Damnation Festival’s annual assault on the Leeds student union is, for some Yorkshire residents, a November tradition as vital as the fireworks on Woodhouse Moor. While the military like pounding of leather boots, the heady dirge of a funereal doom bass lines and the smell of fetid mosh pits were sadly lacking in this year’s Waitrose autumn ad campaign, for today’s festival attendees they signal the true magnificence of the fall season.
Damnation is now 11-years-old. If it were human, it would be disturbing sex ed classes with its death growl and collecting detention slips for coming into class caked in corpse paint. While easy to overlook in favour of the big summer weekenders, Damnation’s range and prestige is impressive for a one day spectacle, and its value for money is almost unparalleled – a savvy fan who didn’t mind a bit of footwork could catch a sizeable chunk of all 27 acts playing today – which at £36 a ticket works out at just over £1.30 per band, plus atmosphere.
And while the musicianship and the variety are outstanding, it’s the atmosphere and sense of community that really makes Damnation a one-of-a-kind event. If Bloodstock and Download are temporary metalhead communes, Damnation is a specialists conference for connoisseurs of the acquired taste of extreme metal. Five minutes chatting at the bar or smoking area, and you will gain not just a recommendation for a must-see band, but a detailed biography and sonic analysis of them as well. Its as much a place for sharing knowledge as a chance to get wrecked with friends old and new.
This is the third year of the four stage format and it kind of works, though with a few acts that seem a little misplaced. A quick guide for the uninitiated: Doom goes on the Electric Amphetamine stage, Black and Death on Terrorizer (a little like putting rugby league and union fans on the same wedding table), for arty or experimental sonic kicks go to Eyesore Merch and, finally, Jagermeister is the odd one - not exactly the ‘main stage’ but where all the thrash and whoever is headlining go. The format seems to be working well enough, and the organisers must be commended for assembling a varied cabaret, with the 27 acts representing 11 different countries and no sub-genre omitted. Interestingly, capacity for this year has been reduced by 1000, making the event less congested and easier to meander, though it makes Damnation’s intentions clear. It won’t be becoming a big player in the festival scene anytime soon.
Last year’s Golden Gods winners for Best New Band, Savage Messiah (7) open up the Jagermeister stage in style with a set of heavy, no-holds-barred thrash, providing a well-honed, almost classic vibe – one could easily mistake the London quartet for veterans of the scene.
Voices (6), set over on the Terrorizer Stage, promise great things with an intense and brutal intro, but disappoint with the slightly generic set that follows, not helped by the technical issues which arise. Over in the darkest pits of the labyrinth, Brighton’s Sea Bastard (8) deliver a powerful set to a packed crowd, admirably blending a sludgy doom backdrop with inhumanly hellish screams.
Maybeshewill (9)’s set on the Eyesore Merch is a bittersweet one – the band have called it a day after over a decade of challenging sonic barriers and are kicking off their final stretch of concert dates. During a truly impressive and atmospheric set, they thank Damnation for being “easily the drunkest and nicest promoters we’ve dealt with”.
The Ocean (8) are back at Damnation after a show-stealing set back in 2013, and today’s turn marries deafening blasts, blinding monochromic lights and rich cello interludes to create a captivating sensory experience. “It’s good to be back” exclaims Loic Rosetti. Norwegian epic metal outfit Keep of Kaleesin (8) keep the vibe going on Terrorizer with a solid stage presence and some excellent shreds. “Do you want heavy or do you want extreme?” Obsidian C asks the crowd halfway through, confusing any unwitting friends dragged along who, until tonight, thought that the two meant the same thing.
Those left justifiably hazy from Witchsorrow’s (7) heady, funereal set of no-frills doom don’t have far to go to be brought back to life by Dutch death veterans Asphyx (9) who provide the Terrorizer stage with unparalleled brutality – the reeking pits filled with frantic sweaty shirtless bodies like a demented Caligulan orgy.
High on Fire, one of the day’s more traditional metal offerings are Damnation’s only North American offering and the Oakland trio’s blend of thrash and sludge metal goes down a storm with the Jagermeister crowd.
The penultimate set of the day, and the Coliseum–like pit of the Terrorizer stage is already spilling over into the corridors as the eager crowd await the arrival of Primordial (10), whose appearance is preceded by a lengthy Gaelic vocal melody. The County Dublin quintets blend of black metal with traditional Celtic music has drawn much curiosity, but it is so much more than a gimmick, as this set deftly proves. Mr. Naemthanga arrives in pitch black and riles up the crowd like a corpse-painted Michael Collins, before opening with ‘Where Greater Men Have Fallen’. Everything about this set is enjoyable – the showmanship, the doomy ‘Babels Tower’, the crowd frenzying like the Black ’47 riots of the Potato Famine – this is sure to be a building block of Damnation history.
If Primordial are the highlights of Damnation, that should not be discerning to the headline show of Gothenburg death icons At the Gates (8) whose long awaited set closes the day in appropriate style. “In At the Gates we don’t like death metal…” Mr. Lindberg growls, channelling Bobby Cliff, “We love it”. And as long as one tries to ignore the fact that At the Gates just employed this Simon Cowell punchline, it is hard not to be bowled over by the majesty of their set like a sadistic Swedish tidal wave. The final melodic interlude misleads into one last chaotic instrumental maelstrom, descending into an eerie calm. The intensity of the set, is best characterised by a lone, smiling shirtless punter at the end, calmly exiting to the afterparty in satisfaction as his nose gushes blood like claret.
Packing an encompassing range of acts into a tight, well-organised day, Damnation organisers must take credit for yet another outstanding instalment – it’s a smaller festival this time around, but with no compromise on quality and a continued commitment to all things extreme.
Damnation Festival rating: 9/10