The first two editions of the festival in 2005 and 2006 respectively were situated at Jilly’s Rockworld in Manchester, until it moved across the Pennines from the Red to the White Rose county, Yorkshire, namely Leeds.
Damnation Festival is a dedicated festival to anything where an ‘Extreme’ tag is compatible. Bands playing styles such hardcore punk, Grindcore, Death Metal, Black Metal and many dark shadowy sounds that are not easy to categorise.
This year’s festival was the fourth occasion to incorporate 4 stages (Jägermeister; Terrorizer; Eyesore Merch; Tone MGMT) which meant at any one time there were usually two bands to choose from.
Situated in the student’s union building of Leeds University, Damnation Festival struck me as well-oiled and organised. The sound was generally good across the 4 separate venues, save for a few first song of the set adjustments from the engineer. I loved the fact that none of the bands I had an eye on clashed, meaning full sets were witnessed and nothing missed. And no mud, cups of piss, or bubble blowing either.
The first set I saw that day left an impression on me, and I considered just writing about them alone for this article. Wikipedia will tell you they are from Liverpool however my own research tells me this isn’t exactly the case. Dragged into Sunlight, a four piece if you believe Wikipedia, but a five piece if you believe your own eyes seeing them live, hail from various corners of the U.K. There’s not much information about them as they maintain a degree of anonymity, wear balaclavas for press shots, and only use single letters for names.
The noise as their set began was bone shaking. I likened it at the time to the sound and feeling of being beneath a jet as it takes off above you. This continued for what seemed like maybe 5 minutes. An elaborate candelabra with candles lit front and centre stage, smoke billowing up from the floor saturated the room, making the minimal light from the stage disappear at times.
The band were suddenly on stage, revealed via the candle light and strobes. Their backs turned as the noise and smoke continued. Then the two 60/70” TV screens, at opposite sides of the stage fired up the frightening image of Aileen Wuornos, the infamous American serial killer ranting at the camera. Once she was done the music exploded furiously with the band maintaining their backs to the audience throughout. I’ve never heard this band before so I’m afraid there’s no way I can reference any songs for fans of the band. They have a unique blend of sludge and stoner metal, black metal, death metal, grind moments, all interspersed with noise and spoken word from various serial killers, utilising the TV screens at times. It all makes for a very dark and heavy experience. They clearly put a lot of effort not only in their music, but to the experience of watching them as a whole. It’s unsettling, tense and aggressive. The utilisation of the lighting to complement the vocal was particularly effective.
Towards the end of their set something struck me as odd and the more I’ve thought about it since, I’m convinced it was intentional. The system appeared to cut out. Just the drums sans microphones and the guitars only audible through the amps on stage. It was an empty and almost excruciatingly slow groove carved out by guitar and drums. Then the system came back on musically, and the whole band re-entered at this point. The impact of this dynamic shift was spine tingling, even on recall, 3 days later.
Following on at the Terrorizer Stage were Nails, one of the two I’d come for. This year’s European tour was highly anticipated, with the feeling being amplified for fans after their planned 2016 tour was cancelled. I was that excited I’m not sure what they started with now, I want to say “God’s Cold Hands” but couldn’t be sure. Their second track of the night was “You Will Never be One of Us”, the title track from their latest and highly acclaimed album. The set was super-charged, understandable given the power-violence, hardcore style they adopt. The floor swelled with people, it was literally impossible to stand still as you were constantly thrown back, forth, left and right, a liquid audience. There were bodies everywhere, limbs flying, absolute carnage. The band are tight, the songs delivered aggression and fury, blow after blow and were executed with precision. There was even a comical moment near the beginning where the singer/guitarist, Todd Jones, excellently handled a fall backwards, misjudging the depth of the stage and finishing in a seating position. “We all make mistakes, right?” as he grinned at the crowd. The band’s set was sadly always going to be too short. I regularly listen to their 3 albums consecutively in one sitting and it doesn’t take long.
Once I had seen Nails I could relax a bit. The only other mandatory band for me were Bloodbath so it was a nice opportunity to flit about and catch a few bands that I wasn’t too familiar with. I went straight to the main stage (Jägermeister) to check out a bit of Paradise Lost. For those unaware, Nick Holmes, Paradise Lost’ vocalist is also the third and current vocalist of Bloodbath (Vallenfyre, the band to open the Terrorizer stage are fronted by Paradise Lost guitarist, Gregor Mackintosh as well). The doom metal legends are still going strong, evidenced not only by their latest album, “Medusa”. I continued to walk around the various corners of the festival, I needed to walk and standing for hours is hard these days.
After a short break from the music looking at the merchandise on offer I returned to the Terrorizer Stage to have a look at Dying Fetus. A band name that has never been described any better than: ‘Commercial Suicide’ (not sure who this was though, sorry). Their technical death grind style is something I’ve admired from a distance but never really got around to listening to. Lately I’ve had their latest album on “Wrong One to Fuck With” which I’ve been enjoying. The band is ridiculously technical. They have supreme proficiency on their instruments, the guitar and bass both performing finger gymnastics to play riffs that are, put simply, mind-boggling! The drummer is atomic, both in power and accuracy. The vocals are the lowest of the low squelch that just seem inhuman. I was however really surprised at how groovy they were. The way I wanted to dance was probably not in line with everyone else though.
I loitered at the back of the room, conserving energy while German thrash metal warlords, Sodom, who are still going strong after 36 years, provided a thrash metal masterclass at blistering pace. The set was littered with classics, “Agent Orange” included. I felt for the guitarist battling with his wireless system but other than this, it was an impressive set from such a well-seasoned band. Another Thrash Metal legend ticked off for me.
Following Sodom on the main stage were the headliners, Swedish death metal supergroup, Bloodbath. Nick Holmes of Paradise Lost becomes “Old Nick”, who looks like he’s been dug up. Dried blood, dirt and dust seem to cover him, but his dry wit remains. The guitarists appeared to have a fresh blood spattered over themselves. The set was a great selection of their back catalogue with most releases represented. “We are Bloodbath from Sweden. After a few years living in the area you may notice that my accent is somewhat the same as yours” stated the Yorkshireman, “Old Nick”. “Cancer of the Soul” and “Outnumbering the Day” from “Nightmares Made Flesh” being some of my favourites to have been played. The band shine as a beacon for the late 80’s and early 90’s Swedish Death Metal bands including the likes of Grave, Dismember, Entombed, Unleashed, Carnage and others. They purposely started out this way, as a sort of tribute to their heroes. Although I’ve never had the privilege to see any of those bands mentioned above, Bloodbath are an absolute force that surely give those originators a run for their money. Memorable and catchy at times but without ever missing its sheer brute force heaviness. Their only live performance in the UK this year. I wouldn’t dare miss the next one, and that goes for Damnation Festival itself too.