Damnation Festival 2021
|Event:||Damnation Festival 2021|
Damnation Festival: Leeds Student Union, England, 5-6 November 2021
After the joys of Bloodstock Festival in August of this year, I was anticipating more live music before the year was out. That live music was scheduled to arrive in November, when I journeyed up to Leeds to Damnation Festival. I had my concerns about whether the event would happen, particularly with increased talks of ‘plan B’ in the UK during September and October, but the lockdowns stayed away and the bands played on.
I attended the festival with all of my bandmates in Vulgaris in tow, along with several friends of the band’s drummer. He had attended the festival several times before; conversely, this was my first trip to Damnation Festival, which meant that I took the final opportunity to attend the festival at its original home in Leeds, before it moves across to Manchester from next year onwards. This year’s edition of the festival was also notable for substantial changes to the line-up as 2021 progressed; much like Bloodstock, the impact of the continued issues surrounding Covid resulted in most non-UK acts withdrawing, resulting in a number of British bands (many of whom had already played Bloodstock this year under similar circumstances) taking their place:
If you squint, you might be able to see a handful of bands on both the poster that was in place when I bought my ticket for the festival and the one that was ultimately accurate for the event that occurred, but very few names appear on both. A few of the cancelled bands (Pig Destroyer, Pallbearer, Elder) have already been announced for 2022, although my wait to see Abigail Williams goes on. Still, whilst the line-up that never was is worthy of mourning, the actual bill that came to fruition was absolutely not to be sniffed at. Several of these bands had already put on quality shows at Bloodstock (Conan, Conjurer and Urne were amongst my highlights of that festival), and several more that I was yet to see were eagerly anticipated by myself.
Additionally, a Friday night pre-show titled “A Night Of Salvation” had been announced, featuring some special sets by acclaimed acts:
So, with 1.5 days of live metal to get stuck into, let’s crack on with the festival review!
Friday 5th November 2021: A Night Of Salvation
As seen on the poster above, the four bands that rocked the Refectory on Friday night had lined up some unique performances for the Damnation early birds. This whole event was confined to the hall that would serve as the main stage for the Saturday festival, which gave a nice early taste of what to expect soundwise from any bands that would be sharing the stage the following day. It also gave a first chance to see how big practical issues such as beer and toilet queues would be; ultimately, neither were particular problems on the Friday, and only became troublesome at select moments during the main event.
Perhaps bemusingly, by far the most anticipated band of the Friday pre-show was on first. Extreme metal underground icons Akercocke rocked up with their suits to play a full runthrough of 2001’s The Goat Of Mendes. Although I know some Akercocke material, I hadn’t heard this particular album before; I was slightly worried it was going to be an onslaught of blasting based on the first song, but as it progressed and revealed its various facets, I was very much won over by the wild mixture of death metal savagery, eerie clean sung sections, moody interludes and everything in between. The set featured a guest vocalist appearance, which I can only assume was Dean Seddon (Hecate Enthroned) on “The Serpent”, as he guested on this song on record also. This was a pretty emphatic way to kick off the weekend’s entertainment.
Akercocke were not the only band to do a full-album set for A Night Of Salvation. Svalbard opted for a more recent record (as they didn’t exist until a decade after The Goat Of Mendes was released, they didn’t have much choice), playing last year’s When I Die, Will I Get Better? in full. The gaze-heavy post-hardcore of this record was a stark contrast to Akercocke’s frenzied death metal, but the record was received with warm words on the website from Radu, and it generally translated well live. There was far more audience chatter from Serena Cherry than Jason Mendonça had attempted; the backstory introduction to each song was a bit of a momentum-killer, but overall it was a good performance.
The next to grace the stage were Orange Goblin, continuing their 25-year anniversary celebrations. As I said in the Bloodstock review, I’ve never had much appetite for Orange Goblin despite my affinity for stoner metal, and that persisted here; it wasn’t unenjoyable, but after a small number of tracks my interest was clearly wavering. When those feelings carried over into Raging Speedhorn’s playthrough of their self-titled debut, it was time to clock in for the night (noise curfews were clearly not a concern on this day, with the show running well past midnight) to prepare for the main day’s excitement.
Saturday 6th November 2021: Damnation Festival
Expanding out from the main hallway, Damnation Festival was split across four stages, with two top-floor stages (last night’s stage was renamed the Jagermeister stage, with the Eyesore Merch stage on the other side of the merch area) and two lower-level stages (Tone MGMT and Cult Never Dies) alternating with one another. This meant a larger area for attendees; however, there was also a much bigger attendance to go along with it, and at times the build-up of crowds made accessing stages during sets impossible, which wasn’t ideal. However, for the most part this wasn’t a hindrance for me at any point during the weekend, and despite one tragically long wait for drinks in the mid-afternoon, there were few inconveniences to tackle across the day, which was a relief.
Cryptic Shift 13:00-13:30, Tone MGMT Stage
The first sets on Saturday were Cryptic Shift and Mountain Caller; having no knowledge of the latter, I opted to watch Cryptic Shift, who had made waves in 2020 with their debut record Visitations From Enceladus. If you don’t know the band before, that title alone should give an indication of how nerdy this music is. Now, Visitations From Enceladus was a four-track record, opening with a 26-minute colossus followed by three songs that only reach 20 minutes between them. With a 30-minute festival slot to fill, do you think Cryptic Shift a) decided to play the latter three tracks, and maybe a song or two from their pre-debut sessions, or b) dedicated the lion’s share of their performance to that single gigantic song? You guessed it; nearly the entirety of Cryptic Shift’s set was comprised of “Moonbelt Immobilator”, with the old single “Cosmic Dreams” added on to fill the remaining minutes. It was a very ambitious move, and an entertaining one to see the band at their proggiest; the sound quality on the stage didn’t quite bring out the best on this song, with some of the guitar intricacies getting lost in the ether and more spacious sections lacking in atmosphere. Still, John Riley’s bass work was highly impressive, and overall it was a solid start to the day.
Urne 14:30-15:15, Cult Never Dies Stage
After grabbing a bite of lunch, I checked out the first couple of songs of Boss Keloid before being conscious of crowds and going to get a spot for Urne. I was looking forward to this set quite a bit, having enjoyed how the songs from their debut Serpent & Spirit translated to a live setting at Bloodstock; unfortunately, of all the stages at Damnation, the sound was least ideal on the small Cult Never Dies stage, and most of Urne’s performance collapsed into a thick mess of drums and amorphous noise. It wasn’t a disaster, but after they played the excellent title track from the album, it was time to ensure a good position for one of my most anticipated bands of the day.
Dvne 15:15-15:50, Eyesore Merch Stage
One only needs to read my review of Etemen Ænka to recognize why I was excited to see Dvne’s performance. Mercifully, the sound mix, whilst not perfect (the guitars were a bit quiet), was far better, with all the various intricacies in the likes of “Towers”, “Sì-XIV” and “Omega Severer” coming through clearly. This was a top-notch performance; the songs carried a hell of a punch in their heavier moments, and plenty of atmosphere in their more epic moments, with “Satuya” seeming to go on forever as it rounded out the show with aplomb. I wouldn’t have minded at least one song from their debut record Asheran (all five were from the latest record), but I certainly was pleased with what I did get to experience.
Bossk 15:50-16:40, Jagermeister Stage
After one huge performance came another; I’ve seen Bossk a fair few times now, given the various billings they’ve ended up on over the years, but this has to be the best I’ve seen so far. Bossk have also released a record in 2021, but in contrast to Dvne, they opted to mainly focus on music from earlier releases, with only one track (“Menhir”) from Migration making the setlist. This was likely due to Sam Marsh not being able to appear on that album; with him taking to the stage in Leeds, the set was mainly comprised of tracks from Audio Noir, with one from .2 also slipping in. I feel this was very much a wise decision; with Migration a little of the light side, selecting an Audio Noir-heavy set allowed Bossk to bring a huge amount of weight to their performance, with the crushing heft of “Atom Smasher” and “The Reverie II”’s heavier moments gripping all in attendance. The performance was backed up with a nice light show and background video as well. All in all, Damnation left me very glad that I have a ticket to see Bossk and Dvne play their own show next month.
Conjurer 18:15-19:05, Tone MGMT Stage
I would have gone to see Green Lung at this point, but sadly they were a last-minute withdrawal; Svalbard stepped in to fill the slot, but one of their shows was enough for one weekend for me. Instead, we caught the end of Gama Bomb’s regulation thrash in order to get drinks in prior to Conjurer. They were clearly amongst the most widely anticipated bands of the festival given the crowd that built for them, but boy did they deliver. What a show! With a cover of “Blood And Thunder” for the soundcheck, everyone was already in fine spirits when they started the set properly with a new song, before shifting back into songs from The Mire. The sound was excellent, with the likes of “Choke”, “Hollow” and “Retch” destroying all, and the performance across the board was brilliant, from Dan Nightingale’s mic-less growls in the pre-chorus of “Hollow” through to Conor Marshall’s whirlwind headbanging and crowd invasion. The band of the festival was unanimously agreed to be Conjurer by the entirety of the 10-person group I was with, and I’m sure most others felt the same.
Regarde Les Hommes Tomber 20:05-21:00, Eyesore Merch Stage
Now, I could have now seen Godflesh or Winterfylleth; I was tempted by both, but having seen each of them in the past, I felt okay with my decision to take a breather and get ready for Regarde Les Hommes Tomber. They unfortunately clashed with Conan, who I would have been very eager to see after their great set at Bloodstock, but I had been waiting to see RLHT since Roadburn 2020 fell through, and the two livestream performances they had done in the interim only made me more eager. In all instances, they were performing their 2020 record Ascension in full, and it was the same once again here at Damnation. Still, whilst I wouldn’t have said no to seeing “The Fall” or “The Incandescent March”, it took nothing away from an epic show. The songs translated excellently to a live setting, with plenty of weight to the tracks, and the vocalist’s dramatic stage show only added to the experience. Closer “Au Bord De Gouffre” was an emphatic climax to a top-notch hour of music, with only Conjurer beating out the French black metallers for my top set of the weekend.
Paradise Lost 21:00-22:00, Jagermeister Stage
Paradise Lost love their full-album sets, don’t they? Both previous times I’ve seen them, they’ve been going back into history, whether it be Gothic at Roadburn 2016 or Draconian Times at Bloodstock this year. At Damnation, they again were doing a full runthrough of Gothic; the band’s sound was generally good, but as someone who’s already seen this exact set and has never been particularly fond of Gothic, I was okay to sample a few tracks before again claiming a good spot for my last main event of the weekend.
Year Of No Light 22:00-23:00, Eyesore Merch Stage
The second French band on the Eyesore Merch Stage in succession, Year Of No Light’s brand of metal was of a less aggressive and more atmospheric form than Regarde Les Hommes Tomber. With an even foggier stage than some of their contemporaries at Damnation, YONL kicked off with Ausserwelt’s “Hiérophante”, my personal introduction to the band, before primarily focussing on material from this year’s Consolamentum. Perhaps it was fatigue, but whilst I enjoyed the great wall of sound conjured up during the course of this hour, I was slightly less taken with it than some of the sets that had preceded it. Still, all those guitars and drums made a hell of a noise, and the overwhelming nature of Year Of No Light made for a rousing experience.
Esoteric 23:00-00:00, Cult Never Dies Stage
Less painful a clash than the Conan/RLHT conundrum, I was still left with a tricky choice to close the day. Most Damnation attendees made the choice to watch the headliner Carcass on the main stage; in most cases, my decision to opt for Esoteric would be considered baffling, but hopefully on Metal Storm there are some that understand why I returned to the Cult Never Dies Stage to end the day with a slice of funeral doom. The sound was thankfully much better than it had been for Urne, or at least the music was more built for the acoustics of the room, but the huge, trudging weight of their sound translated well, even if there were relatively few left to witness it. I must confess, half of my interest in seeing the band was to once again see the wonder of Greg Chandler performing with a headset instead of a mic stand; something about someone pulling ‘death growl’ faces without a mic stand in the way offers me a degree of amusement. Ultimately though, I was a little bit too tired by this point to fully appreciate Esoteric, but they still made for a good conclusion to an excellent day’s music.
With a surprisingly smooth coach journey back to London out the way, I was left to ponder on a strong weekend’s worth of music. The Friday night pre-show was a nice extra, but ultimately it was Saturday when the real highlights came. Conjurer, Regarde Les Hommes Tomber, Dvne and Bossk had to be the pick of the bands that I found time to see, although I was slightly gutted to miss Conan and Evile (who clashed with Urne), and heard very good things about the latter’s set. It seems a shame to have to say goodbye to the Leeds Student Union as a venue after only discovering it as, aside from the issues on the Cult Never Dies stage, the sound was good for the large majority of bands. However, Manchester provides new opportunities, and I’m sure they’ll have facilities to allow similarly great performances to shine. For those interested in trying out Damnation Festival for themselves, the first bands to be announced can be seen below; if you do attend, I may see you there next year, as my first experience of the festival was excellent!
||Written on 17.11.2021 by Hey chief let's talk why not|
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