Monday, 3 November 2014

Live Review #013: Damnation Festival 2014: Bolt Thrower, Ahab, Saint Vitus et al.

I woke up tired, unreasonably early but necessarily on Saturday morning and slumped onto a train to Leeds. Later in that same session of being concious, I slumped off a different and opposite-directional train feeling even more tired on Sunday afternoon. At some point in between, I was at Damnation Festival, and between two caffeine dependant pieces of life-bread, the filling of this weekend sandwich was truly exquisite. Lured from my lofty northern castle of gratuitous metal elitism by the promise of Bolt Thrower - among other fantastic bands - I decided that I had reached the point in my life where going relatively far away from home to see bands had become very much worth-while. Conversely, it appears I have not yet reached a point in life where I'm sensible enough to get a hotel-room, as seven hours sitting in a railway station waiting for the first train home would go to show. Regardless, as I'm about to elucidate, it was very much worth it - in fact, one of the best things I've ever undertaken in the name of metal.

I've never faced the prospect of quite so many bands over quite so many stages before - especially as someone who hasn't done any multiple-day outdoor festivals at all. Regardless, looking at the line-up, there wasn't going to be too much loitering around. The timetabling was quite fortunate however; there were relatively few difficult-decision creating clashes, and none which involved missing bands I wanted to see but hadn't seen before. Of course, that's the thing with festivals - the occupational hazard, if you will, which can't really be avoided -  missing bands completely, missing the first songs by some, the last songs by others - it's a much more muddled experience than a normal show, especially considering it's also a good deal longer, and a lot of people end up a good deal less sober. Regardless, somehow my reserves of energy lasted all the way through the day.

I arrived early enough to wonder around aimlessly and work out where things were for a bit before the bands started... or at least, by that I mean I stood in various unexplored stretches of corridor announcing "where the fuck is this?" to nobody in particular. Eventually I blundered into people I knew, chatted for a while, and then, as the bands started, went down to see Amputated. As with the last time I saw them, the band deliver tight, enjoyable brutal-death metal with plenty of slams. As ever, extremely fun, and with some of the best slams in the UK, Party Cannon not withstanding. I'm not usually a brutal-death guy, but when it's live and in-the-flesh like this, it's extremely enjoyable. Considering it was 1pm, the enthusiasm and busyness on the part of the crowd - and the band too - was very positive, and one heck of an omen on how packed (albeit not, as some seemed to think, oppressively so) it was going to become. Amputated offered a very solid, professional and rigorously tight opening act, and managed to avoid the bad-sound which haphazardly preyed on bands throughout the evening.

I missed the last Amputated song to catch Bast on the smallest stage down even more stairs. I don't like leaving bands early, but at festivals it's usually a bit of a must. Regardless, Bast are one of the most interesting doom bands in the UK, levelling an absorbing, exciting and dynamic wave of crushing and memorable music at the assembled crowd. As a band, they traverse high tempos just as well as they do slow, with classic sounding doom-riffs mingling with atmospheric, almost avant-garde black-metal wizardry to create something which to my ear either hasn't - or has very seldom - been done before. Be sure to see them live if you can. When they were finished, I took a break for a while; got a drink, wondered around looking at merch and talking to people I know; essentially the usual stuff; I investigated Obsidian Kingdom but decided they weren't really my cup-of-tea after a while - and so I won't offer much in way of review.

The next band I saw were Leeds' very own Black Moth, who are above all things extremely fun, dispensing Sabbath-worship riffs and enjoyable vocal-patterns courtesy of their enthusiastic front-woman. They had a good-sized crowd, reasonably good sound, and are definitely a band I could see myself getting into - although I hadn't listened to more than a couple of their songs beforehand this time, which is always debilitating to my ability to say anything. The vocals could have done with a little bit of reverb to sweeten the deal, but beyond that, very positive - it's a shame, in fact, that I left early - and very prematurely, as it happened - to get to a different stage. 

Watching my countrymen in Falloch sound-check was an exercise in realising that I could still be seeing Black Moth. When they did begin their set, however, it was enjoyable enough; I'm not the biggest fan, especially of the vocals, but they certainly do some justice to their soaring post rock in the live setting. Atmospheric, well-delivered and tight, albeit as with Black Moth, the vocals lacked the reverb they needed. My final verdict before I left to catch Winterfylleth was one of some enjoyment, although I'd be lying to claim I was especially excited. I'm glad for them they drew a good crowd however, especially considering that I've seen them perform to about ten people in a room previously. 

I've even highlighted the bands I saw, quake mortals, at my generosity!

I arrived at the Terrorizer stage just before Winterfylleth began. They're a band I've heard many people praise live, and they weren't wrong. The whole set is a schooling in the excellence of tight execution; there's barely a hair out of place as track after track of grandiose and powerful black-metal. I've been listening to the band for a long time, and they every bit lived-up to my enthusiasm in the live setting. While I haven't listened to the new record yet, and thus didn't know a song or two, the band managed to faithfully recreate their formula live with all of its glory and vast-scale, even as a four-piece, and with only - and I forget - either a very minimal or totally non-existant backing track; an achievement indeed. Following Winterfylleth, I spent the next while socialising and communing with the spirits - namely J├Ągermeister. 

The next band I saw were A Forest of Stars. The first time I saw the band, in 2012 they stole the show - a truly fantastic and sublime performance, and quite a feat considering the headlining band was Wodensthrone, a favourite of mine at the time. By contrast, this time around was a bit of a sad affair. Not the band's fault at all - I considered and still consider them to be among the best bands out there. They performed a solid show... or... I expect they did, but I don't know, because couldn't hear them at all; the sound on the Eyesore Merch stage at this point seemed to have become so poor that A Forest of Stars - one of the most interesting and fantastic black-metal bands I've ever encountered - were sadly reduced to incoherent rumbling interspersed with soul-crushing feedback. Apparently the sound was a bit better at the front... but from where I was standing, all I could do was watch while one of the best bands in the building was mercilessly robbed of their time to shine. At least they're a band I know I can count on to return stronger than ever someday.

I leave the Eyesore Merch stage a little early to catch the beginning of Anaal Nathrakh. I've seen the band twice before, and while the latter of those times was relatively recent, I quite like to see a band often enough to compare and contrast their performances. This time around, I have to endure a few tracks from the new record... It's one I've heard mixed things about, but personally I'm not a fan. The backing track is so excessive and loud that I feel like I'm watching a miming act. Fortunately, this is scaled back a little by the time they play a selection of the classics. The last song I catch before heading upstairs is Between Shit and Piss We are Born - a personal favourite, and a fan favourite too. As ever, Dave Hunt has impeccable stage banter, and the band have a good stage presence, but this time around - as with the last time - they are a little underwhelming compared to my initial experience of them.

My reason for heading upstairs early is, fortunately, a good one. It's a certain little band called Saint Vitus. I've seen the before, and god damn it I'd happily see them ten times more. This evening, they're extremely energetic, and on exceptionally good form - the set is a true lesson in exactly what doom is all about. The songs are tight, with a fantastically thick guitar tone, truly giving a larger-than-life rendition of how they sound on Born Too Late - incidentally an album which they had set out to play all of. Wino delivers superbly good vocals, and both him and the rest of the band are possessed with an energy and enthusiasm which is truly inspiring. As expected, Dave Chandler delivers many an exuberant wah-laden solo, transporting everyone back to a time where electric-guitars were the coolest things on the planet... and let's not lie, that time endures to this day. After a few songs from other records, the band set out upon "the pink record", playing several tracks from it before (I can only assume) playing the title-track to rapturous applause. By that point, however, as much as I love Saint Vitus, I had moved back through the building to get to Ahab - it's a shame, but it had to be done.

I was truly filled with anticipation for Ahab. Ahab are a band which I only discovered a year or two ago, but one which has already had a massive, massive impact on me. Their mournful and crushing funeral doom have carried me through some difficult days in my life - or at least, as difficult as the days of a fairly lucky middle-class-in-denial university student can be. Live, their music is tight, and inspiring, and while the sound was too quiet for a few minutes, soon enough I'm swept away by their beautiful music. It's heavy, it's gorgeous, and it utterly lives up to the studio-albums. The clean vocals lament and soar, while the harsh vocals crush beneath the waves. The riffs are undulating and the lead work glimmering and fantastic, while the drums steadfastly keep time flawlessly. For me, Ahab may well be the band of the night, playing some of their best songs with incredible presence and talent. I've been lost at sea sometimes in my life - not literally, but metaphors are my spirit-animal - and sometimes the sound of Ahab's music coming across the waves and lifting me free from the raft of the Medusa has been what turned a foul day fair. They manage to draw a massive crowd despite clashing with Cannibal Corpse, and personally, I'd prefer them any day. They over-ran by about ten minutes, so, worried that I was missing Bolt Thrower, I scuttled-off quite quickly when Ahab's sprawling, fantastic set drew to a close.

The best part of a few thousand people were between me and Bolt Thrower when I arrived at the main stage. On the plus side, I'd managed to see all of Ahab without missing a second of Bolt Thrower, arriving on stage about five minutes before hostilities commenced. Their set included - indeed favoured - a lot of tracks from Those Once Loyal; The Killchain, Dead Armour and As Cannons Fade, to my recollection - possibly more. Conversely, I recall nothing from In Battle There is No Law, which was interesting - even a little unexpected, as I anticipated at least the title track. The band seem to favour the refined formula of their Warmaster-and-beyond years. This selection merges into being a little bit samey after a while. Not a bad samey however, let that be said. Some bands are a buffet, a smorgasbord. Bolt Thrower are a meal of one thing - but it's the best cooked, most delicious instance of that one thing you've ever, ever tasted.

Bolt Thrower more or less live up to their legendary status. As I remarked at the time, they didn't exactly glide onto the stage, levitating, with ancient and holy relics for instruments, but they certainly have one heck of a presence. A presence which I could just about appreciate from time to time given that I was behind people who are taller than me, and I can only manage tiptoes for so long at a time. The band shake the foundations of the building with their unique and crushing riff-style, intricate but devastating, with a guitar tone which sounds like the revving of an armour-division. They play several encores before calling it a night, playing more than they were billed to, and probably to most of the attendance of the entire festival... my sympathies - deepest sympathies - go to Fen, the only band with whom they clashed. Bolt Thrower utterly befit their legendary status, and over the course of an hour or so, proved it. They're only human... but they're humans who got damn good at playing death metal, and it was fantastic to see what almost appeared to be the entire underground gathered to witness it. It was, as I think Karl Willets said between songs, "a celebration of life through death metal".

Ultimately, I was drawn to Damnation first by Bolt Thrower - a band it is so rare to have the chance to witness, and I'm very glad to have seen. However, it was so much more than that too - a pleasure to see so many good bands, and a pleasure to see the UK metal scene out in force. The countless conversations with people I knew; long-term friends, acquaintances, people I've seen once or twice over the years, members of bands I've had the pleasure to share bills with in my band. It was one of the best and most tiring days of my life, and I'm eternally glad I decided to go.

In a World of Compromise... some sit for seven hours in the station waiting for the first train home. Whether hotels are a compromise or not is up for debate. For next year's sake, I hope not.

Bolt Thrower: Official Site | Metal-Archives
Ahab: Official Site | Facebook | Metal-Archives
Saint Vitus: Official Site | Facebook | Metal-Archives
Anaal Nathrakh: Facebook   | Metal-Archives
A Forest of Stars: Facebook  | Metal-Archives
Winterfylleth: Official Site | Facebook | Metal-Archives
Falloch: Official Site | Facebook | Metal-Archives
Black Moth: Facebook | Metal-Archives
Bast: Facebook | Metal-Archives 
Amputated: Facebook | Metal-Archives