The First of November 2014 saw the tenth anniversary of Damnation Festival take place in Leeds, UK. In an age when festivals come and go, Damnation has been able to stay alive throughout these ten years with impressive band line-ups, decent crowds and even a sell-out edition this year with Bolt Thrower topping the bill. I made my way north to the University of Leeds Students’ Union – where the event takes place – to learn what makes Damnation so special, what is it that the organisers are doing right and what is the trick to put on a successful festival in the UK.
So, what makes the people come back? There are various factors, of course. You have the varied band line-up, the ticket price, the venue and the overall organisation. Festival founder, Gavin McInally, claimed in an interview that Damnation has its own specialist fan base, the majority of which is older in their mid-30s and “they’re not Download goers”. The event is really fan-focused and organisation is always a priority. That is why special attention has to go into the running order on the day of the event: “You don’t clash black metal with black metal, doom with doom, so you’re not really pissing people off. You’re still pissing people off anyway because the doom metal band is great and so is the black metal band.” – claims Gavin. The organiser really praises his fans who keep coming back every year: “Our fans are legends really, they don’t come in and puke in the toilets, it’s not a student night [for the security], they come in and the venue is left as it was in the morning. And if you come in and enjoy it, you’re gonna come back.”
When asked what he loves most about this event: “putting on bands other festivals don’t”. Gavin continues: “I love that about Damnation, you take these bands and put them on a stage [and tell them:] “here you go”… And I love the fact that so many Damnation fans come through the doors at 12 [o’clock] to do that”. One such band were Bast, who were the only ones to not have a clash with any other act. The EyeSore Merch stage was packed at 13:30 and the Londoners proved themselves with a spectacular set. The band members, who have been here before on the other side as spectators, commented and praised the festival before they went on stage: “well-organised, lots of space and nice things for us to tuck into and yeah, we feel quite well looked after”. Gavin, Craig and Jon continued: “[It] takes a lot of work behind the scenes. So, that’s got to be pretty impressive to organise. It stands out – in these parts of the country, this is the “big one”. I think DesertFest down south and this one are the two main ones really, for this kind of music [in the UK].”
The other new-coming act was Black Moth, who brought their rock ‘n’ roll to a packed Plastic Head Distribution stage. It is amazing to see young bands, bands which have only one or two albums out, to perform to so many people, who actually by choice go and see them. What is the trick? Perhaps, it is in the band’s sound and attitude. Jim, the band’s guitarist, claimed “my favourite word for music is just “raw”. You wanna feel it. …music that’s just raw and passionate played from your gut”. Dom, the drummer, continued: “And that’s heaviness. Passion is heavy. That’s how you get to be a heavy band. You can’t just crank your amp to 11 and put effects pedal. You really have to believe it.” When asked what makes a successful festival in the UK, they claim: “you’ve got to have a ridiculously good line-up. … It got to that level where all the bands have to be that sort of standard to get people’s attention.” How does the festival compare to other events in the UK? “There’s your Damnation-style festival which are very music-oriented, everyone’s a huge music fan and everyone’s very passionate about music – like Temples as well and DesertFest. Festivals like these, which are awesome, you get a very captivating crowd and it’s great. Then you get the more general festivals like Leeds Festival and all that kinda stuff. You can still have a great crowd but people are more there to party and are less kind of just there for the music.”
Indeed, Damnation is more of a “specialist” festival. It’s for those who are really passionate about the music…the metal. And the organisers aim to keep it that way, they don’t want it to be another Download or Bloodstock Festival. “There is a Download and there’s a Sonisphere [which is struggling]. We don’t need another Bloodstock, we can be just Damnation”. When asked if he is thinking of expanding the festival, Gavin claims that he has never “seen such a resounding NO” when the possibility of making the tenth anniversary a two day event was announced to the fans. “I mean you get your day at Damnation, you wake up on Sunday and you want to die? You just go crazy for a day and I’m 43, I need to go back to my kids. There’s no way I can do two days” There is the possibility of enlarging the event by moving to a bigger venue and perhaps booking some bigger bands but the organisers – and the fans – seem quite happy with what they have at the moment: “It’s sold out, as it is people are loving it, they will be home tomorrow and they’ll say they had a great Damnation and book tickets for next year.” So, no need to make it into a two day event.
The London-based avant garde black metallers <code> have actually praised the venue: “a good facility to do it in. There are four rooms with quite reasonable space. That must work. And obviously they’ve got good bands to begin with”. The band’s vocalist, Wacian, also praises the sound quality: “There have been plenty of gigs where sound is an issue, things along those lines – but upfront you can actually hear the bands”. The band brought their own “open minded” experimental mix of metal to the EyeSore Merch stage. With their new album, however, they will take the “experimental” side a level (or few) higher. The new album – which will be released once again via Agonia Records – is the first time the band members have written completely openly and not worried about genre conventions. Wacian claims that it was “A strange creative experience”. Returning to the topic of festivals in the UK, however, Wacian and Aort have noticed that promoters’ attitudes have changed recently, and the Damnation organisers are those “good guys”: “promoters haven’t treated bands all that well in the past, I think now there’s a generation of promoters coming up, who are perhaps giving people more respect and they’re getting and reaping the rewards from it because they’re getting good reviews – people give a damn about British festivals again… because they haven’t for a while.”
During my chat with Wacian and Aort, the topic of the cost for bands to perform in the UK has come up as well. Aort claims: “that trip to get across the Channel to London costs an awful lot extra compared to driving a couple hundred miles more and playing somewhere else in Germany where you will get a lot of people coming anyway.” The Damnation organisers, however, are not afraid to bring bands from overseas and one of these bands was Ahab, who headlined the Plastic Head Distribution stage. Vocalist and guitarist, Daniel Droste, of the Nautik Doom act also claimed that it is very expensive to come to the UK and, perhaps, that explains the fact that this was only their second performance in this country. Although Daniel agrees that it is expensive to bring that nightliner over to the UK while on tour in mainland Europe, he does not want to give up and is eager to come back next year with a new album. After witnessing their mysterious but heavy, passionate and Moby Dick-inspired performance at Damnation, there is no doubt that many will welcome a British return of these German doom masters. When asked how can such slow and eerie music fit on an all-day festival bill, Daniel says it’s all about variety – and perhaps explains Damnation’s success: “It’s always a bit difficult [to play doom metal] if you’ve got many people and you’re playing quiet parts and there’s a lot of talking around. So, it depends, if it’s a good mixture then it’s maybe good to have slow bands and fast bands. I like having a mixture at festivals.”
The other top acts at Damnation this year were British rock ‘n’ roll heavyweights Orange Goblin, the 35th anniversary show of classic doom legends Saint Vitus and the most anticipated show of a death metal legend, Bolt Thrower. There is something about Orange Goblin – whenever they’re on stage, they ooze of rock ‘n’ roll and heavy metal. It’s as if the dirty attractiveness and the groove of their music turns on a switch in your head and commands you to grab a beer and rock! The band went through some of their hits like “Scorpionica”, “Some You Win, Some You Lose” but also new stuff from their latest record Back from the Black Abyss: “Sabbath Hex” and “The Devil’s Whip”. There might not be anyone else who does it as well as Orange Goblin. They are the Black Sabbath of the modern age. No bullshit, just rock ‘n’ roll…. Or heavy metal. Saint Vitus – a legendary band fifteen years older than Orange Goblin – performed their classic 1986 album Born Too Late in its entirety along with other few classics. The band was on top form and made me only think that I might have indeed been born too late to have lived through all those years during which all the classic records were released!
Now, the moment everyone has been waiting for. People started gathering to get their spots in front of the Jagermeister stage as soon as Saint Vitus finished. After all, you do not get to see the mighty Bolt Thrower that often on stage and especially on their home turf in the UK. Vocalist, Karl Willets, exclaimed on stage: “It’s good to play the UK! We never play the UK…” Damnation organiser, Gavin, explains the mystique of Bolt Thrower’s infrequent festival appearances: “they’re the hardest band to book because they’re not really part of the industry, they don’t have an agent…they are not really interested in the fee, they’ll just say “we’re gonna play or we won’t play”. He continues: “So, I asked them 12 times because I’ve asked them for the 10 Damnations and both Deathfests and I’m sure I’ve asked them to play Glasgow so, probably closer to 20. And I almost haven’t even asked this year. I thought, what’s the point? You send an email, they’re very polite but they send back “nah, it’s not for us”. And I’m like, “fuck it, there’s nothing to lose, it’s just an email.” Fortunately, for all of us, Gavin did not give up as the band responded positively this time claiming that if they ever do a festival in the UK, it has to be Damnation. No surprise, 700 tickets were sold only two days after the announcement of the band’s only UK performance back in February. Trust me, those who were lucky enough to be present in front of the death metal tyrants, witnessed one of the best death metal shows they ever will. Bolt Thrower is like a riff machine; the heaviness of their sound, of those headbangable riffs and all the groove, proved that they are masters of their own craft. There are not many death metal bands out there which can truly go on stage – and without saying anything – prove to everyone standing in front of them that they are a no nonsense death metal act and will not compromise with your bullshit. The veterans treated us to all the good classics: “Remembrance”, “Warmaster”, “World Eater”, “Cenotaph”, “Mercenary”, “No Guts, No Glory”, “The IV Crusade”, “Anti-Tank” and “The Killchain”.
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end. Ten years of Damnation is now history and the next ten years are ahead of us. Looking back, Gavin shared some of his highlights: “A sell out in the first year was a big deal. Landing Carcass for the first time they played the UK in 15 years, landing Bolt Thrower first time. The fact that the fans keep coming back, we keep selling more [tickets]. Festivals collapse and Damnation’s still here – we’ve lost money in this but it’s never collapsed.” Working on the next edition has already started and there are still some bands which Gavin would like to host: Neurosis, Behemoth and Emperor. He also wants to bring Bolt Thrower back as he is convinced that they had loved it. Whoever it will be next year on the bill, it will be hard to top this year’s line-up. Please do prove me wrong though.
For more pictures from Damnation head over here.