@ Leeds University Union, November 7 2015
When Asphyx strode on stage adorned in Bolt Thrower t-shirts at this year’s Damnation Festival, it was a poignant moment for many in the audience.
Bolt Thrower headlined the annual shindig’s tenth anniversary bash in 2014, topping a celebratory day in Leeds with a magnificent performance that will live long on the memory. But just two months ago, the legendary Coventry act lost their drummer, Martin ‘Kiddie’ Kearns, who passed away in his sleep. In dedicating his band’s set to Kearns, Asphyx frontman Martin van Drunen’s heartfelt sentiments embodied the sense of community that runs through the extreme metal scene… a sense of community which also saw Tomas Lindberg, of Damnation headliners At The Gates, speak warmly about Kearns as the festival drew to a close.
But perhaps it’s not surprising that the strong bonds between bands and fans from so many countries were evident. After 11 years, Damnation feels like a family party, where you see long lost friends and share a (reasonably priced) drink with old buddies. It’s a festival that puts customers first – even reducing capacity this year to make movement easier between its four stages – and where the social barriers between musicians and punters are virtually non-existent.
And it’s also a festival that pulls in acts whose appearances on these shores (especially outside the capital) are rare. That approach is undoubtedly part of Damnation’s success and has served it well, creating rushes of excitement as the line-up takes shape… a far cry from the increasingly unimaginative bills favoured by the big summer rock festivals.
The appearance of Primordial (pictured) as Terrorizer stage headliners this year is a case in point. Critically acclaimed, regularly unleashing astonishing albums, the Irishmen are sadly a rare sight on the live stage… but it was clear from their 2012 set here that they fitted hand in glove with Damnation. And from the moment singer AA Nemtheanga started to whip his acolytes into a frenzy during opener Where Greater Men Have Fallen, their place in this festival’s history was confirmed.
With the hooded frontman as their focal point, and their thunderous, folk-laced music making the air crackle with primal energy, the quintet were magnificent. Empire Falls and As Rome Burns were just two highlights, and the entire set could have graced stages 10 times the size of this, such was Primordial’s dramatic impact.
Yet Dublin’s finest could not take their triumph for granted. Earlier in the day, Belgians Wiegedood showed why they’re one of this year’s hottest black metal prospects, creating a blastbeat driven firestorm culled from their latest album, De Doden Hebben Het Goed, while Norwegians Vreid stunned Damnation with a set which easily eclipsed their excellent 2012 appearance. It helped that their new album, Sólverv – all icy melodies and stinging tremolo picking – has taken them back to their BM roots. Its title track was particularly impressive here, though there was also time for some mid-paced black ‘n’ roll in the form of The Reap.
Dutchmen Asphyx, meanwhile, were worthy standard bearers for straight-up, brutal death metal – surprisingly a style under-represented at this year’s festival. And while songs like Deathhammer and Scorbutics are considerably more basic than much of the fare on offer this weekend, they got straight to the point, bludgeoning everyone in sight and sparking one of the most rabid mosh pits Damnation has ever seen. In contrast, Keep of Kalessin’s ‘epic extreme metal’ (their words) never reached feral levels, yet the pristine musicianship on display- especially from singer/guitarist Obsidian C – transfixed nonetheless.
Speaking of which, the post-industrial soundscapes of French trio C.R.O.W.N were equally hypnotic, though delivered at a much slower pace. Sure, the band owe a lot to Godflesh, but unnerving, gritty tracks like Tension of Duality – played here in all its glory – demonstrate that this band have plenty up their sleeves.
However, if anyone was slightly overwhelmed by the number of ‘post…’ bands at Damnation this year, the antidote surely came in the volcanic eruption of High on Fire’s frantic performance.
Stripped to the waste, vocalist/guitarist Matt Pike doesn’t need corpsepaint or spiked wristbands to show how ‘metal’ he is, just fistfuls of molten riffs and a rhythm section worthy of the greatest power trios that have ever roamed the earth. It’s perhaps a surprise that while the band were blitzing their way through Cometh Down Hessian, half the audience weren’t blown out of the Jägermeister stage and sent flying into the River Aire, such was the Americans’ sonic might.
With High on Fire and Primordial on this kind of form, At The Gates were always going to have to raise their game for their headlining slot. And while the Swedes didn’t match Bolt Thrower or 2013’s bill toppers Carcass for sheer exhilaration, they remain a class act perfectly capable of living up to their status.
The quintet’s 1995 landmark album, Slaughter of the Soul, sounds as potent as it did 20 years ago – especially in the live arena – and anyone with metal in their veins will always feel a rush when they hear Martin Larsson and Anders Björler peeling off the riffs to Under a Serpent Sun or Cold, or see Lindberg leading their charge, feeding off the crowd.
Slaughter of the Soul’s (eventual) follow-up, last year’s At War With Reality, was also aired in part – it’s a more mature, considered album than its predecessor, but the title track especially hit home at Leeds (though paling in comparison to the phenomenal Blinded by Fear). Yes, more songs from Terminal Spirit Disease or With Fear I Kiss The Burning Darkness would have been welcome, but few fans would have felt short changed by this.
Watching At The Gates wring out their final few chords to rapturous applause, it’s difficult to imagine there was a point in Damnation’s history when the event looked like it wouldn’t see another year – seven festivals later, it’s a vital part of the extreme music landscape, and both bands and fans alike have helped make it so. Roll on 2016.