Sunday, 4 November 2012

Gig Review: Damnationfest 2012

So it's that time of year again when I can write a review of a metal festival, post it, then link to it in as many places as possible so that a vast array of meatheads can email me and post comments to tell me LOL UR GAY GWAR WER AWESUM etc. Admittedly, Gwar didn't play Damnationfest this year. But you get the general idea.

Note for Damnationfest organisers: get Gwar in for next year. If there isn't any simulated sex onstage between bandmembers and people in penguin costumes, I'm not coming.

As always for a large multi-stage festival, this review comes loaded with the caveat that I am one man who quite enjoys standing or sitting in one spot for some length of time, and so I will be covering a small subsection of the 23 bands that played this year. You want me running around taking copious notes based on two tracks caught from each performer? Fucking pay me.

The festival itself was as well-structured and maintained as ever – set times were adhered to, there was a hefty merchandise and stall area, and the Student Union site allows for a thorough raiding of a small supermarket and bakery when alcohol and crushing noise just aren't enough. This more than makes up for the inevitable navigation nightmare that ensues in tight winding corridors when bands finish and their sweaty herd decides to take a stroll to another stage. Speaking of stages, a return to a larger stage layout from the last time I attended (2010, fact fans) was more than welcome. With The Refectory as the largest stage, sometimes it was even possible to attain breathing space in the audience.

So, music then. I kickstarted my day with the first band available – the brutal and incendiary Ravens Creed, who filter old school metal and thrash through a sludgey funnel to produce riffs so meaty that they bleed on their way out of the speakers. It is bastard heavy stuff, which fills the tight confines of the Eyesore stage in an extremely satisfying fashion. All this and a quick derogatory reference to hipsters before launching into a song titled “Stand Up And Be Cunted”. Recommended.

Ravens Creed
Next I wander along to the The Atrocity Exhibit, who peddle a fairly bog standard approach to crusty grindcore with strong death metal elements. It is technically accomplished stuff and there is, to turn a phrase, nowt wrong wi' it. But there's also nothing to particularly fire my enthusiasm. They come across as lineup-filler to my ears. If the genre is your bag, you might feel differently. Onwards to Hawk Eyes, the openers on the main stage. These guys probably fit comfortably into the post-hardcore bracket. But as discussed on this august site previously, who the fuck doesn't? This is Mike Patton worship at a fairly advanced level, melody and chaos being thrust at the crowd in equal measure. There are haircuts, but obviously some talent behind them. As a Leeds band they are carrying the local banner proudly, and certainly are in possession of a fine example of the Leeds alternative sound. I know what I mean by that. No one else ever seems to. What, you want clarity? Go read a mainstream site. I was tempted to stay and catch some more, but time was against me.

Hang The Bastard
And I was quite glad it was, in the end. It allowed me to catch a good chunk of the elegantly-named Hang The Bastard, who are probably the most polite sludgecore band on the planet. In a genre populated almost exclusively by heavily-bearded men who like to drink heavily and punch their fans in the face, it is refreshing to be addressed from stage in-between tectonic slabs of metal by a chap who speaks to a baying crowd like they are his girlfriend's mum. They do what they do very well – and let's not fool ourselves here, every sludge band on the planet sounds exactly the same. Variations on Eyehategod and Iron Monkey, rinse and repeat. It's a genre that wallows proudly in its influences, and while I usually find that cause for concern I'm happy to make an exception for the likes of Hang The Bastard. They have the requisite number of fat bastards, colossal grooving riffs and glass-in-throat gargling to make me a happy man. Another promising find.

Upon removing myself to the Eyesore stage again to see Wodensthrone, I find that in my absence a vast swathe of the attendees have engaged in asexual reproduction to form an impenetrable mass that I can only access via wedging myself between the bar, other stinking humans and a wheelchair access device. This is ridiculously uncomfortable, but I suffer through the incredible pain (probably more than you have ever experienced) to see a fair whack of the set. From my agonising position near the back of a low room with a grooved, curved ceiling and multiple open spaces to either side (detail I will throw in to make any sound engineers reading this bite the back of their hand in terror) most of what I can hear is a muffled cacophony of guitars and distorted keyboards. Using my sensitive and astounding critic powers, I can tell that Wodensthrone are something pretty damn impressive. Atmospheric, melodic black metal played right down the nose. The band themselves are obviously engrossed in their performance, which has a knock-on effect of drawing the audience in despite a relative lack of movement or extroverted energy onstage. Having lost several limbs in my contorted position, I retreat after catching enough of them to ensure they are a quality Jormungandr-bothering enterprise.

The stage empties out significantly for the next band I catch, Blacklisters. Which is a shame, and probably largely because they fall under the aforementioned category of 'hipster' for the majority of metalheads attending. That's not to say they're not, mind. But if they are, then they are top-notch hipster entertainment. Spasming noise rock that doesn't sound a million miles away from an amped-up Shellac being fed into a woodchipper, the major flaw in a performance more physical than most is that they give off a palpable sense of too-cool-for-this that they get away with primarily because they are fucking good at what they are doing. They're probably a bunch of cunts, but that's kind of alright when their music makes every odd-numbered organ in your body leap twelve feet to the left.

Back to the main stage for Textures, a band I seem to not be able to get behind despite their influences being big favourites of mine. But I think that is largely the problem. It's all second-hand Meshuggah riffs alternated with melodic sections that sound like either Devin Townsend or Alice In Chains, depending on what the band felt like the day they wrote it. And trust me, I realise that sounds awesome. But in execution, it lacks something significant. While as a whole the songs sound polished and slick – which is to their detriment in and of itself – transitions between thundering djent and lofty melody are sudden, awkward and ill-timed. Truly less than the sum of their parts, Textures just come across as a fusion of different derivative elements. I will say this, though – they have a better stage presence as a whole band than any other act over the entire day. Shame about the music.

The next band I attempt to see are Bossk, but it becomes clear that actually getting into the Eyesore stage is more trouble than it is worth and may involve stabbing a good number of people to actually move forward ten or so feet. If I was a less charitable man I might claim that this was down to a great number of local scene pricks hanging out by the bar and talking over the music in a pathetic attempt to accrue points for being there. But I am nothing if not charitable, so let's move on.

Gama Bomb
Gama Bomb take to the stage some time later, and it is clear that they have quite a following for a band halfway up the lineup. I can see why, too. Kind of. They play thrash metal on the punkier end of the spectrum, full of lyrics about zombies and evil and haha what a jolly lark it is to be in a metal band blah blah blah. Which I admit is probably very appealing if you're not me, and therefore crippled by cynicism and pretension. The band themselves are clearly as happy to play as the crowd are to hear them, and almost completely defuse any criticism I might make of them playing derivative mediocre material with a 'comedy' spin (the inverted commas are because to produce successful comedy, you need actual jokes and not just to write songs about daft things) by reading out amusing critiques of them - containing sentiments much the same as what I was thinking while watching - to the audience, and remaining pretty self-aware of their limitations throughout. So well played, Gama Bomb. I didn't particularly like you, but now feel like a bit of a dick for it. Well played.

Next up on the main stage are Primordial, who are one of the only bands I have failed to research or listen to before arriving. Yes, I research these things. I'm not some bequiffed and tattooed wanker who thinks their cache as a critic is largely linked to how many bands they can get wasted with and whose copy is littered with basic factual errors about genre and sound. I am a proud unpaid professional and none of you are worthy of kissing my damn feet.

But I digress, slightly. Primordial. I had no idea what to expect, which may have been a contributing factor to how impressed I was. Which was very. Highly melodic blackened doom with sub-operatic vocals (that's a compliment, folks) performed like road-hardened veterans. Frontman Alan Averill – yeah, I've done my research now – herded and drove the crowd like a master, splattered with Jackson Pollock corpse paint and unafraid to bellow slightly ridiculous metal banter at the crowd without the slightest sense of irony. Galloping riffs underpinned by atmospheric breakdowns, all wolves and blood red stars and moonlight glinting off blades.

Lovely stuff.

My Dying Bride
So onto My Dying Bride, who I had not been particularly anticipating despite being a big fan. I'm not sure why. Perhaps because I have seen them a number of times before, perhaps because it has been 6 years since they released an album that really impressed me. Either way, by strolling onstage and giving the best performance of the day they left me pleasantly surprised. A newly-shorn Aaron looked like some kind of ascetic hermit as he stalked onstage and writhed around in torment to their definitive brand of gothic doom. I would hope the torment is pretty much faux, after all these years. Otherwise the poor lad must have an awful time of all these immortal unfulfilled desires and eternally lost hopes. Either way, My Dying Bride forced a wonderfully miserable setlist down our throats. Highlights included a three-in-a-row blinder of “Like Gods Of The Sun”, “To Remain Tombless” and “She Is The Dark” that was without a doubt the best twenty minutes I've had in quite some time. No sniggering at the back.

Pig Destroyer
Main stage headliners Electric Wizard emerged a short time later to a psychedelic backdrop and immense rolling feedback that gave way to monolithic riffage. They're quite heavy, quite slow and they like Black Sabbath a fair bit. Not much else needs to be said, really. Especially since I left their set about 15 minutes in (which means I only heard about one-tenth of a song) to go see Pig Destroyer headline the Terrorizer stage. The cerebral grindcore heroes were the main draw of the festival for me, so I arrived there in anticipation despite the lethargy of the teetotal festival-goer and my natural sense of almost complete contempt for everything. When they finally kicked off somewhat late, it quickly became apparent that the sound in the main crowd pit was pretty damn abysmal. So I moved to a higher balcony, where the sound was undoubtedly improved. Unfortunately, that wasn't the end of the problems with the set. While it sounded better up high, J.R. Hayes vocals were still a muffled croaking mush. I get that in grindcore that is kinda the standard anyway, but it came across as technical rather than stylistic. The band themselves seemed fairly nonplussed at being there, spending most of their time rocking back and forth on their feet and looking at each other. There was little to no crowd interaction, each song was bookended with about two minutes of either silence or keyboard/sampler noise and after the first ten minutes or so there was a noticeable steady bleed of audience members out from the room.

Quite a few of them wearing Pig Destroyer shirts, which is never a good sign.

I am actually still struggling to reconcile what I thought of this gig with the obvious violent bliss many were feeling down in the main pit. There was a veritable tsunami of bodies rolling back and forth down there, and I wonder if from my lofty physical and emotional perch I wasn't getting it. But all I can do is call 'em as I see 'em. And the band seemed as bored as the members of the audience who weren't kicking the shit out of each other. Once a long technical problem halfway through soaked up a lot of set time, the number of tunes that actually got played was pretty pathetic. After accounting for a late start, an early finish, a technical gap in the middle, an unwarranted departure for an encore and healthy amounts of absolute nothing inbetween two-minute long songs, I'd estimate that Pig Destroyer played between twenty and twenty-five minutes of music in a headlining set.

Not good enough. Nowhere near. Especially shortly after having seen Primordial and My Dying Bride, both of whom performed headline-quality sets in standard slots. All this and no “Mapplethorpe Grey” or “Carrion Fairy”. A big fat hefty 'meh' for the my main draw of the festival.

And yet I left feeling thoroughly satisfied. Overall, it represented a fucking solid day of extremely obnoxious music. Chalk another one up for the Damnationfest team. Bring on next year.

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