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Review: Damnation Festival 2016

Every year, metal fans from far and wide descend upon Leeds for Damnation Festival. Hosted at the University of Leeds, it’s a festival comprised of four stages of bands playing throughout the day. This year on November 5th, the festival bagged almost 30 bands, including huge scores such as Abbath, Enslaved, Electric Wizard, Ingested, and Ne Obliviscaris, as well as a number of smaller up-and-coming bands. Read on to see how it went…

Spread across four stages and squeezed into just one day, attending Damnation Festival involves some level of planning ahead, deciding which bands you most want to see and essentially mapping out your ‘route’ for the day. The event is generally very well-organised. The brisk changeover times between bands is much appreciated. There’s a bar serving alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, with an outdoor area where folks meet, socialise, smoke, and the like. There’s a small kitchen that provides food like burgers, and Deli Kate’s burger stand is a very popular option by Damnation loyalists. Mercian Storm make their regular appearance, selling a huge range of often quite rare metal CDs, vinyl records, and flags, while in other areas there are band t-shirts and other merch for sale. The merch stands of the bands actually performing are generally situated near the main ‘Jagermeister’ stage, and one frequently finds band-members manning them and hanging out, offering a good chance to take a blurry selfie with them. In general the whole operation ran very smoothly, aside from a brief incident involving a fire alarm that led to entrance to the Jagermeister Stage was slightly delayed.

On arriving at the festival and meeting up with some friends from York’s own metal society The Fringe, we planned out our routes. I made my way over to the Eyesore Stage for Glaswegian instrumental rockers Dialects. Performing in a style comparable to Cloudkicker or Scale the Summit, it was a great choice to start the day. Their jazzy approach to instrumental rock got heads moving pretty quickly. I hung around afterwards for the next band on the stage, Midlands-based sludge/blackened hardcore band Conjurer. I knew nothing about the band going in beyond a few genre buzzwords, but I saw a lot of their  t-shirts throughout the crowd so they clearly had something of a following. Their set was one of the most electrifying and intense I saw all day. Their menacing, aggressive sound was convincing enough, but the ferocity and passion of their performance totally won me over. Their two guitarists traded vocal duties, screaming their guts out while the monstrously heavy atmosphere crafted by their guitarwork pulverised the crowd over and over again. This is a band that takes their music very seriously, and I respect that. Suffice it to say I was very glad I decided to see them, and later picked up a t-shirt and vinyl copy of their EP. They’re a lovely bunch by the way, definitely check them out.

Conjurer (Damnation 2016)

I then made my way over to the Terrorizer stage for the progressive technical death metal band Mithras. I was already somewhat familiar with the band’s music, but more so from their other project Sarpanitum. Their surprisingly softly-spoken and affable frontman Leon Macey took centre stage in their commanding performance. Their blisteringly technical brand of death metal is a challenging, but surprisingly thoughtful concoction, performed with the utmost precision. The almost sci-fi quality of the sound makes for a curious listen. Though the live mix could have been better (the loudness of the drums somewhat buried the lead guitar), their performance was very tight, and the variety of their setlist was impressive – from their 2003 album Worlds Beyond the Veil to their very recent release On Strange Loops. I then made by way back to the Eyesore Stage for Portuguese doom/post-metal group Sinistro. Their singer Patrícia Andrade, backed by their trademark wall-of-sound doom metal, made for a mesmerising show. That said, the slow, lumbering pace of doom metal has never appealed to me, so while I appreciated what they were doing and the power of their live show, I decided that the music wasn’t my cup of tea.

Mithras (Damnation 2016)

Instead I went back to the Jagermeister Stage to catch some of Oceans of Slumber‘s set before Ne Obliviscaris. There was a minor delay due to a fire alarm, but the band began on time nonetheless. Though I only caught their first three songs, what I heard was very impressive. All the way from Houston, Texas, their complex progressive metal clearly resonated with the very receptive crowd. While their sound is rooted in progressive death metal, featuring long compositions and tricky guitar passages, their atmospheric sound and black metal influence made sure the edge was never dulled. Vocalist Kammie Gilbert was a mesmerising presence on stage and her vocal performance was pitch-perfect. Flanked by two guitarist/vocalists and a bassist, the complexity of their songs as well as the diverse range of influences made for a fascinating listen. Their new album Winter was released earlier this year, and I’ll certainly be giving it a listen.

Oceans of Slumber (Damnation 2016)

Unfortunately, I had to leave to get to the Terrorizer Stage in order to get a good position for one of my most anticipated bands of the day, Ne Obliviscaris. An Australian progressive metal band that features two guitarists as well as a violinist, even just on paper they’re the sort of band you probably want to at least have a listen to. They’re a band I have quite a bit of personal attachment to, as their 2012 album Portal of I was an early favourite of mine as I began to explore and enjoy metal. Their show was utterly mesmerising from start to finish. During their 45-minute set they performed their almost fifteen-minute epic piece Devour Me, Colossus as well as two favourites from their first album. The joy that all the musicians involved clearly feel at having the opportunity to tour and to play the music they play was obvious. The mix held up well, with the guitars and even the violin cutting through the mix nicely. The heaviest parts of their set sounded huge, while the opening violin section of And Plague Flowers the Kaleidoscope led to members of the crowd grabbing partners and starting a bit of a jig. It was a rousing success of a show, and definitely a highlight of the day.

So at this point I’m pretty much exhausted, right? It’s 6:45PM, I’ve watched extreme metal band after extreme metal band, and I haven’t sat down in almost seven hours. But it turns out I can’t take a break just yet, because Cult of Luna & Julie Christmas are performing their collaborative album Mariner in its entirety on the main Jagermeister stage. This is a live collaboration that was never supposed to be happen, and for that reason I think we all felt very privileged to be able to bear witness to it. The turnout for the show was insane, packing out the entire room, though I eventually managed to work my way forwards to get a good view of the stage. Sweden’s Cult of Luna are frequently described as a ‘post-metal’ band for their progressive song structures, use of atmosphere, willingness to experiment, and the ferocity of their sound. Their wall of sound really was deafening and blissful in equal measure, the sheer heaviness and weight of the music weighing on the audience. But punk vocalist Julie Christmas’ vocals cut through like a knife, her melodic croon frequently giving way to the most tortured screams, the music and vocals working in tandem to push each other further. It was one of the most utterly captivating shows I’ve ever witnessed – it was powerful, moving, artful, and astonishingly perfect. I left the show physically and emotionally exhausted.

Cult of Luna & Julie Christmas (Damnation 2016)

Definitely time for a break at this point. Neither Akercocke nor Black Tusk were bands that particularly appealed to me, so I had a sandwich and a sit-down for half an hour at this point. I then made my way back to the main stage to see the legendary Abbath. One of the leading figures in the early Norwegian black metal movement, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see him live. Unfortunately the show was marred by significant technical difficulties, leading to several false starts and a 20 minute delay. And even once the band rushed on stage to huge applause, the mix was disappointing, as all I could really hear were the drums. And, when you could hear the guitars, the performance was frequently sloppy. I left early to make sure I had a good spot for Enslaved, but to be honest I didn’t really feel like I was missing much.

But onto more positive news! Enslaved killed it. Imagine Pink Floyd played black metal and were obsessed with Norse mythology and Viking heritage, and you basically have Enslaved. The sound was mixed very well, thankfully, and their setlist tore through some of the best songs in their discography. Everything from ‘Roots of the Mountain’ (a personal favourite) and ‘One Thousand Years of Rain’ to ‘Allfǫðr Oðinn’ and ‘The Watcher’. They are currently celebrating their 25th anniversary as a band, so of course the crowd sang them happy birthday. The band were a friendly, confident presence on stage, clearly very comfortable in this sort of environment after so many years. Though I found myself in the second row of the crowd, those behind me frequently erupted into huge moshpits, particularly during ‘Fenris’, which is clearly a favourite of old-school Enslaved fans. I might be biased because Enslaved are one of my favourite metal bands, but I hugely enjoyed their set. Their progressive, frequently melancholy, and culturally rich black metal appeals to many of my musical tastes all at the same time, and I was glad to have the chance to see them live, particularly in such an important year for them.

Enslaved - Damnation 2016

Though there were two further headline bands after Enslaved; the legendary doom masters Electric Wizard and one of the heaviest brutal death metal bands out there Ingested – I was utterly exhausted at this point, and felt that Enslaved’s music was the perfect way to end the night. I had a sit down outside the main stage where I could hear Electric Wizard subjecting the crowd to a kind of auditory heaviness only Electric Wizard can and chatted with some friends until we were ready to make the journey back to York. All in all, Damnation Festival 2016 has to be judged an enormous success. The lineup was amazing, not just in the number of huge bands they managed to bring but also the quality of the lesser-known acts. If you’re at all into metal or heavy music, you have no excuse for not attending next year.