Damnation Festival 2011: The review
|November 15, 2011||Posted by Joe Towse under entertainment|
The seventh year of Damnation Festival, held at Leeds University’s 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 let us know that Decapitated had had a plane crash and had been forced to cancel, but the lineup remained excellent nevertheless – plus, they clashed with Godflesh, so nobody would’ve seen them anyway!
After a calm bus trip got us there about three hours early, we had time to kill, and so popped into a record shop in Leeds (I can’t remember the name). The original plan was to go to Hellraiser, but the shop appeared to have closed down. A quiet 20 minutes or so there, staring at CDs none of us really planned to buy, got us in the mood for music, and after a makeshift lunch and some wandering around, we looked for a HMV so we could be ‘so cool’ in ridiculing their knowledge of genres (Paramore!? Metal!? Pah!), but instead we got a little lost and had to rely on our alpha-male internal compasses. (Okay, we asked a student.)
Still, arriving ludicrously early has its benefits – we were some of the first to see the merchandise stalls, as well as pick up a program before they’re all gone. The Earache stall had some excellent deals, and over the course of the day I picked 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 the opening proceedings were Humanfly. Naturally, being openers, nobody got too much into their music aside from those who were obviously friends and travelling crew – the only people really ‘losing it’ to their sounds were 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 Humanfly are some way off 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, and certainly in Cerebral Bore’s case – the lack of a vocalist delayed the start of their half-hour set by 25 minutes (at least; I left at that point), which caused mutterings among the death metal contingent at the festival – Cerebral Bore and Decapitated were the only two death metal bands playing that day.
The reason for my exit was my desire to see A Forest Of Stars, who, like Humanfly, performed on the tiny Zero Tolerance stage. It was evidently a bit cramped for their many members (somewhere between 7 and 8), but they lost no effect, as their Victorian-themed atmospheric black metal, unconventionally using piano and a violin, came across a lot better than it does on record. Dressed in their archaic garments, one almost expected an eruption into plainsong as they came onto stage, especially as the first four or five minutes consisted of a violin introduction, but once the set proper started they quickly rectified 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 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 was 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, proved 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 stayed for three songs of Turisas’ set, due to delays on the largest of the three stages, but from what I saw (The March Of The Varangian Guard, One More and Stand Up And Fight), they were at their hugely fun, sword-swinging, singalong best. They also created the first pit of the day of the bands I saw (although I’m sure the angsty fans of alt-metal abominations Xerath managed this too).
I left early in order to see the entire set of the aforementioned Dragged Into Sunlight. Perhaps the most sonically extreme band on the bill, their blend of death, black and doom metal came 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 had an intro tape which was far too long, consisting of ambient noises and various recordings of serial killers speaking. They also played with their backs to the audience for most of the set, which was unfortunately somewhat over-pretentious for my liking.
After this, I once again went to the large stage to see Huddersfield’s new wave of thrash upstarts Evile. Although their set was marred by the terrible sound on that stage, they still created 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 needed to focus too much on their instruments to do so, crowd surfing was well and truly rampant among… well, the crowd, which certainly gave 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 were statuesque, as were the crowd. Frankly, if I’d wanted to hear that, I’d simply have listened to the album.
I therefore left their set a little early to make sure I caught Doom in their entirety. The crust punk pioneers were a little late starting, as was everybody on that stage due to Cerebral Bore’s early delay, but one could easily see their workmanlike attitude from the setting up to the performance itself. No fireworks, no magic, just good, old-fashioned crust, and it hit 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 didn’t need ram skulls, they just let their anger do the talking, and in so doing played the best set of the day.
Due to leaving Altar Of Plagues’ set so early, however, I also managed 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 was 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 knew Streetcleaner, their seminal debut full-length, but I was fortunate as almost half the songs played were from there, including obvious classics such as Like Rats, Pulp and Christbait Rising. The set was deafeningly loud, and may be the cause for my recurrent tinnitus, but bloody hell was it worth it. Godflesh crushed 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 was essentially required to save the set, as his progressive take on all things metal (in both music and mindset) was really marred by the stage’s poor sound, not to mention the packed audience which made it nigh-on impossible to move. Like Godflesh, this set was incredibly loud, but Townsend is veritably a genius, and this showed in his performance.