I hadn’t been planning on going to Damnation Festival this year but a triple whammy of spare ticket, spare car-seat and spare hotel room is a powerful cocktail, and a hard one to refuse. So It is with the spirit of having no idea who was playing and no agenda apart from having a good time at what is probably the only UK festival that boasts an integral pastie shop that I hit the road, notepad in hand.
Unfortunately, the drive down from Scotland meant that I arrived too late to catch early sets that include anecdotally excellent showings from Undersmile and Wiegedood. Both bands have equally stellar, if opposite, sounds on record; Undersmile’s drone-mantra doom standing in stark opposition to Wiegedood’s frenzied black metal assault. If you wanted an idea of Damnation’s musical palette then you need look no further than these two extremes.
First up in the list of Bands I Actually Saw is France’s Crown, who turn out to be equal parts Thorns, Limbonic Art and Neurosis. Which is not a bad thing to be. The duo hammer out a set of utterly bludgeoning riffs and dominate the Eyesore Merch stage with tracks from their latest, Natron, culminating in a sound that’s not afraid to challenge festival audiences by drawing out notes to breaking point, pounding drum-machine beats to near-insensibility. I glance down now at my notepad and see the phrase “the ominous march of a war-centipede” scrawled across its pages and that just about sums it up. Black, shining with machine-oil and implacable of purpose.
Sea Bastard, who endear themselves to me by having an EP called The Great Barrier Riff, are perhaps the perfect opposite to Crown’s cold machinery, although appear equally smeared in grease. The band pack out the admittedly always-packed Electric Amphetamine stage with a feral belch of grimy, crusty doom that breaks no boundaries but is probably what would’ve happened had Burning Witch carried on into an endless night of cider binges and waking up in your own vomit.
I catch a few tracks of Oathbreaker, enough to get into the feel of their slightly-jazzy, high end take on bleak metal but not, now that I read back over the notes I made, to really remember much about them beyond that. Vreid, equally, come and go. They blast out of a purple mist with the black and roll swagger of latter Satyricon and goad the crowd into fist-pumping chant-alongs at a moment’s notice but it’s all so…polished. Even the Maiden-esque switches of stage position seem to add to the feeling of monotonous, by-the-numbers metal.
Back down in the Electric Amphetamine dungeon, Ghold have extended out their two-piece to three for a session of staccato, Sleep via Wooden Shjips (or maybe Melvins) hammer-riffs and twilight desert chants that feels much tighter than the entity we hear on latest album, Of Ruin. Bass and drums rumble along in an organic union that quickly becomes mesmeric and descends into a black hollow of utter sound that I thought would remain unbeaten…
…until Altar Of Plagues, a band I’ve been honoured to support live but admittedly thought were now defunct, take to the stage accompanied by washes of seismic bass that few people who aren’t actively being bombed might expect to experience. Always off to one side of the metal crowd, perhaps too post-punk or too insular for some, Altar Of Plagues effectively took their sound to its logical, fleshscouring extremity with the magnificent Teethed Glory & Injury and then left us. Until now. The thoughts that run through my mind as they let opening track Mills collapse and then build into the kind of searing riff, that many bands could build a career, on are angular, harsh and nails-in-flesh unpleasant. Vreid may want their crowds to pump celebratory fists into the air but AOP want you to fold over, buckle at the waist, and drop into a foetal cramp of horror. Wave after wave builds and collapses, builds and collapses as something awful and sinuous writhes in the deeps.
After this Witchsorrow’s driving, bass-led heavy metal is merely passable, their tassled leather jackets a frippery that means nothing in the face of infinity’s white light. They knock out some good riffs, the problem being that they’re Electric Wizards’. My esteemed co-attendee will no doubt shake a fist at this denigration of one of her favourite bands but my notes for Sólstafir amount simply to the word ‘banjo’. On record, their mournful hymns are reminiscent, to some degree, of an Icelandic Alice in Chains, not afraid to mix gently resonating Mellotron into atmospheric, beautifully soaring guitar leads. I’m all in favour of this kind of multi-instrumentalism genre-hopping pushing the boundaries of what is considered to be metal. What I’m not in favour of is banjoes. And man-buns. And emoting. And looking a bit like The Fields Of The Nephilim if Carl McCoy had come from Shoreditch. A man can take only so much.
So I wander off to catch Amenra, a band I’ve heard snatches of here and there but who I always kind of filed under Quite A Bit Like Neurosis. Yet, even so, I wander off to see what they will sound like live. And I die. Many bands are described as monolithic, so singular of purpose and drive that only a kinship with hewn rock will suffice, but Amenra are tectonic. They evoke the shifting spasms of the earth itself with a sound that is not music, more a ritual that summons black spires of obsidian from deserts of bone, and which simply does not stop. How they maintain this for what feels like an eternity, holding a tangible cloud of noise above us, is beyond me. Tracks don’t end but howl into each other, clawing at themselves and I stand there, transfixed by the writhing silhouettes of the band, as earth explodes from shell-holes in time with every howl and every drumbeat. The world is rendered monochrome, inhuman. I am shrivelled inside, rendered pitiful and weak, and as the last notes echo into the air I stagger from the room, visibly aged.
Where I stagger to is the main stage, where High On Fire are laying into the crowd in all their barechested glory but Matt Pike starts to play a solo mid-way through another solo, his eyes bugging out of his skull in an extraordinarily Innsmouth fashion, and I get the fear, overloaded with loathing for the human form. Shellshocked, I flee and the simple strains of Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 draw me back to the Eyesore Merchandise stage. This piece, a balm to sorrowful souls, is of particular importance to me as I buried my mother to its weeping strings. She was dead at the time, and very probably still is.
These thoughts come to mind as Mono take the stage and begin what is, if Amenra was the process of dissolution, a systematic rebuilding of the soul. Yes, all those Mogwai/Explosions In The Sky/Godspeed You! Black Emperor comparisons are perfectly apposite in that Mono embody their genre of music, one that has now become somewhat diluted, by doing it so very, very well. Sirens lift up their voices as soft, gentle swells turn into the building ferocity of the open ocean and we turn our faces to the spray, our bodies crashing against sharp rocks that fade to gentle shores of soft sands. And again, and again, and even again into a sheer, ecstatic joy of experience that cleanses and rests me down on a bed of shimmering nothing.
Now only At The Gates remain. They are, by any stretch, an Important band but one that passed me by to a very large degree. I expect them to be entertaining but, personally, bereft of the nostalgia that I imagine fuels many people’s expectations. What I don’t expect them to be is the perfect closure of a trinity; a seething cauldron of nuclear chaos to join Amenra’s invocation of death to Mono’s paean to life. They simply blast out song after song and if the enthusiasm is less evident for new songs than it is for the older tracks, then it is only slightly so. It powers on, a pummelling juggernaut until THAT SAMPLE preludes the release of Blinded By Fear, a tiny voice in the back of my mind goes “uh-oh” and seething bodies are suddenly everywhere. A pit forms, threatening to become a literal Pit wherein none shall escape, and we are sucked down into the festival’s crescendo.
Where it ends, for another year, with ringing ears and grinning faces. A few lost souls huddle in corners, overwrought on overmuch, but the parade that leaves the Student Union to head to their evening’s digs are battered but unbroken. Back again, soon, for more of the same. And even more pasties.
Altar Of Plagues
High On Fire
At The Gates
Scribed by: Daniel Pietersen
Photos by: Lee Edwards