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  • Words by Editor-in-Grief

Fortress Festival organiser Gary Stephenson talks origins of atmospheric black metal extravaganza and forthcoming highlights for 2024 instalment

From the ornately twisting, folk-steeped riffery of Blackbraid to the intensely caustic, melancholia-stricken throes of apocalyptic Portuguese visionaries Gaerea, few variants of metal inhabit such unique, duskily entrancing sonic territories as those so richly exhibited in atmospheric black metal. So, with that in mind, it seems only fitting that these eerily absorbing manifestations should be experienced within a backdrop befitting the epic scale and windswept majesty that’s long been synonymous with music of this exceptionally immersive calibre. Which, coincidentally, was precisely the thinking that prompted Fortress Festival organiser Gary Stephenson to set in motion his plans for a festival whose jaw-droppingly illustrious line-up would be rivalled only by its hauntingly beautiful and panoramic coastal location. Ahead of the UK festival’s second, tremendously anticipated instalment, the innovatively-minded organiser reveals how this meticulously imagined vision first came to fruition…

First off, it’d be great to get a little background on the origins of the fest and the initial motivations or vision that first set things in motion.

I would like to tell you that Fortress was all part of some masterplan. But it first came from visiting Pealie's Barn in Northallerton; A hidden little gem of a venue in the middle of nowhere. The place screamed atmospheric black metal with its aesthetic so I quickly got to drumming up the idea of Fortress. The venue unfortunately had some issues with planning and licensing so we chose to move the event to the Scarborough Spa, where we host our annual punk festival.

I always spoke heavily about a dream of hosting a large-scale, annual black metal festival but to be honest, I never could see it being a possibility until the year we visited Pealie's Barn. This was 2022, if memory serves. I guess the UKBM scene kinda forced us into doing this, in a way. We hosted multiple small festival events over two days around the UK, which all sold out. So upping the capacity to a festival size seemed the only way to move forward and grow the company.

In terms of bookings, you’ve managed to secure a number of fantastic, sought-after artists already. What do you consider to be some of the most exciting forthcoming highlights?

It wouldn't be right to pick only a few select bands from this line-up. There are so many rare, exclusive and great bookings for the UK, I think. But if you absolutely need to mention a highlight here, it's Fluisteraars.

Aside from the superb aforementioned line-up, the coastal location and Victorian grandeur of the venue is something of a dream come true for fans of atmospheric black metal. With that in mind, I’d be interested to know precisely what drew you to this particular venue/location.

As mentioned previously, we host our annual punk festival at this venue so it was the best choice to also host Fortress Festival. I grew up in Scarborough and it was always a dream of mine to host a large capacity music event here.

I think there has been a steer in people's thoughts and habits with attending multiple-day music events in major cities over the past two years or so. They are expensive, crowded and a chore to get to for a lot of people. Scarborough is a nice, quiet seaside town, and the Scarborough Spa is situated along the coast with beautiful scenic views of the North Sea and a medieval castle. I think it's the perfect setting for an event like this and one that hasn't been done before in the UK.

I have to admit that Fortress 2023 was made all the more unique of an experience on account of the wedding simultaneously going on downstairs in the main hall. I’m guessing the fact that this was also taking place that weekend didn’t pose too many issues or disruptions to the running of the fest?

Fortress 2024 now uses the whole venue for its event. So, no, there will not be any surprise weddings over the weekend. But that did make for some funny memes. Luckily, and strangely, the person getting married was actually an old friend. So there was no hassle!

This year, I understand Fortress has now been relocated to the main hall of the venue. I imagine the move will open up a whole array of new possibilities in terms of what bands will be able to do with their respective stage shows and overall presence, as well as accommodating a larger crowd. Have you begun discussing those details with the artists yet?

Having the Grand Hall main stage has opened up to a whole new level of production. Which, admittedly, I have had to learn pretty fast about. I wouldn't like to speak too much about any of the band's performances yet. I guess you will have to wait to see.

The artwork commissioned for the festival is strikingly intricate and arresting. It would be great to know a little more about the artist and how you collaborated together to create this year’s design/imagery. Specifically, was she given a level of direction in terms of what you envisioned for this or was it more a case of leaving her to conceptualise and create this on her own terms?

For this year's event, we commissioned Hester Aspland (she) to do our artwork. I enjoy an old, medieval, illustrated feel to my artwork and we had worked together previously on a few things, I think. Hester seemed like the logical choice here. She is very easy to work with, which is a bonus. I would recommend more promoters use her skills to showcase their events. I know there are cost restraints for obtaining good art, but it really does give your event a ton of benefit using good-level artists, especially within this genre. Your poster is one of the main factors in selling your event, it should look f*cking incredible.

Finally, do you have any concluding messages or thoughts you’d like to leave our readers with in closing?

See you at Fortress Festival, I hope!

Click HERE to visit the official Fortress Festival website


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