LIVE: Ritual Festival 2017 @ Canal Mills, Leeds

By James Lee

Music festivals are a hell of an undertaking when it comes to organisation. So many moving parts have to be working in unison for everything to flow properly, and just a small hiccup here and there can bring the whole thing crashing to a halt. When things do happen, it can often overshadow the positive achievements made by the organiser. People quickly forget the agonising amount of work that goes into booking bands, hiring a suitable venue, ensuring that travel and accommodation are provided for all the bands, as well as making sure all their personal and technical riders are taken care of. Then there’s promotion, ticket sales, the booking of adequate catering and bar staff, merchandise to design and print, etc etc. All of this can easily be overlooked by the masses when something goes wrong, because let’s face it, we’re British and love a good moan. 

Such was the case with Ritual Festival 2017, a phenomenal event with a staggeringly good line-up, whose reputation was dragged through the mud somewhat because of a couple of sadly far-too-public incidents that occurred on the day. Detailed accounts of such matters are publicly available (not least on the official Ritual Festival Facebook page) and so won’t be delved into in any great depth here, but suffice to say these incidents left something of a bad taste in the mouth at the end of what was, for the vast majority of the day, an absolutely glorious celebration of all things heavy. 

Leeds-based grinders Groak were handed the unenviable task of setting the tone for the day, and despite having to play at a time many folks would still have been dragging themselves out of bed (well, 2pm), they managed to cast a gloomy, foreboding shadow over the rest of the day’s proceedings. Alternating wildly between jagged walls of blasting and long, torturous dirges, Groak are a band that deal as much with sickly unease as they do face-pummelling noise, and as such were a perfect start to the day. 

Making their main Ritual Festival debut after having played the pre-show event last year, Holy Roar Records’ Conjurer straddled the venue’s main stage with a staggering amount of presence for such a relatively young band. Playing tracks from their mountain-crumbling debut EP ‘I’ along with some choice cuts from their forthcoming debut album, Conjurer’s muscular progressive sludge was a sight and sound to behold, easily matching some of the festival’s headliners in terms of sheer sonic power. Place bets now on how far up the bill Conjurer will be at their next appearance, good money would be on ‘very high’.

Speaking of ‘very high’, next up was a devastating one-two punch of doom-laden riff worship, courtesy of Sheffield sludge lords Kurokuma and London gloom-mongers Serpent Venom. Both bands delivered soul-crushing sets of slow, devastating heaviness, bringing the overall tempo of the day down by a good few BPM before Corrupt Moral Altar ratcheted it back up with their noxious cocktail of crust and grind. There are shades of latter-day Pig Destroyer in CMA’s sound, and it sent the growing second stage crowd into one of the day’s first mosh frenzies. 

Even more extreme on the main stage were Unfathomable Ruination, the first band of the day’s mid-afternoon death metal double header with Crepitation picking up the leftover remains of the crowd immediately after and grinding it into paste. Unfathomable Ruination’s approach to death metal is more technical, the band’s musicians a blur of whipped hair and lightning fretboard wizardry throughout their set. As with much tech-death, their songs tended to bleed into each other somewhat, but the lack of variation in their arsenal was more than made up for by the unrelenting brutality on display. Crepitation continue to be one of the UK’s premier slam bands, and their Ritual appearance was a masterclass in over-the-top heaviness and tongue-in-cheek violence. 

Back on the main stage, post-metal titans Bossk appeared through a haze of blue light and incense smoke to deliver one of the undeniable highlights of the day. Following their reformation and subsequent signing with legendary US hardcore imprint Deathwish, Bossk have been on a winning streak that continued with last year’s stunning ‘Audio Noir’ album, the fruits of which were on full display today. Hypnotic and crushing, the majority of the band’s set was delivered instrumentally, with vocalist Sam Marsh appearing only fleetingly but to devastating effect, particularly on the set closer ‘Kobe’. Bossk continue to be the very pinnacle of our country’s post-metal scene, and with performances like this it’s not hard to see why.

Leeds powerviolence overlords The Afternoon Gentlemen served up a gut-wrenching set on the smaller stage next, their dissonant punk rock shaking the crowd back into life following Bossk’s trancelike sermon. Back to the main stage and it was time for one of the day’s first true heavy hitters to arrive, in the shape of transatlantic blackened-death necromancers Anaal Nathrakh. Their set began as well as could have been hoped, their aural assault tearing the crowd to smithereens as it has done for the best part of the last two decades. Unfortunately, this was where the day began to derail, with the band choosing to stage a protest and refusing to leave the stage because of alleged issues with them receiving their performance fees. It was an uncomfortable moment that dragged on for far too long, not only souring the general atmosphere in the venue but also pushing the running times for the rest of the day back. Though their performance was commendable, Anaal Nathrakh’s attitude and demeanour lost them many friends today.

The good vibes were somewhat restored on the smaller stage as legendary British metalcore heroes Canvas wasted no time in turning the tightly packed room into something resembling a meat-filled tumble dryer. The band’s mixture of electronica and turn-of-the-millennium hardcore hasn’t aged particularly well, but for the throng of old-school fans in attendance this was clearly a very special moment, Canvas’ set creating maybe the biggest buzz of the entire day. The band themselves were clearly having a ball too, maybe so much so that this reformation may not end up being as temporary as initially suspected. 

One of the most hotly anticipated sets of the festival was up next on the main stage, with US hardcore supergroup All Pigs Must Die making one of their rare and therefore cherished appearances on British soil. The band have been releasing records since 2010, yet because of their members’ commitments to their ‘main’ bands (APMD comprising members current and past of Converge, Trap Them and The Hope Conspiracy), they have only managed to play a small handful of shows on our fair isle since their inception. As such, there was a hush around the room as they hit the stage, a hush which lasted a little too long for comfort as the band launched into tracks from their two full-length records, plus one new cut from their as-yet unreleased third effort, due later this year. A couple of songs into the set though and the crowd finally erupted, bringing with it the biggest circle pit of the festival. APMD’s set was brutal, intense, and wholly invigorating, and was arguably the highlight of the day.

Headlining the second stage was a task handed to Baltimore death metal masters Misery Index, who rose to the occasion and delivered one of the most flat-out nasty performance of the day. Simultaneously technically gifted and yet viscerally primitive in delivery, Misery Index came close to tearing the roof off of Canal Mills, the walls of the smaller room groaning with the amount of bodies crammed inside them to witness this masterclass in extremity. It became apparent as the band’s appearance went on that they were playing a much longer set than had been initially planned, which at the time felt a little indulgent if not entirely unwelcome, though it became clear eventually that this was a practical way of keeping the audience entertained whilst some further drama struck the main stage.

Due to some miscommunications with the venue regarding the technical necessities for his equipment, Emperor frontman Ihsahn’s arrival on the main stage was delayed by almost an hour. Though Misery Index filled some of that void with their extended set, the crowd’s attention was still pushed close to breaking point as the black metal legend and his band struggled to power up their extensive arsenal of amps and keyboards. Thankfully, Ihsahn himself approached the situation in a calm and professional manner, and once the issues were finally ironed out he managed to deliver a stunning set of graceful, progressive metal unlike anything that had come before him. Though still tinged with the black metal with which his infamous band forged their name, Ihsahn’s solo work has a much more thoughtful and measured feel, and though sadly the venue was a little emptier than would have be ideal by the time his set arrived, the remaining masses were treated to what was by far the most majestic set of the entire day.

Ritual Festival 2017 was a success from a fan perspective, and though some issues both logistical and technical marred the atmosphere somewhat, all of the acts involved brought their A-game. Canal Mills in Leeds is a wonderful venue, both sonically and in terms of having just the right kind of dingy, industrial vibe to host such a bone-rattlingly loud line-up. Most importantly, for the vast majority of the day the crowd were having a ball. Hopefully the hiccups will be ironed out by 2018’s event, because this is a festival that deserves to become the next Damnation, and not go the way of the sadly departed Temples.