Review by Paul Castles, photos by Rich Thompson
Leeds University is an acclaimed haven of academia. One day a year though the students are forced to take a backseat when 4,000 metalheads with an appetite for exceptional music descend from all points of the compass for the Damnation Festival.
Almost 30 bands rise to the occasion across four separate stages with the trigger on the metaphorical starting pistol being pulled this year by The King Is Blind. I saw these Suffolk firebrands open for Winterfylleth at the Rainbow in Birmingham recently. Here on the Terrorizer Stage, in front of a considerably larger crowd, they showed that they were more than worthy of the billing.
They’ve come a long way in a short time with Damnation added to an impressive CV that already boasts slots at the likes of Bloodstock and Temples in Bristol. But then although they’re a new band, these fellas know their onions with individual CVs including spells with Cradle of Filth and New Model Army for starters. With singer Steve Tovey doing his best to engage with the lunchtime crowd, The King Is Blind whipped through a number of songs from debut full length release Our Father. Taking Milton’s Paradise Lost as its reference point, the songs are splattered with more Satan calling cards than an Exorcist convention. When Steve bellows ‘ready for another song about the devil’ the horns instantly go up to signify approval.
What’s Damnation for if it’s not for songs about the fire-breathing horn headed beast? After the The King is Blind’s full-blooded metal assault it was time to seek out some of the other early risers at Leeds University.
Deep in the bowels of the campus you’ll find the Electric Amphetamine Stage. The first act up on this pint-sized platform were the Oxfordshire quartet Undersmile. This bunch caused quite a ripple in the doom pond with their album Anhedonia. It’s mind numbing sonic waves navigate Undersmile down the drone drive as much as the fractionally more tangible doom.
Shunning the conventional satanic references, the desperation and hollow emptiness found within Undersmile songs comes from stone cold reality rather than mysticism or mythology. If you doubt the earnestness of this baring of the soul just look at the sunken vacant expressions of the two female singers Hel and Taz. Contorted with angst as though the crippling despair of their songs is driving a stake through their heart, their softly spoken mumbles and whimpers cast a weeping cloud of despair around the room. This is intermittently broken by their banshee cries that penetrate the silence with crucifying conviction.
Undersmile are never going to conquer the world with songs this unforgiving but to hear them live is to get transported into a place where the pulse of life itself is stripped from the vortex of your soul. Catching bands such as Undersmile for the very first time is one of the unadulterated joys of Damnation and it was repeated a little later when those gathered at the Terrorizer Stage bore witness to the astonishing UK debut of Belgium black metal trio Weigedood.
The three musicians involved in this slab of blackened slate have all served time with other acts. In fact singer Levy was also performing on the day with Amenra. Weigedood, which would surely win you a good points score on Countdown, refers to infant death mortality syndrome. That’s a subject dark and desperate enough to contend with in anyone’s book and the band’s impact is sufficiently savage to do justice to their name. Performing the entire set against a bewitching red glow, Weigedood’s pummelling black metal was masterly in its conviction, combining great coruscating channels of riffs coupled with Levy’s animated croaks.
Their debut full length release, De Doden Hebben Het Goed, is not far short of black metal paradise, and that’s pretty much how it felt watching them go about their business here.
Next up on the same stage were Voices, recently seen in Birmingham on the same Winterfylleth Rainbow date as The King Is Blind. Once again, a constant flow of charcoal flavoured grooves were sent spiralling from the Terrorizer Stage by the Londoners.
Meanwhile, back at the Electric Amphetamine Stage, Sea Bastard were stripped to the bone both musically and physically. Tatts, hair and full-on doom that was as hefty and methodical as a manatee surfing the ocean.
With four stages to cover, and numerous backstage interview commitments, catching every band was an impossible task. For that reason my first visit to the Jagermeister Stage was not until Solstafir who were playing early in the evening. Promoted to the main stage after packing out the Eyesore Merch Stage a year ago, the Norwegians were as beguiling as ever with a deftness of delivery few acts can come close to. As usual singer Addi Tryggvason found time for a few lines of self-deprecating humour.
The conviction was just as palpable on the Terrorizer Stage where Dutch veterans Asphyx delivered arguably the most brutal performance of the day. Combining death metal blasts with the occasional doomier number, the Dutch destroyers whipped the pit up into a heaving mass with bodies spilling over the barrier with almost production line efficiency. This was their first non-London UK show and they’ve only played the capital twice before so there was a real sense of occasion surrounding their pulverizing performance as they raged through songs such as ‘Death Hammer’ and ‘Forgotten War’.
There was no need for front of stage security at the Electric Amphetamine Stage for the appearance of The Wounded Kings. For many fans this was the first time they’d seen the Dartmoor doomlords since the return of original singer George Birch, following the departure of Sharie Neyland.
There’s no doubt that the dynamic of the band has undergone a change with Sharie’s ethereal wispiness replaced by a testosterone injection that has added a heavier more aggressive element to the sound. As always the band grip the audience at their heaviest moments and with a new album expected in the New Year, the Kings’ reign of crushing doom terror is unlikely to abate anytime soon.
The band squeezing them in at the Eyesore Merch Stage this year was the eclectic Japanese instrumentalists Mono. With a mesmerisng new EP just released in Transcendental, the Tokyo quartet’s shimmering swathes of aural angst are earning them a loyal following. Something of an unusual sight on stage with two guitarists seated, along with the drummer, leaving the spotlight on Tamaki Kunishi, resplendent in a scarlet dress, and the only band member playing standing up.
Mono’s incredibly poignant power surges were complemented by an inspired light show that helped elevate the experience to an almost spiritual level that was as moving as anything witnessed at Damnation on the day.
And for those preferring to end the night with a more conventional full on metal attack then of course headliners At The Gates were happy to oblige, putting on a stunning set full of melodic menace before a massive crowd gathered in front of the Jagermeister Stage.
You’d struggle to find such a fantastic one-dayer as Damnation anywhere in Europe.