Damnation Festival @ Leeds, UK – 5th November 2011
Winter in the UK is grim.
After a full Glaswegian day immersed in a thick fog, the sun set at 16:23… and it is only the start of November.
The days are shorter in northern Scandinavia, but there is a beauty in their winter. Bright sunny days with crisp, dry air break the brutal cold in smaller, less dense towns. You are never too far from bays covered in thick snow or frozen forests.
In contrast, the UK winter is grey and damp. The air is never dry. As the kids in Govan throw rocks at the bus on your dark commute to and from work, forests and lakes seem a long way away.
Last winter I found myself in Southampton, UK, with a bank balance of zero and a sh!t job. You’ll never get out of this town. You’ll never get out.
The snow and cold remained a novelty for this kid from a desert continent, but the short days bummed me out. You stomped to work in the dark and you stomped home in the dark.
Southampton is much smaller than Birmingham, Glasgow and even Leeds, but it is as grey as any of those towns. WWII left many UK towns flattened. In the post-war scramble to house the displaced population, a grey, bland skyline arose. In winter that grey skyline of the industrial port town blends into the grey of the daylight hours. The sun is rarely sighted and a wet chill hangs in the air.
The grimness of a Southampton winter is what it took to understand Godflesh. For years I just did not get Godflesh or Jesu or any of Justin Broadrick’s projects. In 2009, I even caught Jesu at the Primavera festival in Barcelona… But Broadrick is not the music of Barcelona. Broadrick is not the music of sangria on a 30-degree-celsius day with the beautiful people on a Mediterranean beach. Justin Broadrick is the music of cold, wet, grey winters in the dense, urban industrial centre of Birmingham. It is the sound of Southampton in winter when you have a sh!t job and no way out.
I caught the trouble-plagued Godflesh reunion set at Hellfest last year, and then the awesome performance of Streetcleaner at Roadburn this year. The set at Damnation Festival in Leeds was incident-free but its almost like Broadrick is uncomfortable when there is not a wonky wheel. It seems that he has to recreate the tension of the song on stage. Towels were required under the excessive lighting. Awkwardness and tension are what make Godflesh. Benny holds down that machine beat on stage-left, while Broadrick wrenches out pain from his guitar and from the throat.
When you are too poor to leave your industrial town, there seems no way out. No relief from the soul wrench of the mechanical city…. but the truth is… Southampton is half an hour from the New Forest. Glasgow is half an hour from Loch Lomond, and a little further on is the incomparable Scottish highlands. Leeds is on the footstep of the Yorkshire Dales. It is eternally dark and damp in the UK winter, but you need to remember that beauty is never that far away.
I’m not sure if beauty is the right word to describe Ireland’s Altar of Plagues. They are far more organic than Godflesh, even if they also deal in dark energies.
The Irish are amongst the friendliest people on earth. Within minutes of arriving in Ireland on both my trips there I had new friends. As a sole traveller you can feel isolated from conversations of any depth. This is never the case in Ireland. Walk into any Irish pub and you’ll never be short of conversation.
However there is a sadness to the Irish people below their immediate friendliness. The Irish history is one of trading invading masters. The population of Ireland today is still less than before the 1840s famine, where death and emigration destroyed the country. Fresh economic woes have hit the country in the last couple of years.
I do not think that every Irish band is weighed down by the moroseness of their history. I do not know if the less claustrophobic, but equal dampness of Ireland is significant in their sound. However I think that it is a factor.
In any case nature and moroseness is a strong theme musically and lyrically in Altar of Plagues. The previous album, White Tomb, speaks of man’s civilisation falling into nature’s grasp.
We built our towers in the sand
And now they collapse around us…
…for your children have no place to grow their bones
- Through the Collapse: Watchers Restrained
The latest, Mammal, talks of death as an artificial creation of man:
Birds know nothing of this
it is our vanity
we create death
we create this entity
- Neptune is Dead
Altar of Plagues played the smallest stage of the festival. Nursing a pint of carlsberg, at the back of that stage for Talons’ preceding set, I could barely distinguish the two violins from the rest of the band. I needed to head straight down to the floor for Altar of Plagues. The odd shaped room, with punters packed in to get a decent sound, added to the sweaty atmosphere.
With many bands that aim to create a mood, technical difficulties can take the crowd out of the atmosphere. As guitarist, James Kelly, tried to isolate his equipment issues, the rest of the band looped through a quiet section of a song for several minutes. However it did not taint the set. Altar of Plagues are not creating another world. They are dudes in jeans and Deathspell Omega t-shirts. Their performance in based in the real world. Technical difficulties occur in the real world.
Altar of Plagues energy is dark and weighty in depth. But its dark energy is a sadness rather than the usual black metal evil. There can be no doubt that the band are putting all their energies in, as members yell at the mic from metres away.
Something of this weight without pretension is a rare find. Go see Altar of Plagues.
Earlier in the day, I found myself lost amongst the hospital buildings and the various Leeds University faculties. Inside the student union, Shining started their set. Every time I have previously caught Shining they have been billed as Shining (Nor). So I made the rookie mistake of looking for the nihilistic black n roll of Sweden’s Shining, only to walk into the spazzy metal of the Norwegian band of the same name.
As I waited for the slowest, worst poured beer of my life (seriously how does a man reach his twenties without being able to pour a beer?), the buzz of Madness and the Damage Done filled the Jagermeister stage.
I was back the Jagermeister stage for Dragged into Sunlight. Dragged into Sunlight’s sound was thick of sludgy riffs and the evil aesthetic of black metal. However the presentation of the set distracted me. The band spent the entirety of the set, save the last half minute, with their backs to the crowd. I do not know what the intention is, but it comes off as if the band are in a rehearsal space. The band obviously do care about image with candles as props and the stage bathed in red. Each to their own I guess, but I think Dragged into Sunlight’s worthy music might be served better by turning around a little earlier.
After a 5-hour train down from Glasgow and a beery day of bands, Ulver’s wall of keyboards and computers did not grab me. It was time to get in a couple of hours kip before the train back up through the Yorkshire Dales.
At £29 for bands of the quality of Godflesh and Altar Plagues, Damnation Festival is surely a cure for the winter greyness. The stone walls separating the autumnal hills of the Yorkshire Dales remind me that I have to escape the urban grimness on weekends. As I emerged from the mysterious fog that seems to hover on the English side of the border, the winter ahead looked a little less grey.