This year’s Damnation Festival is the second since it has returned to its original home of Manchester after many years at the University of Leeds. The festival had outgrown the confines of its erstwhile venue and now takes place at Manchester’s Bowlers Exhibition Centre across three large stages.
This year the Friday warm-up night, A Night of Salvation, has expanded into something of a full second festival day; whilst previous editions have been one-stage affairs, this time around all three stages are used for a 15-act lineup (with another 24 performances taking place for the main Saturday bill). In terms of atmosphere the larger Friday bill is undoubtedly a success. Last year’s Night of Salvation day felt a little cold (physically and figuratively) and lifeless, whereas this time a large crowd is already gathered by the Friday afternoon and the venue buzzes with the vibration of the metal community convening for what is now apparently Europe’s largest indoor metal festival.
As early evening hits at A Night of Salvation, Liverpool’s old-school Black Metallers Ninkharsag hit the stage and deliver a ferocious onslaught of blastbeats, riffs and screams in front of a projected backdrop of the grim reaper against a snow-covered landscape.
Bossk then take to the large stage to perform their Audio Noir album in full. Spacey projections provide the backdrop for a set of extended songs replete with doom riffs, reverb-drenched shoegaze guitars and psychedelic post-metal textures.
A last-minute addition to the bill following Tuskar’s cancellation, Din of Celestial Birds fill the smaller auditorium with a sublime and moving set of experimental instrumentals Incorporating dizzying discordant triple-guitar textures, pummelling heaviness, and prog rock synths.
Immediately afterwards, Enslaved bring the first of two performances this weekend to the large stage. This time they deliver a glorious and mighty rendition of 2003’s Below the Lights, replete with huge chugging riffs, death-doom grooves, black metal screams, and extended prog rock segments with odd time signatures and lush acoustic guitar simulators.
Next, Sigh arrive (again, for the first of two festival performances) with face paint, ceremonial robes and samurai swords to perform their 1993 debut album Scorn Defeat. Fiercely intense early black metal paroxysms are peppered with inhuman vocals and broken up by occasional doom riffs. Visual theatrics (including a ritualistic book-burning) abound, and the intermittently faltering projector does little to dull the impact of this visceral and explosive performance.
As Sigh leave one stage, Leprous enter another for a rendition of 2013’s Coal album. Ultra-tight and blessed with crisp and clear sound, the band fill the arena with an hour of mournful and dramatic progressive experimentalism. Stunning quasi-operatic vocals intertwine with prominent piano textures and massive riff-based soundscapes throughout an epic and emotive set.
In white shirts and black ties, Akercocke kick into a run-through of 2003’s Choronzon that gives the audience exactly what they have come for: melodic doom-laden death metal augmented by an abundance of double kick drum beats, squealing lead guitars and Jason Mendonça’s distinctive combination of clean and harsh vocal tones.
Headlining A Night of Salvation are Katatonia, who for this first performance of the weekend play 2012’s Dead End Kings album in full with former member Per “Sodomizer” Eriksson guesting to play his guitar parts from the record. Silje Wergeland, who sang on the album, also comes out to duet with Jonas Renkse on “The One You are Looking For is Not Here”. The set full of is sombre, funereal and dread-laden melodic doom metal and the audience are enchanted for the duration of this impassioned and powerful show.
As Saturday’s main event gets into full swing, Nordic Giants arrive early on the large stage to deliver their elaborate orchestral arrangements that shift elegantly from ambient jazzy psychedelia to crushing post-rock. Only two members are on stage, one alternating between drums and guitar and the other between keys and trumpet, both dressed in impressive if perhaps somewhat unwieldy alien-warrior costumes. Nevertheless, the sound is huge, aided as it is by recorded backing tracks. Equally impactful is the use of specially commissioned short films that project behind the group and make this a truly multi-media experience.
Kurokuma’s progressive and groovy doom metal energises the small stage crowd, never more so than when Nina Saeidi of Lowen comes on for a guest spot of ethereal and operatic singing.
Khemmis follow on the large stage for a set of epically dramatic melodic metal that occasionally crosses into D-beat territory.
Ashenspire’s small stage set is a wonder to behold. Gloomy, intense and spellbinding, they dish out fiercely energetic experimental post-black metal textures replete with saxophone melodies and Alasdair Dunn’s magnetic stage presence and David Tibet-esque half-spoken vocals.
Ohhms unexpectedly announce that this is to be their last ever show, and perform with “The End” projected behind them. Quickly quelling some initial feedback issues with the PA, they blast through a doom-infused but uproariously celebratory final outing that pulsates with leaden post-hardcore and old-school emo soundscapes.
Julie Christmas takes to the large stage in a fairy-light-covered dress and face paint, before launching into an explosive and melancholic set that incorporates colossal psychedelic doom, post-punk riffs, noise synths, and the riveting presence of Christmas herself, whose vocals vary from psychotic screams to intimate whispers as she dances erratically around the dry ice-filled stage.
As evening falls, Amenra’s tense and slow-burning drone-infused post-metal fills the large room. The ultra-dynamic performance incorporates everything from fragile ambience to thunderous doom, with Colin H. van Eeckhout’s anguished screams and fearsome presence at the centre.
Sigh’s second set of the weekend is generally slower and more intricately orchestrated than their Friday one, to reflect the more progressive direction the band has moved in since the debut record they aired on the previous evening. A packed-out small stage audience means it is more difficult to see what’s going on but the theatrics are still just about visible from the back throughout their ferocious concert.
At the same time as Sigh’s performance, Deadguy play the medium stage to an audience who more than make up for their slightly diminished numbers with their sheer energy – moshpits and crowdsurfing are permanent fixtures as the band smash out their ultra-headbangable and relentlessly supercharged metalcore.
Katatonia’s second performance of the festival is initially halted by unspecified technical issues that delay the start of the concert by 12 minutes as the tech crew work onstage to fix the problem. Eventually proceedings resume and ethereal clean guitar arpeggios and synth soundscapes wash over the crowd before the heavy progressive metal kicks in. Lush harmony vocals and synth pads mesh with chugging riffs and double kick drums throughout an emotive and powerful performance.
Ahab would have been up next on the small stage, but word gets around that they have had to cancel and a mystery band will be taking their place. This turns out to be a second outing for Bossk, who again entrance the jam-packed audience with their dreamlike spacey post-rock.
At the same time as Bossk’s second performance, Rotten Sound bring their lightning-fast blasting grindcore to the medium stage, with shouted vocals and occasional crusty doom riffs.
Soon afterwards, Enslaved begin their second festival performance on the large stage, this time running through the entirety of their 1994 debut record Vikingligr Veldi. With giant lit-up runes surrounding them on the stage, the band power through a set of groovy melodic metal with synth arpeggios, epic riffery, classic death-doom guitar harmonies, blastbeats and exquisitely vicious growled vocals.
Next, the small stage plays host to Maybeshewill, whose intricately orchestrated instrumental post-rock is peppered with samples of left-wing political speeches, bleeping synths, and tense syncopated drum grooves. Equal parts uplifting and dread-laden, their set is intensely emotionally charged and unrelentingly magnetic.
Top of the bill this year are Electric Wizard, and they do exactly what they do best with no surprises but plenty of schlocky horror aesthetics and ultra-slow classic occult doom metal. Their set also benefits from sonic clarity that allows the elephantine riffs and 70s rock guitar solos of songs including “Witchcult Today” and “Supercoven” to be appreciated in all their ragged and ear-splitting glory.
Judging by the positive atmosphere and comments from fans, Damnation 2023 appears to have gone down a storm, with many patrons agreeing that some of the relatively minor teething issues of 2022’s edition seems to have been sorted. Indeed, the food queues never seem to be excessively long, non-alcoholic beer is available, and the Friday feels far more lively as more ambitious affair. On the other hand, word has it that ticket sales haven’t quite lived up to those of the previous year, with some festivalgoers suggesting that not so many of the very biggest underground metal bands are on the bill this time. That said, without any lineup announcements having yet been made, 2024’s edition has by all accounts already sold over 1000 tickets, so it’s clear that for many metalheads Damnation Festival will continue to be an unmissable yearly fixture on their calendars.
WORDS BY DUNCAN EVANS
PHOTOS BY RICH PRICE PHOTOGRAPHY