Festival Review: Damnation Festival (2nd November 2019)

At the stroke of mid-day on the “day of the dead”, the doors of Leeds Student Union were flung open to the hordes of metal fans that travelled, some from very far away, to witness a stacked lineup of some of the best metal bands on the touring circuit at the moment.

The Infernal Sea (c) Ya Cheng

Kicking things off at the early hour of 1pm on the Tone Management stage, Godeater it seemed were determined to wake everyone that was there up within 30 seconds of playing the first note. With a massive wall of sound and strobe lights more powerful than a lighthouse beacon, the Glasgow boys left an extremely high bar for the following act to try and beat. Over on the Eyesore Merch stage by the entrance, midlands based doomers Alunah brought their tasty grooves to a surprisingly busy crowd full of people highly enjoying them. With vocalist Sian’s now-trademark voice sitting perfectly atop the groove train, it’s safe to say the band earned a few new fans after their performance.

Opening up the Main stage, Raging Speedhorn brought their no-nonsense take on metal to a crowd that was more than up for having some fun. Sporting new vocalist Dan Cook, the quintet did what they do best and promptly levelled the place and again set a very high bar for the next act to beat. Over on the Cult Never Die stage, The Infernal Sea opened proceedings with their blackened riffs proving a great hit with the busy room of people either nodding or headbanging along to each note. Blood Red Throne continued over on the Tone Management stage by resuming the death metal trend set earlier by Godeater with a busy room of people clearly enjoying themselves.

Lord Dying carried on the festivities over on the Eyesore stage with a sound that proved to be a great hit with the now even more extensive crowd that had gathered in the room. Despite guitarist and vocalist Erik’s guitar strap coming off, he continued to play and soldiered on like he barely noticed it. The main stage then gained a massive increase in the audience with the impending arrival of Poland’s finest black metal export in recent years. Simply walking on stage and launching straight into “Exercises in Futility I”, Mgła put the music above everything else and had some of the loudest cheers of the day despite barely acknowledging the audience. Taking a completely different approach and slowing things down a tad, Jo Quail brought her cello based music to the Eyesore stage which had become “one in one out” due to how busy it was. With some special guests from The Vintage Caravan joining in the latter half of the set, Jo’s music provided the perfect contrast and break from metal which it seemed many were seeking.

Opeth (c) Ya Cheng

Continuing the Tone Management party, Inter Arma it seemed had got the message about slowing things down but had decided to add 80,000 tonnes of metal to it as well. With a sound that could give Sunn O))) a run for their money, the Richmond, Virginia quintet resonated with the crowd that was there, resulting in some very loud cheers after each song. After a changeover, Primordial maintained the main stage party by doing what they do best and proved to be very popular with the crowd that was there. Voices continued the festivities on the Cult Never Dies stage with their black metal sound proving perfect for the small basement room. A Pale Horse Named Death were next up on Eyesore stage on the other side of the venue, and had one of the best sounds of the day, despite having three guitars and a bass on stage. With another incredibly busy room, the audience made the band highly appreciated with some exceptionally loud cheers going up at points.

Birds In Row continued the seemingly never-ending party on the Tone Management stage with a suitably high energy set shaking off any early onset of tiredness that might have been setting in. Slowing things down a tad and packing out the main stage once again, Alcest brought their signature blackgaze sound, with the audience gathered after a slight delay due to an overrunning soundcheck. For those not wanting to enjoy the French quartet’s epic soundscapes, Mork supplied more of a traditional black metal sound to the Cult Never Die stage which, as had become common on the day, was very busy.

Continuing the black metal related party, Ghaals Wyrd brought another different take on the genre to the Tone Management stage complete with a room that was eager to hear what the legendary musician had been working on. Dark, mysterious and unlike what had appeared before, the audience that was present once again lapped up the performance. One the other side of the Union and the other side of the metal spectrum, The Vintage Caravan didn’t seem dissuaded by the fact a legend of the scene was playing on another stage. On the contrary, the Icelandic trio gave what could be considered one of the best performances of the day with their high energy music proving a hit with the audience gathered at the Eyesore stage.

When it comes to black metal, few bands can claim to have had as much an impact as Mayhem have. Spurred on by the release of their latest album Daemon the legends took to the main stage only to be plagued by exceptionally poor sound at the start. Whilst this was rectified later in the set, a number of the crowd that had gathered decided to take a small break before a rather special performance descended on the Tone Management stage. Opening with a cello performance from Jo Quail, Venom Prison wasted no time in bringing their destructive brand of death metal to an absolutely rammed room full of eager headbangers. Mixing in songs from latest release Samsara and selected cuts from across their back catalogue, the band wasted no time in tearing the room apart and showing beyond any doubt that they were more than worthy to headline the stage. Ending the party on the Eyesore stage, Big Business proved that they were indeed ‘big business’ with a massive wall of sound being generated by just two people and an audience which seemed determined to raise the roof with every cheer.

Raging Speedhorn (c) Ya Cheng

Rounding out the main stage, headliners Opeth in earlier years might have been considered an ideal fit for the festival with albums such as Blackwater Park and Ghost Reveries under their belt. These days however, with their new prog direction, in many ways they kind of feel a touch out of place. Those feelings are put to rest however with the unveiling of “The Leper Affinity” and “Deliverance” going down an absolute storm with the equally packed room. Undeterred by the draw of the Swedish legends and ending the Cult Never Dies party, New York’s Imperial Triumphant bring one of the most intriguing sets to the festival with their unmatchable mix of avant-garde and metal proving an excellent hit with the packed room. Coupled with their unique stage attire and backing track of “banter” in between songs, the band proved to be an excellent end to this stage’s festivities. Rounding out the festival, the final act of the day GosT was officially there to lead the after party but it seemed as though no-one told him he was doing that and not headlining the festival. Commanding the stage to a backdrop of electronic music meshed with metal elements, the audience members left were clearly in party mode with many looking to be having the time of their lives.

As the last notes of GosT’s set rang out in the ears of those leaving the venue, the departing hordes were in good spirits and conversing amongst one another as to who they thought was best and who might be playing next year. Whether it was their first time (as it was for a good number) or their tenth time, one thing was clear from the conversations. The experience of Damnation Festival is unrivalled and can be considered one of the best small festivals out there. There’s just a few too many stairs though!

Photos by Ya Cheng Photography.

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