By the fans, for the fans. It’s such a simple statement and yet so important. How many times must fans be fobbed off with inferior events simply because they are put on by people with an intuitive grasp of business but a fundamental lack of understanding regarding what passionate music fans actually want? Damnation has been loudly addressing that concern for an astonishing ten years, proving beyond any shadow of a doubt that festival organizers, by paying attention to their core audience and steadfastly refusing to expand beyond the bounds of credibility, can craft a festival that truly caters to the needs of a niche demographic whilst turning a tidy profit at the same time.
It’s a simple enough formula. Take a small handful of widely revered underground bands, make sure the line-up covers a wide enough spectrum that the many tastes of the extreme music scene are catered for, place the event in a building which offers multiple venues under one roof, cheap alcohol and an accessible location and cram it full of as much merchandise as possible. Simple in principal that is. The challenge is bringing together the aforementioned bands whilst simultaneously making sure there is enough exclusivity that the festival doesn’t simply replicate Bloodstock whilst spreading the word as widely as possible. In this Damnation has succeeded each and every year and it must be a matter of great and justifiable pride to the organizers that this year, the festival’s tenth anniversary, sold out in advance, thanks to a stunning line-up and the ever-growing list of people who now consider Damnation to be an annual event that is as unmissable as a birthday and, in many cases, preferable.
Getting to Damnation this year, however, proves to be a mission all of its own. For reasons best known to themselves, Leeds city council closed a portion of the ring road and then placed the diversion signs in locations so obscure that you’d need a helicopter to see them. The resultant traffic chaos meant that SonicAbuse, cursing mightily, spent an amusing hour traversing the backstreets of the city in an effort to get to the car park. The fact that A58 was restricted to one lane (and a car had broken down in that) did little to help matters (or tempers) and it was a far later than planned when we finally got to the venue.
However, once inside all was forgiven as we had arrived in time for the wonderful black moth. Playing to a deservedly huge crowd the band’s not-so-secret weapon is diminutive singer Harriet Bevan whose wonderful vocals are powerful, evocative and bewitching whilst the band lay down huge, hulking, stoner grooves behind her. Drawing on a wide range of musical styles, Black Moth do not disappoint their faithful following and as the band air classic cuts alongside tracks from excellent new album ‘condemned to hope’, the place erupts with ever increasing rapture. Highlights of the band’s set include the mighty ‘tree of woe’ and ‘room 13’, but such is the band’s performance that all the tracks could be considered a highlight and it is fair to say the band won over a fair number of new fans with their excellent performance.
A quick trip across the crowded merch hall takes us to Stampin’ Ground whose brutal groove is as irrepressible as ever. Playing to a rabid crowd, the band waste little time on words, unleashing blistering track after blistering track with ‘bear the scars’ proving to be particularly gruelling whilst ‘everybody owes a death’ sees the audience engage in a wall of death, setting the venue alight as the band demonstrate exactly why they were considered such a commanding force in the 90s. Damnation was the band’s last show for the foreseeable future (the band having disbanded in 2006 and only reformed for a run of shows this summer) but with material of this strength and such a devastating stage presence, we can only hope the band return to action soon.
An interview (coming soon) sees us miss most of Winterfylleth’s set, which is a tragedy because they are one of our favourite bands of recent years. That said, we did catch the final two songs, which offered enough for us to know we missed yet another blistering and emotional performances from one of the UK’s finest bands, particularly the bruising majesty of ‘whisper of the elements’. With the excellent new album ‘the divination of antiquity’ still burning up our stereo, if you haven’t yet immersed yourself in the band’s work, you owe it to yourself to rectify the situation immediately. Fortunately, whilst we missed a large portion of Winterfylleth’s set, the same fate does not befall Raging Speedhorn whose stunningly intense set we almost caught in full. The Corby bruisers, it seems, have lost none of their violent intensity, and the band are clearly having a blast as they set about laying waste to their venue with their monumentally sludgy riffs and harrowing screams. Forging through blistering tacks like ‘iron cobra’, ‘hate song’ and, of course, ‘the gush’, Raging Speedhorn demonstrate exactly why they’re held in such high regard. The band are touring the UK in December and you’d be a fool to miss this revitalized outfit doing what they do best – namely, crushing heads and snapping necks.
The soaring highlight of the day, SonicAbuse have been waiting to see Solstafir, the Icelandic metallers-turned-progressive-adventurers, for some time. With stunning new album ‘Otta’ rarely far from the turntable, anticipation was running high for the band’s show and it seems SonicAbuse was not alone as the large space in which the band played was full to breaking point. Few bands can so successfully combine such poignant melodies with such huge riffs and wide-eyed vocals and yet Sostafir make it look easy, calmly delivering a set that mixes the beauty of Sigur Ros with the more earthy power of heavy metal. The guitars flame and burn, often soaring to epic heights, the propulsive drums power the music along and the bass thunders away with the result that the band produce a stunning wall of noise that draws the listener away from the modern world into some far flung, unexplored land where nature rules and mankind is the trespasser. It is music that invigorates the senses and the band bring the amazing music from latest album ‘otta’ to life with their all-too-short set. If there is any complaint to be made (and this is really nit picking) it is that the amazing album opener, ‘Lagnaetti’, is sadly absent, but this is at least made up for by the most stunning version of the album’s title track complete with hypnotic banjo and yearning vocals, and for many Solstafir delivered the set of the day. Eclectic, unique and quite astonishingly beautiful, if you’re in the path of the current tour upon which the band are embarked, you have to get yourself along to a show.
There is a fair argument to be made that if you don’t like orange goblin then you don’t like rock ‘n’ roll. There is something diabolically wonderful about this English institution (for surely they have become such by now) that it’s hard to believe that the band isn’t the product of some substance fuelled pact at a crossroads. A band that is simply impossible to ignore, Orange goblin have been decimating audiences since 1995, and over eight albums have successfully honed their style to a razor sharp point. Their set at Damnation, playing to a packed out Jagermeister stage, is nothing short of triumphant with the band, and Ben Ward in particular, on astonishing form. With songs like ‘the devil’s whip’ and ‘Sabbath Hex’ from the mind blowing new album ‘back from the abyss’, the Goblin simply have the assembled throng eating from out of the palm of their collective hand and can do no wrong. It’s a powerful, life-affirming blast of heavy music that draws liberally from stoner, doom and traditional metal and the result is a wonderfully timeless cocktail that will leave you high as a kite. It was one hell of a show.
Heading down into the darkened bowels of the building, something truly evil stirs in the sweaty confines of the packed-out Terrorizer stage. Full to bursting and virtually impossible to move around, the three level Terrorizer stage represents a miniature version of The Inferno and is, therefore, a fitting setting for Anaal Nathrakh whose appearance was hotly anticipated thanks, in no small part, to the excellent new album ‘desideratum’. The sound, a menacing mix of black metal, death metal, industrial and god-knows-what-else, is brutal in the extreme, with sub bass rumbling out of the speakers, guitars razor sharp and vocals torn from the most harrowing place imaginable. It’s a blistering performance and one that leaves listeners streaming from the pit as the oxygen in the room rapidly dissipates and Dave Hunt’s dark anthems of nihilistic rage blot out the light. Picking out highlights when the set is so ubiquitously devastating is something of a redundant exercise, but both ‘the lucifer effect’ and ‘monstrum in animo’ are personal favourites so we’ll go with those.
Greeted like the legends they are Saint vitus took to the stage and did what they do best – that is to play ass kicking rock ‘n’ roll with attitude and aggression to a crowd hanging on their every riff. With reunion album ‘Lillie: F-65’ now firmly ingrained into everybody’s consciousness and the band’s classic material a matter of record, Saint Vitus dug deep to deliver a set of rampaging, influential doom and there is no doubt in anybody’s mind that they are in the presence of greatness. Songs like ‘I bleed black’, ‘the troll’ and ‘the war starter’ are delivered with such unshakable conviction that you’d be forgiven for thinking this is a new band, lean and hungry, rather than a veteran institution shaking the very foundations of the venue.
Another band for whom the epithet great can be applied is surely cannibal Corpse, that force of deathly nature that has shown no signs of slowing down despite a lengthy and deafening career, and who played to a Terrorizer stage that reached bursting point some hours before and yet continued to fill. With the stairwells crammed and security essentially reduced to looking on as eager fans continue to pour in, Cannibal Corpse took to the stage and simply destroyed the venue. Classic cuts alongside monstrous slabs from the band’s latest effort (most notably ‘kill or become’ and ‘ice pick lobotomy’) made Cannibal Corpse an almighty revelation even if it was only possible to catch occasional glimpses of the band as fans shifted position or barged their way out of the impossibly crammed lower depths. This is a band who have defied all odds; all fashions; all trends to deliver exactly the music they want entirely in spite of a market place set up to destroy any such waywardness. The band have survived truncated Russian tours, lyrical bans in Germany and accusations of glorifying god-knows-what and, remarkably, sound as tight, as brutal, as thoroughly unhinged as you might expect from a group of fresh-faced youngsters. Alex Webster is still the master of the riff, his brutal chords the perfect backdrop upon which George Fisher paints his disturbing and sordid visions. Cannibal Corpse are not just a band – they are a beloved institution and a highlight of the festival.
Upstairs, on the Plastichead stage Ahab unleashed a devastating blow of a different kind. Slow, coruscating waves of doom poured forth from the stage and the crowd seemed transfixed as they stood transfixed in the path of such a monstrous tidal wave of noise. Closing song ‘the hunt’ took up almost fifteen minutes all on its own, and the slow motion grind saw the captivated audience head-banging in slow motion as the music built up to a catastrophically heavy conclusion.
That leaves just the furious force that is Bolt thrower to conclude the day. What more there is to be said about Bolt Thrower is hard to contemplate. The band packed out the main stage so comprehensively that movement becomes increasingly difficult whilst the atmosphere, heavy with anticipation in the run up to the band taking to the stage, was electric. The only Bolt thrower show for the foreseeable future, just getting them on the bill was one hell of a coup for the organizers and the band pulled out all the stops to deliver a mind-melting show that will live long in the memory of all who attended. The mad rush for the merch stall (unnecessary as it happened) highlights just how much of the crowd fell under the spell of the band’s brutal showing and with tracks like ‘the warmaster’ and ‘this time it’s war’ it’s not hard to see why. Bolt thrower provided the sort of epic climax that Damnation’s tenth anniversary deserved and they provided the perfect conclusion to this year’s event.
As you’ll no doubt have already read (if you’re partial to forums) Damnation was not entirely perfect. The venue remains a maze and with the festival sold out, it was always going to be crowded. Security did a valiant job, marshalling people and trying to maintain some form of order, but as fans descended lower into the bowels of the Leeds union, so it became harder to get anywhere in a timely fashion. However, a little perspective is needed here. Few venues are suitable for such an ambitious set up (four venues, merch, food, accessibility) and Leeds Union offers four distinct rooms capable of providing the sound quality and space that such a festival requires. Moreover the organizers did everything humanly possible to keep things moving and the ultimate result of a sold out event is going to be long queues and crowded venues – anyone who’s been to Download will testify to that, and that’s in a massive outdoor area. In short, whilst it was crowded and whilst it was disappointing not to be able to see everything in the smaller venues, that is the natural impact of so many people wanting to attend this excellent event. More importantly, despite the fact that the venue was heaving, the fans in attendance were so friendly and tolerant that lack of space rarely led to anything other a hand shake and a laugh about the sardine-like nature of the pit. It is a firm testament to the collegiate nature of the festival that no matter how crowded, hot and sweaty things got, people remained friendly and good humoured throughout.
Damnation 2014 was a rousing, heart-warming success. The line-up was, quite simply, one of the best the festival has ever put together, the sound excellent, the fans friendly and the organization solid. The various stages bore witness to some truly mind-blowing shows, not least by the ever-green Cannibal Corpse and the truly stunning Solstafir, and the variety and quality of the acts truly meant there was something for everyone. Whilst it is true that the festival was crowded, that, surely, is a sign of success and it is something to celebrate that a fan-produced show should gain such support in today’s uncertain times.
Photo credits Gobinda Jhitta & Tim Finch