Over the course of its 12 incarnations, Leeds based Damnation Festival has grown into surely the most important yearly event for underground music lovers the UK has to offer. Far from merely an Extreme Metal festival, Damnation is the closest the UK has to the all-encompassing nature of Roadburn in its celebration of a wide spectrum of sub-genres. This year’s edition seemed to be especially diverse with a rich amount of Extreme Metal sitting alongside expansive entities and experimental Prog outfits. With four stages within the single complex of the Leeds University Union, and a sell-out capacity crowd (admittedly reduced to counter crowding issues from previous editions), the layout does appear labyrinthian at first, but is pretty intuitive and easy to follow pretty quickly; which with a stacked lineup from top to bottom, makes the continuous rushing from stage to stage a little more bearable at least.
Disentomb immediately shake away any cobwebs on the Terrorizer Stage with a bludgeoning yet precise brand of Death Metal, which not only brought in a surprisingly packed out second stage so early on, but clearly won many people over with an impressive early reception. Following on the Eyesore Merch Stage, PG.Lost are an early highlight with a hypnotic experimental, post-Rock like set which ranges from pure serenity and ambiance to comparatively impactful outbursts, all seamlessly tied together and given full room to breathe, the unofficially prog third stage’s excellent acoustics and streaks of drifting sunlight adding further to this warming performance.
Opening up the main Jagermeister (main) Stage, Pallbearer are uncharacteristically inconsistent on this day and seem to be less than comfortable with their more sprawling and adventurous output. A sumptuous opening ‘Worlds Apart’ is followed by a disappointingly flat ‘Thorns’ before ‘Dancing In Madness’ saves once again and showcases that this band are truly special when they venture further down the progressive rabbit hole. Their set, unfortunately, is cut short by a fire alarm and an evacuation of the stage does leave a sour taste to finish up however.
In a stark contrast to Pallbearer’s spacious nature, Vallenfyre are compact, abrasive and as punishing as they are grin-inducing. Greg MacIntosh is a hugely compelling frontman and equal parts hilarious and commanding general of his troops; as they barrage the audience with crust-punk infused, dirty Death Metal. MacIntosh sounds as forceful and grizzled as expected despite their recent busy touring, and, of course, gets a local heroes welcome.
There is pretty much nothing that can fully prepare you for a Dragged Into Sunlight set, even a brief rest between bands for the weary amongst us does not recuperate us nearly enough for the utter intensity that awaits. With a stage set filled with props including a dominating candelabra at the centre, the band play bathed in darkness and with their backs to the crowd; Dragged Into Sunlight are a complete sensory assault, AND are utterly brilliant. Relentlessly vicious and atmospheric, DIS are a vital experience in extreme metal and one that many people can be overheard talking about for the rest of the day.
Without a doubt, one of the most exciting bookings for the day sees a rare, and UK exclusive, performance by Warning, playing the classic Watching From A Distance (Miskatonic Foundation) in full; which brings a thick sense of anticipation and awe from the awaiting throng. Emotions ride high almost immediately from the opening bars of the title track ring out, all the more overwhelming once Patrick Walker’s heart-wrenching vocals cause swathes of people to openly weep. With a marriage proposal up in the balcony (supposedly a Damnation first) being brought to the crowd’s attention, Warning’s set gives off such an array of emotions, with such heart-breaking and reflective music, there is also a sense of hope through the bleakness, coupled with the fact that all in attendance have witnessed a truly historic event.
If Warning are a hugely harrowing yet heart-warming entity, Icelandic proggers Agent Fresco are pure euphoria. Despite the often bleak and personal subject matter of their songs, Agent Fresco are an animated and captivating presence throughout their set and are clearly so happy and thankful for their slot. The entire band sound in great form, ranging from slower, delicate numbers to more impactful but as heartfelt likes of ‘See Hell’. Frontman Arnór Dan is a sublime frontman who matches up his stage presence with a tremendous singing voice. This is a set that pours out a vibe of pure happiness and unity, emphasised perfectly with the masses swarming Dan as he steps into the crowd towards the sets culmination.
The first of three main stage headliners, Paradise Lost are a pure class act of consistent brilliance; and today is no different. Even on the back of a current album tour in Medusa it is still surprising at how much of the set is based on newer material, with previous album The Plague Within (both Nuclear Blast) also getting a strong airing, but sounding as equally strong and vital as classics such as ‘Enchantment’ and ‘Say Just Words’. Ever emotive as they are heavy, this is another stark reminder as to why Paradise Lost are one of the most important metal bands to ever exist.
Whilst Paradise Lost maybe a hugely consistent stalwart, Leprous are an incredibly exciting proposition whose star only rises with each year. An exciting live act with a staggering reputation, this year sees them tour on the back of an album in Malina (InsideOut) that finally matches up to their brilliant live presence. Opening with the album’s opening brace of ‘Bonneville’ and ‘Stuck’, Leprous show a massive technical dexterity coupled with excellent and improved song-writing; and even a branching away from their heavier, extreme roots into a more proggy niche that suits them so much more. Further signs of this include the shortened ‘Rewind’ which cuts away the blastbeat passage and the growled vocals. Ever moving and captivating, this is a staggering live performance which will not only go down as one of the great Damnation performances, but still shows a band on the ascent, and just how exciting they are with the best performance of the day.
As weary bones begin to takeover (along with, perhaps, the copious amounts of rum), Death Metal legends Bloodbath are a fitting, and utterly brilliant end to another triumphant edition. Matching intensity and fury with masses of experience and songcraft, Bloodbath show what an excellent catalogue they have and just why their precious few appearances are not plentiful enough and thus not to be missed. With so many highlights, exciting performances and a great sense of community throughout; Damnation once again shows just why it is one of the UK’s calendar highlights, and the ultimate British day for underground, extreme and progressive music.
See you all next year then, right?
WORDS BY CHRIS TIPPELL
PHOTOS BY RICH PRICE & ALEX BLABY