Welcome to University of Leeds. This is Damnation Festival’s seventh year, the fourth since moving to the three-stage venue. It’s no minor triumph to last seven years as an underground metal-fest, packing the punters in when having to compete with larger festivals with their larger budgets, surviving all that industry bullshit at a time when the festival-going public would gladly swear fealty to X, Y or Z online but somehow fail to travel across the country for a show—Leeds, despite never being on anyone’s must-visit cities, is pretty easy to get to. £30 plus change is unbeatable value for a bill like this. Even with Decapitated pulling out after an emergency landing in Poland trashed their gear, Ulver, the Devin Townsend Project, Godflesh, Grand Magus, Evile…. Shit, that’s plenty to be getting on with over the course of an evening.
The thing about having an on-campus metal-fest is that student unions have got a hospital quality to them in that they smell funky and have corridors that look the same no matter which way you turn. Plus, they’re always so fucking brightly lit that cataracts are a real and present danger; each of today’s three stages strictly squint-on-exit. In terms of getting the vibe just right—i.e. that this is in fact Hell—Damnation have it nailed with a choice of venue that damns you to a sisyphean struggle to seek out a toilet or a stage, all the while shielding your eyes from striplighting to rival the road to Damascus circa-36AD, blocking out such evocative sights as a 20-stone dude in a Cradle of Filth hoodie double-fisting the pasties. (This guy would fit right in here)
Besides the disorientation and the ocular trauma, it’s really this smell of cheap meat and gravy that hangs in the air and occupies the senses. Notoriously strong on the nose, Watain should have sent an envoy to conduct a focus group as to the most unpleasant smell to best broadcast their anti-whatever message, y’know, just in case there should be a coming drought on rancid animal blood.
It’s just the sort of sensorial mélange to complement SHINING (Nor) and their vigorous jazz metal. Well, maybe not so much complement but compound the surrealist bent in which they take metal. It’s weird, a few years ago, when they were touring Europe with Enslaved, Shining were hugely entertaining, super-interesting, fresh… all that you’d expect from a band influenced by prog, industrial and jazz, Jørgen Munkeby’s jazz as U.S.P. But they seemed kinda reserved, almost ashamed to present themselves for fear of coming over as the audio form of ipecac to recalcitrant audiences who want to close their eyes and think of Eddiac poetry. Now—fuck it—Shining are all over it, relishing the challenge, and in turning the early afternoon into a reenactment of Bill Pullman’s intense jazz-sax orgasm in David Lynch’s Lost Highway, they’ve anted-up as a live act, discounting the fact that most of the material they’ll air from Black Jazz will never be anthemic but delivered with enough gusto, chutzpah and accompanying strobe lighting it can be the sort of transcendental experience that everyone can invest in. Their customary set-closing cover of “21st Century Schizoid Man” is just as riotous as the rest of their set but at least gives said “everyone” something to remember them by besides a nervous tic and the occasional seizure. Things must be looking up: they didn’t even have to remind the crowd that they weren’t Niklas Kvarforth’s Shining.
TURISAS are a crime against popular culture, up there with going on record and saying that the Ewoks enhanced …Jedi. But a lot of people have gone and sinned against good taste anyway. Fuck, if Turisas’ set was all Boney M covers we’d be have come with the cochinel (E120) and boot-polish stripes smeared on the face, too, but there’s serious business to attend to. In this part of the world, a Saturday afternoon is for throwing the good times to one side in a sack filled with bricks and drowning them. UK extremists of no particular stripe—death, doom and black metal are all just textures to their sound—DRAGGED INTO SUNLIGHT bring some much needed darkness. They’re probably the only band capable of discomforting anyone here with an ill-spirited, haunting yet unstintingly brutal set, preceded by the long, sample-heavy intro tape and dry-ice combo, candles and animal skulls onstage. That they spend most of their set performing with their backs turned to the audience helps sustain the illusion that their sound comes from them alone, and no instruction has arrived from some outré netherworld on how best to deconsecrate the rock’n’roll idiom for the purposes of maximum extremity. But it’s probably all about eschewing the ego of the performer, allowing it to be subsumed, consumed by the whole, something suitably deep and infinitely dark.
EVILE don’t look as coltish as they did when they first arrived on the scene, getting heralded as the U.K.’s Saviors of Thrash or whatever ridiculously over-burdening tag was stuck to them at a time when they were just concerned with making a record, seeing how far they could take it after Earache scooped them up in 2006. Now they’re way tighter, way wiser, more professional—as disgustingly incongruous professionalism has to thrash metal. It’s a pity that Matt Drake’s vocals drown everything else out on a night when the riffs they’ve been writing have more zip about them than a number of the bands in the atrophying ranks of thrash’s forefathers can cook up. While “Killer from the Deep” touts a middle-eight break that goes all “Toxic Waltz” for Jaws, the super-charged “In Dreams of Terror”, from new LP Five Serpent’s Teeth has guitarist Ol Drake twisting his wrist into weird, new riff patterns that have all the invention necessary to render the Slayer/Metallica/Destruction cribsheet obsolete, or for emergency use only, at least.
CHTHONIC will always have a certain appeal—but it’s got to be curiosity that’s bringing most folk through the door. On record, their native Taiwanese elements are kinda cool but not enough to detract from the impression that their just a more exotic Cradle of Filth/Dimmu, schlocky speed ‘n’ horror black metal. Tonight, the guitars disappear from the mix and it’s a bit like a week-late Hallowe’en show. ALTAR OF PLAGUES suffer a similar fate minus the treak-or-treating; playing the third and smallest stage, their sound has a complete lack of everything, in a room that looked but moreover sounded like it was impossible to EQ. A pity, but those who charged down the front and stuck their face to the P.A. probably got theirs.
There were no such difficulties for Sweden’s in-the-pocket HM traditionalists GRAND MAGUS. Janne “JB” Christoffersson is successfully courting the pro-republican elements of the Leeds crowd with “Kingslayer” from Wolf’s Return, head shining like a diamante Fabergé egg under the stage lights… It’s great stuff this, “Silver into Steel”, real swashbuckling shit. Finishing off with “Iron Will” and it’s another, umm
It could be darker—but Ben “G.C.” Green and Justin K. Broadrick don’t sell themselves on their stage presence. It’s GODFLESH’s visuals—industrial horror, war, chimneys, smoke etc—that occupy the eyes while they turn the inner ear to rice pudding. Opening with “Like Rats” from Streetcleaner, ploughing through the tattered, deserted urban soundscapes of “Christbait Rising”, “Avalanche Master Song” to the hectic, intense closure of “Crush my Soul”, Godflesh are imperious, all the more powerful on this their second coming.
DEVIN TOWNSEND PROJECT
DEVIN TOWNSEND PROJECT could never match Godflesh’s nihilistic bloodletting, and nor would Hevy Devy want that. How can he driving for that sort of impact when the Ziltoid hand puppet (£15) was his most popular merch item on the night. He dresses like your almost cool uncle who works in I.T. but owns a Van Der Graaf Generator record, and dropped acid once, but Devin Townsend is all charisma, interlacing “Om” and “ZTO” with personal greetings to the particularly striking members of his audience. He could be one of the Ghostbusters—he’s got that sort of vibe about him, oddball magnetism. It’s a heavy set but like metal as a psychedelic comic stand-up routine, influenced by Flash Gordon and Meshuggah in equal measure. If you’re still serious by this hour, you might have wanted to go watch ULVER, who were under blue lights and working on an extended/adjusted-for-Decapitated’s-absence set. But that looked joyless, and we got the grim out of the way earlier. Devin Townsend makes fun acceptable, no mean feat in metal.
Pictures by and special thanks to Gobinder Jhitta