Damnation Festival 2011

Leeds University, Leeds - November 5
event website | venue website | full line-up

In the last ten years, many festivals have arisen in the UK to offer alternatives to mainstream rock events such as Download and Sonisphere. The biggest of these is Bloodstock Open Air, but that's not to say there aren't other long running and successful festivals. Whilst Bloodstock caters to a wide range of Euro-centric metal styles, its friendly rival Damnation attracts a heavier and more eccentric breed of bands, breaking away from metal when required and bringing bands of other extreme genres of music. This gives the festival a very different atmosphere to other events, and has helped establish a certain identity for itself.

After very disappointing sales and a struggle to get a strong line-up for the 2010 edition, the organizers outdid themselves for this year's edition. A rare appearance from Ulver, alongside the reactivated Godflesh and Decapitated made for an enticing early line up, with the dependable Devin Townsend Project added as an overall headliner a few months before the event. Whilst the festival did have some predictable festival fodder in the form of Grand Magus, Evile, Turisas and Amplifier, this was more than compensated for by some rare and niche acts on the undercard – hotly tipped post-black metal favourites Altar of Plagues and A Forest of Stars, A Man Called Catten playing a set of Medulla Nocte classics, crust legends Doom, Norwegian black-jazz pioneers Shining and the unbelievably heavy Dragged Into Sunlight, to mention just a few. It was no surprise that the festival was one of, if not the best attended edition in the festival's history.

Currently taking place annually at the Leeds University Union, the festival takes full advantage of the Union's extensive facilities. There's quick access to a supermarket and several cheap food shops (including an outstanding little bakery), as well as the usual festival vendors such as Deli-Kate sitting outside. There's plenty of space all around the venue for those wanting to get away from it all, and entire halls full of merchandise and the like.

The important part of the festival though is where the music is to be held. The main Jagermeister stage was held in a typical union-type hall and had very little character to it, and often had very poor sound. However this was made up for by the two smaller stages – the Terrorizer stage was set in an atypical, dimly-lit rock club type venue, whilst the Zero Tolerance stage was set in a smaller, almost pub-like setting to the side. Understandably, the latter two stages were often packed to capacity during some of the more popular bands, whilst the very large main stage was often much more open and easy to access.

If there was a problem with the festival as a whole, it would be the fact that the organizers did try and cram too much into one day. With all three stages running pretty much constantly, heavy clashes were to be expected. Unfortunately this meant that Ulver and Devin Townsend clashed completely, and if it weren't for a late cancellation from Decapitated then they would have clashed with Godflesh – four of the most important bands on the bill. Mostly the festival did well to keep clashing of similar bands to a minimum, but delays on both the Terrorizer and Jagermeister stages meant schedules became difficult to keep track of, and even then the abundance of great bands across so many genres meant the festival, to an extent, became a victim of its own success.

Still, the festival itself is an undeniable good time. Certainly not every band lived up to expectations, but overall the line up showcased some of the cream of the metal scene. Hopefully the organizers can keep this year's momentum going when picking 2012's line-up, and repeat such a strong success.


A Forest of Stars

Zero Tolerance Stage
14:30 - 15:00

Much acclaimed English post-black metallers A Forest of Stars were on at the criminally early time of 2:30 in the afternoon. From the back of the Zero Tolerance stage's almost pub-like room, glimpses of daylight could still be seen. Meanwhile, whilst the sound of Cerebral Bore bellowed out from the stage just around the corner, the entire of A Forest of Stars (all seven of them) stood near motionless on the stage, seemingly waiting for the 'go' signal. The band appeared unbearably cramped on such a small stage, but in a strange kind of way this only helped build an intense anticipation as the band just simply... stood there.

But as the band finally got their set under way, the band more than proved why they are one of the most hotly tipped black metal bands in the UK right now. Intense and brutally heavy they may well be, the band's mournful violin and delicate guitar parts help to juxtapose their black metal roots and conjure a mournful, melancholic atmosphere that goes well with the band's smart and sophisticated attire. The tortured vocal delivery also feels much more matured than atypical black metal. Whilst only having enough time to play three (incredibly long) songs, the band's set revealed the depth and richness of the band's song-writing talents, and were overall stimulating and mesmerizing in their performance.

Certainly the band's records are very raw in sound (perhaps intentionally), but what remains incredibly clear is that when their songs are delivered live, A Forest of Stars more than prove why they should be among the most acclaimed of black metal bands in the UK. The overly cramped room, which was heaving all the way to the back, was more than enough evidence that A Forest of Stars should have been playing one of the larger stages.

“ mournful, melancholic atmosphere ”

Setlist: ?? / Summertide's Approach / God


A Man Called Catten

Terrorizer Stage
15:00 - 15:30

During the mid '90s, if you were a follower of extreme metal or hardcore in the UK, you would know Medulla Nocte as being one of the heaviest, most vicious and most awe-inspiring bands to emerge from the UKHC scene. The band had no trouble maturing out of their hardcore roots and were beloved by the metal scene as a whole. Unfortunately the band's conflicting, violent personalities saw the band self-destruct after their second album. This hasn't stopped the band's music still living on with the band's fans – so Paul Catten bringing the songs back for a few shows was a more than welcome addition to the bill.

This being said, A Man Called Catten's set deserved mixed praise at best. There's no denying that Paul Catten himself is an extreme, violent and exciting on stage performer. Like some mutant step-child of Mike Patton and Jesus Lizard's David Yow, the singer thrashes and leaps around on stage as if having some sort of fit, whilst often falling over in to things (mostly the floor). This does mean his vocal delivery leaves something to be desired at times, but for the most part he delivers very well. Catten is how a frontman should be – a little bit dangerous, a little bit terrifying, and someone you just have to watch regardless of the music.

Where the performance slipped up was everything else. The entire set – either through fault of the band or the fault of the sound – ended up sounding like a big chaotic, blurry mess. Songs were difficult to make out for the most part, making it incredibly difficult to really get into what the band were doing. It was noticed that as the set carried on, the audience dwindled. The set also leaved a lot to be desired, missing completely classics such as Problem To My Solution, Spat On and Bleed This Illness.

A real disappointment – such brilliant songs needed to be delivered much better. Perhaps some more time needed to be spent into the rehearsal studios. Still, Catten himself at least is very entertaining.

“ big chaotic, blurry mess ”

Setlist: Conversation Alone / Twice the Trauma / Nervous Reaction / Hooked on Masturbation / All I Ask / All Our Friends Are Dead / Broken State of Mind


Altar of Plagues

Zero Tolerance Stage
18:30 - 19:10

Everyone should really be familiar with Altar of Plagues by now. With their second album Mammal having caught the interests of fans and critics alike, the Irish band were one of the most talked about black metal bands of '11. The band's merging of black metal with post-rock influences have made their albums some of the most beloved in recent black metal history. Still, this doesn't necessarily mean that their music translates well in the live environment.

The band's set at Damnation's Zero Tolerance stage, though, proves that not only are Altar of Plagues a thrilling live band as well as on record, but their live shows even surpass their studio recordings. Starting with the primal Irish singing that introduced Mammal track When The Sun Drowns In The Ocean, with singer/bassist Dave Condon kneeling on the floor with some sort of shaken percussion instrument, things quickly picked up as the band broke into full black metal territory with the crushing Earth; As A Womb. Throughout, the band's two guitarists rocked back and forth, playing a post-black sound that is equally influenced by Norwegian black metal as it is the post-rock works of Slint or even Bad Moon Rising-era Sonic Youth.

The performance is shaken midway though by technical problems, but it is how the band dealt with them that was rather impressive. With one guitar down, the band simply jammed for a few minutes whilst the guitar issues were fixed. It genuinely felt like the band hadn't stopped the song – an incredibly professional way of dealing with what could have been a critical issue. After the good twenty minute rendition of both parts of Earth, the band finally took a breather to accept some overwhelming applause.

The third and final track of the set – Feather And Bone – was easily the most identifiable and also the most intense. A breath-taking song on album, the sheer gravitas of the song is amplified by the sheer energy the band exuded performing it. At the song's slower moments, the entire band were crouched on the stage, screaming the lyrics without the assistance of microphones – and still being able to be heard.

When a band is as hyped as Altar of Plagues it is easy to be cynical and dismissive. But they are genuinely the real deal, above the restrictions of the black metal genre and able to both craft and perform awe-inspiring and intense music. Truly one of the highlights of the day, and indeed the entire year.

“ awe-inspiring and intense ”

Setlist: Earth; As A Womb / Earth; As A Furnace / Feather And Bone


Devin Townsend Project

Jägermeister Stage
21:30 - 23:00

Since Devin Townsend's technical-issue ridden yet triumph set at Bloodstock in '10, the former Strapping Young Lad frontman has well and truly been making his presence known in the UK. A successful tour across the UK, a comeback appearance at Bloodstock '11, two acoustic mini-tours and a series of shows performing the entire of the Devin Townsend Project quadrilogy. The prog maestro's fans have never had it so good – and he seems like a perfect fit to headline a festival like Damnation.

This being said, one can't help but feel a bit fatigued by the very hyper Devin. Fan or not, chances are you've already seen him perform at least twice in the last year or so, and plenty of elements in his routine don't really change from set to set. Certainly the Ziltoid shenanigans, the dick jokes and the one-liners are entertaining the first time round, but the singer's schtick does get a bit tiresome the third or fourth time round.

That's the real problem – once you get past the humour, there's not much else to be said for Devin Townsend as a live experience. It is very much pitch perfect renditions of the music as played on CD, right down to Anneke van Giersbergen's backing vocals on the backing tape just in case. Combined with the main stage's poor sound, it is a little unfulfilling. The set makes up for it a bit – thanks to the special album shows, some rare Project tracks do show up, such as Heaven Send from the amazing Ki. However the atmosphere just doesn't feel right for the more dynamic material, understandable given that everyone has already had a day's worth of partying and just wants to have a laugh with some heavy tunes.

The Ziltoid-puppet waving fans no doubt had their fun. Devin still writes great music, there's no doubts there, it just feels like the act is getting a little old now. UK fans could use a quick breather to let interest in Devin return – though having been announced for Download in '12, and with another headline show in London in the pipeline, does seem like there's little chance of that.

“ a little unfulfilling ”

Setlist: Truth / Om / ZTO / By Your Command / Bad Devil / Heaven Send / Supercrush! / Stand / Juular / Color Your World / The Greys / Deep Peace // Vampira


Godflesh

Jägermeister Stage
20:00 – 21:00

Having now performed at a few festivals (including Supersonic in the UK), as well as playing a key London date earlier in the year, a performance by Godflesh no longer seems as high profile as it was a year before. Not that this eases any of the excitement regarding seeing the influential Birmingham twosome from performing again. Their performance in London was regarded as one of the best shows of the year by many in attendance – and with good reason.

Despite the main stage having many problems sound-wise that had spoilt prior sets, Godflesh have the sound very much behind them. This is a relief, as the very thought of Godflesh performing without a sizeable amount of amplification behind them is off-putting to say the least. For those not familiar with Godflesh as a live entity, hearing Godflesh play live is the aural equivalent of being hit over the head with very large hammer. The crushing drum machine, along with the thundering bass hits from G.C.Green, are enough to make even the most hardened stomachs of extreme metal fans throw up on the floor from the vibrations. Godflesh are loud – really, really loud.

It is a mixture of this bass-led volume along with simple but incredibly hypnotic rhythms that make Godflesh such an utterly brutal live experience. Justin Broadrick certainly isn't a very charismatic frontman and can barely string words together in between songs. But what he lacks in showmanship is made up for by a sheer rawness in sound and delivery. A desire to give the most raw display possible may be why the band have kept to the band's earliest works and not venture into the more experimental latter period – with the entire set being made up of very simple, very bare-bones tracks from the likes of Streetcleaner and Pure.

It still remains to be seen where this reunion tour will be going, whether Justin and G.C. Will simply let the nostalgia train run its course or whether they shall try and repeat the successes of old. In the meantime, Godflesh are a unique and powerful live experience, a literal and unrelenting rhythmic machine that really has to be seen to understand. Simply put, there is nothing else quite like them live.

“ sheer rawness ”

Setlist: Like Rats / Christbait Rising / Streetcleaner / Tiny Tears / Avalanche / Master Song / Dead Head / Spite / Mothra / Pure / Crush My Soul


Turisas

Jägermeister Stage
16:30 – 17:10

Given the festival's reputation for the extreme and the unusual, anything from the more mainstream side of the folk metal genre might seem a bit ill-fitting. That's definitely how some have reacted to the announcement of Turisas, still regarded as a fairly gimmicky band – perhaps with some good reason – with many quips about crowds of sword-wielding teenagers being made before hand. Yes, Turisas are a bit of an odd fit for the festival, but the band are able to prove themselves on occasion.

Alas, this wasn't to be one of Turisas's better shows. Having been rather significantly delayed from the start, the band finally arrived on stage at what felt like a good twenty minutes late. This is the least of Turisas's problems though – the sound of the band is utterly dreadful, lacking any power at all. This doesn't stop a good contingent of the crowd getting into the swing of it, but watching the stage it looks like Turisas are aware this isn't one of their better days.

With very little time to get into the swing of a set, and nothing particularly special on offer, Turisas's Damnation set felt very much like they were going through the motions. Chances are the band played much more exciting sets during the rest of their tour – a shame, as usually the band are much more enjoyable.

“ going through the motions ”

Setlist: March of the Varangian Guard / One More / The Great Escape / Stand Up and Fight / To Holmgard and Beyond / Battle Metal

Written by James Donovan
More: 2011, Black Metal, Death Metal, Festivals, Folk Metal, , , , , ,

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