Saturday 1st November 2014
Review by Kate Prothero & Ben Spencer
Photos by Graham Hilling
With Damnation Festival celebrating its tenth anniversary, this years offering had to be a belter. It is an indoor festival that has grown organically over the last decade, with die-hard and loyal metallers going year in, year out.
This year, Damnation had spectacularly sold out of tickets. After the bleak year we’ve had, with festivals cancelling, venues shutting and pretty much every musical opinion piece being about how live music, and metal in particular, is in a sorry state, the fact that Damnation have got things so right this year means that things can’t really be that bleak.
Kate: This year we were treated to performances from Bolt Thrower, Cannibal Corpse, Saint Vitus, Anaal Nathrakh and Orange Goblin, reunions from Stampin’ Ground and Raging Speedhorn, as well as gems like Black Moth, Solstafir, Xerath, Hark and so, so many more. It is now based in my hometown of Leeds, and shockingly I’ve never been! When the opportunity came up to do this review I leapt at the chance. It was a chance to check out bands I’ve heard of but never seen, and treat myself to some new noises!
There is always a lovely feeling on the way to a metal festival. Leeds city centre at 11:30am is usually a hive of grannies on their way to bingo, screaming kids, frantic mums dodging Primark and stag parties dressed as superheroes. This particular Saturday, those people were vastly outnumbered by throngs of metallers, all streaming towards Leeds Student Union. What a lovely sight.
Beer cans already in hand, and in high spirits, the Damnation circus was in town and ready to party! Having meticulously planned my every move for the next 10 hours, hoping to cram in as much of the action as possible, I grabbed a very large coffee from DeliKate (the saviour of many a hungover festival goer!) and headed into the venue.
For those that haven’t been to the Leeds Student Union before, it is pretty much a maze of awkward to navigate stairways, large and small venues and rooms, corridors and nooks and crannies. It is an awful venue, but really the only venue in Leeds capable of holding such an event on this scale. My sense of direction is pretty shocking at the best of times, so I had to resort to asking security for directions, which proved pretty fruitless, I felt like I was really putting them out.
It wasn’t really the fault of anyone at Damnation, more newbie security not fully understating their job or the particular crowed in attendance. With four stages to get round, with very little room to navigate, coupled with clueless security and bad signage, my meticulously planned day soon went out the window. First up for me was a new discovery, Xerath, on the Terrorizer Stage; a band that certainly like to mash up genres. They deliver a stunningly animated performance, full of passion and grit.
Despite the somewhat dodgy sound (guitars were not quite loud enough and drums a little muffled from where I was standing) their brand of grooving, crushing and thoroughly addictive metal was exhilarating to watch. I’m a massive fan of bands that throw everything in their arsenal into a performance, and Xerath certainly do that.
They perfectly blend epic, groovy riffs with stunningly melodic and well proportioned production. I’ll certainly be sure to check them out live again as soon as possible!
Next for me were Black Moth on the PHD stage. I am a fan of Black Moth, not because they are from Leeds, not because they have a girl in them and not because they seem to have suddenly become the next ‘it’ band, but because they so absolutely and positively rock and have gigantic metal balls.
Their sludgy riffs are massive, their songs are clever and they are just so, so cool, like James Dean cool. In fact they are so cool that if James Dean was still alive today and was into sleazy, groovy, dark stoner-metal, he would want to be in Black Moths gang. They have depth, and while they are obliviously paying homage to Sabbath in many ways, there are tinges of a deeper understanding, at times reminding me of bands like Bauhaus and The Stooges.
When Black Moth hit the stage at a little after 3pm, the room is heaving. It may be a rainy afternoon in a student union room in northern England, but within minutes of the opening riff we are transported to 1970’s New York in some sweaty, smoke filled bar. Stand out tracks are Blackbirds Fall and Tumbleweave.
They have swagger, but are incredibly down to earth on stage too. They seemed pleased as punch to be on this line-up “Oooo!, have just remembered that Saint Vitus will be playing in a couple of hours” beams Harriet Bevan, their vocalist. As all good bands do, they leave everyone wanting more, their set over far too quickly. Oh well, on to the next band…
A mad dash to the main Jagermeister stage, just in time for Stampin’ Ground. Having seen them many times at their height back in the 2000’s, this was quite a treat. I expected them to be good, they always were, but god damn! As the classic Stampin’ Ground pit opens up, all flailing limbs and smiley faces, it’s like seeing an old best friend for the first time in 10 years, and surprisingly, I actually got pretty emotional!
Their passion and energy hasn’t withered, if anything they seem more hungry and ferocious than ever. They’ve played quite a few dates this year, with this performance at Damnation seemingly their last for the foreseeable future. They are clearly set on making it one to remember, performing a shortish set that packed a mighty punch. As the opening chords of Everybody Owes A Death start, everybody knows what to do.
The floor clears, people start running out of the way and a mighty wall of death kicks off, Stampin’ Ground style. At this point I have to rush off to do interviews, and then they start playing Officer Down, which is still one of the best metal songs ever written.
Another 3 minutes wont hurt surely? Reluctantly I leave the main stage and the sweaty, red-faced Stampin’ Ground devotees and head to the press room.
Ben: British Black Metal collective Wintefylleth assume positions on stage and with little deliberation storm through their set with blistering drum work, sonic driven guitars and cathartic shireks. What is clear from the outset is that these guys have accumulated a loyal following, with fans singing along to the clean sections of ‘Svart Crown’ to head banging amidst its adrenaline soaked riffs.
‘Whisper of the Elements’ showcases the band’s newer and more refined material to the highest order as the energetic lead guitars propel everything into a grandiose terrain, that was received by a wall of raised fits. The shimmering post rock melodies drifted by effortlessly and was a reflection of Winterfylleth’s craftsmanship and professionalism, making them a truly memorable addition to the Festival.
Kate: A couple of interviews later (Anaal Nathrakh and Black Moth!) I literally run, and struggle past a jam on the stairs, back to the main stage and watch the final 3 songs from Raging Speedhorn.
Again, a band that I have a special fondness for, it’s a great old nostalgia-fest and they play superbly. Their two man vocal assault, drums like machine guns and thunderous riffs shake the walls and the room is zinging with atmosphere.
Their best known track ‘Thumper’ is a crowd pleaser, but for me it is a true delight to watch ‘The Gush’ live, oozy and chugging, they are every bit as exciting as when I first saw them over 15 years ago.
With another interview booked in for 6pm, I have just about enough time to watch a couple of songs from the intriguing Icelandic outfit, Solstafir. Despite the massive queues to get in, I did manage to squeeze passed a few people and caught the start of their set.
In all honestly I have no point of reference to describe Solstafir, I will say though, that I am almost certain that whatever it is that they do is not of this world. They are probably the most hypnotic bunch of musicians I’ve ever watched, their music is eerie and dark, but not cliched.
I don’t know if the fact that they sing in Icelandic made them more unusual and beautiful, maybe it was the best light show of the whole festival, or the strange quietness of the room. There was something special about this performance, an electricity that I hope everyone else felt too.
Sadly and reluctantly I venture back through the heaving corridors, and back to the press room to interview Stampin Ground!
Ben: After taking some time to assemble, the wait for Psychedelic Black Metal pros A Forest of Stars was not only worth the wait but they also managed to blow most of the bands out of the water with their subversive and at times hypnotic sound.
Full of visceral shrieks and sinister sounding guitar work the band reveal that they mean some serious business. However, what was most notable about the band was integration of violins and keys within their murky style and Victorian aesthetics.
Not only did it seem that everyone in the room was hooked in by their meandering instrumentation they seemed remain entirely fixated on their performance throughout. What worked about these guys was their distinctive style and ability to conjure up atmospheres so intense you could literately lose your senses altogether. Indeed one of the best performances at this year’s Damnation Festival.
Kate: An hour later, it’s a mad dash to the Jagermeister stage to watch the last moments of Orange Goblin. I’ve never seen them before, but they are right up my street. Their music is grubby, raw and sleazy with storming solos and lots of beards. At this point in the day everyone is pretty merry, and Orange Goblin are the perfect band to bang your head and swill beer to, it’s a party atmosphere but for me it’s over too quickly. I’ll be sure to watch them in full next time they come to town, their brand of stoner-metal is world class, there are few bands that even come close to them in this genre, they pretty much have it covered.
Having had a lovely chat with the boys in Anaal Nathrakh earlier in the day, it’s time to go and watch what they do live. There seems to be a buzz about them this year, and most people in the building seem to be heading in the direction of the Terrorizer stage too.
I get caught up in a pushing and shoving type situation as people realise that the room is pretty full. I’m really short and not a particularly formidable force in a crowd, so decide to head back outside and grab some food instead, and wait for the throngs to die down. One burger and a beer later and I’ve lost track of time, and have missed their set.
Festivals are great, and Damnation put on a feast this year, but sometimes they are more like an all you can eat buffet than a 3 course meal. It’s very easy to over do it and run out of stamina. At this point, it was time for a breather before checking out Saint Vitus. I must give special thanks here to one of the other journalists who very kindly decided to serenade us by playing the piano in the press room, it was a surreal moment in a very chaotic and intense day, thank you, you lovely, lovely man.
Ben: As Wodensthrone take up arms on stage, the bar is set quite high with the unyielding assault of ‘Jormungandr’. Full of metallic savagery and consistent blast beats the opening minutes gave a much needed fix of adrenaline throughout the room as crowds gathered towards the front.
Personal favourite, ‘First Light’ also found its way onto their set. The impressive use of lead guitar and proggy breakdown evoked the band’s high standard of musicianship as the guitars continually scaled upward to exuberant heights.
Whilst their performance was fairly solid, certain songs did feel clunky at times with focus towards predictable formulas. However, this being said Wodensthrone are another example of modern Black Metal doing something that is both refreshing and familiar and on that merit alone they are a band to keep a close eye out on in the future.
Kate: There is a lot to be said about a band that have weathered 35 years in music, and are still standing. Saint Vitus have weathered more than most. They are the real deal, and their performance at Damnataion gives everyone a schooling on how it’s supposed to be done. They are dark, doomy and whisky drenched.
They hark back to an era of hard living and hard music and it is so, so exciting. They are every inch the rock stars, they perform with an ease and confidence that only comes from spending decades living and breathing this music.
Having almost single handedly invented the doom genre, it’s a real box ticked for me. So many of these bands have comebacks and reinvent themselves, but quite often what you’re getting is a watered down and jaded version, with Saint Vitus, what we got at Damnation was passion and energy, vocalist Scott “Wino” Weinrich sings about real struggles, it is at times almost painful to watch him bare his soul. A passionate and slick performance, cementing them, in my mind anyway, as true legends.
Next on my meticulously planned list, was Cannibal Corpse, half of Bolt Thrower and half of Fen. Unfortunately, it was not to be. A combination of bad planning (on my part), my appalling sense of time and direction and an over whelming sense that I had over-dosed on metal somewhat, had meant that things didn’t go according to plan at all.
I missed Cannibal Corpse all together, which was a massive shame, especially as many people afterwards said they were the band of the day and that I was a massive tool for missing them.
Ben: After eagerly catching a balcony view of the Doom Metal poineers Ahab. The band launches into their weighty attack of droning guitars, crushing drum work and a demonic narrative so powerful it could probably be heard from Hell.
‘Old Thunder’ waded in with delicately woven guitars and steady drums, before erupting into spree of violent drums and dense sounding guitar work that ploughs throughout the nine minute mammoth sized opening track.
Standout track, ‘The Divinity of Oceans’ crashes down with gritty sounding riffs and pounding drums.
The deep throated growls pervade through out the opening minutes along with double kick pedals collide at full force. The vocalist transitions into his signature clean vocals flawlessly, reflecting the band’s sombre atmospheric touches.
Ahab finish their set with ‘The Hunt’. Full of impressive guitar driven layers and agonizing vocals, their sound was one that pulls you under the waves of their sound and kept you fighting for air.
These guys not only delivered the best performance of the Festival they also presented you with a rare moment of connectivity in music where you are completely immersed and left longing for more afterwards, marking this as a near flawless set!
Kate: By the time I managed to get anywhere near Bolt Thrower, the room was rammed, everyone’s fists firmly in the air and it was already hotter than hell. They are one of those bands that stick rigidly to what they do best, fierce, powerful – the absolute overlords of death metal.
They are principled, and was pleased to find out that they only ever sell any merchandise at live shows, which would explain the scrum earlier in the day for Bolt Thrower T-shirts.
Standing at just a little over 5ft, gigs are a challenge for me at the best of times, so squished at the back of a very long room, full of now incredibly merry, energetic Bolt Thrower fans was probably not the best vantage point to review the gig.
What I will say though is that I certainly felt it when they played, particularly during World Eater and there can be nothing more pleasing that listening to a Bolt Thrower solo.
After what seemed like an age, I made my way to the Eysore Merch stage and watched the last song by atmospheric, post-black metallers Fen. If I am completely honest I don’t usually gravitate towards post-black metal, it’s uncomfortable listening and after an extremely long day of audio pummeling I was not in the mood at all. But how wrong was I? I am so, so glad I went to see them. Are they black metal? Well, yes and no.
They take the most beautiful and ethereal elements of atmospheric black metal, and make them better. They have an unusual and other worldly presence, they are interesting and progressive without sacrificing any of the darkness of this genre, in fact at times they are truly terrifying. The rooms is not as rammed as Bolt Thrower, and the audience not as vigorous, it is an altogether different vibe. Fen create the perfect end for my Damnation Festival, I discovered a new band that on paper I thought I wouldn’t like, and the Fen crowed seem pleasantly respectful and really quite chilled.
Overall Damnation 2014 was an extremely enjoyable day! It was hot, long and intense. The line-up was impeccably well thought out and delivered a blisteringly heavy choice of bands, some new and fresh sounding, some old and legendary. There were a few revelers that had maybe overdone the shandy’s and some of the security seemed a little hostile. However on the whole the audience were well behaved and embodied the very spirit of what makes our community so great to be part of. Bring on 2015!