The 10 most metal moments of Damnation Festival 2021

After a year on hold, Damnation Festival returned with a vengeance for two days of metal mayhem this weekend. Highlights were plentiful – here's 10 of the best...

The 10 most metal moments of Damnation Festival 2021
Kerrang! Staff
Cover pic:
Emily Coulter

As winter’s darkness descends, UK metalheads have long looked to Damnation Festival for one last weekend dedicated to beer, blastbeats and bludgeoning riffs. To long-term attendees, the cancellation of 2020’s stacked edition was a hammer-blow at the end of an already shitty year. As we finally reconvene beneath Leeds’ glittering skies on bonfire night 2021, however, it feels like quite the opposite: a heart-swelling celebration of getting back to ear-breaking business.

With the festival set to head down the M62 for an expansion into Manchester’s 4,500-cap BEC Arena for 2022 (there were reportedly some 1,000 fans on the waiting list for a ticket this year’s massively sold-out event), emotions are understandably high as the Damnation waves farewell to the Leeds University Union’s distinctive assortment of venues. Every one of the 30 bands who fill them across Friday’s stacked ‘A Night Of Salvation’ pre-show and Saturday’s main event – covering the full spectrum of death, thrash, stoner, doom, industrial and black metal – put on absolute masterclasses. While we nurse our bangover, though, we thought we’d keep it to 10 favourite memories from an utterly chaotic weekend...

Svalbard pulling scintillating double-duty

With their dense, atmospheric blend of pounding post-hardcore, woozy shoegaze and scourging black metal, Bristol’s Svalbard have always felt like the perfect fit for Damnation’s discerning metal fanbase. A spectacular Friday night set – performing 2020 masterpiece When I Die, Will I Get Better? in full – feels like a perfect platform for Serena Cherry to unfurl her hidden depths, with lesser-played tracks like Listen To Someone, The Currency Of Beauty and Pearlescent - tonight performed as an instrumental - showcasing her ability as songwriter, performer and activist. With the last-minute cancellation of rising Brit-metallers Green Lung, they’re tapped to step up again on Saturday for a discography-spanning set. Safe to say, they meet a room full of festival-goers delighted to get a second bite of one of the UK's best bands.

Photo: Lee Willo

Akercocke summoning The Goat Of Mendes

“20 years of worshipping women and praising Satan” read the event shirts for Akercocke’s curtain-raising set at the ironically-titled ‘A Night Of Salvation’ pre-show on Friday. Quite. For those fans who miss suave seductiveness the London blackened-death collective oozed in the earliest years of the 21st century, two-decade birthday run-through of 2001’s second album The Goat Of Mendes is a rare treat, with the band performing that classic in full while sporting the suits that were once their trademark. If we’re completely honest, Jason Mendonça, David Gray and company quickly look a lot more dishevelled than they did back in the day, as a crowd of close to 2,000 crank the temperature. Songs like Horns Of Baphomet and raging opener Of Menstrual Blood And Semen, however, sound as sharp as ever.

Party Cannon serving up an inflatable feast

So tickled were the Damnation organisers at finding themselves having to replace Pennsylvanian death metal icons Incantation with Dunfermline ‘Party Slam’ specialists Party Cannon that they commissioned a limited run of festival merch for the occasion. Instead of grim black and white, the normally grave festival aesthetic was swapped out for a cartoon Grim Reaper hitching a ride to Manchester, and the festival’s name spelled out in the bold Scots’ bulging, brightly-coloured typeface.

Said Scots return the compliment with an absolutely bonkers set in the Tone MGMT Stylus on Saturday afternoon. If dropping a wave of balloons, beach-balls and inflatable sharks into the heaving audience wasn’t enough to get the party started, tracks like brand-new single Nauseating And Unpalatable (from upcoming, regurgitation-obsessed second album Volumes Of Vomit) absolutely do the trick. Hilariously sick.

Video Nasties bludgeoning their way into hearts and minds

Speaking of Party Cannon’s mischievously-deployed inflatables, a few of them make it next door into the jam-packed Cult Never Dies stage for Video Nasties. Not that shirtless frontman Damian Von Talbot lets it distract from the full-blooded black ‘n’ roll attack as he pulls on black gloves and prepares to do The Devil’s work.

The Liverpudlians’ combination of unerring focus and faintly tongue-in-cheek love for the lurid, OTT schlock of classic horror gives Hanging Tree and Draw The Shades a perfect balance, with fans eager to throw themselves into the pit without losing the smile from their faces. Even as they begin to crowdsurf over the barrier on the back of an inflatable shark, it feels less like piss-taking than just another surreal aspect of the band’s swirling, riff-loaded nightmare. By the time all is said and done, it’s clear this could well be a set of the weekend and, hopefully, a springboard off which Video Nasties can quickly slingshot themselves up bills like these. Bloody brilliant.

Photo: Emily Coulter

Paradise Lost unleashing the dark majesty of Gothic

Having been forced re-jig the line up due to ongoing uncertainties around travel, the loss of international heavyweights like Pig Destroyer and Wolves In The Throne Room would surely have broken a lesser setup. Massive credit to event organisers Gavin McInally and Paul Farrington, then, for scrambling together a mostly UK-centric set of replacements to ensure Damnation 2021 could actually take place.

Key to that announcement, back in August, was that Yorkshire death-doom icons (and Damnation veterans) Paradise Lost would be performing 1991 classic Gothic in full for its 30th anniversary. Compared to the limb-flinging chaos elsewhere, getting to bask in Nick Holmes’ demonic growl and Gregor Mackintosh/Aaron Aedy’s mesmeric guitars on time-tested classics like Dead Emotion and Rapture feels like majestic respite. Dropping Darker Thoughts and Ghosts from 2020’s Obsidian feels like proof, too, that they’ve only built on their brilliance over the decades since.

Orange Goblin celebrating 25 heavyweight years

Over the past quarter of a century, Orange Goblin have steadily grown from mainstays of sweaty club shows to the kind of elder statesmen able to easily own a space such as the Leeds refectory, where heroes like Iron Maiden, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and The Who once made their names. As de-facto headliners at A Night Of Salvation, there’s a sense of occasion in the air, but it does nothing to displace the need to party hard when songs like Saruman’s Wish, Some You Win, Some You Lose and They Come Back (Harvest Of Skulls) hit full flow. With hulking frontman Ben Ward leading from the front and a room full of fans finally finding full voice after lockdown, it feels like the riotous Friday night throwdown we all needed after what’s felt like 19 months of Thursdays.

Gama Bomb delivering silliness at speed

Few bands offer a guaranteed party atmosphere quite like Gama Bomb. Back onstage properly for the first time since the release of 2020 album Sea Savage, the lads are in fine form today, having roped in a couple of mates from fellow thrashers Solitary to plug gaps in the line-up, but still sounding as simultaneously tight-wound and unhinged as ever. Frontman Philly Byrne flails enthusiastically, overflowing with barely-coherent banter between bangers like 666teen, She’s Not My Mother, Todd, and Sentenced To Thrash. With waves of crowd-surfers, a conga-line circle-pit and a cameo appearance from mascot Snowy (dressed in sailor-chic and spilling un-PC soundbites), it’s one of the more brilliantly absurd/absurdly brilliant sets all weekend.

Photo: Dominika Kudla

Raging Speedhorn’s boozy masterclass

About 6pm on Friday night, Raging Speedhorn shared a bar tab from TGI Fridays which had run to £322.90. With the band due onstage just after midnight – and with memories of their chaotic Nottingham show where vocalist Frank Regan drunkenly stacked it off the stage fresh in fans’ memories – its easy to wonder what level of carnage we should expect. They do not disappoint. Although there’s no sense that Speedhorn are out of control, there is an utterly maximalist joy about proceedings as they storm through 2000’s self-titled debut LP with a pint-smashing crowd keeping pace.

Superscud, Mandan and Random Acts Of Violence erupt from the speakers at tinnitus-inviting volume. Wave after wave of chaos is unleashed, with even the event organisers crowdsurfing shirtless. K! clocks a boot to the mouth at one point, but can’t help screaming along through bloody lips. All in all, one of the greatest sets that most here will never really remember...

Memoriam revving up their tank-track attack

Damnation festival 2014 was one of the more monumental shows in the life of Memoriam frontman Karl Willets, when his previous band Bolt Thrower levelled the main stage in what prove to be their last ever show. (Longstanding drummer Martin ‘Kiddie’ Kearns would pass away unexpectedly the following September). Although it would be impossible for his new band – or, indeed, almost any other act – to match that incredible night, they still lay waste to the Stylus with an uncompromising show of death metal force, as Shell Shock, War Rages On and As Bridges Burn explode with gunpowder-packed fury. An army helicopters sweeps low over Leeds’ streets the following morning in some undisclosed exercise, but even its rolling thunder can’t match these warriors’ mercilessly-drilled might.

Carcass’ cataclysmic main stage headline

Having delivered outrageous headline sets at Damnation twice before – in 2008, on their original reunion tour, and again in 2013 – it’s easy to half-presume that you know what’s coming with Carcass. That’s when they get you. Hitting the stage for their first show since lockdown (and the release of superb seventh LP Torn Arteries), you're immediately swept off your feet and into a mind-boggling world of hurt. There's a handful of new tracks – Kelly’s Meat Emporium, Dance Of Ixtab and The Scythe’s Remorseless Swing are about as savage as you’d expect – but tonight feels more like a greatest-hits celebration of getting back onstage, from the gutsy rumble of opener Incarnated Solvent Abuse to the 100mph closing squeals of Captive Bolt Pistol. With frontman Jeff Walker and guitarist Bill Steer staring into wind machines as literally hundreds of crowdsurfers topple over the barrier, there’s something oddly reassuring about the helter-skelter scene. Live heavy music is back – at its disgusting best.

Photo: Dominika Kudla

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