The UK’s Damnation Fest is held every year at Leeds University. This year offered a standout selection of black metal acts. Paul Castles saw them in action with Vivien Varga capturing the moment from the photographers’ pit.
If anyone has been wondering who would keep the fiery flames of Norwegian black metal burning in the years ahead then they need look no further than Mork. What started as an obsessive solo project by Thomas Erikson, at least in part inspired by Darkthrone, has now taken on a more rounded shape with a full live line-up in tow. Performing on the small but appropriately titled Cvlt Never Dies Stage in the bowels of the Leeds University Student Union, Mork are magnificent, like a corpsepaint army with weapons raised and in no mood to take prisoners. Although as early performers their set is kept relatively short, Eriksen eruditely selects his juiciest cuts to serve before a captivated and appreciative audience. Not surprisingly a number of these are from latest album Det Svarte Juv and prove every bit as engrossing live as on record. For those seeking a black metal adrenalin rush early in what is a very long day, Mork do not disappoint.
It tells you all you need to know about the camera-shy Poles that their first visit to Damnation sees them invited to perform on the largest of the four platforms at Leeds University, the vast Jäger Stage. The three front-facing band members stand as one collective with black leather jackets worn over black hoodies, faces concealed by what can only be a suffocating cloth of mesh. This though in no way impedes their performance, of course in reality it accentuates it as the brutal slaying of material from latest album Age of Excuse reinforces just why they’re sharing the main stage with the likes of Raging Speedhorn and Opeth today. Whereas Mork’s singer occasionally lifts a glass in salute to the pit, Mgla are having none of that. It’s heads down and play and get off without ceremony. The impact both aurally and aesthetically is gripping, and almost certainly playing before their largest ever UK audience, Mgla take the opportunity to convert a few more souls to their medieval mastercraft.
If Mork and Mgla to some extend represent the future of black metal, then the inimitable Gaahl is a throwback to the past. That of course is not to suggest that the legendary former Gorgoroth singer is out of kilter. Far from it. Having led Gorgoroth into battle for many years, and then earned further acclaim with God Seed, he is now arguably making some of the best music of his career, as captured on this year’s Gaahls Wyrd debut album GastiR – Ghost Invited. While the tempo has dropped a notch or two from the Gorgoroth era, the atmospherics have certainly been heightened and new jewels such as ‘Carving the Voices’ enables the veteran performer to really showcase his powerful voice to great effect. Stalking the Tone MGMT Stage in a predatory fashion throughout, few people can croon as harmoniously as this and yet still sound quite as sinister as the mercurial Gaahl.
Mayhem are back in the UK just a few months after performing at Incineration Fest in London. Since then the Lords of Chaos film has been released to mixed reviews that catalogues their formative years and all that that entailed. It seems like a lifetime ago now but the film has helped attract a new generation towards Mayhem while the release of new album Daemon also reminds us that the Norwegians are not some kind of party act, but still a music-making powerhouse. So excitement is pitched high when Attila, Necrobutcher and Hellhammer take to the Jäger Stage, towards the end of the day. Unfortunately fervour soon turns to frustration as their set is peppered by a series of stop-start cuts that give the impression that the whole band are out of step. Each song suffers, some more than others. No doubt the sound engineers are frantically trying to fix things but to no avail. Some fans start drifting away, with Venom Prison performing elsewhere in the building looking an increasingly attractive alternative. With the band sullenly refusing to really engage with the crowd – a large number of whom are witnessing them in the flesh for the first time – the buzz around the band quickly fades. We came expecting Mayhem but instead endured misery. Towards the end of the set things showed some improvement with a trouble free ‘Freezing Moon’ at least some reward for those who stayed the course. Although not Mayhem’s day today, by all accounts a headline show in London 48 hours later, supported by passed by without a hitch.
With 40 bands across four stages performing from midday to midnight, Damnation remains one of the UK highlights of the extreme metal year. It will be interesting to see which blackened hordes they book for next year.
Photos by Vivien Varga.