Festival Review: Damnation Festival 2018 (3rd November 2018)

Another year, another sold-out Damnation Festival. The Leeds University Union based all-dayer manages to appeal to a broad-ranging crowd with some of the best acts belonging to various sub-genres booked to play. Amazingly, even with a mid-afternoon fire alarm evacuation, everything ran extremely well and pretty much on time. From a fan’s point of view, Damnation 2018 was a roaring success, everyone involved should be proud to have been part of a joyous day of riffs, pits, beers and pasties.

The Ocean (c) Ya Cheng

Feeling a bit fuzzy following Friday night’s pre-show gig at Temple of Boom (at which Haar, Wolfbastard and Bong Cauldron were all great) I was thankful that entry to the venue was straightforward and that I had plenty of time for a coffee before the day’s festivities kicked off.

First up were Leeched, and with a queue snaking as far as I could see waiting for the stage doors to open, the floor filled quickly for the fledgling hardcore trio. I say trio, but today Leeched are bolstered by Joe Clayton of Pijn (who produced Leeched’s potent debut LP, You Took The Sun When You Left) joining in on second guitar, and they definitely benefit from the more filled out sound. It may have been the pressures of being the first band on, but I was expecting a much more explosive and energetic display from a band as musically aggressive as Leeched. Intense-looking drummer Tom Hansell and Joe Clayton both brought much-needed vigour to a decent but slightly listless set. There’s definite potential there and the songs are strong so hopefully Leeched can build upon this.

An early highlight, everything seemed to fall in place for a barnstorming performance from local post-metallers Hundred Year Old Man. The sextet were given a clash-free spot and subsequently packed the Cult Never Dies room to the brim; people not there sharp enough had to miss out on an assured and intense show. HYOM created a mesmerising atmosphere by utilising minimal, hued backlighting and dense stage smoke to go along with their enthralling synth-backed post-metal. Drawing from this year’s excellent Breaching, the guitars and impactful rhythm section steadily built tension during both “The Forest” and “Black Fire”, exploding in crushing climaxes. Many of those lucky enough to get into the room for HYOM left pretty much speechless, jaws agape at the emotive and fierce display.

Over on the Tone stage, the recently reformed Fukpig also filled the room and prompted the day’s first notable pit action. Having taken a moment to recover from HYOM, I wasn’t able to find a decent vantage point for the masked madmen, but what I was able to see and hear was great fun. Fukpig Ver. 2.0 stalked the stage, powering through their violent set of politically charged tunes and drew an appreciative reaction from the baying crowd.

Møl (c) Ya Cheng

In what would become a common theme for much of the day, I don’t think another body could’ve fit in the room for blackened shoegaze act Møl’s fabulous set. Losing sound from the bass and a guitar during the closing section of opening song “Storm” didn’t seem to faze the Danish quintet as they quickly got back to it with gusto. The ever-engaging Kim Song drew the crowd’s undivided attention with an electric performance, at times approaching the barrier and causing a throng of people to push forward and engaging with the audience during “Vakuum” by singling out individuals near the front and screeching like a maniac directly into their faces. Bleakly ethereal guitar melodies soared above the rhythm section and drowned out the sound of a fire alarm until a member of security tries to hurry those of us near the back of the room out of the building. I could still hear the thud of the drums for another song as the growing crowd lingered outside the building but Møl’s set is then cut short for everyone.

Starting slightly late due to the fire alarm, post-prog-doom band OHHMS were not to be put off at all, none more so than free-range bassist Chainy. Upon playing his first note he dived straight over the barrier into the crowd (to the bewilderment of the security) and stayed there until having to return to the stage to hit a setting on his pedal board. The fervent five-piece from Canterbury sounded suitably massive on the Eyesore Merch stage – this room was definitely the best sounding of the weekend – as they blasted through the near 25 minutes of “Subjects”, from their incredible new album Exist, with utter aplomb. A devastating doom-opera with multiple distinct sections “Subjects” is a song that ebbs and flows, and sees OHHMS adeptly switch tempos and temperament throughout. From quiet melodies and gentle, finger-tapped bass lines to big fuzzy riffs and intricate drumming, all providing a solid base for energetic vocalist Paul Waller to bellow out his vitriolic but cogent poetry on animal testing. Such an epic song must be difficult to follow but OHHMS launched right away into the powerful “The Anchor”. The animated quintet ended their set with the crowd singing “Sail on!” as the huge climactic riff saw the close of another of the day’s highlights.

Ne Obliviscaris (c) Ya Cheng

Rosetta are one of those bands that, although perfectly fine on record, really benefit from a live setting and come into their own. The only other time I have had the pleasure of seeing Rosetta was at Damnation five years ago so I was very grateful for the chance to catch their post-metal/post-hardcore again. The high pitched guitar interplay cut above the thundering drums and rumbling bass as singer Mike Armine’s humble, interactive nature commanded complete silence and fond admiration from the crowd. This was especially evident, and noted by the band, during the introduction to the crushing final song. Another band that profit from the energy and impact of a gig are France’s Celeste and word had it that the container carrying their guitars over from France didn’t arrive with them at the airport and that they had to make use of HYOM’s gear. Luckily for Celeste and for the crowd, their effects pedals, and their customary red head-torches and punishing strobe lights all arrived safe and sound so the quartet were still able to treat the Tone crowd to their unique stage lighting and an intensely gruelling wall of harsh blackened noise. Celeste may tend to get a bit samey, but when their music is so consistently powerful and incendiary that matters not a jot.

Old hands at this metal malarkey, Entombed AD and Ihsahn both played the main stage in two entirely different approaches and styles – Entombed AD were loose and dirty sounding, moving about the stage half-cut; Ihsahn were all clean, clinical and bathed in cold lighting. Both were certainly decent enough. Entombed AD ripped through a “best of” set, picking a few highlights from their good albums, and had the early evening crowd in a suitably belligerent state. Ihsahn played a bit too much of their recent works for my personal liking, but seeing the After double of “Frozen Lakes On Mars” and “A Grave Inversed” in the latter half of the set was probably worth the wait.

Anaal Nathrakh (c) Ya Cheng

Deciding to take advantage of the Eyesore Merch balcony for The Ocean’s stage headlining set really paid off – their sound was the best of the day, which meant I was able to easily pick out each musician’s contribution to the complex and layered music. The vantage point also meant I was able to fully take in the passion and energy of all of the band as they moved around the stage, and in the case of singer Loïc Rossetti, over the crowd. I was worried that the atmosphere would be lost slightly but that really wasn’t the case as The Ocean presented a spellbinding, jubilant and epic performance. Lifting half of their hour-plus set from their newest album Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic, which was released the day before Damnation, The Ocean were on merciless and triumphant form. The newer songs perfectly bridged the gap in style between the heavy, primeval Precambrian-era work and the later, more restrained post-metal material. The explosive second half of The Ocean’s night saw Mike Armine from Rosetta join in the fun for a stirring rendition of “Orosirian: For the Great Blue Cold Now Reigns” before the final flourish of their new album’s closing track “Permian: The Great Dying”. This was a marvellous headline performance

The choice between the two headliners was an obvious one; Ghost Bath’s run-of-the-mill black metal, or Napalm Death. Not a band that I’m overly familiar with – I know the ‘hits’ and own two albums – I’ve seen Napalm Death previously and know that they always give it their all and put on a thoroughly enjoyable show. Their headlining set at Damnation was no different – the battle-hardened quartet flew through their trademark grindcore with glee. Barney Greenway was in particularly great form as he jogged (and nodded enthusiastically) laps of the stage roaring, and then during the short breaks between their short songs, entertained the crowd with his politically-fused and funny chats. With such an expansive back catalogue, Napalm Death touched on each era of their extreme metal and threw in a couple of covers, including an obligatory but rousing “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”. Napalm Death were a great choice of headliners for another brilliant day of Damnation.

Photos by Ya Cheng Photography

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