@Leeds University Union, November 5 2016

Over 12 years, Damnation Festival has been taken to the hearts of extreme music fans in the UK and abroad.  Why? Just take a look at this year’s line-up. It tells a story a festival that has long since rejected an all-out Satan, corpsepaint and gore path – as tempting as that would have been – and has instead embraced diversity… helping to open a few minds along the way.

So acts like Norway’s prog/BM royalty Enslaved rubbed shoulders with UK post-metal legends Bossk, and Italian psychonauts Ufommamut shared a bill with Irish doomsters Dread Sovereign.

That the annual shindig again sold out was no real surprise. Damnation has become an institution, but one which has retained its independent, good natured vibe and commitment to low prices.

Can you keep everyone happy? Of course not.  The removal of Nails from the line-up (the band recently downed tools) was a blow and the powerviolence trio arguably weren’t replaced, in a like-for-like sense. Perhaps the lack of thrash or death metal heavyweights was also lamented by some fans.

Yet Damnation again showed that in providing a platform for underground bands to shine, it has become vitally important to the scene.

Just ask the black-clad hordes who packed into the Eyesore Merch stage at 2pm to witness Midlanders Conjurer: the quartet are riding high on the success of their debut mini-album, I, and their punishing, sludge-coated barrage threatened to demolish the newly refurbished theatre venue. The maturity of their songwriting isn’t in doubt, but they matched it with a confident, assured performance that would have reaped new converts.

There’s also a deserved buzz around Venom Prison at the moment. The Welsh quintet’s rabid death metal, politically-charged lyrics and brutal delivery saw them bag a deal with Prosthetic Records for their first full-length, Animus, and they proved a welcome addition to the Terrorizer stage. Vocalist Larissa Stupar adds a dash of crust punk spirit to the band’s thrashy assault, and it made for a vicious half hour.

The Terrorizer stage, though, sadly didn’t do Mithras any favours. On Strange Loops might be one of the best progressive death metal albums of the year, but a muddy mix nullified the impact of songs like When The Stars Align, and at times, only Leon Macey’s dazzling leads pierced the murk.

Over on the Jägermeister  stage, there was no such trouble. Hark were as loud as hell, a fierce mix of titanic grooves and thunderous riffs, led by criminally underrated songwriter, guitarist and vocalist Jimbob Isaac. The former Taint frontman was born for stages like this – as were songs like Palendromeda, which rocked the festival’s main hall to its foundations. This lofty venue also proved a fitting place for Hang The Bastard to bow out. Bathed in blood red light, the quintet unleashed their trademark torrent of caustic, nasty sludge metal for the last time. They’ll be a big miss, but the Londoners raised plenty of smiles (and glasses) as they worked their way through the likes of Hornfel and Morrs Tempest.

Bossk, in contrast, re-ignited their career this year with the stunning Audio Noir and as a result, pulled many a devotee to the Eyesore Merch stage. Perhaps their choice of playing .1 in its entirety was a strange one, given the strength of their new material. But their debut EP – a landmark in post metal – celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. And on Saturday, .1 was played with a verve and intensity that gave it new life, the vivid, widescreen soundscapes of I and II washing over everyone in the room.

Bossk’s show will live long in the memory…  and was perhaps only topped by Cult of Luna and Julie Christmas’s performance of their Mariner album. CoL (pictured) have previously declared that the opus, released this year to huge acclaim, was never supposed to be played live. For Damnation to secure one of only five European performances of Mariner was therefore a major coup – and proof of the festival’s international status. And in the end, it was difficult to see how Swedes, fronted by former Battle of Mice singer Christmas, could ever really better this show. Many acts have graced the Jagermeister stage under the Damnation banner – bands with huge reputations. Few performances, though, have felt this special, moving, and utterly enthralling. From A Greater Call to Cygnus 1, Cult of Luna and Julie Christmas were spellbinding. And we’ll never see this again.

Abbath, therefore, had a tough act to follow. The Norwegian is a titan of the black metal scene, a man whose songs can cleave icebergs in two and on that basis, deserved his hour slot on the Jägermeister stage. Delving into his recent solo work, plus tracks by I and Immortal, there was plenty of bombast, waves of furious riffage, yet Abbath at times seemed distracted by technical problems… and blastbeat driven tracks like Ashes of the Damned were undone by a mix that killed their melodic subtleties, leaving mid-paced anthems such as Warriors to steal the limelight.

Enslaved, headlining the Terrorizer stage, faired much better: balancing warmth and charm with fine musicianship, they marked 25 years in some style, and their bonhomie was reciprocated by the fans with a rendition of Happy Birthday. Banter and beers aside, seeing the quintet storm through Norse prog odysseys such as The Watcher and Building with Fire felt like a genuine privilege, and if they return, this set should have earned them a main stage billing.

Final headliners Electric Wizard proved something of an anti-climax. That’s not to say that their fuzzed-out, doom jams weren’t rapturously received. Or that the more professional, stable ‘Wizard mark 2016 aren’t worth watching – especially when set against a backdrop of trippy, occult visuals. Or even that Funeralopolis, with its warning of nuclear armageddon, wasn’t a fitting end to a set on the eve of US election week.

Simply put, the Dorset quartet were too predictable on a day that combined rare appearances and complete one-offs with exciting upstarts making a name for themselves.

2016’s Damnation wasn’t seamless, it had rough edges, but in many ways the festival raised the bar yet again… and should be applauded for it.