Black clad hordes descending on the Union building of Leeds University, sending unsuspecting students running for cover can only mean one thing – Damnation Festival! This was the 12th consecutive annual incarnation of this one day festival, showcasing the best home grown and international extreme metal from a variety of genres, and had a mouth watering line up, attested to by a sold out crowd. I will apologise at this stage and say that it simply was not possible to see all of the bands playing across the four stages, and there were some very tough decisions to be made, meaning I had to miss some fantastic bands, so if I haven’t mentioned your favourite band (or your band!!) I apologise.
After getting my bearings around the rabbit warren that is the union building, checking out the merch and the real ales on offer, I made my way to the Terrorizer stage to catch festival openers, Norwegian noise purveyors, Attan. On the back of their 2015 debut EP release ‘From Nothing’, their blackened hardcore assault blew away the cobwebs for the faithful who had made their way to the festival’s second stage at this early hour.
Brummies Kroh followed, opening the recently renovated (and much improved) fourth “Mine” stage. The room rapidly filled beyond capacity, such was the appetite to catch the occult doomsters who have re-emerged from a split in 2013, and were appearing on the back of the recently released ’Altars’ album. With the alluring vocal talents of Oliwia Sobieszek now at the helm, the band proceeded to hypnotise the gathered throng with stand out tracks such as the glorious ‘Living Water’. I am not usually a fan of the doomy end of the musical spectrum, but I was impressed with Kroh, and have already ordered their latest vinyl.
Svalbard were next on my agenda, unleashing their aggressive, post-hardcore upon a fair size crowd. The band were a tornado of infectious energy on the stage and Serena sounded like a woman possessed as her visceral vocals ripped faces off those in front row. I suspect Svalbard were new to many of those in attendance, but I’m sure they made some new friends.
The main ‘Jagermeister’ stage was opened by Welsh sludge/stoners Hark who gathered a decent energetic crowd. The majority of the set was drawn from 2014’s ‘Crystalline’ including ‘Scarlet Extremities’ and set closer ‘Palendromeda’, and we were also treated to a new track ‘Disintegrate’ which got a good response, boding well for a new album in 2017.
I hot footed it back to the Terrorizer stage to catch UK death metallers Mithras who were touring in support of their recent ‘On Strange Loops’ offering. Having always managed to miss them live ‘back in the day’, despite really enjoying their work especially 2003’s ‘Worlds Beyond the Veil’, I was looking forward to finally experiencing them live. The crowd were knowledgeable and familiar with all of the material being aired, as Mithras put in a good display of technical death metal which brought to mind “Formulas…” era Morbid Angel. As good as they were, I suspect there is more to come and Mithras will keep getting better and better.
My final trip to the Mine stage of the day was for West Yorkshire’s own Darkher. The trio took to the stage bathed in subdued green lighting and opened with brooding renditions of ‘Buried’ and ‘Foregone’. Ambient, but with a sinister edge, there was something haunting about this performance, and before long the room had become uncomfortably full. ‘Hollow Veil’ and ‘Saviour’ floated over a transfixed crowd, as the temperature in the room rocketed and I retreated to the back of the room for the remainder of the set. I understand that the band will be supporting Wardruna shows in London later this month – That is one evening not to miss if at all possible.
My first trip of the day to the Riley Smith Hall (the ‘Eyesore Merch Stage’) was for Portuguese enigma Sinistro. Their atmospheric sonic art pulled a big crowd (although the was plenty of space at the front if those stood near the doors would only move forward to allow those trapped outside into the room!). Opening with ‘Partida’ and then ‘Corpo Presente’, Patricia Andrade’s vocals were simply stunning, and it was clear to everyone in attendance that she is an exceptionally talented vocalist. However, her stage presence was a real distraction as she writhed and spasmed in front of the microphone stand, to the bemusement of pretty much everyone in the room. When the music is this good, and the vocalist this talented, there is no need for this level of histrionics.
A quick slurp of beer was in order en route to the main stage in preparation for American progressive metallers Oceans of Slumber. I was really looking forward to these having been really impressed by their studio output, and I wasn’t disappointed. ‘Progressive Metal’ doesn’t do them justice and it was clear from the opening track ‘Winter’ that there are many influences behind them. The fact that drummer Dobber Beverly is previously of grindcore mob Insect Warfare, should give you some idea of the melting pot they are drawing from, with nods towards extreme metal, jazz and doom, simmering beneath the surface of the progressive metallic tones. Cammie Gilbert sets things off perfectly with her powerful, charismatic vocals, making this a band who are on the up with a huge future in front of them.
Australian extreme progressive metal outfit Ne Obliviscaris have been touring hard recently, impressing crowds across the continents. Their extreme progressive metal is complex with guttural roars sitting comfortably alongside clean vocals, accompanied by classical violin interludes and covert flourishes of jazz influenced melodies. There is the potential for such an intricate balance to become a muddy mess, but the crystal clear sound afforded Ne Obliviscaris ensured that the subtleties of their set were fully appreciated by a packed crowd at the Terrorizer stage.
And so we came to Cult of Luna with Julie Christmas, the first of the three main stage headliners and judging by the crowd size, the most anticipated. The ‘Mariner’ album was something of a landmark, and it was originally said that it would never be played live. However, the stars aligned allowing a few shows to be announced where the album would be recreated in full not only by Cult of Luna but also with Julie Christmas who’s intriguing voice is so integral to the whole project. The band take to the stage in near darkness, appearing as spectral silhouettes with Julie Christmas the obvious focal point, resplendent in white, contrasting with the rest of the band. From the opening chords of ‘A Greater Call’ until the closing bars of ‘Cygnus’, it was clear that this was a special performance, performed with such intensity (and volume!) and such a dense atmosphere that a strong case could have been made for having this the closing act of the night. There was clearly a large cohort who had come to Damnation this year specifically for this performance and they left completely satisfied, knowing they had witnessed something special.
After such a performance, Damnation veterans Akercocke (by my reckoning this was their third time on the bill) were given a mountain to climb but they happily rose to the challenge opening with the magnificent ‘Leviathan’ followed by ‘Scapegoat’. A small pit opened up as the crowd enthusiastically sang along. ‘Verdelet’ and ‘Becoming the Adversary’ went past in the blink of an eye before the set was closing with ‘A Skin for Dancing In’. If this performance is anything to go by, Akercocke’s resurrection is a force to be reckoned with, and I will be keeping an eye open for further live dates.
The air was thick with anticipation before Abbath took to the stage, although this turned to frustration as they were 20 minutes late appearing. This was soon forgiven as they erupted into ‘To War!’, giving proceedings a much needed injection of pace and aggression. ‘Nebular Ravens Winter’ and ‘Warriors’ followed, ensuring that all three eras of Abbath’s legacy were visited early on. At this point, the obligatory chant of “Yorkshire, Yorkshire” started, which was curtly met with a croaked “Shut up!” from Abbath…..Hilarious! The rest of the set focused on Immortal and Abbath material, with Abbath keen to climb out onto the speakers at the front of the stage engaging with those in the front rows. ‘Ashes of the Damned’ was magnificent, but the highlight of the set for me was inevitably ‘Tyrants’. Their set flew by, and re-affirmed that for all the extremity on display, black metal is where my heart really lies.
Norwegian behemoths Enslaved made their Damnation debut this year and were greeted like returning heroes. With an extensive back catalogue of Viking black metal, and only an hour to fill, they were never going to please everyone, but they had a good go! Opening with ‘Roots of the Mountain’ and ‘Ruun’ set the scene with glorious melodies set atop pulsating, hypnotic rhythms while Grutle Kjellson’s harsh vocals juxtaposed perfectly with Herbrand Larsen’s clean vocal, setting this band aside from so many of their peers. ‘The Watcher’ continued the theme, before a stunning rendition of ‘Building with Fire’. We were reminded that this tour was in celebration of their 25th anniversary, and were cheekily told that when they had played in Paris the night before, the crowd had sung “Happy Birthday” to them…..Of course Damnation duly obliged with their own version. Grutle then announced that having just played a new song, the next would be from the 90’s, before launching into ‘Fenris’ from 1994’s ‘Frost’ opus. ‘Ground’ and ‘One Thousand Years of Rain’, followed before things were brought to a close with ‘Allfadr Odinn’.
Sadly I had to make a slightly early exit to get a spot for Electric Wizard, who were just launching into ‘Witchcult Today’ as I made my way to the front of the room. While not as aggressive or fast as other bands playing during the day, their doomy offering was heavier than most, hitting you with an oppressive wall of noise that has the speakers rattling like none before them today. ‘Black Mass’ followed as most of those in attendance lost themselves in the droning, monolithic outpourings. ‘The Chosen Few’ was popular with those still present at the end of the day, as was set closer ‘Funeralopolis’.
Once again Damnation brought a diverse mix of extreme metal, pulling in a sold out crowd, which is no mean feat in the current climate, and those present seemed to love it, which bodes well for next year.
Review and photos Andy Pountney