Leeds University Union, 1st November 2014:
A TORMENTED UNDERGROUND FOCUS
Unsurprisingly, the near entirety of my festival was happening in the smallest of the 4 stage rooms, where back in 2010 I witnessed Anaal Nathrakh and Fukpig causing total carnage. So this live report will focus on the underground face of Damnation.
Expectantly, I entered the tiny photo pit fronting the Eyesore Merch stage, where Falloch were handling a brief soundcheck, to be welcomed by an awful sound and volumes so high that my ears instantaneously and uncharacteristically HURT. Begrudgingly, I went off to borrow a spare pair of earplugs, something totally unprecedented in spite of my life-long predilection for the loudest and most extreme forms of underground music. Is there anything worse than trying to appreciate wonderfully layered, dark atmospheric music through a pair of second hand spongy plugs?... I wouldn't even want to listen to the most lo-fi, rawest of black metal bands from those! Adding to this unexpected travesty, throughout the event the sound - in this room in particular - was shit, ranging from abysmally shit to pretty shit. As I travel far to live concerts to enjoy my favourite music, not to socialise (I proudly boast misanthropic black metal DNA through and through) or to pose while exercising heavy-duty arse-licking (again, I hold a distinctively authentic black metal perspective on the role of media), expect my tormented, honest live report to feature the occasional unpopular remark. It was a roller-coaster experience...
FALLOCH were down on my Damnation list as one of the bands I had wanted to see live in a long time. In their case, I believed they could surprise me with extra shades and layers to their captivating post rock infused with BM spirit. With my ears still aching, sadly I soon had to accept that the torturous sound coupled with excessively high volumes was marring my experience. The guys had to be admired for giving their all but, in the end, I had to give up on forming an opinion on a live performance that surely did not reflect this band's actual potential.
The larger Terrorizer stage was a different proposition for WINTERFYLLETH, who seem to have struck it big. They were of course magnificent, both their old and new material absolutely majestic and engaging. Yet it surprised me that they could effortlessly fill a very large room with a roaring crowd, while equally good bands were performing in the smallest of the rooms, largely ignored by the majority photographers occupied elsewhere. Obviously Winterfylleth must have sold a lot of albums: good for them!
Back to the Earsore, sorry, Eyesore stage, I was still hopeful to be treated to a dazzler by THE band I had tried to catch live so many times but failed, until today: <code>. As a member of the Avant-garde Metal family, this was of course a highly tantalising proposition on so many levels, and my curiosity was especially high since their latest album did not seduce me as I had hoped it would.
The Londoners took the stage by storm, producing the best sound this unforgiving venue accommodated throughout the entire event. They were simply punishing. Wacian's vox was fantastic, excellent all round: so nice to see someone who can really sing for a change! During a short break due to a small technical setback, he had a good-hearted banter with an audience showing a lot of appreciation for the band's first presence in the north of England.
They carried on from where they had left, with powerful aggression which supplied the kind of fuel I thought was missing from the recordings, and a level of musicianship that allowed their music to come up trumps against the dreaded evil PA system! <code> were very enjoyable, including the furious windmills from the flame-haired bass player and the vocalist, who surely has a neck of steel! Pity Aort and Andras were hidden behind the speaker tower, in almost complete darkness, during the entire show due to lack of stage space. I look forward to the new album, and do make sure to catch them live (Arnhem, 28th November, with Laster!).
Amazingly, my schedule was not plagued by any major clashes, although there was no time whatsoever between performances from different stages. So when <code> finished, SOLSTAFIR were starting upstairs on the second largest stage, the PHD. Running through the maze of busy corridors was no mean feat, especially because it was extremely easy to bump into known faces to say hi to (no sign of Frank Healy, this time, since he was probably busy at the VIP's bar for the duration of the fest).
Back to the small room, for a local band I am extremely fond of: A FOREST OF STARS. I was very keen to sample the new emphasis their guitar personnel change had brought to the eclectic sound of the 7-strong Victorian gentleman & lady's club. It was clear from soundcheck onwards that the band had the usual problems with insufficient monitor volumes, but from my own perspective I thought I could certainly live with what I heard from the front of the stage, so much so that, with a huge sigh of relief, I safely tucked my earplugs away!
The return of Mr T.S. Kettleburner certainly proved positive for AFOS: while Duncan Evans concentrates on his singer-songwriter talents, the original founder member brought back a darker metal edge that works wonders within the overall alchemy. They sounded more aggressive and contemporary, with the drumming finally coming through as more determinant with its complex patterns, creating a clearer juxtaposition with the eerie melodies crafted by synth and violin alike.
The charming, daring balancing act between the mysteries of a bygone era and modernity (a necessary evil embraced even by The Gentleman's himself, busy behind laptop, keyboard and extra percussions) seems to have been successfully reassessed and calibrated to perfection. This could strongly propel them, once again, towards the intangible realm of the avant-garde. We shall see if the new album, possibly to be expected for the beginning of 2015, will confirm my impressions.
AFOS' show suitably ended with the breath-taking "Corvus Corona", splendid epilogue to the memorable A Shadowplay for Yesterdays, which is, quite incredibly, already two and a half years old, but feels as fresh as ever for dealing with universal human emotions with touching realism and powerful poetry.
Mister Curse, looking perfect with a shaven head and a longer beard than usual, looked fragile and spookily intense as he persistently stared into a dark void above the crowd's head filled with an orgy of grim ghosts.
Then, as customary Victorian politeness requires, the entire band gathered to the front of the stage and bowed in front of a cheering packed room, while the front rows loudly chanted "Yorkshire, Yorkshire".
I cannot state enough how heart-warming and satisfying it is to see musicians who do not abuse the usual fashionable ingredients but rather, creatively mould their own multifaceted personalities without fear of creating something that does not "fit in". AFOS are truly unique within an underground "scene" where originality is drowning underneath tons of white make-up, monk robes, candles and ritualistic rants no-one above the age of 15 truly cares about.
I thoroughly enjoyed AFOS to the very end, and that meant I had to dash towards the nearby Terrorizer stage while holding my fingers tightly crossed: ANAAL NATHRAKH were on, and I expected a huge crowd. Well I was wrong, the crowd was in fact monstrous, spilling out of the doors and bursting with excitement!
The band had just taken to the stage. I pushed my way through with determination while the incredible Dave Hunt, one of my heroes if I had any, was saluting the fans. I almost reached my target, the stairs to the floor, which led to the photo pit: I was tantalisingly close, but I realised that from then on I was facing an unsurmountable human wall. About 25 meters from the stage, the area around the short flight of stairs was so tightly packed that no-one could move. Pissed off beyond belief, I also felt very concerned by the fact that, if anything went wrong, in such conditions it would have been impossible to reach for the nearest exit. Squashed amongst big, tall metallers and feeling claustrophobic, I slowly retracted backwards to sneak along the still heaving perimeter of the hall, hoping to reach the balconies. Eventually, swimming my way along one of the bars, I finally caught a glimpse of the stage, until I reached the front of the right hand side balustrade, from where I beheld a sea of people going nuts in unison, from front to back row.
Live Nathrakh is something else, a creature that transcends its own recordings by miles: the brutality, energy and rawness of the performance is almost unparalleled thanks to the fantastic musical (and, crucially, personal) legacy of all the band members, who started their journey from the mythical days of UK crust-metal, directly following on to the magic dawn of Norwegian black metal. This, and the fact that they are incredibly nice and down-to-earth people, gives them something special over most of today's metal acts. Those who share the same background will understand perfectly what I mean... But the good thing is, Dave, Mick Kenney and friends, can effortlessly seduce any uninitiated crowd, because the early days of extreme metal are, by now, embedded in everyone's subconscious (and perhaps too often taken for granted).
Nathrakh are a force of nature made of throbbing flesh and big hearts: on a stage, only DHG can be as infectious and powerful, because they also have that unmistakable old-school attitude and passion that adds another dimension to their elating/obliterating sound. AN represent a rare form of truly extreme, intensely dark, profoundly human and firmly underground type of metal that is just too fucking real and universal for genre-boxing, and it is a damn shame that the more elitist black metal community does not often have the chance to experience a live show like this.
There is a lot to learn from this outstanding band.
I surfed through the crowd for an early exit: it was WODENSTHRONE's turn to play Russian roulette with the Eyesore room's sound. I caught their soundcheck, which was not good from the front of the stage, while the musicians themselves felt worried and frustrated about not being able to hear anything from the monitors. Of all the acts playing on this stage, this was the one I wanted to have a perfect sound... I truly cherish their two albums, and they blew me away when I attended their shows in the past.
Wodensthrone belong to the small elite of bands which have the Drudkh legacy carved in their hearts and spirit: the manner in which they embrace the love for their northern land is truly sincere and universal, and the beauty and their music moves and elevates me like few bands can. Understandably, I felt gutted that a poor sound (ulteriorly falsified by the earplugs) would interfere with the rendition of tracks that have the power to transport me to a dazzling place. And I felt indignant that I was alone in the photo pit for them.
Still, in spite of the sub-standard sound on offer, Wodensthrone performed with guts and passion, fighting like warriors to try and do justice to their beautiful music and give us a powerful experience. And they came out as victors, ending the show with the amazing, beyond-epic final track of their splendid Curse, "The Name of the Wind". Spine-tingling stuff... Easily one of the best pagan black metal bands around.
AHAB were performing on the PHD stage, a very welcome funeral doom break. It is a genre I particularly enjoy, and I welcomed the opportunity to see this band again. Captain Droste is one of the most understated musicians you can meet (I have never seen him wearing black), but his music is as lightless, vast and treacherous as the oceanic abysses. It pleases me that their popularity is well established in the UK, but on the night sound-wise they did not blow me away as back in 2011 in Madrid.
Back to Eyesore for the last time, feeling a little anxious for headliners FEN: these days their music has evolved so much that only a good live sound would do it justice. They were of course clashing with Bolt Thrower too... Having had the privilege to see the Midlands' legends many times since their inception, from rehearsals to multiple tours, the last of which being a great UK club tour with Rotting Christ and Benediction 4 years ago, it was a no brainer for me to choose Fen on the night, even though I was taking a gamble...
In a deserted room, the trio took its time with the soundcheck, Frank's face looking particularly gloomy.
Hopeful, I took my place in a once again deserted photo pit and the band eventually kicked off to a good crowd of devoted fans. With those damn earplugs hanging from the edge of my ear holes, as I nervously sought for some decent shots, I began increasingly worried about not being able to connect with the music...
A couple of hurried photographers finally joined me and began using the flash quite heavily, which added extra sensorial annoyance. This unloved stage had no other props but fixed standard lighting, no fancy colours in sight, so it was fairly bright and devoid of atmosphere (at least somewhat present in some photos due to time consuming manipulation). Surely that was an added challenge for both punters and musicians, but come on, throughout my life I have witnessed superb gigs played in right shiteholes, from clammy, smelly dumps to spartan, tiny pubs with no stage... Could a pair of, surely cursed, earplugs cause so much damage?
I felt insanely frustrated! But I was certainly not giving up on trying to enjoy the British kings of atmospheric black metal, being especially keen to hear the tracks from the new album "Carrion Skies". I unsuccessfully moved around the floor fora while in search of good listening spot, then I made my way up towards the sparsely occupied small raised balcony to the side of the stage. The Watcher, Grungyn and Derwydd were giving their all, and it was good to see the fans cheering them energetically. And yet I was still unable to connect on a deep level with music that means a lot to me personally. I had to admit defeat: there was no big ending for me this time around.
Upon leaving, I felt like a lost soul. At the taxi ramp the queue was already fairly long and the cabs too slow to arrive. To add further misery, when I finally reached the front of the queue, a bunch of rude idiots nicked my taxi. But maybe wyrd was at work there: I got onto the next one, only to find the nicest driver ever. With his beaming smile and knowing black eyes, he cheered me up by playing me some wonderful traditional Hindu music revisited through sleek and adventurous electronica (something I have always been a big fan of). The warm, tingling sounds bursting with metaphysical sensuality poured like golden honey on my raw wounds...
By the time I opened the door to my hotel room, I felt somewhat healed: in the darkness, I was greeted by the spectacle of Leeds city lights. Now it all made sense. A comfortable, familiar thought surfaced from my subconscious: Tantric Metal is the way...
Wyrd is flying!