Damnation Festival 2015 @ Leeds University

Posted by vibrations on 11-11-15

Now easing itself into its second decade, Damnation Festival has become one of the key stops on the annual festival circuit and an essential one for anyone wanting to explore the current state of metal. It’s a compact, tightly run event and packs a massive amount of top quality music into the relatively small space (squeezing in four stages) of the Leeds University Union building without much in the way of congestion or, apart from the Eyesore Merchandise Stage, restricted access for particular bands. As ever, the variety of music on offer is astonishing and it remains an important and prestigious outlet for upcoming bands.

This year the joint honours for opening the festival fall to London prog/post metal quartet Tacoma Narrows Bridge Disaster on the Eyesore Merch Stage, and East Anglian death quintet The King is Blind on the Terroriser Stage, as stark a contrast as you could expect. TNBD manage to be epic without being overblown, a talent which is definitely a blessing wherever prog tendencies creep into a bands modus operandi. The music hums with a constant undercurrent of tension, and there’s not much that’s delicate about their sound, which is based on a fluid sonic movement around and between crunching riffs. The band, like the genre in general, are a bit stuck on the gradually unfolding extended crescendo format though. By contrast The King Blind relish the task before them and their efficient but bang on death metal is just the thing to kick start a festival. "Here's another song about Satan!” bellows singer Steve Tovey towards the end, “Do you WANT another song about Satan?" “YEEEESSSSS!!” everybody screams, a forest of horned salutes extended at the stage, much to Tovey’s delight.

Opening Electric Amphetamine Stage, Oxfordshire drone doom quartet Undersmile don’t get dealt the best of deals. Although the band are given a massive bass and guitar wall of sound courtesy of the Sound Man, the vocals for the most part struggle to be heard above the noise. One of the chief pleasures of Undersmile’s music is the juxtaposition between the ultra-slow pace of that thickly bass heavy sound and the, frankly, weird melodies and harmonies coming from singer/guitarists Hel Sterne and Taz Corona-Brown. It helps to give the band one of the most unsettling and disorientating sounds in metal (or any kind of music for that matter), and while they may be an acquired taste, they are one of the few truly original bands on offer throughout the whole day. And the way the two singers emphasise rather than try to downplay their femininity, both exploiting and undermining concepts of good/bad, innocent/corrupt girl images suggests a high level of artistic and conceptual awareness is at work too.

Stumbling across a band like Weigedood is what festivals are all about. This Dutch trio turn black metal into a profoundly hypnotic, almost spiritual experience, the twin guitars scything arcs of orchestrated metallic scree over the flooding, pummelling drums. Back at Electric Amphetamine, OHHMS barefoot singer Paul Waller’s shamanistic dance helps to summon and channel something primitive and brutal into existence through the bands giddily terrifying music, which mashes together elements of doom, sludge, drone and noise. All appears lost when an amp head blows up, but when it’s eventually fixed the band celebrate by ratcheting up the terror and drilling some utterly fearsome riffs into the ground. The band career around the stage possessed by demons, Waller happy to shriek and babble, eyes shut tight, six feet away from his mic, and they are laugh out loud brilliant. Waller is, for some reason, wearing an old Nuclear Assault t-shirt inside out.

Go figure.

Ostensibly the solo project of Frenchman Stephane Azam, C R O W N are an austere, somewhat aloof presentation of music that touches on several genre without being wholly of any. For this gig the band is a duo of custom built 8 string guitars utilising multiple custom effects and backed by a drum machine. There’s a ritualised progress across sections of caustic ambience and pummelling industrial riffs linked by the connective tissue of drones. Superficially a dry choreography of introspection, the accumulative effect is strangely human and uplifting.

It’s becoming obvious that Electric Amphetamine is the place to be, as Sea Bastard crank everything up to deliver a superlative demonstration of the power of slowed down sludgy doom. Guitarist and Illustrated Man Oliver Heart repeatedly jabs his forehead between the eyes as if to demonstrate where all this stuff is going to, or even coming from. The songs seem to go one for hours but the band collapse time to cram it all into a mere 40 minutes. By now it seems obvious leaving Electric Amphetamine would be foolish, and so it proves to be as Ghold step up next and play the best set of the entire festival. While the bands Of Ruin album earlier this year proved to be an object lesson in how to apply the creative musical imagination to limited resources, drummer Paul Antony and bassist Aleks Wilson have clearly decided they’d taken the approach as far as it could go and have recruited a guitarist. And the results are just extraordinary. The set seems to be either mostly new material or heavily adapted old stuff, but the levels of intensity, invention and power are just huge. At one point Wilson adopts a crucifixion pose like he’s being transported somewhere that’s not here by what the band are creating, and he’s not being hubristic at all. Intense, bludgeoning, sensuous, overwhelming.

From the sublime to the, well……… Icelandic epic metallers Sólstafir seem to have raided Fields Of the Nephilim’s wardrobe and glumly file on stage like dusty goth cowboys straight outta the 80’s. Which is weirdly fitting, because the first couple of songs sound like pumped up country and western, and this is before the banjo comes out. But generally speaking they sound like nothing so much as a bog standard rock band. Guns & Roses spring to mind….

For once, Electric Amphetamine doesn’t deliver; Witchsorrow do old school doom of the not massively imaginative kind but it’s played with the clawed hand salute of affection. In search of something more stimulating it proves to be found in the unlikely form of Dutch death metallers Asphyx. Despite being around in one form or another since 1987, this, they tell us, is the first time they’ve played in Yorkshire, which may explain the “Yorkshire! Yorkshire!!” chant that greets them. No matter, just coming off the back of a tour of South America, the band are musically ripped and supple of chops and scream through a thrilling set of explosive songs. The audience respond with deliriously chaotic circle mosh pit mayhem. Asphyx are fantastic, and I don’t even like Death Metal.

Back on the main stage US sludge doomers High On Fire continue the sonic assault with a merciless and relentless squall of guitar noise that initially seems to have only ghostly shapes of things in the form of songs at its centre. This is, however, not a problem. Mat Pike’s guitar and Jeff Matz’s bass produce enough between them to flatten buildings and it’s only towards the end that proper songs with riffs like sledgehammers come barrelling out of the electric fog with the velocity of a hardcore band. It’s alchemy, comrades. Perhaps it was a mistake to go straight from this to much lauded Japanese proggers Mono, because by Jupiter what a vacuous, insubstantial and hollow experience they turn out to be. The tunes are slight, the arrangements devoid of dynamics, and they seem to have mistaken not actually doing much worth listening to for subtlety. Simplicity is a state more musicians should probably aim for, but Mono are just simplistic.

And while all the other stages are terminating activities with something big and bold and noisy (probably), Electric Amphetamine winds up with the massively down tempo and unashamedly serious 40 Watt Sun, the vehicle for songwriter and guitarist Patrick Walker. The band’s approach is very much like that of Earth, with funereally slow tempos, spaces between the notes you could fit a broken heart into and a fine line in extended melodic lines, only the part of Dylan Carlson’s guitar is taken by Walker’s clear and steady tenor voice. And like Earth, 40 Watt Sun are closer to ancient folk and blues traditions than much of the rest of the line-up. The songs last for ten leisurely, luxurious minutes each, and are fully crafted compositions exquisitely played by Walker and his rhythm section, drummer Christian Leitch and bassist William Spong. After all the drunken madness, Walker returns the festival to an intimate, human level and reminds us that underneath all the babble and bravado we’re all mostly lost, broken or missing something.

Steve Walsh

On the Vibrations stereo...