Sunday, 7 December 2014

Live Review: Damnation Festival 2014, 10th Anniversary @ Leeds University Union, 1st November 2014

Today is not your typical day for me, being a husband and father of two kids under four, the days are few where I'm not spending time with them, therefore on those rare occasions where my children have flown the coup (e.g. staying with their grandparents) you need to make the most of your downtime. I speak of this because I listen to metal in solitude, as many of you reading this will attest too and now the ghouls and witches have been vanquished following Halloween the day previous, it is with the utmost excitement that I have a day of heavy metal carnage to enthuse and enrich me, and it will unequivocally without interruption from my beautiful children.  Nov 1st is metal head nirvana. 26 bands, four stages, Leeds Met University, this can only mean, Damnation Festival 2014

Now in its 10th year, there is much to celebrate for the organisers, since the inaugural event took place at Jillys Rockworld, Manchester. As we hit 88 mph in our Deloreans and head back in time, a mere 10 yrs previous, £13 would have got you 15 bands, 2 stages and the likes of Raging Speedhorn, Forever Never (whatever happened to them?) and Entombed, fast forward to 2014 and with a sell out capacity of 4000, Damnation Fest continues to excel in delivering a mixture of new cutting edge music, alongside the vanguard of futures past.  As the metal legions flock to Yorkshire, the festival is more than just an appreciation of music, it is a social gathering of music lovers, who share a common love of beautiful and ugly music, perhaps seeing each other but once a year, but congregate here to listen, to worship, to drink, to bang your head, but more importantly to be part of the encompassing sense of affiliation within your peers, you adore this music.  Today, folks I am not alone.   

Heading over to Leeds, the day starts early, 7am to be exact. I have my timings worked out in my head, catch a Bus to City Centre 9am, coach to Leeds 10am, arrive there around 11am, get to venue around 12pm, relax and wait for friends to arrive, problem being we’ve never met each other, but that’s only a minor detail (ill worry about that when I get there).  Upon arrival the venue is buzzing, people milling around inside and out, checking out merchandise.  I’m sweating as I’ve walked 40 minutes having got lost on the way, but hell, a beer will rectify that. 

The 4 stages are on 3 levels, one down a flight stairs (Terrorizer Stage), and down again to another (Eyesore Stage) and then there is two on the main level, (PHD Stage) and (Jagermiester Stage).  When you enter the venue, what is striking, is that the layout is very ordered and well organised, it feels a little disorienting at first, because you’re ushered in one direction to begin with, but as the first band got things underway, the atmosphere is suitably relaxed.  With bands playing on two levels, you have to head downstairs for lesser known bands and then back up to the main level to see those on the main stage.  At times, things bottleneck when fans exit from downstairs but that’s a very minor criticism.  Alcohol was adequately priced and given that the stages were on two levels, it didn’t feel oppressive in terms of the amount of people around, indeed with bars in the general vicinity of the stages, many people choose to camp out in one area until the acts on the main stage start. 

With my friends scheduled to arrive around 3ish, Corrupt Moral Altar kicked things off at 1pm on the PHD stage and having seen them put in a stellar performance supporting Conan earlier in the year, I had high hopes that things would be suitably malignant today.  Given that their music is so angular and chaotic, there is a need for a crisp sound mix in order to fully appreciate them, but unfortunately for me they suffered from a muddy sound, guitars were swallowed up and despite a typically muscular performance, the drums just buried everything, which in turn left me feeling disappointed.   This is not to detract from the band, who are great, but on the whole, not the best start.

I was hoping things would improve as I headed downstairs to the Eyesore Merch Stage for Bast.  By weird coincidence, Bast were also on the same bill CMA were, supporting Conan earlier in the year, and my only disappointment at the time was that I missed the beginning of Bast’s set.  For me, Bast are one of the major success stories of this year, their blend of black metal/doom, has won them numerous plaudits and based on today’s performance, Bast consolidated my opinion that they’re set for a bright future.  Drawing an impressive crowd for such an early performance, their sound was incredible, I’m talking studio quality.  Clean guitars were crisp, vocals the right amount of anguish and angst, to top it all off ‘fucking massive riffs’.  These guys are impressive and for me, set the benchmark for all subsequent performances of the day.   Having clocked in an impressive amount of road miles in support of Conan in 2014, an impressive debut record under their belts and festival appearance booked in for 2015 already; expect big things from these guys in the future, I for one, can only wait in anticipation for new material too.

With such an impressive crowd downstairs, I had to jostle my way through the hoards and make my way upstairs for the first band on the main stage.  With October File being conspicuous by their absence (due to an unfortunate accident), Dyscarnate stepped into the breach as opening act on the Jagermeister stage.  Fresh from their performance the previous day at the warm up party for Damnation, this wrecking crew put in a noteworthy performance, admittedly my love of death metal is limited at best, but they delivered a tight and solid performance, perhaps more on the side of brutal death, rather than old school death. (Note, I have limited knowledge in this genre).  Given the technicality of their music, they clearly have the chops in abundance and for me this is to be commended given they’re a 3 piece.  Having reissued their previous records within the last 12 months and with new material on the horizon, if Dyscarnate continue to deliver performances such as this, then they have a bright future.  As a friend said later in the day and I paraphrase, Dyscarnate are not a band I would not return to again and again, but deliver music of high quality, and are good are what they do. 

The beauty and the curse of any festival is the sheer amount of music, not to mention that as the day progresses the timings of performances kinda bottle neck and your ability to skip from one stage to another becomes more difficult.  Following Dyscarnate’s performance, I meet up with fellow Sludgelord scribe Richard Maw and we shoot the shit in the bar, having a drink, trying to cement a friendship started way back when he first started writing reviews 2 yrs ago.  Indeed, the beauty of appreciating this type of music, is the formation of friendships such as this, not talking for ages, then immediately being able to converse about the last great record you heard, the last vinyl you bought or the last gig you attended, the heavy metal scene is truly unique in this regard and it is at this point when it becomes apparent that I am likely to focus my attention more on the main stage acts, then buzzing around trying to catch every band in the house.  I mean, 26 bands, one day, come on!!  I am, but one man. 

After a 35 minute interval, during which time, Aeon and Black Moth play on their respective stages, next up on the main stage is Stampin’ ground. Circle pits abound and dare I say it, the most fucking fun had all day. With the crowd firmly in the palm of his hand, front man Adam Frakes-Sime splits the crowd down the middle from front to back to make the biggest pit of the day. Their set is a real highlight and having reformed this year for a string of dates including Sonisphere, they are clearly enjoying every minute of it.   Having toured with the likes of Anthrax, The Haunted, Soulfly and Sick of it All in the past, they clearly have pedigree and were revered back in the day, and perhaps didn’t get the credit they deserve.  Based on today’s performance, with their blend of groove laden hardcore, they got the crowd going, played their hearts out and their enthusiasm for what they were doing was infectious.  Finishing off their set with a nice Biohazard tribute, Stampin’ Ground left a lasting impression and may have earned a few more followers whilst they were at it.  Nice one Damnation, kudos for booking them.  (N.B. Check out the band Romeo Must Die, great band, featuring former members of SG)

The must see band of the day for me, was Raging Speedhorn, who were up next on the Main stage.  Having headlined the very first Damnation 10 years, it is fitting that these guys from Corby return to play, indeed it feels like 2014 is the right time for this band to return, such is the bristling sludge scene in the UK at the moment.  Raging Speedhorn exploded onto the scene way back in 2000, reaching the heady heights of the UK Singles chart in 2001 with their song ‘The Gush’, but for me, it was with the release of their debut full length ‘Raging Speedhorn’ that I really took notice of the band, having a sound reminiscent of Eyehategod and Iron Monkey, there really wasn’t many bands like them at the time.  With an incredible follow up ‘We Will All Be Dead Tomorrow’, produced by members of Biohazard, Speedhorn were destined for great things.  Following the release of their 3rd record ‘How The Great Have Fallen’ Frank Regan split from the band in 2005, to be replaced by Blood Kev of Helvis fame (ex-Iron Monkey members) and they subsequently released one further record ‘Before The Sea Was Built’ in 2007, a record which strayed from their original sludge sound.  That is their history but fast forward back to 2014, and their arrival on stage today, almost feels like a rebirth, this is their spiritual home and ‘Speedhorn have come to destroy.  Kicking things of with ‘Knives & Faces’, the opening refrain is lapped up by the crowd, and for me it is particularly exciting to see Frank Reagan back on vocals and he does not disappoint, cap tied to belt, trading vocals with his demented sidekick John Loughlin, looking like the guy, you least want to spill his pint.  To coin a phrase, they’re ‘on point’ from the start. A personal favourite ‘SuperScud’ is 3 songs in, by which time, the band is in full flow, the trading vocals are just brilliant, with Loughlin having some banter with the crowd.  There is even a nod to the brimming UK scene with Loughlin sporting a Gurt t-shirt, ensuring that at least one member of the audience will leave the venue with a Cheshire Cat grin.  The aptly titled ‘Hate Song’, exudes well, Hatred, we get ‘Fuck The Voodooman’, ‘Scrapin the Resin’, their hit ‘The Gush’ and my personal favourite ‘Thumper’.  Playing 11 songs in total, Raging Speedhorn came, they destroyed, job done and if Carling made metal bands from Corby, this would probably be the best band in the world.

Talking via various social networks, a band within the stoner doom scene that is almost certain to crop up in conversation is Orange Goblin, and rightly so to be honest, they have worked their balls off to get to point where they are doing this full time.  For me, I have always felt slightly underwhelmed by them, alternatively Ben Ward’s tenure with Ravens Creed fucking ripped.  Listen to ‘Stand up and be Cunted’, then come back and see me.  I first saw OG at Hammerfest a few years back, the crowd adored them, but again I felt there was something missing in there performance.  Undoubtedly what they do, they do well, great riffs, swagger, a towering Thor like front man, in essence they are a class act, but I just think I am destined not to love them.  I don’t dislike them, I am just indifferent to them and based on their performance this evening, they didn’t change my opinion.  Of course, there are probably 3000 people who will say OG slayed, but for me they didn’t really grab me and that is what is important, a band needs to suck you in and to be honest, they didn’t.  I wanted to love it, but regrettably Orange Goblin disappointed, but again it is a subjective opinion and based on the fact 3000 people were going nuts, Orange Goblin’s performance was a triumph.  There’s nothing not to like, but for me, they’re missing that special something. (Cheers Phil)

I left before the end of Orange Goblin’s set, as I wanted to catch Anaal Nathrakh downstairs on the Terrorizer stage but it was tighter that a nat’s arse, it was packed and to be honest, it wasn’t enjoyable, so after a few tracks I headed back upstairs, to catch Monarch, and holy fuck did I make the right decision.  Honestly, words can’t describe how disgustingly bleak they were, it was blacker than black but I loved it.   There is a undoubted paradox about Monarch, in the sense they are fronted by a diminutive blond angel of a front woman, with a vocal delivery at odds and contradictory to what you might expect, indeed such is the confliction it defies common belief, Monarch are unrepentant in their harsh approach, this is not music for people of a sunny disposition or someone who is sickened or disturbed by unpleasantness or challenge, this is music to upset and nauseate.  Monarch deliver cavernous and mighty bass riffs, that drone on for days, you get slow drum lines traded against Emilie Bresson’s terrifyingly emotional vocal style ranging from tortured screams to calming and evocative chanting.  Monarch’s performance is certainly an ordeal for the listener and will not be to everyone’s taste, but to me, they delivered a truly blistering and intense performance.  Enthralling stuff.  A side note to their performance was that Air France had misplaced all of their gear, so they were forced borrow instruments and amps from other bands.  For that Monarch get the band of the day for me. 

By the end Monarch’s set it is around 8pm, by which time my energy reserves were in need of a much needed boost, doom stalwarts Saint Vitus were next up and it was a case of the masters showing how it was done.  Those expecting bundles of energy from the band would have been disappointment, it was a case of less is more and they delivered a measured performance.  Star award of the day, goes to Henry Vasquez on drums, he was at the cornerstone of everything that was good about Vitus, he was having a blast behind the kit, playing like his life depended on it but at the same time, messers Chandler, Adams and Weinrich were somewhat reserved, with the aforementioned Wino on vocals seemingly disinterested at times, which was a shame, given that I hold him in such high regard.  It is not every day you see a band like St. Vitus on stage, it is one for the bucket list of all doom fans and on the whole they sounded amazing, Chandler’s riffs sounding at fresh as the day they were written, but Adams on bass seemed to be going through the motions.  I mean I was not expecting tons of energy, but presentation was a little dreary at times and coupled with my own dwindling energy levels, I made the painful decision to leave the festival and make my way home back to Sheffield. 

In terms of the festival there was music to cater for pretty much every musical taste, but by 9.10pm I was honestly knackered and given that I am not particular enamored by death metal, I decided not to battle through the masses to catch Cannibal Corpse or Bolt Thrower, yes, you may well shout ‘You idiot’ at the top of your lungs, but honestly I saw the bands I wanted to see and left Damnation tired, but enthused about what I had witnessed.  CMA, Bast, Dyscarnate, Stampin’ Ground, Raging Speedhorn, Orange Goblin, Monarch, St. Vitus.  16 hours, one bus, one coach, good banter, several beers, one Damnation Burger, 8 bands, one train, one taxi, arrive home at 1am.  Tell me that is not a good day?!!  Damnation Festival, Becky Laverty you guys rule, thanks for the invitation and I will hopefully see you next year if you’ll have me back, it is going to take me that long to recover. Stay heavy. 

Words by: Aaron Pickford