Remember, remember, the 5th of November, something about gunpowder and treason, um…. Fuck it, it’s Damnation day!
It’s November, it’s bloody cold and it’s time to head to Leeds for the best rock’n’metal festival of the year. I’m here with Uncle Sander to document the proceedings (read Sander’s bit at the very bottom). He’s got his interviewing thing to do and I’ve got to try to get some pictures. No doubt we’ll cross paths periodically, and end up writing stuff about the same bands. If this happens, and if our opinions appear to differ, please take it as read that I will be right and that he will be wrong.
The bit in front of the Union with the Portaloos and the burger van is seething with leather, camo trousers and beards. The show is very nearly sold out1, and it’s going to be busy.
‘Hah!’ we say, ‘We’re press and we can get in early! Nae luck, ordinary people!’
‘No you can’t,’ say the burly security chaps at the door, ‘They’re not ready yet so you’ll have to wait.’
Well, we get in eventually and, having my priorities sorted, I head straight downstairs to get a steak’n’ale pasty. It’s going to be a long day and I need to keep my strength up. And the pasties are just really, really good.
Fully loaded with dead cow in pastry, I’m off back upstairs to the newly refurbished Eyesore Merch Stage for Glasgow’s finest, Dialects. It’s all very neat and tidy in here now, wood panelling everywhere. No barrier this year, so we privileged few get to choose between the scrum at the front of the stage or the plush balcony seats upstairs. I’m dead tough, me, so I opt for the scrum so I can try to get some decent photographs, and maybe shout abuse at the band.2
Turns out there’s not much of a scrum. I’m the only one there with a camera, and the room is less than packed. The perils, I suppose, of being the first band on, and not, perhaps, ‘metal’ enough for the Damnation faithful. Still, Dialects give it everything, as ferocious and as physical as they always are, their brand of furious Glaswegian math-rock like ASIWYFA deep fried in batter. It’s breathtaking stuff, really, but the cavernous wooden box we’re in does them no favours, there’s too much empty space, and their fury is somewhat muffled. Frankly, I reckon they’d benefit enormously from playing in the more compact Mine stage downstairs3.
(Also, irrelevant to the sound issues, but heavy smoke, strong back-lighting and bright sunlight streaming in through the windows makes picture taking nigh on impossible. The sunlight issue will persist until later in the afternoon, when some chaps hang a blackout curtain up over the guilty window, but the smoke and lights thing will cause problems all day4.)
Talking of the Mine, that’s where I’m headed now, to catch Kroh. On arrival, I find that the layout here has changed too. The gallery down the side has disappeared, and there’s now a barrier at the stage, forming a photo pit. The sound appears to have improved too, but the room capacity must surely be reduced. Swings and roundabouts, I guess…
Anyway. Kroh. I know nothing about Kroh and, at first glance, I assume them to be German, or Swedish, something like that. They’re from Birmingham, and they play DOOOOOM. Perfectly decent, classic doom – heavy, heavy riffs lifted by singer Oliwia Sobieszek’s powerful and pleasingly non-growly voice – and it suits the murky gloom of the Mine stage perfectly. The crowd seems well pleased, and I’m guessing they know more about Kroh than I do. There’s an album, Altars just out and if the reception today is a clue, it should do well.
Next up, back in the Eyesore Merch room, is one of the country’s finest bands, the mighty Conjurer. They completely own the room, pummelling the crowd with their raw and intense sludgy hardcore/doom kinda thing. They’re relentless and savage, and it’s something of a shame that they are playing so early in the day, with the daylight still beaming in through the windows. Twin vocalists bawl and scream with vein-popping ferocity, and bassist Andy Price hurls himself and his instrument around with serious lack of concern for health and safety. He gets very sweaty. I know we’re only three bands in, but I reckon we’ve just seen one of the highlights of this year’s fest.
A quick visit to check out Hark in the big room, the four of them well spread out on the giant stage. Looking down on them from the balcony, they look a bit lost, but not the slightest bit intimidated by the setting. They are loud and fierce, with a dash of groove that reminds me of a heftier Baroness. Can’t stop, though, because I need to stop by the pasty shop5 on the way to see those nice French boys Erlen Meyer.
One of the main reasons I decided to come to Damnation this year, I’m immoderately excited to see Erlen Meyer. It’s good to note that the curtains are finally in place and the room is suitably dark for their savage and brutal sludge. They’re the first band of the day to benefit from the impressive Eyesore stage lighting, and even the omnipresent smoke adds to the doomed atmosphere. Singer Oliv, all in black and looking very French, shrieks and screams like a torture victim. I have no idea what he’s singing about, because it’s all in French and, y’know, the shrieking and screaming thing… But it doesn’t matter because Erlen Meyer are stunning, harrowing and very, very good indeed. The crowd seems to agree.
A total change of pace next, back down in the Mine with Darkher, a dark and gloomy gothic doom trio, essentially a vehicle for singer/guitarist Jayn Wissenberg, aided by two burly chaps with pigtails on drums and second guitar. The songs are occasionally skeletal, just voice and picked guitar, a bit Chelsea Wolfe-y, and occasionally brutally crushing. It’s mesmerising, and when it’s loud, it’s very, very loud. Normally, I’d moan endlessly about the lack of light, but the dim submarine green murk suited them perfectly.
Sinistro is another band I know nothing about, and they turn out to be another one of those bands that lurk somewhere on the doom side of metal, but are lifted out of the ordinary by their remarkable singer Patricia Andrade. Her delivery is pure drama, big gestures and wild black hair. ‘She looks soooo Italian’, I think, before finding out that they’re from Portugal. Ah, well…
The standout song from their set is a 25 minute epic ‘Cidade’. It’s like a mini doom opera in several acts, featuring a lengthy – and ridiculously entertaining – spoken word opening passage. Now, not being able to understand Portuguese, I have no idea what she is saying, but I wouldn’t like to be the one on the receiving end of a scolding of that magnitude. Damn, she’s fierce!
I was planning to catch the slinky doom-prog of Oceans of Slumber now, but I can’t resist the call of the pasty. And, besides, I’d seen them a couple of weeks ago in Glasgow and I could use a few minutes’ rest. So, one pleasant but somewhat under-spiced chicken & mango later, we’re off again.
On the way to see Bossk, I stop in at the Terrorizer stage to take in a wee bit of Ne Obliviscaris. I’m not generally a huge fan of that ultra-technical stuff, guitars with way too many strings and millions of notes per second, but the Australian tech-metal wizards are on top form and are surprisingly entertaining. Dual vocalists – one clean and one growly – are a nice touch, as is the front man’s violin which adds a folky note to the beefy crunch6. I’m also impressed by the bass player’s startlingly wide shorts. They’re going down a storm with the knowledgeable crowd, but I have a Bossk to catch.
Now, I’m glad I caught Ne Obliviscaris, but I find myself wishing that I’d headed upstairs sooner, because Bossk are truly immense. They were playing through the entirety of their first record, and I’ve missed most of it. Still, for the remainder of their set they deliver a masterclass in dense, crushing post-metal with a bellowing intensity that’s going to be hard to top. They don’t do banter, they don’t move about much and they seem to exist in a permanent blue fog, but that’s fine. We just gape in awe. Pure class.
See there, back a few lines, where I said that Bossk would be hard to top? Well…Bossk, meet Cult of Luna.
It seems that Cult of Luna are on too early. They should be top of the bill, really they should, but maybe they’ve got to catch the last bus home, or something. It looks like nearly everybody is here, packed into the room, and I can feel the moist heat of maybe two thousand bodies up here on the balcony. I feel slightly sorry for The Infernal Sea, playing down in the Mine, and I hope for their sake that there are some people who don’t want to see the Mariner album played live with Julie Christmas on vocals. They said it would never happen, but here they are. This is the one and only time it will EVER happen in the UK, and it’s a genuine privilege to witness it.
It would be easy to fill this review with superlatives – awesome, stunning, breathtaking, etc – and the show is all of these and more. I’ve seen Cult of Luna a number of times, and this is easily the best show I’ve ever seen them play, and it’s not just because of their guest vocalist. It’s like every good thing they do distilled until pure. Monstrous slabs of glacial noise, blissfully heavy and chillingly atmospheric by turns. And then there’s Julie, the cream on top. Holy fuck, she is amazing, her voice slashing through the wall of noise like a jagged blade. She sounds almost child-like, like a schoolgirl having a temper tantrum in a playground, but she is perfect. The album itself is a proper beast, but live, it is simply glorious.
I’d almost be happy if the night ended here. Nothing is going to be better than that. But there’s still stuff to do, and one more real treat to come.
First, a final stop in Terrorizer for a bit of Akercocke. Not really my bag, but I’ve never seen them before so I thought I’d give them a go. And they do that technical black metal thing they do, and they do it very well. It’s not for me, though the crowd seems to like them well enough, and that’s what it’s all about, is it not? And I’m slightly disappointed they’re not wearing those natty suits. Let’s see what’s happening upstairs…
It’s Black Tusk, and they’re… loud. Frankly, I can’t see why they’re so high on the bill. They play their aggressive no-nonsense rock and, to me at least, they sound like some angry drunks kicking a bin full of spoons. Incoherent clattering noise. Sorry guys, but… yeah. I’m sure there are good logistical reasons for them to have this slot, but I’d have been much happier seeing them swap with Erlen Meyer. Anyway, I leave them to the crowd, which appears to be appreciating them a great deal more than I am. And good luck to them. I’m away for Abbath.
As it happens, I could have lingered a bit longer with Black Tusk, because Abbath are suffering from some hefty technical difficulties and come on stage 20 minutes late. And I’m not really sure what to make of them. Or is it ‘him’?
Yes, he’s a black metal legend. And, yes, he and his band play savage, brutal black metal songs. But he seems, at times, to be making a joke of the whole process, as if he realises full well that what he is doing is faintly ridiculous. A couple of times he turns his back to the crowd and wiggles his ample arse at us. This is not the action of an agent of Satan. And so I cannot take him seriously, which is a bit sad. Still, despite that, or maybe because of it, Abbath are mighty entertaining.
Nearly done, and time for another one of my highlights. Those mighty, mighty Italians, Ufomammut. Surprisingly, they largely do away with the smoke that has irritated me all day, relying instead on a sequence of trippy psychedelic projections to complement their monstrously heavy hypnotic space doom. They are relentless, piling riff on top of riff, riffs so fuzzy that they probably have to shave twice a day. I have no idea what songs they play but, really, it doesn’t matter. I just open myself to the swirling, pounding pulse of the music, and everything is right with the world. Uncle Sander has turned up, and I think he will agree with me. Ufomammut are superb.
Can the same be said of the final band of the day, Electric Wizard? To be honest, I don’t know. I have heard that, on any given day, Electric Wizard can be exceptional, or they can be sorely disappointing. I know so little about them that I probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Anyway, like Ufomammut, they play against a backdrop of trippy visuals, but unlike the Italian trio, they fail to hold my attention. Maybe it’s because it has been a long day and I’m knackered, or maybe their stoner/doom noodling is just dull. I’ll leave it to others to decide, because I’m done.
It has been an interesting Damnation this year. One or two heavy disappointments, but plenty of quality and one unique, dazzling triumph. My highlights? Erlen Meyer, Bossk, Ufomammut and, of course, Cult of Luna/Julie Christmas. And the pasties, obviously.
- Within minutes of doors opening, all remaining tickets will be sold. Every last one.
- They’re chums of mine, so they don’t mind. Also, they’re from Glasgow and I’m from Edinburgh, so they probably don’t understand what I’m saying anyway.
- Or ‘Fourth Stage’ or ’Stagey McStageface’, or whatever it’s called this year.
- Please don’t misunderstand, the lights and smoke are entirely fine from an audience point of view, really they are, so ignore me ‘cos I’m just having a whinge.
- Vegetable, this time. Well filled, well-seasoned and very nice indeed.
- No, not another pasty.
Hello, it’s your Uncle Sander speaking here, fine readers of Echoes and Dust. As Bruce mentioned in his fine written review of this glorious day, I was present as well to cover the proceedings. As I was running around the place doing more interviews than usual, Bruce covered the majority of the bands I’ve seen above, and I just want to add that Erlen Meyer, Bossk, Conjurer, Ufomammut and Cult of Luna with Julie Christmas were all splendid. I think I’ve listened to Mariner on a near daily basis since coming back home from Leeds, which illustrates the impression they left on me after witnessing their amazing live performance.
But I also caught a few songs of Attan, who played earlier in the day. I was actually on my way to see Kroh, but the huge wall of devastating noise coming out of the Terrorizer Stage was something I simply couldn’t miss. And I’m happy I caught a bit of their loud, angry and aggressive hardcore metal set. Go see these guys live if this is your thing as they’re great doing what they do, though I believe they rarely come to the UK, so you might have to wait a while to get another opportunity.
Another band Bruce missed as he was watching something else (Darkher in this case), was Hang the Bastard, who was playing their last live set ever. Initially I had no plans to see them and I originally had an interview scheduled with Conjurer’s bassist Andy, but Andy begged me to postpone the interview so he could see their set himself. So I did the same and I was pleased I did. I’m not the biggest fan of the band, and admittedly I don’t know them awfully well, but what they delivered on that big stage was certainly very memorable, and in the end there was a genuine feeling of sadness as we weren’t able to witness this ever again.
So that’s it. Another Damnation Festival done and dusted. Regardless of the occasional queuing (this year things were a bit odd with lots of refurbishments in the Student Union going on), it was a very successful day indeed. I don’t think I will ever forget the amazing performances by Bossk, Ufomammut and especially Cult of Luna with Julie Christmas. And yes, Abbath was indeed very comical. See you next year Damnation! I can smell the pasties already!
Credits: All photography by Bruce Cowie.