LIVE: Damnation Fest @ Leeds University Student’s Union

By Liam Knowles

It’s November, the days are getting shorter, and the cold weather is starting to creep in. You know what that means? Goth Christmas, AKA Damnation Festival! Every year the death knell of the festival season is sounded by this spectacularly bleak event, which sees the best and brightest names in extreme music from all corners of the world converge on Leeds for a single, intense, booze-fuelled blastbeat of a day. As usual there’s an extremely strong and diverse lineup, with something for all tastes – as long as your taste is fucking ‘orrible.

The daunting task of being the opening act falls to Manchester outfit Leeched, who do a magnificent job of waking everyone up with their mixture of blackened hardcore and noisy, industrial grind. This band only formed last year, and were originally a trio, but today they come packing an additional guitarist in the form of Joe Clayton from rising post-metal stars Pijn. This ramps up their already full, tight sound into something utterly devastating, and allows Leeched to set the bar absurdly high for the rest of the day.

Another fairly new band with a lot of hype behind them is Hundred Year Old Man, who easily pack out the smallest stage early in the day, leading to several people being turned away from their set. Their Neurosis-meets-Cult Of Luna brand of epic, sweeping post-metal washes over the capacity crowd as they interlace crushing riffs and driving rhythms with sparse instrumentals and unsettling samples. Vocalist David Duxbury is a relatively fresh addition to the Leeds sextet, but his confident, unwavering delivery perfectly complements the well-oiled cacophony behind him.

As Hundred Year Old Man leave the stage, the room remains full as people wait for Møl, who are arguably one of the most anticipated acts of the day. These Danish lads released their debut full length ‘Jord’ earlier this year via Holy Roar Records, and the stunning combination of harrowing black metal and ethereal post-rock has found them lauded by critics and punters alike. Despite some brief technical issues at the start, and their set having to end a song early due to a fire alarm, Møl still manage to deliver a performance that is nothing short of breathtaking. The pulsing rhythms of tracks like ‘Storm’ and ‘Bruma’ leave the crowd feeling positively weightless, whilst the snarling rage of ‘Ligament’ allows intimidating vocalist Kim Song Sternkopf to exorcise his demons with a truly tortured performance.

Over on the third stage, Philadelphia natives Rosetta deliver another solid slab of ambitious post-metal to an eager crowd. They’re on surprisingly early for a band that has been around since the early 00’s, but that doesn’t take anything away from the impact of their overwhelming sound. Another band who have been doing the rounds for years is Anaal Nathrakh, and while their relentless, pummelling performance ignites some of the biggest moshpits of the day, the famously patchy sound in the main hall robs them of a lot of the force they would usually have in abundance.

One act definitely not lacking in force is Celeste, who pump the second stage room full of smoke before taking their positions. Each member is wearing a red head-mounted lantern, which might sound a bit silly, but when combined with the smoke and the unyielding, hypnotic sludge that they peddle, it becomes a full sensory experience like nothing else. Imagine being a civilian in War Of The Worlds, desperately trying to escape your doom at the hands of murderous alien robots, knowing that as soon as you see that red flash you’re pretty much done for. Now imagine that combined with catastrophic riffs being played at ear-splitting volumes, and you’ll be somewhere close to getting your head round this one-of-a-kind band. The bar was set high early in the day, but Celeste may well have delivered the set of the day. After that monolithic performance, the next couple of bands were bound to fall a bit flat, and unfortunately this is the case for both Entombed AD and then Ihsahn over on the main stage. Both bands play well to enthusiastic crowds, but suffer the same issue as Anaal Nathrakh; you could spend so long looking for a sweet spot with good sound in that room that you end up missing the bands.

Whilst there’s no doubt that grindcore pioneers Napalm Death played a juggernaut of a set that ground the audience to dust on the main stage, the last band of the day for this reviewer is The Ocean, and what a band they are. The German ambient metal quintet have been a driving force in progressive heavy music for the best part of two decades, and today prove why they couldn’t be more deserving of their headline spot. Their sprawling, multi-faceted creations are delivered with pin-point accuracy; a lot of post-metal bands can get away with being a little sloppy as the sheer volume can mask this, but it’s worth noting how impossibly tight The Ocean are with such a rich, fluid sound. Vocalist Loïc Rosetti switches effortlessly between deafening growls and elevated cleans, his voice perfectly balanced in the mix amongst the swirling textures of the music. The majority of the set is made up of tracks from this year’s excellent ‘Phanerozoic’ album, but the fact that their fans haven’t had much time to familiarise themselves with the new material doesn’t take anything away from the intensity of the performance.

As The Ocean close on ‘Permian: The Great Dying’, the beleaguered crowd pour out; half into the fresh Yorkshire air to try and get their heads back on straight, the other half into the main hall to be punished by Napalm Death as they haven’t quite had enough. Technical issues notwithstanding, the organisers of Damnation Fest can hold their heads up high, knowing that yet again they’ve delivered an incredible event that is sure to keep lovers of all things extreme making the pilgrimage to Leeds for years to come. Apparently they’ve already booked their 2019 headliner, and if the last few years’ lineups are anything to go by then it’s bound to be someone out of this world. Now, does anyone know a good cure for headbanger’s neck?