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Download Festival at Donington Park - live review

Live Review

Venue: Donington Park, Donington

Slayer and System Of A Down have their day in the sun

FRIDAY

Another year at Donington Park and, if we aren’t mistaken, is that big, yellow thing in the sky this ‘sun’ that we’ve heard about? So, finally after years of downpour, the weather has turned up, but many of the punters haven’t. It’s a smaller-scale operation at Download this year, which is a shame as there is plenty on this line-up for metalheads to get excited about.

Armed with songs from their terrific Mesmer album, main Lemmy stage openers NORTHLANE [6] should be enticing. Sadly, a murky sound swallows Marcus Bridge’s voice, so their impassioned performance is neutered. MOTIONLESS IN WHITE’s [7] glam-goth stomp is made for festivals, and Chris Motionless’s insistence that “Nobody wakes up tomorrow without a bangover” is immediately heeded.

THE RAVEN AGE [5] get things started on the Zippo Encore Stage, although it’s not the start you’d wish for. Clunky, paper-thin metalcore and eye-rolling stage patter is not the way most people would choose to start their weekend. The smell of marijuana wafts through the Avalanche tent as THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA [6] attempt to rouse a quiet crowd with their booming, melodic metalcore. Mike Hranica performs like they’re moshing instead of gently swaying on the spot, but they’re roused when he exclaims “Fuck Donald Trump!” before a synth-driven rendition of To The Key Of Evergreen. There’s a healthier turnout for CODE ORANGE [8]. Their fusion of hardcore punk with grunge, death metal and ambient, proggy melodies is spectacular, with Bleeding In The Blur not only showing the crowd they can do downtuned Seattle vibes, but also inspiring some fans to dance the Macarena. OK…

SABATON [8] occupy a unique place in Download’s collective affections where fireworks, pyro and a full-size tank are acceptable – nay, mandatory – at 3pm. It’s remarkably silly, but a field of fists is raised in approval. As good as MASTODON [8] are on record, seeing their songs recreated live is a near-religious experience. Their songwriting and musicianship are awe-inspiring; no one else melds technicality and melody so gloriously. FIVE FINGER DEATH PUNCH [6] should be a perfect Download band, but things just don’t gel. The songs are delivered with near-clinical precision, but the set feels under-rehearsed, the long, awkward pauses making it uncharacteristically workmanlike.

SUICIDAL TENDENCIES [8] never disappoint. With a crowd-pleasing setlist on the second stage, and the indefatigable Mike Muir on fine riot-starting form, the crossover veterans take most bands half their age to school. BARONESS [9], however, are not one of those bands. One of the most supremely gifted acts of this generation step up and show their class with a set pulling heavily from the superb Purple album. If there is a gripe it’s that, as they end with a beautiful Take My Bones Away, the sparse crowd is miniscule compared to what they deserve.

Election aftermath is the perfect opportunity for PROPHETS OF RAGE [8] to make their statement. “Theresa May is shaking her fucking head,” says Chuck D, before adding to a rapturous cheer, “Jeremy Corbyn, power to the people!” Chuck and B-Real – the latter inexplicably donning a keffiyeh – power through Take The Power Back, Guerilla Radio and a DJ medley. A touching instrumental version of Like A Stone, in tribute to Chris Cornell, brings tears to the eyes of the crowd, but they bounce like it’s 1992 to closer Killing In The Name.

VENOM PRISON [8] play almost entirely in silhouette thanks to some NIN-style lighting, and attempt to turn the Dogtooth Stage into an undercover circlepit. Brutal and brilliant. LOST SOCIETY [7] follow and take the prize for most excited band of the weekend. They might let loose an old-school attack sonically, but the vim and fizz of youth is the most seductive part of a highly enjoyable set. We’ve missed KROKODIL [8]. Three guitars fight to see how much they can damage your hearing and vocalist Simon Wright has a voice so raw it could cut diamonds. And the new material sounds huge. A clash with the day’s headliners absorbs the crowd for THE CONTORTIONIST [7], whose melody-rich take on tech-metal displays rare musical chops and is rapturously received by the select few present. “We’ve finally made it to Donington then!” says EXODUS’s [8] Steve Souza, and the thrash legends are determined to make the most of it. Despite also clashing with SOAD, the tent is rammed as they plough through a dizzying greatest hits set. Get them back again. Soon.

No one could claim that SYSTEM OF A DOWN [6] don’t put on a set of wall-to-wall hits. Three songs into the set, they drop Violent Pornography and Aerials, with Radio/ Video and Hypnotize following soon after. It’s a non-stop karaoke session for the crowd, but their enthusiastic vocals end up filling in for Serj, whose voice seems to have lost that dizzy wail. With hardly any crowd interaction – or even chemistry between members – it feels like they’re playing by numbers, and certainly aren’t enjoying themselves as much as the audience. Hearing the songs that soundtracked most of the crowd’s youth is doubtless a nostalgia trip, but it’s marred by watching a once-great force appear bored of their own material.

SATURDAY

It’s new HACKTIVIST [6] vocalist Jot Maxi’s baptism of fire as he opens the Lemmy stage on Saturday morning. Dreadlocks bouncing like Sideshow Bob, he looks like he’s enjoying himself but is relegated to the role of hype man most of the time as J Hurley takes most of the lead vocals. In one year, CREEPER [8] have made it out of a tent and onto the main stage, and they’re relishing every minute. Hannah Greenwood shows off her vocal prowess as she takes on more backing vocals, and tracks from the new album ring out with gusto over the area. A heart-stirring ender of I Choose To Live proves these punks are ready for an even bigger slot next year.

RAVENEYE’s [7] meat’n’ potatoes rock provides little in the way of surprises on the second stage, but it’s played with energy and a fire that belies their mid-hangover slot. The size of the crowd for ALESTORM [4] puts many headliners to shame, but a quirk of the wind drowns out their zany power metal with low-end from the main stage. Whether or not that’s a bad thing depends on your perspective. There’s something deeply inauthentic about THE ONE HUNDRED’s [6] attempt to “bring some 90s hip hop shit” to some gimmicky, half-baked nu metal, but Jacob Field has an undeniably raucous energy and the crowd lap it up. You’d forgive SUICIDE SILENCE [7] for playing it safe given the recent controversy. A powerhouse performance all but erases memories of their musical conversion… before they end on the ballad-esque Conformity from the new album. A band out of fucks to give.

The problem with a band that relies on its impressive complexity is that those multiple currents of sound are somewhat lost in a huge arena. SIKTH [6] deliver an energetic and tight set as always, but the afternoon crowd seems unmoved. Anyone wondering if OF MICE AND MEN [7] could continue without Austin Carlile gets their answer today, as Aaron Pauley makes switching between clean and unclean vocals and keeping up his bass duties look like a piece of cake. It’s strange not to have a frontman cavorting about the stage, but it’s very much business as usual.

A few years ago KVELERTAK [8] were the buzz name in metal circles, so it’s a worry that they don’t pull a bigger second-stage crowd. With a Metallica tour on the horizon they’ll need to learn how to win over the apathetic, and they’re on fine form today with the new material from last year’s polarising Nattesferd working far better live than on record. MAX AND IGGOR CAVALERA [8] are the perfect fit for a festival such as this, and pulling solely from the classic Roots album was always going to be a winner. When you can dish out Roots Bloody Roots, Attitude and Ratamahatta early on and end with Ace Of Spades, you’d have to be really incompetent to fail. And they aren’t.

Maybe the disappointingly small Lemmy stage crowd is testament to the fact that AFI [8] rarely play in the UK. That doesn’t stop them playing a set of post-millennium tracks with conviction, including some of their most iconic material like Girl’s Not Grey, Silver And Cold and even The Leaving Song Pt. II, which has hardly appeared on their setlist of late. Tracks from A DAY TO REMEMBER’s [6] latest effort, Bad Vibrations, stand out as the poppier, singalong tracks against their heavier older material. Even Jeremy McKinnon’s acoustic ballads get the crowd singing, but his habit of dedicating Have Faith In Me to “the ladies” is becoming a cheesy cliché.

On a bad day, EVERY TIME I DIE [9] are merely one of the world’s best live bands. Today is not a bad day. The Avalanche stage sees synchronised headbanging, guitars being thrown into the air mid-riff, and a set drawn from the strongest back catalogue in hardcore. An absolute fucking pleasure. Since they’re currently touring the Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV album in full, it makes sense that COHEED AND CAMBRIA [7] fill their second stage set full of it. Yet you can’t help but think that delving deeper into their fantastic back catalogue would have resulted in perfect festival fare. THE DEVIN TOWNSEND PROJECT [8] don’t care too much about appeasing casual fans either. But, unlike Coheed, Devin has such a wonderfully inclusive personality that everyone is soon seduced by a trip through every nook and cranny of the man’s stunning back catalogue. “The weirdos are here!” growls WEDNESDAY 13 [8] as a huge crowd spills out of the Dogtooth stage. His industrial-goth freak show is an ideal fit, it’s just a shame it’s been confined – flame-wielding dancers and all – to the tiny tent. When ROB ZOMBIE [9] played Download in 2014 he was woefully disappointing. Today he makes amends with a set of glorious Technicolor, grindhouse schlock visuals and some legitimate classic industrial rock stompers on the second stage, all topped up with crowd-pleasing covers of Blitzkrieg Bop and School’s Out. When he’s on it, Rob is still the man.

SUNDAY

FOZZY [7] don’t let an inhumanly early Lemmy stage slot or a crowd depleted by queues dampen their enthusiasm; they’re tremendously fun and let down only by a dearth of classic songs. There’s shades of Northlane in BRUTAI’s [7] tight Dogtooth set, which commands a decent crowd despite it only being lunchtime, as their ambient, proggy undertones are driven along by fierce riffs. “If you’re in a relationship with someone who doesn’t love you, break up after this set!” screams BLOOD YOUTH’s [7] Kaya Tarsus before Closure. Snapping at the heels of the likes of Deez Nuts and Stray From The Path, they know how to deliver loud and impactful, but accessible, hardcore.

Apparently, no one told stoner metal hero Ben Ward that ORANGE GOBLIN [8] aren’t headlining. Their apocalyptically downtuned bass could rouse the dead; it works similar magic on the Sunday morning attendees. It might only be the early afternoon but on the second stage, RED FANG [8] provide a maelstrom of old-school riffing, the size of their sound befitting a headline band. “See you at the Forum... or maybe Brixton judging by this,” says Dez Fafara at the end of a triumphant DEVILDRIVER [9] set. Their meaty metal always works at Download, but today it’s a career-defining moment with a huge crowd circlepitting like crazy. ANATHEMA [7] can’t really follow that. Their music is beautiful and majestic, but the much-diminished crowd seem restless without the headbanging grooves we’ve been enjoying thus far. MINISTRY [8] don’t really do straightahead mosh anthems either. But they still fare better with their discordant industrial noise and weird ol’ uncle Al is still a visual presence that any band would kill for.

It’s obvious why so many people are watching THE CHARM THE FURY [7] on the Dogtooth stage. Caroline Westendorp is a genuine star, but the band’s melodic and metal sides often seem at odds with each other. You can always rely on godfathers of Swedish melodeath IN FLAMES [7] to deliver a pounding set, but it seems they can’t rely on the amount of beer they’ll be provided with. “This is a Spinal Tap moment!” booms Anders Fridén, placing a diminutive coolbox – their entire beer rider – onstage. Thankfully it doesn’t stop him giving a full-throated performance. AIRBOURNE’s [8] triumphant set can best be summarised by Joel O’Keeffe playing a guitar solo sat on the shoulders of someone dressed as a kangaroo. As ever, it’s the most fun an AC/DC fan can have without a school uniform. STEEL PANTHER [7] are practically Download’s house band and their showmanship is undeniable. But it’s surely time to retire the Steel Banter; as evidenced by their headliner-worthy crowd, an act this entertaining doesn’t need to rely on “jokes” about dicks and date rape. Following Steel Panther’s metal cabaret is a tough ask, but ALTER BRIDGE [9] rise magnificently to the occasion. Eschewing flashy production, preferring to let Mark Tremonti’s guitar acrobatics speak for themselves, it nonetheless feels like an audition for the headline slot.

Another festival, another stunning win for CLUTCH [9] on the second stage. The Maryland quartet are masters of effortlessly commanding a crowd, and the new song they chuck in among the anthems should get you very excited by the thought of a new album. OPETH [8] are more impressive than they are enjoyable. Outdoors in the blazing sun is not really the place to enjoy their intricate prog, but the sheer strength of songs gets them over the line. Emotions run high on the Avalanche Stage as TOUCHÉ AMORÉ [8] draw on material from their last three albums to deliver an earnest set. Amends has the crowd singing back at them, and Jeremy Bolm’s vocals are both raw and delicate.

SLAYER [8] are one of the few elder statesmen of metal who still carry themselves with an air of malevolence, even as a man in a banana suit surfs the crowd. Tom Araya seems bemused by much of what’s going on, laughing so hard during Seasons In The Abyss he can barely sing, but raging versions of South Of Heaven, Raining Blood and Angel Of Death are brutal enough to punch a hole in the sunset. As Slayer finish their set, THE DILLINGER ESCAPE PLAN [8] are nearing the climax of their final UK show, and it’s carnage. During Farewell, Mona Lisa Ben Weinman plunges into the crowd, guitar in tow, and bodies are toppling into the pit every few seconds. It all ends with demented, chaotic versions of Sunshine The Werewolf and 43% Burnt, as Greg Puciato swims 20 metres into the audience, the drumkit is wrecked, and someone sets off a bubble machine. It’s hard to say much about a performance consisting of a dude in a hoody, nodding from behind a bank of keyboards, but the crowd for PERTURBATOR [8] are having a lovely time – particularly the more chemically refreshed among them.

Steven Tyler’s voice may sound like it’s looking forward to retirement, but as a band, AEROSMITH [8] are near-untouchable. The festival headline set starts incredibly strong – we get Cryin’, Living On The Edge and Love In An Elevator within the first five songs – so it’s inevitable that it loses momentum, but the chops and back catalogue on display tonight show why we’ll miss them when they’re gone. Not the set of the weekend, then, but a more than worthy end to the best Download in recent memory.

TeamRock+

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