Damnation has been slowly but steadily building its reputation and its atmosphere over seven years to the point that the annual event now caters to around three thousand discerning metal fans with its three stages of eclectic and underground music. The first thing to be noted is that Damnation is absolutely a festival with the music lover in mind. The emphasis everywhere you go is on providing the best possible experience for the fan hence the merchandise is not only readily available but sensibly priced and, almost uniquely amongst festivals, so is the food and drink. More importantly the line-up has been devised by someone with a keen notion that the audience want to try and see as much as possible with the result that, whilst many of the bands overlap in places, they are staggered so you can almost always catch at least half of every act on stage. This can lead to dizzying rushes of people moving from one part of the building to the other like a herd of wildebeest, but it also means that the audience can fully appreciate the diversity of what’s on offer – another area where Damnation are miles ahead of the competition.
However a festival, no matter how well organised, would be nothing without a cracking line-up and decent fans and Damnation has both. Only Bloodstock can match Damnation in terms of the remarkably good-natured atmosphere that pervades the venue and the line-up…well the line-up is simply a catalogue of everything that makes the metal scene a rich and satisfying experience and SonicAbuse failed to see a single dissatisfying band over the whole day. Even the venue, initially hard to grasp the layout of, becomes a familiar and comfortable venue to move around on the whole (except for the occasional bottlenecks that occur at band change-over times) with plenty of bars on hand to slake one’s thirst and plenty of places, also, for the weary to rest their bones. In short, Damnation is the sort of experience that any true metal fan would sell their souls for, which makes the £35 ticket price all the more remarkable.
Arriving at the venue in time for a brief interview with 40 Watt Sun (coming soon!) the first band that SonicAbuse catch is the mighty Winterfylleth who overcome technical problems to deliver an all-too-brief set of beautiful, terrifying black metal so dense with atmosphere that the riffs oppress as much as they liberate. Shorn of the corpse paint and devil-summoning stage shows that typify much of the black metal genre, Winterfylleth are content to let the music do the talking and when they unleash the title track of recent album ‘The Threnody of triumph’ it’s as if the entire audience have been transported away to the blackened moors, wind and rain howling as night descends, and it is as emotive and epic as you could ever want black metal to be.
A different breed altogether Textures grace the main stage with their genre-defying sounds capturing the attention of a rapidly swelling crowd. Recalling (amongst others) the vital groove of Pantera, the soothing clean vocals of Soilwork and the out-and-out aggression of Deftones at their most intense, it is hard to categorise Textures as they slip effortlessly through the gaps between metal’s various sub-genres, often in the course of a single song, enthusing the crowd and making a whole load of new friends in the process.
Following a brief trip to the merch stands (so many treasures…) SonicAbuse is dragged away to see the almighty black ‘n’ roll merchants Vreid who are every bit as exciting as always as they storm the stage with attitude and aggression. A few technical issues notwithstanding, tracks such as ‘raped by light’ are guaranteed to go down well with the assembled crowd, and with the bass threatening to create a black hole in the dark confines of the terrorizer stage and the guitars set to ‘kill’, Vreid set about making sure that anyone unfamiliar with their shock and awe tactics will damn well remember them in the future. They sound simply immense and it’s clear that they’re in the mood to take no prisoners.
The mine is, without a doubt, the most aptly named of all the stages. With a lowered ceiling that starts a few metres in from the door, it resembles nothing so much as a giant caravan that has been inexplicably hollowed out and dumped inside a room. As a result it is the most intimate and least comfortable of all the stages and thus it makes the perfect setting for the faithful followers of 40 watt sun to witness a rare show from the band. It’s not hard to pin point what makes this band so special – Patrick’s delivery is that of a folk poet, the raging torrent of sound produced by his band more akin to the sky-scraping soundscapes of latter-day Swans than of the doom genre, with the result that the sound is simultaneously haunting and elegant, heavy and yet deft, eschewing the close-knit claustrophobia of Electric Wizard and My Dying Bride for something that is altogether unique. It is a rare experience and privilege to have experienced 40 watt sun on stage, and for those who managed to cram themselves into the tiny room, it was more than worth it.
On the main stage Primordial are laying waste to their venue with their unique brand of atmospheric black metal. Alan Nemtheaga has always been a powerful performer and today is no exception as he leads his band through twenty-five years of history. Like Winterfylleth, Primordial have the power to transport the listener outside of their physical environment with music that is both stunningly powerful and beautifully evocative at the same time. The audience stand, overwhelmed by the waves of sound pouring from the stage like a flood, enraptured by the performance, and at the conclusion it is hard to credit that forty minutes have passed in the company of the band. Highlights of the set include a mighty ‘Empire falls’ although ‘the coffin ships’ is a rare treat for many of the assembled audience and the whole set is one of corroded beauty and dazzlingly visceral riffs.
The next act on the main stage are a mainstay of British heavy music. Remarkably consistent in the quality of their recorded output, My Dying Bride shows are, nonetheless, suitably rare enough that each one is an event in itself and tonight has been an eagerly anticipated show as it offers the chance for the band to unveil material from the excellent new album ‘a map of all our failures’. My Dying Bride rely on generating an atmosphere that is awash with Shakespearean imagery and Dickensian drama. Theirs is a grimy, faded world viewed through the sepia tones of age, yet what once lived within was grand indeed. This is none more evident than on the stunning ‘to remain tombless’ which perfectly captures the sense of Ozymandias lying broken in the desert, whilst ‘like Gods of the sun’ and ‘the cry of mankind’ have lost none of their power to ensnare the listener, the roar which greets the latter suggesting that My Dying Bride have plenty of friends in attendance. Literally flawless, the band’s performance is as much art as it is a metal show, Aaron Stainthorpe proving once again to be one of the most captivating frontmen alive today.
After a day of crushing metal the only fitting way to finish the day is with legendary grindcore merchants Pig Destroyer who set about destroying the Terrorizer stage in typically vitriolic style. The show goes… well, a little off-base unfortunately, although it must be emphasised that this is no fault of the band. After a dizzying first half hour in which the crowd are worn down by the band’s bruising grind assault, all the technical faults in the world hit the band, seemingly at once, taking a lengthy amount of time to resolve. The crowd are largely good natured enough to wait it out, but one can only imagine how it must have felt for the band to be left stranded on the stage desperately trying to solve the problems and rescue the show. However, rescue the show they do and the band lash out harder and stronger than ever for their closing numbers leaving the heaving mass sweaty and satisfied and even half a Pig Destroyer show is still an intense, memorable experience that has the power to send audience members out of the pit blank-eyed and trembling at the sonic overload the band produce.
Damnation is an amazing festival and an experience that is to be treasured. The organisers and sponsors (the good people of Eyesore merch, Jagermeister, Terrorizer and Peaceville) are clearly passionate supporters of metal; the venue is well run and spacious enough to accommodate the black-clad hordes without feeling over-crowded and the sound crews on all three stages did sterling work in keeping things running smoothly with the majority of technical issues resolved quickly and quietly. The cracking line-up offered plenty for fans of all tastes, the merchandise area offered the ability to empty bank accounts and the audience were good natured, friendly and appreciative. Damnation is an essential addition to the crowded festival calendar and 2013 cannot come soon enough.