FESTIVAL PREVIEW: Damnation Festival 2023

FESTIVAL PREVIEW: Damnation Festival 2023
Words: Dan Barnes

Well, I think it’s safe to say the best of the summer is behind us now and after the clocks change and the Halloween decorations are stored away for another year, we at least have Damnation to look forward to. I’m going out on a limb here but, in my humble opinion, last year’s show, following its move back to Manchester, was the best Damnation yet.

I’ve been making the pilgrimage to the show since its inception in 2005 and while there’s been great shows and not-quite-as great shows, the quality has always far exceeded the price of the ticket. My personal favourite years have been 2009, 2012 and 2013 and a special mention to 2021; but the overall experience of 2022 was beyond what could have been reasonably expected, particularly consider the late loss of Ministry as headliner.

That’s all history now, and for any nay-sayer who might have scoffed at the idea of Gavin and co coming through with an even better line-up, then quiet words with yourselves are needed. Rather than match 2022, they’ve only gone and bettered it!

Photo Credit: Tim Finch Photography

Friday night is now A Night of Salvation and advancing on the one stage-five bands model of last year, we’re getting more than a dozen acts across multiple stages; and, like the last two shows, the itinerary is anything but an after-thought. There has also been a tradition of bands playing complete album sets and Damnation have truly spoiled us all this year with nine of the fifteen artists revisiting one of their classic albums in its entirety.

Headlining will be Sweden’s Masters of Melancholy, Katatonia who will close out proceedings with a rendition of their 2012 record, Dead End Kings. Line-up changes and growing international success led the band to move decisively away from the last vestiges of Doom metal in their sound and to fully embrace a more gothic and progressive direction. There is a fragility to be found in the likes of Leech, Undo You and The Racing Heart, offset by the drive of Buildings and Lethean, until the set culminates with the incomparable Dead Letters.

Photo Credit: Tim Finch Photography

Another band making their first of two stops at Damnation this year is Norway’s Enslaved, who’ll be dusting off the seven tracks of their seventh album, Below the Lights, for its twentieth anniversary. Another Scandinavian band who has found themselves going through many a musical metamorphosis, this 2003 record saw Enslaved on the cusp of mainstream recognition, and bringing together their Pagan and Black Metal roots, taking them in a progressive direction. The multi-layered As Fire Swept Clean the Earth sets the band’s stall out for this redemptive evening, with the seldom-played The Crossing sure to be a highlight the set.

You’d be well advised to bring your Thinking Caps for both Norway’s Leprous and Kent’s Trandoshan-titled Bossk. One-time live backing band for Black Metal legend, Ihsahn, Leprous released their third album, Coal, back in 2013 and brought the sound and imagination of their talismanic mentor’s solo records into play. For the tenth anniversary, expect a full-blown and unapologetically progressive performance from Foe to Contaminate Me, bamboozling with eight-stringed, djenty guitars and avant-garde composition tickling parts of the brain other bands cannot reach. Bossk may well go about their cranial examination in a slightly different manner, employing transcendental post-metal as well as monolith sludge in their rendition of their Audio Noir debut. Combining post rock with the post metal on The Reverie and Kobe, unsettling soundscapes on Relancer and Nadir, with out and out monsters Heliopause and the immense Atom Smasher, promises to be an uncompromising musical proposition.

Photo Credit: Tim Finch Photography

Sigh make a rare appearance on these shores by dusting off their Scorn Defeat debut for a thirtieth anniversary outing. Released at the moment of Black Metal’s Second Wave genesis, the record has all the hallmarks of its time and the genre’s aesthetic. Yet, Sigh wouldn’t have been Sigh without those embellishments only they know how to pull off: the orchestral piano of At My Funeral and the overblown keys of Gundali could be straight off a Cradle of Filth record. Of course, there’s plenty of filthy darkness on offer, on Ready for the Final War oozing chug and in Weakness Within’s blasting frenzy, Mirai, Mika and company will certainly mark their first show of the weekend with a bang.

Having the claim to be the first band to play a Night of Salvation back in 2021, Akercocke return – spiritually, at least – to the scene of the crime for a run-though of their 2003 breakthrough record, Choronzon. Co-incidentally, it just so happens to be almost the album’s twentieth anniversary to the day, and what better way to celebrate than to hear it in all its majestic glory? This was the album that introduced me to the band and still feels as fresh as it did back in the day when I was blown away hearing Son of the Mourning, Leviathan and Valley of the Crucified. The suits might have gone, but there still feels something quintessentially British about their brand of progressive blackened death metal; and the impact and insanity of the album still stands tall.

If you’re the kind of crazy cat who loves to corpse up and hang around churches with a box of firelighters and a Zippo then think again. Your arsonistic ways can be slaked a couple of days later with a big old bonfire but, for the time-being, why not settle down to some cracking UK Black Metal in the form of the Emperor-worshipping Ninkharsag, from just down the road in Liverpool, or the robed nihilists, The Infernal Sea or, maybe Church Road Record’s The Sun’s Journey Through the Night, whose sound has something of a Swedish Shining going on. If raising the Devil is not on your agenda for the evening, why not get a bit Deathy with Celestial Sanctuary and Inhuman Nature?

The last of the full album sets – for tonight, at least – come from the more traditional Heavy Metal stylings of Viking Skull, whose Chapter One record from back in 2003 has a distinctly Orange Goblin thing going on. It’ll be great to hear those balls-out unashamedly Metal anthems, Beers, Drugs and Bitches; Wizard’s Sleeve and Rape, Pillage and Burn again and though we weren’t really that arsed about getting offended back then, there may be a few who don’t see the tongue in cheek nature of those tunes. Tuskar will be bludgeoning us with a whole rendition of the gravity-inducing Matriarch and reunited Nineties New Jersey Metalcore band, Deadguy will take us through their one and only full-length record, Fixation on a Co-Worker from beginning to end.

Photo Credit: Tim Finch Photography

Undoubtedly a mouth-watering prospect but this Night of Salvation is a mere hors d’oeuvre for the Day of Damnation to follow; an amuse-bouche for one of the strongest Damnation line-ups yet assembled.

At the time of writing this piece, the running order for A Night of Salvation was unknown yet, just as I was about to submit – well, a couple of days ahead, but that doesn’t have quite the same sense of drama – Damnation announced the Pins and Knuckles stage will host headliner Katatonia, followed by Leprous, Enslaved, Bossk and Viking Skull; with the Cult Never Dies stage seeing Akercocke headline, over Sigh, The Infernal Sea, Ninkharsag and The Sun’s Journey Through the Night; while Church Road Record’s stage has Deadguy, Heriot, Tuskar, Inhuman Nature and Celestial Sanctuary all lining up. There appears to be some clash between the Cult and Church Road stages, but the main stage seems to be devoid of overlaps. Choices, choices.

Dorset Doom-lords, Electric Wizard return for a third headline appearance and a fourth visit to Damnation Festival, secure in the knowledge that there doesn’t seem to be anything other than stellar performances in the band. With thirty-years of Doom under his belt, mainstay and only remaining member, Jus Osborn has been unwavering in his commitment to the cause; though nine records Electric Wizard have never been what you would call commercial by any stretch of the imagination. Rather, the Dorset quartet have bent everyone else to their will, their rare live shows becoming even more special for their infrequency.

2017’s Wizard Bloody Wizard was something of a change of direction for the band, adopting a more psychedelic sound when compared to the crushing doom of albums like Come My Fanatics, Dopethrone and, my particular favourite, Witchcult Today. Once Jus and Elizabeth’s guitars start to drone, and Haz Wheaton’s bass begins to fuzz, you just know Damnation 2023 will be closing with an unholy climax.

Photo Credit: Tim Finch Photography

Making swift returns to the scenes of the crime are both Katatonia and Enslaved, whose nights of salvation seem not to have been enough and are back for more. For this performance, Katatonia will be delivering a set, unshackled by the needs of an album recital and will be free to run through the classics from The Great Cold Distance, Viva Emptiness and Last Fair Deal Gone Down, as well as tracks from this year’s Sky Void of Stars.

Going in the totally opposite direction, Enslaved, will be diving deeper into their past for a full rendition of their Black Metal / Viking Metal epic debut full length from 1994: Vikingligr Veldi. Manchester in November can be pretty grim, but the grandiose magnificence conjured by the five majestic tracks will transport us all to windswept Scandinavian plains, when marauders scoured the fields of battle, swords thirsty for blood gripped in their fists.

Belgian post-metal powerhouse, Amenra, make a third Damnation appearance and a first since 2015. Incorporating elements of Doom, Sludge and Hardcore into their sound, anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing the band live before can attest to the sheer unbridled intensity ripping from speakers when they plug in. Lending itself to more artsy-ambition, post-metal is often described as thinking man’s – or person’s – metal, and Amenra use of visual artists only goes to reinforce that idea.

Photo Credit: Tim Finch Photography

If I had to choose my favourite performance from all the Damnations-past, I would go for Cult of Luna’s recitation of their magnum opus, Mariner, back in 2016 as my option. That day – and that album – saw the Swedes abetted by Ms Julie Christmas, the New York musician known for fronting Made Out of Babies and Battle of Mice, as well as being a capable performer in her own right. Whether it be screaming post-metal masterpieces with Cult of Luna and Battle of Mice or exploring more alternative sound with Made Out of Babies or her own, acclaimed, The Bad Wife album, Ms Christmas’ performance is sure to be one that will be talked out for a while to come.

For a band who didn’t really intend to play live, Anaal Nathrakh are failing miserably at it. Almost Damnation’s house band, Dave and Mick need no introduction and will, undoubtedly, smash the BEC to pieces with their brand of industrial black grind. You know ‘em, there’s nothing I can say that’ll make you want to watch them any more than you already do.

Boston Metalcore mob, Unearth, are going back to the sophomore album for a full recital of The Oncoming Storm. Regardless of the temptation to plug this year’s The Wretched: The Ruinous record. Produced by Adam Dulkiewicz, The Oncoming Storm is peppered with references to Killswitch Engage and is as powerful sounding as it was back in 2004, when it was rubbing commercial shoulders with the likes of KsE, Chimaira and Lamb of God. Switching things up completely will be festival favourites, Maybeshewill, whose last records, Fair Youth and No Feeling Is Final, couldn’t be much further from the filthy barrages found elsewhere this weekend. The Leicester instrumental post-rockers will bring a fragility to the day, juxtaposing the fury and frenzy of the bands either side of them, and will no doubt be responsible for a tear or two come the end of their set.

Denver Doomsters, Khemmis, add a mixture of Black and Death metal their grim palette and, while not as fuzzed up and maudlin as some bands on the bill, they have ample experience of the big occasions after spending time on tour buses with Mastodon and Opeth. Sigh have another shot at the Bowler’s crowd, this time shorn of the protective parameters of focusing on a single album and, instead, will be free to coax Damnation onto whatever insane musical journey Mirai and Mika concoct; I image it’ll be somewhere in the Mr Bungle sphere of absurdity. Finnish grinders, Rotten Sound, celebrate their thirtieth year with the excellent Apocalypse album and a trip to rip Manchester a new one. If you’ve had your brain mashed by Sigh or Julie Christmas, or your heart broken by Maybeshewill and you just want to get physical in the pit, then Rotten Sound are at hand to provide you with the perfect soundtrack to self-destruction. Just be careful in there.

Nautical Doom-Death crew, Ahab, sail in very different waters than their ‘core companions, navigating vast oceans of melancholy at a crawl, each chord another wave smashing against the bow of the boat. Nordic Giants are neither from Norway nor, as far as I can ascertain, above seven feet in height (the measurement for classing as a Giant, apparently, according to the interwebs) but what they are is a mesmerising post-rock instrumental duo who will enrapture their audience with some of the most beautiful music we’ll hear all weekend. Deadguy might only have one album which was shown off in its entirety last night, but they do have a handful of extended plays ripe for the picking. White Meat, Work Ethic and Screamin’ with the Deadguy Quintet might date back to the Nineties, but Body Parts is fresh[ish] off the presses, having a 2022 release date.

Photo Credit: Tim Finch Photography

Expect brutal death carnage from Undeath, but don’t go looking for any mercy as that will be in short supply. Downfall of Gaia prove once again that Damnation is the only show in town willing to book Post Metal bands and will give the day an early shake-down. New England Thrashers, High Command is likely to be snapping necks with their pounding attack and Strigoi’s blasphemy will hit the mark of those not damned enough after last night’s black masses.

In the vein of Party Cannon, Crepitation mix good time vibes with disgusting Slam for a must-hear experience, Ohhms’ riffs are equally filthy but for very different reasons. Expect Ashenspire to melt brains with their progressively technical death metal and Kurokuma will show themselves to be bastard sons of Black Sabbath with their psychedelic sludge. Bombastic Dutch trio, Laster are ready to redefine atmospheric black metal with their early show and what Coffin Mulch might lack in subtly they more than make up for in sheer, old school, Death Metal aggression.

So, as 2023’s nights get longer, and we all ask: where did the year go? There’s always Damnation weekend to look forward to. Genuinely did not think they would be able to get close to how good 2022’s show was but, by Golly, they only have.

So many potential highlights: back to back shows by Katatonia and Enslaved, Choronzon from start to finish, Amenra, Anaal and Sigh; it’s the gift that keeps on giving. See you all there!

Photo credits: Tim Finch Photography

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