Live Review: Damnation Festival 2023

Live Review: Damnation Festival
4th November 2022
Words: Dan Barnes, Julian Pepper, Matthew Williams, Cat Finch
Photos: Tim Finch

Has it really been twelve months since we all last here, enjoying Godflesh, At the Gates and Converge? Well, time certainly does fly, but if it means it’s Damnation time again, then I’m fine with that. I think we can all agree that Gav, Paul and the team gave themselves a monumental headache trying to follow last year’s event; and, although we didn’t get the “Sold Out as Fuck” banner this time, I’m proposing that Damnation 2023 was the equal of its predecessor.

Live Review: Damnation Festival 2023

With last night’s band still fresh into the memory, the Pins & Knuckles stage is opened by post-rock duo, Nordic Giants. Their graphics have the cosmic ambience of Bossk’s, but the Englishmen stick mostly within the confines of the post rock genre. The opening proto-Blade Runner section leads into Nordic Giants providing a musical score to the images projected to the rear. Images of war, of media, of celebrity, all fuelled by the acquisition of wealth, were the common man (and woman) are little more than useful consuming units. Each one of the band’s tracks has its own narrative visual, most of which look like something Storm Thorgerson dreamed up for Pink Floyd. There was one, The Last Breath, which was a live action vignette, depicting a story where all the oxygen had disappeared. Nordic Giants’ musical scoring of this piece was to tell a story equally through composition as through image. Though I, like many others in the room, are desperate to know what happened next. [DB]

Beginning with Deceiver’s Avernal Gate, Coloradians Khemmis mark their UK debut show with an early afternoon set of heavy sludge metal and the attention of many of the Damnation revellers. Sigil continues the sludge feel to the show, while Isolation seems to have something of a power metal vibe going on. Three Gates is fast, punchy and a bit on the Deathy side and the biker rock sound of Above the Water demonstrates how many friends Khammis have in the Bowler’s this afternoon. The Bereaved and its Sabbath tones is for the old school fans and the show draws to a close with A Conversation with Death. A successful inauguration to the British market and, on the strength of the reception, it won’t be too long before the band find their way back to these shores. [DB]

Photo Credit: Tim Finch Photography

There’re no surprises from Unearth as they arrive to play their 2004 album, The Oncoming Storm. Somewhat appropriate consider the inclement battering parts of the UK this weekend. It is the first time the band have done a front to back playing of the record and the first time some of the songs have been heard live outside of the US. The Great Dividers wastes no time in raging with a mid-noughties zeal, giving those of a certain age time to reflect as the nostalgia kicks in and the knees are no longer up for the pit action they once were.

This Lying World drops the tempo down a scootch, while Black Hearts Now Reign has something of a Classic Metal ambience going on. The central core of Zombie Autopilot and Bloodlust of the Human Condition are straight out of the New Wave of American Heavy Metal playbook, whereas Lie to Purity and Endless take their beatdowns from Metalcore. They are ably assisted by a bearer of a beer bong, who keep the guitar players suitably lubricated. Not so much a square peg in a round hole but Unearth is perhaps an outlier on the Damnation bill today, though the show and its reception is the equal of any other band today. [DB]

Photo Credit: Tim Finch Photography

The last time Julie Christmas stood on a Damnation stage it was with Cult of Luna for a rendition of their collaboration, Mariner. This year, she’s back in her own right, but has brought along Luna’s Johannes Persson to relive old triumphs. Not that any of Mariner’s tunes are played tonight, as this is a Ms Christmas set. Having been absent from the stage for a while, there doesn’t seem to be one iota of rust as Ms C gives one the performances of the day. She is a Bjork for the heavy music scene, where nothing is off the creative table, and she positively relishes the performance.

Dressed in an avant-garde outfit, complete with its own lighting fixtures, Ms Christmas leads a Damnation festival through alternative post metal meets slow and laconic moods, razor-sharp riffs and spacey interludes. Her work with the likes of Cult of Luna, Made Out of Babies and Battle of Mice, as well as her own, solo project, display an artist not hampered by convention of constraint and her new material, premiered back in April in the shape of the single Not Enough, suggests Julie Christmas is preparing what’s likely to be a contender for album of the year, 2024. [DB]

Photo Credit: Tim Finch Photography

Belgian post metallers, Amenra have a history of fantastic Damnation shows and the anticipation surround this one is palpable as the crowds file into the Pins & Knuckles stage, from either Downfall of Gaia or Undeath. The sheer power of Amenra’s live performance is known by anyone who has been lucky enough to catch them in concert before, but there seemed to be something even more urgent about this one. Their use of visuals to complement the already heady music is accepted, but when the desk crew wheel in a projector, mounted on a ten-foot tall carriage, you suspect there’s something else going on.

Boden builds slowly against a monochrome backdrop, seemingly showing snippets from obscure B-horror movies and, no doubt, becoming the envy of Electric Wizard. Plus Pres Du Toi (Closer to You) comes out of the blocks with a viscous intensity and a screeching vocal by Colin H. van Eeckhout as the band become shadows on the rear screen. Razoreater is a complete assault on the senses; De Evenmens is the newest track this afternoon, coming from the 2021 De Doorn record and sounding like a desperate plea for help from a struggling man. A Solitary Reign is the only time Amenra return to an album, coming from the same Mass VI record as Plus Pres… and the set closes with Am Kruez.

The show is a masterclass in post metal precision, with the Belgians seeming knowing exactly when to rage and when to play soft and gentle tones. Yet to see an Amenra show that wasn’t damn-near perfect. [DB]

Photo Credit: Tim Finch Photography

Katatonia’s second set at Damnation 2023 is marred by technical issues, meaning although the band take the stage almost on time, there is a significant delay before they begin what would become a truncated, seven-song set. Apologising from the issue, Jonas and the other, now three, members of the band stick around in the hope that technical difficulties will be speedily resolved. Finally, Swedes are able to start their show, and do so with the live debut of Sky Void of Stars’ No Beacon to Illuminate Our Fall, which finds the band in heavy form from the rhythm section and squealing guitars from Anders Nyström. They’ll return to the new record again later for the lush Opaline, but before that we get a glorious Deliberation and a scorching Teargas. Two from Night Is the New Day, the mystical Forsaker and a doom-laden Nephilim, showing the band’s deep roots in their early years. 2020’s City Burials gives us the closing magnificence of Behind the Blood. Shame about the technical issues early on, but Katatonia are experienced enough to roll with it. [DB]

Photo Credit: Tim Finch Photography

Also pulling double duties from last night is Enslaved who, not content with showing us their Beyond the Lights, but have delved even deeper into their past for the 1994 debut, Vikingligr Veldi. Five tracks of epic blackened folk metal, recited before illuminated runes. Only Heimdallr clocks in at less than eleven minutes, but what it lacks in length it more than makes up for in cold black metal filth. Grutle Kjellson’s voice is given a workout by the gravelly rawness, but you think he did this day in and day out by the effortlessness of the performance.

As usual the band are on top musical form, switching from the pounding riffs of Lifandi Lif Undir Hamri to the song’s more ambient moments. Vetranott is pure black metal magic and doesn’t let up one iota, whereas Midgards Eldar takes a more primitive folk path. By the time the multi-faceted Novegr is aired we are all reminded, if such a reminder were needed, that Enslaved are one of the best and most interesting extreme metal bands working today. Their legacy as one of the most consistent artists over the past thirty years is assured and I challenge anyone to seriously make a case for them ever having produced a poor record. [DB]

Photo Credit: Tim Finch Photography

Electric Wizard's headline set at this year's Damnation Festival was nothing short of a doom-laden odyssey. With the band draped in red lighting, from the moment the haunting strains of ‘Witchcult Today’ reverberated through the venue, it was evident that Electric Wizard were on top form. The slow, deliberate riffs and crushing basslines of ‘Supercoven’ set a heavy, ominous tone, with the crowd succumbing to the band's sonic incantations.

‘Funeralopolis’, a cornerstone of Electric Wizard's repertoire, unfolded in a thick haze of distortion and despair. The band's commitment to crafting a sonic atmosphere was further exemplified through ‘Satanic Rites of Drugula’, where the eerie interplay of guitar and vocals intensified the feeling of ritualistic doom.

As ‘The Chosen Few’ and ‘Time to Die’ rang through the venue, the crowd was ensnared in a sonic trance, their headline set a testament to their status as pioneers of doom. As the final notes of ‘Funeralopolis’ echoed into the night, we are left to reminisce on yet another wonderful Damnation Festival, a testament to the hard work of Gav, Paul and team. [CF]

Live Review: Damnation Festival 2023

The Holy Goat stage started at the stoke of noon with the much-anticipated Coffin Mulch, whose set ranges from crushing doom to crashing blasts. Such an ungodly racket for such an early hour has attracted those filing into the Bowler’s for this year’s festival, pints in hand and ready for a full day of heavy music ahead. Growling vocals and screaming guitars are the early order of the day, the thick riffs delivering up a breakdown or two along the way. [DB]

Photo Credit: Tim Finch Photography

Crepitation blows the cobwebs away from last night’s revels with their brutal death metal. Suffocation squeals and an approach to their chosen field in the same vein as Party Cannon shows the band do not differentiate the fun from the brutality. If the graphic at the back of the stage, showing a battle between a cartoon Satan and what I image to be some sort of Angel, is a metric to judge them by, Crepitation could not be accused of taking themselves too seriously at all. [DB]

Photo Credit: Tim Finch Photography

With sword in hand, lead singer Kevin Fitzgerald leads his charges into battle, and two years in the making, High Command are finally making their UK debut on the Holy Goat Stage. And this five piece from Worcester, Massachusetts, don’t mess about, whipping up the crowd in a mass frenzy, with circle pits galore adding to the general mayhem on stage. They have a superb range of songs that keep the crowd satisfied, with 'Immortal Savagery' just going off and keeping the beats fast and frenetic.

The band have a great stage presence, with guitarist Razzle bombing around the stage, the riffs are crunchy and thrashy and even after getting the intro to 'Siege Warfare' wrong, they just laugh it off, and the crowd go absolutely ballistic when it’s played at full throttle, with the riff in the middle being insanely good. 'Fortified by Bloodshed' and 'Impaled Upon the Gates' continue the madness and before thanking the crowd for their energy, they finish off with 'Beyond The Wall of Desolation' which leaves everyone gasping for air, after a debut that was pretty, pretty, pretty good! [MW]

Photo Credit: Tim Finch Photography

Strigoi bring the first darkness to the Holy Goat Stage through the slower, depressive, riffs and a focus on generating an evil atmosphere. Relentless drums and howling guitars, along with choral interludes, establish a primordial atmosphere. They can blast when the situation calls for it, but for the most part, Strigoi stick close to the original ethos of the genre. [DB]

New York’s Undeath are about to unleash holy hell on the crowd of fans who have decided to watch them. As they start with the blistering 'Rise From The Grave' lead singer Alex Jones, beer in one hand, other fist raised to the ceiling, bellows for the crowd to “get the fuck up” as he prowls the stage like a possessed madman, and the masses respond with a chaotic circle pit.

With a mix of old and new songs including 'Necrobionics' and 'Brandish the Blade', Undeath are showcasing why they are one of the best death metal bands currently on the circuit, and Jones salutes “his warriors in the pit” saying that “death metal is a contact sport”. With their brutal slowed down riffs, combined with the stunningly fast solos, they are teasing the crowd, and when 'The Funeral Within' is played, it is utter bedlam, with the security team working hard for the crowd surfers before they end their set with the outstanding 'Lesions of a Different Kind' leaving quite an impression on those around them. [MW]

Photo Credit: Tim Finch Photography

New Jersey Hardcore/ Metalcore survivors, Deadguy, make their second appearance at the Bowler’s this weekend, after a run through of the Fixation on a Co-Worker album yesterday. Although the band’s discography is limited, the Americans still manage to draft in half-a-dozen numbers not included on their one and only full-length. Angry Dwarf and Prosthetic Head are taken from the 1996 record, Screaming with the Deadguy Quintet, while Puny Human and Running with Scissors come from the Work Ethic EP of 2002. Of course, for those who missed the performance last night, Deadguy include a selection of Fixation’s… tunes, including the confrontational Pins and Needles and Doom Patrol, the dissonant Makeshift Atomsmasher and the intense pounding of Die with Your Mask On. Throw in a new one and a closing version of Black Flag’s Police Story, and I’d say Deadguy had a pretty successful weekend in Manchester. [DB]

Finnish extreme metallers, Rotten Sound, remind us that the Grind has been sadly missing from the day’s roster, but what better way to make up for it than with some of the most blistering tunes you’re likely to hear? Performing in front of a graphic of the latest album’s cover, Apocalypse, the band crank and growl through the show, mixing their take on grind with the death metal influences

colouring many of their previous releases. Cutting blasts and rampaging breakdowns show the Finns to be utterly unrelenting in their craft, even going as far as dedicating Salvation to the events of last night. Rotten Sound don’t seem to make it to these shores as often as we would like, so getting to see them with a larger production and a crisp, clear sound system is a real treat. [DB]

Photo Credit: Tim Finch Photography

Another of Damnation’s House Bands, Anaal Nathrakh, are always a welcome addition to any bill and the rammed Holy Goat suggests a fair number of people want one more blow out before the smoky, laid-back sludge of the festival’s main headliner. Always guaranteed at a Nathrakh show is unadulterated nihilism and, eighteen years on from the ‘would never happen’ debut performance in 2005, the band are a seasoned live act. The slower, more measured Acheronta Movebimus introduces things, going straight into the blistering barrage of Unleash. Hold Your Children Close and Pray for Oblivion shows Dave Hunt’s Nathrakh vocal-stylings to great effect and Endarkenment’s The Age of Starlight Ends is given a live debut.

Older tunes, Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes and Between Piss and Shit We are Born, as well as the Orwellian Do Not Speak and an anarchic In the Constellation of the Black Widow, show the band have been peddling tunes signifying the end of days for as long as they’ve been doing this thing. Just to further demonstrate this, Submission Is for the Weak howls and grinds like the trumpets have been sounded and the bottomless pit has opened. With Remembrance Day just around the corner, three from A New Kind of Horror seem appropriate and The Road to…, Obscene as Cancer and a remarkable Forward! mark the true-life terror of War.

Walls of death and some of the most abrasive music imaginable come with almost every Anaal Nathrakh show, but we always love to see them, whenever they play. Come back soon, lads! [DB]

Photo Credit: Tim Finch Photography
Live Review: Damnation Festival 2023

Long-time Damnation partners, Eyesore Merchandise, is sponsoring the third of the Bowler’s stages again and they’re offering a mouth-watering array of talent for the delectation of the assembled mass. News has come through that Ahab have had to withdraw from the show, leaving a significant hole to fill in that Special Guests slot. I’ll not give any spoilers and will let Jules tell you all about it later on.

The Saturday Damnation proceedings commence with the mysterious Dutch three piece Laster on the Eyesore Merch stage. Bedecked in strange half skull like headgear, they attract a curious but interested crowd into the smallest room at the B.E.C. Arena. With an eclectic and atmospheric sound that veers from full on black metal rage to post metal, their energetic and progressive set is a great way to kick off Damnation 2023. [JP]

As soon as Kurokuma take to the stage it’s apparent that guitarist Jacob is absent. As I find out later he’s due to become a father imminently and is ably replaced by Bing, who does an excellent job throughout this superb set.

What made the set extra special was a couple of guest appearances in the form of Nina from the superb Lowen and rapper Janx. Nina added her Middle East style vocals to great effect to a track that will appear on their new album called 'I Am Forever', whilst Janx rapped his own lyrics over another new track 'Neheh'. From opening track Sacrifice to Huitzilopochtli to the older closer Dark Triad, which destroys with its super heavy crushing riff throughout, Kurokuma owned the stage and whetted all appetites for their next release! [JP]

Avant-Garde Scottish Black Metallers, Ashenspire focus almost entirely on their Hostile Architecture album, with the only song of the set, Mariners at Perdition’s Lighthouse, not coming from that record. Theirs is a more modern imagining of the genre, though no less engaging. Tracks like Tragic Heroin, The Law of Asbestos and Apathy as Arsenic, Lethargy as Lead finds the band in find dissonant form, playing more thematically than embracing traditional song structures. [DB]

Having previously announced that this would be their final gig, it was quite fitting that OHHMS had a backdrop displaying the word END in big white capital letters. As expected, the Eyesore Stage was absolutely rammed and full of anticipation as the five piece from Kent begin their final ever set with opening track 'Let’s Scare Jessica to Death'. The band are full of passion and rage on stage, giving it their all for one final time, with 'Eaten Alive' and 'Blood Feast' going down a storm.

As singer Paul Waller throws his sweat stained shirt into the crowd, providing a great memento for one fan, he comments on how the last ten years has been “great” just “hanging out with his friends” and he thanks the crowd for their support before they finish off their relatively short set with 'The World' and then 'The Anchor'. It was a set full of emotion but OHHMS have signed off on their terms and those who witnessed it, saw something amazing. [MW]

Photo Credit: Tim Finch Photography

Downfall of Gaia were a band I was very much looking forward to catching this Damnation. Their take on Post-Black Metal has always hit the spot with me and, with this being my first opportunity to see the band live, my expectations were high. The combination of hard-hitting BM riffs with atmospheric passages certainly adds a broad scope to the band’s sound, and whether they are blasting like a Wolves in the Throne Room, or taking a more subtle approach, Downfall of Gaia are continually engaging, as well as being a perfect entrée to the imminent arrival of Amerra. [DB]

After their 30 year anniversary play through of their classic debut Scorn Defeat the day before on the main stage, Sigh return to the smaller surroundings of the Eyesore Merch stage on the Saturday to play a set of more recent material. The room is the most rammed I’ve seen it all weekend as people continue to try and find a vantage point to view these Japanese metal legends. 

In a set that’s high on theatrics including a flaming sword intro, a burning bible and saxophone flourishes, Sigh prove that they have moved beyond their harsh black metal beginnings. What we get is a set that veers more to the experimental and progressive end of their metal spectrum. Tracks from 2022 release 'Shiki' such as 'Satsui - Gesha No Ato' and 'Mayonaka No Kali' are lapped up by the feverish crowd who pay homage to the Japanese masters to the very end of this heavily captivating set. [JP]

Photo Credit: Tim Finch Photography

Unfortunately Ahab had to pull out at short notice due to illness. However, the Damnation team managed to pull a rabbit out of the hat and get Kent’s own Bossk to play a second set of the festival following their amazing run through of Audio Noir on the main stage the previous day.

Whilst it was great to see them on a huge stage on Friday, it felt better seeing them in the more intimate surrounds as they ran through a mixture of songs from both 'Audio Noir' and previous release 'Migration'.

I will never get bored of hearing 'Kobe' into 'Atom Smasher' (“that” riff!) but a run through of 'Menhir' with guest vocals from Johannes from Cult of Luna was, for me, the moment of the entire festival. The whole band seemed to go into another gear as both Johannes atop the barrier and Simon roared out the vocals in unison to an adoring and rabid crowd. What a band and what a performance! [JP]

The honour of closing out the Eyesore Merch stage went to recently reformed post rock five piece Maybeshewill, who put in one of the most emotional and well received sets of the day.

From the opening track 'We’ve Arrived at the Burning Building' from their 2021 comeback album 'No Feeling is Final', this was a career spanning set that was full of energy, passion and great songs. Stand outs for me were 'Red Paper Lanterns' (written on the way back from a previous Damnation performance!), 'Refuturing' and 'Not For Want of Trying', with its great spoken word sample, which was narrated word for word by the loyal followers (including Gav!) down the front.

It’s great to have Maybeshewill back and we all look forward to what comes next for this superb band. [JP]

All Photo Credits: Tim Finch Photography

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