Damnation Festival

support Carcass + Cult on Luna + Katatonia...
author EW date 02/11/13 venue Leeds University, Leeds, UK

The annual autumn fixture in the British metalhead's calendar that is Damnation festival was back this weekend and with an extra stage added over the 2012 edition to make four and reduce the number of clashes that are a necessary evil in a crowded line-up there was as usual a veritable number of British and foreign acts worthy of investigation. Before getting onto the band performances however, an overview...

The Festival

My full lowdown of the benefits of staging this event in the Leeds University student union building were outlined in last year's review - the ready-made drinking and eating facilities are the biggest plus, the various hallways and corridors a minor complaint. One wonders why the newly added room (named the Terrorizer Stage - last year's Terrorizer Stage now being the Eyesore Stage), with a capacity for at least 1000 and leading straight off from the entrance was not previously used, but lets be thankful that it now is. The drinks prices are competitive and available in numerous locations throughout, as are food facilities ensuring noone need go famished through the event.

The focus on doom metal I highlighted in last year's review was expanded to a whole stage for the genre (the Electric Amphetamine Stage, which to further confuse was 2012's Eyesore Stage) but as with last year just getting within sight of any band performing here was impossible on my one visit down (for Slabdragger). The problems of bottle-necking in that room are impossible to avoid, causing problems for room-hopping punters like myself hoping to dash from band to band. Elsewhere the mix highlighted further advances into post-metal territory on the Eyesore Stage, with the usual foray into heavy metal, thrash, folk, black and death in the main two rooms making for a general consensus that this year's line-up was weaker than 2012's.

Sadly too, as was the case in 2012, the PA facilities in the smallest three rooms left much to be desired in aiding the bands to be heard with any sense of clarity. As you will see from the following reviews the inability to hear the finer details of their music really held back a number of acts from leaving positive impressions in the memory, although in fairness a lack of songwriting creativity could also be to blame for some of them...


Having travelled up from London on the morning of the event I could only make it in time for the last 10 minutes of Voices' set, this one being only their second show after a recent debut at the London Unicorn. As many will be aware the band consist of two ex-Akercocke members and in their new guise have retained some of the progressive elements of their previous incarnation but sadly have not melded these into anything near as interesting and satisfying of their Satan-baiting past, a point I made in reviewing their debut LP earlier this year. I won't grade this on the basis of seeing too little of their set, but through being unable to make out almost anything from the barrage of sound in that time and seeing that the band were largely rooted to the spot it is unlikely I would have had much to commend about it. Still, vocalist Peter Benjamin was at least donning a theatrical mask which I suppose counts for something..


No, not the suicidal Swedish BM act but the extreme jazzy, Norwegian version who took home the awards for 'Most Experimental' and 'Most Bizarre' bands of those I watched throughout the day. I cannot claim to be a great fan of their highly eclectic sound which combines extreme metal and jazz into a unique diaspora of modern futuristic rhythmic sounds, schizophrenic saxophone leads and time signature changes but for something a bit different they did a fine job.

Given that the music of Shining sounds migraine-inducing at the best of times (I'm especially thinking of "The Madness and the Damage Done" here and it's pandemonic high-pitched solo battling) the possibility of a bad sound would lead to the mass exploding of brains and the need for a local call for blood donors, so it was with great relief that the high-speed layering of tracks from their "Blackjazz" and "One One One" albums was audible throughout the hall of the Jägermeister Stage. The epileptic light show that accompanied this was worthy of mention also - matching the speed changes of the music and bearing a resemblance to the more experimental sections in their six tracks it helped make for an engrossing set, even if half the task of watching Shining is simply deciphering the multiltudinal chaos they have intricately woven into a unique output. It was the biggest names and their more straight-up and predictable styles that took top honours by the end of the day, but when compared against the mediocre acts in the afternoon slots these Norwegians stood out for their sheer bravado and will to defy any sort of categorisation.


Despite their second album "And So It Came To Pass" receiving strong reviews across the web and theirs being a growing name from the south of England, Dyscarnate have yet to win me over. A support slot for Cephalic Carnage a few years ago notwithstanding I can't help but feel cynically about the brutal direction of this trio and their reliance on filling the sound spectrum to achieve that much-vaunted 'heaviness' at the expense of writing charismatic and memorable songs. Like Trigger the Bloodshed and so many others from Britain and beyond I find myself wondering whether this extends to anything more than brutality for brutality's sake?

In a set plagued by an over-zealous bass sound Dyscarnate lost the opportunity to dissuade me from that opinion. Trying to pick out notable songs from their set is like asking which was my favourite of the 8 boiled new potatoes I had for dinner last night; similar lengths and styles combined with an impenetrable sound blended the whole 40 minutes into one, which became as boring on the eye as it was on the ear with no movement on stage or any sense of frontmanship from either Henry Bates or Tom Whitty to report. Disappointing, as on record they sound more intriguing than this, but if the uninitiated can glean nothing from such a performance, can it really be called a success?



Short Sharp Shock - they do what they say on the tin. Scouse crew SSS were there during the peak of the thrash revival in the latter half of the last decade and have survived the waning of the scene with three albums to their name now. In a trend that was as utterly devoid of originality as the thrash revival one was, SSS at least had the good grace to sit at the punky crossover end of the spectrum rather than being your ten-a-dozen pure retro thrash act.

This made for a 40 minute set crammed with 14 high energy songs and plenty of vigour, the feel of a antithesis to the more doomed and serious sounds emanating from the rest of the festival line-up, but what SSS possess in directness they lack in engaging songwriting - Municipal Waste did this better around their "Hazardous Mutation" days and SOD did it better than all in the '80s. This became the cause for a bout of clock-watching in the latter half of their set, but it was not all without humour, namely in lanky vocalist Foxy reiterating their latest album, "Problems to the Answer" being on Prosthetic and "not Arseache Records" (an in-joke for those who follow metal scene politics). Alas, despite looking they just stepped straight out the skate park and the simple pleasures SSS' music provides it felt the audience were not a part of the chaos as always tend to be the case when Municipal Waste are in town and limbs and brains go truly aflailing.


God Seed

Despite coming out of the Gorgoroth legal dispute on the losing side I still feel that God Seed carry the integrity of that infamous Norwegian BM act better than today's band of that name still do, primarily based on a dreadful Bloodstock 2010 performance as well as the resultant progress of the two bands since then. The band carrying Gaahl, King ov Hell and crew in 2013 still play a set based half around their sole album, "I Begin", and older Gorgoroth material in which they had a writing credit - a cheap ploy you could argue with some conviction, but try telling that to this determined crew. For the first time in the five bands I'd seen uptil this point did God Seed feel like a proper band worthy of the name; still I waited for an engaging frontman to turn up (this would not properly be answered until Jeff Walker of Carcass) but they carried a demanding, important aura about their performance that was noticeable in its absence for the above bands.

His vocals being inaudible for a good portion of the set did not help but as a figure up on stage, knowing the controversy that has always surrounded him, Gaahl is a man one just cannot take your eyes off. He stalks the stage slowly and menacingly, speaking like a preacher from a pulpit, unusually the only member of the band in corpsepaint adding to the intrigue of a man I saw in a very different guise as a member of Wardruna just a week back. The God Seed tracks aired ("Awake", "Alt Liv", "Aldrande Tre") are the more melodic of the set, albeit laced with flashing black metal tremolo riffing, while some of the Gorgoroth numbers ("Wound Upon Wound", "Carving A Giant") generate a stronger reception from the audience, many of whom no doubt come more aware of the band's reputation rather any specific songs. Still, God Seed are without doubt the best band uptil this point but with which a better sound would have pushed this rating higher...



Created by Greg Mackintosh of Paradise Lost clearly in the mood for a more hard-hitting outlet than what PL espouse, Vallenfyre is his ode to old-school death metal which on record is a solid no-frills attack on all that is clean and polished, full of sharp-edged riffs cloaked in a dank yet accessible production. Having disappointingly missed their performance at Bolt Thrower's gig last year and enjoyed their "A Fragile King" LP in the meantime this was to be my first live experience, but one that left me a little...cold. The lack of lateral movement from upon stage was nothing uncommon for a death metal band high on the head-banging quotient but this combined with the insanely bassy and unclear sound made for another set falling below my expectations. I'll be damned if any of the soloing and slow pounding riffing in the likes of "Desecration", "Seeds" or "Cathedrals of Dread" were distinctly audible for anyone but hardened fans of the band, resulting in surely a lost opportunity on a Terrorizer Stage so busy I had to queue to enter the room. Hopes that this show would make up for the missed opportunity at Boltfest last year were unfortunately lost in a haze of mud and feedback; there is a deadly death metal band waiting to be exposed here so perhaps it will need a third time lucky for myself and Vallenfyre?



Perhaps the greatest enigma in the name of metal: how can Katatonia possess so much recorded quality but repeatedly come across as turgid and boring live? This dilemma had held me back from bothering to check them out since Bloodstock 2009 and was on the verge of doing so at Damnation 2013 in favour of watching the clashing Moss, but upon hearing their set would be based around 2003's excellent "Viva Emptiness" as a 10th anniversary tribute I decided that a third chance might be in order. Sadly even a set comprised solely of an album which I love failed to light the fires of enthusiasm for me and, judging by the static crowd infront, the gathered hordes too.

Playing the album in reverse order meant the bulk of the album's stronger tracks ("Ghost", "A Premonition", "Sleeper of the Sun") were positioned after a slow opening but really it was the inability for their songs to transfer over well into the live arena that was, and continues as, a problem for Katatonia. Think how some bands' songs never fail to impress live (Iron Maiden and Slayer two obvious examples); for the Swedes the opposite is true as the careful, delicate songwriting that has seen their star rise dramatically over the past decade sounds insipid and uninvolving from the stage. Saving total ignominy the four musicians delivered all 13 tracks songs professionally and clearly - the softer sound of the band against all others worked far better in the venue's PA system - with enough movement to generate some level of visual interest, in contrast to Jonas Renske who delivers his soulful vocals from behind an almost permanent curtain of curly locks, shutting off any connection with the audience in the process. I get that this is his style, but when the songs are failing to wake up the crowd a frontman willing to connect with the audience is always the next best thing. Thinking to myself during the set how puzzled I would be at this fare had I no prior knowledge of Katatonia, they remain one of the rare instances where given the choice of listening to a whole album live or on record, it would be the latter I choose every time.


Cult of Luna

As a leading light of a sound untidily labelled any of atmospheric sludge, progressive metal and post-hardcore, Swedes Cult of Luna deserved their place at the top tier of the Damnation roster. Despite knowing "Eternal Kingdom" with quite a degree of assurance I remain fairly oblivious to the band's other recordings on this first opportunity to see them live, with first impressions being one of wonder at the unique line-up of the band onstage. Two drummers, three guitars, bassist and sampler/synth/brass player make for a heavy, crashing, anarchic sound that is not easily distinguishable from one song to the next, notably so for a band with long songs and little crowd banter, but the benefit of this style is how easy it is to get lost in the soundscape pursued by the band.

With such a mass of members on stage I did expect CoL to be more manic on stage - I have seen footage of the likes of Dillinger Escape Plan live to know what their whirlwind of energy looks like - as the seven-piece played within themselves, offering salutary headbanging and a little movement here and there but nothing bands of a similar style can't top. Still, for absorbing performances this was the best of the lot I saw on the day - "Ghost Trail" was an immensely deep listen while the three tracks aired from last year's "Vertikal" ("Disharmonia", "I: The Weapon", "In Awe Of") offered grace and power within the frameworks of each. I'm not sure if there was ever a moment when I could pick all the instruments out in the sound but that felt beside the point - there was sheer volume to get lost in.


Carcass were every inch the perfect band for the Damnation headlining slot - local, legendary and in town with a superb new album under their belt, "Surgical Steel". I doubt anyone could have expected their first album in 17 years to be such a stormer but with tracks from this, their classic old material and the dry wit of Jeff Walker on a day when the archetype frontman had all but disappeared there was as much chance of this performance failing as their next album containing a duet with Miley Cyrus.

In many respects it was business as usual - Bill Steer is one of extreme metal's most inventive guitarists, new guitarist Ben Ash has fitted in brilliantly having taken over a number of solos as his own and ably holding the rhythm as Steer does his thing, new drummer Dan Wilding keeps apace (a fact Walker was keen to commend him for in introducing the band members) without sounding overly-triggered, and on bass/vocals Jeff Walker gurgles medical doctrine and northern charm like the experienced band leader that he is. When he twice forgot the next song to be played - in both instances introducing a classic "Necroticism" cut before being reminded of the correct song to be played - one can only see the funny side and enjoy the relaxed nature of the band. For what it's worth, the new songs played - "" - sound heavier than on record and don't necessitate a trip to the bar that can so often be the case when an old band decides to plug its new material, however it is still the choice cuts of "Corporal Jigsore Quandry", "Heartwork" and "Incarnated Solvent Abuse" that, as overplayed as they might be, still generate the biggest reception from the packed Jägermeister room. Blessed with good sound and fate on their side, Carcass' first return to the Damnation stage in 5 years only further confirmed their vitality and current strength, fittingly closing the day on a high after a number of near misses earlier.


So what to make of it? A number of the performances I witnessed left me with a sense of disappointment, a fault as much levelled at the bands as the sound quality on the smaller stages. I would have liked to investigate a few more bands but space limitations (and not forgetting the maze of corridors) make it somewhat difficult to jump from room to room at will, but as an event Damnation remains Britain's biggest indoor metal festival, offering an unhealthy alternative to the tedium of lengthening autumn nights all in the comfortable confines of a university setting equipped to cater for every need. With that thought in mind I have to ask: see you there next year???

All photos taken by Teodora Dani. Much more available at the link.

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