DAMNATION FEST, Leeds, November 2018
It’s early October as I write this, and the Damnation stage splits are just being announced. I need to start thinking about the bands that I:
- NEED to see
- WANT to see
- Can miss.
Bearing in mind that I’m really a post rock/post-metal kinda guy, the Eyesore Merch stage is currently leading in the Category A list, but things might change. I’m quite flexible, really.
Late October now, and I have the full schedule in front of me. Planning begins. Clashes are inevitable but fortunately of fairly minor concern. I’m a tad annoyed that Celeste and Arabrot are on at the same time, but I’ve never seen Celeste before, so…
There’s a farmyard themed clash with Caligula’s Horse up against Fukpig, neither of whom I’ve seen/know anything about, but the latter sound sillier so I’ll probably go with them.1
I DO notice, however, that there’s nobody at all on against Hundred Year Old Man, which is a very good thing, but which disturbs me slightly, because the wee room downstairs will most likely be rammed tight. HYOM are a Category A band (see above), so I’ll have to make sure I get there early.
Not long now.
[CAVEAT: PLEASE READ. This is Damnation Fest. I’m going to mention a lot of bands. I may not say nice things about all of them. If I say less than positive things about YOUR favourite band, please don’t take it personally. It’s just my opinion and, as such, means bugger all. You, as a fan, are more important than me. If I don’t like a band and you do, you win.]
And here we go.
I have a sketchy plan prepared – where to go, who to see – but these things rarely survive first contact with reality. We shall see.
I get the usual preliminaries out of the way – get in, get my nice green wristband, get a pasty for lunch2 – then head over there to the Eyesore Merch stage to catch the first band. And hang about impatiently because security won’t let anybody in until Vola have finished sound checking. Dammit, don’t they know who I am?
Anyway. In at last and here they are. Assorted Scandinavians Vola kick us off with a set of keyboard-heavy proggy rock. It’s a gentle start to the day with just enough heft to keep things interesting. I suspect the crowd knows more about Vola than I do, because they seem keen. I get the impression that the set draws heavily from their just released new album, ‘Applause of a Distant Crowd’, but the audience gives as much attention to the new stuff as the old. Which is nice.
I’ve had issues with this room in previous years, with murky sound and bad lighting, but everything is spot on this time. All the curtains are tightly shut and no daylight gets in to distract us and the sound is – where I am up in the balcony, at least – clear and sharp.
It’s fortunate, for me at least, that I skip out early and head down to the newly named Cult Never Dies stage because the tiny room is destined to fill up at silly speed for the mighty Hundred Year Old Man, the first of my Category A bands. As I approach I hear a loud banging and growling noise. Either the bears are fighting amongst the bins again or Leeched are still playing in the Tone Mgmt stage next door.
I’m lucky, I get in. Many don’t. I’m still not entirely sure how, but I manage to get to the front in time for a brief lean against the barrier before HYOM enter to the sound of an ominous drone and an earth-disturbing rumble that I can feel deep in my well-padded bones. Then suddenly it’s all dark and fog and strobing lights and simply IMMENSE crushing post-metal glory, like Amenra blended with the very heaviest of Bossk. I think – but don’t really care – that they only play three songs: something that might be new, ‘The Forest’ and a truly apocalyptic rendition of ‘Black Fire’. At one point the singer leaps the photo pit right beside me, roaring for a minute into the rapt faces of the crowd. Nice.
The only negative thing during the set is the person near me who will not stop farting. Whoever it is needs to seek medical help. Seriously, no-one should smell like that.
Despite that, Hundred Year Old Man are nothing less than spectacular. As with Wren last year, we might have just seen the highlight of the festival early. It will take something extra special to top that.
My plan was to head out after HYOM to see Fukpig but, because I absolutely refuse to leave until the very last note has died, the room next door is already rammed and I can see nothing3. I can hear them but I can’t see them, and what I can hear isn’t enough to keep me there looking at the back of some big hairy guy’s neck, so I revert to Plan B and head off to see what Caligula’s Horse have to offer.
And what these five smart young Australians in their smart black vests have to offer is undemanding technical metal, efficiently played and pleasing to the crowd. I can’t name any of the songs they play, apart from the set closer ‘Bloom’, which turns out, after a sincere intro speech about loving one another, and metal being about ‘we’ and not ‘I’, to be something of an epic, heartfelt and soaring, but sadly it leaves me a bit cold. I have, I’m afraid, a low tolerance for extended guitar wankery of this sort, however technically proficient it might be4. To be fair, they’re not totally horrible, the audience enjoys them a great deal more than I do, and the sound and lights are still good.
My now crumbling plan was to go see Danish blackgazers MØL next, because they sound like something that could be right up my street, but downstairs the security folks are operating a ‘one out, one in’ policy at the door and the little room is already packed tight. I’m not going to stand for ages in a queue in the forlorn hope of getting in at the back for the last two minutes of their set, so I about-face and head up to the Jaegermeister Stage for the first time today to catch death metal veterans, Cancer.
Now, I’m no spring chicken myself, but Cancer are looking very old. They do their old-school death metal thing very well, but they seem, to me anyway, to be just going through the motions. There’s no sense of menace or danger or even fun, but the room is well filled and nobody else seems to mind. Maybe I’m just a little bit disconnected, up here on the balcony looking down on the crowd.
“Does anybody want some ‘Tasteless Incest’?” asks the singer. That’s the final straw and I head out, just as the fire alarm goes off. Everybody else heads out with me. Whether or not Cancer return to finish their set, I can’t say, as I leave them to it and make my way back to the Eyesore stage for OHHMS.
Now, I saw OHHMS for the first time a few years back in this very building, downstairs in the Mine, and very good they were too. They don’t seem to have changed much – singer Paul still has only tentative control of his limbs and hasn’t found his shoes yet, bass player Chainy still has that baby shoe hanging from his instrument, and they’re still damned good. Their crunchy, sludgy, doomy stoner-y sound has, perhaps, evolved and matured, but the songs are still long, complex and loud. Chainy vanishes into the crowd early on in the set, and just carries on playing, as is his wont. I can hear him, but can’t see him. There’s just a turbulent patch in the audience, and I guess that’s where he is. He reappears just in time for an unexpected quiet interlude, ending with Paul calling out, sans mic, “Here I am! Here I am!” before exploding once again into something epic and pummelling.
I’m not so familiar with OHHMS that I can identify their songs, but setlist.fm suggests that they play only two songs today, ‘Subjects’ from their new album, and an oldie, ‘The Anchor’. I checked, and that adds up to about 40 minutes, so I have no reason to argue. I could argue, however, that the song lyrics are not easy to decipher in the live setting so, unfortunately, their messages on animal testing are pretty much lost. Still, the power of the music remains.
I’ve seen Rosetta before, here at Damnation some years ago, and they were fine, but NOTHING could have prepared me for how good they are tonight. When I arrive, they’re sound checking and the building crowd is largely ignoring them. Then, with almost no warning, one of them, that guitarist over there on the left, approaches his mic and says “Thanks for hanging out, we’re Rosetta” and they just erupt and they are awesome. They play the very heftiest of post-rock with raging post-hardcore vocals. They are aggressive and emotional and utterly captivating. Singer Mike Armine, like OHHMS’ Chainy before him, disappears into the audience and is met with hugs and smiles. The crowd loves him and wants to touch him and he seems genuinely humbled, making heart signs with his hands when he eventually regains the stage. I have no idea what song it is that Rosetta are playing when he does so, but it turns right there into one of the most crushingly beautiful things I have ever heard on a stage. I am not ashamed to say that your grizzled old writer sheds a small tear of joy and he doesn’t care.
The plan from here was originally to go see hypno-doom/drone improvisers Bong, but there’s no way I’m leaving Rosetta early. Having decided that there will be no chance of getting into the Cult Never Dies room I opt for an early visit to Tone Mgmt to get a good pitch for Celeste. I arrive just in time to see the last minute or so of Scottish blackened folk-metallers Saor, and I wish I could’ve seen more because they were really rather fine. Oh well.
I’ve been told – warned, really – that Celeste will play in almost total darkness, illuminated only by head torches and occasional strobe lights, and so it proves. With the addition of thick, thick smoke. I can’t easily assign a genre to the mysterious Frenchmen, but everything they do is dark. Dark and grim and relentless, a blur of blackened noise. No light, no shade, just dark, and however impressive it may be, the bleakness wears after a while. Another time and another place, and I would stand hypnotized by Celeste, but not today.
It’s something of a toss-up as to who I’ll try to see next. In the end, I decided that A Forest of Stars are closer than Entombed A.D., and at least I’ll be able to get in to see them if I duck out of Celeste a few minutes early. Which is what I do. But even so, there’s already a hefty crowd in the Mine and I can’t really get close to the stage. Sadly, they turn out to be a bit of a letdown.
Just looking at them, in their steam-punky brocade coats and twirly moustaches, I was hoping for something unusual, a bit baroque, perhaps. But what I get, after a pre-recorded acapella folk song intro, is a set of straightforward death-ish metal overlaid with an irritatingly screechy layer of violin and keyboards. They do, however, get the award for the biggest band of the weekend, with a membership of seven5. The violinist looks totally Italian but when she speaks her voice is pure Yorkshire, and the singer has excellent mad starey eyes.
So, it’s to be Entombed A.D. after all.
It’s been a long day and things are getting a bit blurry. My notes, such as they are, are becoming less and less sensible, often just a series of snarky remarks, which is less than helpful. I need a break, but let’s do Entombed first.
They’re another of those bands, like Cancer, who seem to have been around, in one shape or another, for ever. And some of them look it. In this iteration, there are three young-ish chaps with nice hair, one older guy with very little hair who stomps about the stage barking, and there’s a drummer at the back who looks quite old but whose hair I cannot comment upon. The bass player has particularly spectacular hair, and I am stupidly envious. They play songs that are loud and violent and fast, occasionally very fast. I have no clue what the songs are about, but it’s probably tanks and fighting and fighting with tanks. They seem to be enjoying themselves immensely, and the crowd certainly is. Downstairs, I watch many large men pushing each other about quite roughly. It looks like a fight, but is what you young people call a ’mosh-pit’. I’m told it’s a lot of fun, and I’m sure it is.
I REALLY need a break now, so I skip the next band, whoever it might be6, and just sit quietly waiting for Ihsahn, trying to make some sense of my notes7.
I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting from Ihsahn but, whatever it was, it’s not what I see before me. They look like the staff of a trendy architect’s office, neatly turned out and trimmed. The man himself, dressed all in black, with his neat beard, sensible specs and tidy little man-bun, shows no sign of his corpse-painted early days in Emperor. Their material tonight, too, is very clean. Maybe too clean. Clinical, even. It’s a set which, apparently, leans heavily on their more recent stuff, an odd mix of prog, electronica and black metal. It’s all very… efficient. The smoke and the lighting are effective. The crowd is obviously appreciative but relatively subdued. There is none of the frenzied moshing seen in the Entombed crowd, just a lot of head-nodding and restrained hand waving. Yeah, Ihsahn is OK, but I’m not excited. Maybe it’s because I’m tired, or maybe they’re just not particularly exciting8.
Unlike The Ocean. Who are simply outstanding. I’ve seen them a number of times now, in venues big and small9, and tonight’s show is probably their best yet.
Obvioiusly, having only just released a new album, a hefty chunk of their set is brand new but there’s no conflict between that and the old stuff. There’s no uncertain head-scratching from the crowd. It all fits, it all flows together perfectly. It’s a magnificent, towering performance, crushing and powerful and beautiful.
I’m curious as to how singer Loic will manage his traditional leap into the audience, there being no convenient balcony or other launching pad, but he solves the problem with a simple headlong run and dive over the pit into the welcoming arms of the crowd. Those same arms bear him aloft until he makes his way back into the rolling fog on stage. Great stuff.
They are joined on stage by touring partners Rosetta’s Mike Armine for one song10, and I’m struck by the similarity between the two singers. Both wiry and energetic, passionate and possessed of larger voices than their frames might suggest.
The Ocean own the room. Their performance, the sound, the lights, it’s all bang on. My only beef is the thick, thick fog on stage. Sure, it adds ‘atmosphere’ but is so much really necessary? They have, as far as I can tell, a very large and, no doubt, very expensive backdrop up there, but it’s barely visible. It doesn’t affect the music, to be fair, but it just seems a waste.
And finally, Napalm Death. There’s not a lot to say about Napalm Death, really. They do what they do, and they do it very well. They play a selection of old songs, and some very old songs, going right back to their first record. They play, of course, a cover of ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’. They, Barney in particular, play like men half their age. Songs are interspersed with humorous and/or political banter, as expected. Napalm Death do, as it were, exactly what it says on the tin. And the crowd goes wild.
It is, to be fair, an excellent and exhilarating end to a long day.
The way that Damnation is, there’s no way that everybody is going to be happy with every band in the line-up, but only serious nit-pickers will complain. There’s enough variety to keep every fan occupied for the day, and to make the very reasonable door tax value for anybody’s money. There’s been bands I loved, bands I really didn’t, and a lot in between, and it will have been exactly the same for everybody. Let’s hope that the Damnation philosophy never changes.11
- This could go horribly wrong…
- Just the one this year. Steak & Henderson’s Relish, which turns out to be chicken curry. Very nice, but not what I’m expecting.
- I think I mentioned something earlier about plans and reality? Yes, that.
- One of my many character flaws. Please refer to CAVEAT above.
- Seven and a half, really, because the bass player is fucking huge.
- Turns out to be either Batushka or Monuments, both of whom will just have to soldier on without the benefit of my opinion. I’m sure they’ll cope.
- This is harder than it sounds. I almost never make notes at gigs, but today I have 13 pages of nonsense, mostly scrawled down in darkness, and my handwriting is appalling at the best of times…
- To be fair, the main reason I was determined to catch Ihsahn is that my son really likes them, and I wanted to be able to say “I’ve seen them and you haven’t. Ha, ha!” Because I’m a dick.
- And, in one case, VERY small. That, dear reader, was an unforgettable experience, let me tell you!
- I’m told it is ‘Orosirian: For the Great Blue Now Reigns’
- As I write, tickets have already gone on sale for Damnation 2019 and are selling fast. A headliner has been booked, and is promised to be the biggest ever. Can. Not. Wait.