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Damnation 2016: From The Bands’ Perspective
As far as UK metal festivals go, Damnation is something rather special indeed. Over eleven years, the festival has grown from its humble beginning in 2005 at Jilly’s Rock World in Manchester, to selling out Leeds University year after year. What makes it so special? Perhaps it’s the consistently stellar line up – from Cult Of Luna to Carcass, Damnation have firmly retained their finger on the pulse of the most interesting and exciting bands – or maybe it’s the atmosphere, given that it’s impossible to walk between stages without chatting to friendly metal heads.
Whatever their secret, Damnation Festival 2016 proved to be one of the finest years. We’re sure anyone among the 3000 capacity crowd would agree, but what about the bands who got to play on this monster bill? Here is Svalbard guitarist Serena Cherry‘s report from behind the scenes about what it was like to play such an awesome festival, from the perspectives of Enslaved, Cult Of Luna, Julie Christmas, Akercocke, Hang The Bastard, Employed To Serve, Gets Worse, Conjurer and, of course, Svalbard…
We were fortunate enough to play on the Terrorizer stage at 2pm, meaning a nice early load in. The doors opened at 1pm, and as the metal hordes descend into the university building it became quite literally the school of rock. Played a bit of back patch roulette, and the most popular this year seemed to be Ghost and Bathory. Set up our merch then had a quick chat with Gets Worse about their upcoming slot on the Mine Stage.
“We’re just getting ready to play, so I’m all excited and hungry,” says bassist Paul. “I never eat before I play, but I’ve got a vegan sandwich set aside for me in the dressing room. I’m quite happy with that! In terms of watching other bands today, I’m quite gutted that Svalbard clash with Conjurer, but I’ll be trying to run between the stages to catch a bit of both.”
Run is a key word there. With four stages spread across the student union, you have to move fast if you want to catch as many bands as possible. It was now approaching time for me to set up, so I headed down the labyrinth of corridors to get ready. I noticed my guitar strap was hanging by a thread, and with a hunt for duct tape proving shockingly unsuccessful, I spent the remaining few minutes before our stage time wrapping my guitar strap back together with sellotape. Fingers crossed it would hold up!
I wasn’t expecting many people to watch us, due to the mighty Conjurer playing at the same time on the Eyesore stage. But amazingly, the room was full and we had an absolute blast. We had a special lighting director for our set, and she made all these mad beams go off as we played. It was all I could do to refrain from shouting “Beam me up Scotty!” as they shone down on my fret board. It was very snazzy indeed.
Buzzing with adrenaline and dripping with sweat, we finished our set and I went to do the merch for a bit. Our merch table was next door to the fabulous Darkher’s. She was still recovering from Laryngitis but played an absolute blinder of beautiful doom on the Mine stage.
At the same time, Hang The Bastard played their final show ever on Jagermeister stage. Steeped in a monumental atmosphere, their crushing grooves sounded absolutely massive and the packed out room ensured this treasured UK band got the epic send off they deserve. Had a chat with bassist Joe Nally and guitarist Sam Rice about how it felt to play together for one last time. “It was bittersweet, but it felt right,” summarises Sam. “I don’t think any of us are longing to carry on, so the time is right. Obviously it feels sad, but it’s also good.”
“I’m just glad I don’t have to see some of them anymore” chimes in Joe, with a grin on his face. “But in all seriousness, it’s great. We played Damnation a couple of years ago, but we were going through a difficult stage in the band then and we had loads of stand-in members. So it’s amazing to play here again with our full line up and give it the send off it deserves. We weren’t even planning on doing a final show at all, but the opportunity to play at Damnation arose and we thought it would be the best way to go.”
“The reception we received was amazing, it was such a cool crowd,” notes Sam. “We even got to do a cheesy little group photo on stage at the end! It was just the perfect closure for us, really.” With Joe hinting at a new musical project in the works “one that doesn’t have a fucking swear word in the band name!” It looks like there’s still plenty to look forward to beyond the end of Hang The Bastard.
Watched some of Venom Prison‘s punishing set next, where the new material from their latest, more death metal release ‘Animus’ went down incredibly well. Ben Thomas, the guitarist from Venom Prison used to play in Svalbard, so it was lovely to see an old bandmate and hear his latest cheesy dad joke after they played. “Who’s the most popular dude in a hospital? The ultra sound guy.”
Our label mates Employed To Serve played directly after Venom Prison: cue a mad dash to get into the jam packed Mine stage. It was utter sonic chaos as usual, with vocalist Justine whipping up the crowd into a moshing frenzy. As their set drew to a close, Jamie Venning smashed his bass into bits and threw it into the crowd, providing a fittingly destructive end to their furious set of mathy hardcore. Leaving the stage obliterated, Justine and guitarist Sammy gave the low down on their experience of playing Damnation for the first time.
“That was really, really fun!” exclaims Sammy. “We had a few technical difficulties, but that aside, it was one the most enjoyable shows I’ve ever played.”
“The crowd were so responsive,” adds Justine, “it’s not like we were expecting a cold response from this festival, but we are aware it has quite a black metal/doom metal audience. But people were crowdsurfing to us, so that was cool!”
Sammy adds “we’re really lucky to be playing here today, because we initially had to turn Damnation down as we had a tour booked with Rolo Tomassi. However, that tour got cancelled, and we were really gutted. But then Damnation told us there was still room for us on the bill here, which was amazing. Playing Damnation has really made up for our tour misfortune, it has been the best possible outcome!”
Managed to catch up with another fellow Holy Roar Records band at this point, this time it was the riff heavyweights Conjurer. “Today has been really good” comments bassist Andy Price. “We had a great time playing, the room was a lot busier than I expected it to be, baring in mind we were clashing with the mighty Svalbard. Cheers for that!” he laughs. “Our guitarist Brady managed to break a string within the first five seconds. I looked over at him during the opening chords and his face was just pure panic. I was thinking, he knows this song inside out, why is he not playing?! Then I realised he had broken a string. It’s always the important gigs where things go wrong!”
Not for Cult Of Luna and Julie Christmas however. Their set, for which they performed ‘Mariner’ in full for the only time in the UK, was nothing short of perfect. Drenched in atmospheric lighting, they proceeded to take the crowd on a vast journey through the most staggeringly beautiful sonic explorations. When they had finished their hypnotic set, I was surprised to see a sweat drenched Julie Christmas burst into the ladies toilets. I seized this chance to tell her how fucking incredible her set was and we had a good old hug. Once Cult Of Luna had fully recovered, I sat down with drummer Thomas Hedlund and Julie Christmas to reflect on the madness of performing an album that was never intended to be played live.
“We haven’t done any shows with this line up before, obviously; and we weren’t ever supposed to play ‘Mariner’ live, so it was great to just say what the hell and do it,” says Thomas. “It’s actually fun to play a festival where you don’t have the luxury of a soundcheck, we just threw our gear on stage and went for it. It turned out really well, I think. I felt a really good energy from the crowd,” he smiles. “’Mariner’ was only ever intended to be a studio album, we said we would never do any live shows. We were playing hard to get! But we ended up saying yes to this offer to play it in full, and I’m super glad that we did, I think it was a good decision. Because Julie had to come over from the States to join us, we didn’t have much time for rehearsals. We only had two days to practise playing it all! It’s kind of risky but that’s fun, as we have been a band for so long, we don’t want to get too comfortable with what we are playing together. Doing this was a new adventure for us, we wanted to throw caution to the wind.”
“For me, there are parts in performing ‘Mariner’ live that are very painful,” adds Julie Christmas, who provides the stunning vocals on this record. “When we play I become fully engulfed in the songs, but then there’s this other factor of a huge crowd of people watching, so you’re kinda taking them with you as you go through emotions. But what’s great about playing with Cult Of Luna is that there is no fake performance. It’s all very genuine and heartfelt, so when we play together we all give every single thing we can into it. The point of this performance is to open up, and not always in a nice way. We aim for it to be as vulnerable as it is heavy and loud.”
Speaking of heavy and loud, it was now time to catch Akercocke in the midst of their glorious death metal renaissance on the Terrorizer stage. Blasting through the oldies with unwavering precision, here is a band who have not just returned to form but surpassed the high standard of their own past. Speaking with Jason Mendonca after the show, it seemed they enjoyed it just as much as their adoring, headbanging crowd.
“Playing Damnation this year was genuinely magnificent,” he exclaims. “This is quite a special festival, I suppose it’s niche in a sense, because there’s no fluff around the edges. This simply is the festival for extreme fans of extreme bands. There’s a very concentrated vibe because the line up is so focussed. The crowd today were just phenomenal; it was really humbling to play to them. Plus, the Damnation crew were completely on it and super professional, meaning we could just relax and enjoy the show. I hope the crowd enjoyed it as much as we did!”
Reflecting on the success of their reunion this year, Jason describes their recent gigs as “more akin to football matches. There were so many fans singing back at us, which is just astonishing. I’m chuffed with how the reunion has worked out for us so far. The time is right for us to come back. Before we split up originally, personal circumstances were such that I was spinning too many plates with not enough hands. Things just sort of crashed to the ground. Where music is concerned, I’m quite binary. I either do something completely, or I don’t do it at all. Now I have the time to give Akercocke my all again.”
Beyond the live dates, Jason reveals that the band are gearing up to release a new album too. “In a couple of weeks we start recording our new album in a shed in Suffolk, and I’m really looking forward to it,” he enthuses. “We’ve had songs kicking around for nearly a year, so I can’t wait to get them tracked and add all the whistles and bells to them that they need to breathe. For all its eclecticism, there’s nothing that contrived about our music, we’re just all about creating interesting textures.”
With the thought of a new Akercocke album to look forward to, I bounded off to watch Abbath. Glaring lighting strips and posturing, made-up band members render the visual aspect of watching Abbath akin to a low budget Kiss show. It’s a funny juxtaposition where the show is mega flashy, yet the band are endearingly sloppy. On several occasions, Abbath has to stop songs half way through and gets in a huff. He comes across like The Jesus And Mary Chain of black metal, ie: temperamental as fuck. But the thousands watching him don’t care about his shameless displays of attitude, because his songs are just so good. His beautifully icy guitar tone seeps out riff after riff, and he throws in a few Immortal classics for good measure; ensuring that his set is easily the most entertaining of the day.
In a two hour whirlwind of classic Norwegian metal, Enslaved played directly after Abbath. These stalwarts headline the Terrorizer stage and successfully deliver an hour long lesson on how to blend black metal with prog. Engaging and atmospheric, their set focuses on the slightly cleaner material they have been releasing since 2010, and is received well by the rapturous crowd. Once drummer Ivar and frontman Grutle had showered after their very sweaty performance, they stopped for a quick chat.
“The room was packed, the gig went well, so we are pretty happy with that!” comments Ivar. “Normally playing a festival is very different from playing a headline show on tour, but today at Damnation it didn’t feel that different at all. It felt like everyone was there to see us! So that was excellent,” adds Grutle.
“I saw lots of happy faces in the crowd” notes Ivar. “That’s the easiest way to tell if it was a good gig, just look for the happy, headbanging faces.”
On the subject of pre-show rituals, Ivar explains how “the ultimate lead up to us playing a gig is just us sitting in our own little bubble. We love a bland, conference-style dressing room. I didn’t see any other bands today because I can’t watch bands before going on stage, it makes me worry. If you look at the band before and their guitar sounds great, I start to panic that our guitar sound isn’t good enough. It stresses me out!”
As 2016 marks the 25 year anniversary of Enslaved, Grutle reflects that “it hasn’t felt like a long time at all. It still feels like the 90’s to me, especially when we are all playing on stage together. The only difference is that we sound better now,” he laughs. “The spirit is still there with all of us, and as long as the spirit is there, we will continue.”
Positive words there to end a positively exhausting day at Damnation. Long may this festival and its winding maze of corridors reign supreme in the UK metal scene.
Words: Serena Cherry