This is the second year that the Ritual festival has run – it’s inaugural year was a wonderfully successful exploration of the heavier, darker end of the musical spectrum, bringing sets from Grave, 40 Watt Sun, Full of Hell and Conan, to name but a few, to a massive one day bill in Leeds. The success of year one has bred more work for the team behind Ritual; plenty of stand-alone shows and the recent (excellent) Ritual Dreadfest bringing more noise to the north, and contributing hugely to the health of one of the best scenes in the UK. Ritual 2017 brings another massive bill back to the excellent Canal Mills venue, locked away on an industrial estate in Leeds on an unfeasibly sunny Saturday.
If I had to summarise the day I’d say it was a dramatic success. To break that statement down a bit – it was a success in that there were some great sets and everyone had a good time, and it was dramatic in that there was some turmoil behind the scenes that spilled out into the main room on more than one occasion. More of that later though…
At the crack of 2pm local blackened grind merchants Groak took the side-room by storm, grabbing it by the throat and not once letting go. A respectable crowd have made the early trip out and are given an absolute pummelling as the band smashes through a furious set of spiky brutality. It’s a testament to the quality of the bill that a band like Groak are opening. Sadly I couldn’t see their whole set as I had to disappear off to prepare for my own band’s set – which it would be ethically inappropriate for me to review (we were great though, obviously).
BOSSK. photo: Kirsty Garland
After packing down I caught the second half of Sheffield cult progressive doom band Kurokuma on the second stage. They brought eclectic sludge doom by the bucketload, a massive sound that was full of trippy sections and big grinding riffs supported by pounding drums and a thick sludgy bass tone. Their set was made all the more interesting by rampant experimentalism, dual vocals and bongos. Kurokuma are doing interesting things with a genre that can quite quickly get stale and monotonous; they should be applauded for this alone, that they are great as well is the icing on the cake.
Serpent Venom seem a little tame by comparison; their Sabbath style traditional doom sounds, while brilliantly done, feels a little standard. That said, the sound is massive and lush, and the crowd eats it up. The music is smooth, vocalist Garry Ricketts leads the crowd with his haunting vocals nestled deep in the walls of fuzzy guitar and thick bass, and they win fans with their performance. Then it’s immediately off to the side room for a total change of pace for Corrupt Moral Altar, whose harsh metallic assault blends fast blasting grinding riffs with some grooving riffs for balance. The small room was packed and the band was unspeakably tight – some of the sudden stops were incredible. It was a fantastic set; grind, punk and sludge all thrown into a blender. I’d never seen them before, but will definitely see them again.
Next up was Unfathomable Ruination, a band I knew nothing about, other than that they once played in an airtight box. First impressions weren’t great – mostly because the sound guy may have spent the first ten minutes of their set in the same airtight box; drums were completely muted by overpowering (albeit impressive) guitars and vocals. Once the soundman woke up, the mix improved and so did the performance, their grinding ultra-fast technical death metal hitting hard, packed with lightning fast riffs and topped with brutal vocals and an exuberant on-stage performance.
AFTERNOON GENTS. photo: Kirsty Garland
Crepitation followed on the side stage – by this point the back-to-back / no clashes set times was starting to take its toll a little bit – in a flurry of blasts and slam sections that got the packed crowd moving. The sound guy nails the live sound, placing the samples perfectly. The between song chats are almost completely lost in the PA, which is a shame as the laughter from the front couple of rows indicate there was some quality banter. Before long though, it’s back into pig-squeals, death growls, basting drums and some excellent detuned slam breakdowns.
Bossk are another total change of pace – and a welcome one, at that. After an hour or so of death, grind and blast beats, Bossk’s lush post-metal soundscapes feel soothing and warm. Their set blends tracks from 2016’s excellent Audio Noir and tracks from their earlier EPs, including an excellent ‘Define’, which was a real highlight of the set. Bossk don’t seem quite ‘on it’ tonight – they were playing with a stand-in guitarist and a string of minor technical issues appeared to put them off their stride a few times. That said, at the points in their set where they found their feet, such as on the aforementioned ‘Define’ and closer ‘Kobe’, they were unstoppable – a mountain of riffs, groove and ambient guitar lines held down by a wonderful rhythm section. When they’re on, they pack an emotional punch that many bands just cannot summon up. Even on an off day, Bossk are better than most other bands and still stand out on the bill; it’s just I’ve seen them do better. Local grind heroes The Afternoon Gentlemen follow in the side room; an incredibly intense set of spiky, thrashy hardcore grind; their set was breathless, energetic and felt way too short; like a bludgeoning outside of a nightclub. The performance was relentless and left a real lasting impression.
Anaal Nathrakh. photo: Kirsty Garland
Anaal Nathrakh were up next, eventually getting onstage roughly 20 minutes late and a member down – one guitarist had flight issues (‘Blame Norwegian Airlines’, we were told) – and a muddy mix initially wiped out some of the finer points of the percussion under mountains of guitar and bass. Vocalist Dave Hunt prowled the stage like a pitbull alternatively uttering a growling guttural yell or an almost classic metal vocal. Between song banter initially bought some levity and some songs were delivered with particular ferocity - 'Hold your children close and pray for oblivion' was particularly savage. Although the intent was there, in some cases the performance didn’t support it – the drums were a little loose in places, with music like this a rhythm section that is not tight enough is very audible and a little jarring. When this is put alongside the slightly thin guitar sound – although efforts had been made to compensate, the lack of 50% of the six string team was notable – the overall sonics and performance felt out of step with some of the ferocious intent. On top of that, comments were made on stage calling out the promoters for not having paid their fee in full prior to having played; while this may have been an issue, it felt unprofessional to air those problems to the crowd, and it left a bad taste in the mouth. I know that other bands had similar issues with payment, inlcluding Bossk and All Pigs Must Die, but all of them had the class to deal with it off-stage directly with the promoter. I appreciate Anaal Nathraks’ position, nobody likes uncertainty about fees, but there are other ways to deal with the problem.
All of this rigmarole meant that Canvas were delayed starting in the sideroom. This is the bands’ second show back after 16 years in the wilderness, and it is bloody great that they’re back. The band were one of the unsung heroes of the UK metal and hardcore community in the late 90’s; they’re a massive influence on a huge number of bands and – fair warning – I’m a massive fanboy. Trying to be objective here though, right? Fortunately the band were absolutely fantastic, more than justifying their place in my heart. They play a progressive, technical brand of metalcore – from back in the days when that wasn’t a dirty word – all odd-meters, weird time signatures and subtly improved Slayer riffs. 16 years after they split their live show has lost none of its power at all. Opening with ‘Black Shape Of The Nexus’ is an almost religious experience. Shifting time signatures, razor sharp guitars and pounding drums topped with John Sutcliffe's pitched vocal and unique scream; the band tear through a set that includes some beautifully chaotic and uncomfortable hardcore tinged metal. A stunning performance topped with a feral 'Womb Plague'. Canvas were absolutely the band of the day for me, jaw-droppingly good. They’re playing a limited number of gigs over the next few weeks and you’d be strongly advised to catch them; looking at my notes from the set and all it says is ‘Fuck me, they were amazing’.
APMD. photo: Kirsty Garland
From the sublime to the, er, well, equally sublime. All Pigs Must Die attacked the main stage with a brutal assault from the get go, a huge amount of attitude squeezed on the reasonably small stage, vocalist Kevin Baker leaning forward and giving all he can, eyes bulging as he roars. The band were incredibly tight, especially the rhythm section, led by drummer Ben Koller. Pounding riffs and HM2 style buzzsaw riffage was the order of the day, played at an intense pace and with a wonderful intensity. The setlist drew heavily from both of their full-lengths to date and the mix was spot-on with razor sharp guitars and pounding, aggressive drums. The set is absolutely relentless from start to finish, and fantastic to behold.
Misery Index have the unenviable position of having to follow this onslaught, and amazingly they pull it off. Walking into the room I was worried they’d seem tame by comparison, but the US band absolutely smash it out of the park and the small, packed to the gills, roasting hot side room gives them everything back in spades, with crowd-surfers flying overhead and bodies thrashing at the front. The sound is perfect, with the massively tight riffs and ripping double bass drumming topped with guttural vocals and some note perfect. There’s a lovely early Entombed style feel to some of the songs, but overall it’s a storming set of death metal played impeccably. The band feed off the good feeling in the room and the set crescendos perfectly.
ISAHN. photo: Kirsty Garland
Then we have a bit of a wait while the stage is set up for Ihsahn, and while tricky things like getting voltages and power requirements right are mastered. Ihsahn politely informs the crowd of the issues and asks them to be patient, and before kicking off with a gorgeous ‘Hiber’. After a long day of variously being shouted at and blasted at by varying groups of angry men, it’s a really nice release to be presented by Ihsahns’ open, sprawling soundscapes. Bold, beautiful, experimental, jazzy guitar led sounds, owing as much to Pink Floyd, prog-rock and Nine Inch Nails as to Ihsahns’ black metal legacy, the set is well balanced taking in progressive and epic new tunes and the more aggressive black metal of earlier efforts. Ihsahn is joined by a backing band consisting of a second guitarist, a fantastic drummer, who displays a wonderful jazz sensibility alongside his metal chops, and a keyboard player looking after samples and digital percussion. It's a spell binding performance and at times feels totally at odds with the legacy of Emperor. For every ‘Hiber’ we have a 'Pressure' or ‘A Grave Inversed’ which bring a more metal approach, but jazzy tones underpin the guitar work, big riffs and a sung chorus line and a blast of icy black metal demonstrating that the band are equally comfortable doing both. It’s a perfect end to the day, an absolute masterclass in technical and progressive musicianship from a genre godfather. It’s a privilege to behold.
As I said before, this festival was a dramatic success; there were a couple of sets that didn’t quite hit the heights that were expected, but the quality throughout the day was incredibly high. The sound was pretty much great throughout, with only a few real dodgy moments, which were sorted out quickly. Most things ran to time and the collected audience were in full voice and appeared to have a great time. However, behind the scenes there were some challenges, which says more about the scale of the festival than the competence of the individuals running the event. That these issues became public knowledge is unfortunate as it shakes confidence in the event and the team, but I suppose in a post-Temples, post-ATP world there is a natural sensitivity to these issues. These ‘business’ issues cast a bit of a pall over an otherwise fantastic day, which is a real shame; the quality of the music on display is testament to the vision of the promoters.