Heavy Montreal 2016: Who Rocked Best This Year?

Crowd surfing at Heavy Montreal (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

The 2016 edition of Heavy Montreal saw 37 bands play to more than 30,000 fans over two days on the Plaine des Jeux at Parc Jean-Drapeau. It was a scale down from past years for the festival, with a new area (its old spot was taken over by IleSoniq), and a return to the two day format.

With a new site, I feared my experience with past editions would be lost, so I figured I’d have to explore the area. And despite being on smaller scale than before, it’s still impossible to see everything at Heavy Montreal, with three stages and multiple side activities going on. In that spirit, here’s a sampling of what I saw and liked.

Saturday

Pop Evil

Pop Evil (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

Pop Evil (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

I’ve never seen so many people show up this early at Heavy Montreal. The band’s loyal fans were rewarded with a tight set that may not have appealed to fans of harder metal, but pleased everyone who likes a little melody in their music. Singer Leigh Kakaty is a great presence on stage (read our interview with him).

The Dillinger Escape Plan

Dillinger Escape Plan (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

Dillinger Escape Plan (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

I was not familiar with their music but I’d heard about their legendary ability to play uber complex music while thrashing around the stage. I quickly became more concerned about the thrashing around me and escaped the pit with my photography equipment intact. The band has announced it will disband soon, so it was most likely the last chance for Montreal fans to see them. Very good show.

Kataklysm

Kataklysm (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

Kataklysm (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

Montreal’s own death metal veterans. Chants of “Kataklysm” echoed in the moment leading to the show. As the band made its way to the stage, singer Maurizio Iacono made a point of saying he’d speak in french for the night, which he did. The band started with “Breaching the Asylum” from the latest record “Of Ghosts and Gods”, and concluded their 8 song set with “Elevate”.

Carcass

Carcass (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

Carcass (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

I’d heard of this band but didn’t know them at all. I showed up to their set because I remembered how excited people were when they were announced. I’m really glad I did! Great set of extreme metal mixed with a more classic sound, and a bit of Motörhead. Every year I make a similar discovery, and it’s one of the greatest thing about Heavy Montreal: you get exposed to new music and come away with new bands to check out.

Sebastian Bach

Sebastian Bach (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

Sebastian Bach (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

My surprise of the festival. As the lone representative of the 80’s hair metal genre, Sebastian Bach could have been seen as an anomaly in the programming. But the singer wasn’t about to let himself be intimidated by the heavier acts, and he proceeded to remind everyone of just how fucking heavy Skid Row could be especially on their sophomore album “Slave to the Grind”. Starting things up with the title track of that album, Bach and his band played with full energy and the singer showed that, while he’s lost a bit of edge in his range, he can still belt out the high notes. The set was all Skid Row songs except for “American Metalhead” from his solo album “Angel Down”, which he wisely played after the mega hit “18 & Life”. “The Threat”, “Piece of Me”, “Big Guns” and the closer “Youth Gone Wild” all went over massively. One of the highlights of the festival!

Sabaton

Sabaton (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

Sabaton (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

One of the bands I was most excited to see, and for the first time in North America, they brought out their tank drum riser, nicknamed Walther. “We flat packed it in IKEA boxes, and it sailed through customs without any problem” would joke singer Joakim Brodén. They came out strong with “Ghost Division” and “Carolus Rex”, the musicians all smiles, thoroughly enjoying themselves. The crowd started chanting the melody to “Swedish Pagans” which the band promptly played. 45 minutes was way too short for these guys, who left us wanting more with “Metal Crüe”, their ode to all things metal. Hope they come back as headliners when they tour behind their new record.

Black Label Society

Black Label Society (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

Black Label Society (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

Zakk Wylde was pulling triple duty this weekend; the band played a pre-festival show on Friday at the Corona, then Heavy Montreal on Saturday. Wylde would play a solo show the next day too. I only saw a little bit of this one, but what I saw was excellent. I’m not the biggest BLS fan, but this persuaded me to re-explore their catalog. And Zakk was on fire, burning the fretboard up and down for his blistering solos.

Food

Food truck at Heavy Montreal (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

Food truck at Heavy Montreal (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

Whatever you budget was, no matter how much effort you wanted to spend, there was something for everyone i’m guessing. Pizza, hot dogs, poutine, fish & chips and even vegetarian were offered right be the area of the main stages. I chose to explore the wooden area and found, to my delight, the food truck of Le Smoking BBQ. I saw many turn away once they saw the price, but the Pulled Pork Poutine was worth every cent! The lines were usually pretty long but service was quick and efficient. They have a restaurant on Ste-Catherine that I’ll surely visit again.

Heavy Mania

Heavy Mania (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

Heavy Mania (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

For the 4th year, wrestling contests took place during the festival, with a ring installed right by the so called “Chill Zone”. You could often hear the ring bell reverberating across the wooden area, singling the beginning or ending of a contest. There was always a steady stream of onlookers, many screaming at the bad guys or cheering the good guys. It’s a little low rent as far as wrestling goes, but you have to admire the passion these people put into it. It’s always a winner.

Mastodon

Mastodon (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

Mastodon (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

Another band I was looking forward to, one who keeps getting better with each record. To be honest, I thought they were just OK this time, compared to they amazing show they put on two years ago at the Metropolis. Or maybe I was just getting tired.

Nightwish

Nightwish (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

Nightwish (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

The highlight of the day as far as I was concerned. For the first time ever in North America, the band brought their full festival production, which included a giant screen behind the tage, and pyrotechnics. LOTS of pyrotechnics. 75 minutes is way too short to do these guys justice. The setlist was mostly centered on the last two records, and that’s a good thing. From the high impact intro of “Shudder Before the Beautiful” to the abridged version of “The Greatest Show on Earth”, the band showed why they are the leaders of the symphonic metal genre.

 

Sunday

Beartooth

Beartooth (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

Beartooth (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

I got a little bit of their set, on the third stage, located in the woods near the entrance. The crowd was chanting their name, impatiently waiting for them to come on stage. Really intense hardcore band, got the crowd jumping up and down and moshing. Got out of there fast before losing my camera.

Hatebreed

Hatebreed (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

Hatebreed (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

While I was waiting by the barrier for the show to start, one of Zakk Wylde’s roadies came out with a sign offering Black Label Society guitar picks in return for weed. Took him 30 seconds to come up with a couple of scores. Pretty smart.

Right out of the gate, the band played “Destroy Everything” and set the tone. This was a high energy, really intense set that might have even topped their gig at the Corona in June. This was their fourth Heavy Montreal appearance: surely that’s gotta be the record? I’m trying to think of another band that might have played as often and can’t think of a name.

Blind Guardian

Blind Guardian

The masters of German power metal had a lot of fans eagerly awaiting them. With a career spanning set, they hit all the marks. It was my first time seeing them, and I’ll admit that I expected a more visual band, but musically they were excellent. It should be noted that 2 days earlier, they played the Waken Open Air in Germany. That’s dedication!

Zakk Wylde

Zakk Wylde (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

Zakk Wylde (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

For his second set of the festival, and third of the weekend, the guitarist played songs from his two “Book of Shadows” records. The material is a bit mellow for a metal festival but that didn’t matter: Zakk shredded for almost ten minutes on the first track alone, to the delight of everyone. Yeah, he’s pretty fucking good with a guitar.

Alter Bridge

Alter Bridge (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

Alter Bridge (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

Another band I wasn’t really familiar with, but I love Myles Kennedy’s work with Slash, and their latest single (which they didn’t play) is excellent so I gave it a shot. The music is a lot heavier than I expected, considering this is basically Creed with Kennedy. They definitely had their fan following in attendance. Good show!

Volbeat

Volbeat (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

Volbeat (Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon)

My Sunday lineup was all about these psychobilly rockers from Denmark. If Johnny Cash had listened to Metallica, he would have probably sounded like Volbeat. Getting upfront close enough to take some pictures wasn’t easy, even with a telephoto lens. They started with “The Devil’s Bleeding Crown” and all hell broke loose in the pit. Crowd surfers were going by steadily and the crowd was pushing forward quite hard. I managed some photos before putting away my camera for fear of having it smashed, and moved to the side to enjoy the music. “Heaven Nor Hell”, “Sad Man’s Tongue” (with Mr Cash’s “Ring of Fire “as an intro), “Lola Montez” were all early highlights of the set. The band even got a visit from Barney from Napalm Death to sing “Evelyn”. They ended the night (another set that was ridiculously too short) with “Still Counting”. Wow. Amazing energy, what a great band.

Disturbed

They headlined the secondary stage at the very first Heavy MTL, but now they closed the show. Back from a short hiatus, the band was solid, if a little uneven. But the faults of the stage setups became obvious. Having been too close to Volbeat, we couldn’t make our way close for Disturbed so we stayed at the back. Sound was very uneven, with high frequencies coming and going (maybe the wind?), and the sound from the third stage drowned out the quiet part, which mercifully there aren’t a lot of. But the intro to “Sound of Silence” was pretty much ruined for anyone at the back or on the terrace. They need to work on this if future editions are to take place there.

Disturbed was pretty good most of the time; it seemed to me like the earlier material is played with a lot less passion than it used to be. The newer material is also clearly not at the same level. Still a good way to close out the festival.

The new configuration

The new site configuration has some advantages. It’s certainly more intimate, and easier to navigate. But you can’t hear the bands very well from the other stage, and it gets worse if you’re at the Heavy stage listening to a band at the main stage, because the third stage in the forest actually bleeds over a lot. The old site had the two main stages side by side, so you could find a spot for the next band while listening to the other show. As it stands, your best bet is to NOT have two bands you like playing consecutively, an almost impossible feat. It also felt like the stages were a little smaller and so the crowd was more crammed in, but that might be just an impression.

The festival carries the burden of having to top its 2014 edition that was headlined by Metallica, probably the biggest name in metal music worldwide, a pretty much impossible task. But fixing the problems with this site is essential: the third stage is too close, there are no video screens of the second stage, and the ones on the main stage are tiny compared to what they used to be. On the positive side, having much more European acts this year made for an interesting programming, with less repeats. Not the best Heavy Montreal ever, but still a pretty solid 2 days of great music. And did I mention the pulled pork poutine?

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About Jean-Frederic Vachon

Jean-Frederic Vachon is a pop culture aficionado who mainly writes about music, here on Montreal Rampage and at his site Diary of a Music Addict. But given the right subject, he also likes to cover comics, video games and hockey. Contact: Website | Facebook | Twitter | More Posts