(On November 3rd the Leeds University Union hosted the star-studded 2018 edition of Damnation Festival, and our own Andy Synn was there again, and files this video-adorned report.)
Now, let’s get one thing straight right away – I love Damnation Festival. Alongside Inferno Festival and Maryland Deathfest it’s part of my annual triumvirate of awesome events which I do my absolute best to attend every single year.
One thing that bugs me, however, not about Damnation itself, but about the coverage afforded to the fest (and, by extension, to many other festivals too), is how much of it reads almost like it was written without even attending the event – every band is awesome, every performance is great – with little to no attempt to be critical or to give the reader a sense of the specific flavour and atmosphere beyond generic platitudes which could have been pulled straight from each band’s bio.
So this review isn’t going to be one of those. Because not every band I saw on Saturday evening was awesome, and not every performance was great… and while there were no downright terrible showings, several of the bands put in what I thought was a sub-par effort.
Thankfully, however, the good (and the very good) hugely outweighed the bad, and I think (and hope) you’ll still get a kick out of reading this review and watching the accompanying videos.
Having thoroughly enjoyed (if that’s really the right word for it) my time with the band’s recently-released debut album (which you can read about here) I decided that the best way to start my time at the 2018 edition of Damnation was with the abrasive, uncompromising ugliness of Leeched, and I was not disappointed.
The band’s live sound is somehow both grimier, and grindier, than on record, although the sludgy overtones and sickening undercurrent of industrial effluent are still nice and prominent too, while the addition of a second guitarist (bringing the band up to a full four-piece live) makes everything just that little bit nastier and heavier.
All in all, this was a very impressive performance from a band whose future looks very bright indeed.
The fourth stage would be the one I’d be spending the least amount of time at this year. In fact there was only one band I was really interested in catching at all, and that was Hundred Year Old Man.
I was very impressed by the Leeds-based band’s debut album when I got hold of it earlier this year, and I’m pleased to report that both the dense metallic weight and oppressive atmosphere of the record translate extremely well to the live arena, with special praise reserved for the tripartite vocals provided by the band’s singer, keyboardist, and one of their guitarists, which created some strikingly dynamic give-and-take, back-and-forth, interplay over the course of the group’s all-too-short set.
The band I was least familiar with going into the festival was Aussie Prog Rock/Metal quintet Caligula’s Horse, a group about whom I’d heard a lot of very good things, but whom I’d never actually encountered – either on record or in person – before this evening.
The band’s sparkling melodic sound, reminiscent in places of Devin Townsend, Opeth, and Leprous, with perhaps a sprinkling of djentrified bounce thrown in for good measure, was certainly a striking contrast to the two preceding acts, but not an unwelcome one, and expanded to fill the festival’s third stage with a mixture of soaring vocals and catchy, yet cleverly constructed, songs, aided and abetted by the friendly and forthright personality of the band’s frontman Jim Grey.
Recently re-formed Death Metal veterans Cancer, here to promote their brand-new “comeback” album, Shadow Gripped, put in a solid showing on the mainstage with a performance largely driven by the biting riffs and snarling vocals of John Walker, which selectively culled and interwove some of the band’s “classic” cuts with newer material in a way which demonstrated that while the group may have changed very little over the years, they also haven’t lost a step either.
Unfortunately their set was derailed by a fire-alarm, forcing the entire venue to be temporarily evacuated, but what I saw of the band up to that point was still pretty good, all things considered.
Now the buzz around Stockholm Death Metallers Lik has been building all year, and their second album has been receiving a lot of praise, including from our own DGR.
Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the band’s set simply didn’t ignite properly on this day, and ended up feeling like a bit of a run-of-the-mill slog through a bunch of overly-familiar (though not unenjoyable) Swe-Death tropes which never really rose above the status of a (loving) tribute to the early years of the genre.
That being said, during the latter part of their show things definitely felt like they were starting to pick up, so perhaps it was simply a case that the fire alarm and subsequent evacuation (forcing the band to start their set even as people were still filing back into the venue) knocked them off their axis a little, and with that in mind I’d be more than happy to give them another shot in better circumstances at another time.
While watching the incredibly polished, effortlessly professional, performance by Australian Prog-Metal sensations Ne Obliviscaris I was struck by a sudden realisation of just how much they have in common with the Fast and Furious franchise.
Now, bear with me… the Fast and Furious movies are (broadly speaking) a series of big, crowd-pleasing blockbusters all constructed around the same general formula, with each subsequent entry relying more and more on spectacular stunts and flashy special effects, with some vague spiel about the importance of “family”, or whatever, thrown in along the way as an attempt to give each film some sort of emotional resonance.
Similarly, the music of Ne Obliviscaris is purposefully, almost faultlessly, designed to be as spectacular and artificially crowd-pleasing as possible, with each of their songs essentially being a slight remix/rearrangement of the exact same elements, and this evening’s set was no different as, despite a memorable performance from new bassist Martino Garattoni (as well as one heart-stopping moment where Tim Charles’ violin was sent flying off the stage), the whole show came across as so safe and calculated that it felt sapped of any real excitement or electricity.
Back down on the second stage the Atmospheric Blackened Folk Metal of Saor (who also made good use of a live violinist to add an extra dose of mood and melody to their sound) helped wash away some of my disappointment from the previous band’s set, however even here there were some issues, largely down to the sound/mixing, which frequently buried the guitars and violin behind an overly-intrusive backing track and/or an excessively loud combination of drums and vocals.
Vocalist/bassist/mainman Andy Marshall was clearly giving it his all, however, and his obvious passion helped anchor the group’s performance in a foundation of very real energy and emotion regardless of these nagging problems with the sound.
Back up on the main stage Anaal Nathrakh had their own technical and sonic gremlins to deal with, although in this case it was less to do with any particular element(s) being buried in the mix and more to do with absolutely everything being turned up to 11, something which was clearly exacerbated by both the band’s guitarists struggling with some ongoing problems with their pedals/amps, to the point that the beginning of their set was, at times, reduced to a wall of nearly indistinguishable noise.
Still, the group (particularly nihilist-in-chief Dave Hunt) dealt with all of this with a mix of consummate professionalism and irreverent good humour, and quickly settled into an absolutely monstrous groove of punishing blasts, chugging riffs, and throat-ripping vocals, pulled mostly from their most recent album(s), with a couple of classic cuts thrown in near the end to reward the faithful.
And while I’ve definitely seen better shows from Hunt, Kenney, and co., I doubt anyone would have been disappointed by what they saw and heard this evening.
Putting in one of the best, most intense, performances of the festival, French foursome Celeste brought their distinctive mix of blistering Black Metal and churning Sludge to the second stage under a pall of oppressive darkness and piercing red light, delivering a punishing set of caustic, cathartic vocals and hooky, riff-heavy rhythms that was at once rivetingly tight yet also viscerally raw in the best possible way.
If there’s one caveat I’d add to this otherwise unadulterated praise it’s that I did notice that some of the band’s songs tended to finish rather awkwardly rather than properly climaxing, so that it was occasionally difficult to separate where one track ended and the next began. Still, it was a pretty stunning display from the French quartet overall.
While we may be legally required to refer to the current incarnation of the band as Entombed A.D., this evening demonstrated succinctly that L.G. Petrov and his band of brutish brothers are still the standard-bearers for the old-school Death ‘n’ Roll sound, whether they’re focussing on more recent material from Back to the Front and Dead Dawn or delving back into the depths of the Entombed discography for killer cuts from Left Hand Path and Wolverine Blues.
Granted, there were no stunning surprises or shocking moments, but between Petrov’s drunken, devil-may-care banter, and the band’s plethora of buzzsaw riffs (not to mention their bassist’s utterly gorgeous head of hair), the group’s set positively flew by.
Now a lot has been said, and written, about mysterious Polish Black Metal collective Batushka — but on the strength of tonight’s show I’m not entirely convinced that all the hype is actually deserved.
It certainly didn’t help that, after starting their set almost twenty minutes behind schedule (largely due to how long it took to set up the various stage decorations), the group kicked off with a lengthy ambient intro tape that only served to drag things out even further, meaning that, by the time that the multiple members of the band actually made their way onstage, a large proportion of the audience (myself included) was feeling more than a little restless for something to finally happen.
Of course if the music had been something truly special all of this could have been forgiven, but to my ears Batushka’s particular brand of blackened ritualism – while still possessing an undeniable power and potency – didn’t necessarily offer anything I haven’t heard several times before, and my overall impression of their show was of a band whose impressive visual aesthetic has an unfortunate tendency to overshadow their music.
Again, it was by no means a terrible show, but it did leave me feeling like the only person willing to say the emperor is at least a little but under-dressed right now.
Despite the main-stage having been running at least 15-20 minutes behind schedule ever since the fire alarm earlier in the day, somehow Ihsahn and his tour crew managed to get all the band’s gear set up and ready to go a good 10-15 minutes before their originally scheduled start-time rolled around, pulling the whole evening right back on schedule in one fell swoop. Now that is how it’s done, my friends.
This professionalism carried over into the group’s set, which stuck pretty much exclusively to his post-After material, with a special emphasis on cuts from this year’s spellbinding Àmr, yet also retained a certain level of fluidity and spontaneity which not only speaks to how comfortable these four guys are with each other as a unit, but which also kept things from coming across as too calculated and premeditated even though you know that this is a band who know each and every song inside and out.
This was also the one main stage set I saw which actually had a really good sound, ensuring that every track – from the pulsing electro-black of “Lend Me the Eyes of Millennia”, or the raucous arena-rock of “Until I Too Dissolve”, to the unexpected grandeur of “Celestial Violence” – came through with crystal-clear clarity and thrumming power.
An absolutely masterful set, start to finish.
Now my original plan for this point in the evening was to head downstairs to catch legendary Polish Death Metal overlords Vader, however it didn’t take long for me to realise that the second stage was basically one in, one out, at this point, and so my chances of being able to find somewhere from which I’d be able to actually see the band, let alone get some good footage of them, were practically non-existent.
Thankfully my press pass meant I had access to the balcony on the third stage, from where I could catch the latest incarnation of The Ocean, whose performance this evening went a long way towards reminding me exactly why I originally fell for the band in the first place.
Allow me to explain… I first discovered The Ocean back when they were still frequently referred to as “The Ocean Collective”, and still feel that the band’s first three albums (Fluxion, Aeolian, Precambrian) remain their best work (especially the latter record). For whatever reason, however, the group’s material since then has mostly downplayed the raw, more Hardcore-edged side of their sound in favour of a more progressive form of Sludge-tinged Post-Metal which, to my ears at least, has largely lacked the intensity and unpredictability of their earlier work.
It’s not been bad by any means, but it’s felt more cerebral than visceral, more head than heart, and has never quite captivated me in quite the same way.
Thankfully, their new record seems to have recaptured some of that early energy, with a large proportion of Palaeozoic coming across like a mixture of Precambrian’s primal punchiness with the more melodic character of the (in retrospect quite uneven) -centric albums, and this has clearly translated into their live show, which now features a much more in-your-face attack (and I’m not just referring to the slightly scary, knees-first stage dive by the band’s singer Loic) from the group’s new line-up.
The highlight of the set was most definitely a back-to-back run through of “Statherian” and “Orosirian”, the latter of which saw who I’m told was Mike Armine from Rosetta pulled onstage to accompany the group for a crushingly heavy, dual-vocal rendition of this Precambrian-era classic, before the evening’s festivities closed with a senses-shattering version of “Permian: The Great Dying”, the closing track from their latest album.
At this point, seeing as how I’m not a huge fan of Napalm Death (and the less said about Ghost Bath and their overhyped brand of Post-Black Metal mediocrity the better), I decided that it was time to call it a day, and so would like to close my round-up by saying a sincere thank you to anyone and everyone involved in the booking, running, and organising of the festival. It’s one of my highlights of the year every year, and I’m already looking forward to the 2019 edition!
Bands of the day for me were Saor and Batushka. I’d agree that Saor didn’t sound quite as good as they did when I saw them 2015 in a smaller venue. As for Batushka it could be because I am an absolute sucker for the ‘theatrics’ that we often get in metal but I was in the row just behind the people on the barrier and they blew me away.