The main Jagermeister stage – headlined by Carcass and supported by the most amazing array of metal talent, including Katatonia and God Seed. The extreme Terrorizer stage, where I witnessed what happens when black metal meets folk and traditional instruments, as embodied in the strange and quite wonderful world of Negura Bunget. The Eyesore Merch stage where the soundscapes of post-metal ruled supreme, and my personal favourite of the stages. For this one you had to go downstairs, and as you entered it was almost pitch black, with the lights on the stage burning a little in the distance. Incredibly atmospheric, in a nicely gothic way.…. and the doom and sludge cavern that was the Electric Amphetamine stage, which sadly I only got to visit briefly once. Reflecting that with four stages you can’t see everything, and that my metal muse probably took me more towards the other stages.
Like the Bloodstock Festival, Damnation is the gathering place for real metal heads prepared to take risks with the music they love, and be open to a range of genres and styles. Damnation though adds something special of its own into the mix, by giving a theme to a number of the stages around a particular metal genre or movement. The first band I caught were the Polish post-metallers Tides From Nebula on the Eyesore Merch stage. This instrumental four piece played the most beautiful, melodic and shimmering sounds with a hard-edged metal underpinning. Bathed often in icy blue stage lighting, they had a packed audience transfixed, for the whole of their set. This band is also very high energy, no distant aloof playing here. Bass player Przemek Węgłowsk violently swinging his instrument around the stage, and one of the guitarists jumping off the stage and playing the last number from within the audience. Sublime!
Year Of No Light from France who followed on the Eyesore Merch stage were recommended to me by my son Keiran, and they were well worth the recommendation. Despite technical problems that delayed their set starting, they took my breath away with such an intensity of sound, fired up by a three-guitar and bass front line, and two-drummer earthquake at the back. Again instrumental in approach, and building expansive landscapes of sound, but driven by some very hypnotic rhythms. Year Of No Light and Tides From Nebula are at the forefront of the whole post-metal scene. It’s to my mind post-modernist in conceptual terms, in that it is seeking out new and radical forms of expression for metal music. The Damnation festival is to be applauded for featuring this challenging new music so heavily. It was then a dash from the Eyesore Merch stage to the pressroom to interview Per from Katatonia (see the interviews section of Mudkiss). I have to say the pressroom was set up brilliantly to provide a fantastic relaxed and social setting for interviews.
Realising that God Seed were half way through their signing, it was another dash to the area adjoining the Jagermeister stage, to see these icons of black metal in the flesh and to get some festival programmes signed for my sons. There was a real wow moment as I said to the legendry Gaahl how much I was looking forward to their set. He fixed me with a steely but gentle look and said, “I hope you won’t be disappointed…”. I was both taken with his gentleness and a little afraid of the steeliness in his eyes. I daren’t not enjoy I thought!!
The first band I saw on the magnificent Jagermeister stage was SSS. They are absolutely full on thrash and punk. Lead singer Foxy had “siege” printed on his t-shirt and their awesome musical assault did just that, putting the audience under siege with no mercy given. From the stage they reminded us that there were 6 bands from Liverpool, including of course headliners Carcass, playing at the festival. It reminds you that the showcasing of homegrown and international metal talent is a real marker of the Damnation festival.
Onto the Terrorizer stage, where I experienced a complete revelation, in the form of Negura Bunget from Romania. Flutes and wooden percussion hit with mallets together with keyboards, colliding with the chill of black metal. A bog type mist rising from the stage and blue and green strobes raking the audience, created the most atmospheric of settings. A favourite moment was one of the guitarist/vocalists addressing the audience like some congregation from hell, then the band launching into another black metal folk dirge. Just wonderful! ….and then it was God Seed on the Jagermeister stage. Nothing can prepare you for the thrilling mix of blast beats, tight time changes, dynamic guitar work… and of course leader Gaahl with his foreboding and chilling presence. Gaahl speaks not a word to the audience, he doesn’t need too, his music and presence speaks for him. Over half way through the set he let out a scream like someone going down to hell. It hurt my ears it was so piercing. The final number ended with an amazing repeating guitar refrain and a gothic sounding choir sample. Though it was black metal there were also, dare I say it, some lovely melodic touches throughout the set.
God Seed literally conquered Damnation and the surrender was sweet. Then it was back down into the darkness for Cult Of Luna on Eyesore Merch stage. They sounded on fine form, but it was unsurprisingly so packed this time, that unfortunately I couldn’t really see the band. Just timing I guess. Next my personal highlight of the festival, Sweden’s finest metal export, Katatonia. For this I was right on the crush barrier right at the front of the stage. On the crush barrier I had an interesting philosophical discussion with a guy from London about the experience of metal live. For my metal head comrade, metal fans fall into a dream and escape from reality into a sort of unfulfilled future. I don’t think that’s right, well at least not for me…I feel completely in the moment, in touch with who I am, and connected with the people around me in a sort of unconditional way. Its what I like to think of as the connective psychology of the moshpit. Interesting discussions you get into on the crush barrier, and It could only happen at a festival like Damnation, it just has that vibe.
For this show, as with the tour they are currently on with Paradise Lost and Lacuna Coil, Katatonia are playing their classic “Viva Emptiness” album on its tenth anniversary, in its entirety. “Viva Emptiness” captures so well both their heavy and melancholic/doom configurations. Bathed in pale blues and greens on the stage they took us on an emotional rollercoaster. "Evidence" was an early fabulous highlight, with its poignant lines “A promise from the heart. If we part, my pulse will guide you through” and a lovely guitar middle section. Near the end Jonas Renkse lead singer, and with guitarist Anders Nyström the songwriting core of the group, asked the audience "Are you still enjoying yourselves? Have you had plenty to drink? It's important". Given the downbeat emotions that characterise a lot of their music, this little bit of humour felt strangely touching. The final number “Ghost of the Sun” saw the crowd singing back at the band the bitter line from the song “ I trusted you, you lied. It's all I hear a f**king lie “. Then it was over, and Jonas thanked UK audiences for the way they have supported the band.
So Damnation had to come to an end, and what worthy headliners we had in Carcass. The beginning of the first number saw four crowd surfers almost immediately go over the crush barrier. “Cadaver Pouch Conveyor System” and “Captive Bolt Pistol” from the new album “Surgical Steel” were particularly immense in their execution live, with some very fluid guitar soloing on “Cadaver Pouch Conveyor System”. Jeff Walker during the set asked of the audience about the new album “How many of you downloaded it?” followed by a big cheer, and then “How many of you bought it?” followed by an even bigger cheer (including yours truly), to which he responded “You don't know how happy that will make nuclear blast records they f**king paid for it”. Heavy metal, don’t you just love the attitude!! The blast beats held by drummer Daniel Wilding were completely astonishing; and a measure of the band is that they brought on former founding member and drummer Ken Owen to play a drum solo. Ken for health reasons has not been part of this new Carcass renaissance, and it felt particularly touching that the band honoured one of their fallen in this way. Near the end of the set Jeff urged us to “Give yourself a round of applause you've survived ten hours of black and death metal”.
In the metal world “survive” seems a particularly apt word. The intensity and immersive qualities of the music means that an album, live show or festival has the quality of a wonderful journey, that you feel good to have experienced and survived. This was my first Damnation Festival and will be an experience I will never forget. The festival well deserves its high reputation with metal audiences.
Review and photos by Gareth Allen