Damnation Festival 2019 Review

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The University of Leeds; the home of Damnation Festival. This house of academia by day – or at least the student union bit of it – is rapidly transformed through the tireless work of countless members of staff and crew into the most welcoming hellscape you could ever hope to find. Since 2008, during every October/November, this humble seat of learning has been taken over by the great unwashed; we proud extreme metal fans, and in its fifteenth year the festival shows no signs of slowing down. With a stacked line up filled with metal’s brightest underground sparks and a few big names to boot, Damnation does not look set to disappoint.

Opening up to a clash while a great deal of the audience is still outside queuing in the rain is a tough gig. Luckily it doesn’t stop the sonic battery of vegan grindcore merchants, Godeater. Though much of the crowd stands stock still for their aural assault, the band play with verve. Sadly they lack the requisite energy to get bodies flying. Musically they are an incredibly tight unit, hitting their hypersonic stride within seconds of starting. Things fail to reach their violent potential namely due to the time of day, but it’s far from a poor way to start a festival. All Flesh Is Grass is a great début, and the material from it blows away the cobwebs of the night before. [7]

An absolutely heaving room of curious onlookers/prospective fans greets Dawn Ray’d. They have made quite the name for themselves this year, both with the release of Behold Sedition Plainsong and their staunchly anti-fascist ideology; something the attendees of Damnation are in desperate need of given certain bookings this year. “It’s time for new tales of resistance”; the mantra by which Dawn Ray’d have made their name opens a ferocious set of shredding guitars and delicate yet triumphant violin. The superb sound job does the band plenty of favours as their mammoth noise fills the fit to burst room. With Devil horns raised high in adoration, Ray’d’s set is an utter triumph. [8]

“We’re fucking Raging Speedhorn” is a pretty good summary of the old reliable outfit that open this year’s main stage. The no frills sludgy nu metal the band have made their name with goes down a storm, with a more than half full room hanging on their every note to the point that they inspire the day’s first mosh puts and crowdsurfers. It’s not the most dynamic display, nor is it frightfully daring like many of the other bands on the bill, but it does the job: Psyching everyone up for a day of metal. When Speedhorn are on stage, it’s party time and the whooping crowd happily oblige this upbeat diversion from the rest of the day’s bleak outlook. A Freddy Mercury style call and response game gets the already on-side crowd significantly more amped, and Speedhorn open the main stage in excellent fashion. [7.5]

Oregon born progressive sludge band Lord Dying were next up on the Eyesore Merch stage. They certainly fulfill the sludge quota promised in their description, and have a progressive flair to their muscular music. It’s not overtly proggy, but instead plays with time signatures and rhythmic changes in a framework of grooving rock n roll. They’re not wholly dissimilar to a hardcore band in their manner of attacking their instruments, and the barked vocals lend credence to this comparison. Rather than a low, drawling roar as is so often the case in sludge, the vocal style shares much in common with punk subgenres, and the set is better for it. In their low slung instrumentation a roar would get lost, here the lead vocals cut through the din effortlessly. The set is rather dynamic, but lacking in explosive energy that the grooving music would imply. Nonetheless a technically proficient take on the genre, and a capable display. [7]

If you like death metal, chances are you like Blood Red Throne. The Norwegian quintet’s hulking music batters a near full second stage, and is played with visceral aplomb. Intricate and technically proficient, if not a touch derivative, they race through a flurry of crushers, replete with windmilling throughout. This is classic death metal done to a high standard. It should satisfy any fan of subgenre. There’s no ancillary instrumentation, just lean slabs of deathened brutality. They don’t allow for safety in this music, instead erring on the side of a hypersonic blast of consistency that is as violent as it is brilliant. It’s a tight set that borders on over-rehearsed, but fortunately thanks to Yngve “Bolt” Christiansen’s baritone growl the set stays scintillating and unpredictable. [7.5]

For some

Unknown reason,

Could have been

Killing time or

Maybe

Going out for

Lunch, I was

Absent for a period of the festival. Can’t imagine why…

Being a solo artist equipped with a cello and loop pedals, Jo Quail is certainly a unique proposition even by Damnation’s standards. Her beautiful avant-garde/neo-classical sound is refined and elegant, hearty and filling the near-capacity room. The jaunty side of her work provides for great enjoyment, but it’s in the dark and subtle moments of intimacy that Quail really shines. Layer upon layer of dexterous musicianship coalesces into a full fledged symphony of sound all coming from one immensely talented woman. Later in the set she is joined by guests to explore different and wider reaching soundscapes, most notably Nick Sampson joining on guitar for Mandrel Cantus. The crowd go aptly wild for this skilful performance and it seems as if Quail is having a blast playing. There is something so heartening about watching someone take pride in their work the way she does, laughing in near disbelief as the crowd relish her work. Reya Pavan in particular showcases the percussive abilities of her prestigious instrument and features a new ending that Quail admits has only been rehearsed and never actually performed. It sounds utterly sublime and ends the piece in sterling fashion; just another moment of solemnity in a beautifully composed and constructed set. [9]

Captivating and experimental, Inter Arma perform an utterly magnetic set. With material from two stunning albums to draw from, they never put a foot wrong in their lumbering, intense music built on dynamism and extremity. The peaks and troughs of their loud/quiet dichotomy makes for deafening blasts of horror interspersed with whisper quiet, baritone thunder. With a surprising element of post-punk ala Joy Division to them, the set is quite unlike anything else seen at this year’s festival. Sprawling, dissonant and atonal epics that never lose their lustre despite long run times, it is a marvel to watch and a challenge to endure. As the five men on stage hurl themselves fully into this punishing music, you can’t help but feel hugely intimidated, as if you are bearing witness to something greater than a simple, cold and unfeeling performance. Something carnal. Something inherently dark. Whatever it is, it is incredible and no-one in the mighty crowd can honestly say they were anything but stunned. [9]

A terrifically large crowd amasses for Primordial. The blackened doom legends who combine a Celtic flair with skin-flaying instrumentation have piqued the interest of a large portion of the devotees of the festival, and it’s with good reason. The Irish quintet get off to a roaring start, with vocalist Alan Averill “Nemtheanga” goading the rabid audience with his explosive personality and ghoulish visage, and the band launching into renditions of their modern material. Combine this with classics that send a dedicated sect of the crowd into a frenzy and you have the makings of one of the day’s finer sets. The performances are energetic and charismatic, with the band working in unison to fulfil a singular purpose; to raise hell in their distinct, home-grown style. No other band sounds quite like Primordial, and this uniqueness makes them stand out in amongst other luminaries on the bill. Averill’s theatricality is reminiscent of Anaal Nathrakh’s Dave Hunt, and meshes well with the jaunt of their otherwise oblique music. Even though there are technical difficulties during Nail Their Tongues,the set is gloriously coherent and provides a bridge between the extreme and the progressive acts making up the bill making Primordial a fitting choice for this point in the day. [8]

Dreamy, histrionic vocals and ethereal clean passages might not scream “Damnation”, but it’s in the abstruse interplay between light and dark that Alcest find their apt niche for the festival. Hot on the heels of latest album, Spiritual Instinct, they play with a vigour not apparent in many of the other acts on the bill. The progenitors of blackgaze pull the biggest crowd of the day so far on the main stage and fill the room with their luscious melodies and juxtaposing heavy riffage. New songs like Protection sound glorious, while more road weary material sounds every bit as meticulously crafted and honed as Alcest would want their music to be. Some towards the back of the room are not prepared for the duality of Neige’s vocal ability, but quickly come to the realisation that he is a master craftsman. Everything is borderline celestial. In a genre that grows exponentially year on year, it seems that tonight Alcest are still very much the kings of that which they birthed. [9]

Backlit for ninety percent of a ferocious performance, bathed only in an unforgiving strobe light; death metal’s latest stars, Venom Prison. Their set is unfriendly on the eyes and takes no prisoners aurally as they batter a massive crowd into submission with some of the finest death metal written this decade. Material from both Animus and Samsara sounds colossal, particularly the former as it feels more honed and fine tuned, but that is not to say that the new material is not refined. “No-one is illegal. Uterine Industrialisation.” says vocalist Larissa Stupar succinctly. In the only speech of the set, Stupar delivers a gut punch of tolerance that matches the visceral intensity of her band’s music. She is a wonderful performer, with a frame that bends and twists along with the blasting beats. Aside from this inhuman contortion, she performs like a hardcore singer, goading the crowd into circle pits and crowdsurfing, all the while racing around the stage with intimidating purpose. She is quite extraordinary, and when combined with her fierce, scathing lyrics that subvert the typically misogynistic death metal fare, she becomes the jewel in Venom Prison’s crown. An incredible performance from future headliners of this festival, they leave little in their wake as they bring the second stage to a barbaric close. [8.5]

Clashing with the main stage headliner can be a tough gig. Luckily a rather hefty crowd greets the avant garde black metal stylings of the masked trio, Imperial Triumphant. The opening notes of their set imply this is going to be a very different kind of black metal, with low, roared vocals subverting the typical gargled wails of the genre. They play an impressive set of serpentine riffs and lucid time signatures, shifting between moods and feelings with ease. This is a much more full bodied take on the blackened genre with a sound that feels well rounded as opposed to wiry and icy cold. They bring a powerful sense of dread to the unusually well lit third stage, a barrage of morbid instrumentation and adept songwriting that isn’t afraid to eschew conventions. The audience reaction doesn’t do justice to how impressive the band are, and the risks they are taking making such ‘out there’ music. It is something of a shame that the live brass heard on latest album, Vile Luxury, doesn’t make an appearance during the evening’s performance, but looking at the limited space on stage and thinking about the reality of the cost for an underground touring outfit, it is understandable and most certainly forgivable. Closing the third stage is no easy task, but Imperial Triumphant do it with counter cultural style. [8]

The virtuosic ability of the prog maestros, Opeth, cannot be overstated. With all the crystalline clarity of their records, they play a set that is the epitome of intricate, inventive and beautiful. Their legacy precedes them as they play to an utterly smitten crowd who hang on mastermind, Mikael Åkerfeldt’s every word. His abilities as a frontperson are laudable; to be able to play music of such dexterity while singing the complex melodies that make up Opeth’s opuses is stunning. Tonight he cements his legendary status and shows the hulking crowd why he is so revered as a musician. The band around him are not to be forgotten of course, performing every song with pinpoint precision and nous. The bass tones are lush and full bodied, the technical prowess of the percussion is enough to make Neil Peart think twice about his abilities, and the keys bring a sense of nostalgia for the Hammond organ prog of the 1970s. A few naysayers towards the back of the audience do complain that they don’t play enough old material, and this is perhaps an issue. At a predominantly extreme festival, material from Heritage onwards may seem a bit tame, and frankly who doesn’t want to hear stuff from Ghost Reveries; a timeless classic? However, Opeth are not a band built on compromise, and have proven themselves to be consistently forward thinking even when their music harks back to days of old. They do not bow to audience pressure and will play what they damn well want to. This should be applauded, their integrity is cast in iron, and while it does deprive us of much of their subjectively best material, it is something to be cherished. When old material does drop, the room explodes into an adoring frenzy. It is hard to knock Opeth even on their worst day, and as the festival’s finale it demonstrates everything that is great about heavy, progressively minded music. And isn’t that why we come to Damnation? Brilliance incarnate, they cast a spell over the onlookers that does not relinquish its control til the last note stops the night on a dime. [8.5]

There was one final treat for a sparse crowd of night owls; an “after party” set from extreme synthwave enigma, GosT. The crowd does slowly grow over the course of the set, namely when Opeth finish their mammoth ninety minutes, but the floor never fills to bursting as it had so many times throughout the day. Beginning with Relentless Passing from new album, Valediction, the set begins as a torrent of screams and blast beats from a Luciferian realm. This doesn’t feel like an after party so much as a set that just didn’t make sense at any other time of day. Nonetheless, shapes are thrown and heads are banged as the backlit duo race through a plethora of their most extreme and danceable material. The seeming disparity between dancing and extreme metal is roundly shattered by the silhouetted performers, blending the two styles effortlessly. The clean vocals could use refining, though there is a Numan-esque charm to the unpolished delivery, but the absence of a live band playing the synthesisers does make the set fall unequivocally flat; after a day of live music, it seems a shame to round things off with recordings. But, in spite of these gripes, the devilish dance of GosT’s music is hard to resist the allure of. [7.5]

And with that, the fifteenth year of the UK’s premiere extreme festival draws to a riotous close. Damnation Festival will return in 2020.

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