Damnation Festival 2021
Leeds University Union
6th November 2021
This is an emotionally-charged Damnation Festival. Firstly, a celebration of the return of the UK’s most treasured and iconic indoor metal festival, after the long gap necessitated by the pandemic. Secondly, it is the last Damnation festival to take place at the Leeds University Union, as in 2022 Damnation will move to the BEC Arena, Manchester, allowing for a greater capacity and an enhanced festival experience. So, at Damnation 2021, there are many memories of past great performances and highlights to be shared and celebrated.
The lineup, by necessity, because of the still formidable challenges for bands to play internationally, is to a large extent UK-based, and the performances throughout the day evidence the depth and talent that can be found in the UK metal scene.
As ever, navigating between the various stages requires a fleet of foot approach and not just a little planning. Cryptic Shift open things up on the Tone MGMT stage, in quite ferocious style. Formed in Leeds, the band’s 2020 debut album Visitations From Enceladus is a wide and creative palette of metal styles, which is very much in evidence in this excellent performance. They shift gears through doom metal, and Devil Driver-style groove metal, to atmospheric soundscapes with swooping melodic guitars as they play an explosive live version of Moonbelt Immolator, the nearly twenty six-minute long centerpiece track from the album.
Then, it’s the inimitable Party Cannon from Dundee that take over the Tone MGMT stage. The legends of party slam launch their set with beach balls and party streamers flying into the audience. The first pit opens up and the first breakdown witnesses a mass sea of head banging.
They announce the second song, Jack Vs The Exotic Crustacean, as a song “about a giant crab”, as the front of stage security playfully hit the beach balls back as they head towards the stage. Balloons fly into the audience out of bin bags and the band call for a wall of death, and of course the audience obliges.
The first crowd surfers are gently eased over the barriers accompanied by, would you believe, inflatable sharks. In the party atmosphere, it is possible to miss what a good band this is musically. The precision ensemble playing, as the band move from fast blast beat driven riffs into breakdowns, is quite breathtaking. The band, of course, receive a fantastic reception to their fabulously partying set.
Dvne from Edinburgh are on fire on the Eyesore Merch stage. They sound like a dozen musicians on stage, with the intense vocals, intricate rhythmic patterns and unison guitars and keyboards, creating an epic rush of sound. Their music played live offers mesmerising crescendos of sound that creatively combine elements of doom, progressive rock and post metal.
Court Of The Matriarch, from this year’s Etemen Ænka album, is a set highlight. The vivid keyboard flourishes, together with the rolling guitar riffs, give the song a space rock like ambience. The accompanying light show is very psychedelic, and if the early Pink Floyd were playing now, and in a metal context, this is surely how they would sound. Dvne are on tour with Bossk in December and are a band you will definitely want to see live on the strength of this performance.
Which neatly brings us to Bossk on the main Jägermeister stage. Their set, without doubt, is one of the festival highlights. First song in the set is the classic Kobe, with the cinematic-like sound completely filling the hall. There are devil horns and cheers from the audience as Bossk hit one of their trade mark pummeling riffs and the marvelously pitched screamed vocals come in. A meteorite flying through space on the animated screen behind the band provides the perfect visualisation of the all-consuming sounds emanating from the stage. The on-screen visuals during the set are simply incredible.
The addition of keyboards on stage really expands out the band’s sound, particularly on Define, from the .2 EP. Particularly striking during the set is the way the band almost telepathically lock into a groove that, while it is metal, also brings into play industrial and funk music elements, from which they are able to launch grand sweeping guitar led melodies. Don’t miss them on their December UK tour, they are reaching new musical heights live.
Svalbard on the Eyesore Merch stage have stepped in at the last moment for Green Lung, who have sadly had to pull out from the festival. This follows Svalbard already having played the Damnation pre-show, A Night Of Salvation, the previous evening. It speaks volumes to the commitment of this great band.
Svalbard’s musical framework live is expansive and wide ranging, with complex vocal arrangements that can involve soaring harmony as well as full on metal growls. Instrumentally, elegiac guitar melodies are present alongside black metal atmospherics, and punk and thrash metal-driven rhythms. It is an immersive and dynamic musical experience, where the audience and band are completely connected.
Click Bait, from 2020’s When I Die, Will I Get Better? album, is introduced by guitarist and vocalist Serena Cherry as being about people who are dismissive towards women, and is a set highlight. It is a stunning musical and vocal performance, with the message of the song staying with everyone long after the song has finished.
Sylvaine, also on the Eyesore Merch stage, features the very gifted multi-instrumentalist Katherine Shepard from Norway. The set is a quite magical one, with the music travelling through dream pop, crashing waves of ascending post-metal, blast beat-driven black metal, and at the end an unaccompanied folk vocal.
The way a song is built, and then explodes into a railing vocal or sparkling guitar crescendo, completely sweeps away the audience who applauded on many occasions mid-song. On one song, towards the end of the set, baroque guitar lines, and marching style drums create the atmosphere of a lament, before the band lock into a spiraling instrumental section, with Katherine’s wordless vocal, full of emotion, seeming to float out over a spellbound audience.
Then comes the moment that will be something those of us who were present will talk about for years to come, as one of those iconic Damnation moments. The last song has been played and the applause from the audience is prolonged and sustained. As people make to leave, Katherine comes back to the front of the stage, and sings, unaccompanied, a quite beautiful piece of Norwegian folk music. You could hear a pin drop. It’s moving, life affirming, and seems to sum up in that moment, the joy of the metal community, back together again, celebrating music and connection. Just wonderful.
If you haven’t experienced Godflesh before, nothing can really prepare you for the onslaught of sound they unleash. The Jägermeister stage shudders as their industrial metal blasts to every corner of the hall.
Juddering guitars, gargantuan rumbling bass and funk rhythms all meld into a cacophony of sound, that challenges the audience to surrender and become completely emerged in the music, and of course dance.
Bathed in reds and yellows, Justin Broadrick and G. C. Green look like they are in the middle of a volcanic eruption. Once they hit an industrial funk groove, they play it out to destruction. The best way to describe this incredible music played live, is to imagine the Gang of Four, meets Funkadelic, meets Sun O))). It’s that awesome.
Paradise Lost on the Jägermeister stage, perform their Gothic album in its entirety, on the 30th anniversary of its release, and of course on their home ground of Yorkshire. The evocative animated images behind the band and excellent sound make for a worthy show case for such a legendary album.
Dead Emotion sums up all that is great about this band; it is completely epic, with a great rolling riff, and thumping bass and drum rhythms, accompanied by some stinging guitar flourishes from Gregor Mackintosh. Nick Holmes vocals have a deep growl, full of foreboding and pathos, while Gregor’s guitar solo that follows the church organ-like mid-song section, is fantastically inventive, ringing out some memorable phrases.
Rapture is a real treat, with its full on riff-driven charge, leading into a classic doom metal section, introduced by Nick with the words, “Is life and death”. A set to savour and you should look out for Paradise Lost touring the UK in February
Its then a quick dash back to the Eyesore Merch stage to catch some of the Year Of No Light’s set. On approach, the ear-splitting wall of sound almost knocks you over. Year Of No Light, from France, are a six-piece band with two drummers, and their live sound is cinematic in scale, with the ensemble-playing astonishing in its agility and synchronicity, and ability to create soundscapes that beguile and engulf the audience.
So, it falls to Carcass to close the last Damnation at the Leeds University Union. With Jeff Walker center-stage with his bass, flanked by the two guitarists, including the other founding member Bill Steer, the band storm through their heady mix of death metal and grindcore.
Some material from the new album Torn Arteries is debuted live, and the set is relentless in its sledgehammer attack on the senses. Jeff’s death growl vocals are, as ever, full of menace, and the heavy riffs are completely unforgiving wherever you stand in the hall. There is also some impressive squealing soloing from the guitarists, adding the musical nuances that make Carcass live stand out within the death metal and grindcore genres.
As the crowd surfers head over the barriers, it feels a fitting last hurrah for Damnation at Leeds.
In 2022, it’ll be the BEC Arena, Manchester, with the Damnation line up announced so far looking pretty amazing already, including as it does bands such as Ministry, Converge, thrash metal legends Destruction, and the not to be missed Elder. See you there.
You can find out more about the Damnation Festival here |
Written by Gareth Allen. You can find Gareth’s author profile .
Photography by Lewis Allen.