Leeds has become a staple city for metal in the UK over the past years, with Damnation Festival leading the front for bands from all over the world to come and raise all hell at the University Union. At the hardy age of fourteen, the festival seems to up the ante each year, with the legendary Napalm Death on the bill alongside Batushka, Ghost Bath, Anaal Nathrakh, and many more. We set out to see how the bands fared this time around.
– For a band that was only formed in the last year or so, opening a festival such as Damnation is no easy feat. However, the young Mancunian outfit clearly don’t let it get to them, as they bring an immediate audial onslaught immediately. Wasting no time to bring life to the festival’s name, LEECHED kick off Damnation with a crushing barrage of riffs and distorted, blown-out vocals. A heavy pounding of double bass drums banged like a war cry between their devastatingly slower passages, promptly waking everyone up from the long slog down to Leeds.
Incorporating elements of grind, hardcore, and instrumental passages made for a barrage of slow, gruesome noise that brought the room to life. If there’s any way to kick a festival like Damnation off, it’s with LEECHED. The newbloods were given their chance to show themselves off how they could, and they nailed it.
– Bringing variety to Damnation’s musical buffet are the Australian progressive death metal outfit Ne Obliviscaris, who offer astral melodies and beautifully orchestrated violin pieces into a genre that’s becoming more experimental by the day. The soothing dissonance between vocalists Xenoyr and Tim Charles’ shrieks and clean vocals respectively is entrancing, and arguably the standout feature of Ne Obliviscaris’ set. This, accompanied by Tim’s signature violin additions, lifts their tracks to new levels above their peers. It’s that little kick that makes Ne Obliviscaris one of the most interesting bands to come out of this new wave of experimentation within metal over the past decade.
This is most prominent during “Intra Venus”, where Tim takes charge of the chorus with his incredibly soft yet striking vocals over Daniel Presland’s furious blast beats, before dropping straight back into Xenoyr’s ferocious growls. The sextet, however, do occasionally fall flat; growls drop below the mark from time to time and the set feels somewhat lacking in places. Additionally, feedback towards the start of the set jars against the ears and causes an imbalance between the death metal riffs and vocals, though mercifully the issue is soon rectified.
Since their previous Damnation experience in 2016, the band have soared further in popularity and a packed out Jagermeister Stage was clear cut evidence of this, with smiles aplenty on the crowd’s faces as Ne Obliviscaris stunned with their musical professionalism and technique. The band’s name translates to “forget not” in Latin, and that’s just the effect they had.
– Next on the Tone MGMT Stage were legendary Polish death metal titans VADER. With an extensive catalogue that spans over three decades and has built them a name as one of the most prominent names in death metal, expectations were high – they did not let us down. They wasted no time in getting to the classics; “Black to the Blind” brought drummer James Stewart to the forefront, with flawless blast beats setting the tone for deadly riffs from Marek “Spider” Pajak and frontman Piotr “Peter” Wiwczarek’s rough growls synonymous with the rise of traditional death metal.
Piotr was as charismatic and on-form as ever, leading the cacophony of no-nonsense death metal and bringing the crowd to an uproar of moshing and headbanging. The pit bursting into life at the start of nearly every song is testament to Vader’s reputation as one of the strongest death metal acts we’ve ever seen, and it’s incredible to see them standing strong and proud alongside a wave of new takes on the genre at Damnation. A solid set full of traditional, balls-to-the-wall death metal is just what Damnation needed, and they didn’t disappoint in the slightest.
– Anonymity and mystery behind a band is no new thing these days, so making yourself stand out using the same technique is quite the task. The ominous BATUSHKA (“Father” translated from the band’s Cyrillic name) onto the Tone MGMT Stage are something utterly unique. The eight-piece outfit from unknown origins have one of the most interesting and eye-catching sets within modern metal, reflecting that of a church. The framed artwork of their one and only album thus far, Litourgiya, is placed on a pedestal centre-stage surrounded by candles, incense, and the band’s “frontman”, who delivers a sermon-esque performance throughout the set.
The songs blend into each other with such ease that you can tell this is how the album was meant to be performed. Despite running late, the set-up for BATUSHKA is simultaneously intimidating and entrancing. Their stage presence is static, with three of the members acting as a backing choir stage-left and the drummer to the right behind a screen, with the main focus on the standing members, all of whom largely remain in their places throughout the set. Each member’s face is covered with a cloth-like material to add to the anonymity and mystery. Incense, a pulpit, and candles are present to add to the theatricality.
“Yekteníya IV” is when the crowd started moving, as the album gets progressively heavier. One moment, haunting chanting and simple guitar passages over slow drum beats catch everyone’s attention, before exploding into a barrage of black metal riffs, blast beats, and both ominous lows and piercing highs from the main vocalist. “Yekteníya V” brings a significantly heavier tone to the set, with slow, crushing riffs over tremolo guitar passages and screams from the outset. A low, guttural chant-like growl emanating from the main vocalist sends chills down the spine as the song builds in intensity.
Their performance, however, was hindered by a number of issues which made it somewhat disappointing in the end. A twenty-minute delay in setting up and technical difficulties led to a shortened set; the festival staff signal to Batushka’s frontman to cut the show as soon as possible, bringing the sermon abruptly to a close. This, accompanied by the guitars (while powerful and impressive) drowning out most of the percussion, led to a confusing sound in places. This was not a persistent issue, however, as the set improved dramatically towards “Yekteníya III”. It was a set that had a lot of potential and missed the mark somewhat, but a blip on Batushka’s otherwise relatively sound track record.
– With the return of the incredible Emperor at this year’s Bloodstock festival, it only makes sense for Ihsahn to make an appearance on our side of the pond too with his experimental black-prog project. The best part of Ihsahn’s set is witnessing him and the rest of the band interact with each other and clearly bouncing off each other’s energy. A cold, blue light permeates throughout a major part of the performance, which distances the band from the crowd.
While Batushka focus on the theatrical, Ihsahn’s aim is precision and musicianship. The joy the band get out of playing is crystal clear, and is all the more reason why Ihsahn is one of the most respected members of the metal community. Overall, Ihsahn’s set is enjoyable throughout, but blends into the background compared to other acts at the festival. A more sonically diverse set or some dynamic lighting would have made the experience a lot more captivating, but it’s hard to pick holes in a group of musicians that so evidently enjoy taking to the stage, and doing it with such grace and professionalism.
A FOREST OF STARS:
– A Forest of Stars are hands down one of the most complex and unique bands anywhere in metal today, with a heavy focus on Victorian-era poetry and lore stitched into their unique take on black metal. In the dark depths of the Cult Never Dies Stage, one would assume A Forest of Stars would flourish here, using the limited light and small space to create an incredibly intimate performance. However, they met the same fate as Anaal Nathrakh later and fell flat due to an imbalance in their set.
Such a complex band with a high number of musicians can make it difficult to nail such a show, and when you throw technical difficulties into the mix, it can really hit the show hard. A set that wasn’t reflective of A Forest of Stars’ true ability (watch any live video of their performances and you’ll see what I mean) is a small hit for the band to take, but their perseverance despite the guitars being drowned out is respectable.
– Cue Anaal Nathrakh to the stage: the unforgiving, relentless noise outfit were ready to pummel the audience. Their set, however, fell flat as technical difficulties shot them down early on into their performance. The Brummies managed to push on through the mishaps and continued to attempt to deliver a heavy performance, where the crowd provided a wealth of entertainment for onlookers. One thing that didn’t falter at any point during the set, however, was frontman Dave Hunt, whose vocals both high and low continued to devastate.
Their newer material, including single “Forward!”, held some ground and caused a new wave of energy in the audience, but still lacked the technical pounding that let them down at the start of their set. A band that has a solid reputation for being downright ferocious and disgusting in their nature (in the best way possible) left the crowd with a little less than they bargained for, which was a shame given Anaal Nathrakh’s record for incredibly tight, intense shows.
– OHHMS are quite an interesting band. Incorporating elements of doom and post-rock, they’ve become one of the most popular bands out of the UK. Luck is not on their side, however, as their set is held back until everyone was back inside the venue after the incident. This, however, didn’t faze the Canterbury quintet at all, as they burst into “Subjects” – their newest 23 minute-long emotional monolith. Transitioning from soothing and minimal to devastatingly heavy – rounded out by Paul Weller’s booming voice – they took the delay and difficulty around it with ease and grace.
On the topic of Weller, his energy and the way he moved to every beat was astounding and part of their magic, which made for an incredibly enticing and energetic performance. That in itself has become synonymous with OHHMS’ style – unapologetically expressing themselves however they see fit. Dropping into “The Anchor”, OHHMS shook the foundations of the University Union with their thundering bass handled by Chainy, who was one of the most impressive performers of the entire festival, bounding with energy and jumping into the crowd halfway through performing.
– MØL are a band that have gained a significant amount of popularity and praise since the release of their debut record, Jord, so anticipation around their post-black metal set at Damnation was high. In what is now seemingly becoming a tradition at Damnation Festival, MØL’s set is unfortunately cut short due to a fire alarm, putting aside the couple of technical hiccups and (by now tradition) fire alarm cutting the set short, MØL delivered a performance that was gripping, emotional, and relentless. Frontman Kim Song provided persistent piercing shrieks over the blast beats and ominous guitar passages that burst out between softer instrumentals that tugged at the heartstrings, reminiscent of the likes of Insomnium in places, with incredibly melodic yet crushing riffs that captured your whole attention.
Remarkably, they had the audience in the palm of their hands. Also, somewhat unexpectedly when you consider the genre, Kim was relentless in his energy and interaction with the crowd, and added to the intensity of the set. During “Vakuum”, he exploded with energy and pushed towards the barrier, getting as close to the audience as possible and delivered penetrating shrieks with apparent ease. With their performance, MØL prove that they’re not just another typical post-black metal band, neither musically or aesthetically in their performance. Blending darker undertones with uplifting and emotional passages, MØL take you on a journey through their record, and this only makes more sense when it’s right in front of you. This is just the start for them, and you can see bucket-loads of potential every moment they perform.
– The last spot on the Eyesore Merch Stage held none other than The Ocean, a German progressive metal outfit known for their energetic and mesmerising live shows. Did they step up to the mark? In one word: absolutely. With an extensive discography under their belts, they had plenty of material to choose from, balancing calm segments with unexpected, crushing breakdowns that took your breath away every time. Focusing primarily on their new album: Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic, which came out just a day before, they showcased how well their new material portrays itself in a live format and gave it everything they had.
Smoke emanated through the stage and shrouded the band in a slight pink mist during the aforementioned calmer sections, perfectly paired with the softer side of their music. There were even dynamics when their music hit its heavier sides; they flitted between melodic, instrumental passages with vocalist Loïc Rosetti’s soft cleans resonating over them, to gritty, full-tonal breakdowns and harsher growls with such ease and elegance. The closing slot for the Eyesore Merch Stage required something quite special, and filling it with The Ocean was an excellent decision. A set that is tight, elegant, and crushing all at once left the audience with a bag of emotions and open mouths.
– Ghost Bath are quite the special band. Initially a solo project formed by frontman (Nameless), the now-quintet have burst through the ranks of metal within a relatively short time frame. Since the release of 2015’s Moonlover, they’ve since landed slots with the likes of Katatonia, Lamb of God, and Thy Art is Murder, which speaks volumes about the band’s success, especially considering the genre in which they reside. Their sound has developed over the course of their career, but Ghost Bath have maintained a predominant foundation of depressive suicidal black metal shrouded in upbeat, almost “happy” riffs and elements of post-rock, shoegaze, and more traditional black metal.
As Ghost Bath entered material from their latest record, Starmourner, you saw a massive change in response from the crowd. The more upbeat overtones created an unexpected energy in the audience, with a sizeable pit opening up in the relatively small venue. Ghost Bath’s unique sound was incredibly prominent in the live performance of “Seraphic” from the aforementioned record, which kicked off more akin to a power metal track before slowly morphing into the black metal behemoth that makes it one of the most impressive tracks on the album. It’s worth mentioning at this point that the crowd was bobbing along and moshing to a genre that is typically relatively static, yet Ghost Bath managed to balance despair and mania with uplifting tones with ease.
As the song picked up pace, Nameless’ wails pierced through the initial uplifting vibes and created a wall of despair and fear. What’s impressive about Ghost Bath is their ability to fluctuate between calm instrumental passages and a blend of both atmospheric, and depressive suicidal black metal. As they played through their material old and new, you could certainly hear the points in which their sound took a turn and blended multiple influences. Something so juxtaposed is hard to pull off, yet it seems perfectly natural to Ghost Bath.
Damnation Festival always has a solid turnout, and this year was no exception. With a bill that gets stronger each year, we can’t wait to see what 2019 and beyond bring. Most importantly, we can see Damnation become a more varied festival by the year, with this year seeing some of the most interesting and engaging acts thus far, along with bands who are quickly gaining momentum (Batushka, Ghost Bath, MØL, and Leeched to name a few).
A couple of thorns in the day’s side, but these were relatively minor setbacks in comparison to the gargantuan onslaught of incredible music experienced throughout the festival. While the main hype for 2018 was around the bigger names, Damnation was really a festival that showed off the newcomers this year. We have no doubt that future years will be just as devastatingly good as this one, with the festival continuing to showcase the best of what the world has to offer.