(Our man in the UK, Andy Synn, attended Damnation Festival 2016 in Leeds on November 5, and provides this report along with videos he made.)
Oh Damnation Festival how do I love thee? Let me count the ways…
Whereas too many other events seem content to book the same big-name crowd-pleasers, year in and year out, buttressed by an interchangeable selection of generic sound-alikes and contrived gimmicks – all carefully selected purely for their mundane mass-appeal – the Damnation team seem to operate on an unwavering ethos of only booking the bands they truly like, bands (big and small) that they truly believe in, who have something unique or special to offer.
This is how every edition of the festival features an array of bands from multiple different styles, from Death to Prog to Doom to Hardcore to Sludge (and beyond), from across the length and breadth of the underground Metal scene coexisting under one roof and why, over the years, Damnation has seen everyone from Ahab to Asphyx, Carcass to Katatonia, Mono to My Dying Bride, playing to the sort of packed crowds that are a regular occurrence in Europe, but which only rarely seem to be achievable here in the UK.
This helps make Damnation Festival’s line-up a much more interesting affair than many of their peers, as the organisers seem to operate on the principal of “if you build it, they will come”, putting their faith in the belief that the UK scene doesn’t just want to be fed the same old bands and the same old performances, time and time again. And this year was no different, with a wide variety of different acts, of different styles, on display, coupled with a bunch of exclusive performances which practically justified the ticket price on their own!
My first stop of the day was the EyeSore Merch Stage to catch Midlands doombringers Conjurer (who regular readers of the site will know I am a huge fan of). Now although I loved the band’s debut EP (which you can check out here) I did note that, for whatever reason, it still didn’t quite manage to capture the truly monstrous power and intensity that the quartet put out in the live arena.
And today’s performance definitely brought this home again, because live Conjurer are an absolute beast of a band, with a rawness and a harshness that borders on dissonant noise, without ever tipping over the edge into incomprehensibility.
And though the rays of bright sunlight streaming in through the part-covered windows didn’t exactly help the band in conjuring (no pun intended) a suitably grim atmosphere, their signature mix of Sludge, Doom, and Deathcore (with a hint of blackened brimstone around the edges) left a packed crowd absolutely salivating for more.
One quick jaunt down to the Terrorizer Stage later and it was time for my second Mithras show in a week, with the band this time playing to a much bigger crowd, and through a much bigger sound system.
As a result, the cosmic quartet sounded bigger and better than ever, rampaging through both classic cuts like “Tomb of Kings” and newer numbers like “When The Stars Align” (which you can check out below) with the same level of extravagant technical skill and sheer, unadulterated enthusiasm.
Even an unfortunate bout of technical difficulties with Tom Hyde’s guitar rig during “Under the Three Spheres”, forcing the band to perform temporarily as a three-piece (and, it must be said, still absolutely nailing it), failed to dampen anyone’s spirits, and Hyde was quickly back in action again, cranking out riff after rampaging riff like his life depended on it (and, knowing what a terrible taskmaster Leon is… there’s a possibility it actually did).
By the time I negotiated the stairs and the crowds to make my way across to the Jägermeister Stage, those lovable reprobates in Hang The Bastard were well into the swing of things, pumping out their distinctive brand of pulse-racing, Sludge-soaked, and Hardcore-tinged grooves to a packed house.
The necessities of time and running order meant that I wasn’t able to stick around for the entirety of the band’s set, but I can tell you now that what I saw was a band giving their absolute all up on that stage, making the very most of their last-ever show.
Back down in the bowels of the Terrorizer Stage, up-and-coming Death(core) Metal types Venom Prison produced one hell of a racket, with practically every track delivering a short, sharp, shock of pure sonic punishment.
With a sound that references both Dying Fetus and Cryptopsy… as well as more Hardcore and Grindcore friendly acts like Despised Icon and Nasum… the band bludgeoned and blasted their way through their set with all the restraint and subtlety of a barbed-wire baseball bat to the cranium, igniting some wild pit action from the assembled crowd (an approximate 50/50 mix of burly, bearded longhairs and trucker-cap wearing twinks).
The only real caveat I have to offer about their performance is that, due to the unrelenting nature of their sound – amps, vocals, and drums all turned all the way up to 11 – and the general lack of direct interaction with the crowd (even to the extent of dispensing with song introductions), the band’s set did eventually start to run together a bit after a while. But I suppose that’s just the price you have to pay to keep things all brutal, all the time.
Anyway, you can check out a truly feral rendition of “Narcotic” below, and keep your eyes peeled for a review of the band’s debut album later this week.
A trip back to the Jägermeister Stage meant it was time for an abrupt 180 shift in styles, swapping the bile-spewing attack of Venom Prison for the more nuanced and more melodic sounds of Oceans of Slumber.
Opening with a spellbinding run-through of “Winter”, the title track to their promising new album (reviewed here), it quickly became clear that vocalist Cammie Gilbert remains the band’s not-so-secret weapon, with a voice that’s equal parts sultry, seductive, powerful and commanding, and practically capable of making stone statues weep in awe.
Not that the rest of the band are a bunch of slouches of course. Particularly drummer Dobber Beverly who, surprisingly enough – or, not so much, once you consider that his other main band is grind maniacs Insect Warfare – easily ran away with the award for “best blastbeats of the festival”, while guitarists Anthony Contreras and Sean Gary put on a masterclass in preposterously good Prog-Metal riffage and flabbergasting, fleet-fingered solos.
With discretion being the better part of valour I ducked out of the Jägermeister Stage during the last song in order to get myself in a good position to watch resurgent British Post-Metallers Bossk (while also taking a few moments to redirect my slightly drunken friend Ross to the Terrorizer Stage so he could watch Ne Obliviscaris) perform their entire debut EP, .1, in full.
At 35 minutes in length, the two tracks which make up .1 took up the lion’s share of the band’s set, but I don’t think there will have been more than a handful of people in the entire audience who would have complained about that (nor did I, as I managed to never see the band live before they went on hiatus in 2008) as the dreamlike waves of melodic, atmospheric, subtly metallic, tones that made up each track washed over us in blissful fashion, building eventually to a titanic, thundering crescendo that more than justified the wait for the group’s return to active duty.
The announcement that Cult of Luna & Julie Christmas were going to be performing their new, collaborative effort Mariner live at Damnation Festival was actually the one which made me buy my ticket, so you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that I ended up skipping out on Bossk slightly early in order to snag myself a prime position on the balcony for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
And it’s a good thing I did, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen the main room of Damnation as packed as it was for this set.
Now, as you should know by now, Cult of Luna have long been one of my favourite bands, and live they’ve always come across as something akin to a veritable force of nature, equally capable of displays of pure, elemental power and soothing, effervescent calm. But adding the electric, livewire presence of Julie Christmas to things has only served to make them even more intense, her mixture of wounded crooning and scalding shrieks adding an all-too-human, painfully intimate edge to every cranking riff and droning, pseudo-industrial noise-gasm.
In fact, as much as I love the album (enough that I shelled out extra to get a cd copy containing the bonus track “Beyond the Redshift”), I’d hazard to say that the Mariner experience live turned out to be even more engrossing and enthralling than it is on record, with every track – from the churning electro-stimulus of “Chevron” to the brooding introspection of “Approaching Transition” – finding new ways to excite and stimulate your neurons in what was, ultimately, an utterly untouchable performance.
By the time I made it downstairs to the Terrorizer Stage, Satan’s favourite sons Akercocke were already firmly into their set, and the place was absolutely heaving with bodies. Still, it was eminently obvious even from my position that not only have the band not lost a step during their time in suspended animation, but that they’re quite possibly enjoying themselves now more than ever.
Yes, there’s the occasional wtf-moment that comes across as a little… goofy, I suppose… (there were definitely one or two parts where I found myself thinking “ok, that could easily be a Pop-Punk song right now, if you stripped back the blastbeats”), but when the quartet are in full flight, such as they were during the twin-headed hellride of “Becoming the Adversary” and “Son of the Morning” (from the peerless Choronzon), it’s eminently clear that Akercocke are definitely back, and kicking bottom.
A short hop, skip, and a jump later, and I found myself at the festival’s smallest venue, the Mine Stage, in time to catch the earthy, Proto-Doom delights of Ireland’s Dread Sovereign, who treated the small but eager audience to a hypnotic, reality-warping set of dirty, old-school riffs and rough-hewn, grimly infectious hooks designed to transport the listener to an altogether darker place and time.
Truth be told though, there’s not really that much I can say about Dread Sovereign that I haven’t already above. These three guys know what they want, they know how to do it, and they do it well. They know when to get ugly, and when to be triumphant, when to kick things up a notch, and when to ease off on the gas. They’re as Metal as a VERY METAL THING, without an ounce of concession or compromise in their bones, and the absolute antithesis of the sloppy, sub-KISS shenanigans going down on the main stage.
Leaving the Mine Stage a little bit early meant I was able to snag myself a bit of prime real estate from which to watch Norwegian legends Enslaved – one of my all-time favourite bands — making their first-ever appearance at Damnation Festival as part of their 25th anniversary tour.
With only an hour allocated to their set, it was of course impossible for the quintet to please everybody. Twelve albums, several EPs, and a general tendency to write songs pushing well past the 7-8 minute mark means there’s way too much potential material to cover in a mere 60-minute time-slot. But the band certainly tried their best, delivering a career-spanning (if slightly truncated) set beginning with a monumental rendition of “Roots of the Mountain” and culminating in a victorious run-through of the classic “Allfǫðr Oðinn”.
In between we were treated to killer cuts such as a storming performance of “Fenris” and a frankly astounding “Ruun”, as well as – apropos of nothing – Grutle Kjellson’s surprisingly good impression of General Melchett from Blackadder (played, as we all know, by national treasure Stephen Fry).
One thing that tonight’s performance made clear to me, though, was that while Enslaved are often referred to as “Black Metal’s Pink Floyd” (and not without reason), it would be more accurate to say that the Norwegian titans are the true heirs to the throne of Led Zeppelin, such is their ability to craft epic, timeless songs which not only tell a story, but get your head banging and your body moving at the same time. Just take a listen to a song like “Building With Fire” and tell me that Ice Dale isn’t the Black Metal version of Jimmy Page. Go on, I dare you.
They come from the land of the ice and snow. They are the hammer of the gods. They are Enslaved. And they rule.
Now although I did manage to catch a bit of Electric Wizard (who both looked and sounded much, much better than the last time I saw them), the rest of my evening was spent catching up with a bunch of people I hadn’t seen in a while, so that’s it for my coverage of Damnation Festival this time around.
I do want to thank the organisers, however, and all the bands, for making it such an amazing night. Rest assured, I WILL be back next year!