ZT INTERROGATION(S): PAUL CASTLES CHECKS IN AT DAMNATION FESTIVAL
ZT’s Paul Castles is one of the most prolific gig-goers we know, and when he’s not diligently observing bands live, he can usually be found backstage interviewing them. At 2015’s Damnation Festival Paul was frequently torn between watching and talking, and more often than not, he was the only journalist to be found in the press area chatting away while others were, well, getting pissed at the bar… In this piece, an online exclusive to complement the festival review and interview with The King Is Blind in issue 070, he hears from Wiegedood, Witchsorrow, The Wounded Kings, Asphyx, and Undersmile.
If you take the name for your band from such a desperate subject as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome then the music has to be painfully bleak and oppressive and at Damnation Wiegedood certainly showed their name is worthy of its origins. Wim Coppers, drummer with the Belgium black metal crew, gave his reaction to their stunning set, which was among the highlights of the day for many fans: “This is our first visit to the UK. We had been looking forward to the show but it turned out much better than we had expected. It was certainly a bigger venue than we thought and we played in front of a lot of people. It was a really good show so we’re very happy,” says Wim.
Wiegedood’s name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue but debut album De Doden Hebben Het Goed has all the attributes you could desire in a black metal composition. “We only started practicing in 2014 and never directly sat down and discussed what kind of band we wanted to be,” adds Wim. “There’s a lot of aggression in the music and the album almost wrote itself. We did the whole thing in three days to capture that raw energy. Things have gone really well and we’re now on the third pressing.” Wiegedood’s singer Levy Seynaeve was having to work twice as hard for his money at Damnation as he was also performing with his other band Amenra. “We’re all involved with more than one band but it’s not a problem so far and it’s all going OK” says Wim, who also pounds the skins with Rise And Fall. “At the time we recorded the first album Levy was going through some difficult times. His state of mind was pretty depressed, so that negativity is reflected in the music. There are some songs where we repeat certain riffs so many times it is almost physically demanding to play it,” says Wim.
The band’s summer touring schedule embraced a few churches in Belgium, some standard club shows, and a small Euro tour which included playing a set on a boat in the Czech Republic. The band are already directing their thoughts towards a second album.
While a great showcase for new bands, Damnation is always happy to welcome back some old friends and that’s certainly the case with Hampshire harbingers of doom, Witchsorrow. “Yeah, we played here in 2012,” says singer Nick ‘Necroskull’ Russell. “That was fantastic, so to get invited back with such a killer lineup is tremendous. Sometimes you see a festival lineup and think ‘I wish we could be a part of that’ and that’s how I feel this year about Damnation.”
Latest album No Light, Only Fire has seen Witchsorrow shake off a few of their doom cobwebs and Nick is happy to shed light on the darkness, so to speak: “I think early on we were quite stubbornly set on playing pure doom and nothing else. That’s changed a little and when we came to write our third album we just felt the music was naturally a bit faster and that suited the vibe of how we felt. The last album had an apocalyptic feel, almost hoping for the end of the world but No Light, Only Fire is much more defiant and in your face.” The album was recorded at Skyhammer Studios under the expert eye of doom craftsman Chris Fielding, the band having worked with him on their two previous full length releases.“A lot of people followed Chris from Foals Studio in Wales to Skyhammer as he is so good at what he does. He’s an easy man to work with, and he gets what you’re trying to achieve and helps bring that out of you. When you’ve got something like a riff that’s not quite there he’ll put some effect on it and you’ll hear it exactly how you hear it in your head.”
While the producer is the same, the label is different with Witchsorrow leaving Rise Above for Candlelight. “It’s probably the only label we’d have left Rise Above for,” says Nick. “It’s nice to be part of a more general metal label as they’ve got thrash and death metal, and a wide roster of bands. And it’s the home of Emperor, one of my favourite bands ever!” Some February dates are planned for Witchsorrow who will also feature among the stellar lineup at DesertFest in the Spring.
No festival is happy to spread the doom around quite like Damnation and among those swimming in its murky waters at Leeds this year was The Wounded Kings, slightly surprisingly making their Damnation debut. As ever, founding member and guitarist Steve Mills is great company and happy to bring fans up-to-date with the not insignificant changes the band have undergone over the past year or so: “Well obviously the band’s original singer George Birch is back with us following the departure of Sharie. We’re also down to a four-piece; not three guitars just two, and a bass.” Steve is rarely without a smile and takes only positives from the reshuffling of the deck. “I feel the band now is the one I aimed for when I first started it. George is a really good mate, our partners know each other well. Writing with him is great for me as he’s such a great musician on bass and keyboard. On the last two albums I wrote everything but I think deep down I get the best out of myself if I’m writing with another person. George will play a riff and I’ll have something that will go alongside it. And of course one thing that remains the same is Myke on drums. Where would we be without Myke!”
Speaking to ZT just prior to their evening appearance, Steve had no hesitation in singling out the highlight for the Kings this year: “Hellfest! Undoubtedly a career highlight for The Wounded Kings. The whole experience was fantastic. The backstage catering was off the chart for starters! It was like fine-dining! The whole festival was unbelievably well-organised. As an artist you get treated so well, and all they want you to do is your best possible show and they will help in every way to try and make this happen. I think we played before 7 or 8,000 people. It almost felt like that scene at the end of the Anvil film when they think they’re going out to perform in front of a handful of people and the place is packed!” Following that, there’s a new album coming in earlu 2016 from TWK: “Everything is down, we’re just finishing off some artwork,” says Steve. “I would say it feels like the album to come after the Curse Of Chains EP, it’s got balls to it. It’s slightly more aggressive than before but with quite a psychedelic vibe in there too.”
No band triggered Damnation pit-action quite like Asphyx who are still relatively new (in a live sense) to UK audiences with this their first show outside of London. While thrilled to be in ‘real England’, singer Martin van Drunen’s main worry was which songs to shoehorn into a scheduled 50-minute set, not easy with a back catalogue stretching back a quarter of a century: “We’ll be playing stuff from our last album Deathhammer but you know there a lot of songs fans want to hear, so you trying for a mix of old and new. But if we don’t play ‘The Rack that would be like Motörhead not playing ‘Ace Of Spades’. But the difference is that’s about two and a half minutes and ‘The Rack is nine!”
The Dutch veterans arrived in Yorkshire quick on the heels of a trip to South America from which the memories remain vivid and vivacious: “It was amazing,” says Martin. “We didn’t know what to expect but it was just awesome. The crowds were supportive and the promoters did a great job. We’ve never had so many requests for pictures! Fans were outside our hotels and you can’t refuse as most of them would be unable to travel to see us play in Europe.”
Jetting between such exotic locations as Santiago, Costa Rica and Lima may sound like the holiday of a lifetime for some, but the opportunity to breathe in the local air comes and goes all too quickly for a band on a whistlestop tour. “After a gig we’d often be back at the hotel around 1am then have to be up again at 4am to catch a flight, so there isn’t the time you’d like to be able to sniff up the atmosphere of a city,” says Martin. “We were tired out but then the fans give us so much energy. We also played with some great bands over there and it’s surprising how many really good bands there are who never get to play out of their own country, or gain the attention they deserve.”
Expect to see Asphyx back in the UK in 2016, and they’re also penciled in for Hellfest and the Netherlands Death Fest for what will be their first gig on home soil in 18 months. There’ll be a new album in the summer too: “We’ve got seven songs done and we’ll finish recording the album early next year,” confirms Martin. “Our drummer lives quite far away. If we all lived in the same street it would be much easier, we could just meet up whenever, have a few beers and jam!”
Hearing the Undersmile gang joshing and japing like excitable school kids in the Damnation press area, you almost doubt whether they’re the same bunch who performed with such stellar and chilling conviction an hour ago on the Electric Amphetamine Stage. The Oxfordshire doom quartet, who released one of the year’s bleakest and most uncompromising albums in Anhedonia were able to transmit its ethereal qualities with near perfection in front of a captive crowd at Leeds University. This Damnation debut put the seal on a breakthrough year, which also included an appearance at The Netherlands’ Roadburn Festival.
Although a challenging live act, with their barely audible murmurs occasionally ripped asunder by ferociously feral cries, in person they’re as nice a bunch as you could hope to meet: “It was so packed out there for us today, we couldn’t believe the turn out, especially as we were the first band of the day on the Electric Amphetamine Stage,” says guitarist/vocalist Taz. “We were really a last minute addition to Damnation, so to get such a great response was better than we could have hoped for.” Co-vocalist Hel is no less effusive: “It puts the seal on a really busy year with this and Roadburn, and all the work around the new album.” Anhedonia is a hypnotic cocktail of seven painfully slow songs, three of which were neatly squeezed into their Damnation slot, which opened with the shuddering ‘Atacama Sunburn’. Catching their lunchtime performance, the vacant gaze into the distance of both Hel and Taz helps creates a sense of jaw-dropping emptiness, as the pair are seemingly swallowed whole by the disconcerting drone circulating around them. “It’s not something we consciously set out to do,” says Hel. “But when the music starts it just works its way into our psyche. The music just takes over.”Keen to share their earlier work with new fans, Undersmile recently re-released debut EP A Sea Of Dead Snakes. “There’s a big difference really between the EP and the album,” says Hel. “Snakes is still slow but we possibly had a slightly grungier edge back then.”
A New Year’s Eve double-header of party poppers and bubbly is probably the stuff of nightmares for your average doom fan. Much better then to head to The Unicorn in Camden for a free entry show in which Undersmile will be joined by the likes of Ghold, Torpor, Birushanah from Japan and formidable French headliners Monarch – if you’re reading this before and not after the event, we might see you there!
A The King Is Blind interview from Damnation, and a review of the festival is published in the latest edition of Zero Tolerance Magazine, which is OUT NOW!
Words: Paul Castles | All live photographs: Rich Thompson
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