Review by Paul Castles, photos by Gobinder Jitta
In these health conscious times many people strap a pedometer to their belt to measure how many footsteps they take during the day. Exceed around 10,000 and you’re likely to get a gold star from your GP. Any metalheads putting this to the test at Damnation would almost certainly have made their way home from Leeds University with a gold star on their lapel (or more probably T shirt). With four stages hosting around 25 bands over a day of incessant extreme metal there’s little argument that this is one of the calendar highlights for any staunch supporter of the dark, gloomy and damned.
The downside of such a busy day is having to stretch yourself into more parts than is healthy. My own experience was further impeded by having to clear a few additional obstacles in the form of backstage interviews. Nevertheless, I still managed to catch various size chunks of many of the acts and first up for me was a visit to the smallest stage – the Eyesore Merch – where Bast were to be found in frenetic form before many of the 4,000 capacity crowd had even passed through the doors at these Yorkshire halls of learning. The London trio have been performing with the likes of Conan and The Wounded Kings although their sound leans towards sludge with their rampant riff energy helping to get things moving in the right direction for the early arrivals.
Finding the Eyesore Merch Stage can occasionally seem trickier than navigating your way around the M25 in a disability scooter. My only other venture into this atmospheric lair was to catch some of Falloch’s set. The smartly attired Scottish crew were in hypnotic form, delivering their customary combination of Scottish granite tinged with the dark beauty of Loch Lomond.
One of the intrinsic pleasures of Damnation is that the flavour is more continental than a top of the range box of chocolates. A couple of overseas visitors left lasting impressions on the Plastic Head Stage.
Solstafir have been gradually growing their fanbase in Iceland over the past 20 years or so but without doubt the heat generated around latest album Otta has been sufficient to melt an iceberg. You just knew the buzz around the Scandinavian’s was not idle hype by the size of the crowd shoehorned into the room, meaning some neat elbow manoeuvres were required to even get through the double doors.
Once there Solstafir were already creating aural assaults of impossible beauty with an undercurrent of bleak desolation. The emotion of some of the songs such as the album’s title track ‘Otta’ – even though the audience couldn’t understand a sausage as they sing in their native tongue – clearly resonated with a crowd who at times had to bend down to pick up their collective bottom jaw from the floor. Certainly one of the highlights of the day, and almost worth the ticket price on their own. Following these boys was an unenviable ask, but Monarch are such demonic doomlords that they were never going to duck the challenge.
Fronted by one of the few female performers at this year’s Damnation, to describe Monarch as a doom band is a bit like saying a six-year-old child gets mildly excited when waking up on Christmas Day. Monarch were simply crushing, not to mention scarier than a boxset of Halloween movies. Singer Emilie Bresson veered between little girl lost and wailing Banshee with screams so piercing that many a punter was still searching around on the floor for their ear drums long after the Gallic wizards had left the stage.
The power and conviction of Monarch’s performance – their only one in the UK this year – was all the more impressive as it followed a frustrating cross Chanel jaunt during which Air France contrived to misplace all their gear. They were only able to perform in Leeds at all thanks to the likes of Winterfylleth and Ahab loaning them their own instruments. Thank heavens they came to the rescue because Monarch’s set was not one I would have wanted to miss.
During the course of my cross-Pennine coach journey from Manchester to Leeds I saw some bleak and desolate moors on which life looked as though it had seldom, if ever, existed. As chilling as that harsh landscape was, it was nothing compared to the destructively bleak pictures painted by Winterfylleth on the Terrorizer stage. Without any doubt, the UK’s foremost black metal exponents, the northern warriors have never felt the need to stock up on corpse paint to get their message across.
The music speaks louder than a few flicks of slap and performing material from new album The Divination of Antiquity, the packed throng had about as much chance of resistance as a budgerigar in a hurricane. The sheer aural force of Winterfylleth these days is little short of eye-popping as they weave their way down a medieval path into the coruscating wastelands of olde England. Chris Naughton’s sinew straining vocals are cushioned by a wall of deafening noise that could uproot a tree. No wonder that this lot have become as big a part of the festival scene as the burger van. They simply never let you down.
The Terrorizer Stage was a hotbed of activity throughout the day with Anaal Nathrakh and Cannibal Corpse both causing congestion outside similar to Harrods when the doors open for the Boxing Day sales.
Anaal Nathrakh ignited more fireworks than a pyrotechnic whizz on New Year’s Eve. The Brummies put in a typically hardworking set with material stretching back to their formative years, such as ‘Submission is for the Weak’, right up to the devastating new album Desideratum. Dave Hunt was as self-effacing ever, with his infectious Brummie humour a stark contrast to the apocalyptic content of Nathrakh’s caustic sound.
The only criticism you could find with Cannibal Corpse is that the New York death metal giants should probably have been on the main stage such was the clamour from punters to catch a sight of them. The butchers of brutality proceeded to serve up a gore-filled feast that had every head in the room banging so violently that one or two looked in danger of parting company with their shoulders. George ‘Corpsegrinder’ whipped the pit up into a sweating swaying mass, although to be fair they were making a pretty good job of it even without his encouragement.
The mood was less frenzied on the main Jägermeister Stage, although both Orange Goblin and Saint Vitus delivered contrasting sets of distinction. The doom of Vitus was heavier than a steam traction engine and moved at around the same pace with their set pretty much built around their classic Born Too Late album.
Bolt Thrower had the honour of closing this tenth Damnation Festival. Despite having not released anything new for almost 10 years Coventry’s hardcore crew have lost none of their appeal and business was brisk all day at their merch stall.
With classic numbers such as ‘This Time its War’ and ‘No Guts, No Glory’ Bolt Thrower delivered a crowd-pleasing set against a blinding light show, that has almost certainly gained them a whole new generation of fans.
Damnation has come a long way in 10 years and the exultant mood throughout the day suggests there’s plenty more where that came from.