Ritual Festival @ Canal Mills, Armley, Leeds

Posted by vibrations on 18-04-16

It takes a brave man to set up a new festival in the already super crowded market of local, niche festivals. Although there’s no doubt the UK is awash with bands and artists from all genres eager to play them, these things stand or fall based on how many punters will actually pay to go to them, and the calendar is littered with casualties both big and small where the numbers just didn’t add up. Ritual Festival organiser Dan Vaughan decided to open his account with an ambitious full day of (broadly speaking) death and doom metal bands, with the core of the line-up made up of some of the best bands operating in the UK underground scene just now. On paper it’s a winner, then….

Appropriately, Leeds death/thrashers Cryptic Shift get to open the whole event, on the Terroriser main stage no less, with a well drilled set that showed no sign of the four piece being overawed by the experience. Similarly, Sheffield doomy hardcore quartet Carbine did a good job of thawing out the Cvlt Nation branded second stage, singer Alex McKinnon’s wired moves and range of vocal techniques providing a focus for the fierce riffs and breakdowns.

With the ice broken, OHHMS set the first bomb under the festival with a particularly gnarly and wholly committed rendition of their apocalyptic hybrid of drone, noise and doom. The band approach each performance as a ritual, singer Paul Waller in particular seeming to achieve some kind of out of body experience, with the whole band channelling the primal physicality of the music in a mad shape throwing slam ballet. It may be (deliberately) crude and primitive, but few bands can bring the hammer down as effectively and decisively as OHHMS.

Back on the small stage, guitar and bass proggy doom duo Sloth supplement their slow and methodical tunes with drum machine and guitar samples (Pink Floyd?), but the riffs are laborious and there’s not much evidence of musical imagination or invention. By complete contrast, 40 Watt Sun play songs that are spacious, elongated examinations of raw emotion and melancholy. Patrick Walker’s songs are quite simply exquisite, a fact enhanced rather than undermined by the funereal pace, sparse instrumentation and naked arrangements. They’re songs for grown-ups who listen, really, which is probably why Walker seemed a bit disgruntled by the audible inane chatter that formed an unwelcome background to the set. Back in Cvlt Nation, Chesterfield quartet Revelations may claim to play death metal, but their ragged yet absolutely committed take on the genre has a huge dollop of the snot nosed fuck you-ness of punk about it. Future innovators, or merely a bottle rocket? Time will tell.

Striding confidently into view as the first in a stunning string of bands from here until lights out, Hang the Bastard deliver a ferocious set of intense doom that’s leavened with a healthy injection of hardcore. Sadly, last month, after nine years of operations, the band announced they were splitting and this show was part of a short farewell tour. Still, fortunately there are a slew of new bands coming up eager to fill the gap, prime contenders being Leeds power doom trio BongCauldron, who are gradually ratcheting up the intensity of both their songs and live performances. The Cvlt Nation room is rammed and the band get a well-deserved raucous reception from the hometown crowd. Soon after in the same room, psychedelic doomers Slabdragger keep the crushing low end vibe going with a set that consists of just two, epic pieces. The bands recent second album Rise of the Dawncrusher confirmed them as one of the key metal bands in the UK just now, and their live shows are merely cementing that status. Awesome.

Lincoln’s Martyr Defiled were hobbled by regular band member issues (a last minute pick up drummer to cover for the regular drummer who’d double booked himself at a wedding, and one of the guitarists had chopped his finger off the day before) and although their glossy hardcore death didn’t seem to suffer much as a result, the band’s shiny, clean edges seemed at odds with the fuzzy, sludgey smudge vibe of general proceedings. The contrast was particularly sharp in comparison to US drums and guitar/noise duo The Body, whose extreme take on doom is utterly predictable in its use of relentless repetition but at the same time such a slippery thing to gain any kind of firm purchase on. It’s a bit like falling into a vast, disorientating whirlpool of sonic suction. This is a good thing. And then there’s Conan, who are quite simply heaviosity incarnate. Guitarist Jon Davis is framed by a huge bank of green amps, and it’s quite possible the flapping of his exposed locks is being caused solely by the deep and relentless air pressure pulsing from his amplification. Bassist Chris Fielding finishes the set with a blood spattered bass, fingers shredded.

Penultimate band on the Terroriser stage are US experimental grind/noise quartet Full of Hell, who are touring in a frankly jaw dropping pairing with The Body just now. Like their touring mates, Full of Hell exploit the basic conventions of the grindcore genre (extreme speed, frantic cut-up arrangements and shrieked and/or guttural vocals) but imposes a radical aesthetic on its execution. So, the set is made up of extended passages of nerve jangling ambient tension that abruptly erupt into furious explosions of mad, highly controlled noise. But while the elements may be familiar, Full of Hell seem to put them together in ways no other band could possibly conceive of to create utterly unique music. Exhausting. Hull quartet Black Tongue finish up proceedings on Cvlt Nation with a suitably crushing set of doomy hardcore, singer Alex Teyen channelling the palpable tension the band generate through an intensely physical, eyeball rolling performance. And like several other bands on the bill, Black Tongue are not averse to mixing in elements that continue to stretch metal and bend it into new shapes.

Headliners Grave are celebrating 30 years of operations this year (we’ll ignore the five years hiatus in the late 90’s) and as such, unlike every other band at Ritual, have a lengthy history with roots in the origins of death metal. And although it’s much more of an old school affair, the band remain a vital force, with last year’s Out of Respect for the Dead album showing little diminution in the bands creativity and commitment.

So, on paper it may have looked good, but in actuality it was a fantastic day of top quality bands playing adventurous music that cheerfully and ear splittingly defied the supposed boundaries of whatever the terms ‘doom’ and ‘death’ metal mean anymore, and we can only hope that Ritual becomes a permanent feature of the festival season in Leeds. Organisationally it was a massive success, with the Grave set starting only 20 minutes or so late. The only negative points were, the strict 30 minute set slots most bands were limited to meant that some bands (OHHMS, Slabdragger and, in particular, 40 Watt Sun) had to stop before they’d really got going (thus diminishing their full impact), and the total absence of hot drinks played havoc with some people’s caffeine levels……just saying……

Steve Walsh