WORDS: Perran Helyes
Britain’s premier indoor extreme metal festival Damnation returns to Leeds with yet another stellar line-up top to bottom for those music fans with a taste for the sublimely heavy, though a whole 1000 less of them after complaints of overcrowding last year. To their credit this listening to feedback has definitely worked in their favour, it being far easier to get around and run from stage to stage to catch those crucial opening moments of each band and allowing for a generally more pleasant experience.
On the Terrorizer stage proceedings are kicked off by THE KING IS BLIND who do a damn fine job of doing so. Their short set does feel it as the band don’t overstay their welcome at all, their thrashy death metal containing some BOLT THROWER-esque grooves that get the crowd moving at this early hour. FrontmanSteve Tovey is clearly having the most fun in the room and his enthusiasm is rather infectious even when the pace slows down for a more doom-filled track off their upcoming debut. They don’t bring much new to the table but that’s not too necessary when it hits the mark like this does.
Down on the tiny Electric Amphetamine stage a small throng of people have congregated for Oxford doom crew UNDERSMILE whose recent record Anhedonia has garnered a reasonable buzz. Today they prove there is good reason for that with a rather captivating set. Their dual vocal approach sets them apart as their two frontwomen croak and drone in tandem to unsettling effect before exploding into petrifying roaring sections as the dynamics of songs like the opening Atacama Sunburn take firm grip. The sunlight permeating the room during music this dingy seems a little strange but does little to take away from yet another exciting up and coming doom act.
The first of a number of bands hailing from Belgium playing today emerge as WIEGEDOOD bring their atmospheric black metal to our shores for the first time. There’s certainly some degree of mysticism to their set as the band are often all but wholly obscured by smoke which is an effect enhanced by the swirling tremolo leads filling the room. The drums relentlessly blast for almost the entire time they are being played serving as a base to build the atmosphere off of without overpowering or distracting, and at points when they drop out it certainly is impressive that the vast wall of guitar noise being created stems from just the one man Levy Seynaeve, playing again later with AMENRA.
The main stage finally opens up courtesy of SAVAGE MESSIAH, who with their old school heavy metal vibe and thrash riffs are undoubtedly an outlier on a bill largely devoted to heavier or more atmospheric bands. This could be an opportunity for them to really set themselves apart but unfortunately it’s not to be. The band whimper into action with Iconocaust as the sound issues here are all too noticeable, their normally biting guitar tone being reduced to little more than a Happy Meal toy. It gradually clears up but they never truly gain momentum, stumbling through a set that’s a real shame for an act who are capable of far better things than this.
Back on the Terrorizer stage sound issues also slightly dampen the impact of the deliriously twisted VOICESthough thankfully nowhere near to the same extent. A collapsed bass rig halfway through brings things to a temporary halt, but both before and after this incident VOICES prove engaging with their hypersexual viscera and menacing demeanour. The proclamation “We are VOICES from London and we are here to fuck you” before lunging into the deliciously extreme The FuckTrance is gleefully demented, as is the closing Last Train Victoria Line.
Returning to the main stage the near crippling sound problems have happily cleared up for OATHBREAKER. An interesting proposition as a band who can play both in a support role for WHILE SHE SLEEPS andCANCER BATS earlier this year along with the more hardcore orientated Ghostfest in this same venue as well as an extreme metal festival such as this, it’s arguable that their gnarly black metal screech as well as the ethereal yet unhinged persona of their frontwoman actually slots in more seamlessly here. Their performance is undoubtedly the most energetic of the day thus far, and they walk off having impressed a fair few in attendance.
On record VREID hit a constant bar of decent enjoyable quality without ever really going that far beyond it, and this seems to be a similar case in the live environment. They lack the dynamics or the epic emotional quality of the much missed outfit that spawned them WINDIR, but their slightly more rock ‘n’ roll-influenced black metal pleases the crowd in front of them. The Reap might be perhaps the least menacing song aired on the Terrorizer stage today but at least it’s catchy, though the band do seem a little static in their performance.
The number of people at the main stage begins to really pick up by the time THE OCEAN arrive, clearly having a fair few devotees, but their sludgey post-metal never seems to really go anywhere. They do best in their most melodic moments, simply dragging during the heaviest with their cellist practically inaudible for most of these. Frontman Loïc Rossetti climbing the balcony only to leap off into the crowd as the song reaches a particular peak is a genuinely exciting moment, but it’s about the only one.
ALTAR OF PLAGUES then proceed to put everyone prior to complete shame. This has been undoubtedly one of if not the single most anticipated set of the day for many, it being entirely unknown whether the band will play again at any point after. As James Kelly and co. almost anonymously take to the stage and allow Millsto ring out, so much colour is painted without losing a single ounce of its melancholic aura. The centrepiece of any ALTAR OF PLAGUES set Neptune is Dead meanwhile is utterly mesmerising in the sheer weight of the emotion within, every second of its eighteen minutes absorbing and entrancing. The idea that this amazing showing is but a mere fraction of what they were capable of in their prime a few years ago is just testament to what a special and important band they have been over the last half a decade.
For all the talk of ANATHEMA or OPETH perhaps the most shining example of a band leaving more extreme sounds behind and managing to truly become better as a result especially in recent years is SÓLSTAFIR. The flamboyant rock stars of the post-rock world complete with cowboy hats and the first band to play Damnation two years on the trot back by popular demand, they have the crowd in the palm of their hand. The weeping banjo of Ótta early on in the set is spellbinding as are the enthralling melodies of Fjara, and as frontman Addigracefully surfs atop the crowd during a truly climactic Goddess of the Ages you’d be a fool to doubt them coming here again.
Over on the Eyesore Merch stage in the wake of ALTAR OF PLAGUES, only a band as cathartic as AMENRAand as worshipped by their fan-base can follow them. The black and white images projected behind them fit as their heaving darkness takes the audience into a world of uneasy pure grey, their hypnotic crush as intense as ever as the band sway and perform as one single entity. The building chime of Boden off their excellent last record Mass V proves a highlight which leaves us hoping new material will not be too much longer in arriving.
Matt Pike is as much of an icon as any single person on this bill, and HIGH ON FIRE sound like the most thunderous thing in the world. They’re so monstrously loud that Pike’s gargled vocals are almost lost in the mix for the first song or two, though when the sheer force of the music is this powerful it’s hard to care. The ultimate final form of the power trio, the three men on stage dish out riff after riff of raucous mayhem, and of course a closing Snakes for the Divine complete with one of the greatest guitar solos of the last decade tears the place apart.
While MONO top off the Eyesore Merch stage with more than enough touching post-rock to please those on that level of the building, attendees desiring something more dramatic, fiery and unrestrained gather to watchPRIMORDIAL bring things to an end on the Terrorizer stage and there is no finer band for the job. From the moment Where Greater Men Have Fallen bursts into life with a utilisation of the word “go” that rivals the more famous example in the canon of tonight’s headliners the band are unstoppable in their conviction and impassioned delivery. Alan Averill is a peerless frontman, colossal stage presence allowing him to command crowds with a mere nod, and dedicating No Grave Deep Enough to the sadly recently deceased Martin Kearns of BOLT THROWER is a nice touch. Not even the notable absence of The Coffin Ships from the setlist can detract from this impervious showing. One of the best things about PRIMORDIAL is as well as the emotional heft of their material and a back catalogue of songs that can go toe to toe with that of any other band on the planet, their shows don’t feel like watching an act on a stage separated from the audience but a spiritual communion in which such boundaries evaporate, Averill standing steadfast on the barrier as those in front below Empire Falls back at him mere inches from his face.
The initial announcement of AT THE GATES headlining this year’s Damnation Festival might have lacked the exclusive wow factor of BOLT THROWER last year, the melodic death metal pioneers having played so frequently in the UK since the release of their comeback record At War With Reality this time twelve months ago, but in truth if any band has earned such a place it’s this one. The pit that swallows the centre of the room before the opening note of Death and the Labyrinth has truly even rang out goes to show what a great record that was to return with, Tomas Lindberg leading his bandmates in the assault as they batter the crowd from beginning to end. The opening strains of The Swarm are more beautiful than a band this savage have any right to be, the throb of Windows and a rapturously received Kingdom Gone prove that even before they truly found their sound AT THE GATES were a damn fine old school death metal band, and of course the material from the immortal Slaughter of the Soul steals the night. Nausea is riotous, the grooves opening World of Lies and Suicide Nation level the building, Blinded By Fear is unreal in its punch and yes, that “go” in Slaughter of the Soul itself is shouted back by every person in the room. As the closing The Night Eternal winds to a conclusion the band gradually leave the stage one by one until only theBjörler brothers remain allowing these unmatchable melodies to reverberate through the room. It’s a triumphant headline slot for one of the single greatest bands in metal history, and another triumphant year for a festival that keeps on giving.