University of Leeds Students Union, Leeds
2nd November 2019
The Damnation Festival 2019 celebrated the diverse and extreme edges of metal, with a day of full-on performances and intense audience connection, across four stages, at the University of Leeds Students Union.
The Damnation Festival is an annual highlight in the metal calendar. It has an enviable reputation for championing all that is creative and boundary-pushing in metal, and this year is headlined by the dazzling musical creativity and virtuosity of the magnificent Opeth. Navigating the four stages and exciting choice of bands and metal genres is a unique and compelling experience, and Damnation provides an exhilarating experience of being a part of the metal community.
Wheel, a Helsinki based progressive metal band, troop on to the Eyesore Merch Stage with their black hoods up and launch at the audience with a storm of crashing guitars. With an almost funk-like Gang Of Four back beat, the siren-like guitar lead and strident vocals make for a whirlwind of a start to their set. They are adept at leaving gentler spaces in their music before remorselessly hitting the audience with another spike of intense sound, with James Lascelles’ vocals providing a scream of pain at the world. A striking element of their sound is the jazz-tinged melodic basslines, and seamless interweaving of different musical sections into utterly beguiling songs. The final number Wheel, from the new album Moving Backwards, commences with an echoing rolling drum pattern, overlaid with crossing distorted guitars, leading to some very affecting double-tracked harmony vocals. With “There’s nowhere left to hide”, the massive sound feels like it’s inhabiting every part of the Eyesore Merch Stage.
Wheel get a fabulous audience reaction and are surely a progressive metal band to watch. They are returning on a headline tour of the UK in February – if they are coming to your city don’t miss them.
Black metallers Dawn Ray’d, on the Cult Never Dies Stage, have a full-on blast beat driven sound with a unique musical approach that has song sections led by the violin, which have the quality of the early avant-garde sound of the Velvet Underground. There is a doom metal-like quality to the way they atmospherically build their songs live. The band in a spine-tingling moment share their feelings and commentary about the oppressive and exploitive society they see around them, to considerable applause and cheers from the assembled metal heads.
Blood Red Throne from Norway slam the Tone MGMT stage with a massive slab of attacking death metal. The frenetic rhythmic pace and deep growled vocals create a very dynamic sound that instantly draws you in.
Homicidal Ecstasy, from the Union of Flesh and Machine album, has a stunning groove to it, with intricate polyrhythms, and completely and impossibly tight symmetrical ensemble playing. The head-banging in the audience is now very intense. One of the band’s guitarists endearingly talks to the audience in between numbers, without a microphone, toasting them with a bottle of wine.
Mgla from Poland are masked and in leather, on the main Jägermeister Stage, and assault a packed audience with a technically astounding black metal tsunami of sound. Think of Phil Spector’s wall of sound in metal terms and you have it.
Bathed in green lighting, it’s as if the sound is coming from the bowels of hell, with the impossibly bleak tonal sound of the guitars intersecting with precision blast beats. A frantic pit with devil horns held aloft opens up in front of the stage, as the ringing drum sound slices through the guitar maelstrom. During one stunning moment, the guitars and bass are completely in unison supported by the blast beats, and then out of the mix emerge some wonderfully graceful cymbal accents.
Voices from London, with current and previous members of the much loved Akercocke, have graced the Damnation Festival on a previous occasion, during which the bass stack fell over. As the band gear up for the beginning of their set, guitarist Sam Loynes is shaking his fist, in anticipation of the band letting loose. Vocalist Peter Benjamin mischievously announces from the stage “We are a punk band from London”, and the garage-band ferocity of their live sound is a testimony to a punk-like ethos. It’s is a truly original metal sound full of dynamic screeching riffs driven by the fast-insistent drumming of David Gray, one of the most gifted and versatile drummers in metal.
Peter announces that “Doesn’t matter what you believe in, we are all here for the same reason to celebrate good music”, speaking to the unifying power of metal. “Give it to us, we give it to you” he demands of the audience. A stuttering guitar theme and intricate blast beats, with impassioned, screamed vocals from Peter, lead Sam to urge the Cult Never Dies Stage audience “C’mon Damnation”, and the band drives the song to even greater intensity, with squealing guitar accompanying a mass of head-banging.
A Pale Horse Named Death from Brooklyn, New York, are fronted by Sal Abruscato, who was the drummer in the iconic Type O Negative. Sal tells the audience at the Eyesore Merch Stage that the band have been on tour for three weeks, and this is the show they have not stopped talking about. Their songs are full of hooks and groove, and Growing Old from the Lay My Soul to Waste album epitomises this, with the three guitars creating a very heavy and atmospheric groove that is quite hypnotic. It is a sound well-suited to the Eyesore Merch Stage, which combines intimacy and an expansive sense of space that allows the music to breathe and fly.
Then it’s a dash to the Jägermeister Stage for the quite wonderful Alcest. They have soaring guitar driven melodies in abundance, and create metal soundscapes that ascend and then gracefully drop to an almost ambient place. They also have strong underpinning driving rhythms that have a very winning way with an adoring Damnation audience. Alcest can also immerse themselves in a bleaker black metal influenced mode, as in their live reading of Protection from the new album Spiritual Instinct, where bathed in red on the stage, they send purging streaks of sound shooting out from the stage. The sublime intro to their signature song Autre Temps raises cheers from the audience, with its spiralling and chiming guitars, and musical spring-feel. It’s a post rock classic, as Neige’s emotionally charged vocals ring out right to the back of the audience. The ascending harmony chorus literally sends tingles down the spine.
The final song Là Où Naissent Les Couleurs Nouvelles illustrates all that is perfect about this great band. Full-on distorted guitars and screamed vocals submerge into the guitars highlighted by spotlights, playing the most beautifully lilting of pastoral sounds, before the rhythm picks up again, and the clapping audience tries to keep pace. The band are utterly connected with each other and the audience in this moment and Neige spins out some singing guitar phrases that shimmer and twist. A fabulous set and Festival highlight.
Gaahl’s Wynd on the Tone MGMT stage were not to be missed. Norwegian vocalist and musician Gaahl has graced bands such as Gorgoroth and God Seed, and is a legendary talent within extreme metal. Gaahl’s piercing vocals, that range from deep growls to sustained screams, has found live a powerful band, that provide a ferocity of playing that can match his chilling stage presence and vocals. The musical edge is almost choral at some points, floating above the battering sound of the band. In this vein, Carving the Voices from the new album Gastir – Ghosts Invited, has priest-like spoken vocals with Gaahl bowing his head over the microphone, with the guitars circling his voice with staccato black metal melodies. Another stunning Festival highlight.
Mayhem, a key band in the development of the Norwegian black metal scene, encounter a number of sound problems in their set before the sound starts to come right.
With Mayhem, atmospheric and elegiac introductions can metamorphose into menacing blast beat-driven intensity. There are interesting nuances with melodic guitar figures and fluid guitar solos. All of these can be found in the live playing on the Jägermeister Stage of the lengthy Freezing Moon, heard to best effect album wise on the Live in Leipzig album. There are of course lots of devil horns throughout the set. The five-piece Venom Prison on the Tone MGMT stage begin their performance with cellist Jo Quail providing an elegant musical introduction to their set. Their take on death metal is incredibly creative, imbued with elements of punk, and also some great harmonic guitar overlays. Larissa Stupar’s expansive range of death metal vocals can magically sound like several voices and is perfectly complemented by the bands dynamic varying of pace within a single song. Larissa also covers every part of the stage, in a strikingly balletic way, resonant of Kate Bush, and seeks a direct connection with the audience, often coming to the front of the stage and screaming a vocal directly at them.
The band champion social justice and oppose oppression and exploitation in all its forms, and Larissa very movingly describes from the stage, that not everyone has a place where they feel loved and safe, and we need to welcome people who move and look for a new life.
So it falls to the mighty Opeth to close off the Damnation Festival on the main Jägermeister stage. The band come on stage to the sound of electronic choral-like voices, and Tangerine Dream-like ambience, setting out their creative and progressive musical stall right from the beginning. Opening with Svekets Prins from their new album In Cauda Venenum, the fabulous sound and lighting seem to work perfectly with the different moods of the song. Ian Gillan of Deep Purple styled high pitched screams in the introductory section, are followed by a high-powered melodic solo from guitarist Fredrik Åkesson. A gentle undulating acoustic and vocal section is underpinned by lovely keyboard phrases and is succeeded by the heaviest of ensemble riffs and rising harmony vocals. Opeth know no limits to what they can do within the framework of a song. Interestingly Mikael Åkerfeldt cuts a very stylish figure on stage, resplendent in a wide-brimmed hat and tunic type apparel, which has a quirky prog rock feel to it.
An absolute highlight of the set is Opeth’s performance of Sorceress. The swinging intro resonant of King Crimson, is followed by the crunching guitar theme, that sees first Fredrik lit by a white spotlight, then Mikael. The fast-paced tempo changes and guitar and keyboard flourishes are performed with close precision and atmosphere, making for a superlative performance. Towards the end of the set Mikael even plays, and invites the audience to join him in singing, George Michael’s great song Faith. The first crowd surfers appear soon after.
The final number Deliverance, with its introductory death metal, growled vocals ends a great set. It’s an utter classic in the Opeth cannon, with its contrasting beautifully flowing and musically aggressive and dynamic sections seamlessly running in and out of each other, and with the band’s ensemble playing reaching new heights.
The party still wasn’t over, as the intriguing Gost were leading off the Damnation Festival after-show party. With black metal and electronic dance grooves combining in a way that made complete sense of Funkadelic’s dance manifesto from One Nation Under A Groove, “Feet don’t fail me now”. And they didn’t fail the surviving metalheads, even though it was after midnight, and over 11 hours of metal had been experienced over the day.
Roll on Damnation 2020, we can’t wait.
Written by Gareth Allen, you can find Gareth’s author profile here.
Photography by Lewis Allen