Hell's Heroes Delivers 9 Hours of Headbanging Metal To Houston

John Tucker of Haunt
John Tucker of Haunt Photo by Nathan Smith
Hell’s Heroes II
White Oak Music Hall
April 13, 2019

Damn, that was a lot of metal. Hell's Heroes II was conceived as the only heavy metal festival Houston would need in 2019, featuring the kind of rarely seen bands that would draw headbangers from all over town and even the world to see them together on one bill. Altogether, it was nine hours or so of headbanging, not counting the pre-party show at Warehouse Live headlined by Voivod on Friday.

By the end of the night, metal hordes from as far away as Australia and Chile were reduced to a sweaty mess, having drunk White Oak Music Hall clear out of Lone Star and shouting themselves hoarse from acts like Razor, Exciter, and Omen. If your neck doesn't feel like you were rear-ended by an F-150 this morning, you weren't there.

The afternoon rain had just subsided outside when locals Oath of Cruelty broke the seal on the fest upstairs at 4 p.m. Already, the place was jammed, with longhairs happily slipping and sliding into one another on the slick, wet floor. Fronted by P.L.F. mastermind Dave Reillac, Oath proved to be the most extreme metal band of the day, opening up a wicked circle pit of enthusiastic metalheads with blasts like "Nocturnal Victimizer." It was a pretty blistering start, and absolutely no one seemed to be pacing themselves on the floor or at the bar. For some, it was obviously going to be a very long day.

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Oath of Cruelty whips things up upstairs.
Photo by Nathan Smith

"Hell's Heroes, baby! How the fuck you doing?" hollered Jake Nunn of San Francisco's Hell Fire downstairs. "It's not even 4:40 yet!" It may have still been hours until dinnertime, but Nunn and his boys gave us our first real taste of what Hell's Heroes was all about.

Traditional heavy metal—shrieking vocals, guitar solos, and an unrepentantly '80s aesthetic—is somehow currently the hottest thing in the metal underground. Blame it on vinyl collecting, blame it on Spotify playlists, or blame it on Satan, but crunching, mid-tempo air-guitar fodder is back in a big way, and hundreds of metalheads were eating it up on Saturday. White Oak was crawling with denim "battle jackets" covered in band patches, and everywhere you looked, old friends were smiling and hugging as if they hadn't seen one another in years. By the looks of a few of them, not since '85, at the latest.

Nunn had the best voice of the night, which is saying something with that crowd. After his group finished off a set of power metal that would make Dio beam with pride (and maybe call his lawyers), they were followed by their tourmates Haunt from Fresno. Propelled by guitarist John Tucker's white Fender, Haunt rattled off some terrific harmonized riffs and vocal melodies, even inspiring an improbable circle pit with their golden-age metal riffing.

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Photo by Nathan Smith
For bands like Haunt and Hell Fire, it’s almost as if the ‘90s never happened, let alone 9/11 and all the rest. Hell, they seemed in no rush to get to the late ‘80s, either. Is it nostalgia that drives Hell’s Heroes acts like Graven Rite, Visigoth and Cauldron, or some yearning for a simpler time, back before guttural vocals, church burnings and Antifa were a thing? Is there nowhere left for modern heavy metal to go except backwards, into recreations of its golden age?

Nobody appeared to be in any danger of thinking too hard about it on Saturday. They were having too much fun. No matter how you sliced it, it was flat-out impossible to catch all the music going on upstairs and down. As the day turned to evening, the main stage hosted a parade of bands who could actually remember the ‘80s. Helstar’s James Rivera, for one, was positively tickled at the big crowd (and moshpit to match) downstairs for the locals’ set.

Classic, fantasy-steeped act Omen led the crowd through a series of singl-alongs highlighted by “The Axeman,” and the large crowd was feeling it—and themselves. Once the first crowd surfer made it onstage, the floodgates opened. Stage divers semi-young and old cascades after one another in waves, leaving the musicians to dodge them between notes.

The stage divers were even more out of control for the veteran Ontario thrash band Razor. One brazen (or possibly insane) longhair took his trip onstage as an opportunity to guzzle the band’s own beer, leading to an angry admonishment from guitarist Dave Carlo. Had to give the kid credit—that was one move I hadn’t seen before.

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Photo by Nathan Smith
After a steady stream of stage divers threatened to take over the show, one sound tech had clearly had enough and straight-up speared some guy like he was Lawrence Taylor. I assume funeral arrangements will be announced in the next day or so. Shit was bonkers, and the stage diving understandably chilled out a bit afterward.

Razor’s fellow Canadians Exciter received one of the most enthusiastic responses of the night. Vocalist/drummer Dan Beehler definitely had the best wind of the festival, pounding away at his kit with tremendous speed and aplomb while belting out ear-piercing high notes. True to their name, Exciter’s music was some of the most energetic of the night, even if the mosh pit was starting to move in slow motion after hours and hours of pushing and shoving. If I’m honest, I wasn’t sure how much more I could stand, myself.

I took a break during Skull Fist’s set upstairs to prepare for the capper—Dallas crossover icons Power Trip. It would be the band’s first gig in about a year, and there was no doubt the group would pull out all the stops just in case some of the old heads from Razor and Helstar were watching.

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Power Trip
Photo by Nathan Smith
They absolutely destroyed the place. As good and as tight as all the older bands at Hell’s Heroes II had been, Power Trip showed them what a band in its prime really sounds like. Or maybe a buzz saw in its prime, I don't know. But with cuts like “Firing Squad” and “Waiting Around to Die,” they uncorked a vicious set that had the young ladies next to me screaming like they were watching the Beatles at Shea Stadium. Though what remained of the crowd was clearly tired, Power Trip wrung every last circle pit out of the fest with “Crossbreaker” before hitting the showers. Truly killer.

Can it be topped? Hell’s Heroes II was a clear step up from the festival’s first year, and if it’s to get any bigger, it may have to stretch into a second day. Festival organizer Christian Larson is going to have to dig up even more enticing relics of metal’s vaunted vinyl era, and God knows how many are even still out there. Somehow, I can’t help but feel he’ll find a way to manage another go at it next year. After all, what is Hell’s Heroes if not traditional?
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Nathan Smith
Contact: Nathan Smith