Live Report: Damnation Festival, Leeds

University of Leeds Student Union, Leeds, England
November 3, 2012

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Hailed as one of the biggest festivals on the British Isles, Damnation’s location in the University of Leeds’ student union makes for a dizzying experience for festival newcomers with its massive setting and entangled layout for the stages. It’s like walking through a maze, with more people going the other way for the next band on a stage pushed to the side of the first floor while another plays on the bottom. It is with this layout and the flood of people that one tries to keep up with everyone on display, from the fierce, crusty likes of Extreme Noise Terror to the subdued, post-rock vibes of 40 Watt Sun. Nonetheless, a decent line up with Primordial, Aura Noir, and Electric Wizard in the mix more than made up for the constant trek from stage to stage throughout the union’s halls.

The festival kicked off in the afternoon on the Eyesore Stage; a small platform pushed to the far end of the ground floor, with just enough space for the band but little enough for great queues waiting to come into the area. This was the case for Witchsorrow, watched by an audience squashed together to catch their set. Openers had only half an hour, and this was too little for the heavy slice of deep based, traditional doom that followed. However most metalheads may think of doom as a “slow”, dragged out music, the rock ‘n’ roll solos on “God Curse Us” brought out the more livelier side of it, particularly when translated to a live setting. Moving along, after self-titled English heritage black metallers Wodensthrone and Winterfylleth performed on the Eyesore and Terrorizer stages (respectively), one makes the extra climb upstairs to the Jägermeister stage on the first floor; the largest of all three stages, being a great auditorium divided in two for merchandise stalls at the front and half of the key headliners at the back.

The Netherlands’ Textures had a decent job of warming up the crowd for the likes of Primordial and My Dying Bride who were soon to come. Though the crowd took exceptionally well to this blend of buzzing, guitar-chugged lines and frontman Daniel de Jongh’s occasional gameshow banter, the music was all show and no substance for its over-focus on technical playing. With half an hour to spare between this band and fratboy thrashers Gama Bomb on the same platform, people could either head off to the bar or wander back down to the Terrorizer arena, to catch the raw, rowdy fun that came from crust/hardcore hybrid Extreme Noise Terror. By the end of their set, which saw Raging Speedhorn’s John Loughlin team up with Dead Jones on vocals, it was time to head back to the Jägermeister stage for Gama Bomb. Dressed up in geeky ’80s gear with high top sneakers and skinny jeans, they stepped up to excited, loud applause from a packed room. Singer Philly Byrne promised a set of “old school, neck-snapping, underpant teasing thrash metal”, and they delivered, if mainly because of a strong enthusiasm for their craft rather than a foremost power so essential to the genre of thrash. “Three Witches” satisfied fans enough to get many limbs flailing, all the while indulging the band in their silly geek routine. Byrne even took a moment to put on his glasses to read out in mock-news fashion recent comments and criticism which they received over the years for their “copycat” brand of tongue in cheek metal.

Yet despite the many happy faces, a couple of crowd surfers and a flung shoe, it must be said that the Jägermeister stage was still getting warmed up for the sight of heavy metal unison that was to come from Gama Bomb’s southern neighbours, Primordial. Though to compare the two bands is unfair due to the stark contrast in style and outlook, one could presume (at a stretch) that if the former were rascally puppies onstage, then the latter are embittered, old wolves with no time to fuck around (in vocalist Alan “Nemtheanga” Averill’s words). Those familiar with the Irish dark metallers are well aware of what can be expected at a Primordial set, and it was no different at Damnation. Following the foreboding, stormy atmosphere of militant Celtic drumming, the audience immediately came together as one entity, headbanging in union, guided by Averill in a state of vodka-fueled intensity. Typically expected songs like “The Coffin Ships” and “Empires Fall” played next to more recent material, such as “No Grave Deep Enough” and “Bloodied Yet Unbowed”. Though the short time slot afforded to the group was partly responsible for this admitted sense of predictability, nonetheless it did nothing to detract from the immense feeling of camaraderie and passion that filled the room.

Meanwhile, the Terrorizer stage – actually the second largest of all three arenas in the University of Leeds’ student union – was host to an other form of darkness, as soon as Norwegian modern black metallers Vreid came to play. At best decent enough to listen to on album, even casual listeners couldn’t deny the band’s strong stage presence that evening. Performing against a billow of smoke across the platform, guitarists Sture Dingsøyr and Strom’s harsh, spiked riffs channeled a heavier atmosphere in person without the restrictions of studio editing to minimise the effect. It gave “Raped by Light” and “Speak Goddamit” more gravitas in the arena, and continued this mood for newer songs like “The Devil’s Hand”. The Norse black metal flavour continued at Damnation, when Aura Noir – one of the most anticipated names on the bill – stepped up to the plate. Decked in dark denim vests and sunglasses, the quartet gave an air of no nonsense rock and roll when they immediately launched into frenetic, rough black/thrash metal. Though Aura Noir are a more established name than many of their peers in the Scandinavian extreme music scene, their appearance were in a way representative of the Nordic thrash metal radar; much has developed from second wave black metal in Norway and Aura Noir were a fine example of this in Leeds.

By the end, it was time to return to the Jägermeister area, to see gothic death/doom legends My Dying Bride on one of their few live performances. Befitting their style of music, the Yorkshire group were given an hour long set at the festival; it was enough to bring out their crushing, melancholic guitars and baroque synth to an enormous audience. The chimes of a church bell prepared the stage, as singer Aaron Stainthorpe began opening track “Kneel Till Doomsday” in a self-pitying string of low lamentations. Those skeptical about My Dying Bride’s current place in metal over the years, due in part to the band drifting towards a romantically self-indulgent strain of music, were assuaged that night. Songs from their newest album, thought by fans to be the group’s heaviest work in recent times, sat comfortably well in My Dying Bride’s onstage roster, which included “Deeper Down” and “The Cry of Mankind”. However, as seemed to have been the case for a number of act at Damnation, dedicated listeners were in for a pleasant surprise when the band decided to close with a rarely performed track, “The Dreadful Hours”. With its self-contained structure of a miniature tragedy, it’s understandable why this wouldn’t be a song that often gets picked for live venues, yet its inclusion was still a delight for many. Finally – and most notably the longest running set – the evening came to an end when stoner doom icons Electric Wizard climbed onto the stage. Taken as the face of modern doom metal’s reputation as an incredibly slow music, their performance on the Jägermeister stage was no exception with the dragged out drones on “Supercoven” and “Witchcult”. Playing against the backdrop of a continually running horror film montage, Jus Oborn and friends gave out more of their meandering, weed-themed notes to an eager crowd that nodded in steady motion with each staggered riff.

— K. Ann Sulaiman

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Photos by Catherine Blake of Carrion Photography.

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