On Saturday morning, I woke up on a sofa in Bristol. I realised I had forgotten to take the nail polish off that I’d been wearing the night before to the Halloween. The prospect of having bright silver nails during an Anaal Nathrakh interview might be an interesting talking point and began memorising comebacks in case I was questioned. Fittingly, as soon as I got to the venue a huge man wearing a very stylish cocktail dress walked past. It was apparently pocketless, leaving him nowhere to store his fucks which I think may have suited him rather well.
I was rather hoping I could start my day with Bristol’s finest death merchants Amputated but we ended up just clipping out their set. Instead I began with Bast, their doomy, sludgy passages exactly what I needed whilst the coffee worked its way into my system. Sadly we arrived at the tiny Eyesore stage after everyone else had made their way in so our view was restricted to a few hair flicks trailing their way overhead; the smallest stage at Damnation takes a bit of planning to get a really decent place, though its size does give their shows an electricity which you don’t get on the larger stages. It looked as if the audience were already getting worked up, and I’m pleased to report that Bast had a reaction to match their excellent performance.
I caught a few glimpses of other acts as I spend the next few hours interviewing acts. I caught the beginning of Atlantis’ set, their post-metal build-up sadly not quite reaching crescendo by the time I’m forced to depart. I’m reliably informed that they did reach a climax and it was glorious and I’m brought several glowing reviews of Black Moth’s set too. I rock up to catch the middle of Falloch’s set not knowing their material and again I hang at the back, unable to get any closer. From the back the sound doesn’t quite seem to work for them and some of their more intricate parts get lost in the mix, which is a shame as my party are rabid fans. I feel like the vocals aren’t cutting through well enough either which affects the atmosphere they’re trying so hard to create. I’m saddened that I wasn’t taken this time, but fortunately the next band, Solstafir, more than made up for it.
Yes please, Solstafir. Yes please indeed. I got a lift from a friend who was prepared to drive from Devon to Leeds to see this band, and I’m pretty sure they’re absolute proof that Iceland has never produced anything bad ever. There’s now a healthy scene of bands experimenting in shoegaze revival/ goth-y ambience/ post-everything but Solstafir are leaps and bounds ahead of the rabble, a incredibly effective mix of long, emotive passages, beautiful, melodious vocals and subtle guitar work. It’s only long after that I realised just how good the performance was; they brought some non-standard instruments and even some costume changes which in any other situation might have been a daft novelty; here it bolstered their live show considerably. I was a little disappointed that the bass drum seemed to be overwhelming the guitars, though the sound was tweaked throughout the set. Regardless, the overall sound came through gloriously and their vocalist has flat-out one of the most gorgeous voice I have ever heard. It’s almost a shame that my day peaked so early, but it did. No-one else came close.
I only caught the tail end of Orange Goblin which is frankly a cardinal sin; the pure noise of the guitar wall flattened the patrons at the Jagermeister stage. I did manage to get a good spot for Red Tide Rising which was a delightful outro and Ben Ward’s ogre-like roar assertion that this was the best crowd on the tour really hit home the significance of Damnation. Then we pop along to catch Anaal Nathrakh. Ohhhhhh myyyy. Anaal Nathrakh are the spirit of early grind, the kind of thing that John Peel went mad for; they’re also incredible songwriters.
Their live show is elevated here, the absurd stage banter taken to new heights as they announced that they’re the most requested band to return to Damnation to rapturous applause. I’d interviewed them earlier in the day and can confirm that Dave Hunt is a sweetheart; the ultraviolence is all part of the stage show of course and their performance is as packed with ridiculous audience feats as per usual; as we turned to leave, a thickly bearded man required four burly security guards to safely carry him over the barrier. At one point, Dave takes a moment to praise their drummer who looks a little taken aback at the gesture. Then they play Between Shit and Piss We Are Born. Absolute grind magic.
We wander over to feel-good festival favourites Wodensthrone who are on spectacular form, certainly the best I’ve seen from them. I make a point of trying to catch them whenever they’re on though I’ve never been to see them outside of a festival; they’re becoming a little easy to take for granted for those who frequent this kind of event so I was pleased to see they had a decent crowd. I certainly don’t remember them being this ferocious before; their performance has always been savage but this seems especially dramatic. The audience seems rapt and rightfully so; they deserve a great many new disciples after this show.
My 13-year-old self would have been devastated that I missed Cannibal Corpse. Instead, my 22-year-old incarnation went to see Ahab and he did not regret it. Their death growls are unbelievable and you can feel the seasoned metal fans in the room reel as they hit them at full force. The seagull samples are a refreshing atmospheric touch that might seem a little naff elsewhere; the Germans pull it off with aplomb and their songs, though frequently hitting and shattering the 10-minute mark, never even begin to drag. So many times bands that rarely grace our shores are given a very decent slot for Damnation; halfway through I’m struck that this may be the best place to see these guys ever. EVER. The rest of their set was spent in wonder at an exceptional band on incredible form. Later we snuck into the end of Cannibal Corpse’s set and I shouted all the words to Hammer Smashed Face whilst grinning like a goon.
Ahab ended up being the last full set that I saw as sadly my experiences of Fen and Bolt Thrower were both truncated. There was a palpable “squee” from black metal fans when Fen were announced, though sadly this doesn’t translate so well into numbers owing to the late hour and their clash with Bolt Thrower. Their sound isn’t quite as expansive as it should be, though their technicality comes through very well with their bassist in particular sounding delightfully warm. Fen’s textures are gorgeous, flirting with shoegaze influence but never settling long enough to give into sheer indulgence; I feel bad for them, knowing they would have had a much better time were they given a different slot. Still, the front rows are ecstatic – and rightfully so. We ended up changing plans at around this time and had to leave about halfway through Fen’s set to drive home; as we wander to catch a glimpse of Bolt Thrower, they immediately started playing No Guts, No Glory. At this point I was shattered so I just stood there and let death metal happen around me. I stayed there for a while; it was nice. I wish they played more often.
Though I had to cut some choices and pack myself full of coffee, this was definitely the best incarnation of Damnation I’ve ever been to. Damnation does things that no other UK fest does – not only does it draw some of the odder acts out but it elevates them and from their new platform they unexpectedly dominate; I’m sure plenty of people, having come for the favourites, will have brand new bands to obsess over. All hail Damnation.