(Andy Synn was fortunate enough to attend this year’s edition of Damnation Festival and now reports back with his experiences of all the bands he saw over the course of the day, along with video evidence)
Well, here it is, the very last Damnation Festival at Leeds University, as the event has become so popular now (as evinced by how quickly so many stages reach capacity these days) that the organisers are moving it (back) to Manchester where they’ve found a bigger and (hopefully) better venue for future editions of the fest.
And while this gives 2021 a real “end of an era” feel, it’s obvious that the Damnation team really wanted to see out their time in Leeds with a major bang, delivering – despite some well-documented, and sadly unavoidable, pandemic-based issues – one of the most stacked line-ups they’ve ever had.
Now, one thing I really tried to do this time around was to see (and document) as many sets by bands I hadn’t seen before, and while, in practice, this didn’t always work out – sometimes due to circumstances entirely beyond my control, sometimes just because I really wanted to see certain bands in particular – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by who I actually did manage to catch over the course of the day.
So, without further ado…
After arriving at the venue (a little later than I’d hoped, but earlier than I’d feared) I headed straight downstairs to see the always excellent (and our ex-tour mates) Cryptic Shift, noting in passing that, even though the day had just started the third stage was already packed for Mountain Caller (who I’m hopefully seeing later this week).
Arriving part-way through “Moonbelt Immolator” – which, since it’s a twenty minute track meant I still had lots of it left to enjoy – I was immediately struck by how rammed the place was, which is a damn good reflection of just how popular CS have become in a very short space of time.
I also noted, as the set continued, that the band were putting out some serious Revocation-esque vibes this time around (even more than usual), as you can probably tell from the footage of “Cosmic Dreams” below. So if anyone knows Dave and the boys… tell them we’ve got their next support act ready and waiting right here.
Over on the fourth stage it was up to bemasked and begrimed Black Metallers Abduction to prove why they’re one of the hottest acts currently blazing up the UK scene, and prove it they did, with a bleak ‘n’ blistering, grim ‘n’ groovy set which culled material from across their devilish discography (which, considering how prolific they are, gave them a lot of stuff to choose from).
Clearly enjoying both the pageantry and performance aspects of the blackened arts – at one point the band’s vocalist (who, lest we forget, is their key creative force and sole songwriter) delivered an entire shrieking sermon with a human skull held above his head – their set had more than enough punishing power and gruesome gravity to make you forget that it was actually still light outside… such was the darkness conjured within!
Back up on the third stage, however, it was Boss Keloid who delivered the first truly “killer” show of the day, their signature blend of audaciously huge hooks and equally massive Stoner-Prog grooves capturing and captivating the attention of the assembled audience with practiced ease.
It’s not just that the band’s back-catalogue is packed with exceptional tunes (with this year’s Family the Smiling Thrush being, arguably, the best thing they’ve ever done, as well as a firm Album of the Year contender) but also that the quartet’s performance was just so brimming with confidence – not arrogance, to be clear, just a humble and self-effacing belief in the power of their own music – that they had the entire crowd practically eating out of the palm of their collective hand right from the first notes of their set.
After a short break for sustenance I made my way back downstairs to the second stage nice and early to grab myself a place on the barrier for the one and only Man Must Die.
Now, for context, you should know that not only are MMD one of my favourite bands of all time – and, as an aside, one of the bands I hope to one day share a stage with – but they’re also one of the groups I originally bonded with the rest of the NCS crew over, which made them the most important band of the festival for me.
And while it may have been over a decade since I last saw them, it quickly became clear that they’re still one of the angriest and most intense bands in the business, and (once the initial sound issues, which turned their music into even more of a blunt-force assault than usual, had been sorted) their set – including such killer cuts as “It Comes In Threes”, “Antisocial Network”, “Hiding In Plain Sight”, and, of course, a crushing closing run-through of “Kill It, Skin It, Wear It”, as well as new single “Bring Me The Head of the King”, which the band confirmed would be on their new album next year – lived up to absolutely every expectation I had. And then some.
Sticking around for the entirety of Man Must Die’s set unfortunately meant that there was no way I was going to get in to see Video Nasties on the fourth stage – one of the quirks of Damnation I’ve learned over the years is that it’s always advisable to leave a little early if you want to get in a good spot to watch the next band on the schedule – so, after scoping out the jam-packed room I opted to hit up the main stage balcony for the first time and catch some of Bossk’s brooding, cinematic Post-Metal soundscapes.
Now I know I wasn’t the biggest fan of their latest album, but live Bossk are still a force to be reckoned with, especially with the big sound and intense light show of the main stage behind them.
They’re also one of the few bands I can think of whose instrumental offerings are just as effective, sometimes even more so, as their vocal-inclusive ones, as demonstrated by the spellbinding run-through of “Define”, the opening track from their second EP, that I was able to capture on film (and which you can see below).
I’m seeing them again in December (supported by Dvne who, sadly, had the misfortune of clashing with Man Must Die at this year’s festival) and am now looking forward to it even more than I already was.
With Green Lung having to pull out at the last minute I was very tempted to change my plans and go and see their replacement, Svalbard, who I’ve been a big fan of for ages, instead. However, since I’d made a promise to myself to try and see as many “new” bands as possible this year I stuck to my guns and headed on down to the second stage a little bit before the end of Bossk in order to grab myself a prime position to watch Ireland’s premiere Thrash Metal jesters Gama Bomb.
And while I wouldn’t say this was a mistake, per se, theirs was definitely the weakest set of the weekend for me, one that even the ebullient antics and enthusiastic showmanship of the band’s irrepressible frontman Phil Byrne couldn’t fully make up for.
Don’t get me wrong, they’re not a bad band by any means, and I can see why people enjoy them (even if I spotted quite a few bemused faces during their set), but their sound, even after the initial gremlins were dealt with, was just lacking something, and I didn’t really hear anything – apart from their wilful silliness – that made them stand out from the umpteen other Retro-Thrash acts out there these days.
Still a good proportion of the crowd were absolutely eating it up, and I’ll admit I warmed to them a little more as the set went/wore on, so maybe I’ll have to give them another shot a little further down the line!
Over on the fourth stage I managed to snag myself a good spot from which to watch the highly-anticipated set from Mancunian Black Metallers Wode, who put in a tight, taut, and focussed performance over the course of the next fifty-odd minutes.
That being said, as much as I like the band, their set never really caught fire the way I know it can, so while I was still pretty satisfied with what I’d seen and heard before I left, I wasn’t as blown away as I’d hoped.
Conjurer’s performance was an entirely different matter, however.
As someone who first saw the band live when they were a relatively-unknown little act scrounging for shows and support slots it’s been such a thrill to watch them go from strength to strength over the years, building up a rabid fanbase and a well-earned reputation for being an absolutely devastating live act (one more than capable of laughing off the occasional fuck-up this evening without losing any momentum) in the process.
Don’t get me wrong, part of me is absolutely brimming with envy while watching them tonight, but I’m also absolutely overflowing with joy too, because these guys have absolutely earned their spot and deserve every single second of acclaim and applause they receive after each and every song.
And speaking of songs… if the opening track, a brand new cut from their upcoming album which gave off some major Oceanic-era Isis vibes at times, is anything to go by then the next stage of their evolution looks set to be even more dramatic, and even more dynamic, than their debut.
Back up on the main stage it was time for the legendary Godflesh to give our eardrums a mauling, and maul they did, with just under an hour of angular, aggro-metallic riffage and pounding industrial percussion.
Clearly in their element – and with a crowd ravenously feeding off every bit of twisted guitar shrapnel and brutish, bellowing vocal part – the duo of Justin Broadrick and G. C. Green didn’t waste much time chatting between songs and instead focussed their efforts on grinding their audience down to meat and marrow via jagged, bone-jarring tracks like “Shut Me Down”, “Post Self”, “Like Rats” and “Streetcleaner”.
Definitely a band I encourage you to experience live if you ever get the opportunity.
If my top three sets of the day were, in no particular order, Boss Keloid, Man Must Die, and Conjurer, then the fourth would – hands down – have to be Regarde Les Hommes Tomber over on the Eyesore stage.
Dense in atmosphere, intense in delivery, and positively bleeding electricity and aggression, the French quintet blazed their way through a heaving, hypnotic set of grim, groove-heavy, and blast-driven “Post” Black Metal (if that’s what you want to call it) culled heavily from their excellent third album Ascension.
Sure there were occasionally a few niggling issues with the sound (though far less than some other bands suffered over the course of the day) and the frontman’s weird wizard-cloak thing made him look like a Black Metal Bjork-impersonator at first (thankfully he ditched it a few tracks in) but the band’s crushing tightness and blistering intensity definitely made their set one which people are going to be remembering for years to come.
If you’re going to have to deal with bands pulling out due to illness and travel restrictions and want someone to add a bit of class and star power to your line-up then… you know who to call.
No, not the Ghostbusters, but Doom-Metal legends Paradise Lost who tonight were set to play the entirety of their classic 1991 album Gothic to celebrate the record’s 30th anniversary.
Unfortunately some extremely annoying sound problems – every time Nick Holmes came anywhere near the front of the stage both the band and the audience were deafened by a howl of horrific feedback – kept the band kicking off on time, and prevented their first several songs from reaching their full potential.
Thankfully these issues did eventually get sorted – though they still occasionally reared their ugly head when everyone least expected it – and the band settled into a gloomy groove that reminded you just how good (and how timeless) their early material really is.
You may have noticed that things have been getting slower and darker over the course of the last several bands, and Post-Sludge Drone/Doom titans Year of No Light (a band I was only peripherally familiar with before tonight) continued this trend with a solid hour of shimmering atmospheric melody and suffocating sonic weight.
Despite being purely instrumental these days, the band’s sound is still full of character and emotion, and rich in both nuance and vitality, with various members switching between keys/guitars/drums depending on what each song required of them.
A perfect example of what it means to truly follow your own muse, with no concern for what’s trendy or easy or popular, every track was an epic odyssey of mood and melody, and (literal) light and shade, and another one I expect people to be talking about for a long, long time.
Last, but by no means least, I eschewed the familiarity of Carcass (don’t get me wrong, I like Carcass… heck, everybody likes Carcass… but I’ve seen them many, many times before) in favour of the relative unfamiliarity of Esoteric, a band I’ve enjoyed on record several times but have never gotten the chance to see live… until now.
With a suitably thick and thunderous sound the quintet performed for a limited but loyal crowd with the gusto of a band who know that their music is a challenging listen, and an acquired taste, but who are confident that their audience are more than willing (and able) to remain totally engaged.
It’s a good thing too, because both the sheer length and claustrophobic heaviness of the band’s signature brand of deathly Funeral Doom make for a demanding experience, even more so live, but theirs is a surprisingly nuanced and complex sound, with multiple hidden layers that only become apparent once you fully immerse yourself in the darkest depths of their music.
What a way to end the day!
So, with my thanks to the entire Damnation crew (especially Gavin, for sorting out my press pass, but with much love for every single person involved in the event, not least those who were there on the day keeping the whole thing running) and with my apologies to every band I missed (there’s only so much time in the day, and only so much space in every room) I’ll bid goodbye to the Leeds Uni era and look forward to next year in Manchester.
Hopefully I’ll see some of you there.