Live Review : Damnation Festival @ Leeds University Students Union on November 3rd 2018

Damnation is like a choose your own adventure experience for Metalheads. Four stages spread across the bewildering labyrinth that is Leeds University Students Union (the Citadel of Chaos ain’t got nothing on here) provides access to some of the finest morsels of black, doom, death and post metal available. With twenty-seven acts spread over twelve hours simply remember which band you wanted to see next (never mind which stage they are on) is a chore all in itself, hence the reason you see plenty of confused looking people wandering around with spreadsheets and maps wondering why the keep ending up back at the pasty shop.


My journey starts with Vola in the Eye Sore Merch Stage, which in normal life seems to be a small debating chamber but today will house all things Prog and Post-metal. Rather disconcertingly as the doors are finally open the Danish progsters are already poised on stage and there proceeds to be few awkward minutes for band and audience as neither of us particularly know how we should act as we count down to the one o’clock start. Thankfully as the starting gun is theoretically sounded Vola crash into Smartfriend from their latest album and we all relax into our recognised roles, them plying a very modern take on 70’s Prog and us the audience nodding our heads in appreciation. We get a very short 5 song set but it is well delivered and their blend of tech-metal and pop (I swear I get large chunks of A-ha) seems to create a sound that sounds remarkably unique in a potentially crowded market.


My next stop is in the very bowels of the building which houses the titchy Cult Never Dies stage and an appointment with the stunning Hundred Year Old Man. At Bloodstock earlier in the year, they utterly blew me away with the intensity and furiousness of their sound. They may be branded with the label of Post-metal, but what I saw certainly wasn’t the insular and atmospheric variety I was used to. Today in a small claustrophobic venue, they are even more passionate, powerfully and terrifying. As you would expect from being hometown boys (and the only band not to clash with anyone else) they pull a large and vocal crowd. They may have a mere half an hour to prove their worth, but they manage to use this to whip up an utter maelstrom of noise. Vocalist Paul Broughton is a menacing presence, towering over the audience screaming out his woes in life whilst the band behind him create an ugly but ambient blanket of sound. Short but stunning.


Next (and remember there are literally no breaks between bands so crowds quite dramatically thin towards the end of sets as everyone tries to get to their next scheduled appointment before venue caps and ROOM FULL notices come into play) are returning hardcore heroes Fukpig, playing their first show in over seven years and to be honest I am rather disappointed. The sound is muddy and muffled and whilst the site of balaclava-adorned middle aged Brummies slamming into each other on stage does give one definition of the promised chaos, there is not the aural fire and brimstone that I feel I was promised. I give them five tracks but whilst a healthy pit proves that others are getting drawn in, I singularly fail to be convinced and sloop up to my next port of call.


I return to the smallest venue for the band I am most excited about seeing, more Danes in the shape of MØL. Their debut, ‘Jord’ is simply stunning, an utterly breathtaking collusion of Black metal and ambient noise that is like being on an aural rollercoaster. The room is again packed and from the start they are stunning. A norm has already set on this stage for vocalists not staying put and it isn’t long before Kim Song Sternkopf is leaning into the packed throng and then literally joining the crowd. This is Black Metal at its most well-polished, well produced and wide-screen. It still has the harshness and intensity that we expect, but here it is allowed to soar and the ambition and the conviction of the band is utterly astounding. Black Metal was not designed to be complex, but the layers of sound produced here is just mind-blogging. Then without warning there is unexpectedly all sorts of commotion backstage and the sound is suddenly cut as the fire alarm has gone off again (almost an annual occurrence) and the room is unceremoniously cleared.


The all-clear given and re-admittance begun, I take my place in a deserted Tone MGMT Stage and am literally the only one there when Swedes Lik take the stage. Their debut album was another that really impressed me and live they have the same intensity but melodic edge they showed on record. This is traditional north European Death metal but with the added treat of sections that sound straight out of the stadium metal school of tricks. The speed and ferocity of Death metal is usually used to hide bad song-writing and instead we get a brace of well made, well-constructed tracks that yes have blast beats and growled vocals a plenty, but are also laced with exquisite guitar solos and almost haunting melodies. This is Lik’s first visit to the UK but the promise of this performance and their record makes me really hope it won’t be their last.


And then without a moment to catch my breath, I’m off again for my first visit to the main stage (and the promise of cask conditioned real ale). Held in the legendary surroundings of the Union Refectory (the Who’s game changing Live in Leeds was recorded here) there is already a large crowd assembled for Aussie Progsters Ne Obliviscaris. This is rich, layered music with thousands of intricate moving parts and a vast array of instrumentation. On record I find Ne Obliviscaris intriguing and immersive but live, as much as I hate to say it, I found my mind wandering. What they do is very well done and they take it very seriously, but I found myself yearning for a bit of spontaneity and raw emotion. It wasn’t bad, I just didn’t feel engaged from my vantage spot at the back of the room


So off again to the Tone MGMT Stage where I had Saor down as time for a possible loo, food and beer break, but am I glad I decided to stick my head around the door before heading off as they prove to be a quite inspiring take on Folk Metal. This rather over done sub-genre is in massive danger of becoming stale as there are only so many Scandinavians in war-paints and furs with plastic swords aloft singing songs of ancient battles that one person can take. Saor take a much more cerebral and mystic direction. They create atmospheric almost hypnotic heavily melodic death metal that precedes to swirl around the auditorium. Vocalist (and guitarist) Andy Marshall provides guttural death growls that stunningly juxtaposition with the utterly beautiful music underneath. They are nothing short of stunning and I walk away still utterly mesmerised by what I have just seen.


Back upstairs to the main hall for the sonic headfuck that is Anaal Nathrakh. As always they are a whirlwind of sound, bodies and emotion. I have seen them so many times over the last  nineteen years and every time they seem more self-assured with what they do. They produce wave after wave of incredibly emotive white noise that is both intoxicating and utterly-riveting and as a live entity you just can’t take your eyes of them. Dave Hunt is a remarkable vocalist and manages to flit between screams, grunts and full on melodic Rob Halford impressions, he is also a charismatic and highly self-deprecating frontman (he spends most of the set wearing on his head a pair of knickers thrown on stage) and his warmth and honesty is one of the many things that makes Anaal Nathrakh stand out from the crowd. The other is their ability to mix multiple genres and squeeze Death, Black and Industrial metals into a single explosive track. With all the fun and games with fire alarms today their set is criminally short, but they still prove in no doubt that they are one of the most important and innovative bands in extreme metal.

And then it’s a quick sprint to the Eye Sore Merch Stage for another of my must sees, Norwegian Noise-Rock legends Arabrot. The room is surprisingly empty and there seems already to be a rather confused vibe coming from the crowd. This is mostly the result of Arabrot probably being the most eclectic band on an already highly eclectic bill. This is streets, if not actual towns, away from heavy metal and the nearest cultural touch stones are probably American alternative mainstays The Melvins and The Swanns. Kjetil Nernes is dressed as a nineteenth century Scandinavian puritan (though could easily be mistaken as Amish and even Beck) and absolutely owns the stage with theatrical gestures and a lofty air of detachment. There is no leaping into the pit here, this is performance art and Kjthe majestically plays the characters in his songs. As said, musically this is far removed from most other things on the bill, it is juttery post punk with dashes of TelevisionJesus and Mary Chain and Magazine. But the most important thing is that it is utterly brilliant.

My next stop is back down into the catacombs on the student union for an appointment with the Leed’s very own Victorian Black Metallers (yes it is a thing) A Forest Of Stars. Containing our third fiddler of the day, this is darkly rich and Avant Garde Black Metal. Waves of intense guitars, give way to organ and accordion and then back to the guitar, accompanied all along by steam punk-esque penny dreadful story-telling. It is wonderfully atmospheric, absorbing and other-worldly and for an entire hour I lose myself in a macabre world of sinister and creepy tales that are more evil than 99% of the stuff churned out by the many would be Scandinavian Satanists that have passed through this festivals doors over the last fourteen years. 

And speaking of would-be Satanists, next on the list is a UK exclusive appearance by Polish Black Metallers Batushka, a band that have well and truly raided the dressing up box and make Ghost seem to be low-key and dressed down. The buzz is huge around this lot so accordingly the Tone MGMT Stage is heaving and there are mammoth queues to get downstairs to even try and get into the venue. And we wait and wait. Fifteen minutes after they were meant to take the stage things finally start happening, hooded and masked figures take the stage, incense is lit and ethereal dark organ music fills the venue. And more hooded figures walk on stage, more atmospherics are built and more faux-orthodox Catholism imagery is spread around the place but still no actual music. In fact it is a full thirty minutes after their start time that any actual sodding music is played at all and when it is, well it sounds like Watain. Its not bad but is very generic evil Satanism by numbers Black Metal. Not bad but its ordinariness feels an utter let-down after such a theatrical and protracted build up.

I therefore bail and head upstairs to the Eye Sore Merch stage to catch the last twenty minutes or so of Monuments. And aren’t I glad that I did as what I see is utterly incredible. Vocalist Chris Barretto spends as much of the short time I watch them off stage as he does on it (as is the want with most other frontmen I see during the day). Monuments on record have never fully convinced me that they are as special as many other people seem to think that they are, but tonight they are utterly awesome. Heavy but also funky and full of energy and passion, in fact they are the utter antithesis of the faceless sobriety of Batushka and manage to win hands down in the battle for my affections.

And it is then back across the tiny pointless bridge to the Refectory for Ihsahn. For such a potentially big draw, the hall is strangely sparse. Not empty but certainly not the throng that has been witnessed early on in the day. Which is a huge shame as the Emperor frontman gives an utter masterclass in how you meld Metal with Prog and other alternative sources. He truly is electrifying to watch as he manages to construct tracks that soar and enthral. His solo releases have, up to this point, been faultless as across seven albums he has systematically pushed back the walls of what we perceive as metal and created a body of work that is invigorating, engaging and utterly compelling. The limitations of the sound system blunts some of the sheer complexity of the sound of Ihsahn but still we are treated to some of the most ground-breaking Metal about. 'My Heart is of the North' and 'Until I Dissolve' are particular highlights and every moment is blindingly good.

And still stunned by Ihsahn’s utterly wonderfulness I stumble on to my next destination, to find the dreaded ROOM FULL sign has already been put on the door to The Ocean’s highly anticipated headline slot on the Eye Sore Merch Stage. A little bit of patient queuing and I am in, to witness yet another vocalist determined not to stay on his stage. Loïc Rossetti seems to spend every other track chucking himself into the massed thongs. He crowd surfs himself back to the barrier and then he is off again, head first into the waiting arms of the assembled crowd. The Ocean manage to successfully combine technical excellence with buckets full of passion. With music this dense and nuanced, some bands stand back and create. The Ocean however take a leaf from Dillinger Escape Plan well-thumbed book of stage-craft and precede to attack every track with every ounce of energy that they have. A friend of mine once described the brilliance of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band being that they played every song like it was the closing track and that is exactly the feeling I get with The Ocean. There is a passion here that is both compelling and peerless but still I steal off before the end (though from what I hear they continue on long after the scheduled end time) in the hope of capturing a bit of Vader.

Compared to The Ocean rich textured take on heavy music, Vader are meat and potato Death Metal. This is not subtle or nuanced, this is straight forward primal heavy as hell Metal. I see two tracks but what I see is simple but highly enjoyable and then I then run off to my final appointment. I’m back to where I sort of first started in the Dungeons for the much misunderstood Ghost Bath. They may be up against the juggernaut that is Napalm Death but they have pulled a reasonable crowd. Last trains back to Manchester means that my stay is short and I barely get one and half songs but what I see reaffirms my stance that the naysayers are all wrong and Ghost Bath are one of the most intriguing and absorbing bands out there.


But then its home time and after twelve solid hours of metal (in all its glorious flavors) I depart knowing that once again Damnation have set themselves the unenviable task of topping a stellar year. 

Words by Stewart Lucas