The seventh year of Damnation Festival, held at Leeds University Student Union, is set to be a good one; aside from the sister festival Deathfest, this is only my second Damnation, but it’s been running since 2005. Some last-minute news the night before lets us know that Decapitated have had a plane crash and have been forced to cancel, but the lineup remains excellent anyhow – plus they clashed with Godflesh, so nobody would’ve seen them anyway!
After a calm bus trip gets us there about 3 hours early, we have time to kill, and so pop into a record shop in Leeds (I can’t remember the name). The original plan was to go to Hellraiser, but it appears that the shop has closed down. A quiet 20 minutes or so there, staring at CDs none of us really plan to buy, gets us in the mood for music, and after a makeshift lunch and some wandering around, looking for a HMV so we can be ‘so cool’ in ridiculing their knowledge of genres (Paramore!? Metal!? Pah!), but instead getting a little lost and having to rely on our alpha male internal compasses. Okay, we asked a student.
Still arriving ludicrously early has its benefits – we are some of the first to see the merch stalls, and pick up a program before they’re all gone. The Earache stall has some excellent deals, and over the course of the day, I pick up Archgoat’s Whore Of Bethlehem CD and a Dragged Into Sunlight t-shirt – the two combined costing a mere £15.
To the music, and opening proceedings are Humanfly. Naturally, being openers, nobody gets too much into their music aside from those who are obviously friends and travelling crew – the only people really ‘losing it’ to their sounds are a couple of headbangers down the front and a hipster in one of those pretentious flat caps to the side of the stage. Admittedly, their music deserved more than this – they play a more-than-serviceable brand of sludgy doom with a little modern hardcore mixed in – imagine, if you will, a clash between Yob, SubRosa and early Mastodon (although admittedly being some way of the heights of those three). Their main downfall is that their vocalist, although obviously passionate, is simply terrible.
Admittedly, having a terrible vocalist can, in some cases, be better than not having one at all, certainly in Cerebral Bore’s case – the lack of a vocalist delays the start of their half-hour set by 25 minutes (at least, I left at that point), which causes mutterings among the death metal contingent at the festival – them and Decapitated were the only two death metal bands to be playing that day.
The reason for my exit was my desire to see A Forest Of Stars, who, like Humanfly, perform on the tiny Zero Tolerance stage. It’s evidently a bit cramped for their many members (somewhere between 7 and 8), but they lose no effect, as their Victorian-themed atmospheric black metal, unconventionally using piano and a violin, comes across a lot better than they do on record. Dressed in their archaic garments, one almost expects an eruption into plainsong as they come on to stage, especially as the first four or five minutes consist of a violin introduction, but once the set proper starts, they quickly rectify those perceptions. They seem to create visual art to a certain extent alongside their elongated songs of dementia – the vocalist is like a man possessed, and the rest of the band move and even headbang with a grace previously unthought-of of in the context of heavy metal.
To those who were there but missed Shining, I feel sorry for you. The Norwegian ‘blackjazz’ quintet’s performance is one of the sets of the festival, inciting scream-alongs to their own mini-classic ‘The Madness And The Damage Done’ and their excellent cover of King Crimson’s ‘21st Century Schitzoid Man’. Their only other song during their 35 minute set, ‘Fish Eye’, proves that it is possible to achieve insane levels of technicality within a song without forfeiting the structure which makes all forms of popular music (using the term very loosely here) so enjoyable. Saxophone ‘shredding’ is brilliant to watch, and frankly, brilliant to hear. Very well done.
Unfortunately, I only stay for three songs of Turisas’ set, due to delays on the largest of the three stages, but from what I see (‘The March Of The Varangian Guard’, ‘One More’ and ‘Stand Up And Fight’), they’re at their hugely fun, sword-swinging, singalong best. They also create the first pit of the day out of the bands I’ve seen (although I’m sure the angsty fans of alt-metal abominations Xerath managed thus too).
The reason why I left early is because I wanted to see the entire set of the aforementioned Dragged Into Sunlight. Perhaps the most sonically extreme bands on the bill, their blend of death, black and doom metal comes across very well in the darkened Terrorizer stage with a ram’s skull staring ominously at you. Metal is not without its gimmicks, and DiS’s is a strange preoccupation with serial killers – they have an intro tape which is far too long, consisting of ambient noises and various recordings of serial killers speaking. They also play with their backs to the audience for most of the set, which is unfortunately somewhat over-pretentious for my liking.
After this, I go once again to the large stage to see Huddersfield new wave of thrash upstarts Evile. Although their set is marred by the terrible sound on that stage, they still create fist-pumping, neck-snapping fun, fortunately playing only one song from lacklustre second album Infected Nations and instead concentrating on their excellent debut Enter The Grave and slightly-less-excellent new album Five Serpents’ Teeth. Rock Band gamers may know them from the presence of the song ‘Thrasher’ on one of the games, which is one of their best, and naturally, it’s a live staple. Although the band need to focus too much on their instruments to do so, crowd surfing is well and truly rampant among... well, the crowd, which certainly gives the security men a little to worry about!
Altar Of Plagues released one of my favourite albums of this year so far in ‘Mammal’, but unfortunately, it doesn’t transfer well to the live arena. Maybe due to the appallingly quiet mix at that point on the tiny Zero Tolerance stage, but also due to their lack of passion in performance. The band are statuesque, as are the crowd. Frankly, if I wanted to hear this, I’d simply listen to the album.
I therefore leave their set a little early to make sure I catch Doom in their entirety. The crust punk pioneers are a little late starting, as is everybody on that stage due to Cerebral Bore’s early delay, but one can easily see their workmanlike attitude from the setting up to the performance itself. No fireworks, no magic, just good, old-fashioned crust, and it hits the spot, with the d-beat sending the crowd wild from early songs like ‘Nazi Die’ to natural closer ‘Means To An End’ (which itself is probably the only song of the day, or indeed genre, to utter the lyric ‘Let’s all be friends!’), visiting my personal favourite of theirs ‘Police Bastard’ along the way. The performance is everything one would want it to be – Doom don’t need ram’s skulls, they just let their anger do the talking, and in so doing play the best set of the day.
Due to leaving Altar Of Plagues’ set so early, however, I also manage to catch the last ten minutes of Chthonic, the previous act on that stage. They may be from Taiwan, they may incorporate elements of Taiwanese traditional music into their sound, their bassist may be a young, scantily-clad buxom Asian woman, but their music is ultimately a nod to recent Cradle Of Filth or Dimmu Borgir, which, although fun, isn’t great for creating a fantastic live atmosphere. Their set is passable, but not fantastic.
One of the most anticipated acts of the day, Justin Broadrick’s Godflesh have reunited to basically kick ass with their massive, and hugely influential, industrial metal. I only really know Streetcleaner, their seminal debut full-length, but I’m fortunate as almost half the songs played are from there, including obvious classics like ‘Like Rats’, ‘Pulp’ and ‘Christbait Rising’. The set is deafeningly loud, and may be the cause for my recurrent tinnitus, but bloody hell was it worth it. Godflesh crush all in their way. Amazing act.
And finally, although I’d originally planned to see Ulver, I was coaxed over time into seeing the other headliner – the Devin Townsend Project. Hevy Devy is certainly a wacky character – his flipping hand puppets of the character he created, an alien named Ziltoid The Omniscient, are selling for £15 each at his merch stand – but this means that no-one can deny his brilliance as a showman. It’s a shame, then, that this brilliance is essentially required to save the set, as his progressive take on all things metal (in both music and mindset) is really marred by the stage’s poor sound, not to mention the packed audience which makes it nigh-on impossible to move. Like Godflesh, this set is incredibly loud, but Townsend is veritably a genius, and this shows in his set.