Celebrating its 11th year, and having recently expanded to four stages, Damnation has become one of the most progressively minded festivals on these shores, illuminating a bond between classic metal acts and sonic voyagers that’s drawn thousands to another sold-out all-dayer.
Opening a festival isn’t easy, though, which may explain why TACOMA NARROWS BRIDGE DISASTER  are so horribly out of time, robbing their post-metal of any impact. The doomy, death-laden grime of THE KING IS BLIND  hits far harder, and unsurprisingly goes down much better as a result. In the basement, the reliably weird UNDERSMILE  can’t quite create the gloomy atmosphere their dissonant doom aims for, but that’s more the sunlight entering the room and the cheerful chatter of the crowd than the fault of the band themselves. The jagged-edged instrumentals of TALONS  are diverting, but the questionable intonation of the violin playing and the slightly aimless feel may explain the obviously wandering crowd attention.
WIEGEDOOD  start off Amenra-based collective Church Of Ra’s residency at the festival on the second stage, and their cold, harsh soundscapes are shot through with a beauty that affects many bearing witness to their power. On the third stage, OHHMS  are noisy, loud and their low, dirty grooves are punctuated with howls wrenched from the bowels of the Earth. The band are fierce today.
Opening the main stage, SAVAGE MESSIAH  fall way short of their usual thrash standards, lacking verve while Dave Silver’s voice is sounding very stretched. Meanwhile, C.R.O.W.N.  may be a man down, but their heavier-than-God industrial post-metal still packs an enormous punch and provokes many banging heads. VOICES  have issues of their own, as their whole bass rig comes crashing down to the stage halfway through their set, but the London crew don’t let it deter them and their psychosexual black metal proves a winning sound. Belgium’s OATHBREAKER  pack out the main stage and in Caro Tanghe the band have a vocalist who can command a crowd without even looking at them, never mind talk to them. Many new fans are found today. The turgid muck of doomsters SEA BASTARD  doesn’t fare so well. They creating a murky pall in the basement room, but can’t articulate it, and become tiring fast. MAYBESHEWILL  grace Damnation for the final time and the euphoria that accompanies their instrumental wonder is felt keenly throughout the room.
It helps that THE OCEAN  singer Loïc Rossetti goes up to the balcony and dives backwards onto the crowd, but the band are hit and miss tonight, with an atmospheric opening that’s not capitalised on fully throughout the set. Having added a third member to their live lineup, GHOLD  sound more monstrous than ever, but it’s not as exciting as usual, which is a darn shame.
When they played here four years ago, ALTAR OF PLAGUES  were a force of nature, a thunderous, emotive, mesmeric terror. This half-lineup reunion is still great because the songs are amazing – especially Neptune Is Dead, all 20 minutes of it – but the fraught, urgent energy is missing.
The melodic post-metal of Icelandic cowboys SÓLSTAFIR  shoots off on a tangent from much of today’s sets, but the charisma and beauty of their music and performance hold the crowd rapt anyway, not least when frontman Addi surfs above the crowd during a spellbinding Fjara. Provoking more than a few pits on the tight floor of the second venue, ASPHYX  are as gleefully, malevolently fun as you could hope for. “THIS IS TRUE DEATH METAL, YOU BASTARDS!” indeed. AMENRA  are utter perfection tonight and the Church Of Ra leaders are pure catharsis through sound. They are stark, defiant and all too human, but their rites become transcendent and there is a reverence surrounding them afforded to only the very fearless few.
Their stage show may be no more than ‘turn up, play riffs’ but when HIGH ON FIRE  are as crunching and groove-filled as they are tonight, it comes as no surprise that their set goes down splendidly. Dartmoor doom outfit THE WOUNDED KINGS  have regained their power in recent times and the band lull their audience into an opium-laced trip. It’s majestic and a welcome break from the day’s more extreme tones. As emotionally charged and human as ever, PRIMORDIAL  wow their old fans (“Take me to Valhalla now!” one Yorkshireman is heard saying happily after Babel’s Tower) and recruit a new legion with a stunning set that makes up for the lack of Coffin Ships with Alan Nemtheanga’s stage presence, so charismatic he could probably rouse the dead.
Japan’s MONO  suffer slightly from an overly talkative crowd and the intricacies of their sound are often lost in a conversation being had elsewhere in the room. It’s a great shame because when their light shines, it is truly magnificent.
Scheduled against the headliners, 40 WATT SUN  offer a moving comedown for the day’s revellers. With the bittersweet tones of Patrick Walker washing over the crowd, fan favourites Carry Me Home and Restless, along with a host of new songs showcased tonight, are hymn-like cadences weighted with understated passion and deep emotion. How good an AT THE GATES  festival set is depends on how well the crowd knows the songs (the band are reliably killer, and Tomas Lindberg still roves the stage and leers at the crowd like he wants to eat your young), and the good, if not thunderous, response to Under A Serpent Sun sums their set up: you’ve seen them better, but fuck, this is still fun, and a suitably high-spirited conclusion to a festival of many flavours.