Review by Paul Castles, Photos by Vivien Varga
For any Damnation ‘freshers’ a first trip to the UK’s premier one-day indoor extreme metal festival can be something of an overwhelming experience. The corridors, stairwells and black holes that make up the labyrinth of Leeds University’s Students Union can make navigation for the uninitiated appear as easy as setting sail for the high seas without a compass. Fortunately the Eyesore Merch Stage is almost the first of the four platforms you stumble across when entering through the hallowed doors.
And those who decided this is as good a port of call as any so early in proceedings are treated to a mesmerising set from West Midland doom favourites Alunah. The quartet have gone through something of a makeover over the past couple of years, highlighted most notably by the arrival of new singer Siân Greenaway. There had been some natural concerns at the time of the switch as to whether Alunah’s flame would, while not exactly be extinguished, possibly just flicker a little less brightly. Anyone harbouring any such anxieties today can quickly park them once Greenaway’s increasingly confident delivery starts to impact. Having settled into the band by initially performing material gathered during Alunah’s formative years, Greenaway now has the confidence of performing her own material, and the songs that they run through today are all straight from their mesmerising new album Violet Hour (reviewed here). Anyone who felt black was the only colour of choice today has clearly not reckoned on Sian’s crush red velvet jumpsuit and she is quickly into her stride showcasing songs from the new release. By the time the rousing ‘Hunt’ is filling this vast echo chamber the Eyesore Merch room is packed, with those present no doubt patting themselves on the back that they had made the choice to sacrifice a liquid lunch to catch Alunah.
Some seeking a more meaty punch in the ribs seek out the alternative merits of Godeater, first band up on the Tone Mgmt Stage, the second biggest of the four in use at the Students’ Union. Anyone expecting a proper bruising from these Scottish deviants are well and truly obliged as the Tartan trio go about their hardcore business with an almost frightening intensity so early in the day.
There’s something of a tradition at Damnation that one band is allowed to play unencumbered by thoughts of who they are technically up against. Today that is The Infernal Sea, who return to the festival just three years after first making their mark here. Appropriately enough for a band whose dirty diatribe of asphalt aggression draws its pulse from the savage scars of the medieval age, The Infernal Sea open up the Cvlt Never Dies Stage, possibly the trickiest of the four platforms for the newbies to locate. Anyone not there in time for the opening injection of their sonic plague will probably not even be able to spot the band’s trademark plague doctor masks from their spot at the back of the subterranean room. In acknowledgement that today is a festival and not everyone present will be familiar with their work, The Infernal Sea ramp up the theatrics with a couple of their supportive Agents of Satan, fully cloaked and holding flickering lanterns, to bring an additional blackened aesthetic to an already suffocating sonic stench. While Peterborough’s finest purveyors of darkness reside in the kind of sonic squalor few would wish to dip their toe into, their jaw-dropping rhythmic barrage is as debilitating as most of what will follow today.
The main stage is the Jäger Stage and early visitors to the vast hall are immediately rocked back on their heels by another crew returning to Damnation this year. Raging Speedhorn may have been around the block more times than Mo Farah, but their penchant for delivering eardrum-destroying strangleholds is as resolute and reliable as when they first emerged onto the scene more than a quarter of a century ago. Under normal circumstances signs of wear and tear should by now be filtering through their testosterone tablet of hardcore, but it appears the Corby crushers have been able to stop the hands of Father Time circumnavigating the clock face. With their cranium busting blasts it’s no wonder that Desertfest have also added them to their arsenal for 2020.
While an eclectic mix of music is a given at Damnation, revered cellist Jo Quail a symbol of that over on the Eyesore Merch Stage today, there’s no sheltering from the fact that this year’s Yorkshire one-dayer is a treasure chest for anyone who lives and breathes black metal, with Mork and Mgla both making their festival bow this year.
The corspepaint is almost sliding off the Cvlt Never Dies Stage as Mork show exactly why many feel they are best placed to maintain the Norwegian dark fires first stoked over three decades ago by the likes of Darkthrone, Burzum and Mayhem – and more of them later. An occasional glass raised high to cries of ‘Skol’ from frontman Thomas Eriksen are the only moments of levity in an otherwise scalding set.
Mgla hit the main stage in matching hoodies, leather jackets, mesh face coverings and no stage adornments ensuring that the focus is on the music alone and the Romanian quartet maintain a foreboding throb throughout.
The Tone Mgmt room is rammed for the arrival of Gaahls Wyrd, the one time Gorgoroth singer stalking the stage like a caged tiger as he growls his way through songs from his stunning album GastiR – Ghosts Invited. While no longer the explosive frontman of his Gorgoroth days, Gaahl’s new incarnation as a kind of demonic crooner makes for no less compelling viewing and listening.
Inter Arma follow on the same stage, the Virginians immediately into their stop start stride of shuddering rhythmic blows, twisting intensity levels ever tighter, while singer Mike Paparo stares blankly into the throng, lost within the band’s own torturous soundscape.
Primordial as ever provide something approaching the polar opposite on the Jäger Stage, full bloodied anthems, fist-pumping choruses and in AA Nemtheanga they possess as animated a frontman as we’re likely to see all day. The Gaelic king refuses to release the brake until he’s convinced that every soul in the vast hall is ready to march to his tune and only then is the pressure released and opening number roars out. Primordial have a warmer glow than your average boiler and when the familiar anthems such as the Colosseum crushing ‘Empire Falls’ roll down the hall really does move and feel as one.
Offering a slightly more intricate rhythmic platform are Voices but such is their reputation that the small Cvlt Never Dies room is rammed for their appearance. One of the highlights of the day for many comes in the form of A Pale Horse Named Death who are in captivating form over on the Eyesore Merch Stage.
As Damnation 2019 enters the final throes of another memorable festival, anticipation is high for the appearance – a Damnation first – for black metal icons Mayhem. With a new album in tow in Daemon, the Norwegian warriors are expected to showcase some of that, perhaps peppered with some material from their explosive youth, which of course this summer proved the subject of the film Lord of Chaos. Unfortunately their set proves to be something of a Damnation disaster and these are not words that are often expressed within the same sentence. For reasons that only truly became apparent later on, Mayhem’s set is largely delivered with the kind of uncomfortable stop-start jolts that you may expect from a novice driver taking his first lesson behind the wheel.
Every 30 seconds or so the sound cuts out, leaving the band looking slightly ridiculous as they attack their instruments only for nothing to come out. And just when you think they’ve got their Mayhem mojo back they’re silenced once more as the electrics cut in and out like a badly wired lamp. Although the second half of their set is not quite as bad as the first, nevertheless something of the atmosphere that we’d been expecting the band to build has by now dissipated. So any assessment of the new material is probably best parked for now. An untroubled rendition of ‘Freezing Moon’ offers some solace for the faithful although by now a fair few have diverted to the Tone Mgmt Stage to secure a decent spot for the welcome return to Damnation of Venom Prison.
When Venom Prison made their Damnation debut three years ago it was in support of the album Animus. This year they return with an equally uncompromising full length in Samsara and it surprises no-one how visceral the impact is. Venom Prison play every note as if it’s their last, while in Larissa Stupor they possess a singer of incredible conviction who channels her hates and passions with unbridled conviction across a scorching soundscape of abrasive metal riffs. If any politician pitching for votes in the General Election displayed the same honesty and integrity as the Russian-born singer then they’d be a shoo-in to claim their seat in the big house. Just don’t expect any high-fives from Venom Prison though as their view of your average Parliamentarian is you suspect less than charitable.
For those with late trains the Welsh wizards signal the end of a great day but for those prepared to see things through the Witching Hour, the pull of the mercurial Opeth remains strong. Three decades into an illustrious career, and with an absorbing new album just released in In Cauda Venenum, the veteran Swedish prog performers channel their chugs through an ever-evolving head-spinning collection of grooves. Mikael Åkerfeldt could always go into stand-up should he tire of a life in music, as his one-liners and life experience stories are always fun and engaging. While a few feel the Swedes may have had better days than this one, there are enough highlights to satisfy most fans with even a few gravelly growls popping up on The Lotus Eater and epic closer Deliverance.
If you’ve never made the trip to Damnation then nail it to the wall next year. This festival simply gets better and better.
- To see more of Vivien’s photos from Damnation click here.