In the time since its 2005 inception Damnation Festival has grown to into a four-stage affair that has become a mainstay of the UK metal scene. 2021’s festival on 6th November was significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, it marked the event’s return after a year off due to COVID restrictions. Secondly, it sold out in record time; as soon as the UK government announced the end of all restrictions (back in March), all tickets were swept up within a matter of weeks. Thirdly, the lineup had to be dramatically changed, with many major international acts such as Wolves in the Throne Room and Pig Destroyer having to have their appearances cancelled due to then-ongoing uncertainty surrounding travel restrictions. Fourthly and finally, 2021’s Damnation marked the end of its 14-year tenure at Leeds University: 2022’s festival will return to Manchester (where it first took place for two years) at a larger arena venue.
The first thing that struck me on arrival at lunch time inside the already-packed venue was that there were virtually no COVID-related measures in place. Of course, there was no legal requirement for them, and any notion of social distancing at a sold-out festival in a medium-sized indoor venue was never going to work in practice. The vast majority of the crowd were unmasked and gleefully satiating their hunger for close social contact — hand shaking, hugging and all the rest. I had expected this, but it still felt unnerving.
The Cult Never Dies stage (the smallest room of the four) was often busting at the seams with people. I got through one or two songs of Urne’s set before electing to leave due to the increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere created by an unending stream of new arrivals to the room, many of whom could only get as close as the surrounding corridors. In spite of muddy sound, Urne blasted through their Mastodon-inspired tech-prog-metal. Even in the few minutes I caught of their set they had already incorporated moved through various dark and tense atmospheres, melodic solos, a plethora of screams and growls and some crushing sludge-doom sections. I’m sure the rest of their set would have been brilliant, but I had to escape.
DVNE were my first experience with the (third largest) Eyesore Merch stage. The Edinburgh prog-metal-post-hardcore band are currently on the rise, and deservedly so. The excellent room acoustics and the inclusion of the band’s own sound engineer made for absolutely pristine sound. Often coming across like a combination of Opeth and Converge, DVNE’s punishingly heavy hardcore-infused riffs and growls were beautifully offset by dreamy synth atmospherics, melodic guitar solos, and some enchanting clean singing. The sci-fi-inspired lyrics, hypnotic soundscapes and epic songs created an experience of pure escapist elation — the pinnacle of the festival for me.
Svalbard were a last-minute replacement for Green Lung, who were forced to pull out due to a COVID case. Svalbard, having already played a set at the previous evening’s warm-up “A Night of Salvation” event which bandleader Serena Cherry described as “one of the best nights of [her] life”, were on energetic and jubilant form as they smashed through their set of blackened hardcore. A leading light in the fight for gender equality in music, Cherry’s “fuck you to those who dismiss women in music” was greeted with righteous and riotous applause. With songs about being ghosted on dating websites, a varied sound encompassing blackgaze-style arpeggios and clean singing as well as breakneck-speed screaming hardcore, Svalbard had the audience in the palms of their hands.
Sylvaine seems to have evolved from just being the pseudonym of Norwegian multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Kathrine Shepard into a full band containing members from both Norway and Germany. This was their first post-pandemic outing, and they seemed to be basking in the joy of it. Their set of hauntingly ethereal shoegaze-inspired post-rock only occasionally ventured into fully-fledged metal. It was beautifully evocative. Nobody even seemed to mind the false start to one song, which was laughed off by Shepard. Putting quieter music on in the middle of a metal festival in front of an audience who haven’t all come for the band in question is always risky. True to form, there was quite a lot of talking which detracted slightly from some of the most tender moments. Still, people seemed to appreciate the emotional heaviness of Sylvaine, especially during the sombre and driving black metal-tinged sections, and the band left the stage ebullient.
Godflesh were the first act I caught on the (largest) Jägermeister stage. This room, being long and thin with a high ceiling, has always been notorious for patchy sound. From my perch up the balcony, however, everything was refreshingly clear (if a little reverby). Also refreshing for me was the fact I was witnessing Justin Broadrick play a brilliant set that — even with synthetic drums — was suitably powerful and earsplitting. I’d seen him before a couple of times with different projects and the effect had always been a little stifled and weak for whatever reason. Godflesh, however, were crushingly, mechanically, discordantly, hypnotically, and ritualistically brilliant. The two members remained unilluminated by direct stage lights, with red ambience and psychedelic projections occupying the visual attention. They just put their heads down and ground through a relentlessly cathartic set that did everything anyone would want from a band described by Broadrick as a “man / machine marriage” with the aim of being “as heavy as humanly possible”.
Paradise Lost followed, playing 1991’s classic album Gothic in full. This was clearly a nostalgic experience for many of the audience, who were transported right back to the early 90s by this set of classic death-doom, replete with the twin guitar harmonies and growled vocals. The addition of (presumably pre-recorded) synths and strings allowed the full breadth of Gothic’s sound to be translated to the live setting. At one point singer Nick Holmes remarked that “this album was very influenced by the band Trouble — perhaps none more than this song” before breaking into “Rapture”. The band’s energy levels and tightness seemed to increase as the set went on. Sadly, the opposite was true of the audience, which dwindled significantly as the band continued through their classic hard rock-inspired riffs, bluesy guitar solos and death growls. Perhaps this set was too geared towards obsessive fans of the band for more casual listeners to feel enthused about it after several hours of drinking. Regardless, the band seemed to be having a great time immersing themselves in this revery of their own past. After the album was played through, the set finished with two new songs that relied more on melodic vocals and orchestral sounds as well as jangling guitar atmospheres reminiscent of The Sisters Of Mercy. For Paradise Lost fans this show was a special moment.
Finally, Carcass took to the stage at 11PM. The crowd had bulked right back up again and many were ready for a final hour of crowd surfing and general moshpit action. Carcass were on form. They were tight, viscerally energised, and as heavy as anything else you could have heard through the day. Jeff Walker’s harsh and demonic vocals cut through with biting clarity. Whilst the sheer power and force of the music was unrelenting, there were plenty of dynamic variations, tempo changes and gear shifts from tech-death to quasi-grindcore to d-beat to blastbeat. Bill Steer’s guitar solos were classy and lush — as smooth as B.B. King and a complex as Steve Vai. Carcass put their heart(work) and soul into a set that delivered exactly what the Damnation audience wanted.
Damnation Festival 2021 may have marked the start of a new post-COVID era for many of the attendees. It also marks the end of an era for the festival itself. Whatever the future brings in relation to COVID, live music, and Damnation’s new home in Manchester, for the thousands of sweat-drenched and black t-shirted legions of metalheads who filed out of Leeds University in the early hours of Sunday morning Damnation 2021 was an unequivocal triumph.
WORDS BY DUNCAN EVANS
PHOTOS BY RICH PRICE PHOTOGRAPHY