Watching groups of individuals descend upon Leeds University for the annual Damnation Festival of extreme metal, one gets the overall feeling that the demographic for this type of music is wide. There are men and women who, for the rest of the week, lead extremely responsible and respectable lives. But for them, events like Damnation are an opportunity for them to let down their metaphorical hair and engage with music that is both visceral and inspiring. As is the case most years, the weather outside is miserable but for those willing to spend nine or ten hours inside the labyrinth of corridors, shops and food outlets, the weather outside is immaterial. As is usually the case when entering an event such as this, the first twenty or thirty minutes are spent acclimatising to the layout. This tends to involve arriving at a room in time to see a band that you feel could have been interesting finishing their set and leaving the stage.
This was indeed the case for Black Magician on the Electric Amphetamine Stage, whose blend of doom and psychedelia filled the long, thin venue which was already full to capacity. Round the corner, then, to the Eyesore Merchandise Stage to catch French band Year of No Light, whose powers to crush were no less devastating. The Eyesore Merchandise Stage features a number of different levels and platforms from which to see the stage, and, as has been proved, in the darkness can be a minefield of steps for the music lover who has quenched their thirst more than once at the bar.
Over to the Jägermeister Stage for an outstanding set by Norway’s Shining. Framed by laser-thin shards of white light, Shining play a rabid mixture of progressive metal and jazz, which is one minute Peter Brotzman shrieking through a saxophone, the next, precision lines of angular metal which fuse together into an exhilarating thirty0five minutes. Bands early on the bill such as this do tend to suffer from only being allowed a shorter time to play, and it could be argued that Shining would benefit from a fuller set to maintain the momentum. This year the Terrorizer Stage is situated in the Riley Smith Hall which is a shorter, wider room that allows for good all-round views for everyone present. Always seemingly packed tight with revellers, the stage proved a popular sight for some of the more extreme black metal of the festival. This was certainly the case for Dyscarnate, whose set was a thoroughly blistering forty minutes, and an absolute joy for anyone who relishes having their face melted to the back of the venue by bands such as Misery Index and Dying Fetus. So impressed by the calibre of brutality on display, this reporter was soon off to the merchandise area to pick up their latest album release.
Liverpool’s SSS (Short Sharp Shock) on the Jägermeister Stage next and thrash meets punk over a bass heavy groove. By now everyone seems to be finding their feet around the festival and coming to terms with who they can and can’t manage to fit in. One of the main differences this year is that there are four stages hosting music, giving everyone more of a chance to catch more new music.
Back now to the dark and multi-levelled Eyesore Merchandise Stage for Berlin’s The Ocean. Previously known as The Ocean Collective due to their fluctuating line-up, the band tonight performed their set in front of some rather arresting underwater visuals which proved to be as engaging as the music. Often described as cerebral rock, post rock or any other tag that implies an expansive sound pregnant with power, their presence encapsulated the venue, and proved to be an excellent advertisement for their latest album “Pelagial”. Somewhere within the schedule the festival goer needs food and now was the time to consider the array of supermarket sandwiches, curries and pasties available on offer. To be fair to the organisers of Damnation, the food options are reasonably wide but the lack of suitable rubbish bins, which by this time were overflowing, could possibly be a consideration next year. It is now that you realise that you have got to an age when you are commenting on the amenities, such as rubbish disposal, and not the alcohol or merchandise. Refreshed, it is back to Eyesore Merchandise to catch Crippled Black Phoenix. Led by former Iron Monkey frontman Justin Greaves and including, throughout their lifetime, members of Mogwai and Electric Wizard, Crippled Black Phoenix display an intensity and a musical momentum which at times can be late 1960’s psychedelia, and at others, contemporary symphonic noise.
By now the calibre of bands available to see has moved up a gear and the decision on who to see and where becomes more difficult. Do you see a particular bands’ whole set on this stage or spread yourself around and see an assortment? Masters of melancholic intensity, Stockholm’s Katatonia was the first choice on the Jägermeister Stage. Tonight they were celebrating the tenth anniversary of their sixth album “Viva Emptiness” by playing it in full. Utilising influences from outside the metal arena, the overwhelming guitar riffs and passionate vocals fuse together into a glorious masterpiece of fresh metal. However, in a bid to fit in more extreme riff action, attention moved to the Terrorizer Stage to see Greek veterans Rotting Christ. Over the last twenty years brothers Sakis and Themis Tolis have shifted the essence of Rotting Christ from gothic to savagery and back with a keen eye on evolution. At Damnation they did not disappoint their compressed audience, unleashing one pummelling masterpiece after another.
Unfortunately cutting Rotting Christ short to catch a glimpse of Sweden’s Cult of Luna, here was an instance when it would have been beneficial to experience their whole set. The Cult of Luna experience suffered similarly due to lack of available time before assuring a good position for the headline act. Over their fifteen-year existence Cult of Luna have evolved from densely arranged and somewhat claustrophobic heavy riff-based epics into more expansive textures, utilising electronics to broaden their palette. Their latest release “Vertikal”, loosely based on the 1927 Fritz Lang film “Metropolis”, is ambitious in its undertaking and illustrates how they have extended their sound with excellent consequences. The band tonight were viciously tight and heavy and deserved more attention than someone could give them who was desperate to get to the front of the stage for the return to Damnation, with new album material, of Carcass.
Anticipation for the arrival onstage of Carcass was palpable, and their arrival and consequent set was not a reason to regret arriving early. Jeff Walker, as charismatic as ever, engaged the audience through a set of blistering classics from throughout their groundbreaking career. The band – now featuring Jeff, Bill Steer, Dan Wilding and new guitarist Ben Ash – did not allow the intensity to wane and even gave original Carcass drummer Ken Owen, who unfortunately suffered a brain haemorrhage some years ago, the opportunity to give an impromptu drum solo, adding a sense of compassion and humanity to the evening. After nine or ten hours on their feet inside the University complex, tired but happy audience members filed out into cold and wet Leeds drizzle, mostly convinced, it can be guaranteed, that they will return next year for more of the same.