The big review: Fortress Festival 2024

None more black! Scarborough falls under a dark spell as Triptykon, Wolves In The Throne Room, Blackbraid and more bring two days of black metal madness to Fortress Fest…

The big review: Fortress Festival 2024
Sam Law
Acidolka, NecrosHorns

Scarborough doesn’t initially feel like the obvious spot for one of the UK’s biggest-ever dedicated black metal weekenders. Beyond the bucket-and-spade shops and quaint tea rooms of the grand old seaside resort, however, loom the steep cliffs of the North Yorkshire coast and the ruined battlements of Scarborough Castle itself. There is an edge to the place in its scuffed storefronts and, nestled amongst the outstanding natural beauty of its surrounds, a sense of storied history, from the Viking fishermen who founded the town to the Royalist siegemasters of the 1640s to the countless Victorian tourists who helped transform it into the destination we know today.

Deep in the blacked-out halls of the Scarborough Spa – with waves crashing relentlessly into the sea wall outside its front door – the organisers of Fortress Festival have assembled a line-up the envy of aficionados around the world. And fans have responded in droves, selling-out the 1,750-capacity complex well in advance, with many crossing borders or flying thousands of miles so as not to miss the landmark gathering.

Here, we present 13 of the most smashing, scintillating, soul-scathing moments across a monumental weekend…


There’s still a massive queue snaking down the seafront as Danish crew Sunken get underway, but the gaping main hall is packed for the first set of the weekend. There’s plenty of misery in their music, obviously, but they lean into the crowd’s excitement, ramping up the heavy atmospherics of songs like Departure and Dødslængsel for a set that transports those gathered to a cold, dark place. With only two albums in over a decade of existence, and only a couple of days on from their UK debut warm-up show in London, they’re not the kind to rush their next steps, but on today’s evidence everyone’s keen to dive back in as soon as possible.

The Infernal Sea

When crusty Dutch/Swedes Dödsrit dropped out for health reasons at short notice a couple of weeks ago, it left a gaping hole in the line-up. Credit to The Infernal Sea for stepping up, with a combination of their trademark masked menace and an unexpected touch of chaos. Not only do songs like Lord Abhorrent and Bastard Of The East infect the atmosphere with a shadowy dread, they also inspire the first – and some of the only – mosh-pits. A pulse-quickening change of pace for an audience who, at times, veer perilously close to taking themselves too seriously. And some of the most blood-curdling sounds of the weekend to boot.


One of the more intriguing UK representatives on show, Fellwarden conjure dark magic during their set in the Ocean Room. Weaving threads of folky influence into an atmospheric veil of sound, songs like Exultance and Desperation see mysterious mainman The Watcher and his accomplices transition between passages of ambience, euphoric surges and moments of crashing fury with all the elemental unstoppability of a swirling storm. It’s music that powerfully evokes the specific craggy grandeur of England’s wild places. A perfect soundtrack for basking in Scarborough’s lengthening shadows as day begins to bleed into night.


Having performed their UK debut as headliners at last year’s Fortress, American black metal royalty Panopticon are back to celebrate the festival’s step up with a “final” full-album play-through of 2014 classic Roads To The North. Sole permanent member Austin Lunn can be found smashing Newcastle Brown Ale and headbanging away to countless other acts across the weekend, but this breathtaking performance underlines that he’s in a class of his own. There’s a punky defiance to his approach, and an experimentalism befitting someone who’s as likely to lay down some twangy country as frosty black metal, but when songs like The Echoes Of A Disharmonic Evensong and Where Mountains Pierce The Sky reach full flight, their dark majesty is staggering to behold.

Regarde Les Hommes Tomber

Now over a decade into their existence, it feels like French mystic black metallers Regarde Les Hommes Tomber (‘See How They Fall’) are unstoppably on the rise. This Ocean Room headline – sandwiched between Panopticon and Triptykon – feels like mighty billing amongst some intimidating company, but four years on from 2020’s acclaimed Ascension, the crushing The Renegade Son and Stellar Cross land with a tectonic heft that simply cannot be denied. They’ve had big nights at events like Inferno, Roadburn and the mighty Hellfest before, but the raucous celebration at this none-more-metal gathering still feels like a substantial milestone.


After last summer’s incredible ‘Triptykon Plays Celtic Frost’ festival shows, many at Fortress are asking how Tom Gabriel Fischer and the Swiss titans can step it up this evening. True to form, they deliver a malefic masterclass, delivering some of their own biggest hits – Goetia, The Prolonging – while also dropping Celtic Frost’s crowd-popping classics Procreation (Of The Wicked) and Circle Of The Tyrants. In person, as many in attendance get to witness first-hand, there are few artists in extreme metal as intelligent and accommodating as Tom, but onstage he remains a dark sorcerer, pulling all with the stamina to see out the late night headline into a mind-bending netherworld – with ecstatic grimaces on every face.


Based in Scarborough and boasting Fortress mastermind Gary Stephenson on drums, there was always destined to be a decent turnout as Ante-Inferno open proceedings. There’s no resting on their laurels, though, as the local lads’ patented brand of Cold, Tenebrous Evil blots out the sun through sheer malign force of will. Indeed, shadowy songs of praise like The Cavernous Black Of Night and Nightmares Of The Eschaton shouldn’t work this well when unleashed on a summer lunchtime, but when they hit their scourging peaks, there are chills down spines and goosebumps all around. Hellishly good.

Blood Countess

Another set of (relative) locals, York’s Blood Countess attack their early Ocean Room set with almost unsettling venom, unleashing levels of sonic violence that threaten to bowl over those among the sprawling crowd still nursing last night’s hang/bang-overs. On one level that’s down to the vampiric mastery of songs like In Virgins Blood and Ad Altare Sanguinem, and their confidence in going straight for the throat. Even more so, it’s about the brutal charisma of vocalist ‘The Cuntess’ who rides roughshod over proceedings, literally goading the reluctant front rows into opening one of the biggest pits of the festival. She’s one of only a handful of women on the Fortress line-up, but absolutely no-one delivers a ballsier performance.


Ethereal Irish collective Domhain deliver a change of pace and a chance for respite just when it’s most needed. One of the most recently-formed acts at the festival, the County Antrim crew subtly reference the folk sounds of their homeland – and touch on fellow Hibernian legends like Primordial and Altar Of Plagues – but there’s something bracingly original about their specific black metal blend: a sound that you can drift off into even in a live setting, utterly unlike the cacophonous confrontation on offer elsewhere. In epic, melancholic compositions like The Mourning Star and A Pile Of Stones Upon Her Grave, too, they already have the material to become giants of the genre.


Speaking of acts with what it takes to become genre giants, rising Portuguese stars Gaerea deliver a main stage set at sundown that would defiantly upstage most at a ‘mainstream’ metal event like Download, let alone this far more niche gathering. With lyrical influences as bright and varied as ‘narcissism’, ‘self-destruction’, ‘misanthropy’ and ‘mental numbness’, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Deluge, World Ablaze and Mirage might be a bit of a slog. But they’re delivered with such enthusiasm and high theatricality – black body paint, masks, a massive illuminated variant of the sigil of Asmodeus hanging over the stage, livewire frontman Guilherme Henriques moving about like he’s in an avant-garde musical – that it’s impossible not to be swept along. Massive. And bigger things are surely on the horizon.


Netherlands post-metal duo Fluisteraars are one of Fortress’ lesser-spotted coups for 2024: the kind of hip, underground outfit you’d normally have to painstakingly seek out or travel to Roadburn to catch in the flesh. There’s no sign of rustiness or onstage unfamiliarity for their Ocean Room bow, mind, as vocalist Bob Mollema and multi-instrumentalist Mink Koops rage through the banging Dromen Van De Son (‘Dreams Of The Son’) and Verscheuring In De Schemering (‘Dismemberment In The Twilight’). In truth, there’s less obvious innovation and more of the lo-fi savagery with which black metal made its name than some here expected, but it’s really quite refreshing to see such reclusive types just get out there and blast.


The merch queue for Blackbraid is more than 50 punters deep right after doors open. Such is the hype around the Adirondack Mountains-based ‘indigenous North American black metal’ project that their evening main stage set would need to downright otherworldly to justify the levels of fervour they generate. Honestly, it’s not quite that. Instead, frontman Sgah’gahsowáh simply leads the collective through a machine-tooled masterclass in high-end atmospheric extremism. Read deep into the meaning behind songs like The Wolf That Guides The Hunter’s Hand and Barefoot Ghost Dance On Blood Soaked Soil and there is violent history and righteous anger to be mined, but taken on the strength of performance alone there isn’t much to separate them from the rest of Fortress’ outstanding pack.

Wolves In The Throne Room

It is a long way from the green wildernesses of the United States’ Pacific Northwest and those of the United Kingdom’s grim northeast, but something about Wolves In The Throne Room’s dark ambience and gnarly atmospherics feels particularly at home. Their festival-closing set finds them running through 2007 classic Two Hunters in its entirety, highlighting the probing dread of Dia Artio, the fiery catharsis of Cleansing, and I Will Lay Down My Bones Among The Rocks And Stones’ none-more-sprawling climax. Its spectacular fade into the midnight darkness certainly doesn’t end proceedings with a bang, but it feels like a truly poignant finish. Then they chuck on an encore of Crown Of Stone and Queen Of Borrowed Light to raise pulses one last time and send everyone home on a high. A thrilling dive into the depths of the WITTR-verse.

More than that, the set’s sense of occasion – and the reverence with which it is received – underline that only a couple of years in, Fortress is already an extreme metal outing capable of mixing it up with some of the biggest in the world. And with a European exclusive headline from Oregon heroes Agalloch already confirmed for 2025, many of those here are already booking next year’s tickets and hotels as they tumble into the night. We’ll catch you there, down the front.

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