An army of metal heads descending upon the University of Leeds Students Union on a freezing, overcast morning can only mean that it’s time again for the annual earthquake of Damnation Festival. Now in its eighth year at the same venue, and a third year of hosting acts on a total of four stages, this cult event is growing. Unfortunately, its expansion coincides with the revamp of the building it has called home for so long, making this one of the more hectic and claustrophobic episodes in the festival’s history.
Damnation Festival has, over the course of the last eleven years, garnered a reputation as one of the highlights in the Extreme Metal calendar, and has come to be associated with great music, crippling hangovers and localised pain in the neck and upper back (at least for me it has).
Since the festival began, it’s developed a reputation and atmosphere that is quite a bit different from any other festival you are likely to find yourself at. The line-up is always amazing, and caters to the tastes of everyone from the dyed in wool Black Metal fan to the Prog Rock connoisseur, with bands who could comfortably perform in stadiums playing no more than a five minute walk to another stage that is playing host to a band that may be more at home in a pub or a tiny, densely packed club.
Things were certainly frenetic on the Terrorizer Stage as opening act of the day ATTAN kicked off their set. These guys were animated and boisterous on stage, making the most of their first ever performance outside of their native Norway. Of course it was early in the day so despite a full house to see them there was a lot of transitional movement as festival-goers got used to their surroundings. Those in the pit, while loud and appreciative, were fairly still throughout. This was however a brutal and crushing start to the festival.
Bristol quartet Svalbard were up next on the Terrorizer Stage and while they kept the brute force coming, the way they were able to juxtapose their savage riffage and growls with scintillating melodic breakdowns was remarkable. Their atmospheric interludes were helped by some incredible lighting, with criss-crossing beams of pure white making the whole thing look like a beautiful lightning storm.
Upon arriving at the venue, I make my way down to the very depths of the building in hopes of catching Kroh on the MINE stage. Unfortunately for me, but not so unfortunately for the band, by the time I’m there, the venue is packed to capacity, and I have to rely on my ears to judge their set as I stand in the hallway outside, nursing a pint. Based purely on sound alone, I can easily tell why so many people have made their way here at such an early point in the day; they sound great, possessing the kind of sludgy, tar-like bass lines, hook-laden guitars and soaring, emotive vocals that it’s hard not to love.
Very soon it was time for the main stage, the Jagermeister Stage, to open its doors. As the final preparations for Hark took place most of the fans congregated at the back of the very long room, enjoying numerous merchandise stands and open bars. That all changed as soon as the new and improved Mach Three line-up of Hark hit the first notes of their set, which to put it bluntly were louder than all hell. Seriously, you could hear these guys clear across the other side of the building, and they probably caused a few car alarms to go off in the city of Leeds to boot. Their heavily Sabbath influenced sound is clearly bolstered by the new additions to the group, and having opened the main stage of Bloodstock Festival just a couple of months before this appearance it’s clear that these guys are becoming one of the most sought after heavy acts in Britain.
Over on the Eyesore Merchandise Stage, a small assembly hall with absolutely phenomenal acoustics, it was time for French post-metallers Erlen Meyer. Their sludgy riffs were very pronounced within these particular walls, and though there was a bit of a capacity issue with a lone door providing both entrance and exit to the stage, causing some punters to be held outside by security while a path cleared to allow them in, the audience certainly enjoyed this breathtaking performance.
After letting this great music wash over me, it’s time to make my way up to the Eyesore stage, a large, spacious hall with plenty of space to move around, in order to watch Conjurer. I’ve heard plenty of great things about this band, and have been waiting to see them live for a good few months. When they finally hit the stage, I get to see first-hand why they have been recommended so highly to me; there set is, to put it lightly, an energetic and monolithic lesson in how to play great Sludge. A few minutes before their set comes to a close, I head out in order to meet a friend, and notice a long queue waiting at the door trying to get into the venue to get a glimpse of their set. With their excellent music and an impressive stage presence, I have no doubts that this is a band that are destined to grace much bigger stages and entertain much larger audiences in the not too distant future.
Making my way back to the MINE stage with my friend, and getting inside the venue for the first time today, it’s time to watch Gets Worse, a local Powerviolence band that treat their audience to a bestial brew of brutality, blending elements of early Napalm Death with a liberal dose of Hardcore. Their stage presence is every bit as intense as their sound, and is only matches by the reaction of those watching.
Many of those who attended this year’s Damnation will tell you that the highlight of the undercard was unquestionably the incredible performance by gothic trio Darkher. Though the MINE Stage was the smallest of the venue, it was packed out with eager connoisseurs who were treated to the most ambient and engrossing set of the day. With melody, musicianship and mood all perfected, it was quite simply a transcendent experience. Frankly this act was on the wrong stage. If the audience which was crammed so tightly into this room had been allowed the freedom of the Jagermeister Stage then this would have blown the headliners away without question.
WORDS BY MICHAEL DODD AND DANIEL SANDERSON