The big review: Damnation Festival 2023

From Enslaved to Electric Wizard, Unearth to Undeath, Damnation Festival 2023 unequivocally underlined its status as the destination for all things extreme at the tail end of the European festival season. As always, we were there for every brilliantly gnarly body blow across a truly wild weekend...

The big review: Damnation Festival 2023
Sam Law, Nick Ruskell
Em Coulter, Mark Latham, Sabrina Ramdoyal

In an increasingly beige world, it’s awesome to see truly extreme music breaking new ground. Damnation Festival’s move, last year, from its long-term home at Leeds University Union down the M62 to the massive Bowlers Exhibition Centre in Salford, felt like a bold statement of intent. But in 2023 the UK’s premier autumnal metal gathering celebrated its 18th birthday by doubling down: expanding the once-humble pre-show A Night Of Salvation into a three-stage behemoth in its own right and proceeding to fill out the massive space again with thousands of punters clutching two-pint steins – and the kind of skull-rattling sets you simply don’t get anywhere else.

The most brilliant thing about Damnation, though, is that there is no boredom. Despite drawing its line-up from the shadiest depths of the underground, organisers Gavin McInally and Paul Farrington invariably curate an experience that runs from the delicate, emotionally-wrenching post-rock of acts like Nordic Giants, Maybeshewill and Julie Christmas via the deep stoner grooves of OHHMS and headliners Electric Wizard to the pit-spinning mania of rising death metal supremos Unearth and resurgent metalcore heroes Unearth.

There were more than a few broken bodies after this year’s mammoth 32-hour stretch between first band and last, but now that we’ve managed to straighten our banged-out necks a little, and the tinnitus has begun to subside, K! presents our blood-and-beer-stained retrospective of the heaviest weekend of the year...

Celestial SanctuaryChurch Road Stage, Friday

Talk about kicking proceedings off with a (big) bang! There’s a bit of banter about Celestial Sanctuary’s ‘celestial’ thunder being stolen when Leeds supremos Din Of Celestial Birds are drafted in to replace Tuskar at the last minute. But the sheer violence of their set is no laughing matter. UK death metal is having a moment right now, and the Cambridge crushers’ Insatiable Thirst For Torment positions them close to the front of the pack. With a fresh-through-the-doors crowd ready to throw down, songs like Swords Of A Thousand Men and Mass Extinction lay waste to the Church Road Stage just as it’s getting started. (SL)

Inhuman NatureChurch Road Stage, Friday

As always, Inhuman Nature deliver exactly what they say on the tin. It’s perfect material for teatime on Friday night at Damnation, too. Picking up where Celestial Sanctuary leave off, the London thrashers trade a little of those lads’ weight for speed, detonating songs like Taste Of Steel, Satan’s Claw and Take Them By Force in a hail of squealing guitars, pounded fists and pit-spinning riffs. Now four years on from their debut LP, with a smattering of splits and singles in the interim, it feels like another substantial statement is overdue. Regardless, gigs like this will keep their name on everyone’s (bust) lips. (SL)

HeriotChurch Road Stage, Friday

At this point, it's more or less impossible for Heriot to turn in a bad show. And for the benefit of the three people left in the UK who still haven't caught them live, they're a finely-tuned, high-energy grinding machine, a fantastic noise precision-tooled to land in the most devastating manner possible. Guitar whiz and singer Debbie Gough later tells K! that tonight's gig wasn't one of their best, having had to rush toward stagetime, but this is a nonsense. Her calls for the audience to spin "Round and round! Round and round!" may be less answered than normal, but they still shove skulls backward with their sonic G-force. Unfailingly destructive, and able to go from 0-to-100 from a cold start, Heriot are one of the most promising bands in the country right now. (NR)

SighCult Never Dies Stage, Friday / Eyesore Merch Stage, Saturday

As fans of their famously unhinged, maximalist black metal sound will know, Sigh have far too much going on to reasonably fit into a single festival set. It’s just as well, then, that they deliver two across the course of this weekend. Wreathed in blood, corpsepaint and katanas, the Japanese legends’ blackened avant-garde is in full flow for a suffocatingly-packed third stage on Saturday night, with bangers like Corpsecry Angelfall and The Soul Grave sending the space into overdrive. It’s Friday’s run-through of inimitable 1993 debut Scorn Defeat that really delights the hardcore, though, with compositions like The Knell and At My Funeral still as blood-curdlingly epic three decades down the line. (SL)

EnslavedPins & Knuckles Stage, Friday & Saturday

If there’s been one complaint levelled at Enslaved over the past couple of decades, it’s that the Norwegian giants have been too ready to sacrifice their early material for proggy scale in the live arena. They go some way towards addressing this with Friday’s 20th anniversary playthrough of 2003 classic Below The Lights, but it’s Saturday’s breathtaking rendition of 1994 debut Vikingligr Veldi that really knocks the festival cold. With glowing runes onstage, there’s a hint of Amon Amarth’s OTT theatricality, but the fury of compositions such as Lifandi lif undir hamri and Norvegr aren’t long laying such smirking comparisons to rest. A rattling reminder of the elemental force these sleeping ice giants are still able to unlock when the occasion calls. (SL)

DeadguyChurch Road Stage, Friday / Holy Goat Stage, Saturday

Deadguy aren’t the biggest name at Damnation. The New Jersey mathcore pioneers might be credited with inspiring genre legends from Converge and Cave In to The Dillinger Escape Plan but, having never made it to the UK before, most punters are either apathetic or ignorant to their artistic significance. It’s a good thing, then, that those who do turn out to catch their sets – including big names from some of the other bands on the bill – completely lose their shit while doing so. For both Friday’s playthrough of 1995 debut Fixation On A Co-Worker and Saturday’s airing of loose ends and the first new material in almost three decades, security can be seen running across site to handle the number of bodies being hurled at and over the barricade. A deliciously chaotic exercise in making up for lost time. (SL)

AkercockeHoly Goat Brewing Stage, Friday

It's less astounding that it has already been two decades almost to the day (its birthday falls on Saturday) since sharp-dressed Satanic men Akercocke released their landmark Choronzon album than it is that tonight they manage to play it with even more fury and vitality than they did when it was new. From the moment Praise The Name Of Satan's opening Hammer House Of Horror opening sample gives way to a tumbling spiral of blastbeats and dissonant riffs, they are an unstoppable exercise in Satanic might and devilish power. Leviathan is as proggily wonky as ever, while Enraptured By Evil remains completely overpowering, and the majestic Son Of The Morning is still an ingenious, epic, widescreen demonstration of the depth, intelligence and high-minded skill of this band. The pit is complete pandemonium, and it's an astonishingly enlivening anniversary celebration of which Satan himself would be proud. (NR)

KatatoniaPins & Knuckles Stage, Friday & Saturday

Another of Damnation’s big names getting the two-set treatment, Swedish prog metal monarchs Katatonia deliver a serious cross-section of their repertoire across the weekend. Friday’s full-album playthrough of 2012 landmark Dead End Kings – headlining the main stage at A Night Of Salvation – might lack the adrenaline to stir those in the audience already out on their feet, but those who stick around for the first performances of Hypnone and Leech in a decade are reminded of their strange, jazzy allure. Saturday’s set is shortened due to major technical difficulties, but that adversity adds urgency: the cutting edges of No Beacon To Illuminate Our Fall and shimmering darkness of Nephilim slicing through any fatigue. (SL)

Coffin MulchHoly Goat Stage, Saturday

Rising Glasgow death metallers Coffin Mulch don’t just have one of the most disgusting band names at Damnation. In their set-long timelapse video of a rotting piece of meat filling the second stage’s massive screen, they’ve got the most memorable production, too. Fortunately, they have an arsenal of songs to match. Into The Blood, Mental Suicide and Eternal Enslavement sound exactly as you’d expect, in fairness. But charged with these levels of ravenous urgency and politicised energy they build into one of the most thrilling sets to be seen. (SL)

Nordic GiantsPins & Knuckles Stage, Saturday

Feathered headdresses. Upright guitars. More focus on the short films being beamed onto the massive main screen than the two players onstage. You’d have to look long and hard to find an act anything like Nordic Giants. Which is exactly why the English post-rock duo’s set goes down such a treat. The blend of high narratives (a world running out of oxygen, anyone?), ingenious use of samples (Martin Luther King Jr’s A Time To Break Silence speech) and the euphoric blend of percussion, strings and keys to present tracks like Through A Lens Darkly and Together ensure they’ll live long in this audience’s memories long after the bangovers subside. (SL)

KurokumaEyesore Merch Stage, Saturday

Kurokuma get along with a little help from their friends early on Saturday afternoon. The Sheffield crew’s heavy, hallucinogenic brand of psych-metal might feel fast and loose, but it’s the type that demands drum-tight execution. All of which makes the integration of Psython/Chapel Floors’ Chris Bingham filling in on guitar, as well as Nina Saeidi of Lowen (epic, willowy) and Juda Gentelini of Lobotomica (spitting bars like he’s been possessed by Zack de la Rocha in what might be the first-ever rap performance at Damnation) on guest vocals all the more impressive. Big kudos. (SL)

KhemmisPins & Knuckles Stage, Saturday

UK fans have been waiting for a first appearance from U.S. metal titans Khemmis since well before COVID. There’s a brief hint that the Denver lads’ moment may have passed by as the main room at Bowlers proves slow in filling out: Avernal Gate echoing into the cavernous space. By the time they uncork the classic metal majesty of Sigil and Above The Water, however, the faithful have arrived en masse and proceedings quickly heat up. Phil Prendergast and Ben Hutcherson’s vocals do clatter a little in the massive room, but staggering closer A Conversation With Death sets everything right, whetting appetites even more for headline dates further down the line. (SL)

High CommandHoly Goat Stage, Saturday

Amidst Damnation’s bounty of special appearances and lesser-spotted album sets, it feels like High Command arrive under the radar. The Massachusetts crew aren’t long getting attention, mind. Melding the sound of crossover thrash with the aesthetic of dark fantasy feels like it could be a recipe for cringe, but the truncheon-swing of Inexorable Darkness and Impaled Upon The Gates leaves no choice but to dive in headlong. By the time Beyond The Wall Of Desolation stomps from the speakers, it’s all-out war. (SL)

UnearthPins & Knuckles Stage, Saturday

If you’d told the festival veterans here today 15 years ago that Unearth would be ripping it up in an arena for Damnation 2023, they’d have laughed. The Boston metalcore mainstays smashing sound was too slick, too close to metal’s mainstream back then to be mixing it with the likes of Napalm Death or Carcass. Its testament to their bloody-minded endurance in the face of changing trends that this (almost) 20th anniversary celebration of The Oncoming Storm slots onto the main stage between Khemmis and Julie Christmas perfectly: the 100mph attack of Failure and Black Hearts Now Reign pulling ageing bodies into the pit like a tornado at a vintage vinyl fair. With bleeding edge outfits like Dying Wish taking cues from Unearth’s back-catalogue, the resurgence is overdue. (SL)

OHHMSEyesore Merch Stage, Saturday

“For those heading out to Damnation this weekend, a heads-up,” read a seemingly out-of-the-blue post on OHHMS’ Facebook page at lunchtime on Wednesday. “This will be the last ever OHHMS show. No drama to report – just riffs…” For fans of the Brighton-based post-stoner collective, it was something of a gut-punch. In the heat of the pit, though, this is a celebration. Bodies and beer flying, it’s an honour to be present to see vocalist Paul Waller conjure his horror-obsessed imagery and bassist Chainy Rabbit inevitably chuck his sweat-drenched T-shirt into the feverish front rows one last time. A perennially underrated outfit who will be missed. (SL)

Julie ChristmasPins & Knuckles Stage, Saturday

Julie Christmas is familiar to many of the Damnation faithful thanks to her collaboration with Swedish masters Cult Of Luna on their 2016 landmark Mariner, performed in full back in 2016. The Brooklyn songstress – with CoL frontman Johannes Persson on guitar – commands the main stage 100 per cent on her own twisted terms, however. Like Björk fronting some slab-heavy alt.metal outfit, the contrast between light and darkness, delicacy and blunt force makes it a bracing, occasionally disorienting experience: one that few here will forget. (SL)

UndeathHoly Goat Stage, Saturday

The UK is quickly becoming a home away from home for Undeath. Having completed their first headline tour at the beginning of 2023 and crushed Download back in June, the Buffalo death metallers completed another tour as support for the mighty Municipal Waste just a couple of weeks ago. Rather than any kind of diminishing returns, their momentum only grows, packing the uncompromising impact of a runaway freight train. Case in point: the absolute madness that unfolds as bangers like Necrobionics and Brandish The Blade – as well as a tease of new song Sutured – unleash hell. (SL)

Rotten SoundHoly Goat Stage, Saturday

Rotten Sound play grind so tight and nuclear powered that you almost fall over every time they stop. It's been far too many years since the Finnish foursome hit these shores, and seem determined to make up for it by leaving a dent in the venue. A pit to rival the ferocity kicked up during Deadguy boots off from the word go, while one bloke at the back shows his appreciation by puking all over his feet. As such, the band's anti-fascist, anti-capitalist messages may be taking a definite backseat to banter and blastbeats for many tonight, but either way, Rotten Sound are a deadly, intense treat that doesn't come round anywhere near often enough. (NR)

Anaal NathrakhHoly Goat Stage, Saturday

Rarely has a set as wilfully disgusting as Anaal Nathrakh’s turned out to be such a pleasant surprise. When it was announced that the Birmingham extremists would be continuing to play shows without the live participation of guitarist and key songwriter Mick Kenney (who’s busy entertaining his 12 million monthly Spotify listeners as Memphis rap alter-ego Kordhell) it was easy to presume that they’d lose a little of their serrated edge in the live arena. Not so. From one-off event shirts featuring the penis-eyed pig’s head from the cover of eleventh album Endarkenment to the unrelenting viciousness of Hold Your Children Close And Pray For Oblivion and In The Constellation Of The Black Widow, their relentless 60 minutes feels like a bloody minded new benchmark. For these lads, that’s saying something. Long may their reign of sonic terror continue. (SL)

Electric WizardPins & Knuckles Stage, Saturday

Between sheer exhaustion and the stench of sweet leaf filling the air, things are feeling a little fuzzy by the time headliners Electric Wizard arrive. Frontman Jus Oborn and crew would have it no other way. Damnation veterans and previous headliners, there’s something fitting about seeing the legendary Dorset doomsters stepping up to own a space the size of Bowlers under this festival banner. And, although their deafening volume, retro horror movie shtick and songs like Witchcult Today, Black Mass, Supercoven and Satanic Rites Of Drugula are far from unexpected for the legion of long-term fans in attendance, it’s hard to think of another act more deserving of a stage as grand as this. Hopefully we’ll have sobered up by the time they announce who’ll be getting to fill that coveted spot this time next year. Either way, we’ll catch you down the front. (SL)

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