2010 seems to be the year that festivals in
West Yorkshire subtly alter their regular venues to be slightly more uncomfortable for the punters. Infest was held in the awkwardly rebuilt Bradford University Student Union, and Damnationfest followed suit by downgrading the rooms utilised in the Leeds University Student Union, so that the expansive Refectory has fallen by the wayside – the far cosier Stylus now acting as the main stage.
There is still a fair amount of room to maneuver for most bands, and it is likely to be a symptom of falling ticket sales or venue preference rather than any organisational issues. But I still hope next year brings a return to the Refectory. It is a somewhat snotty complaint to make, since being sited at the Union means that the festival essentially has an onsite bakery and supermarket. I now firmly believe that these things should be standard for all gigs. Frankly, from this day forward if I can't buy tasty, piping hot sausage rolls at a gig I will be giving them a shit review. Priorities, people.
In any case, on to the bands. I arrived somewhat tardy so missed a good clump of opening acts, but just in time to catch the reunited comedy thrash veterans Lawnmower Deth on the aforementioned Stylus stage. One thing extreme metal festivals cannot be said to possess in excess is a sense of humour, and in that regard it was refreshing to arrive at the proceedings with a blast of good fun. There were balloons flying around and crowdsurf racing involving a chap in corpse paint and a sombrero. Grim and gritty it was not. Not being overly familiar with their material I was at a bit of a loss as to whether their short blasts of punky riffage were particularly apt, but as the crowd seemed to lap it up greedily I am guessing they were anything but a disappointment to the gathered faithful.
From the old school to the relatively youthful, as I moved into (the utterly inappropriately sized) Pulse to catch October File. Every time I catch this band I marvel at how they seem to be slowly morphing into a metal Killing Joke, and this was no exception. Lots of stompy, precise and crunchy guitars and pounding drums. Ben Hollyer's vocals in particular are almost a direct parallel to Jaz Coleman at his most abrasive, and their pseudo-apocalyptic imagery isn't a million miles away either. They manage to stay just on the right side of the influence/imitation boundary by wedging in a good quantity of Machine Head-style grinding beatdowns, but I can't help but feel that by extending their range a little bit they might find their own feet rather than doing an (admittedly very enjoyable) job of swanning about in the shadow of the mighty 'Joke. I resolved to steer clear of the Pulse stage for the rest of the day, since it was clear from the sound in the confined space of the room that no band playing there would be audibly at the top of their game.
But that was just as well, since it was more or less time for a triple whammy of quality acts back in Stylus, which would more or less take me through to the close of the proceedings. It wasn't long before reunited British metal heroes earthtone9 took to the stage, and proceeded to roundly blow every other act out of the water with a rousing and triumphant return performance. I am moderately ashamed to say that I never caught them live in their heyday, but this more than made up for my awful past. The likes of "Star Damage For Beginners", "Withered" and "approx. purified" were object lessons in beautiful brutality, with Karl Middleton's angel/demon vocals a display of primal power for the similarly layered instrumentation to revolve around. The band practically radiated good cheer and a sense of thankfulness at the worshipful reaction they received – it is a rare and beautiful thing when an audience and a band feed off each other in a cycle of energetic enthusiasm until a kind of synchronised mindless joy is achieved, but this was certainly one of those occasions. It is mostly pointless trying to describe et9 to people who haven't heard them before, as they genuinely occupy a niche all of their own. Cerebral but brutal with an almost Eastern feel to the melodies threaded through the towering riffage. Back in the day the British music press (bastards to a man) liked to call them 'art metal' while they masturbated furiously over their ability to coin irrelevant genre definitions. They were also frequently called the 'British answer to Tool', which really is utterly devoid of any meaning.
What this gig showed is that, more than anything, they were unique and vital. Metal with balls and brains, this is something that we need in 2010 more than ever before. Welcome back chaps. You have been sorely missed.
After I had finished quivering and dribbling stunned praise to anyone within earshot, it was time for Paradise Lost. Another band who I have somehow managed to consistently miss live despite having been a huge fan for the last 15 years or so. It is in a way fortunate that I have used up all of my gloriously positive vocabulary for earthtone9, since this long-overdue viewing was something of a different story.
Musically they were spot-on and captivating. The setlist wasn't particularly objectionable, although their mid-period material stood out a long way as both their best writing and clearly what they as a band enjoyed performing the most – particularly “Enchantment” and “One Second", both of which produced roars of approval from the crowd. Out of their newer material, only “The Enemy” really stood out with its gorgeously hypnotic grind of a middle eight.
So what was the problem? Unfortunately, it's the shitty attitude of a guy called Nick Holmes who just so happens to be the vocalist. You know a performer has an axe to grind when they introduce one of their oldest, most popular songs with "We wrote this years ago when we were kids. I hated it then, I hate it now. Sing along if you know it, I can't be arsed."
Right. Ok, Mr Holmes. The problem is that we can be arsed. Because we've spent quite a bit of cash over the years buying your albums and your merch and hey, also on this here gig ticket. An objectionable attitude is something that can just about be pulled over by the right band, but when your stock in trade is melodic gothic metal you just come across as a right twat. It is quite clear that playing the gig is a bit of an inconvenience for him, and the contemptuous vibe spills right out into the crowd where several pits come very close to turning into outright brawls. To be fair, the rest of the band seem to have no such problem and they more or less carry the gig to its conclusion in a fit state. I had been warned about this particular facet to Paradise Lost performances well in advance, but it still left me with a foul taste in my mouth.
I would say that I enjoyed them, but in spite of this attitude rather than because of it. That is disappointing, because it is shoddy and unprofessional behaviour from an act approaching 20 years in age.
And so on to the headliners, The Dillinger Escape Plan. Perhaps an odd choice for a festival centred on more traditional metal acts, but their popularity is more than apparent by the packed nature of the Stylus stage as their slot approaches. Uncompromising is perhaps the best way to describe the band both on record and live, and it is certainly a wake-up call after the snarky malaise of Paradise Lost. They approach the performance like an invading army, flinging themselves around the stage and throwing shapes as if suffering from some group nervous system disorder. You could believe that from the construction of their insanely elaborate and blindingly intense music as well. The only clue that they are not in fact experiencing some hideously painful contortions of the brain and body is that technically their musicianship is ridiculously adept. As both a critic and a musician I have precisely zero comprehension of how one of the guitarists (either Ben Weinman or Jeff Tuttle, they move around much too fast to actually identify from the somewhat distant position I had occupied) can climb up a 12 foot amp stack, swing his guitar entirely around his body and then leap to the ground while still maintaining a tight, lucid grip on the spasming time signatures that DEP seem to pull out of thin air.
The band as a whole perform flawlessly and with a sense of confidence that is staggering considering that other, perfectly competent bands would struggle to play their material while standing still and concentrating with constipated expressions wracking their faces. If anything the experience is almost too intense, a combination of sound and movement and strobe lights that leaves me exhausted even sat on the floor watching from a balcony at the back of the room. By the time half of their set has passed I am bereft of my senses from a day of heaviness capped with this audio-visual barrage, and crawl home on my hands and knees, muttering obscenities with pupils ten inches wide.
That is a recommendation, in case you were wondering.
(Post-script: Nick Holmes' Twitter feed declared that this gig was his favourite in the band’s history. I would hate to see a performance on a bad day. In addition, several other reviews I have read prior to publishing this have lauded their performance. Perhaps I am being harsh. But the end result for me and several other audience members of my acquaintance was as described, so I will remain steadfast until corrected or made to feel excessively guilty.)