Live Review: Damnation Festival 2021

Live Review: Damnation Festival 2021
6th November 2021

Words: Dan Barnes, Neil Bolton, Richard Oliver, Paul Hutchings & Cat Finch
Photos: Tim Finch

Walking through the university district of Leeds on a crisp November morning, the smell of last night’s fireworks still apparent in the chilly air, really brings home how much Damnation was missed last year. I know I’m not alone when I say it has become one of the seminal draws for fans of extreme music and, for all other summer festivals cater for the diverse tastes of their evolving demographic, Damnation has always stood as the bastion of the heavy and the abrasive.

After a rather heavy and boozy night at A Night Of Salvation you would have thought starting the day with something a bit relaxed or straightforward would be in order. Yet instead Damnation Festival kicked off with one of the most staggeringly complex and challenging sets of the entire day from Leeds technical death/thrashers Cryptic Shift. This was a wake up call not only for the crowd but for the band themselves who performed their 26 minute colossus Moonbelt Immolator from start to finish. It was a visceral explosion of dissonant and complex music from start to finish with single Cosmic Dreams thrown on the end for good measure. There were a few sound issues throughout the set (a recurring thing for a lot of the bands on the Tone MGMT stage throughout the day) but it didn’t detract from the maelstrom of complex music. Cryptic Shift are a young and very talented band who are definitely worth keeping an eye on. [RO]

Once inside it was a straight choice: Cryptic Shift or Mountain Caller. Having seen the former not that long ago the latter took my eye and I headed into the warmth of the Eyesore Merch Stage for the London three-piece. It wasn’t long before the room was full to bursting, something that would be repeated throughout the day and a demonstration that the festival has indeed outgrown the site.

It’s no mean feat to open a festival to a heaving mass of humanity but Mountain Caller’s fearless approach was both refreshing and inspiring. Predominantly instrumental, the band earned many new friends with their broad musical soundscapes. Gentle passages combined with crushingly heavy sections. There were riffs. Oh yes, there were riffs. And humour. Bassist El Reeve raising laughter with her comments about the motorway signs reminding travellers that they were entering “THE NORTH” and a factoid about performance anxiety of the cockroach. Sounds weird. Believe me, it felt totally normal. ‘Trial by Combat’ and the delicious closer ‘Dreamspirals’ stood out, but the band’s wide ranging approach is such that really it’s one big highlight. Damnation was truly open for business and Mountain Caller made sure that they go on the list of must sees next time round. [PH]

It was down into the bowels of the venue to the Cult Never Dies stage for a blast of violent black metal from Derby based Abduction. Abduction are a band that I have been aware of but never got round to listening to or seeing live before this day and I was certainly impressed. Visually they were hooded and masked and very much looked the part with skulls held aloft but musically they definitely hit the spot as well with a raw black metal sound which also leaned into atmospheric and melodic territory at times. The room was absolutely heaving and Abduction took it in their stride and bludgeoned the crowd with their vicious black metal attack with Seven Apparitions Of Suffering being a particular highlight. [RO]

Down in the Cult Never Dies stage Urne take to the stage, and they don't start calmly. A band who contain many shades of prog metal begin the set with aggression and power. Vocalist Joe Nally screams into his microphone, with bass in hands, while his demeanour displays the passion he has for his band's music.

The progressive side appears a little more in the second track "The Palace of Devils" with Angus Neyra headbanging while crunching out demolishing riffs that fill the packed room. Many of the eager fans know every word and tune from their latest album, indeed a brief mention of the album’s name before the title track from  "Serpent  & Spirit" has the room in raptures . Audience members sing along and loose themselves in the music as much as the band do.

Nally has full control of the stage and runs from microphone to microphone while Richard Harris beats his drums with aggression and clinical perfection. This short afternoon set is compelling and exciting. The proggy, thrashy, death, sludgy music is performed majestically, with the final track "Desolate Heart" perfectly demonstrating this with it’s soaring guitar sections, mixing with brutal instrumental elements.

Normally I would add that after a performance like this the band could be assured of gaining some more fans. But today it seems every member of this crowd is already one, and we were not left wanting. [NB]

Having managed to miss their set at Bloodstock, Evile were a very high priority band for me to watch at Damnation. Opening the Jagermeister stage, Evile set out to crush skulls with some gnarly UK thrash. This was my first time seeing the band with Ol Drake fronting them and despite his rather one dimensional vocals on the Hell Unleashed album, he is definitely coming into his own as a vocalist and frontman. The band were on form and relentlessly tight with a set spanning their back catalogue from new songs such as Hell Unleashed to older bangers such as Head Of The Demon, Cult, Thrasher and the classic Enter The Grave. The room was quite empty to start with but rapidly filled up as the sound of thrash echoed throughout the building and before long there was a vigorous pit going. It was fantastic to see Evile back on stage and kicking arse and I for one cannot wait for their UK tour early next year. [RO]

It had been a while since Glasgow death metallers Man Must Die had graced a stage and they were determined to ensure that every in attendance at the Tone MGMT stage remembered who they were with a blistering 40 minute set of violence and aggression. With a sound that mixes the brutal with the technical, Man Must Die tore through several songs with a crowd as rabid as the band (even an inflatable shark got in on the action at some point). Songs such as It Comes In Threes and KIll It, Skin It, Wear It got some of the biggest cheers of the set though the band impressed with new song Bring Me The Head Of The King from their upcoming 2022 album. The sound unfortunately was on the muddy side with the guitars particularly affected but it thankfully didn’t take anything away from the intensity of the performance. [RO]

Video Nasties are the MUST SEE band of this festival, their meld of horror and aggression in musical for is captivating as was proven by their Bloodstock performance earlier this year. The tone set from the beginning, the stage lit only by a low green light and dry ice fills the air. From the audience perspective they can see shadows moving in the fog as the open beats ring out. For half an hour they captivate a packed Cult Never Dies stage, the pit is as intense and the music, the crowd lap it up as a man crowd surfs atop an inflatable shark whilst downing a pint. If ever you wanted the encapsulate the Damnation Festival spirit in a single moment... there you have it.

From Damnation the band go out on a UK tour and what we witnessed today proves that Video nasties are the band of the moment. look out for big things from them! [TF]

This is Bossk’s third Damnation show, with every appearance seeing the Ashford Post Metallers moving further and further up the bill. By their own admission Damnation is their spiritual home and the band mark their first homecoming since 2016 with a set of so monumentally heavy that it’s liable to be stripping the paint off the walls of the refectory. The bulk of the set is taken from the debut, Aura Noir, as Kobe and Heliopause are presented in front of a projection of a starfield, only adding to the feeling of the otherworldly. Frontman, Sam Marsh, enters and exits the stage as required, leaving the (literal) heavy lifting to his bandmates, who forge huge walls of sound. Define, from 2007’s 2 EP lays down an awesome groove and acts as interesting comparison with Menhir, the only song from this year’s Migration album. Sadly, Johannes from Cult of Luna doesn’t make a surprise appearance, but Sam and Rob Vaughan handle the vocals admirably in his absence. Bossk finish with The Reverie II from the debut album and leave Damnation 2021 reeling from the aural beating they have just delivered. [DB]

Playing you first gig in over two years is daunting. Having no permanent drummer and losing one of your guitarists makes things even more challenging. Then throw in a shocking sound which decides that you don’t really need both guitars to come through the PA and you’ve got the perfect storm for Irish thrashers Gama Bomb. Luckily, this is a band that has thrived on adversity and whilst their set certainly wasn’t as fluid as it could have been, given everything, this was nothing short of triumphant. Tour support Shrapnel supplied both Chris Williams (drums) and Nathan Sadd (Guitar) to fill in, and it was full speed ahead for the best part of an hour. With 2020’s ‘Sea Savage’ still a favourite, it was good that the band choose to play a healthy smattering from said album, mixing it with a real range of songs from their almost 20-year career. Gama Bomb’s approach is simple. Three- or four-minute blistering fast thrash songs, with subjects as wide ranging as video games and nuclear war. Philly Byrne’s rather alarming suit caught the eye, and his between song banter is as hilarious as ever. Recent track Thunder over London kept the pit heat cranked to high, whilst there were big cheers for the appearance of the band’s mascot, Snowy for ‘Bring Out the Monster’. The revelation that Snowy is a Brexiteer allowed a bit of pantomime into the set as well. But whilst the humour is essential to Gama Bomb, they are also a top-class thrash band. This was a set that was heart warming to see. Gama Bomb are back and as brilliant as ever. [PH]

Green Lung are another huge hot prospect right now and should have been hitting the Eyesore Merch stage right now, but sadly the dreaded'rona has hit and at the last minute they have had to pull out.

But fear not, having played a rather excellent set yesterday A Night of Salvation, Svalbard are still on site and step up to fill the breach! Yesterday evening they played their latest album, 'When I Die Will I get Better?', and today gives fans who missed the band last night the opportunity to catch the band. Still opening with their newest material, the band put on their second breath taking show of the weekend. The dual vocal assault of Serena and Liam works so well drawing the listener in as the bands music envelopes them. To put on one epic performance at the festival is a special thing indeed, to put on two such performances takes the band to another level. [CF]

The lights go down, and they then begin to burn a satanic red. The dual Gibson SG black metal assault begins in front of a mass of hands proudly displaying the horns. Excellent B.M. vocals begin to drench the audience combining with blast beats to create the perfect atmosphere. The first of many crowd surfers make their presence known to tracks from the very well received album 'Burn in Many Mirrors'. These Manchester boys provide a sound that contains the familiar traits of black metal, performed with a fresh, new injection of energy. No costumes, no make up, just an ever present red burning glow and fast hard metal. For a band that has been waiting a long time to perform their new material, it does not show; they are slick and professional, nasty and loud. As the last track begins and both guitarists lean into each other like like seasoned rock stars the massive crowd still lap it up. Wode are no secret, and nor should they be. [NB]

Back in August, Onslaught had virtually blown a hole in the roof of the Sophie Tent at Bloodstock. They had clearly decided that this was an approach that worked, for they attempted to repeat the experience on the Jaeger Stage with a savage and muscular performance. In vocalist David Garnett, the band have found probably the best frontman for their sound and his growing confidence was evident with an assured and tireless delivery. Sharp, incisive, and brutally aggressive, this was another demonstration, if one was needed, that there is plenty of life left in the Bristolian old dogs. Utilising a stunning light show and a rolling backdrop which included footage of the late Sid Haig’s terrifying Captain Spaulding as a precursor to ‘Bow Down to the Clowns’, Onslaught shredded, head banged and demanded full commitment which was given in a ferocious pit. With a set list now bolstered by the quality from 2020’s ‘Generation Antichrist’, there is plenty for Onslaught to work with and it’ll be interesting to see how the band can maintain momentum in 2022. [PH]

After plenty of thrashing, some esoteric post black metal was the perfect foil for the soul. Combining French, Norwegian, and German musicians, Sylvaine’s shoegaze was just what the doctor ordered. A stunning performance entranced much of the crowd, although there is always a few who will not shut their cakehole during the enchanting calmer parts. I’d not known a huge amount about the Norwegian multi-instrumentalist but that is going to be rectified in the coming weeks. Her combination of measured gentleness and violent riff driven rage works incredibly well, with her crystal clean vocals providing a counterbalance to a harsher, growled delivery. Clearly delighted to be back on stage for the first time in over two years, the minor teething problems were resolved with measured assurance.  Sylvaine’s music washes over you and then sweeps you up in a second pass which ensures full immersion in the fragile balance of human feelings and passions. Searing heaviness combined with delicate solo work, this was a magical, semi-spiritual experience. Backed by a solidly tight band, it’s unlikely that Sylvaine’s stock in the UK is going to remain at the current level for much longer. A truly wonderful set. [PH]

Godflesh are a band that I’ve never particularly got along with on record but I’ve heard that their live performances are something to behold so it was time to pop my cherry and see if this was true.  Seeing as this was the last Damnation Festival at Leeds University Union it appears that Godflesh took it upon themselves to try and demolish the venue with probably the loudest and most intense set of the day.  The two piece pushed the sound system to its limits with an unholy cacophony of grinding guitars, thunderous bass and pounding programmed drum rhythms.  Songs from the classic Streetcleaner such as Pulp, Like Rats and the title track got the biggest roars of approval from the surging crowd and it was definitely a set has got people talking since.  I’m sure the floors and walls of Leeds University Union are still feeling the reverberations right now. [RO]

The only other band on the line up who can compare to the aural intensity of Godflesh were the band that followed them - Liverpool caveman doom trio Conan. Conan are a band that you feel as much as you hear them when you see them live and thanks to one of the rare examples of excellent sound on the Tone MGMT stage that day, this was certainly the case at Damnation.  With disgustingly down-tuned guitars, the unhinged howls and screams of frontman Jon Davis and bass so low it threatened to loosen the bowels of the audience in attendance, Conan pulverised senses with simplistic and crushing doom such as Throne Of Fire, Hawk As Weapon, Gravity Chasm and the bestial Foehammer.  A set that rivalled Godflesh in its intensity and sheer devastation.  Brilliant stuff. [RO]

Conan @ Damnation Festival - Tim Finch Photography

Taking a welcome pause after the pummelling that Godflesh had inflicted on the remains of my hearing on the Jaeger stage, the benefit of balcony access allowed a few moments of tranquillity in the Eyesore Stage. That sanctuary turned into a raging inferno summoned from the very depths of hell as French mystic black metallers Regarde Les Hommes Tomber demonstrated why they held such high billing with a set of breath-taking intensity. From the opening minutes as the band marched triumphantly on to the stage, this was something else. Vocalist TC cuts a mysterious shape, black cloak initially enveloping him in darkness as he held a skull in semi-worship. Regarde Les Hommes Tomber are relentless in their shimmering walls of riffage, their music compelling. Bathed in red lights for much of their set, this was something to experience.  Intensity is a word we use often, and this was another example of emotion and experience merging in a maelstrom of madness. Another band on the list to explore, and another quality booking by those that know their music best. [PH]

There is no way I am the only one in this packed venue who is a fan of Hellripper but who has not yet had the pleasure of seeing a live performance. Therefore asking the question can the band, who are joining James McBain (the one man genius behind this band) perform his music?

We don’t have to wait long to receive our answer, and the answer is yes, fantastically. The almost constantly grinning foursome blast through the blackened/speed metal with ease and enjoyment. In fact it seems to take the crowd one track to get to grips with what is going on. But when they do, the place goes wild! Early songs from the Hellripper catalogue mix satanically well with the more recent material shifting bodies in to the air and to the walls in this very packed room. 'Vampires Grave' causes a particularly frantic reaction from the audience including violent raptures of glee. 'All Hail The Goat' is dedicated to a friend and McBain asks the crowd to “keep fucking things up”. With orders received the chaos continues. The marvellous live experience keeps on giving as a young girl turns to me, screams in my face yelling “I fucking love speed metal” as she disappears into a frantic pit, melting into the melee. The set is topped off by an absurdly good cover of Venom’s 'Black Metal'. The chorus is sung at the top of Damnation festivals’ voices and an exhausted but satisfied audience leaves for some fresh air, some liquid and to reflect on what we have seen. [NB]

30 years ago, I’m sure Paradise Lost would have laughed in your face if you’d suggested that three decades later, they’d be playing ‘Gothic’ to a packed and hugely appreciative audience in Leeds. The British legends have already played ‘Draconian Times’ in full at Bloodstock in August and this was another flawless set which reminded those who hadn’t reacquainted themselves with the album in recent times what a fantastic album it remains. Admittedly, there isn’t much movement on the stage when Paradise Lost play, apart from the evergreen headbanging and grinning of rhythm guitarist Aaron Aedy whilst lead guitarist Gregor Mackintosh prefers to hold his ground, ripping out the spine-tingling lead breaks with ease. But Paradise Lost aren’t about maniacal stage shows. It’s the music that does the work here. Wise imagery on the digital screen combined with a stunning light show enhanced the atmosphere of the songs, Nick Holmes remains an underrated frontman, his dry humour far removed from the misery that the band’s music projects. Watching songs such as ‘Gothic’, ‘Rapture’ and ‘Falling Forever’ performed with such devotion was a privilege. This was an “I was there” moment. The addition of ‘Darker Thoughts’ and ‘Ghosts’ from 2020’s ‘Obzidian’ adding the cherry to the top of an already delicious dessert. [PH]

Year of No Light return to Damnation after an eight-year absence to headline the Eyesore Merch stage with an hour of some of the most crushingly beautiful and heavy music you’ll hear this side of Godflesh. Their set-up is unusual, with dual drum kits, a keyboard in the middle of the front of the stage and three guitar players. But when you’re emitting a noise of such weight that it carries with it its own gravitational effect, the necessity of conformity is rendered moot. Similarly, the French instrumental sextet aren’t content with showing their mastery of the Post Metal genre and combine elements of sludge, shoegaze, drone and dark ambience into the mix. The result is an engrossing hour, which sees the audience caressed one minute and bludgeoned the next. Bertrand Sebenne spends his time moving from second drummer to keyboards and providing the band with a focal point. As you would expect, the bulk of the performance is crafted from the latest release, Consolamentum, with the album’s opening three compositions: Objuration, Aletheia and Inderdit aus Vivanrt, aux Morts et aux Chiens, forming the core of the set. Hierophante from Ausserwelt and Tocsin’s Stella Rectrix bookend the mesmerising show that, generally devoid of any distractions, is utterly compelling from the first note to the last. It’s also good to note that although Year of No Light are billed directly against Memoriam and the imminent arrival of Carcass, they attract and maintain a sizable crowd. [DB]

An Esoteric live show is a rare beast indeed, so rare, in fact that missing the majority of Carcass’ set in the refectory is a price worth paying. The Brummie Doomsters are widely recognised for taking the intensity of doom death metal and slowing it down to a funereal pace – thereby creating Funeral Doom. But, rather than just blending Morbid Angel with My Dying Bride, Esoteric incorporate elements of industrial and ambient music, alongside more recognisable progressive influences from the world of seventies prog. Considering Esoteric are not the easiest band to get a handle on, especially not after a full day’s worth of drinking, there’s a sizable crowd assembled in the Cult Never Dies stage to witness this most rare of rites. As the average length of an Esoteric song is around fifteen minutes and is paced with the speed of a heavily-laden tortoise, thereby affording little, if any, room to slam, the gathered are held in thrall of the waves of delicate destruction flowing from the speakers. The Gothic splendour of the genre conjure images of Victoriana, when the celebration of mourning found its home and death was accepted as an unpleasant fact of life. Guitarist Greg Chandler spits staccato death growls into his headset as the rest of the band are the definition of restraint. It had been eleven years since Esoteric graced the stages of Damnation and, if it’s going to be another eleven until they do so again, then missing Carcass is the cost charged by this Ferryman. [DB]

It’s been six long years since Carcass played any kind of UK shows except for one appearance at Download in 2019. The word legendary is bandied around with alarming disregard for its intended recipients but one look at the size of the crowd that packed the Refectory for the return of the double time Damnation headliners confirmed that legendary was appropriate. 14 songs delivered in an hour; this was an education in how to level a building. From the opening ‘Incarnated Solvent Abuse’, the ‘Swansong’ duo of ‘Black star/Keep on Rotting in the Free World’ to set closer ‘Captive Bolt Pistol’, there was hardly room for air. With a new guitarist on board, the Carcass chainsaw sound revved up and cut through everything in its way.

Watching the effect this band’s relentless sonic assault had on the huge pit was mesmerising. Bodies crashed into bodies, all shapes and sizes throwing themselves into the ever increasingly seething mass. Wave after wave of crowd surfers surged towards the barriers, keeping those heroes stage side of the barrier working without any pause. Meanwhile on stage, Jeff Walker prowled with malevolent menace whilst Bill Steer, in trademark bell bottoms ripped out solos like a butcher removing animal organs. It was ferocious, ruthless and heighted by the morbid backdrops and perfectly pitched light show and a decent quality sound. Throwing in three tracks from ‘Torn Arteries’, Carcass covered most of their career in a spellbinding set. As Jeff Walker raised his bass one more time before leaving the stage, there was an audible gasp at what had just been witnessed around the venue. It was a masterful hour and a fitting conclusion to one of the best Damnation Festivals ever. [PH]

As Captive Bolt Pistol ends Carcass’ set, so the curtain is brought down on this second chapter of the Damnation Festival story. The Bowlers Exhibition Centre in Manchester beckons and with early line-up announcements of Ministry, Converge, Pig Destroyer and Wolves in the Throne Room, alongside others, 2022 is already looking like the Damnation quality is being shipped back across the Pennines.

It isn’t without pangs of sadness that we exit the university into the cold night, fireworks explode in the distance, reflecting the celebratory sorrow we feel in leaving an old, familiar friend. But the same things that brought Damnation to Leeds is sending it back to Manchester: the need to grow.

The sold-out nature of this year and the extensive waiting list for cancellations show Damnation’s demand far outstrips its supply and the Bowlers offers the chance to increase the capacity and revenue and to book bigger bands and bigger shows.

My fervent hope is that as it grows Damnation maintains the familial feel it has always engendered; but I’m sure with Gavin and his dedicated crew at the helm, this course into new waters will be an unmitigated success.

All Photo Credits: Tim Finch Photography

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