It’s been three years since the torrential downpours and rivers of mud that characterised the 2016 edition of Download Festival. Since then the weather for the last two festivals has been largely good, so that meant we were due another wash out. By the time Friday rolled around, the campsite was already resembling something from the First World War, though thankfully, the worst of the weather had passed and the main 3 days, though not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, had at least passable conditions
First up on Friday afternoon is Kvelertak, the Norwegians fusing 70s rock n’ roll and black metal. This is the first appearance at Download Festival since the departure of talismanic owl headed vocalist Erlend Hjelvik, a line up change that many felt could spell big trouble. No one should have worried, as new singer Ivar Nikolaisen is a more than adequate replacement. He has a far more punk energy than his predecessor and there is definitely a more tangible sense of fun in this set than in previous outings. In many ways, there are perfect band to see early on at a festival; they have brilliant riffs, an incredibly tight rhythm section and despite singing in a language foreign to the majority of Download goes, they are very easy to connect with and they come across brilliantly despite battling some minor sound issues.
Next, it’s a trip down to the main stage to see Clutch. There is very little to say about this set other than that it was absolutely flawless. Their laid back, southern fried hard rock goes down an absolute storm, drawing a huge crowd. They open with a string of songs from last years excellent Book of Bad Decisions, a bold decision for a festival set, but one that pays off as the crowd seem to know them as well as the classics. Speaking of which, when they pull out The Regulator, and later Electric Worry, the crowd reaction and sing along is jubilant. Clutch turn up at a festival and play a brave and brilliant set that delights everyone. It’s not news, it always happens.
Following this, we trek back over to the Zippo Encore Stage to catch Deadland Ritual, the new band featuring former members of Black Sabbath, Guns N Roses, Apocalyptica, and Billy Idol’s band. They open with Symptom Of The Universe, a Black Sabbath cover. Matt Sorum’s drumming suits Guns N’ Roses or Velvet Revolver fine, but here it sticks out like a sore thumb as it feels plodding and totally lacking the swing and groove of Bill Ward and it is really highlighted on a song like this. Vocalist Franky Perez sings note perfectly, but lacking the character and charm of Ozzy. They play a few original songs that feel run of the mill and largely uninspired and when they play further Sabbath covers, they feel like any other cover band, but with some recognisable faces.
In stark contrast, are Opeth. They turn up and somehow, due to their ridiculous song lengths, manage to only play five songs in a 45 minute setlist. Not that anyone is complaining. They open with the title track from 2017s Sorceress, which feels far heavier than it did on the album and sounds excellent. Then they launch into Ghost of Perdition, Cusp Of Eternity and Drapery Falls, the latter drawing a huge roar from the crowd. They close out on the labyrinthine Deliverance which twists and turns its way through it’s many shades. The outstanding thing about this performance is the dichotomy between the heaviness of the blasting death metal passages which sounds truly crushing, but never at the expense of the lighter moments which sound beautiful and delicate. Opeth’s more recent output may have it’s detractors, but there was a little something for everyone in this set. An excellent outing from the Swedish progressive metallers.
When you consider that he plays little or no Guns N’ Roses material in his sets, Slash’s billing as sub-headliner may have appeared an unusual one. However, slowly, over four albums he has built up a rather magnificent set of sun-blushed retro-feeling classic rock. Taking in tracks from all four albums within five songs, this has the feel of a greatest hits set, and the fact that You’re A Lie follows the one Gn’R inclusion of Nightrain and doesn’t sound like a step down is testament to Slash’s continued brilliance and relevance. And you genuinely don’t miss the Guns N’ Roses material. This set is by no means all about Slash though, Myles Kennedy’s voice is astonishing and although he doesn’t have the biggest stage presence, his melodious tones more than make up for that. Also, the rest of the band are excellent, with special mention to Todd Kerns whose rendition of Doctor Alibi is excellent.
It’s been eight years since Def Leppard last headlined Download Festival. In the meantime Iron Maiden, Slipknot, Black Sabbath, Rammstein, Avenged Sevenfold and Aerosmith have all headlined twice. So it was about time the godfathers of hair metal returned. As they are playing Hysteria in it’s entirety, the opening of this set is utterly biblical. Women into Rocket, Animal, Love Bites and then Pour Some Sugar On Me is an unstoppable opening salvo. Many may have come to see Def Leppard out of sheer curiosity, not expecting much and they will have been pleasantly surprised by just how good they sound. Joe Elliot does not appear to have lost a shred of vocal ability and still hits every note and keeps his and the crowds energy going all show long. Although, the end of Hysteria sags slightly as it is hugely front loaded, they end as well as they started, with a barrage of hits in the form of When Love and Hate Collide, Let’s Get Rocked, Rock of Ages and finally Photograph. After 40 years, Def Leppard have still got it.
We start Saturday back on the main stage, and kicking everything off at the ungodly time of 11am are Alien Weaponry. Imagine playing the main stage of the biggest rock festival in a foreign country before you’re twenty. That’s reality for this Kiwi metal crew. For such an early time on the second day of a festival they draw a hugely impressive crowd, and songs like Kai Tangata and Holding My Breath sound absolutely fantastic, filling the space and their groove laden riffs sound huge. Unfortunately, these moments seem to be brief flashes rather than the entire set. This is by no means a bad performance but it feels like the energy rises and falls. Perhaps in a few years with another record or two under their belt they’ll be able to truly blow everyone away.
In amongst a day of largely heavy bands on the main stage (oh and Die Antwoord), providing the diversity are the devastatingly dashing and funny Royal Republic, who take to the stage in bright red suits. Their excellent brand of pop inflected 80s rock and the charisma and showmanship of frontman Adam Grahn goes down a storm at Donington and by the time they pull out an unexpected but thoroughly enjoyable cover of Battery by Metallica, they have the Download crowd eating of their hand.
Switching the dial back toward the heavier end of the scale are Power Trip. Easily the best thrash band of the 21st Century, the Texan crew arrive and proceed to turn the front of the crowd into a huge mosh pit. With just a very simple, small back drop bearing their logo, they let the music speak for itself, and it does the talking. The second song, Executioners Tax (Swing Of The Axe) is a real highlight, with it’s chugging Pantera-esque riff and vocalist Riley Gale howling over the top like a man possessed. Thrash might have had its hey day some 30 years ago, but Power Trip are ensuring that it is not dead yet.
Extreme metal is not supposed to be on the main stage of Download Festival. Behemoth have somehow made it to this point without compromising, without diluting their sound. They take to the stage, masked, and launch into Wolves Ov Siberia followed by Ora Pro Nobis Lucifer. One hell of a statement to make (pun intended). Nergal is the ultimate showman, changing hats and masks at least twice during the set, but never feeling hokey or overdone, and maintaining the drama of the performance. The power of the band is unquestionable, and although there is plenty of atmospheric help from a magnificent array of pyro, you can’t help but feel the genuine theatre of the performance would maintain everyone’s attention, even if they just had a simple backdrop like Power Trip. They close on Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel and Chant For Eschaton 2000, and Nergal ends as always by bidding the crowd “Hail, Satan!”. Black metal is not meant to be this big, it was literally a sub culture that was intrinsically designed to be difficult and to be niche. That Behemoth have taken this formula and blown it beautifully out of all proportion is a wondrous feat.
If you were going to choose one band out of Behemoth and Skindred, to get rain, and the other to get sun, there’d only be one way you’d choose. But as the gods of Donington will have it, the clouds gather and it begins to rain as Newport’s raga-metal merchants take to the stage. It really doesn’t matter though, they bring the party in spite of the weather. Songs like Nobody, Pressure and Rat Race have gone down a storm at Download many times before, and so they do again. Constant audience participation is encouraged and readily criticized for not being good enough by the charisma bomb that is Benji Webbe. When eventually he is satisfied, new song That’s My Jam sounds brilliant and certainly live up to the reaction garnered by the older numbers. They close out in traditional style with Warning and the ever popular Newport Helicopter. As thousands of shirts swing, Skindred bring a fantastic set to a close.
Trivium are next to take to the main stage. They open up with the title track and Beyond Oblivion from The Sin And The Sentence to a rapturous reception. From there it’s a tour de force of modern metal brilliance. Despite having an inconsistent back catalogue of albums, Trivium have built up a setlist of festival mastery, and every song from Until The World Goes Cold, to Sever The Hand to Pull Harder On The Strings Of Your Martyr. Even whilst battling the sound gremlins, they’re still excellent and maintain their own and the crowds energy throughout the set. This is a band who have had their ups and downs, but no matter the album they’re touring, they always go down well at Donington, at one point Matt Heafy even refers to it as a ‘hometown show’. They end, to no one’s surprise on a magnificent In Waves, which is the triumphant end this set deserves.
Whilst Die Antwoord are playing on the main stage, we traverse up the slope back to the Dogtooth Stage to go and see Batushka. It’s always a little complicated when a band splits two ways and both continue to call themselves the same name, even before we get into all the legal wrangling that appears to be accompanying this particular split. Let’s hope the other half of Batushka is the one that focuses on actually playing music. When you have a 30 minute festival set, spending 10 minutes at the beginning and at the end lighting candles is stupid. It may be part of your aesthetic, it may work really well in a full length headline capacity, but to only get 10 minutes worth of music in a festival set three times that length is a disgrace. It’s particularly disheartening when that music was actually some rather excellent black metal. But frankly, that’s not what will be remembered.
There has already been a headliner mentioned who started a set with an unstoppable force of brilliant songs. Slipknot take that idea and run with it. Opening up with People = Shit and Sic is an inspired choice. The Iowan legends are on utterly ferocious form, and amid the departure of founding member Chris Fehn and the loss of family members, this seems like a Slipknot who came to destroy. There is a more stripped back production than 2015’s circus themed extravaganza, and perhaps it aids them; with out the more lavish backdrop they have nothing to hide behind and the show is reliant on the musicians feeding the crowd and vice versa. The fiery energy, particularly of Corey Taylor, is utterly magnetic and songs like Before I Forget truly explode with huge choruses. Another, brilliant example of this is new single Unsainted, which really comes to life in the festival setting, with the crowd singing back the chorus almost as loud as the PA. They close out the main set with the mighty Duality before launching into a pulverizing encore of Spit It Out and Surfacing. The Nine are truly back.
Packing tents away and hiking through the mud is a nightmare that takes far longer than you perhaps plan on. Consequently, we only get in the arena on Sunday just in time for Amon Amarth. At this point, you basically know what to expect from an Amon Amarth set: joyously heavy death metal with soaring melodies and a ridiculous show to boot. Well we’re not disappointed on the show front, from a large prop dragon during Twilight Of The Thunder Gods, to actual fighting armour-clad Vikings in Shield Wall. The new songs fit the set well, with Raven’s Flight in particular sounding enormous. They’re more than worthy of their step up from opening this stage several years ago.
Next on, keeping things heavy, are Lamb of God. They open up with Omerta, Ruin and Walk With Me In Hell, leaving many sore necks and effectively turning the front of the crowd into a war zone of flying bodies and flailing limbs. At this point in their career Lamb Of God are used to stages and crowds this big, but there is never a feeling of resting on the laurels, Randy Blythe in particular seems to be charged by a burning fury, throwing himself all over the stage. The energy levels dip slightly in the middle of the set during an airing of some of the more recent material, but by the time they slam into Laid To Rest and Redneck at the end, the crowd is once again seemingly one enormous mosh pit.
Somehow this is only the first time Smashing Pumpkins have played at Download, and what follows is an account of someone who has somehow existed on this planet for over two decades without knowing a single song by the band. The backdrop is a magnificent collection of enormous multi-coloured doll like figures, which slowly turn as the set progresses and are black and white, resembling something from a Tim Burton film. They open up with Zero, which possess a riff that does not get out of the head easily. They then proceed through their weird atmospheric soundscapes, with perhaps one or two too many extended musical interludes and solos, but the crowd reactions to their songs seem very positive, especially given that they’re coming on after the demolition of Lamb Of God. An excellent cover of Snowblind, featuring Amelie Brun of Myrkur is an excellent little treat, the sort of thing you only get at a festival. There may have been a shortage of big hits, but the Smashing Pumpkins are notorious for doing that sort of thing, and they genuinely all look like they were enjoying themselves, none more so than James Iha who recounts how he owned a Live At Donington tape. All in all a successful first showing for the alternative 90s masters.
It has been 13 years since Tool last headlined Download, but you wouldn’t know that to watch them. Most bands who headline Download after five years will spend a minimum 10 minutes of their set extolling the brilliance of the festival and how glad they are to be back. Maynard James Keenan utters 19 words during their entire set, and 18 of those are a joke about the youngsters being sperm when they wrote Intolerance. There’s a certain level of arrogance in that, or perhaps it’s just commitment to the aesthetic and the art, something they aren’t short on.
With no live feeds to the big screens of the band, they simply broadcast huge psychedelic images and strange visions that fit with the band, and allow you, forgive the pretension, to truly engage with the music and get lost along with the visuals. They open with the strange stop start riff and then pounding rhythms of Ænima and the experience begins. You can hardly see Maynard hidden at the back of the stage, but you can surely hear him, hitting every note and sounding fantastic.
It’s an obvious thing to say but the musicianship on display is absolutely immaculate, from the twisting rhythms of Parabola to off kilter riffing and breakdown of Jambi; not a single note is misplaced, and the crowd hangs rapturously on every single one. They play two new songs, both of which are sprawling epics with large instrumental sections. Again, a potentially arrogant move, throwing two brand new songs that no one has heard yet into a twelve song set, but one that again doesn’t seem to phase an audience who just seem grateful to have Tool back. You could easily make a full length set out of the tunes they don’t play, from Hooker With A Penis and The Grudge to Lateralus and Pushit. But when you hear the roars that greet 46 & 2 or The Pot, you can’t begrudge any of the picks here. Download Festival 2019 is closed out with a marvellous Stinkfist. Tool are back, and they’d better not leave it another 13 years.