Damnation 2017 at University Union, Leeds - live review

Bloodbath, Myrkur and Grave Pleasures light up Leeds

Art for Damnation 2017 live at University Union, Leeds

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Thirteen must be an auspicious number for Damnation: that many years in, not only is it still a high point on the UK festival scene, but it’s sold out this year, too, its combination of established noisemakers and experimental upstarts a hit with the discerning metalhead.

Opening proceedings on the main Jägermeister stage, there’s an intuitive quality to PALLBEARER’s [9] feelgood melancholy that justifies their rapid ascension. Opening with Worlds Apart, they decimate, equal parts classic metal righteousness and aching despair. Peddling filth-encrusted DM, Belgium’s LENG TCH’E [8] are a force of nature. Downtuned and deadly grind rips the basement apart as vocalist Serge calls for the pit to open, provoking numerous flailing limbs. Also furiously working a warped bottom end, and featuring members of Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride, VALLENFYRE’s [8] primivitism comes with a hefty pedigree. Burrowing old-school death metal grooves are coated with a sheaf of livid, baleful riffs and Gregor Mackintosh’s acidic wit as songs like Kill Your Masters combine bowel-scraping disgust and punchdrunk joy that fills an enthralled second stage. Meanwhile, the stoner-blues soaked stomp of PSYCHEDELIC WITHCRAFT [7] proves intoxicating. The Italians stir souls as the evocative strains of Turn Me On takes this room on an immersive journey.

After a (false) fire alarm, ceremonies proceed with the singular MYRKUR [9], whose enigmatic vocal potency draws reverence. Her elemental folk rouses spirits and agitates them with intense BM; sensuous, emotive, and terrifying. Free from interruption, but not from a PA that’s unconcerned with nuance, BEYOND CREATION [7] do their best to add new dimensions to the tech-death template, but do manage to reveal some delirium-inducing grooves, like peaks jutting through the clouds. DRAGGED INTO SUNLIGHT [8] are cast in red-glare silhouette on a dark stage, a grandiose candelabra resembling Hell’s gate, as a throng of sinners clamour to suffer the enigmatic torture of their slow build, feral-release black metal. With their fusion of Melvins punk meets Mastodon, dextrous duo BIG BUSINESS [7] conjure up the sound of a thousand guitars, packing in fuzz-heavy bass riffs among rumbling flurries of drums. As the brainchild of Ginger Wildheart, you’d expect deranged genius on stage. Sadly MUTATION’s [6] final UK show is tested by a muddied mix and their balls-to-the-wall lunacy is lost. A temporarily revived WARNING [8] bring their devastating Watching from a Distance album back to… if not life then a vast, simmering purgatory. Their enervated, eked-out riffs collect as if trundling towards an emotional terminus, and the main hall seems paralysed in wonder. Nice to see Pallbearer paying respects to frontman Patrick Walker afterward, too.

As you may expect, there’s zero fucking about when NAILS [9] take to a rammed second stage amidst omnipresent feedback, the weight of expectation after they cancelled shows last year exploding in one short, savage outburst after another. It’s impossible not to be moved by AGENT FRESCO [9]. Searing leads and overwhelming levels of euphoria grip the masses – the emotional poignancy of Wait For Me provokes surreptitious eye-wiping. Boasting ethereal tones and ornate textures, THE GREAT DISCORD [6] are a phenomenal band let down by a terrible sound that renders Fia’s lush vocals inaudible.

Emerging to chants of “Yorkshire!”, homeland heroes PARADISE LOST [8] do what they do best on the main stage, Nick Holmes’ soul-shearing howl cutting through the foreboding leads of their gothically elegiac doom, their status as beloved stalwarts ever undiminished. LEPROUS’s [9] prog power is nothing short of revelatory, their synth-layered, intricately emphatic compositions propelled by a permanent sense of urgency. Classical grace sweeps their futurism, backed by a cellist and vocalist Einar Solberg’s note-perfect falsetto. They are the sound of tomorrow. Less forward thinking, but still unstoppable, DYING FETUS [7] are like a motor pumping away deep in the death metal pits – unflashy for all their technical acumen but an integral component that helps hold the whole edifice together, and the second stage is bound in headbanging testimony. Thankfully, the curse of the Tone stage lifts for PSYCROPTIC [8], whose tech-death virtually levels Damnation during a set brimming with feral malevolence.

What better than some classic Teutonic thrash when the beer is flowing, delivered at the tip of SODOM’s [7] rusty blade? The hoary trio stick to crowd-pleasing cuts, ensuring a rabidly goodnatured maelstrom. NORDIC GIANTS [9] stun fans old and new with exponential levels of cinematic splendour and a captivating spoken-word finale. This is no longer a performance, it’s an event. Also exhilarating, if on the far side of the underground spectrum, AGORAPHOBIC NOSEBLEED’s [8] rare live appearance is a still-exhilarating reminder of the wave of avant-grind that hit the early 00s, Pig Destroyer vocalist Scot Hull and Kat Katz taking turns to harangue the crowd amid stop-start dynamics that feels like tectonic plates breaking apart around you.

GRAVE PLEASURES [8] have the unenviable task of going up against Bloodbath over on the main stage, but the turbocharged Finns are on tooth-rattling form, serving up addictive measures of post-punk deathrock swagger. BLOODBATH [8] themselves might be topping Damnation due more to their supergroup status than a back catalogue of classics, but their mastery of death metal’s DNA makes for a suitably celebratory finale. Switched from ghoulish cowl to bloodstained cassock, Nick Holmes is clearly enjoying himself, his abyssal croak ripping through a palpitating Breeding Death and a Mock The Cross that adds a more Floridian bent to the Swedish-style pounding, ensuring Damnation drills down once more to metal’s marrow, where riches abound.