After the resounding success of its 2022 weekend following their move to Manchester’s BEC Arena, extreme metal festival Damnation, returned to the venue for its two-day 2023 event.
Unfortunately, work commitments meant we couldn’t make the first day of the event. Dubbed ‘A Night of Salvation,’ Damnation’s hardcore following were treated to unique sets from the likes of Katatonia, performing their Dead End Kings album, Deadguy performing Fixation on a Coworker and Sigh performing Scorn Defeat, amongst others including Enslaved, Akercocke and BossK all treating fans to full album run-throughs from their back catalogue.
Day two arrived with a bill featuring many of the acts from the previous day performing second, and completely different sets. Headlined by stoner/psychedelic bruisers Electric Wizard, we were intrigued to see how this eclectic and very niche bill would hold up in this size of venue which many of these bands were unlikely to have ever played in before.
The first thing noticeable was how much the minor changes to the layout made the whole festival easier to navigate, reducing many of the bottlenecks which were the bugbear of 2022’s event for many fans with plenty of seated areas situated around the venue; another nice addition, especially given the onslaught of music that was to be unleashed.
Our day started with the wonderfully named Coffin Mulch, who lurched through tracks from their recently-released Spectral Intercession album. A pummelling start to the day, their Euro-inspired old-school death metal was quickly followed up by the nasty deathgrind of the reasonably local filth merchants Crepitation. A suitably ugly start to the day from both bands, anyone of a weaker disposition should have been well aware by this point that the next eleven hours were going to be punishing on every level.
Now, the beauty and the downfall of Damnation this year was the truly niche line-up. For the extreme metal fan, this line-up had something for everyone. Black metal, grindcore, experimental metal and death metal; if you liked your music brutal, this was the place to be. Now, whereas last year’s event had the likes of Converge and At The Gates heading up the bill, the truly niche headliners this time around, saw a slightly smaller Damnation crowd but one that was very much committed to the cause.
A word in our ear saw us heading to check out Khemmis who had ventured over from Denver, Colorado to whip Damnation into shape with their brand of epic doom/heavy metal. An unknown to us before this weekend, we left having found one of our favourite new bands. By now, news was filtering through that nautical doom machine AHAB had pulled out of the festival with all sorts of rumours swirling around as to their replacement.
For those who like things a little more route-one, two more US bands joined the bill starting out with Massachussets crossover thrash merchants High Command who whipped up a frenzy in the pit right from the off with their thunderous anthems. Further down the bill, one of the highlights New York death metallers Undeath who were definitely not in the mood to take any prisoners. Playing in their own words “crushing death metal”, the band pummelled through a brutal set to an audience who were clearly craving some route one filth.
For those whose extreme music palette is a little darker, the harsh sounds of the Gregor Mackinstosh-led Strigoi perfectly ticked that box. Blitzing through their set under a wash of blue lights and smoke, Strigoi’s bleak blend of grind, crust and death metal was definitely one for the hardcore extreme metal fan. The same could be said for Belgian experimental post-metal crew Amenra who lurched through their set from the dimly-lit stage. It shouldn’t have worked in a venue this size but, judging by the size of the crowd, their set was one of the big draws of the weekend.
Elsewhere, the smaller Eeysore Merch third stage seemed to be one suitably packed out for most of the day as German extreme metal band Downfall of Gaia loosened up neck muscles with their ferocious sound while, one of the more interesting bands of the day, Sigh from Japan, delivered a performance that was as theatrical as you could have wanted from the experimental quartet ending with a vicious run through of Venom classic “Black Metal” which saw bodies spitting over the headbangers on the front row. Having shoe-horned our way in for Sigh, it was almost impossible to get near the stage when AHAB’s replacement, the BossK/Cult of Luna mash-up arrived to perform.
One of the unique selling points of Damnation has been their ability to bring back bands who have not been seen in the UK for a long time. With grindcore legends Pig Destroyer laying down the challenge last year, 2023 saw US metalcore veterans Unearth and Deadguy both making long-awaited returns to the UK. Both bands drawing in more than respectable crowds as they battered through their mosh-friendly sets. The former performing their classic The Oncoming Storm album to a sea of old-school metalcore bodies flying around the pit to classics like “Black Hearts Now Reign” with the latter delivering their second, and equally chaotic set of the weekend to a suitably rowdy mosh-pit.
Back in 2016, Julie Christmas performed with Swedish post-metal favourites Cult Of Luna after the pair collaborated on the critically-acclaimed Mariner album. Unsurprisingly then, the singer’s appearance was another highly-anticipated set and she didn’t disappont. Quirky, brutal, haunting, the singer’s persona is often compared to Icelandic boundary-bender Björk and, by the time she left the stage, she did so having etched her name in the Damnation history books.
Heading towards the home straight, Finnish grindcore terrors Rotten Sound delivered a full throttle grind assault. Unrelenting blasts of filth spit from the stage as security look on at a pit that swirls furiously around in front of the stage. As pointed out already today, bands like Rotten Sound shouldn’t sound so at home in a venue this vast but as the Finns tore through their set, you could almost feel the walls of the room shaking.
Playing their second set of the weekend, Norwegian viking black metal legends Enslaved delivered one of the most unforgettable sets of the weekend. Welcomed like heroes by the Damnation faithful, the Norwegians repaid their fans by performing their Vikingligr Veldi album in full. As with Julie Christmas earlier in the day, this is another of those sets which will go down in the history book as one of the most epic performances in the history of the festival.
And so to our final band of the day, those uncompromising grinders Anaal Nathrakh. Taking to the stage almost in awe at the sight of a few thousand grindcore fans in front of them, the band made this rare live appearance that will certain have left an ugly scar on the BEC Arena. Punishing blasts of grindcore smash the crowd towards the final hours of the weekend in truly violent fashion. For almost an hour, there is no let-up as the Birmingham extreme metal crew tear the BEC Arena apart in gloriously fashion.
With that our Damnation Festival is over. Battered and bruised, we head to the door while the true hardcore Damnation faithful prepare for headliners Electric Wizard. By the time we reach our ride home, Electric Wizard have taken to the stage and we can feel the ground rumble underneath us. Their appearance headlining a six thousand capacity arena is one that sums up the absolutely humungous balls the team at Damnation festival have and, by signing out a day that has seen everything from experimental metal to black metal to grindcore, why this festival is eagerly anticipated year after year by the extreme music community.
Damnation Festival 2024 takes place on November 2nd, 2024 and you can buy your tickets here.