Damnation Festival Part 2: Live at Leeds University

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After bumping into three-quarters of Undersmile who by their own admission were now “on a band outing”, it was time for tea, and also to enjoy half an hour with our “Pressed out” esteemed UK Editor. As Diego Costa massacred a defender’s facial features (odd that…) on the big screen, the magnificent Old Bar provided wondrous sustenance in the form of a chilli dog, death burger and storming IPAs for just around £15.00.

This was all damaged in time to witness one of the final showings of the majestic Altar of Plagues, a band still vital, still relevant, always adored and fully compelling. The Blackened Industrial outfit caused the first real queue into Eyesore, testament to the appeal of the Irishmen who showed with mind-blowing creativity and a little more action (plus a real drummer) what C.R.O.W.N. could have achieved. It was almost impossible to see through the – yes, you guessed it – ridiculous light display, but the drama that the Boys infused into all by the inflections of their riffs was impossible to ignore. Leaning on the cabs of the mixing desk it’s staggering to see the calm yet assured way mixers Johnny and Harry help to make this all sound so dynamic: indeed, as the impossibly youthful James Kelly issues a subtle “cheers Leeds”, you’re nevertheless almost unsure who to watch next. Especially as there were no flashing lights emanating from the lesser-known duo…the swell of the closing coda was a fitting climax to a blinding set in more ways than one.

The second journalist to take the stage today, Nick Ruskell’s Witchsorrow plied forth their Electric Wizard-esque Doom which, though musically strong and ripping through the packed room, is not augmented by Ruskell’s limited vocal and rather unimaginative stage banter [PQ].

Solstafir at Damnation Festival 2015. Photo Credit: Rich Price

Solstafir at Damnation Festival 2015. Photo Credit: Rich Price

Last year, Icelandic post-rockers Solstafir walked away with all the (non-Bolt Thrower) plaudits, with the second stage unable to contain their emotive, powerful epics, punters locked out and the room filled to bursting. Invited back to sprinkle their magic dust over the main stage, once again Aðalbjörn Tryggvason holds Leeds University effortlessly in the palm of his hands, their beautiful, lapping, and pervasive striking hymns swirling and rapturously received [ST]

Amenra at Damnation Festival 2015. Photo Credit: Rich Price

Amenra at Damnation Festival 2015. Photo Credit: Rich Price

 

Listening to Colin van Eeckhout, however, is like listening to a tormented angel. First harmonising in Benedictine style, then screaming in twisted agony. Barefoot and in shorts, he sprang as the incredible Amenra reduced the hall violently to tears in an instant; Eeckhout facing backwards, bounding and screaming maniacally whilst vast swathes of post-Black Metal crashed about him. There were few flashing lights here: just a black-and-white backdrop flickering between speeding clouds, rippling water and Flanders fields-style explosions. The drama, the mysticism, was as potent as the sparing chords shimmering from the guitars of the frankly alarming Levy Seynaeve: van Eeckhout’s head bowed, the aching wounds apparent in the ensuing screams. Halfway through ‘Nowena 9|10’, he spun and faced us ever so briefly, and the image was complete. Subsequently removing his t-shirt as he knelt toward the drums for the unnerving ‘Boden’, the tension and empathy could be touched. Shattered, spent bodies were somehow stood absorbing every last increase of sound. All bar the knelt, bowed body of the greatest living ball of intensity I’ve ever encountered.

Amenra were beyond moving and I’m unashamed to say that I was violently sobbing as I rocked back and forth with the troubling yet transcendent experience.

Robbie is in his fifties, and took his security role seriously yet with a degree of deadpan which endears him to the punter. “There’s never any bother here. Well, apart from it killing mi legs” he reflected with a cheeky yet droll sarcasm. Directing entry to both the Terrorizer and ‘Mine areas, it was an intense yet obviously enjoyable role for him.

Meanwhile, at ‘Mine, it was hard misfortune that saw arguably the UK’s best Occult Doom band slotted in between two of the best live draws in World metal, and clashing with High On Fire. As a result, the dungeon was half-full for a crushing set from The Wounded Kings. An atmospheric experimentalism married with a pulverising groove, Steve Mills’ solos were a real breath of air whilst George Birch’s oscillating vocal is almost unique, Pete Steele-like; his guitar squealing, his shapes mesmeric, the man has grown into a consummate frontman. It was great to see the two old friends duelling together in what is now a real unit, with closing track ‘The Message’ a whirling mass of pulsating noise.

Primordial at Damnation Festival 2015. Photo Credit: Rich Price

And so to the Greatest Band in the World™. Certainly, surely, the greatest frontman. It’s staggering that there’s room at all to get in to see Primordial, but thank the Heavy Metal Gods that there were a few slivers for a chubby dude to slip in to. “We meet again!” hollers Nemtheanga after a rapturously received ‘Where Greater Men Have Fallen’, and once more a rapt throng is in the palm of his hand – if there was ever any doubt. ‘Babel’s Tower’ saw a worshipping collective almost motionless as they dropped on every word, every dramatic itonation, every plaintive act of defiance, every indelible scream. “Everywhere I look I see old friends” uttered a typically effusive Alan Averill, subsequently leading the audience participation of ‘As Rome Burns’, a powerhouse which grabbed all in roared intonations. The euphoric yet moving ‘Wield Lightning to Split the Sun’ had Averill beckoning and clawing his belly with wrought passion, asking the usual question: “Are You With Us?!”

Primordial at Damnation Festival 2015. Photo Credit: Rich Price

Primordial at Damnation Festival 2015. Photo Credit: Rich Price

As ever, as One, we were.

As is always the case, the closing band on the ‘Mine stage was half-attended. As always it was a big miss for the ovine hordes. Tonight 40 Watt Sun were minimalist, light yet crushing, and utterly heartbreaking. This band transcends Doom heaviness, Post musicality, Shoegaze emotion, and Folk personification, to create a chilled yet pained entity which simultaneously relaxed and tweaked every synapse and demanded to be heard and enjoyed. Patrick Walker delicately strummed his guitar, whilst his edgy Folk voice shattered the soul with its poignancy. And still, people didn’t shut the fuck up. The delight is that new songs were being played, the second of which – if Walker’s hushed whisper is to be correctly interpreted – was called ‘Beyond You’. It’s arguable whether such pared-back, Funereal balladry belongs at such an event, but not for the lachrymose souls like myself and what seems like most of the Belgian contingent, one of whom tells me to ‘Ssh’ quite vehemently as I’m instructing a fellow watcher to do the same; go figure… ‘Carry Me Home’ was received like a long lost friend and intoned lovingly and emotionally; there was a growing fear that the early finish was permanent before the trio returned to deliver a hackle-raising ‘Restless’ which, in true ’Queen in Rio’ fashion, was sung emotionally and lustily to Walker for the most poignant, tear-inducing end to a night I’ve ever been a part of [PQ].

The reason for the thinner crowd than deserved for 40 Watt Sun? A triumphant conquering from Swedish legends, and festival headliners, At The Gates; a barnstorming non-stop roil of jagged riffs and powerhouse anthems spilling forth in a slew of genuine metal classics. Liberally sprinkling the set with visits to last years At War With Reality (Century Media) showed the newest addition to their canon more than holds its own in the presence of greatness.

And if you wanted extreme metal greatness, you got it. ‘Death And The Labyrinth’ begat ‘Slaughter Of The Soul’ running headlong into ‘Cold’ in a set opening par excellence and par violence, matched only when ‘Under A Serpent Sun’ vomited into ‘Windows’ into a vitriolic ‘Suicide Nation’. Elsewhere ‘Nausea’ brought the sickness, and ‘The Book Of Sand’, amongst others, crushed as ATG delivered their strongest live performance on these sceptre isles since reforming.

As the beers (by now the in-venue piss of Red Stripe) flowed as quickly as the riffs, an encore of ‘Blinded By Fear’ and an unbelievably scything ‘Kingdom “Fucking” Gone’ devastated, before the fuck you of ‘The Night Eternal’ sent the throng home sated in HEAVY metal brilliance. [ST]

 

At The Gates at Damnation Festival 2015. Photo Credit: Rich Price

At The Gates at Damnation Festival 2015. Photo Credit: Rich Price

Damnation is always one big rush: for fan, organiser, band member, reviewer, and every one of those wonderful unsung heroes that help to run the day. That situation is made worthy by the realisation of the anticipation: all of the friendships forged throughout the day; the fan rubbing shoulders and glasses with the performer; the scribe meeting old friends in the form of fellow scribes, interviewees and Legends. For all of the magical days on a Metal fan’s calendar, there aren’t many to compare with the sheer enjoyment and camaraderie of this first Saturday in November. Amenra didn’t so much steal this one as clutch it to their fractured breasts for all eternity, but there were many more acts making this one so special. This has to be the greatest value-for-money exercise around right now, and the small but heroically dedicated band of organisers has left itself one massive, collective headache to work out how to match this for next year [PQ].

At The Gates at Damnation Festival 2015. Photo Credit: Rich Price

At The Gates at Damnation Festival 2015. Photo Credit: Rich Price

 

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WORDS BY PAUL QUINN

PHOTOGRAPHY BY RICH PRICE

Damnation Festival Part I: Live at Leeds University

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Half an hour after doors opened to the latest instalment of what is surely one of Europe’s premier indoor Metal festivals, my gig buddies and I witnessed a spotty oik giving lip to a (albeit somewhat intolerant) doorman; meanwhile, one or two of said security bod’s less experienced colleagues were being unnecessarily stringent in barring perfectly acceptable entries to the Leeds university Old Bar. Youth, it would seem, is not always the desirable status us old’uns seem hell-bent on recreating…

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The King Is Blind at Damnation Festival 2015. Photo Credit: Rich Price

As if to prove a point, the experienced boys of Colchester’s The King Is Blind ripped the Terrorizer stage a new one with their Blackened Death Doom hybrid and, in doing so, gave Damnation 2015 a fiery opening. The initial crowd had bred tenfold by the end of opener ‘Devoured’, and it was obvious from frontman Stephen John Tovey’s grinning visage that this was as enjoyable for the protagonists. Tovey threw horns with gay abandon and the band produced drops with the weight of a crash of rhino. New track ‘Genesis Refracted’ was lapped up by a crowd which needed a little time to get going, but eventually whipped up a small but vicious ‘pit’.

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Undersmile at Damnation Festival 2015. Photo Credit: Rich Price

Undersmile had the crowd to themselves in the day’s only ‘non-clash’ slot on the Electric Amphetamine (referred to as the ‘Mine), third, stage, and every note of their shuddering Grunge  Drone splintered bone. The screamed “Swim on” refrain of set opener ‘Atacama Sunburn’ disembowelled, the bewitching defiled dolls Hel Sterne and Taz Corona-Brown holding court whilst rhythm partners Olly Corona-Brown and Tom McKibbin waited to deliver the crush. A snaking, pulverising ‘Sky Burial’ concluded a hypnotising yet visceral set and surely gained this prepossessing quartet more fans in the process.

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Wiegedood at Damnation Festival 2015. Photo Credit: Rich Price

The first offering of three from the Belgian ‘Church of Ra’, Wiegedood’s blackened assault packed out the second stage, no doubt partly due to the Amenra connection, but that doesn’t take away from the deeply meaningful assault; whereas our first visit to the Eyesore saw the fiddle-graced Post-Rock of Talons compel a sizeable throng, and my first encounter with the dreadfully affecting, strobing lights.

Beer was flowing freely in the University’s Terrace bar so it was somewhat surprising to see ‘Jack and Alice’s storming burger joint doing less well. Guys, the cheese and bacon special was to die for…!

Positively shocking was the crush to get to see relatively unknown Kent outfit Ohhms at ‘Mine: two minutes into their set showed the reason. Their bluesy, low-end Reef-esque workout was injected with added spice by vocalist Paul Waller whose mad barefoot ‘surfing’ was the Heavy world’s Bez / Ian Brown hybrid. Captivating, dangerous, infectiously active, the whole band created one of the festival’s most talked-about sets.

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Voices at Damnation Festival 2015. Photo Credit: Rich Price

French duo C.R.O.W.N. sought to wrest that mantle but their nevertheless atmospheric, Industrial post-Sludge was lacking in movement. Their hypnotic beats graced by static imagery it was a creative and sonically violent set, lazy yet striking, and musically brilliant which almost switched attention from the lack of stage presence – and those fucking lights that also plagued a dramatic set from Voices, for whom the Akercocke spin-off tag was  firmly banished by the incredible London (Candlelight); their technical darkness holding the room in its thrall despite missing a certain mobility. Over at Jӓgermeister the Church of Ra’s second offering was laying waste: Oathbreaker’s Blackened Hardcore onslaught drew a huge crowd; vocalist Caro Tanghe leading a frantic, animated delivery.

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Sea Bastard at Damnation Festival 2015. Photo Credit: Rich Price

It would have been interesting to see if Sea Bastard would have filled the main room, as ‘Mine was utterly rammed for the eleventh-hour replacement for Black Tusk. This is a band of implosive power, Oli Irongiant’s lofty stature possibly the only thing to dwarf the power of The Riff, and let rip with the set of the day to this point. Oppressive, the shudders displaced vertebrae along with Monty’s coruscating rasp, while Steve Patton and George Leaver based rhythms that would have crushed Everest. Never has the world seen a guitarist who feels every chord like Oli: grimacing, building the riff with sways of his giant body, his roars needed no microphone. Monty’s dreadlocks hung from his face like the monstrous sea creature they portray during forthcoming track ‘The Hermit’, the rare faster sections still trampling most other acts to dust.

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maybeshewill at Damnation Festival 2015. Photo Credit: Rich Price

In complete contrast to Vreid’s vicious yet occasionally inventive Black assault over at Terrorizer, Maybeshewill have decided they’ve been peddling their melodic heaviness for long enough and that’s a great shame. With more than a nod to the likes of Sigur Ros they packed out the notorious left upper room and left few dry eyes in the process: their sound icicle-cold yet sweet, nostalgic and heavy, their effusive thanks incredibly moving. Closing one’s eyes and allowing the pulses of light and utterly heart-breaking sound to wash over the head, it was easy to underestimate the fact that 40 Watt Sun was still to come.

The brittle beauty of the outgoing quintet’s melodic sweep seems apt for the story of Jim Willumsen, once of The Wounded Kings and the late, great Ishmael, now doing his fifth festival of the year as a fan. A protagonist of my favourite-ever gig, he is nevertheless happy with his lack of band involvement for now. “It gives me a chance to see loads of different stuff” said this quiet legend of the low-end. It’s also a fitting soundtrack for a meeting with Ian Davis, as former drummer of Grimpen Mire another crucial ingredient of that night and still mourning his former bandmate Paul van Linden, outside the room.

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The Ocean at Damnation Festival 2015. Photo Credit: Rich Price

The Ocean came complete with cellist and a whole host of atmospherics, aided by my Bee 17 hybrid lager which, at £4:00 for a coke-sized can, seemed steep but it was a very pleasant change from the swill usually found at such events. This all embellished the German ensemble’s largely Prog effect but also contrasted superbly with the harsher elements of their sound. Jӓgermeister’s main stage was suitably packed, making it hard to believe there was a capacity cut for this year, but their set in 2013 benefited more from the vantage points of this year’s Terrorizer room. Ghold’s appearance at ‘Mine didn’t attract the numbers that previous bands had brought to that area but their darkened doom, like a Death-riddled Conan, rattled already battered heads. The inclusion of a guitarist gave their live presence another, more beneficial dimension to that on record.

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Ghold at Damnation Festival 2015. Photo Credit: Rich Price

 

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WORDS BY PAUL QUINN

 PHOTOGRAPHY BY RICH PRICE

So Near The Sky – Hel Sterne and Tom McKibbin of Undersmile

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So, you tell a band that the only thing you haven’t heard of theirs is their debut EP… and they tell you that they’re about to re-release it. A Sea of Dead Snakes (Blindsight) was very Grunge influenced” states Tom McKibbin, drummer with Oxfordshire Drone quartet Undersmile, “and we’ve gone down a much more dirge-infested road since then! We’ve just had another re-pressing done, and given it a purple tint. It’s our ‘Ribena’ edition! It’ll be going out in November, as that’ll be five years since it first came out.”

The band, comprising two couples, has had a number of experiences in their relatively short existence: “We were so disliked in the beginning; we’ve cleared many gigs before now, particularly playing in Oxford!” Tom muses. “Initially you tend to get thrown onto weird, eclectic bills where you don’t belong. One was a Gay Pride gig where they cut the electricity!”

“They came to us and said ‘Stop! You’re making everyone leave!” continues rhythm guitarist / vocalist and Tom’s partner, Hel Sterne, “We couldn’t believe it. Then on came Sassy Ribbons, a drag act…”

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The band’s second album, Anhedonia (Black Bow Records), has been out some months and has met with serious acclaim. Tom is enthusiastic about the reaction: “It’s been really great. The weirdest thing is that it was album of the month in Terrorizer, which you normally feel is reserved for Metallica or Slayer!”

The inclusion of cello on certain tracks has been considered a vital ingredient by many of the album’s admirers: “Taz [Corona-Brown, guitarist / vocalist] and I have always been obsessed with cello”, states Hel.

“We both have similar feelings about melodies, so it was basically something that had to happen. Our cellist Jo Quail is very talented: we told her to just do what she felt, and she did. She just went into that sombre zone which is where we like to lurk!”

There’s a wonderful blend of light and the disturbingly dark in Anhedonia, something that the band are aware of: “It was necessary in order to translate the amount of heartbreak that was intended in some of the songs”, Hel thoughtfully explains. “Some of those things, however, refer to other, nicer times. It’s so important to have contrast.”

“As long as I’ve known Hel and Taz, they’ve naturally gravitated to this close-harmony, slightly discordant edge” Tom feels. “As they’re the main songwriters, that’s what comes out in the music, and Olly [Corona-Brown, bassist] and I just try to bring it along. The Drone influence of Undersmile actually came from loads of different areas: Classical, Indian, Shoegaze, through The Melvins and Earth; but this time we wanted a more dynamic range. It’s nice to get these really clean chords – it has the same effect but with a cleaner, crisper sound. It can still be as mournful as it is with the distortion.”

“I think it can be more mournful” rejoins Hel. “Some people listen to music like that because they find it medicinal, purifying, even though it’s filthy, and I completely understand that. I listen to brainwave entrainment a lot, and I find a similar ‘cocooning’ thing in there too.”

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The band is now with Black Bow Records after releasing stuff on a whole host of labels. “We recorded at Skyhammer, Jon Davis’ (Black Bow founder and Conan leader) studio,” Tom acknowledges. “Jon offered to put Anhedonia out in time for Roadburn, which was really important for us. He’s well-connected of course, people are really interested in what he’s doing, and so that was it. We did our parts over four days; then it was all mixed in sixteen hours’ straight with Chris (Fielding, producer and Conan bassist) who managed to get such a wonderful, natural guitar sound. Obviously we’d be interested in working with Jon again, but it’s just whoever is interested in working with us really. In the past it’s been as a result of friends asking us if they can put stuff out, or friends we’ve made by putting stuff out. They’re all good people.”

Undersmile played two big sets at Roadburn this year – one as themselves, the other as their more acoustic, ‘Grunge Unplugged’ alter-ego Coma Wall – and has two more big sets to come in November. Tom explains further: “We’re playing the memorial gig for Grimpen Mire’s Paul van Linden, who sadly passed away in June. We knew he’d been unwell but his death was still a massive shock. We did a mini-tour with them, Conan and Serpent Venom a couple of years ago and we all got on so well: Paul was always such a lovely guy each time we met. So we’re really honoured to be a part of that. Damnation Festival just came up quite recently. It’s something we’ve wanted to play for a while so it was a ‘no-brainer’, but once we saw the line-up it was incredible! We’re on quite early in the day, so we’ve got the rest of the day to enjoy the music and get drunk!”

So, do the couples ever take a break from each other?! “We have this year, post-Roadburn!” confirms Hel. “We’re all just so busy: there are Taz and Olly’s family commitments; we’ve just moved house; I run an acupuncture clinic and Tom is very career-focused at present; we’ve a lot of material for Coma Wall…with all that, we’re really having to ‘cherry-pick’ gigs. We did realise that we were spending so much time just working – Taz and I are best friends – and we thought ‘when do we actually make time to just go out and do ‘friend’ things?”

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Finishing with another exclusive for Ghost Cult, Hel explains the band’s latest foray into the visual world: “We’ve just finished shooting a video for the Anhedonia track ‘Sky Burial’. So that’ll be two music videos this year!” she laughs.

Stardom? Probably not, but there’s certainly no doubt that the star of this incredibly hard-working, creative and crushing unit is well and truly on the rise.

 

 

WORDS BY PAUL QUINN

Undersmile – Anhedonia

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There’s something unnervingly sweet and endearing about Oxford quartet Undersmile. Comprising two very loved-up couples, there’s also a folkish offshoot, Coma Wall; and a winsome charm to Taz Corona-Brown and Hel Sterne, the female half of the outfit, which belies their stage personae as zombiefied, brutally-defiled dolls. But the music…

The band’s torturously slow style is given a creepy quality by the ladies’ dual vocals: drawled intonations, atonal yet harmonic; expiring breaths emanating from the diseased, throttled, heavily-painted mouths. Near-feathered drums and thrumming bass notes accompany at a measured pace. Sound dull? Far from it. Anhedonia (Black Bow Records) is bloody hypnotic, because you’re waiting for the explosion; a squealing lead winding itself around booming yet crawling rhythms, riffs to crush buildings and barking screams that chill the soul.

The sorrowful opening to ‘Sky Burial’ houses the first employment of the cello which has so awakened the already urgent yet pregnant Undersmile sound, adding a SubRosa-esque quality which is the jigsaw’s missing piece. The accompanying latent chants keep the attention firmly fixed until the brief but spectacular shows of savagery, full of the weight and anger of a protective bull elephant, burst forth. This is the only track to fall under ten minutes, so the uninitiated may feel more comfortable bringing butties and a flask. The already converted, however, will have no such need.

The voices of ‘Song of Stones’ are delicate, honeyed yet shamanic incantations befitting the subject matter, enlivened by brief yet poignant cello/lead duets toward the apocalyptic, brain-dissolving convergence of power. Utterly terrifying Sludge sequences within ‘Atacama Sunburn’ complement the eerie, ghoulish softness and closing melancholy they counter; whilst that folk link is evident in the highly charged, mournful crush of the incredible ‘Aeris’.

Despite the more ponderous sound being the template this is haunting, sinister, sometimes brutal yet downright sexy stuff. It boots debut full-length Narwhal (Future Noise) to the sidelines with its increased flow and depth, and will ensnare the senses of all who encounter it. The hostile quickening and psychotic intonations of metronomic closer ‘Knucklesucker’ is a boiling coda to a remarkable achievement.

 

8.5/10

 

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PAUL QUINN