7   +   3   =  

Damnation pic@Leeds University Union, November 1, 2014

It has hosted legendary performances and eagerly awaited comebacks, given its crowds everything from drone to grind, shimmering post-rock to brutal hardcore.

And there have been plenty of bruised ribs, battered eardrums and Olympic standard stage dives along the way. 

Damnation Festival has a special place in the hearts of the UK’s extreme music community and the fact that 2014’s event marked its tenth anniversary was testimony to both the loyalty of its fans and the tenacious spirit of its organisers. There’s a sense of connection here: you’ll buy t-shirts from the same people you’ve just seen on stage, chat about the music you love, make new friends.

It hasn’t been all plain sailing since 2005, but the stellar line-up that graced Saturday’s event showed just how far Damnation has come since Entombed and Raging Speedhorn headlined the first festival at Jillys Rockworld in Manchester.

Want one of the biggest selling death metal acts of all time? Done. A classic doom band, second only in stature and influence to Black Sabbath? Check. An ultra-rare appearance from one of the UK’s best loved extreme metal outfits? Wish granted. And while Cannibal Corpse, Saint Vitus and Bolt Thrower respectively were worth the bargain ticket price alone, the presence of a slew of up and coming bands, from across Europe and the US, bolstered a landmark bill even further.

Londoners Bast, for instance, levelled the Eyesore Merch Stage with their doom meets post rock meets BM onslaught at just 1.30pm, while US quartet Revocation’s dazzling death/thrash hybrid sizzled on the Terrorizer stage, and showed the band are more than living up to the hype.

Both British progressive tech metallers Xerath and Swedish Deicide acolytes Aeon – while both playing their hearts out – struggled against an underwhelming sound on the Terrorizer stage, but no such problems bedevilled the stunning Winterfylleth; the North West black metallers managed to top 2012’s Damnation appearance with a performance brimming with class. The four-piece don’t look like a BM band, but their sweeping , windswept paeans to ancient England don’t need to be daubed in corpsepaint to reveal their power. By the time The Fields Of Reckoning drew their stirring set to a close, with its ‘one and all together for home’ refrain, the crowd were in raptures. Surely a headline slot isn’t too far away…

Like Winterfylleth, Glasgow’s Falloch are inspired by their country’s heritage and their atmospheric songs boast a folk undercurrent: the band’s Damnation set showed that their vocals still need a lot of work, but they nevertheless managed to win the crowd over with tracks culled from their melancholic latest opus, This Island, Our Funeral and their debut, Where Distant Spirits Remain.

Over on the Terrorizer stage, a heaving throng met the arrival of Damnation veterans Anaal Nathrakh, who first graced the festival way back in 2007 – its only appearance at Leeds Metropolitan University. The poor sound and canteen-like venue did the UK extremists few favours that day, however, the band’s caustic black metal/grind assault was one of the highlights of this weekend. Frontman Dave Hunt’s inter-song banter might have been jovial, but let loose on tracks like The Lucifer Effect and Forging Towards The Sunset and it was demons, not jokes, which came pouring out of his throat. Submission Is For The Weak, from Anaal Nathrakh’s debut, The Codex Necro, garnered some of the biggest cheers of the afternoon but in truth, the entire set was a sonic firestorm that will live long in the memory.

Variety is the spice of life at Damnation though, and while blastbeats were the order of the day on the Terrorizer stage, Leeds University Union’s colossal main hall – christened the Jagermeister stage on Saturday – was a groove-fest as soon as Orange Goblin plugged in and turned it up to 11.

From Scorpionica’s catchy-as-hell opening riffs to the Motörhead worship of The Devil’s Whip, to the thunderous rock of Some You Win, Some You Lose, the London quartet proved they deserved their elevates status and wildly enthusiastic reception. As for man mountain frontman Ben Ward… they just don’t make them like that anymore. Great fun. Great band.

‘Fun’ might not be high on Saint Vitus’ agenda – their music is doom with a capital ‘D’ – but there were plenty of smiles as the quartet played classic after classic from Born Too Late (as axeman Dave Chandler out it, the “pink one”) and threw I Bleed Black in for good measure. To witness Chandler’s chaotic soloing- even wilder than his hair – and to hear Wino’s magnificent vocals over his guitarist’s vintage riffs, was a genuine joy.

You don’t have to play fast to be a heavy metal band, then. However, no one seemed to have told Cannibal Corpse, who set about obliterating the Terrorizer stage and inspiring mayhem among their many devotees. Led from the front by imposing  vocalist  George ‘Corpsegrinder’ Fisher the US deathsters tore through their back catalogue, with the bludgeoning Scourge Of Iron and new tune Sadistic Embodiment just a couple of highlights.

Like Carcass in previous years, Cannibal Corpse represented something of a coup for Damnation, and are a death metal band few acts can even come close to, such is their impact.

However, not even Fisher and co, could top headliners Bolt Thrower. The quintet’s UK shows are so rare that their merch stalls quickly descend into scrums, and their popularity seems no signs of abating, despite their last album being released in 2005.

With 25 years of material to delve into and a vast armament of nuclear riffs to unleash, this was always going to be a crowd-pleasing show, but Coventry’s finest somehow managed to exceed expectations. Backed by a blazing light show, songs like No Guts, No Glory and the explosive At First Light were phenomenal, with vocalist Karl Willets taking command of his troops and leading them headlong into battle.

Want to know why people love extreme metal? Listen to a song like For Victory of When Cannons Fade played by people who put every ounce of their being into them, without a care for commercial gain or fleeting trends. Watch as fists are raised and heads are banged to This Time It’s War by a capacity crowd. Bolt Thrower were incredible and their set was a triumphant way to end a sold-out festival.

Embracing the past, looking with excitement to the future, Damnation Festival deserved a party after ten years – it certainly got one. And no sooner had the lights gone down on Bolt Thrower, then fans were eagerly debating over who should headline in 2015.

Another decade of Damnation? Don’t bet against it.

Richard Holmes