. Apart from this, the band are very impressive, and as a fan of both their albums I have a good time. Michael Eden has a fine voice, but is a bit too “WOO! YEAH!” American for some, winning the award for campest performance of the day my a mile. His voice, however, is strong as ever, and he sings with real conviction. The highlight for me is their cover of “We All Die Young” (from the film “Rock Star”) which really shows off Eden’s impressive vocal range. Also of note was “Angels & Demons”, which had new keyboard player Alessandro Del Vecchio singing a duet with Eden and doing an incredibly good job. As Monster Magnet plough on, Stage 2 is a comparative ghost town, but those that are there seem to have a good time with the band, myself included, even if Eden does refer to the festival as Bloodstock twice!

Finally, it’s time for Sonata Arctica, given the post headliner slot that sees a thinning of the crowd that surprises me. After all, SA are a top quality band, and the name that gave me the biggest buzz when they were announced as playing. Unfortunatly, there are sound problems right from the start, with Tony Kakko’s vocals all but disappearing, and much of the guitar and keyboards being drowned out by the thundering drums of Tommy Portimo. They still manage to get a good vibe going, with everyone singing along to “Full Moon”, shouting “Run away, run away” like they were at a Monty Python convention. We get a few new songs like “the Last Amazing Grays”, “As If The World Wasn’t Ending” and “Juliet”, and it’s obvious that the new album material just doesn’t work that well in front of a new audience. It’s too slow, and it’s a real boost when Kakko announces that the band a re going “Old School” for a few tracks, delivering some fine power metal with blistering guitar and keyboard face offs. Unfortunately it’s all a bit too little too late for us, and the sound is by now so poor that we leave before the set ends. The drums are still trying to drown out everything, and the vocals are going in and out like an indecisive agoraphobic. It’s a shame, as I was really looking forward to their set, but hopefully they’ll come back to the UK sometime and we can see them at their best.

Day two starts with the manic screeching of a billion seagulls right outside our chalet. There’s no rush to get to the music, as it doesn’t start until mid day, so we take a stroll into Prestatyn. The town turns out to be slightly less exciting than a sparrow’s fart, so after a hearty breakfast we head right back again to catch Girlschool doing their thing. As you should all know by now, Girlschool’s “thing” is to play heavy metal and have a good time. They come on to a wailing siren and launch straight into “Demolition”, all asses and attitude, much to the delight of the crowd. With no main stage until 6 there’s plenty of people in, ready for several hours of British rock and metal. Drummer Denise Dufort and guitarist/vocalist Kim McAuliffe have been constants in the band since 1978, and since 2000 have been rejoined by original bassist/vocalist Enid Williams. It’s nice to know there’s a place in heavy metal for someone called Enid. The three are rounded off by guitar maestro Jackie Chambers, who is clad as usual in nice, tight leather that gets plenty of guys panting. As usual, they are entertaining in an old school way. The songs can be a bit repetitive when it comes to the chorus, but Girlschool are never anything less than a refreshingly honest band with some great tunes. The roll out a couple of songs from their recent “Legacy Album”, with “Everything’s The Same” showing that there’s still plenty of lessons to be taught at this school. During “Race With the Devil” some wag throws a pair of pants on stage, but the girls sensibly steer clear of them. By the time they clock off their hour with “Emergency” they leave behind a very satisfied crowd, but then they always do.

Last year Tigertailz had the main stage graveyard slot, but today they’re following Girlschool in front of a big crowd which is surely preferable. Relishing their status as “Welshest Band Of The Weekend” they use “men Of Harlech” as an intro tape, much to the delight of the Welsh contingent in the crowd. It’s nearly twenty years since they released their “Berzerk” album, and to celebrate they plough through the whole thing in order for their set. Needless to say, their fans think this is a very good idea, and the atmosphere is electric. “Love Bomb Baby” gets a better singalong than Ratt did on the main stage yesterday, and a few tears are shed as “Heaven” is dedicated to guitarist Pepsi Tate, who died 2 years ago. Elsewhere it’s all shit and giggles, with the band absolutely tearing through the likes of “Sick Sex”, “Action City” and “Love Overload”. For someone like me who hasn’t heard the album for over a decade, it’s a refresher course on how good the songs were, full of energy and kick ass choruses. As the final track from the album, “Call of The Wild” ends, we think it’s all over, but there’s one more trick up their collective sleeves and they get Girlschool to come back on to join them in “Ace Of Spades”. It’s a great end to a great show, and I have to give full marks to Tigertailz for bringing a bit of sunshine to a wet Welsh afternoon. Tidy!

It’s now well gone 4 n the afternoon and we’re still waiting for Muttley to turn up. Rumour has it he’s still drying his hair and putting on the guyliner, and Kardasz is muttering Polish death curses under his breath. He’s soon out of our minds, however, as another classic Brit band appears, this time in the shape of The Quireboys, purveyors of the finest good time rock and roll. It’s good to see them, with vocalist Spike wrapped up in his traditional bandana, growling his way through the set like a Rod Stewart impersonator after several whiskeys. They join most other bands in throwing out a greatest hits and misses set, with the biggest cheers reserved for the hits “7 O Clock” and “Hey You”. Not that the other songs aren’t appreciated, and it’s obvious that the boys still have a strong, loyal following. The music is all bluesy guitar and honky tonk piano, the hooks deep and effortless. It’s good to hear “Sweet Maryann” and “There She Goes Again”, and the reception is raucous and happy. For some reason Spike mentions that “it’s all happening in chalet 412 later”, alluding to a party that never happens. I know it never happens because chalet 412 is the one I’m in! First I get hit by a drumstick (curse you, Newdeck) and now this! Just another weird weekend at Hard Rock Hell, I suppose.

There’s a bit of a gap between now and WASP, so we decide to check out Rogue Male on the main stage. I don’t know quite what to expect, and am quite scared by Jim Little, the front man who seems to shout at everybody no matter how far away they are. “We’re back!” he exclaims to general apathy, shouting over whatever his guitarist was trying to say. We manage to last for all of two songs, as they are completely bloody awful. It’s less like music, more like rectal surgery with a sledgehammer performed by a monkey. A monkey with no thumbs. Anyway, it’s pretty bad so we seek refuge in stage 2, where NWOBHM stalwarts Angel Witch are telling everyone “You’re an angel witch”, to which the correct response is, unsurprisingly, “You’re an angel witch”, like an argument between two four year olds. In fairness, they’re not bad at all, in a very dated sort of way, and compared to Rogue Male they’re a choir of hairy angels. The crowd certainly laps it all up happily, and we stay for the remainder of the set.

When we return to the main stage Rogue Male have gone, so we settle in and wait for WASP. Should I be putting in full stops again or what? Ah bugger it, it doesn’t matter. By the time they come on at half eight or so the place is absolutely 100% rammed. There’s more people in here than there are on Steven Fry’s Twitter list. The band come out, the place goes mental, and the best band of the weekend set about marking their territory. Blackie Lawless is still one of rock’s biggest panto villains, but along with that he’s an awesome front man. “On Your Knees”, “The Real Me” and perennial favourite “Love Machine” start off the sixty minute set, allowing for just one song from the excellent “Babylon” album in the shape of “Crazy”, a good choice as it’s the most retro of the new songs. The current line up is stuffed with talent, with guitarist Doug Blair bringing out a superb solo for “The Idol”, and the whole thing is helped along by some great use of the lighting rig from the bands own technicians. There’s not much time for chat, but Blackie still manages to drag out the old “left side vs. right side” cliché during “I Wanna Be Somebody”, and it’s nice to see someone adhering to tradition. The backing vocals are rather suspect, as at times they include Blackie’s unmistakable voice when he wasn’t even singing, but it’s not something I have a major problem with. The gig is wrapped up with the amazing “Blind In Texas” that gets everyone singing again, and then the band are gone, leaving no one in any doubt that this is as good as it gets.

So how do you follow WASP? The only band to get more than an hour, Queensryche have that dubious pleasure, and it doesn’t start too well. We’re already running late, and the band put on a moody intro that dribbles on for a few minutes, leading up to…nothing. There’s a bit of a technical hitch somewhere, so torch holding roadies scurry about and patch things up. Instead of just going for it we get the bloody intro played all the way through again, until finally the guys turn up and play some music. As a Mindcrime/Empire man, I don’t quite know what’s going on, as I don’t recognise any songs until “I Dream Of Infra Red” comes out, with Geoff Tate explaining that tonight’s gig will consist of songs from “Rage For Order”, “American Soldier” and “Empire”. So no Mindcrime for me, which makes me grumpy. They get into the “American Soldier” part of the show and everything gets REALLY serious. It’s not that the album or the songs are bad, but in front of an audience who have just rocked their asses off to WASP it’s all a bit stodgy. Everfy few songs Tate addresses the audience, coming over like a cross between William Shatner, Christopher Walken and Steven Segal (must be the ponytail). He seems nice enough, but also really, really odd, waffling on about how lucky he is and how he misses records and stuff like that. It’s like he’s trying to get us all to come to his get rich quick seminar or something. As he explains the origins of one new song, (“Unafraid” I think) it’s obvious that it’s pretty personal to him, something that comes out in a very impassioned performance. When we get to the “Empire” section it’s a bit more jolly, with “Empire” my favourite song of the set. The applause and audience energy is not half of what was abundant for WASP, as playing technically brilliant prog metal will never beat big guitars and singalong choruses at a festival. Queensryche really should have thought more about their setlist, as it’s unlikely they’ve won over many new fans tonight. Of course, existing fans lapped it up, but those of us new to the band or only casual fans go away feeling a bit empty.

Next up are The New York Dolls, a new band on me but one with a lot of hairspray headed followers. I have to say that I am not impressed at all. We stay for a few songs, but it seems that some band members are fucked out of their heads, with poor timing all over the place. It’s just an embarrassing mess, so we leave them to it and go to find out what a Goatwhore is. Apparently, a Goatwhore is a thrash metal band, which is pretty much what we expected. They’re pretty good at what they do, but it’s not for me at all so we decide to call it a night. Yeah, I know we’re lightweights but there was nothing to stay up for. Stage 2 is thrash til the early hours, and the main stage had Lauren Harris up next, and I’ll be happy not to see her again as long as I live. Following her are Spit Like This, who are very entertaining, but we can’t be arsed to wait 2 hours just to see them. Sorry guys, maybe next time if you’re on earlier.

So that was it. Hard Rock Hell 3, with 4 already booked for next year. It’s fast becoming one of the best festivals in the UK, catering for all sorts of metalheads. It’s never going to be perfect, but each year they seem to be getting a little better, so I’m already looking forward to the next one.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, Kardasz killed Muttley with his own eyeliner. Justice, I say…

Review by Alan Holloway, alan "at"
Photos by Alan Holloway
20 December 2009
(c) 2009 RockUnited.Com