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Live Report: Damnation Festival, Leeds University Student Union (UK) – 2nd November 2013

Once again, hundreds of metalheads descended upon the unsuspecting population of Leeds for one fateful night, recreating the raucous atmosphere of a metal festival in the Leeds University Student Union. Yes, ladies and gents, Damnation was upon us. With 4 stages in operation, the fine folks who organize the pandemonium had created quite the treat for the extreme metal fan. We had just about everything squeezed in. Thirty-four bands were for the tasting, with everything from doom metal and sludge metal, through black metal, death metal to post-metal, post-rock, so even the most eclectic of listening habits felt at home on at least one stage. MetalRecusants were there in force, running between stages as one band finished and another kicked off. Below you’ll find the fruits of our labor, which bands tickled our fancies and which left not quite so positive an impression on our ears.

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Opening up a festival is a tall order for any band, and this dubious honor fell on Liverpudlian lads Diamanthian, who covered the Terrorizer stage in their filthy sound. It was encouraging to see so many had already filled the floor for a band starting so early in the afternoon, and the band responded in kind with well-executed death metal of the old school. Low grunts, frenetic drumming and the occasional spot of doom got many nodding in approval, even if the more technical melodies were lost in the swampy mix. The audience had to focus on the music instead of the musicians for much of the set, like with later bands, as there was a thick billow of smoke every so often that obscured the entire stage. Those technical difficulties aside, Diamanthian did a fine job kicking off proceedings for Damnation. Time to move on to the next stage.

The Mine area in the depths of the Student Union has always been a pain to reach, and we were painfully reminded of this when attempting to watch Iron Witch kick up a ruckus on the Electric Amphetamine stage. The number of people there was almost oppressive in such a claustrophobic space, and as a result only a couple of heads and torsos of the band were visible. The band themselves also left much to be desired; my understanding of their sound from research was somewhere between Iron Monkey’s frantic sludge metal and ’77 punk, an energetic and chaotic blend. However, the section we caught was at a much slower tempo and lacked the power which would have made the songs more memorable, along with a less-than-palatable high shriek for vocals. A change of scenery was required, so over to the Eyesore stage.

Poland primarily has a reputation for generating some impressive death metal bands, yet people may not be aware that it also has quite the knack for creating stunning post-rock. Such an example can be found in Tides From Nebula, who developed their rather cosmic sound while nodding at Red Sparowes and Maybeshewill. The band started out with a track from their recently released album Eternal Movement (reviewed here), before promptly diving through a mix of instrumental numbers, punctuated with occasional humble “thank yous”. Their stage presence was deceptive; at first the band remained fairly static and engrossed in their instruments, but at some point they found their headbanging niche and were chucking their instruments around like any good hardcore show. The left-stage guitarist in particular was pulling some rather crazy stunts during the songs’ climaxes, and these antics only heightened the atmosphere and enveloping soundscapes they were building. Post-rock connoisseurs, mark these guys as ones to watch.

Quite a buzz has been created of late around ‘supergroup’ Twilight Of The Gods. Considering the involvement of members of Primordial, Aura Noir, Thyrfing and the omnipresent Nick Barker, one would expect something pretty extreme. But why be predictable? Instead, the band started as a Bathory tribute band, although this has now evolved into a project in its own right, playing good ol’ fashioned heavy metal with more than a hint of Quorthon’s influence in the writing. This heavy metal was brought in full force to the Jägermeister stage, with a whole host of catchy riffs and top-notch solos on offer from Rune Eriksen and guest Anton Reisenegger (of Pentagram Chile), and the formidable force of Alan Averill on vocals (check out our interview with him here). He slipped comfortably into the storyteller role, regaling the audience with lyrical tales of the Sword of Damocles and the Ottoman Empire while also delivering some eyebrow-raising falsettos on “Fire To The Mountain”. By the end of their brief half-hour set, Twilight Of The Gods had clearly won over the skeptical crowd, as the numerous raised fists demonstrated solidarity across heavy metal subgenres.

We returned to the Jägermeister Stage after a breather for a very different kettle of fish. Shining from Norway were kicking up a right racket with their jazz-fusion-metal, drawing from both Blackjazz and latest album One One One. For those unfamiliar with the sound, it is truly astounding to watch characteristic features of jazz such as saxophone solos and instrumental breakdowns blended so smoothly into metal, although the band did suffer from some sound issues which rendered Jørgen Munkeby’s vocals near-indistinguishable. The drums, on the other side of the scale, were thunderous, which left the guitars floundering somewhere in the middle. Fortunately Munkeby’s saxophone was at a more reasonable volume, particularly as it swaggered into their final track “I Won’t Forget”, a strong close to a mind-boggling set.

Warning: exposure to 40 minutes of Dyscarnate may be hazardous for your health. Fortunately we experienced something like love at first listen with these angry fellows from southern England. The first things that caught our attention were the energy and power, which are very important when seeing a death metal act, and they had this in spades. Guitarist Tom Whitty and bassist Henry Bates traded vocals, covering the full extreme range from bellows to shrieks, and they complemented each other extremely well. With Matt Unsworth rounding things out on the drums, the three guys sounded as powerful as hell, even more so given all the instruments and the vocals were perfectly mixed without overpowering one another. From opener “An Axe To Grind” to closer “The Promethean”, theirs was an annihilating set which caused a vicious circle pit and plenty of headbanging on either side. Lovely stuff.

Now it was time for some mysticism on the Terrorizer stage in the form of Negură Bunget. There was quite a draw for their set, for a number of reasons. Firstly, they’ve amassed quite an extensive catalog since forming in 1998, and secondly their style of music is of quite a hypnotic and meditative nature. Incorporating a pan flute, pipes, a dulcimer and a healthy dose of atmospheric folk-black metal, they played an enchanting set, made all the more authentic by the clothing of the band, who dress in rustic tunics and traditional clothing. As they launched into closer “Dacia Hiperboreană”, the thick atmosphere was almost palpable while the audience witnessed the song unfolded in majestic fashion. If there was any doubt that traditional folk could be mixed in with black metal without it sounding hackneyed, Negură Bunget laid them to rest in one fell swoop. And now it was time for atmosphere of a different kind…

It seems Katatonia weren’t the only ones to be playing an album in full; The Ocean were to continue the trend set on their recent European tour, and so proceeded to play their recent opus Pelagial in its entirety on the Eyesore stage. A sweeping masterpiece that encompasses both musical nods to marine depths and lyrical nods to Andrey Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, the wide scope of the record still translated well to the stage. The band have built up a fierce live reputation and this set only strengthened it; manically bouncing around the stage and even into the crowd became de rigeur when the songs hit their musical climaxes. It was almost miraculous that the more technical melodies still had time to shine through the madness. The lighting display certainly aided the growingly oppressive atmosphere, and by all accounts The Ocean provided a very successful dive. And so it was time for us to dive through the sea of people to the Jägermeister stage.

Next up we had the much-lauded God Seed, drawing from their recently-released album I Begin along with some Gorgoroth covers. Considering the pedigree of both Gaahl and King ov Hell from their days in Gorgoroth, one would have expected a fairly stellar set of progressive black metal. It started promising if predictable, with the oft-played “A Sign Of An Open Eye” blaring out, but poor sound quality struck again and rendered Gaahl’s unique vocals completely inaudible for the most part. The sound didn’t improve as the set progressed through both their own and Gorgoroth’s material, resulting in mostly a wall of noise and drums. A true shame, as their stage presence was strong and the atmosphere just right.

You can tell a band has something of a following when there is a queue to get into the stage, and this was with good reason concerning Vallenfyre‘s Terrorizer slot. The floor was beyond rammed in anticipation, but it wasn’t long before Greg Mackintosh’s lot were churning out some crusty and doomy death metal, full of rumbling riffs from Hamish Glencross. For a guitarist, Mackintosh handled his frontman duties sans axe excellently, echoing parts of John Tardy (Obituary) in both stance and grunt. The crowd responded well to the music, suitably riled up in the pit and vocally showing their appreciation between songs. There was even a rubber duck floating around! The smoke made it a little challenging to see, but what was heard was top-notch doom-death metal. Ears sated on that front, it was now time for something completely different…

Now it was time to hit headliner territory. First up we had Swedish depressive metal legends Katatonia, who were celebrating the 10-year anniversary of their well-regarded album Viva Emptiness, a fine example of their later era. In case that wasn’t clear to the audience, the backdrop was taken from the CD interior, a little note for the true fans. After some delay in starting, the band kicked off with B-side “Wait Outside” and an incredibly well-mixed sound. The guitars in particular sounded strong and heavy, far removed from their seemingly “lighter” Fleece performance a while ago, as well as actually audible backing vocals. Frontman Jonas Renkse hasn’t changed a bit, however, and still gave the emotional and pitch perfect performance from behind his curtain of hair. The humble Swede didn’t have to do much in the way of song introductions as the crowd’s reaction did the work for him, particularly when “Evidence” came on. By the time “Ghost Of The Sun” rolled around, the audience were able to engage in a singalong, and rightly so as it was one of the highlights of the festival. And now we had some other Swedes to catch.

When it comes to post-metal, Cult Of Luna have become something of a household name over the years. Their live shows, augmented by a brilliant lights display, are a completely immersive experience. Regardless of whether you know the songs, you are bound to be drawn in, and much of the crowd stood fixated while the band’s rumbling leviathan of music rolled through. Frontman Johannes Persson was a main focal point of the 7 members present, not just because of his passionate harsh mid-range, but also for the huge rhythmic headbanging he and his bandmates engaged in. The other focal point was the two drum kits they had onstage, both put to good use in adding to the hypnotic and tribal experience, particularly as the set progressed into older songs. I gather that the Greeks put on a rather different show on the Terrorizer stage…

Despite being a long way from their Hellenic origins, Rotting Christ were completely at home in this extreme metal haven. From the frontline of black metal, they rounded off the Terrorizer Stage in style as part of their European tour with Twilight Of The Gods and Negură Bunget. Considering the longevity of these guys, one would think it’d be difficult to do their catalog justice in a setlist, but they proved us all wrong. From earlier numbers such as “King Of A Stellar War” right the way through to the closing singalong of “Noctis Era”, the Greeks put on a spectacular display of fist-pumping melodic black metal. There was even time for some really oldschool stuff in the form of “The Sign Of Evil Existence”, which sounded wonderful in updated format, and a cover of frontman Sakis Tolis’ other band Thou Art Lord with the song “Societas Satanas”. This latter track did wonders for the crowd’s mosh capabilities, igniting an already fairly violent circle of people to go completely berserk. Black metal fans got more than their fill with this set, one which can definitely be marked as a highlight of the festival.

Now it was time to test the walls of the Electric Amphetamine stage one last time with the Liverpudlian sludgy doom metal of Conan. (check out our interview with Jon here) Those who had seen these fellows before knew what was coming: massive and intense down-tuned guitars mixed with hoarse battle cries. Their set mostly included songs from their Horseback Battle Hammer EP and the well-regarded album Monnos, which provided plenty opportunity to headbang like madmen to “Satsumo” and “Battle In The Swamp”. While the crowd was not quite as rammed as it could have been, there was still a strong turn-out of people to get their ears crushed. The band’s interaction with the crowd was limited, but it was clear how much they appreciated their fans’ support. And just when you thought they couldn’t get any heavier, Conan pull out “Sea Lord” for a monstrously-heavy closer and a fitting end to doom’s reign over this stage. And finally, for a different brand of Liverpudlians…

You cannot mention extreme metal without Carcass. It’s as simple as that. And for a band who have been absent for much of the time that their albums had to sink into and influence more modern bands, they have come back sounding incredibly fresh and full of an infectious energy. Vocalist/bassist Jeff Walker‘s first words as the band entered to thunderous applause was “And they say it’s grim up north…”, every bit as ironic as the Taco Bell t-shirt the vegetarian frontman was wearing. Their set was positively enthralling from first minute to last, with not one moment that wasn’t filled with either stunning music, dry jokes or disturbing projected images of body parts. The band, claimed Walker, was “sponsored by Liverpool City Council, like much of the lineup, to decrease crime in that city by coming to Leeds for the night”, a nod to Diamanthian, Conan and others. Carcass put on a very varied set spanning their whole career, from the title track of 1988’s Reek Of Putrefaction to several choice cuts from reunion album Surgical Steel, and all of it gelled beautifully. Despite having hit the ripe age of 44, his snarled vocals haven’t diminished in the slightest, and neither have the backing vocals of Bill Steer‘s, whose fretwork on lead guitar was jaw-dropping. The two younger members also did a fantastic job, particularly drummer Dan Wilding who attacked the kit frenetically. The guitar lines in “Heartwork” were beautiful, although not as beautiful as the surprise Carcass had in store. Those who know the band’s history may be aware that their old drummer, Ken Owen, suffered a brain hemorrhage and didn’t quite make a full recovery. However, that didn’t stop him getting onstage to perform a drum solo with blastbeats included! The warm reception the crowd gave him said it all, a sign of solidarity and support within this metal community. I even saw a couple of tears glistening.

Another year, another successful Damnation Festival. As the mass exodus swept people either into the street or the afterparty, there was an sense of satiety, and the faint sound of hundreds of people sighing in contentment. Or maybe that was the ringing in my ears. The song that Carcass closed on could well be the anthem of Damnation Festival, as well as a motto to live by: Keep on rotting in the free world. Until next time, Leeds.

Words by Angel and Vivien.

Angel
About Angel (104 Articles)
Angel is a headless chicken masquerading as a music addict, or potentially the other way round. He is the founder and editor of music website Broken Amp, as well as a publicist for Dewar PR, and otherwise offers proofreading and translation services. His musical taste covers most of the musical spectrum (including pretty much every metal genre under the sun), and he can be found enthusiastically rambling about music and other topics on Twitter: @markangelbrandt. Check out Angel's work online: http://www.markangelbrandt.com/ & http://brokenamp.com/

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