As I approached the University Union in Leeds, on a cold November morning, I could feel the air of anticipation growing, for I was about to embark on the annual bonfire weekend extravaganza that is the Damnation Festival.
There were crowds of black clad figures, loitering with intent outside the ominous looking building and the infamous landmark of Deli Kate’s truck and tent which were, as always, standing facing the entrance, like a glowing beacon, welcoming any one that needed nourishment for the next 12 hours.
I met up with my brother, Andy, who was also the shooter for the day, and we hastily made our way inside. We secured our press passes and entered the hallowed hall, which was filling up nicely, and was adorned with various merch stands as well as the official merch outlet, but also the Mercian Storm stand. Andy was attracted to this, like a moth to a flame, and before I knew it, he was eagerly slicing through the stack of vinyl, one by one, with trepidation, scrutinising it all with a degree of professionalism, so much so, it was verging on a military operation. Once Andy had cleared them of half their vinyl, he stashed his gains and we made our way to the bar, ready to formulate a plan, in order to catch every band on our hit list, but also to ensure we covered as much of today’s offering as possible.
As we entered the bar, we caught up with another trio of our usual horde and we grabbed a pint, pulled up a pew, and started discussing the day. Before we knew it, it was 10 minutes to show time, so we grabbed our pints, downed them in one, and marched on to the Terrorizer Stage to prepare ourselves, ready for the first onslaught.
Disentomb, a quartet from Brisbane, Australia, took to the stage and delivered a lesson in brutal death metal. Jordan James prowled the stage like a ravenous beast, thumping the air in time with the beat and he was flanked by guitarists Wilkes and Parker, stood like marionettes, rooted to their respective spots, but heads banging in unison with James’s thumping and beating. They delivered a solid performance to a heaving room, and the gathered masses in front of them seemed to love every moment, and I’m sure this Aussie bunch, may have gained a few more friends from today’s 30-minute performance.
As the day wasn’t going to allow much respite later, we decided to grab another pint from the bar, and dissect what we had just witnessed, but also to reaffirm our plans for the rest of the day. The bar, was packed at this point, and although we had been assured by the festival organisers that they had reduced capacity numbers to allow less swelling within the confines of the union, you could definitely tell that the event had sold out, and more, it seems, had come down to Leeds earlier than ever I remember.
We then trekked back to the Terrorizer stage to catch the much anticipated Wiegedood, and it looked like most of the 3000 strong had also gone with the same idea. The room was packed to the rafters and it was overflowing out of the doors into the surrounding corridors. Wiegedood then entered the stage to a massive cheer, and the stage was adorned with 2 side drops, which had the band’s emblem emblazoned on them, as a constant reminder of who was delivering this masterpiece in post black metal. The trio from Belgium didn’t repent from the moment they strode out in front of the packed-out crowd, to the moment the brief 30 minutes have concluded, they left most people who had born witness to the show, absolutely amazed and mesmerised. This truly was a lesson in aural destruction.
A hasty retreat was made to the Tone MGMT stage in order to catch a lesser known, in my world at least, Leng T’che, although these came highly recommended by Andy, and the rest of our cohort. As we made our way to the front of the stage, the band were still putting the finishing touches to the sound check, and they suddenly burst into a rendition of Metallica’s ‘Welcome Home (Sanitarium)’, which saw the whole band jamming along to the PA music. This gained a wry smile from myself and Andy, both for various reasons I’m sure. The band then briefly exited stage left and re-entered with some attitude and vigour, and delivered a set which put my doubts to bed. As much as I wouldn’t necessarily go to a Leng T’che headline show, I may well try and catch them if they are on the bill at any future gigs or festivals I get myself along to. The Belgian 4 piece done good. Unfortunately, I decided to leave early, fight through the sea of black shirts, which have decided that they too want to grab themselves some Belgian death grind, in order to get myself over to the main stage to catch some of the main stage openers, Pallbearer.
I’m not overly familiar with any of Pallbearer’s stuff, but decided that if they are opening the main stage then they must be of some decent calibre. While we were on our trek to the other side of the building, we passed a few heading the other way, and they could clearly be heard that they wish they hadn’t chosen to see Pallbearer, as they were “rubbish”, this didn’t bode well, but I kept going, as I needed to keep an open mind, in case I might be missing a gem, a diamond in the rough, so to speak. I mean, if they are fairly high up on festival line ups such as the Metal and Beer festival at the Fillmore in Philadelphia, and currently as direct support to Paradise Lost on their current tour, how bad could they be?? I entered the cavernous main room, where the Jägermeister stage is housed, and I was met with a quartet who hit me as being lost on the decent sized stage, and belting out some doom-laden rock, which just doesn’t seem to be coming across well. I’m not sure if it is lost in translation or if it really isn’t my thing, I like to think that I have quite an eclectic taste, so I decided to try both wings to see if it clicked any more, and I even tried different degrees of closeness to the stage, but it just didn’t seem to fall right. As part of me wished I hadn’t left the energy in the Tone MGMT stage, I was pleased, I’d at least given Pallbearer a go, I hastily retreated back to the bar, leaving the decent sized crowd, who to be fair, all seemed to be loving it. I later learn that the band had to play a reduced set due to an unplanned fire alarm. Some have even voiced that this may have been the highlight of the set. Bit harsh!!
Next up was Vallenfyre on the Terrorizer stage, and again, the room was packed beyond belief. Vallenfyre then confidently strode onto stage to a massive roar from the sea of bodies that was set out below them. Early into the set Gregor announced that they were Vallenfyre from Yorkshire, this then instigated a “Yorkshire, Yorkshire” chant, he then went on to declare that actually, only 2 of the band are from Yorkshire, 2 from down south and 1 from Finland, this then silenced the chant rapidly. While Vallenfyre are heavy enough, brutal, and technical, they let themselves down in my mind by Gregor constantly banging on and making bad taste jokes and remarks including light hearted reference to child abuse. I tried to ignore these and focus on the brilliant music which was being delivered and they truly were on form.
The first clash of the day reared its head. As I had heard such massive praise for Myrkur from Andy, I was keen to check them out, but I was also very keen to catch Beyond Creation, as they must have some commendation as they are part of the current Dying Fetus tour package. I decided to go with my instinct and headed down to the Tone MGMT stage to catch Beyond Creation. Yet again, the room was stupidly packed, and really quite uncomfortable, with people trying to squeeze into gaps which really don’t exist. The band took to the stage and launched into an absolute tirade of technical, demolishing death metal. The band seemed tight and in complete unison. Simon Girard kept the momentum going with crushing vocals which turned some heads on people who were in the gathered masses out of curiosity.
AP says….Having been a big fan of Myrkur’s material since her debut release, I had never managed to catch her live, and so was I looking forward to seeing her at Damnation and it’s fair to say that she was one of the main draws on the bill for me. Taking to the stage in a loose fitting white tunic, and flanked by a hooded guitarist and bassist, Amalie Bruun was the obvious focal point and appeared almost ethereal as the set got under way with ‘Mareridt’. ‘The Serpent’ and ‘Hævnen’ followed with the vocals effortlessly changing from angelic fragile, delicate to demonic shrieks and howls. ‘Onde børn’ was a personal highlight and was completely captivating, and all too soon, the set was being brought to a close with ‘Skaði’. I understand that Myrkur usually has a piano with her as part of the live show and this was missing at Damnation. shall try to catch her again to appreciate the full live experience but having said that, Amalie et al were absolutely stunning and well worth the wait. [AP].
The 50 minutes seemed to fly by and before I knew it, it was time to make the short dash over to the Terrorizer stage, which seemed to be my main base for the day, to catch the enigma that is Dragged into Sunlight. These UK extreme stalwarts graced the stage to one of the biggest roars of the day. The stage was swathed in dry ice and the lights had been turned down low, to add more of an air of secrecy to the whole event. There was a massive candelabra centre stage with 8 candles flickering, and a carcass draped on the stand, which undoubtedly was sacrificed at a recent ritual. There were also a couple of skulls sat atop both speaker stacks, and again, these were lit by a couple of flickering candles. The band then launched into a brutal wall of noise. Most of the time, the guitarists and singer were stood with their backs to the crowd, but they managed to still keep the crowd interested and engaged. The intricacy of the music on show was phenomenal and it was so raw and aggressive, it created an equilibrium like no other, when it was twinned with the mystery of the whole proceedings. The band had 2 video screens either end of the stage, which for the first 2 songs, created an introduction before the band launched into a volatile explosion of brutality. From the opener ‘To Hieron’, to set closer ‘Lashed To The Grinder And Stoned To Death’, the band delivered a master class in brutal extreme music, and clearly evidenced that the UK can still deliver with a relevance in this saturated world
I then dropped by the Tone MGMT stage again in order to catch Mutation. I’m not overly familiar with any of the material from Ginger et al, but I like The Wildhearts, so was keen to see if this was a reissue of said band. Ginger, Scott and Denzel fired onto the stage and burst into the catharsis, that couldn’t be more removed from The Wildhearts recipe if they tried. They opened with ‘Authenticity’, closely followed by ‘Toxins And Friday Night Drugs’. The crowd was sparser than I expected, but there was a decent smattering of Cardiacs and also a couple of The Wildhearts shirts. Unfortunately, there were no guest musicians on board for this tour, and Shane Embury was definitely missed in his absence. While Mutation aren’t really my thing on reflection, I withdrew and moved back to the Jägermeister stage in readiness for Nails.
Nails seemed to have won it today, on the prize for the band being represented most, by shirts being adorned by the Damnation collective. When the lights went down, they seemed to turn the amps up to 11 for Nails, and the whole place erupted. Mosh pits exploded into life and the band put on one hell of a show today. The crowd were screaming lyrics back at the band and the did not disappoint on the effort and enthusiasm front.
Time for tea, and as much as a damnation burger from Deli Kate, is an integral part of the Damnation experience, the massive snaking queue at the hut, didn’t afford us enough time to wait, so we hot footed it down to the pasty shop to stock up, and then we moved back to the main stage, in preparation for the first of the main stage headliners of the day, Paradise Lost. This wasn’t without a trip via the merch to see if there were any new additions, this may have been our 7th or 8th, and with each, we had seen the official Damnation merch dwindling, so much so, that as we broached into the early evening, there looked to be just a couple of each design left on the tables.
As Andy went off to find his spot in the photo pit, I set up camp, down the front, stage right in eager anticipation of my first glimpse of Nick Holmes and his trusty comrades. The lights went down, and the band launched into ‘From The Gallows’, closely followed by ‘The Enemy’ and then the opening piano notes of ‘Enchantment’. Nick was his usual moody self, and was complaining at the end of each of the opening trio about the state of his microphone, declaring that it wasn’t working, and he wanted another. They then launched into ‘An Eternity Of Lies’ and ‘Faith Divides Us, Death Unites Us’, and it looked like Nick didn’t get his wish, as he seemed to limp on the rest of the set with the same, said, microphone. What should have been highlights of the set, ‘As I Die’ and ‘Embers Fire’, fell flat, and the vocals still seemed to be temperamental. The band finished with regular set closer ‘Say Just Words’, and while there seemed to visually be plenty of people on a high from what they had just witnessed, there were plenty of grumblings reverberating around Leeds from the die-hard, old schools, who felt that Nick et al have lost their edge, some even voicing that they felt Nick was portraying himself too much as a rock star diva.
AP says….While Paradise Lost were plying their trade on the main stage, The Great Discord were playing to a small but appreciative crowd on the small Tone MGMT stage. Having caught (and enjoyed) the energetic Swedes previously supporting Katatonia, I was keen to catch them again. They brought a real change of pace to Damnation as their “progressive death pop” (their label not mine) filled the small room through tracks such as ‘The Red Rabbit’ and ‘Ephemeral’, and I could hear casual observers saying very positive things about this Swedish enigma. [AP].
I then hot footed it back to the Terrorizer stage, just as Dying Fetus were opening up their set, and the room was still rammed, but less so than for previous bands, which amazed me, as these were a highlight of the day for me. They opened up the impressive mosh pit with from ‘Womb To Waste’, closely followed by ‘Fixated On Devastation’. One of my highlights of the set was ‘Invert The Idols’, and they then followed this up with the title track from recent opus ‘Wrong One To Fuck With’. The set was closed with the most vigour and energy I had witnessed all day and they truly are masters of their art, which they have honed over their 26 years since inception.
AP says….For those not in the mood for that level of aggression, Leprous were delivering a masterclass in progressive metal over on the Eyesore stage. With almost exclusive backlighting, the band appeared as silhouettes for most of the set, with a mesmerised crowd lapping up gems such as ‘Bonneville’ and ‘The Price’ before things were brought to a majestic close with ‘Mirage’. [AP]
A swift move back to the main stage followed and the crowd looked to have noticeably thinned out since Paradise Lost which is a shame, because next up was Angelripper, and the legends that are one of the original ‘big 4’ Teutonic thrash metal bands, Sodom. They took to the stage, and the floor beneath them became a seething pit of movement, with words being sung back to band with as much ferocity, it gave the PA a run for its money!!! Last time I caught these at Bloodstock, I was a little disappointed, but I think the indoors and darkness suited them a lot better, as I was suitably impressed, and now more than eager to get the opportunity to bear witness to the full-on thrash assault again, from these German pioneers.
It was with regret that I tore myself away from the beast that is Sodom, but I was keen to catch Psycroptic over on the Tone MGMT stage. I’ve only caught these Australians once before, at the Eindhoven Metal Meeting, but I remember being blown away then, and as they are the main support in the Dying Fetus tour, I guessed they must still be as strong and relevant as ever. As I approached the room, I expected bodies to be falling out in an overflow, because I expected this band to be hotly anticipated by the Damnation crowd, but I was mistaken as I could steadily make my way in at the back, and I still managed to get a good vantage point and the band didn’t disappoint. They were technical in the deliverance of their brand of death metal, and they commanded respect from every soul squeezed into the venue tonight.
On my way back towards the main hub of the festival, I poked my head into the Terrorizer stage to catch a glimpse of Agoraphobic Nosebleed. The crowds were going berserk for them, and they seemed to have found the volume dial and cranked it up even more. The dual vocalists were strutting around the stage with intent, and surprisingly the small, blonde female vocalist was more guttural and deep than her fellow male counterpart. They seemed to be working well together and the rest of the band were tight and seemed to deliver a controlled aggression, which was testament to the proceedings which had been laid to waste before them.
As there was some time before Bloodbath took to the main stage, to close the festival, I decided to tag along with Andy for my first visit to the Eyesore stage, and Nordic Giants. The stage was adorned with a big video screen which seemed to be relaying images and videos to the video screen back drop behind it. These 2 screens were telling a story with cartoon characters and a story line, which was well matched to the music being thrown out from the stage. The stage was in darkness and you could just make out 2 figures sat opposite each other, one on the drums and the other on keys. Both silhouettes seemed enthusiastic, and seemed to be convulsing in unison along to the music, and videos being delivered. This was like nothing else I have bared witness to before, and was almost trippy in its production and put you under its spell, so that you couldn’t take your gaze away from the stage. I almost felt I was at a completely different festival, to the previous 11 hours. 2 words, however, could be used to sum up Nordic Giants – magical & mesmerising.
So, on to the Jägermeister stage for the final band of the day – Bloodbath. It was Nick Holmes second outing for the festival, and as the lights dimmed, the band emerged, covered in ‘blood’ as if they had, indeed, just taken a blood bath. They kicked things off with ‘Let The Stillborn’, and Nick’s vocal problems seemed to have been banished, as he looked like a different frontman and put on one hell of a vocal display. The band then continued to rip through ‘Mental Abortion’, ‘So You Die’ and one of my personal favourites, ‘Breeding Death’. They completed their set with a robust, brutal 14 track set list, and had the whole place lapping it up with mosh pits and crowd surfers a plenty.
A massive, fitting way to close out Damnation Festival 2017, and all that is left to say is, roll on next year!!!
Words by Phil Pountney (Except AP by Andy Pountney)
Photos Andy Pountney