LIVE: Damnation Festival 2015 @ Leeds University Union

By James Lee

For a decade now, Damnation Festival has been pulling in all manner of denim-jacketed heathens from around the world to witness the finest extreme music experience our fair isle has to offer. The festival organisers’ ability to pull together jaw dropping lineups has been almost unmatched since the first event screamed out of the gates of Hades back in 2005, with only the relatively new Temples Festival in Bristol coming anywhere close in the headbang-for-your-buck stakes.

This year’s assembly of noisemakers marks one of the strongest Damnation has been able to assemble yet, running the gamut from classic death metal to haunting post-rock, raging hardcore via blistering black metal. There really was something for every hesher to enjoy, maybe even too much. It was always going to be impossible to see every band set to appear on one of the four stages dotted around Leeds University’s huge, labyrinthine Students’ Union building. With that in mind, we scoured the stage-splits, made our choices and lurched off in the direction of the day’s first offerings. After stopping by one of the multitude of shockingly reasonably-priced bars for ‘refreshments’ first, of course.

Stepping into the basement-dwelling Terrorizer stage, our faces were instantly relieved of a layer or two of skin as the ice-cold black metal of Wiegedood blasted forth from the stage. Formed of current and past members of Oathbreaker, Rise And Fall and Amenra, Wiegedood are something of a Belgian hardcore supergroup, yet their output is far more reminiscent of the kind of sounds you’d usually associate with the snow encrusted forests of Norway. Unrelenting and hypnotic, their vicious blast beats ripped through us like rusted chainsaws. Wiegedood were an early highlight of the day, and though as a band they’re still young, their pedigree and pure talent should have landed them a higher spot on the bill.

Following yet more cold beverages and a cheeseburger that could only just barely have been classified as fit for human consumption, we migrated to the Jagermeister stage (the event’s main arena) for a dose of Oathbreaker’s devastating blend of pummeling hardcore and atmospheric noise. Bathed in cold blue light, frontwoman Caro Tanghe appeared like a ghostly apparition, her anguished screams filling the Union’s refectory hall while her bandmates raged behind her. One of the best bands in Europe right now, the only disappointment to be found in their set was a lack of any new material, the band still pulling equally from 2011’s ‘Maelstrom’ and 2013’s ‘Eros|Anteros’. Still, it’s hard to stay mad at a band for sticking with what they know when the result is this stunning.

Continuing to fly the European flag high, ever evolving ‘collective’ and Damnation stalwarts The Ocean were up next, flexing their cerebral post-everything metal muscles with dangerous intent. Currently bolstered by a live cellist and keyboard, the band sounded frighteningly huge. Frontman Loic Rossetti particularly provided an admirably commanding performance, at one point scaling the venue’s balcony only to throw himself into the seething mass below seconds later. Their set focussed on mostly newer, slower material, which meant that the show was a little less energetic overall than the band are capable of. However, the dense and foreboding atmosphere more than made up for it. The Ocean remain one of the most diverse, talented and progressive bands in the world, and even at a slower pace are capable of wiping the floor with their peers.

After massive complaints of overcrowding and fans being unable to get in to see their favourite bands at last year’s event, the Damnation team made the wise choice to undersell the venue by 1,000 tickets this year. This decision really paid off for the vast majority of the day, however upon attempting to head into the Eyesore Merch stage to watch temporarily-reformed post-black-metallers Altar Of Plagues, we were forced into a queue to get into a clearly overcrowded room.

It’s amazing what a couple of years off can do for a band’s popularity, the crowd here ranking among the biggest of the day, even when compared to those of the main stage bands. After finally fighting our way in, we were treated to a grand cacophony of stimulus, the harrowing sheet of noise emanating from the PA only matched by the nightmare of strobes battering our eyeballs. Though Altar Of Plagues sounded spectacular, the overall experience was too much to handle for more than 10 minutes, after which a well-earned breather was taken in order to prepare for the mental and physical ordeal of the next band.

Amenra are at this point almost a cult unto themselves. Spearheading the entire Church Of Ra movement, the band elicit frightening levels of devotion from their fans. The number of Ra patches and tattoos on display throughout the day was near uncountable, and mere moments into the band’s set it was hard not to see why. Shrouded in darkness and fog, the band felt like they were constantly on the brink of invoking some kind of twisted, Lovecraftian nightmare with their dank, harrowing rifs and tortured howls. Borrowing liberally from the Neurosis playbook without ever feeling like a cheap imitation, Amenra’s use of creepy projections only reinforced the stark, isolating vibe dripping from every facet of their muscular post-metal. After more than a decade skulking in the background of the international metal scene, now feels like Amenra’s time to take the forefront. Be afraid.

After shaking off the chill left in our bones by Amenra, a far less terrifying but no less powerful band took to the stage to unleash wave after wave of gnarled riffs upon the crowd. High On Fire were one of the biggest names to grace Damnation this year, and their meat-and-potatoes approach to metal was welcome if not exactly groundbreaking. Though there was very little about the band’s set that initiated any kind of surprise, you can always count on High On Fire to deliver thunderous, groove-laden Motorhead-isms, bellowing roars, and the ever glorious sight of Matt Pike, sweaty and shirtless. When the beers are flowing and you’re looking for a good time, who could really ask for more than that?

Shifting wildly from the general mood of the day, Japanese post-rock gods Mono arrived on the Eyesore Stage to deliver a crushingly beautiful set of fluttering, enrapturing anthems. Though never achieving the mainstream praise of Sigur Ros or the hipster cred of Mogwai, Mono have spent the past 16 years finely tuning their gorgeous instrumental epics into something as potent at tugging the heartstrings as either of their more well known peers. It was a special moment seeing a few thousand metal fans get all glassy eyed at music as grand and pretty as this, the band’s massive guitar swells washing over the room like a tidal wave.

And then, it was time. We won’t waste precious column-inches rehashing the well-worn tale of At The Gates’s rise/fall/rise/fall/rise, because all that matters is that right now, in 2015, they are as real and vital a band as any other on the planet. Stepping onto the Jagermeister stage to a thunderous roar, the band wasted no time launching into their unique brand of killer melodic death metal. Despite everyone in the band having been playing music longer than most people in the venue had even been alive, the excruciating speed and precision of At The Gates’ playing is almost unparallelled by their younger peers, and was an exhilarating experience to behold.

Bouncing between cuts from last year’s triumphant comeback ‘At War With Reality’ and classic anthems from genre-definer ‘Slaughter Of The Soul’, the pace rarely let up, the crowd reacting with suitable mania throughout. There was a real feeling of jubilation during the entire set, every soul in the room sharing in celebrating the rebirth of this incredible band. As the final notes rang out and the house lights came up, it’s hard to believe anyone could have left Leeds that night with an ounce of disappointment. Roll on 2016.


Photo courtesy of Damnation Festival