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Damnation Festival 2023

Event: Damnation Festival 2023
Written by: musclassia, omne metallum
Published: 15.11.2023

Musclassia: Damnation Festival is the UK’s most prominent late-year metal festival; since 2005, extreme metal juggernauts have been appearing on Northern stages as part of the festival. Initially started in Manchester, it soon moved to the Student Union of the University of Leeds for 15 years, before returning to Manchester in 2022 at the Bowlers Exhibition Centre (BEC) Arena. I was in attendance to watch the festival’s final edition in Leeds, while Omne Metallum was there for their return to Manchester last year. This time, both of us followed the long road north (well, more of a train ride) to enjoy the most extravagant Damnation weekend yet.

A Night Of Salvation, the long-running pre-festival Friday night show, was significantly expanded this year; typically featuring just 4 bands performing special sets (often full-album shows), this year, the same 3 stages that Saturday would use were all occupied with bands for what was effectively a full-blown festival day in its own right. With several must-see special sets announced, it was a no-brainer to go for both days.

Omne: With summer festival season well and truly in the rear view mirror, it was time for the winter fests to warm up these cold days and nights. Damnation 2023 felt more than just another festival; instead of being just a collection of bands who were available at the time, each act felt like they had a reason to be there, the line-up curated so that each set was something special beyond being just another stop on a tour. Plenty of sets were either an album in full, a rare or debut appearance by a group, or a UK exclusive booking for the year; it added a special feeling to the weekend.

With an expanded Friday line-up that turned 'A Night Of Salvation' from pre-party into an attraction in its own merit, Damnation had plenty to offer, much of which I was eager to indulge in. Like Desertfest earlier this year, I would once again be attending the same event as Matt, and once again we would be having very different experiences, with the odd overlap in terms of who we watched (though, I suppose this has the upshot of leading to a more rounded review of the event).

Table Of Contents

Friday: A Night Of Salvation

Saturday: A Day Of Damnation

Omne: My weekend got off to a bad start, with a delayed two-and-a-half hour train meaning my initial plan to ease into the weekend turned into a mad dash to get to my hotel and onto the venue: British public transport at its finest. Still, it meant that when I made it there, that first beer tasted that bit sweeter.

Musclassia: I had a similarly protracted journey, arriving even later than Omne to the BEC Arena, although thankfully shortly before the first act I was interested in seeing would hit the stage.

Viking Skull 16:30-17:10, Pins & Knuckles Stage

Omne: My belated day started with a bang, as Viking Skull's stoner riffs paired nicely with the medicinal levels of alcohol I was ingesting. I couldn't fully focus on the show, as I was still decompressing from travelling, but Viking Skull eased me enjoyably into proceedings and teed the weekend up nicely.

Inhuman Nature 17:15-17:45, Church Road Records Stage

Omne: There were slim pickings in terms of thrash and death metal this year, so I got my fill as and when I could. While I was dying of heat last time I saw Inhuman Nature rage on stage at Bloodstock last year, this time I didn't have the heat handicap to impede my experience. Inhuman Nature scratched the thrash itch, pumping the adrenaline up and shaking the malaise away to the point I was rearing to embrace the rest of the night. The guitar and bass mix was tight, but played with a punk-esque looseness that hit the sweet spot. It wasn't anything amazing performance-wise, but I wouldn't mind seeing the band warm up proceedings again elsewhere.

Bossk plays Audio Noir 17:45-18:40, Pins & Knuckles Stage

Musclassia: I finally made it to the festival in time to catch the first set that I was excited for, and the first of several full-album sets today: Bossk performing their 2016 debut album Audio Noir. Bossk are by now a fixture of the alternative metal festival circuit in the UK, not only appearing at Damnation 2021 but at two of the last three ArcTanGents that I attended. This is not a complaint, however, as each time they deliver a solid performance, particularly so in 2021, and given the presence of several excellent songs on Audio Noir, including “Kobe”, “Atom Smasher” and “Reverie II”, this was to be a sure-fire hit. Admittedly, despite excellent sound on stage, for some reason this show slightly lacked some of the compelling energy of the Damnation 2021 show, but it nevertheless made for a solid first show at this year’s event for me.

Omne: The brief adrenaline surge gave way to a euphoric haze thanks to Bossk deciding to play Audio Noir in full. Despite the band having not long clicked for me, I found myself making up for lost time with a tight set that went beyond and turned the fifty-five minutes on stage into an experience. With the roaring bass and shimmering guitars, the band worked their way through the album with workmanlike precision, allowing you to invest yourself in the music and divest yourself of any lingering stress, making for an early highlight.

Enslaved plays Below The Lights 19:25-20:15, Pins & Knuckles Stage

Musclassia: This was, along with the following set on the main stage, one of my two most anticipated events of Damnation 2023: Enslaved performing their classic record Below The Lights, and finally affording me the opportunity to see the sensational “As Fire Swept Clean The Earth” live. I saw the band play a live stream of this album back in 2020, and the record sounded fantastic then; unfortunately, Enslaved had one of the least favourable live mixes of the day, which handicapped their full potential. Still, the album highlights, such as the aforementioned opener and the iconic “Havenless”, offered plenty to enjoy.

Omne: After my conversion experience at Incineration Festival earlier this year, Enslaved went from a shrug of the shoulders to a must-see band, especially as their first of two (album in full) sets was to be the modern classic Below The Lights, one that promised to be the stronger of the two sets. Even with the sound not being on top form, Enslaved managed to overcome this handicap and put on a memorable set, though when you're guaranteed to hear "As Fires Swept Clean The Earth" and "Havenless", it’s hard not to. While the songs weren't able to display the little intricacies thanks to the muddy mix, the personality and presence of Ivar and Ice Dale shone through crystal clear.

Sigh plays Scorn Defeat 20:15-21:00, Cult Never Dies Stage

Omne: I've found myself searching around the Japanese scene in recent times, finding more and more gems that are underappreciated in the pantheon in metal. Chief among them are Sigh, a band who I've found myself falling deep into a rabbit hole over. Turning back the clock, the band's first of two sets at Damnation was the black metal classic Scorn Defeat. Immersing all in attendance in old school black metal vibes, it didn't feel like a hollow nostalgia trip, but an experience of being there at the birth of black metal. With the band balancing theatrics and musical precision, the whole album was an enrapturing experience thanks to the spot on sound that had the right mix of fuzzy guitars and clean vocals.

If it wasn't for another band later, this would have easily been the set of the day easily for me.

Leprous plays Coal 20:55-21:55, Pins & Knuckles Stage

Musclassia: I caught a snippet of Sigh, as well as of Heriot (who had a particularly fierce sound mix on the third stage), after getting food, but the real upcoming attraction was following afterwards on the main stage. I’ve seen Leprous a few times by now, and even when touring their newer material, they put on quite the show, so my excitement at hearing a full-album performance of my favourite record of theirs, Coal, was a tantalizing prospect, and one that absolutely did not disappoint. The Norwegians are consummate pros when performing live; Einar Solberg has such tremendous control on his vocals, and while their later material has gravitated more towards softer sounds and synth-laden arrangements, seeing the complexity and heaviness of tracks such as “Chronic”, “Coal” and “Contaminate Me” in person was a sight to behold. For me, the haunting opener “Foe” and beautiful epics “The Valley” and “Echo” were the highlights of arguably the standout show of the weekend.

Omne: By this point, I was truly feeling the party mood, meaning I was in the perfect mindframe to just drift away in the world that Leprous conjured up with Coal. While Coal wouldn't have been my first choice of album in full from Leprous, I must admit once the band started playing "The Cloak", with Solberg's soaring vocals, I was well and truly in the palm of the band's hands and holding onto every note. Thanks to the album's strength in depth, each track was a highlight in and of itself. There was little in the way of live show, but the band let the music do the talking.

Deadguy plays Fixation On A Coworker 21:55-22:40, Church Road Records Stage

Omne: Whenever I've heard of someone talk about Deadguy, it was always in that reverent, half-condescending "I was there, man" tone. After hearing that the band were to play the hidden gem that bridged hardcore and mathcore, Fixation On A Coworker, in full, I was there and eager to live history.

Taking place on the third, and smallest, stage, the set felt like an intimate club show, with the band so grateful for the chance to play to a packed room. The chaos of "Baby Arm" and "Makeshift Atomsmasher" meant that the crowd never stopped moving, and pumped the heat up until it felt like you were standing in a small club. With the flailing limbs of the crowd matching the off-kilter riffs, and Singer being the perfect conductor of said chaos, this was the set of the night for me, and worth the price of admission alone. If the band do further shows, I highly recommend for any fans of high octane chaos to get yourself down to a show.

Guess now I can be one of those hipsters who can say 'I was there'.

Akercocke plays Choronzon 22:00-23:00, Cult Never Dies Stage

Musclassia: While Omne was enjoying Deadguy, I opted instead for Akercocke, who followed up a full-album performance of The Goat Of Mendes at 2021’s A Night Of Salvation with a set comprising the seminal record Choronzon this time around. In a flurry of blasts and full-pelt riffs, the carnage unleashed by Akercocke was relentless, even when occasionally punctuated by exuberant cleaner vocal parts. Over a full hour, it was a lot to take in, but given the sedate act to follow, it was easy enough to expend one’s full energy flailing your head around to this madness.

Katatonia plays Dead End Kings 22:40-23:35, Pins & Knuckles Stage

Omne: Almost as if the brakes had been slammed on, following up the audio anarchy of Deadguy with the morose music of Katatonia to end the night felt like a mis-step. Despite being a big fan of the band, and having seen the band on tour in support of Dead End Kings (with Matt many moons ago), the chance to hear the album in full wasn't much of a pull for me beyond a chance to see the band again (do Discouraged Ones in full next time!).

Still, despite being a member down, Katatonia breathed life into tracks like "The Parting" and "First Prayer" with tight and precise musicianship. While it did feel an odd choice to end the night on, "Buildings" did deserve to be among a headline set. While I'd be lying if I said the band were a ball of energy on stage, they did fit the atmosphere, as ill-fitting as it was at the end of a night of heavy drinking and even heavier music.

Musclassia: As Omne noted, Katatonia offered a stark change of pace from both of the preceding bands on the other stages. Personally, I have to admit that I have been rather dismissive of Dead End Kings ever since its release; this performance, while not causing a major conversion in me, did lead me to recosnider my viewpoint, as I ultimately found it to be a fairly enjoyable performance. However, Katatonia are a band that I can struggle to muster enthusiasm for, and coming after some great and impactful performances, it did make for a somewhat forgettable end to the first night.

Omne: Despite a poor start, day one of Damnation more than made up the hassle of getting here. With Deadguy and Sigh taking the early plaudits and raising the bar for what was to come, now to try and ensure I was able to get up the next morning.

Musclassia: I similarly enjoyed this first day after finally reaching Manchester, particularly thanks to Leprous. However, as this was my first view of Damnation Festival in Manchester, it was curious to see how empty this day felt at times; the main stage was in a very large hall, and while catching the second half of Katatonia’s set, I couldn’t help but notice that the crowd struggled to extend up to the sound booth in the middle of said hall. The move from Leeds to Manchester had been in an attempt to increase the capacity limit of the festival, and reports from 2022 had been that the crowd had grown in accordance, but with a cost-of-living crisis currently affecting the country, it was easy to look around the hall and wonder just how well this year’s Damnation would be attended, and what repercussions there may be in terms of the festival’s financial health should Saturday be a repeat of Friday, particularly with so many big names performing special sets.

The one thing that did really stand out in a negative way was the catering options; in some ways, it was a major step up from the incredibly limited choice at Leeds (basically just the student union shop), but with around 10 food stalls inside and outside the BEC, the options for vegetarians were very few, and even fewer for vegans, particularly when the vegetable curry that one stall offered quickly sold out. In Leeds, the Union was close enough to other locations that it was possible to leave and obtain food elsewhere if one found a suitable quiet spot; the BEC, on the other hand, had nothing in the immediate vicinity, meaning these food options had a real negative impact on quite a lot of attendees. A wider range of options were advertised for Saturday, although ultimately they didn’t come to fruition in many cases.

Omne: Feeling oddly refreshed and ready to take on the day, I ensured I was there early doors, enjoying the blessing in disguise that was the Damnation Red at the bar (cherry sour beer that was refreshing, more-ish but packed a hell of a punch).

Musclassia: Without the hassle of trains, it was much easier getting to the BEC for the start time this time around, and it was necessary, given that there were acts of interest pretty much from the off.

Laster 12:30-12:30, Eyesore Merch Stage

Musclassia: The first choice of the day was between Laster and Coffin Mulch; to be honest, I’ve never heard the latter before, but from their name below I was already confident that seeing Laster would be the right choice, and it wasn’t a decision I regretted. Sporting peculiar masks, the Dutch trio served up a strong demonstration of their oddball blackened metal sound, which entertained just as much as the band’s lively movements on stage did.

Coffin Mulch 12:30-12:30, Holy Goat Brewing Stage

Omne: Scottish up-and-comers Coffin Mulch had the honours of opening up today's proceedings, waking the crowd up with a violent shake courtesy of their death metal. While the band were eager, a washy mix and slight malaise meant I wasn't as hooked as I hoped I'd be. It was an okay, if unexceptional, way to start the day.

Nordic Giants 12:25-13:05, Pins & Knuckles Stage

Musclassia: It’s been a few years since I saw this anonymous cinematic post-rock duo perform at ArcTanGent 2019, but their excellent 2022 album Symbiosis left me excited to witness them again, as they offered a welcome change of pace at Damnation Festival (one of two post-rock acts today along with Maybeshewill). With the backing screen offering a colourful backdrop (including the short film The Last Breath, which in tandem with “Through A Lens Darkly” was a standout passage of this set), the duo enthralled listeners. Their set was particularly enhanced by an outstanding sound production, which caused genuine shock with some of the loudest outbursts while also allowing the band’s more ambient and tender elements to seep through. I imagine this set was one of the highlights of Damnation for a lot of attendees.

Omne: Now this was an experience: a forty-minute set that felt like a ride through the senses, courtesy of the band's music complemented by some mini movies on the screen behind them. Nordic Giants evoked, provoked and stoked so many emotions that you couldn't help but be absorbed by it all, and hanging on to every note. Music as an art form, without feeling pretentious: I was gutted when the set drew to a close, as I wished I could have had the full headline experience.

Kurokuma 13:05-13:40, Eyesore Merch Stage

Musclassia: From one of the festival’s highlights, to undoubtedly its biggest disappointment. I was very stoked to once again see Kurokuma, particularly as I had missed their set at Desertfest in favour of seeing Spaceslug, but this was a far cry from their stunning sets in 2021. Part of the issue might have been personnel; the only one of the trio playing in 2021 that was still here was the drummer, as the bassist was replaced in 2022 and a stand-in guitarist appeared due to the main guy going back home for the birth of his child.

However, I think other factors affected the experience more; to start with, the sound felt nowhere near as monstruously heavy as it has been at previous Kurokuma shows, and the setlist was underwhelming, featuring only “Sacrifice To Huitzilopochtli” from Born Of Obsidian. The remaining set, bar one song from early EP Advorsus, appears to have been material from their upcoming second album; while some of it sounds promising, particularly the track with the female guest singer, I sincerely hope the song featuring the rapper is not going to be on the album. There’s metal bands out there that can successfully feature rapping, but Kurokuma are evidently not one of them, as this weird attempt at a sludge/nu metal hybrid was frankly awful. Parts of this performance were enjoyable, but given the expectations that I entered with, I really won’t look back on this with much enthusiasm.

Omne: Had I decided I was attending Damnation earlier, I may have plumped to see Spaceslug at Desertfest earlier this year instead. I'm glad I did see Kurokuma earlier in the year, as if this was my sole live experience of them this year, I would have been so disappointed.

Starting off strong with a solid "Sacrifice To Huitzilopochtli", the band then seemingly got stuck in first gear, with the set feeling lifeless and unabsorbing compared to previous outings. While the band were trying, with a mix of old and new material, proceedings derailed as the set took a bizarre turn when the band invited a rapper on stage, and proceeded to try their hands at a sludge-meets-rap hybrid (shame the term grime is already taken) that just killed what little momentum there was dead. It was certainly memorable, though for all the wrong reasons. I decided to cut my losses and join the rest of the emptying room to trade in for a good spot for the following band.

Disappointment of the weekend.

Khemmis 13:35-14:30, Pins & Knuckles Stage

Omne: After the disappointment that was Kurokuma, I needed something to pick me up, and thankfully Khemmis provided. Storming the stage with their epic doom/traditional metal mix, the band made the most of their debut UK performance by converting many in the packed room into fans. Running through cuts like "Sigil" and "The Bereaved", Khemmis knew what they needed to be at the top of their game, and decided to throw in an extra ten percent just to be sure. The beneficiaries of a sound that was on point, the riffs of "Isolation" rang out in all their epic glory while the strong vocals of Pendergast matched those on record to a tee.

One of, if not, the highlight of the weekend.

Musclassia: The Kurokuma letdown was a cue to try and source food, meaning I missed a decent portion of the Khemmis set, and sat towards the back of the main stage hall for another chunk of it while eating. Khemmis don’t quite do it for me as far as doom goes, and that remained the same live, but they gave a convicted performance nevertheless. One positive I noted here was that, for the first time this weekend, the main stage actually began to feel busy; the crowd extended past the sound booth, and the area behind was busy with bar patrons and plebs such as myself making use of the few tables and seats (of which there was a lack of supply at Damnation, which my feet felt later in the day).

Ashenspire 14:20-15:00, Eyesore Merch Stage

Musclassia: Ashenspire were an unexpected highlight of ArcTanGent 2023; here, they weren’t unexpected, but they were again a highlight. It seems that frontman Rylan Gleave remains a live-only member of the group; I hope that, even if he doesn’t join them full-time, that he remains in this role for a while, as his passionate on-stage energy (and fabulously distinct dress sense compared to the ‘core’ members of the band) do a lot to give Ashenspire their appeal. The solid live mix, the strength of the band’s ingenious extreme metal songwriting, and the energy on display by all the band, all together likely played a major role in the third stage filling up; for the first time, I felt like I was attending a busy and excited festival.

High Command 14:20-15:00, Holy Goat Brewing Stage

Omne: Following up the high that Khemmis provided was going to be a tough ask, but if anyone could keep this hype train going, then the other of the two thrash acts this weekend, High Command, was a good bet to take. Taking to a UK stage for the first time, the band were received by an enthusiastic crowd, as they hit the spot for not only yours truly, but a good section of the audience. With a sound equally as clear as it was loud, tracks like "Fortified By Bloodshed" shone as prime examplees of modern thrash.

With barely a few breaths between songs, High Command made a hell of a case for becoming regular visitors to these shores, something security crews everywhere should be aware of, least they be swamped under the sea of crowd surfers. The band more than kept the hype train rolling that bit longer, picking up the pace and getting my adrenaline flowing.

Unearth plays The Oncoming Storm 14:55-15:40, Pins & Knuckles Stage

Musclassia: The organizers of Damnation, in arranging the schedule for the festival, placed sets such that main stage and second/third stage sets overlapped with one another by 5 minutes; the time saved by refraining from a clashless schedule likely afforded them the opportunity to fit in 1-2 more slots than otherwise, but the upshot of such a schedule was that, when Unearth took to the stage to perform their sophomore album The Oncoming Storm, the crowds that were captivated by Ashenspire and High Command had yet to make their way over, meaning the metalcore veterans initially found themselves faced with a sparse crowd. Additionally, given the compact nature of the arena site and the lack of closing doors, there was a level of bleedthrough of sound from the secondary stages during the first few minutes of this set.

The combination of these factors led to an imperfect beginning to this performance, but the determination of frontman Trevor Phipps to get the crowd alive and going eventually paid off, with gradually growing moshpits and armies of crowdsurfers. For my part, having only heard the three other Unearth albums released in the same decade as The Oncoming Storm but not this one, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of these songs, in particular the hefty breakdowns, which were given a good degree of oomph by a solid sound mix.

Omne: I imagine the past twenty years since the release of The Oncoming Storm haven't turned out the way Unearth would have hoped for. Initially a gem in the pantheon of metalcore, the band never truly took the step up that some of their peers did. With a defiant tone to Unearth’s performance, however, they turned back the clock, and did more than just take the audience on the nostalgia trip; they ferociously made the audience remember why they loved them all those years ago. Despite an initial muddy mix, one that robbed Phipps of anything more coherent than a bark throughout, the band's riffs shone through, and truly transcended once the sound cleared up and the addictive riffs were heard in all their glory.

Unearth have certainly caught my attention for any future plans.

OHHMS 15:40-16:25, Eyesore Merch Stage

Musclassia: Already a band I was eager to see, having enjoyed their headline show at Downsurge Festival back in 2019 and having missed them this year at ArcTanGent, this set gained an extra level of unmissability and poignancy following the pre-festival announcement that this would be the final show from OHHMS, 10 years after their formation (as if to make this as clear as possible, the word ‘END’ was presented on the backing screen throughout). This was the kind of set that made you wonder why the end had to be nigh; the band were clearly loving life, particularly the bassist (who crowdsurfed with both bass guitar and mic during the closing minutes before lobbing his bass into the air and likely smashing it after the final song finished), and the performance exhibited their quality, particularly in the second half. If this truly is the last we hear from OHHMS, it was a memorable way to sign off.

Omne: Where one journey begins, another one ends; OHHMS’ decision to call it quits meant this set was given an unfortunate aura of poignancy. Still, while the rest of the festival was celebrating new and old, I guess rounding things out with one final show means we one have of everything. It's a shame to see OHHMS go, as the band have been an excellent addition to any music bill in these past ten years. As a set, this was far from their best, but I can't blame the band for wanting to make the most of their final outing rather than focusing on putting on the tightest show possible. It was good to hear "The Mephisto Waltz" before the band called it quits, in amongst the crammed greatest hits set. Still, the sight of Chainy crowdsurfing with bass and microphone as the closing "The Anchor" played out more than made for a good send-off.

Julie Christmas 16:15-17:10, Pins & Knuckles Stage

Musclassia: As a Cult Of Luna fan, I obviously know Julie Christmas from the Mariner collaboration; I’m also to some degree familiar with Battle Of Mice, but less so her solo work and Made Out Of Babies. I didn’t really know what to expect from this set, but I was more than pleasantly surprised; with an extensive backing band featuring Johannes Persson of Cult Of Luna among others, Christmas delivered a show filled with powerful, heavy songs elevated by her signature quirky vocals, stage presence and oddball quasi-banter between songs. Although there were no Mariner songs in spite of Persson’s presence, this was a really solid hour of music that’s rekindled my curiosity towards Christmas’ back catalogue.

Undeath 17:10-17:55, Holy Goat Brewing Stage

Omne: Capping off a whirlwind year for Undeath in the UK, with the band's profile having grown much higher than the band could have hoped for this time last year, tonight was an exclamation point on just how good a year it had been. Taking to the stage to the perfect mix, the band found themselves hosts to the most intense and energetic crowd of the weekend, with umbrellas waving around in dismay as the constantly moshing or crowdsurfing (and also creating the only square pit of the weekend) crowd were unrelenting. Cuts old ("Grave Osmsis") and new ("Necrobionics") filled out the setlist, as Undeath certainly left a mark for themselves this weekend. Another strong contender for set of the weekend, from a band that I highly recommend catching if afforded the opportunity.

Amenra 17:50-18:45, Pins & Knuckles Stage

Musclassia: If ever there is a band you can trust to deliver live, Amenra is right there in the conversation. Claiming a spot closer to the front after enjoying snippets of Undeath and Downfall Of Gaia, I waited with bated breath as the fog that exhibited the band’s logo dissipated, and the unmistakeable opening clanks of “Boden” then kicked off the most atmospheric hour of the day. Delivering a setlist that spanned from Mass III through to 2021’s De Doorn, Amenra conveyed the intensity and bleakness that anyone who has witnessed their live performances knows to expect, and once more featured the stunning “A Solitary Reign” to wow all newcomers. Of the many Amenra shows I’ve seen, this won’t go down as the best (Hellfest 2018 will take some beating), but this served as another reminder of their greatness.

Sigh 18:45-19:30, Eyesore Merch Stage

Omne: After yesterday's stellar performance of one of the most acclaimed black metal albums, tonight saw Sigh swap the larger second stage for the more intimate settings of the third stage for their second show of the weekend. This was by far the tightest packed crowd of the weekend, with little room available beyond that necessary to just to stand in awe at what we were witnessing.

While the old school black metal vibes had dissipated, tonight's more experimental nature was just as enjoyable... and with a saxophone! "Hail Horror Hail" and "The Soul Grave" sounded just as intense live as they do on record, especially with the theatrics of Dr. Mikannibal thrown in for good measure. A solid run through the different albums in their discography, it proved to be a good way of highlighting of the other side of the band's sound.

As for which set was the better of the two? It’s a tough one, though I'd say their Friday show edged it on atmosphere.

Katatonia 19:25-20:20, Pins & Knuckles Stage

Musclassia: I was keen to catch some of Sigh after missing most of the Scorn Defeat show, but the sheer volume of people also trying to watch on the third stage left me positioned too far back to see much, or to really hear much, as the sound didn’t carry all that well to the back of the third stage hall. Therefore, after a couple of songs, I drifted elsewhere to chill out prior to Katatonia’s own second performance. Much like last night, this was pleasantly mellow and atmospheric, but also somewhat unremarkable; the most memorable aspect was the delayed start due to technical issues, and Jonas Renkse’s heartfelt contrition at announcing this unfortunate state of affairs.

Omne: While last night's performance was enjoyable, I hoped to make more of Katatonia's second outing, with the set not limited in scope. The band got off to a belated start owing to technical issues, but they eventually got going and hit the spot with "Teargas" and "Forsaker", the perfect kind of melancholy to just take the edge off and nod your head to while trying to recharge your batteries. The sound wasn't as good tonight unfortunately, so some of the band's newer material lost many of the additional elements that set them apart, though Renkse still managed to set the morose mood well. Good, but not the best of the day.

Rotten Sound 20:20-21:10, Holy Goat Brewing Stage

Omne: Almost like a palette cleanser, Rotten Sound's grindcore turned the dial up after the more subdued melancholy of Katatonia, and grabbed your attention through brute sonic force. Rotten Sound distorted all feeling of time, as at one point it felt like the band had been playing for about twenty minutes, before a look at my watch revealed they had actually been on for just seven! While the band hit the ground running, I found myself flagging due to having not sat down for more than ten minutes all day. As the band tore through yet another two grindcore blasts as I was leaving to get some food, I felt I had heard enough and did enjoy it as much as my tiredness allowed.

Ahab Bossk 20:20-21:15, Eyesore Merch Stage

Musclassia: The unfortunate announcement of Saturday morning that Ahab would be unable to attend due to illness was tempered by a promise of a special set. With the thought of nearly 1 hour of grindcore on the other stage sounding like borderline torture, I followed by friends in checking out the mystery guest; many guesses from early on speculated that Bossk would be the latest act to double up across the weekend, and a backdrop of Wicket W. Warrick during set-up confirmed this. As much as I like Bossk, I felt that given that they had already played many of their most renowned songs the day before, they would need to bring out the big guns to match up to yesterday, such as (I remarked to my friend while waiting for the band to start) playing 2012 single “Pick Up Artist” for the first time since I’d seen the band for the first time at Beyond The Redshift in 2014; imagine my delight when they opened with “Pick Up Artist”.

Ultimately, this special set rather blew the Audio Noir set out of the water; the smaller stage seemed to suit them better, as did the livelier crowd. Persson made good use of his attendance at Damnation by joining Bossk on stage for a sensational performance of “Menhir” from Migration, Persson almost climbing into the crowd (and allowing me to get by far the best pictures of the weekend). The livelier crowd and resultant moshpit even elevated “Atom Smasher” from the day prior’s iteration; this set truly was special, rivalling Nordic Giants and Ashenspire for the day’s highlight.

Enslaved plays Vikingligr Veldi 21:10-22:00, Pins & Knuckles Stage

Omne: Almost like a history lesson come to life, Enslaved's second ‘album in full’ set in two days focused on the band's black metal-infused debut record Vikingligr Veldi. While I must admit that the reverence towards this album is lost on me, I did find myself enjoying it more and more in the run-up to the festival. The sound had improved from last night's show, but the performance dipped slightly in quality almost as if karma had to compensate. Hearing "Midgards Eldar" and "Heimdallr" live did revive my weary body, with the adrenaline surge pushing me on through the set and into the next as I left early to get a good spot on the second stage.

Musclassia: I love Enslaved, and I love Enslaved live, but I must confess that my passion for them only really starts with Below The Lights, and diminishes the further towards their origins as I go. Therefore, Vikingligr Veldi live was not the greatest attraction for me, and I wasn’t overly compelled to stick around further by the 20-odd minutes of this set that I caught before claiming a prime position for the night’s final big attraction.

Anaal Nathrakh 22:00-23:00, Holy Goat Brewing Stage

Omne: My true headliner for the night. I had yet to have an opportunity to see Anaal Nathrakh live before due to... well, life, but tonight offered a chance to finally see them. Slowly making their way to the stage individually as their intro tape and video package played, the crowd let out the loudest roar of the festival before the band kicked into gear with a brash rendition of "Unleash". Managing to balance poignancy, precision and humour, Hunt had the audience in the palm of his hand as he joked in between tracks and introduced the band. The brilliant live debut of "The Age Of Starlight Ends" had me stumped as to why they hadn't brought it out before, while firm favourites "In The Constellation Of The Black Widow" and "Forward!" ensured that the mix of regular tracks and obscure ones was perfect for a festival crowd. The live mix was on point, balancing the band's heavy side to not overshadow the industrial gloominess that emanated from the speakers. By the end of the set, I had spent up what little reserves of energy I had left leaving me a broken mess, but a happy one at that.

Musclassia: I regrettably have only really delved into Endarkenment from this band, and not looked further back into their discography, but what I do know from that album left me excited for what was to come. Only one of the two proper members of the band were on stage (Hunt joked about Mick Kenney having better things to do, alluding to Kordhell), but the live band (featuring members of Akercocke among others) delivered the full-pelt ballistic intensity that Anaal Nathrakh have built their reputation on; much like Akercocke the day before, this set was relentless, yet the melodic capacity of Hunt as a singer meant that it wasn’t just one-note in tone. The closing one-two of “Forward!” and “Endarkenment” made for an emphatic conclusion to a devastating hour of music.

Electric Wizard 22:55-00:00, Pins & Knuckles Stage

Musclassia: I was genuinely excited to see Electric Wizard in the build-up to the festival, having only caught them once before in 2019, but after the last notes of “Endarkenment”, I found that my energy levels and leg stamina were both running low. My friends and I stuck around for a handful of songs, but for whatever reason, the Wizard’s set just wasn’t doing enough to convince me to stick around longer, and so it was that I threw up the white flag and departed with a half-hour left.

Omne: I put on my robe and wizard hat and practically dragged myself across to the main stage to see shiny Gandalf take to the stage; alas, while I was there in body, my spirit was mostly drowned... in spirits. I was too uncomfortable and tired to truly switch off and let the music sweep my mind away, though the band's sound was on point. I tapped out about halfway through, and hobbled my way back to the hotel. They were enjoyable, but I know I didn't get the full sparky Potter experience owing to my own weariness.

Omne: Damnation 2023 lived up to the hype and then some, an event that left deep impressions on me (and my aching feet), with a series of live shows that shone a light on the underground and revelled in the deep well that is metal music. While there a few organisational oversights (seating! Want to know why my feet ached? I sat down once in 12 hours as there was nowhere to sit, with the concrete floor wet and muddy) that could be improved, the main reason I was there (the music) far exceeded my expectations. While it hadn't sold out, it was a boon for attendees as it meant you were rarely uncomfortably jammed in a crowd. If I had to be pushed for best set? I'm torn between Deadguy and Khemmis. Festival of the year for me.

Musclassia: My second visit to Damnation, and first at the new home in Manchester, was a successful one. I’ve already covered some of my misgivings about its new home (the lack of seating, the lack of non-meat food options, the sound spilling over between stages), but in spite of all this, the quality of the line-up and the number of unique full-album sets on offer justified the cost of attending, on both my wallet and my endurance (the stressful journey up included). As to whether I will attend again going forward, I think it depends a lot on the strength of the line-up; as an experience, it doesn’t quite have the innate charm of ArcTanGent, but it has the benefit of lighting up the festival off-season.

I’ve also found myself pondering over the place of Damnation in the festival scene going forward. The initial concerns I had over attendance during the Friday pre-show were somewhat abated by the fuller capacity on the main day, and the organizers’ social media posts all seem to indicate that the festival was successful (and presumably profitable); however, they seem to have recognized some of the pitfalls of this expanded A Night Of Salvation, as they’ve already announced that the event will be smaller scale in 2024 and only available to ticketholders for the main event. With presumably greater operating costs owing to the upsized venue, there’s greater pressure on Damnation organizers to deliver an irresistible billing, which must be more challenging as cost-of-living expenses rise and punters have to ponder their festival choices in 2024.

A new Camden festival, Celestial Darkness, has been announced for March 2024, using similar venues and offering bands in the same style as those likely to appear at Incineration Festival 2 months later; there’s also quite a lot of crossover as extreme metal festivals between Incineration and Damnation, who also share quite a few bands with Desertfest and ArcTanGent, and while the latter no longer has to compete with Tech-Fest, there’s still Radar Festival, plus all of these festivals have the big names Download and Bloodstock to think about... two attempted festivals, ManorFest and Dominion Fest, both cancelled last year due to poor ticket sales, and I do find myself wondering whether the pond is big enough for all these competing and partially overlapping events across the course of a year, especially as attendees’ budgets collectively tighten in the face of a potential recession. Still, as both an aspiring musician and keen festivalgoer, I am eager for all of them to remain healthy and sustainable, and if Damnation can offer up a billing as solid as this year’s, I’ll likely be doing my bit to support them going forward.

Written on 15.11.2023 by Hey chief let's talk why not

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