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Friday 8 November 2019

A View From The Back Of The Room: Damnation Festival (Live Review By Paul Hutchings)

Damnation Festival, Leeds University

My third visit to the festival and another cracking line-up to entice those whose tastes verge towards the extreme. The day was as exhausting as ever, doors at 12:00 and festivities ceasing some 15 hours later. In between, opportunity to catch bands whose appearances on these shores are often infrequent. A quick word about the chaotic organisation inside the venue. The absence of simple signage telling patrons which stage was which confused many including me, despite my previous visits. Security staff were unhelpful and at times downright rude, with reports of fans being refused re-admittance upon leaving the building. However, the music excelled and made the day worthwhile once more.

Matt and I spent much of the day camped out at the Eyesore Merch Stage. The 600 or so capacity sports hall offered close views, relatively decent sound and a more relaxed atmosphere throughout the day. I’d seen Alunah (8) a few weeks ago at HRH Doom v Stoner and the Birmingham outfit impressed once more. A 30-minute set didn’t allow for much due to the length of the band’s songs, but their doom-laden melancholy was the perfect lunchtime treat, with Sian Greenaway’s deep and soulful delivery as impressive as her red cat suit. Tracks from the new album Violet Hour are already established in the band’s set list, with Trapped & Bound a highlight. Finnish/English outfit Wheel (9) continued with the infectious riffing which we had last been stunned by in the Sophie Tent at BOA back in August. A recent change in personnel saw Aki Verta join the band on bass but you’d never have gathered he was the new boy with an assured and energetic performance, his bouncing locks cascading up and down as he charged around centre stage. It’s intensity to the max with Wheel, vocalist James Lascalle coiled with nervous energy and an attempt to ingratiate himself with the locals by revealing he’d been to university at Scarborough some years ago. Despite some horrific feedback and technical challenges, Wheel owned their 30 minutes and captivated the audience with tracks from Moving Backwards, surely one of the best albums of 2019.

One band I’d been especially keen to catch was Oregon’s sludge riff maestros Lord Dying (8) whose latest release Mysterium Tremendum is a magnificent opus. The band didn’t disappoint, pummelling with an onslaught of heaving riffs. Even a broken guitar strap couldn’t slow down man mountain Eric Olsen who played the set with his guitar tucked tightly under his arm whilst bassist Alyssa Morcere, all spit and fire and “fuck yeahs” roared her encouragement. Envy The End, Nearing The End Of The Curling Worm and a fiery Severed Forever from Mysterium Tremendum were stunning. A quick break from the Eyesore Stage as we headed to the bowels of the venue for 20 minutes of dark thick stoner doom courtesy of Berlin trio Earth Ship (7) on the Cult Never Dies stage. Guitarist Jan Oberg’s rasping vocals and raging guitar work were well worth the amble down the corridor, with bassist Sabine Oberg laying down the thunder with drummer Sebastian Grimberg. Whilst unfamiliar with their material, you can’t go wrong with good thick doom riffs and Earth Ship possessed these in spades. One to look out for again.

Grabbing a sustaining pasty and an overpriced beer, we hot footed it back to the Eyesore stage to catch Jo Quail (7) deliver something a little different. The internationally acclaimed composer and virtuoso cellist strode confidently onto the stage to a packed room. Her innovative looping style combined with her avant garde style and approach allowed a welcome breather, but the intensity remained high. With the crowd respectful in their silence whilst she played, Quail confidently moved through a couple of pieces before introducing Nick Sampson to join her on stage to play Madrel Cantus. An interesting performer, Quail is worth catching. Our first forage into the Jagermeister Stage saw Primordial (7) running later than advertised. A lengthy sound check had hopefully ironed out the gremlins but no, a mere one verse and chorus into the epic Nail Their Tongues and the power died, leaving frontman AA Nemtheanga bemused. To their credit the band addressed the issues quickly and soon elevated the temperature in the venue with their high impact aggressive primordial metal. The delay meant missing a good chunk of the Irishmen’s set but that was a price worth paying as we crammed into the Eyesore Stage once more for A Pale Horse Named Death (8). The New Yorkers were stunningly good, with frontman and driving force of the band Sal Abruscator humble and enthusiastic, his mournful vocals fusing with the band’s gothic leanings. Joe Taylor took the take stage left and add to the three-guitar onslaught. Earlier this year the band released When The World Becomes Undone, and it was no surprise that several songs were selected from this release. Captivating from start to finish, A Pale Horse Named Death deserved their massive ovation.

Cramming back into the main stage for Alcest proved a poor decision, the French outfit’s intense post metal riffing failing to capture the usual atmosphere they generate in smaller, more intimate venues. We grabbed another drink and headed for the Eyesore once more, in time to watch the arsing around of Icelandic trio The Vintage Caravan (9) through their soundtrack. Egged on by their sound engineer, the band powered through some ridiculous renditions of Careless Whisper as well as tracks by The Police, Paul Simon and a montage of Toto. When we’d finished laughing, the band exited before returning to provide possibly the most enjoyable set of the weekend. High energy from start to finish, the two ‘outfield’ members of the band, Alexander Örn Númason and Öskar Logi Ágüstsson proved to be as comedic during their main set as they were during the soundcheck with numerous little quips which had the audience chuckling loudly. The Vintage Caravan’s riff propelled psychedelic classic rock sound appears simple, the hooks and riffs snaring you with ease. But the band work incredibly hard to do this and tracks such as Babylon, On The Run, Expand Your Mind and the sing-a-long to Midnight Meditation all ooze class and quality.

Class and quality have never been in question when it comes to Opeth (9). Four dates into their latest European tour, the Swedes were slowly easing into their set list. A boorish crowd fuelled by all-day drinking heckled and crowd surfed from the opening bars of Svekets Prins, their limited knowledge of the new material a little frustrating to the hundreds of Opeth fans in the crowd. Once more the behaviour of some fans left us bemused, as people forged their way to the front way after the show had commenced; no excuse me or thank you, just a shoulder barge and a God-given right to get to the position they wanted regardless of everyone else. It’s one reason why larger gigs are becoming less attractive as I get older. On stage, Mikael Akerfeldt handled the barracking with his usual droll delivery. Restricting tracks from In Cauda Venenum to Svekets Prins and Hjärtat Vet Vad Handen Gör allowed old favourites The Leper Infinity and Harlequin Forest to please the old school, even inciting a few skirmishes in the pit.

The inclusion of Nepenthe from Heritage was a brave decision and beautifully delivered, a demonstration that if there is one band who will choose their own set list then it is Opeth. Still, some things are predictable, and the crushing Deliverance as the final song ensured those still thirsting for the heaviest Opeth were sated. It might not have been the most impressive performance I’ve ever seen from the Swedes but there is no such thing as a bad Opeth show. They are enormously impressive as a unit, with the additional vocal support from Fredrik Akesson and Joakim Svalberg adding harmony and melody. And that was that. Another Damnation Festival closed. It’s a great festival and with a bit more tweaking, it could be even better.

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