It’s odd, y’know, being here in Leeds for the annual Damnation Fest without Sander, our international man of metal. He’s away somewhere, doing stuff, so obviously he can’t be here. But I’m a big boy now, so I’m sure I’ll cope. All on my own.
Were you there last year? Yes? Then you’ll remember that the venue was a bit of a building site, with some significant re-modelling going on. Well, that’s all done now, and the place is much improved. It’s all a bit more open, and brighter, and it’s easier to move around. Which is nice. The toilets are much more pleasant now, and disabled access has been improved. The little room downstairs – the newly-sponsored Tone MGMT stage – now boasts a fine ramp down one side, accessible bogs, new wall and floor coverings, new bar, etc, and is altogether a much nicer place to visit.
OK, I’ve checked out the geography of the place, found the excellent Becky, got my wristband and formulated some kind of plan, so it’s time to grab a pasty1 and chill until kick-off time.
As it was last year with Dialects, it’s a mathy start to the day in the Eyesore stage. Bodyhound seem eager to be at it, starting, as they do, 5 minutes early. I’ve seen them a couple of times before and, as ever, they dazzle the crowd (surprisingly large, it must be said, for a non-metal opening act) with their inhuman skill, but they sound different today. It seems that they’re moving away from their old style into deeper and darker, less accessible territory. More proggy and jazzy, I think, than the more straightforward math-rock I’m used to. It’s a brave move, and one that won’t trouble their fans, but anyone dropping by out of curiosity might leave somewhat baffled. Or might not. Who can tell?
Anyway, bassist Joseph Thorpe apologises for the lack of quality banter and tells us that it’s like a dream for them, playing here at Damnation, and they certainly seem to be enjoying themselves. But, then, they always do.
Now, 1:30pm might seem a tad early for one of the highlights of the day, but it’s Wren, downstairs in the Tone Mgmt room. If you’ve read my Damnation preview from a few weeks back, you’ll have realised that I am unreasonably excited about seeing Wren. And I am not disappointed.
Wren are colossal, anvil-heavy sludgy post-metal. This tiny room is the perfect place for them. In a bigger room, the sheer physicality of their sound would be diluted. I’m here at the front, the monstrous volume is threatening to disrupt my internal organs and it’s perfect. The lighting is minimal, it’s dark and murky and entirely appropriate2. Their songs are long, and they only get to play four (I think) in their allotted half hour, but never mind. It’s half an hour of Wren. And Wren are awesome. I want to see Wren again.
Now, I have a dilemma. I want to see both pg.lost and Wiegedood, but they’re both playing at the same time. I try to do both, starting with Wiegedood, but I’ve stayed too long with Wren and the Terrorizer room is rammed by the time I get there. It’s one of those rooms where, if you’re late, there’s no way you can see anything so I head upstairs to catch the lower case Swedish post-rock veterans.
Eyesore is busy too, and the show is well under way by the time I get there, but I invoke my press privilege and head up to the balcony. Call me a boring old fart, if you must3, but I reckon a comfy seat and a good view is the best way to see a post-rock gig. And so it is here.
I’m expecting soaring, euphoric post-rock, very much in the E.I.T.S. ballpark, but that’s not quite what I get. I don’t know if they’ve beefed up their sound for the metal audience, but pg.lost are a lot heftier than I had anticipated. The smoke on stage is thick and the lights are pretty. Occasionally guitarist #1 or the bassist will play with the double keyboard arrangement stage centre, occasionally both at once. Guitarist #2 sticks with what he knows best. I’m guessing the drummer is at the back somewhere, but he’s lost in the fog. It’s all good, and the folks in audience, who clearly haven’t just wandered in out of curiosity, are well entertained. But, maybe it’s because I’m upstairs, away from where the sound is at its best, but it all feels a tad leaden. My soul is not lifted heavenwards. Which is a shame, because I really like pg. lost and had been looking forward to seeing them for the first time. Oh well. The crowd is happy and that, in the end, is what counts.
A quick dash4 over to the main stage for Pallbearer. The Jaegermeister room is already packed and there’s no way I’m getting anywhere near the front. Pallbearer are clearly very popular. Press privilege is invoked again, and I’m off upstairs to see what’s happening. While I’m waiting, I entertain myself by looking down at the crowd, trying to read the spiky writing on the t-shirts. Plenty of Bloodbaths; there’s an Agoraphobic Nosebleed; Paradise Lost and Myrkur, obviously; and that one there. . . it’s. . . ah, no, it’s just a photo of a pile sticks.
It has been said that Pallbearer sound not unlike fellow Damnationers Warning and, despite the band’s denial, there is some truth in that. Their brand of progressive doom is equally elegant – not at all like Sabbath or Electric Wizard, etc. – and singer Brett Campbell’s warm, unaffected voice does, on occasion, sound remarkably like Patrick Walker. But they’re more fun5.
I wish I could stay longer, but Psychedelic Witchcraft are calling. And when I find them, I’m rather taken aback by their unexpectedly crusty/grindy/black metal sound. Aren’t they supposed to be. . . wait. Wrong room. Oops. I’ve stumbled in on Vallenfyre. About face.
Ah. Here they are! Not that I can see much, as the stage is drenched again in that thick, thick smoke. Still, they sound fine – an unchallenging retro kind of thing, blending Blues Pills and Jefferson Airplane with 70s’ hard rock. Songs with occult themes – demons, gods, etc – abound, but the highlight, for me at least, is a rather fine slow bluesy thing about Egyptian deities. No idea what it’s called, I’m afraid, but I like it. I’d have preferred a little more of the ‘psychedelic’, to be honest, but never mind.
Now. Myrkur. Something, I hear, of a ‘Marmite’ band. Fans love her/them. Non-fans really don’t. Which is, perhaps, why the room is less than packed, a lot of folks seemingly deciding that Beyond Creation are the better bet elsewhere. Anyway, I need to be there to provide you with the definitive opinion you all clearly need.
So, the band’s all there, standing still and looking menacing in their hoods and facepaint. Front-lady Amalie Bruun appears to warm applause – and, disappointingly, a fair few unsavoury lewd comments from the more Neanderthal elements in the crowd6 – steps up to her twiggy mic-stand and gets things going with some spooky, churchy type singing before the band joins in.
I’m not entirely sure what exactly to make of the Myrkur show. It’s doomy, but not doomy enough. Black-metal, but not black enough. Folky, but, y’know. . . Even Amalie’s slightly unhinged lost-girl/woman thing has been done better elsewhere. Songs which impress on record fall a bit flat on stage. She picks up a guitar, but it doesn’t seem to add anything. She apologises for the lack of a choir and urges the crowd to join in, with limited success. It’s all a bit . . . meh. Which is a shame, because I want to like it. Or to hate it.
But ‘Marmite’? More like peanut butter. Mostly quite soft, pleasant but a bit bland, with the odd crunchy bit here and there.
Now, as you all read my aforementioned preview, you’ll remember that I said I’d seen Big Business before in a tiny club in Edinburgh, and that they were dead good. How will they fare in a bigger room, I wondered.
Well, to be blunt, they were fucking brilliant. Jared and Coady, swathed in the ubiquitous fog and harshly lit in (mostly) red, deliver a breath-taking set of immense riffs and battering drums. Jared bellows like a beast and is the sweatiest man on the planet. He looks huge from where I’m standing. Coady attacks his kit as if he intends to kill it. It’s exhilarating stuff, and it feels like I’m right back in that wee club and Big Business are owning the room all over again. This is drum ’n’ bass as it SHOULD be.
Too soon, Jared announces the last song. ‘No!’ I want to shout, ‘Keep going!’ But the last song turns out to be the epic ‘Lonely Lyle’, 15 minutes of awesome, so it’s all good.
Rock and, indeed, roll.
Mutation are late. 15 minutes late. Something has gone horribly wrong with mics and/or cables and/or monitors, but we all wait patiently (apart from the odd bellend shouting out ‘Gerronwivit!’) but eventually everything’s working, Ginger walks on, and we’re off.
Now, I know nothing about Mutation7, and wouldn’t recognise one of their songs if it ran up to me and slapped me in the belly with a wet fish, so I have no idea what to expect. I’d heard that things could get a bit crazy but, y’know, that’s easily said but not so often realised.
But Mutation are, indeed, nuts. It’s like what I imagine Wildhearts might sound like played very fast, very loud and very angry. Punky death-metal, with poppy melodies. Does that make sense? No? Well, there you go.
The set is cut to just 30 minutes, because of the techy hiccups, but the packed room goes bananas for every last one of them. I make it out of there miraculously uninjured and try to squeeze in next door to see what the fuss is about with last year’s drop-outs Nails.
Nails played Glasgow the night before, and I’d heard reports of tantrums from the US hard-core death-punks. They hadn’t been happy with the sound8, I was told, and some gear got thrown into the crowd. They only played 20 minutes, apparently.
Well, I can’t really say too much about Nails, to be fair. The room is absolutely jammed – which probably says more about the band than I ever could – and the bits of the crowd that I can see are absolutely seething. Bodies emerge from the maelstrom to be launched forwards into the photo pit. What I can hear is vicious and lacerating and exactly what the crowd wants. If I were a lot younger, I might be tempted to dive into the boiling pit of meat down there and enjoy the pure adrenalin rush, but sadly I’m not. I can see the appeal, though, and Nails probably deserve the glowing reviews that they will certainly receive elsewhere. A long as they can keep their toys in the pram.
I don’t see much point in suffering the dreadful sound at the very back of the Terrorizer room while looking at the broad backs of the folks in front of me, so I force my way out. The security chaps at the door are operating a ‘one in, one out’ policy, and some eager punter gratefully grabs my place. Good luck to him.
As I hang over the balcony, waiting for local lads Paradise Lost, I see a security chap handing out free ear-plugs. Should I be worried? This hasn’t happened for any of the other bands, as far as I know, and some of them have been VERY loud indeed. . .
In the end, it might have been better if they had been handing out new microphones instead, because Nick Holmes is having endless problems with his. If he stands back, just there, it’s fine, but if he moves forward everything goes Pete Tong, and the monitors don’t work right. Apparently. He’s not happy, but carries on regardless. After all, he’s a Yorkshireman, and they’re made of stern stuff.
Anyway, as you would expect for a band that’s been around forever and who have a new album out, Paradise Lost give us a few new songs, and a whole bunch of old faves, not least the inevitable ‘As I Die’. Now, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing – quite the reverse. It’s just what the crowd wants, and they do a damned fine job of it all. I notice that a fair bit of what I’m hearing is pre-recorded, but that’s hardly surprising, as it would, I think, be less than practical to bring an orchestra and choir onto the Damnation stage. Anyway, everybody does it these days.
Can miserable goth-doom make you happy and smiley? The crowd says “YES!”
My plug-less ears are fine, by the way.
What’s next? It’s been a long day, and I’m getting a bit hazy. . . Ah, yes. I had planned on catching Dying Fetus9 but the Terrorizer crowd strikes again and I can’t get in, so I decide to wander upstairs and have a kip while Leprous10 are on. But Leprous have other ideas.
Now, I freely admit that I don’t like this kind of melodic technical prog-rock, all synths and widdly guitars, but Leprous somehow contrive to keep me entertained for a good half hour. I try to hate them, I really do, but I just can’t. They seem to be having so much fun, and the lights are pretty and they’ve got stuff playing on TV sets all over the stage, and the crowd is loving it. I can’t name a single song they play, and I still really don’t like the falsetto vocal-tyle but, yeah, well done Leprous for proving me wrong.
From a band which surprise me to one which does EXACTLY what it says on the tin. Sodom is a German thrash metal band, and sounds precisely what you would expect a German thrash metal band to sound like. Especially one which has been at the top of the game for 30 years. I’m standing at the back, really quite far away from the stage, and it’s easy for me to imagine away the wrinkles and grey hair, and see the skinny young men that they once were. They rock like bastards, songs of war and blood and death and evil, and everything is fine. Even the silly cover of that bloody ‘Surfin’ Bird’, song. Papa Oom Mow-mow, indeed.
Just a couple of bands to go, you’ll be pleased to read. And two very different bands they are, too.
Now, I’ve had issues with Nordic Giants in the past. On the face of it, they’re the kind of band I SHOULD like, me being a post-rock kinda guy after all11, but they’ve never quite hit the spot for me. Their gimmicks have always gotten on the way. I’d be listening to the music and ignoring the visuals, or watching the movies and losing the music. Or I’d get distracted by the feathers. I think, maybe, that I’ve always been too close to the band, and haven’t been able to absorb everything at once.
Which is why, tonight, here in the big open space of the Eyesore room, they are absolutely mesmerising. I’m upstairs again and I can experience the whole spectacle as it should be. It’s a new set, apparently12, which is not unexpected as they have a new record out. I can’t name any of the songs, but it doesn’t really matter. The songs and the visuals, together and properly inseparable, are glorious. The feathered duo is mostly hidden in the dark, piano on the left, drums on the right, and it was so easy to forget that they are actually here. Only during the sort-of encore does the drummer step out from behind his kit and give us a bit of that bowed guitar. And the trumpet is there, but I never see it used. Whether or not that is a good thing depends, I suppose, on your fondness for trumpets.
I had been mildly puzzled by Nordic Giants’ headline status, but in the end they are triumphant. They are where they ought to be.
I pause briefly in at the Tone MGMT room to sample Grave Pleasures, ‘Finland’s favourite post-punk band’ and find them to be pretty much like any other Finnish post-punk band, so I head of upstairs for my last band of the day.
‘We are Bloodbath, from Sweden’ he says. Sure you are, Nick. Sure you are. Some of you might be. But we’re not fooled by the long coat and the blood all over your face. You’re from Halifax.
Because, yes, obviously, Bloodbath are nowadays fronted by Paradise Lost’s Nick Holmes. That guy from Opeth is long gone, but Holmes does an admirable job. We can barely tell the new stuff from the old13, and the seething crowd doesn’t seem to care. They rattle through song after blood-drenched song about death and blood and bloody death, a brutal old-skool death-metal masterclass. The lighting adds an extra element, bathing the heads of crowd in crimson so, from my place at the back, they look like an actual bath of bubbling blood. Which is nice.
OK, I’m done. I’ve been here for twelve hours, I’ve seen fourteen bands14 and I feel close to death. It’s been hard work, as usual, but it’s been fun15. Regardless of my opinion of some of the bands, it’s clear that this year’s Damnation fest has been a huge success. It is, as always, the audience which matters, and this year’s crowd has been well served with treats. From the international mega-stars at the top of the bill to exciting young talent lower down, each band has played to mostly packed rooms. Each and very audience has, I think, gone away happy. Can’t really argue with that. So, a big “Well done!” to the festival organisers. You’re getting quite good at this.
- A minor gripe here. A pasty and drink at 12:30pm costs £3.50. A pasty and a drink at 5:30pm costs £5.00. I doubt it’s anything to do with the Damnation team, but still, a bit cheeky. But, hey, we live in a capitalist society and there’s money to be made.
- Except when somebody turns on a light at the side of the stage and seems unable to turn it off again. This does not go down well with the band.
- You’d be far from the first, and I’ve been called worse.
- “A quick dash” Hah! Have you ever seen me try to run?
- Apparently, their set is cut short by a fire alarm. Don’t hear a thing where I am. I could burn to death and never know. . .
- If you’re reading this and were one of the cat-callers, you should be ashamed of yourself. There’s no place for that sort of shite. Stop it now.
- Or the Wildhearts, to be honest.
- Dodgy sound in the C*th*use? Who’d’ve guessed?
- Our fine photographer managed to see them though, so make sure you check out his notes.
- Possibly the least appropriately named band in the history of inappropriate band names. A band called Leprous should be playing nasty grindcore or death metal. . .
- Yeah, I know. “Why send a post-rock guy to a metal festival?” Because why the fuck not?
- Although I’ve DEFINITELY seen a couple of those movies before – the one with the big chicken puppet thing and the one with the robot on the motorcycle. Where I’ve seen them, I have no idea. Probably YouTube or something.
- Well, I can’t anyway. But then, I’m feeling my age and I need to find a bed.
- Sixteen, if you count the two in-and-out visits.
- FINAL NOTE: Personally, I’ve been surprised and I’ve been amazed. I’ve been disappointed and I’ve had my opinions turned upside down. I’ve had a couple of pasties. My highlights? Wren, Big Business, Nordic Giants and the traditional Steak & Ale.