(Andy Synn provides this report on the 2015 edition of Damnation Festival in the UK.)
It’s been a few years now since I last attended Damnation Festival, the annual celebration of all things dark and metallic hosted (as always) at Leeds University Student’s Union. But this year I knew I simply couldn’t miss it, as not only were a number of my favourite bands playing (hello Sólstafir, hi there Primordial) but also two bands I’ve been a fan of since their very first albums, but whom I’d never actually managed to see live before (The Ocean, Altar of Plagues).
Oh, and some band named At The Gates. Who are apparently pretty famous or something.
Anyway, getting to Leeds proved somewhat more eventful than I had anticipated, with some demonically torrential rain and a series of snarled-up traffic jams ultimately meaning I arrived just in time to miss The King Is Blind open up the Terrorizer stage. I sincerely apologise for that, as I’m a big fan of these guys and their groaning, Doom-and-D’Beat-inflected brand of Death Metal.
They have an album out at the end of January next year anyway, which I’m sure I’ll be reviewing, but in the meantime I urge you all to check them out over at:
The way things worked out in terms of timings and running-order, it looked like I’d be sticking mainly to the Terrorizer and Jagermeister stages over the course of the day, and as luck would have it the next several bands on my list were all performing on the Terrorizer stage one after the other.
Up first were Belgian grimlords Wiegedood, who you may remember from my review of their debut album earlier this year (HERE). For half an hour the three-piece subjected us to a swollen, acidic torrent of savage, unforgiving Black Metal, tempered by a bleak and desolate melodic edge and anchored by the blast-heavy drumming of Wim Coppers.
Moving from ferocious passages of blazing metallic fury to moments of gloomy, oppressive doom-laden grandeur – all topped off with the brittle, glass-chewing shrieks of vocalist/guitarist Levy Seynaeve (also performing again later in the day with his “other” band, Amenra) – the band powered through their set with barely any acknowledgement of the crowd, losing themselves purely in the music in the process, and providing a suitably nasty opening to my Damnation experience for 2015.
Up next were London’s own Voices, a band about whom I’ve been relatively ambivalent in the past, despite knowing a good number of people who love the band, and a seemingly equal number of people who think they’re terrible!
Unfortunately their set still didn’t quite manage to sway me one way or the other, as it was a definite mix of intriguing high-points and awkward low-points. Their opening run of songs in particular did little to dispel the feeling that the band, while aiming for an avant-garde approach to Metal that references everyone from Akercocke to Arcturus to Strapping Young Lad, have put more effort into sounding “unique” than they have into sounding actually “cohesive”.
That being said, they’re all phenomenal players in their own right, and you can’t fault their technical skills or their obvious passion for the music. It’s just that, for the start of their set at least, the overall experience felt oddly disjointed.
Even more oddly, however, following the near-catastrophic collapse of their entire bass-rig during “The Fuck Trance” (which you can see documented below), the band’s overall sound and style seemed to tighten up noticeably, making the second half of their set far more enjoyable and far more riveting than the first!
Sticking around on the same stage for a third band, Black ‘n’ Roll commandos Vreid were the next band to step up to the plate, here to support their latest album Sólverv.
Much like their predecessors, however, their set was a mixed bag, with their newest material (particularly opener “Når byane brenn”) falling a little flat when compared with the energetic response to older tracks such as “Raped By Light”, “Disciplined”, and (one of my personal favourites) the Metallica-from-Norway Black Thrash attack of “Arche”.
This could of course simply have been a consequence of these songs not yet being known as well by their audience, but personally I do feel like the material on Sólverv just isn’t as strong as the band’s best.
Ultimately, though this was definitely a solid performance (and one that was still extremely well-received by those in attendance), the band are definitely capable of better. After all, I’ve seen it with my own eyes.
I did however have to skip out on the band a few songs early (missing the traditional closer of “Pitch Black) in order to grab myself a spot in the main room for The Ocean, a band whom I’ve been a fan of ever since their first album (I still hold that the re-mixed/re-recorded Fluxion remains their best release), and yet whom I’d never before managed to catch live.
With a live cellist, a new drummer (the phenomenal Paul Seidel, ex-War from a Harlot’s Mouth), and a vocalist who has, by now, truly come into his own, the German Prog/Post Metallers completely dominated the Jagermeister stage with their performance, treating the audience to a masterclass in sonic dynamics and pure, irrepressible energy that set a ludicrously high bar for the rest of the acts at the festival to follow.
Once again, however, I did have to skip the band’s closer (“The Quiet Observer” from their recent split with Mono) in order to reach the Eyesore Merch stage, where I would finally have a chance to see the mighty Altar of Plagues (another band whom I’ve been a huge fan of ever since their first album) for the very first… and very last… time.
However, to say the experience was… somewhat frustrating… would be an understatement.
On the one hand, songs like “Neptune is Dead” and “Feather and Bone” were as spellbinding and constricting as I’d always hoped, cascading across the audience in waves of punishing distortion and primal emotion. Yet, on the other hand, there were times – particularly during some of the more purposefully abrasive material from the band’s divisive swansong album Teethed Glory and Injury – where something just felt… off about the whole performance.
Perhaps it was the decision to have the bass-lines playing on a backing track, giving much of the set a dissociated, drone-infused aura, or perhaps it was simply a case of mixed emotions and high expectations clashing quite spectacularly, but there were definitely times during the band’s performance where their spark certainly sputtered and flickered somewhat fitfully.
Yet, by the same token, when the trio found that sweet spot – particularly during the Mammal material – you could easily see why and how the name Altar of Plagues became so famous and well-respected, as the band truly left everything they had on that stage.
Unlike the other two bands, I’ve definitely seen Sólstafir live before. Almost more times than I can count, in fact. But that doesn’t really matter, as every time I see them still feels as fresh and vibrant as the very first, as they never, ever, fail to bring their A-game. And tonight really was no exception.
Although I missed the band’s opening track due to Altar of Plagues running ever-so-slightly over, I did make it back into the main hall in time to catch what turned out to be an utterly flawless hit-parade comprised of “Ótta”, “Pale Rider”, “Fjara”, and grandiose closer (complete with good-natured crowd-surfing by frontman Aðalbjörn Tryggvason) “Goddess of the Ages”.
Brimming with heavy emotion and good humour, with charisma coming out of every pore, these guys once again proved why they’re held in such high regard, and are in such high demand, by their fans in the UK (and elsewhere).
By way of contrast to what I’d just experienced, now it was time to get my neck wrecked by the steamrollering, bulldozing Death Metal machine known as Asphyx, who proceeded to pummel the packed venue with riff after crushing riff of pure old-school power.
Fronted by the (un)living legend that is Martin van Drunen (whose gravel-chewing bark still retains all of its venomous bite), the quartet ripped through a suitably savage set of gatling-gun drums and shrapnel-shredded riffs in impressively short order, mixing in both old and new material, switching from a frenzied blitzkrieg to a crippled, doomy crawl, with barely any pause for breath between songs.
Though some of van Drunen’s between-song “banter” left a lot to be desired (a bit like listening to your favourite uncle after he’s had a few drinks – although dedicating a track to recently deceased Bolt Thrower drummer was a nice touch), the music more than spoke for itself, leaving the amassed crowd rabid and hungry for more.
With my legs by now utterly killing me, I decided that discretion was the better part of valour and skipped out on seeing High on Fire (who I heard were very good, but whom I’ve seen several times before) in favour of grabbing a break for half an hour or so to sit down and rest up. This did mean, however, that I could stick around the Terrorizer stage again and grab myself a perfect spot from which to watch the second-stage headliners raise the bar for the night even further.
It’s becoming almost a cliché now, but Primordial are pretty much always the best band on whatever show they’re playing. Not only was the sound utterly brilliant (barring some small, intermittent faults with frontman Alan Averill’s microphone), but so was the performance itself, beginning with a gloriously anthemic rendition of “Where Greater Men Have Fallen”, followed by a seamless run-through of some of the band’s best and brightest material… “Gods to the Godless”, “Babel’s Tower”, “No Grave Deep Enough”… the list goes on… leading up to a titanic climactic performance of “Empires Fall”, which firmly cemented the band’s status as the evening’s true champions.
After this the performance by At The Gates (whom I think some of you may have heard of before) was never going to quite hit the same heights by comparison, but the Gothenburg progenitors certainly tried their damnedest still!
The crowd of course absolutely erupted when the band hit the stage and smashed straight into a ravenous rendition of “Death and the Labyrinth”, before following that up with a flurry of modern classics in the shape of “Cold”, “At War With Reality”, “Under a Serpent Sun”… and a host of other tracks drawn primarily from the legendary Slaughter of the Soul and last year’s phenomenal comeback album (although an unexpected blast through “Windows” demonstrated that the quintet haven’t fully forgotten their roots).
Though not every track detonated with quite the same level of force (both “Suicide Nation” and “Nausea” are still lesser cuts from SotS in my opinion), the new material really shined in the live setting, with a truly visceral pairing of “Eater of Gods” and “The Book of Sand” providing the real high point of the set for me.
Of course it wouldn’t be a true headline set without the de rigeur encore, and the band didn’t disappoint in that regard, diving into “Blinded by Fear” with the energy and aggression of a band half their age, before “Kingdom Gone” and “The Night Eternal” brought the evening to a close.
So, despite a few uneven performances, this year’s Damnation Festival was overall another astounding success, showcasing a number of bands, both new and old, at the top of their game, as well as proving once more that Primordial deserve to be the biggest band in the world.