Damnation Festival – Leeds, University – 4 November 2017 Print E-mail
Written by Rich Hobson   
Saturday, 02 December 2017 04:40

With the summer a fading memory and announcements already pouring in for 2018 festivals, you’d be forgiven for thinking that festival season 2017 is all but done and dusted – not quite. Dropping in November each year in the grim north of Leeds, Damnation Festival is the answer to metalheads’ calls for something truly brutal to get them through the winter, the primo extreme music event in the UK. Pulling together some of the biggest international names in the business is no small task, but Damnation has risen to the challenge each and every year in its 13-year run.


A morning drive up to Leeds from Birmingham is completed in a breezy two-and-a-bit hours, dropping the Über Rock contingent near the venue for the first bands of the day. A mad-dash to park later and we’re in the venue in time to split off and catch the first split-stage viewing of the day; mainstage openers Pallbearer on the Jäger stage and Belgian razorgrind troupe Leng Tch’e on the Tone MGMT stage downstairs. And thus, it begins…


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Pallbearer attract a sizeable crowd for their opening spot, a fact that is unsurprising considering the hype the band have managed to generate with their progressively minded take on traditional doom structures. The North of England has long had a relationship with doom and while it might not be churning out new acts by the boat-load, clearly the appreciation for international acts that have soaked up its influence lends plenty of warmth to the crowd’s reception of the band. A sombre start to the party, Pallbearer nonetheless offer up plenty of excitement for their set. Afforded 45 minutes to win the crowd, the band offer up big riffs and even bigger choruses to come out on top their mainstream appeal feeling not entirely unlike a doom metal Puppy.


Unsurprisingly, the setlist consists mostly of songs from the band’s latest record, ‘Heartless’. Whilst this can sometimes be a hindrance to the enjoyment of a band, the fact that this record has enjoyed such critical and commercial success speaks volumes for the appeal of the material, the setlist feeling like a perfect introduction to the band for those that have never heard them. While doom metal isn’t generally accepted to be a genre for stirring the flames of excitement in an early-afternoon crowd it does manage to somehow set off the fire alarm, cutting the band’s set slightly short and forcing a hasty retreat to downstairs to catch up with my Uber Rockin’ compatriot downstairs.


Leng Tch’e are unleashing absolute bedlam in the basement dwellings of the Tone MGMT Stage. If ever proof was needed that Damnation is a vital service to metal’s more extreme dominions, you’d find it here; the band play to a near capacity crowd of baying, brawling metalheads, each song greeted with a roar of approval and a crush of thrashing bodies flying around the room. With nowhere for the heat or sound to escape the venue quickly turns into a furnace, an effect which only serves to amplify the band’s delivery of beatdown-friendly grindcore.


In stark contrast to its larger counterparts, Damnation lives and dies by its ability to offer its acts breathing space – a strategy which is repaid by huge congregations for each and every band. It’s not often that an international cult band like Leng T’che can boast a near sell-out crowd absolutely losing their minds, but that’s exactly what Damnation offers, an impressive testament to the fact that the UK extreme market would be severely underserved without such an event.


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Next it’s back upstairs to check out Italian occult rockers Psychedelic Witchcraft on the Eyesore Stage. Once again playing to a strong congregation, PW find plenty of eager ears for their doom-tinged bluesy rock. One thing that quickly becomes apparent is that the live atmosphere of a Psychedelic Witchcraft show varies a great deal from the recorded output. More musically dynamic, each members’ playing is brought to the forefront with impeccable sound meaning no note is lost to the room. On record PW can sometimes feel more precise than chaotic, but in the live environment they truly come into their own, adequate levels of amplification and quiet/loud dynamics really popping where the studio output fails.


Psychedelic Witchcraft’s brand of primordial Sabbath style heavy metal/rock crossover is one which has been gaining international traction, bands across the globe from Purson to Black Moth, Electric Citizen to Graveyard showing renewed interest in the sound that started it all. Vocalist Virginia Monti helps elevate the band above their peers in the live setting however, her mastery of the stage and movements lending the set a ritualistic feel as she makes full use of every inch of stage available.


The festival now in full swing, it makes sense to catch up with Pallbearer for a post-set interview in the press room. By the time this has wrapped up there is just enough time to catch the latter half of Beyond Creation. Technical death metal once again turns the basement Tone MGMT room into a swamp as the room fills out even more than it had earlier for Leng Tch’e. By its very nature, technical death metal demands absolute precision and Beyond Creation do their very best to deliver this. While the instruments themselves are on-point, sound issues seem to hamper the band somewhat and the end result is something slightly disappointing, albeit still absolutely vicious.


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Nestled as they are amidst death metal luminaries, up-and-coming doom metal heroes and black metal experimentalists, you can’t help but appreciate just how much Big Business embody otherness. Still, otherness has always been a key pillar in the rock and metal communities and the band’s brand of crossover punk, metal and noise is pure fire as they pull out a suitably strange setlist to confuse and excite the thronging masses of the Eyesore Stage.


By far the loudest band of the day so far (somewhat unsurprisingly), the band slow things right down without losing any of the cacophonous din for which they are so rightly revered. You don’t get to over 20 years in the industry without learning a trick or two and Big Business’ Jared Warren and Coady Willis know just how to let a note press uncomfortably on the ears before shifting tactics, fully utilising their past in various bands to make the Big Business set feel powerful and triumphant.


Back in Tone MGMT, Mutation are having problems. Having absolutely destroyed eardrums up and down the UK for the past week, this return to the city where the whole thing started should have been a triumphant one. Instead, upon arrival to the room we are greeted by delays and soundchecks, the band’s whole-wall backline of amps and pick-ups an unfortunate but necessary sacrifice to get them onstage. Except, they aren’t. For some time, the band are stuck waiting in the wings while the sound is slowly sorted out, the most unfortunate side effect of this being a steady decline of numbers in the room as their set goes from a projected 45 minutes down to half hour.


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Much like Metallica earlier that same week, the band contend with gremlins determined to derail the set, Ginger looking visibly pissed as he takes to the stage. This anger translates into a particularly furious and venomous run-through of the set and while the sound isn’t quite as utterly destructive as it was a week earlier, the band still sound a damn sight heavier than anything else at the festival, a jet-plane combusting in a dying star. Going punch for punch with a gremlin twice the size of Mike Tyson (with ten times the punch), the band win over plenty of new fans with some truly explosive renditions of their songs, a mid-song fuck up partway through the set not managing to fully kill them. Mutation thrive on the bleeding edge and this set shows they are a band who, even on their worst day, can provide an absolute noise masterclass. 


It feels almost obscene how many people have managed to pack into the Terrorizer stage for Nails’ set. The walls literally sweating, it takes nearly 25 minutes’ sonic fury before we can even glimpse the band, rammed as we are against the balcony overlooking the stage. All that heat is definitely good for one thing though; the atmosphere in the room is positively explosive, the crowd going wild for every bit of crusty grindcore they can get their lugs rattled to. So exciting is it to finally have the band in the UK (having cancelled last time round) that the crowd even includes a fiery-haired Mutant, less than five minutes after hopping off-stage from his own set.


A testament to the exciting power Damnation has among the extreme metal community, watching Nails play a very-much sold-out room is powerful beyond words, the sense created that even though the band’s energy may never abate at any future show, never will it feel quite so vital and exciting as it does right now. Cramming songs into the set the same way bodies are crammed into the room, we are treated to 16 fresh cuts from Nails’ discography (particular highlights coming from the title track off the band’s last record, ‘You Will Never Be One Of Us’, ‘Violence is Forever’ and set-closer ‘Unsilent Death’) and a choice cover of GBH’s ‘Sick Boy’ to reaffirm the band’s hardcore punk origins.


Though the main room is (rightfully) packed for Paradise Lost’s set, it feels like a breezy mercy compared to the pure crush that preceded it. Home-grown heroes done good, Paradise Lost make full use of their near three-decades’ experience to put on a show which captures the quintessence of British doom metal. Opening with ‘From The Gallows’ from the band’s latest record (‘Medusa’), the band make use of material from across their discography, each boasting a distinctive flavour owned by that particular record.


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While opener ‘From The Gallows’ captures the doom/death hybridisation of latter day Paradise Lost, follow up ‘The Enemy’ (from 2007’s ‘In Requiem’) captures riffy goth-doom rock perfection. Vocalist Nick Holmes displays a staggeringly impressive range through the set, made even more impressive when you consider that later he’ll be churning out death metal growls worthy of the best of them with headliners Bloodbath. Right now though it’s all about the doom, Holmes and crew showing exactly why they are so revered within the international doom metal community with an abridged run-through of their discography easily chewing through the hour-long set.


Things are heating up again as we return to the Terrorizer Stage for Dying Fetus. Having achieved pop culture notoriety with the #whynotdyingfetus campaign landing them a Download Festival main stage spot in 2014, its unsurprising that once again the room is heaving as the technical death metal troupe take to the stage. Tighter than a nun’s bumcheeks and twice as filthy, the band are imperious to behold, mixing devastating slam beats and furious fret-wankery for impressive effect. The band offer up one of the tightest displays of technical death metal for the day, each song delivered with meticulous accuracy.


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They might not boast as much technical supremacy as Dying Fetus, but Sodom more than make up for it with their groove heavy take on Teutonic thrash. Delivering riffs at Gatling gun pace, the band offer up a performance which is more than worthy of their status as one of thrash metal’s hardest international hitters. The main hall a sea of flailing bodies illuminated by flashing stage lights, Sodom’s set is a sight to behold as it ignites a frenzy of banged heads, crashing bodies and raised horns. Their set doesn’t offer up many surprises (especially if you caught them at HRH Metal back in February) but the inclusion of ‘Napalm in The Morning’ and ‘Rolling Thunder’ are very welcome to shake things up, variation very much proving to be the spice of life after all.


Headed back for the Terrorizer stage, it’s time for the surprise (and band) of the day, Agoraphobic Nosebleed. Knowing (almost) nothing of the band’s music pre-show, little can prepare us for the massive sounding wall of riffs and fury that follows, the band checking in sonically everywhere from Every Time I Die and Napalm Death to Barrabus and Clutch. Tagged as a grindcore band, Agoraphobic Nosebleed offer so much more with an eclectic and experimental sound which ping-pongs around genre like a cannonball covered in flubber.


Vocally everybody in the band gets a shout in, but the focal point of the set is split between ex-Anal Cunt/Pig Destroyer Scott Hull and Kat Katz, formerly of Salome, both of whom chew their way through the stage with venomous acidity. Hard, heavy and ready to take their songs to the very limit, this is a band that can go anywhere and often do throughout the hour long set, leaving all their predecessors in the dust.


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Having voided any chance of seeing a better heavy set for the day, an executive decision is made to head back downstairs to Tone MGMT for the final set of the evening, courtesy of Finnish goths Grave Pleasures. A Hiroshima bomb referencing intro-tape sets the mood for the band’s set as they take to the stage, vocalist Matt ‘Kvhost’ McNerny taking to the stage in an all-leather ensemble that sits somewhere between Lost Boys chic and moody George Michael.


Unsurprisingly, the band’s set is largely culled from their latest record ‘Motherblood’, though this is by no means a bad thing, the record’s atmospherics providing the perfect ambience for a basement gig. Opener ‘Infatuation Overkill’ sets the post-punk moodiness to 10 right from the off, while the surrealist (to near point of parody) lyrics to ‘Doomsday Rainbows’ paint a picture of a band very much devoted to their image. And, it works. Capturing the imagination through sheer force of will and inescapable sound alone, the band put on a fantastic closing set, offering a package so complete you can’t help but get swept up with the hype.


Controversial as the band’s name-change (and minor stylistic switch) from Beastmilk was, clearly they have retained enough fans for a reasonable (albeit slightly diminished) following, a smattering of Beastmilk tees popping up through the day and now on full display for their set. Throwing in choice beastmilk cuts like ‘Fear Your Mind’ and ‘Genocidal Crush’ proves to be a popular decision for the band, the slightly more energetic tunes turning the mood from self-serious post-punk shuffle to full on monster mash. The absolute king of the set though is breakout single ‘Be My Hiroshima’, a song whose chorus is so big it could engulf the whole venue and still demand a bigger crowd. Grave Pleasures may be decidedly more pop-oriented in sound than the rest of the Damnation roster, but there is no denying they fit in perfectly to its world, the band’s offer of dark imagery and descriptive lyrics culled from the DNA of metal itself.


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The de-facto festival for extreme music in the UK, Damnation Festival 2017 boasted one of the most revered line-ups in its history, a mixture of genres and approaches providing plenty of variety for the day. With big-hype bands (Pallbearer, Myrkyr, Grave Pleasures) rubbing shoulders with genre legends (Sodom, Paradise Lost), it’s not hard to see why Damnation is viewed as an invaluable resource for the UK metal community, helping not just bring big bands round once festival season has gone away, but launch the biggest names of tomorrow too. 


PHOTO CREDIT: All photos © Mark Leary/AsylumSeventy7.


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