LIVE: Damnation Festival @ Leeds University Student’s Union

By Liam Knowles

You can always tell when it’s Damnation weekend in Leeds because the streets are positively awash with battle jackets, camo trousers and band shirts with illegible logos. You’d be forgiven for assuming it was an event purely about ‘METAAALLLL’, but actually Damnation is a celebration of all facets of extreme music, and over the past 13 years has been responsible for some of the most eclectic and challenging lineups the UK has ever seen.

The first band up on the Eyesore Merch stage is Sheffield instrumentalist outfit Body Hound. They’d be the first to admit they’re not usual Damnation fare, but their Don Caballero-esque groove-laden math rock has even the most dour-faced mosher in the room grinning and dancing. Over on the Tone Management stage, London post-metal outfit Wren are doing what post-metal bands do best: being crushingly loud. The room is packed to the doors at the back as they hammer out material from recent release ‘Auburn Rule’ with the all the intensity you could ever need. Early in the day, but utterly punishing regardless.

The main stage has a later start time, probably down to the time it will take to load Pallbearer’s ridiculous amount of amps on to the stage. The Arkansas doom-merchants suffer from sound issues at first (the main room at Leeds Uni is notorious for this) but once they find their footing sonically they sound absolutely monolithic. At least, until the fire alarm goes off and the room is evacuated.

Another highlight of the day comes in the form of the mysterious Dragged Into Sunlight. The room is filled with smoke to the point where the shrouded band members are barely visible, with the hammering of a strobe light and an elaborate gothic candelabra at the front of the stage creating an eerie atmosphere to compliment the harrowing blackened cacophony coming from the Terrorizer stage.

A little later on the same stage, Nails deliver what is quite possibly the best set of the festival. After stories start to circulate about an on-stage hissy fit in Glasgow the previous evening, some punters start to prepare for a no-show. This would have been absolutely unforgivable considering the band pulled out of last year’s event to go on a “hiatus” that only lasted a few months. Thankfully the set went off as planned, and if there was making up to do, Nails managed it and then some. The likes of ‘You Will Never Be One Of Us’, ‘Life Is A Death Sentence’ and ‘Violence Is Forever’ cause the crowd to erupt with circle pits and waves of crowd surfers that leave the security looking positively terrified. Notoriously serious frontman Todd Jones even cracks a few smiles and laughs off a mid-set topple into the drum riser. Everyone in the room, both on stage and off, is having the best damn time.

After a fairly relentless day, Norwegian prog-djent troupe Leprous are a welcome change of pace. Their sound is so crisp and perfect you could hear a pin drop in the stops, and the multi-layered vocal harmonies are absolutely flawless. The band opens with the first two tracks from this year’s ‘Malina’, which sit perfectly among the older material such as ‘Illuminate’ and ‘The Flood’. The faultless musicianship, combined with fantastic stage presence and stunning visuals, make for one of the surprise highlights at an event that would normally shy away from anything this clinical.

One of, if not THE most, anticipated band of the day is Agoraphobic Nosebleed, who are absolutely anything but clinical. The drummerless grindcore veterans have never played the UK before, despite being a band since 1994, and their fans are absolutely ravenous to hear tracks like ‘Bitch’s Handbag Full Of Money’ and ‘Clit To Mouth Resuscitation’. Their song titles may be tongue-in-cheek but there’s nothing funny about their absolutely relentless performance. The intensity is overwhelming as their short, sharp bursts of violence have the security overwhelmed with crowdsurfers. It would be an absolute crime for this to never happen again, but with a reaction like that Agoraphobic Nosebleed are likely already planning their next trip.

Closing out the day (for this particular weary traveller, at least) is Nordic Giants. Like Leprous, they’re offering a much lighter experience than most of the lineup, but they’re plenty intense in their own way. This is a band that relies heavily on visuals, so their euphoric post-rock is backlit by videos on every flat surface. The band themselves are cloaked in feathers, and create haunting silhouettes against the backdrop. Most of the set comes from 2017’s sublime ‘Amplify Human Vibration’ and throughout the set it’s clear why they’ve been billed so high up. Epic, haunting and in full control of a palpable atmosphere; Nordic Giants tick every post-rock box and then some.

Damnation Festival has well and truly cemented itself as one of the highlights of the musical calendar. It remains diverse and challenging without crumbling under the weight of its own ambition. It is exceedingly well organised and the atmosphere is so happy and free of pretentiousness, despite the extreme nature of the bands on offer. Similarly sized events across the UK, of all genres, should look to Damnation as an example of how to get it right, and keep it that way.