When Axl Rose waxed romantically about cold November rain in back in 1992, he clearly wasn’t singing about Leeds on a Saturday morning. A cold, depressing day darkened by oppressive black clouds showering their misery relentlessly from above, there is nothing romantic about Leeds city centre. However, above the sound of rain pelting against umbrella canopies, and cars splashing through ankle-high lakes of dirty water, there is hope. Somewhere out there is Damnation Festival.
One Minotaur short of a labyrinth, The Refectory (situated on the campus of Leeds University) is a veritable maze of stairs, exits, dead-ends and more stairs which can leave some of those unfamiliar with the layout a little dazed and confused. Like a hairier version of TV quiz show The Crystal Maze, the object of The Damnation Game is to not only find the stage where your band of choice is playing, but to also get there before it becomes too crowded. A situation which befalls many who head over to see the increasingly popular The Infernal Sea strut their cowled black metal stuff.
On the main stage, East Midlands noise-monkeys Raging Speedhorn barrel their way through a brutish display of angry riffs and inarticulate fury which promptly causes the audience to begin throwing themselves inelegantly around the room in violent raptures. With the Tone MGMT stage literally bulging at the seams, Norwegian death metallers Blood Red Throne proceed to tear everyone present a collective new arsehole, while back on the main stage, controversial Polish black metal act Mgla put in one hell of a shift. Bathed in foggy blue light and wearing black hoodies and leather jackets, the band conceal their faces behind black full-face ski masks and play easily one of the most impressive sets of the day, holding their willing audience captive for nearly an hour.
As Virginian death/black/sludgers Inter Arma finish bludgeoning their audience into submission, London based act Voices are busy whipping up their own crowd into a frenzy on the Cult Stage. Guitarist Sam Loynes gyrates and cavorts with his instrument while vocalist Peter Benjamin roars and screams over the frankly ridiculous drumming of David Gray as he blasts, as ever, for Satan.
While performing at another festival a few years ago, Primordial vocalist A.A. Nemtheanga (aka Alan Averill) famously blew out his voice on stage. There are no such problems today for the war-painted frontman as he crushes it completely, belting out cuts like ‘The Mouth of Judas’, ‘To Hell or the Hangman’ and a monstrous ‘Empire Falls’ to a room of enthusiastic worshippers. French trio Birds in Row follow on the second stage, screaming and shouting like their punky little lives depend on it, the consistently boisterous crowd responding in kind.
The last time French shoegaze types Alcest played Damnation was back in 2010 on the small Rock Sound stage. Nine years later and the band are back. This time playing the main room, and if today’s performance is anything to go by, it’s surely only a matter of time until they return again as headliners. Regularly interrupted between songs with shrieks of “I love you, Neige!” from many of the women (and some of the men) in the crowd, the unassuming frontman merely smiles and sets about his work, enrapturing the audience with tracks like ‘Kodama’, ‘Sapphire’, ‘Protection’, ‘Autre Temps’, and closer ‘Là Où Naissent Les Couleurs Nouvelles’ among others.
Switching between moody stomping and full-on black metal thrashing and slashing, Gaahl’s Wyrd envelops the second stage in a suitably blackened atmosphere (…Satan), all of which serves to perfectly set up Mayhem across the way on the main stage. With the room heaving and sweating in anticipation, the Norwegian black metal legends are unfortunately plagued by sound gremlins for half of their set. Rendering the five-piece completely inaudible at times, the sound desk appears to have decided the band are far too evil for Yorkshire as the volume annoyingly cuts in and out every few seconds. Undeterred, the band plugs away regardless, shirtless bassist Necrobutcher looking even more intimidating than bizarrely costumed frontman Attila Csihar. and thankfully things settle down in time for particularly nasty versions of ‘Freezing Moon’, ‘Pagan Fears’, ‘Life Eternal’, and ‘De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas’.
Headlining the Tone MGMT stage, Welsh quintet Venom Prison virtually level the place in minutes. Having enlisted the help of composer/cellist Jo Quail, the politically savvy extreme metal mob take elements of death, thrash, grindcore and hardcore, and basically saw your fucking face off with them. Scattering the show with messages of humanitarian and political relevance, Russian-born singer Larissa Stupar screams and roars with such ferocity that it looks like she’s ready to spew out her spleen at any moment. The sheer force of their attack takes many by surprise and it’s not until halfway through the second song that the pit finally erupts into the human battlefield it was always going to become.
Considering their choice to move away from death metal nearly a decade ago, Opeth are a surprising choice of headliner for some. However, while on record the band are happiest these days writing ’70s and ’80s style prog, they’re still more than capable of dishing out the heavy stuff live. There might be a distinct thinning of the herd during the first twenty minutes or so as some possibly decide that frontman Mikael Akerfeldt‘s snazzy new jazz hat is a bit much, or that brutal Morbid Angel riffs will not be high on the band’s agenda this evening, but anyone silly enough to leave is immediately replaced by at least one or two other, more grateful punters.
Diehard fans are not left wanting as Akerfeldt and co. mesmerize the room with tracks like intro ‘Livets Trädgård’ and ‘Svekets Prins’. Even the more laid back ‘Reverie/Harlequin Forest’ and post-Watershed cuts such as ‘Hjärtat Vet Vad Handen Gör’, ‘Nepenthe’, and ‘Sorceress’ sound positively monstrous this evening. However, it’s with the likes of ‘The Leper Affinity’, ‘The Lotus Eater’, and the climactic fifteen minutes of ‘Deliverance’ that the band once again prove they can still cause much dropping of jaws.
Between songs, Akerfeldt teases the audience with bursts of information about The Who’s classic live album Live at Leeds which happened to have been recorded in this very same venue, and for reasons best known to himself, the silly Swede decides to get the crowd involved in an impromptu singalong of ‘Faith’ by George Michael.
Of all the depressingly predictable “I only liked them when they were death metal” grumblings floating around the venue earlier, by the end of the evening just as many comments of “yeah, the new stuff sounded great didn’t it” are to be heard among the happy but now exhausted crowd.
Job done, Opeth. Job done.
A fantastic day brought to a close in the best possible way, the only downside to the festivities are a couple of horrible clashes (the worst for some being between Opeth, and Cult Stage headliners Imperial Triumphant), Mayhem’s technical hitches, and some problems with pass-outs earlier in the day. Other than that, as ever, Damnation fucking ruled. Hard.
WORDS BY GARY ALCOCK
PHOTOS BY RICH PRICE PHOTOGRAPHY