Pumpehuset, Copenhagen, DEN - 21/4
Damnation Festival 2014Previous Next
author MST date 08/11/14
For a while now, it has been absolutely clear that the UK is the place to be for people with a taste in music similar to mine. The country has a ridiculous amount of classic acts, and the recent wave of British black metal includes many names that I've listened to and loved for a long time. A visit to London's Candlefest in 2013 proved that some of these bands are definitely capable performers, and returning to Denmark back then I knew I would be back for another UK festival at some point. That festival turned out to be this year's 10th anniversary of Damnation Festival.
Damnation Festival is a one-day indoor festival in Leeds. It is currently being held at the Leeds University Union, a surprisingly large location once you find your way around the many staircases and corridors. Our own EW visited the festival in 2012 and 2013, and this year I simply could not resist attending. With amazing bands like A Forest Of Stars, Ahab and Bolt Thrower among many others on what can only be called a ridiculous bill, it was almost as if the organisers were planning to get this Danish fellow to fly over specifically. I wasn't the only one who was blown away by the line-up though, as the festival ended up being sold out shortly before the event took place. That means some 4000 people at an indoor event.
A sold out indoor festival has its downsides. The Leeds University Union is not a particularly welcoming place once you arrive there for the first time. Despite the maps put up at various places around the venue, it takes a while to learn where everything is and how to get there. The overpopulation this year didn't help; queues were a regular sighting for practically every merch stand and drink booth, and you would often have to show up early for a band to get a good spot in front of the stage. But with 27 bands playing during a single day, the schedule was hectic to put it mildly. There were always two bands playing simultaneously, and as you can see on the schedule below, as soon as those two bands were done another two started their sets on the two other stages. Add to this the fact that some bands were given extra minutes for encores and the fact that I simply had to see the final six bands in a row, you can imagine the difficulty one could run into. Let's just say it's not impossible to get in shape at a festival between beers.
Now, there was also plenty to rejoice over. Except for the small Eyesore Merch Stage downstairs, the sound was excellent throughout the event. Bands were on stage on time and everything generally went according to plan as far as I was aware. Unfortunately October File had to cancel their performance on the day of the event due to an injury, but fortunately a replacement was found in Dyscarnate who had played the warm-up event the day before. There was beer, there was food, there was metal - all in all an approved festival experience.
After meeting up with friends and taking a look around the premises, it was time for the first beer in the company of British grinders Corrupt Moral Altar. An energetic band with plenty of bounce, the group spent little time talking or adressing the crowd in any way. Frontman Chris Reese alternated between Barney Greenway-type growls and high pitch screams, with backing vocals contributed by the band's axewielders. Their sludgy brand of grindcore varies greatly in feeling and energy, and it did indeed turn out to be a bit of an up and down ride. During the energetic songs early on in the set it felt like there was stopping the Liverpool-based group - but later on, the energy level fell quite greatly, presumably partly because of the crowd's reaction to the band, or lack thereof. Additionally, it felt like the band had trouble finding a way to perform to their slower sections that contrasted the more standard grindy stuff. All in all not a bad way to start the festival, but far from convincing. 
Xerath, now on their third album of their very own symphonic math/groove metal sound, were the first to show me the Terrorizer Stage. As with every band playing this stage during the festival, both the floor and the balcony was packed for the British band as they took the stage with their orchestral backing track. The group looked confident, and in Richard Thomson they have a proper frontman who knows how to control an audience. However, whatever the cause, there seemed to be a lack of energy for this early afternoon show. It looked like a routine show, choreographed and performed as such - next to no passion, no taking chances. The fans seemed to be having a blast, and if you're into mathy hooks, groovy drums with an enormous orchestral presence, you wouldn't want to be anywhere else. For those looking at the stage with objective eyes, Xerath looked decent but quite tame. 
The thing about arriving early to watch bands you don't know is the element of surprise once you discover the gems. My first visit to the Eyesore Merch Stage, the smallest stage at the festival, was to see another British band in Obsidian Kingdom. As it turns out, the Spanish group plays an interesting slab of progressive extreme metal complete with keyboards as well as both harsh and clean vocals from frontman Rider G Omega and keyboardist Zer0 Æmeour Íggdrasil (those are the only names out there, I swear). Venturing back and forth between quiet moments of somber reflection and full-blown black and death metal riffscapades, what we were watching looked like a relatively young band with an impressively mature sound who loved performing. Energy and genuine passion was oozing from the sweaty band, and the enthusiasm was contagious, at least for me. Sadly, a bit was lost in the transitions between the extreme metal sections and clean tracks, as the band as a whole wasn't able to convey the same combined emotion in these sections after the impressive bursts of energy mentioned before. Regardless, this was easily the best show thus far, and something to beat for the experienced bands that followed. Obsidian Kingdom are a band to follow closely in the future. 
Returning to the Terrorizer Stage, it was time for a brutal slab of death metal. Aeon's blasphemous death metal is of absolute top quality if you ask me, but the one time I've experienced the Swedes live they were downright terrible. Opening with "Satanic Victory" from 2005's "Bleeding The False", the group began their direct assault on anything holy that may or may not have been left in the room. Each musician, safely stationed at a distance to their fellow band members, performed exactly as I expected: headbanging, and not much else. Vocalist Tommy Dahlström planted a boot on a monitor from time to time as he uttered his strangely indecipherable lyrics. Strangely, because Dahlström is quite clear in his pronunciation on record. In a live setting however, both his growls and loud screams sound forced and rushed, which is a shame if you know the band's music beforehand. Now, this wasn't as bad as the first time I had the 'pleasure' of watching Aeon perform. This was simply an uninspired, average and completely forgettable show. 
As mentioned in the opening paragraph, British black metal has reached something of a high point in recent years. Winterfylleth have been a major contributor to this wave, having released a great album every two years since their debut, "The Ghost Of Heritage" was released back in 2008. The band played the Terrorizer Stage relatively early on at the festival, and yet managed to lure enough people there to fill the floor and the first row on the balcony. As a live band, they seem to be very dependent on the confidense they may or may not have in a certain situation. When I first saw them at Wacken Open Air in 2012 they looked almost scared to perform, playing an anonymous set that hardly pleased anyone but their fans. A year later, they completely knocked everyone off their feet in London at Candlefest 2013. Their set at Damnation ended up somewhere in-between.
Playing a set almost completely dominated by songs from this year's "The Divination of Antiquity", the band looked like they didn't feel at home on the stage. The music was played as it should for the most part, apart from a few mistakes by guitarist and vocalist Chris Naughton and drummer Simon Lucas that clearly annoyed them more than it did the audience. New material or not, Winterfylleth simply never release decidedly weak material, so there was plenty for the ears to enjoy. However, apart from a standard, laid back performance to go with the music, there was very little actually going on. The band did little to intensify the passion exhorted by their tunes. Luckily, the band's material alone makes a Winterfylleth gig something to enjoy, but this band can do a lot better than this. 
Back at the small Eyesore Merch Stage, another British black metal band were performing. Outside of the UK, Code are perhaps best known for being the first band to sport Mathew Joseph "Kvohst" McNerney as their vocalist - the mastermind behind bands such as Hexvessel and Beastmilk. Kvohst's vocal duties are now performed by one Mark "Wacian" Willson-Pepper who performs similar types of screamed and clean vocals that befit the band's at times progressive, at other times quite rock'n'roll-like brand of black metal. Musically, Code are at least interesting to listen to though not exactly impressive given the quality of the world's top progressive black metal bands these days. Despite the small stage - two members were hidden behind speakers throughout the show from where I was standing - Code managed to present themselves well, and Wacian proved himself a worthy frontman in every aspect. Technical problems arose halfway through the set, and Wacian was left in the spotlight to entertain the crowd. And that he did, apparantly being something of a comedian on top of his vocal skills. Once the band resumed their set, they managed to leave a good impression and earned a spot on my list of recommendations for future gigs. [7½]
Metal heads may look angry and violent on average, but in reality, many are introspective softies that look way beyond aggression in their choice of music. This is evident in the booking of Sólstafir from Iceland, whose somber post-rock sticks out like a sore thumb among the predominantly extreme metal genres present at this festival. Nevertheless, the PHD Stage was packed to the brim even before the band started, making it necessary for the security personnel to set up queues outside of the room to avoid confusion and the threat of overcrowding. Once inside, it was immediately clear what all the fuzz was about. Sólstafir's music is almost meditative at times in its simplicity and its relaxing nature. And yet, once you start listening past the straightforward riffing, you notice that it's the little details that make their songs so rich and textured. Various guitar pedals and effects enhance the soundscape, while the clean vocals add to the already humble and honest nature of the music. Humble is an important word here, because on stage, all but vocalist Aðalbjörn Tryggvason look reserved in their performance. This makes sense in the context of the music at hand though, because energy isn't what Sólstafir are about. Integrity, introspection and plenty of emotion is what is at play here, and in that game Sólstafir are undoubtedly among the greats. 
Now onto something very special. A Forest Of Stars isn't just another British black metal band; The Gentlemen's Club of A Forest of Stars exist in a musical universe of their own, set in the late 1800's. There's an occult theme to their songs, be it regarding spectral beings or stories of strange people performing peculiar or horrifying acts. A Forest of Stars are a special band, and one I've wanted to see for ages. The band played the small Eyesore Merch Stage, and with them being a sextet there was reason to worry about the space required for a band like them. Thankfully, the group took full advantage of the space they had, positioning vocalist Mister Curse and violinist Katheryne in the middle while leaving the guitarists and the bassist for the sides of the stage, partially hidden behind the speakers. Clad in garment that truly made them look one hundred and twenty years too late for this day and age, the group stayed in character whenever possible. Mister Curse looked like an escaped looney bin detainee with the way he rolled his eyes and held the microphone, and his recently shaven head and beard further enhanced this look. This was especially evident in the excellent "Gatherer of the Pure" from the band's 2012 release "A Shadowplay for Yesterdays", which utilises excellent riffing, great use of the violin and keyboards and some truly eerie storytelling by Mister Curse. The band's 'Victorian black metal' as some like to call it seems difficult to properly perform to, but although a bit more emphasis on theatrical storytelling would probably improve the A Forest of Stars experience it was a pleasant journey just the way it was. [7½]
Anaal Nathrakh - the embodiment of outrageous extremity. Hordes of extreme metal fans have grown to love these weirdos, from their black metal roots to the melodic material of their recent years. On stage, Anaal Nathrakh are (surprisingly) as frightening as they are on record. In Steve Powell, the recording duo of vocalist Dave 'V.I.T.R.I.O.L' Hunt and guitarist, bassist and drum programmer Mick 'Irrumator' Kenney have found one of few human beings who can match their programmed and insanely fast drums. Kenney does little but play his razor riffs, leaving the attention to Hunt who knows exactly what to do with it: his demeanor, while obviously an act of sorts, looks like an honest desire to execute half of the Earth's population, and subsequently enact the enslavement of the other half. Between songs, he spreads his apocalyptic propaganda to his flock until the music kicks in and his doomsday visions are uttered in insane shrieks and majestic clean vocals. The effect of an effectively curated show like this is a mosh pit that refuses to stop until the preacher orders them to. Sweat and blood flows to the delight of Hunt and his likeminded band of masochists as they play through a surprisingly varied setlist considering the fact that they released a new album a few months ago. The last time I saw Anaal Nathrakh live I returned home with a sprained foot. This time, the Anaal Nathrakh mosh pit injured both of my ankles. But as the band themselves would say: submission is for the weak. [8½]
As I arrive at the Eyesore Merch Stage before Anaal Nathrakh had even finished their set, Wodensthrone had almost finished their first song - and these aren't your average 3-5 minutes songs, mind you. Wodensthrone is another excellent British black metal band who dabble in long, atmospheric and folky black metal compositions that have previously impressed me both on record and in a live setting. This time playing a late slot, the band had a whole hour of playtime with plenty of time for songs from their excellent records. Being another large band, their keyboard and one of the guitarists were hidden behind speakers, which is a shame especially since seeing keyboard player Árfæst on stage performing instead of the backing tracks that most bands resort to adds an addition dimension to the Wodensthrone live show. With an hour's worth of playtime, there was potential for this to be the gig of the year, but this wasn't to be. Early on in the set, main vocalist Wildeþrýð started having issues with his vocals; they sounded dry on coarse, and he was unable to reach the high notes required to properly convey the emotions associated with Wodensthrone's music. Additionally, in his apparent confusion, he made some obvious and quite critical mistakes on the guitar that more or less ruined an entire song. Nothing else seemed to be wrong: the band's epic riffs generally seemed to work, the atmospheric keyboards were clear in the mix but not too loud, and the somewhat weaker vocals of second vocalist Rædwalh were performed as they should. Wildeþrýð's throat didn't fix itself, so Rædwalh took over most of the vocal duties for the remainder of the long show. Meanwhile, the errors were clearly affecting the band members, and their somewhat strained mood was contagious. Whatever the cause for the unfortunate circumstances that ended up making Wodensthrone's show a disappointing one, it simply wasn't very enjoyable in the end, so I ended up leaving early to get a good spot for the next band. 
I've become a massive fan of extreme doom metal in recent years, and if there's one band that all such fans tend to like it's Ahab. The German progressive funeral doomsters, often given the genre tag 'Nautic funeral doom metal', have written some of the best records ever to be released in the genre according to this writer, so a chance to see them live among all of these fantastic British bands was impossible to say no to. Opening with "Old Thunder", the quartet performed in a minimalistic manner as befits the slow and heavy nature of the music. With a backing track spreading the sound of ocean waves and seagulls throughout the room, it was easy to let oneself be carried away and almost forget there was a performance going on. In the same way, Ahab mostly looked introspective, often closing their eyes to better feel the crushing waves rolling across the room with every stroke of the guitar. It was an immersive experience, but one that required the right mindset to be truly appreciated. If the music didn't immediately envelop the listener in its majesty, one could probably observe the stage and find the band's antics lacking. However, in the context of Ahab's extremely slow music it was the only fitting way to act: vocalist and guitarist Daniel Droste would perform the occasional slow and thorough headbang when it made sense, while Christian Hector and Stephan Wandernoth on guitar and bass respectively wandered across the stage once in a while, otherwise simply conveying the crushing depth of their musical universe. A simple show, yet so rewarding for the initiated, such is the Ahab experience. 
The legendary Bolt Thrower. Apparantly, the Damnation organisers have been trying to get this British death metal act to headline the festival ever since the festival's inception. They finally agreed to appear on the Jägermeister Stage at the festival's 10th anniversary, and what an appearance it was. The group, almost intact after nearly 30 years of existence, ascended the stage in front of what must have been at least 3000 people. Opening with the insane duo of "Mercenary" and "Word Eater", you would never have believed the age of the band's member from their performance. Especially vocalist Karl Willets looked incredibly convincing at 48 years old; his vocals were astonishing, and the energy and passion with which he performed would have been admirable for a man of any age. Each song, selected from six of the band's eight studio albums, received loud applauding reactions from the crowd, and the classics never stopped flowing.
Between songs, Willets made the crowd feel right at home in his company with remarks such as "We started this band in 1986, as a celebration of life through death metal". An incredibly likeable character, his undying enthusiasm for the music and the fans was highly contagious. Many claim that Bolt Thrower's best album is their latest, namely 2005's "Those Once Loyal", and so it wasn't surprising that the band returned for the mandatory encore to play two excellent songs off that record in "At First Light" and "When Cannons Fade". The room was oozing with energy, so much so that when the band thanked the crowd and left the stage, they were chanted back for a second encore. Bolt Thrower are revered among death metal fans across the world, and closing out Damnation Festival 2014 they showed everyone exactly why that is. What a band. What a performance. This time it's war! 
Damnation Festival 2014 was a worthy 10th anniversary party. That much is certain. However, there were various issues with the festival. I offer some thoughts about the organisation of the festival in general here:
* The bars. There were bars everywhere, the selection of drinks seemed fine to me and prices weren't absurd. Nothing to complain about here.
* The big stages. These all had great lighting, great sound and no technical issues as far as I was aware. The Terrorizer Stage wasn't quite large enough for some of the bands, and Sólstafir could probably have filled the Jägermeister Stage. It's obviously not easy fitting 27 bands into a single day's worth of shows though. We'll get to that later.
* The bands. Obviously, this year's line-up was absolutely insane. There was something interesting to see throughout the entire day in various genres.
* Sold out. Nevermind the stages being filled to the brim. The venue simply isn't large enough for 4000 people. There were queues everywhere between bands. For actual shows, unless you showed up at least 5 minutes prior to the start of a show, there was often no way you would get close enough. 5 minutes may not seem like a long time - see below.
* Schedule. With this many bands, it makes sense that two bands were always playing on top of each. I was lucky enough to only have a single clash. The difficult and quite annoying thing was that band X were set to start playing the second band Y had finished, meaning that I had skip the last 1-2 songs from each band in order to get to the next stage and actually be able to see the stage. The festival seems to have reached a point where it could easily be a two-day festival.
Criticism aside, Damnation Festival 2014 was a great experience and one I wouldn't mind returning to, though I doubt the line-up will ever match my taste as perfectly as it did this year. To another year or ten for Damnation!