After a prolonged absence from the British metal scene courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic (save for a scaled-back pilot event in 2021), Leicestershire’s iconic summer rock, punk, and metal weekender, Download Festival returned to Castle Donnington in a maximalist blaze of glory, packing in a full-scale 5-day experience with some familiar favorites, hotly tipped up-and-comers and some of the best international acts that rock and metal scene has to offer.
Before I get to the meat of it, if you can allow a bit of a preamble; the last time I got to speak about the Download Festival was in my review of the 2019 event (my first Download), which feels like a century ago. So, returning to the festival some three years later, felt like a completely fresh experience in a variety of ways. Though I can’t say that for every metal festival I attended post-covid (Bloodstock, Damnation, Incineration all felt like time capsules of themselves), Download went through a bit of a change-up, and I can firmly say that last weekend was superior to the 2019 event, at least, from an organizational perspective. Accessibility, hygiene, and convenience for the fans seemed to be more of a pressing issue for Andy Copping and co, because the festival, whether due to lack of ticket sales or perhaps the goodness of the organisers hearts, made the brilliant decision to move campsites closer to the arena, as well as relocate Download’s beloved fairground/night-time entertainment center “The Village” onto a solid tarmac ground, with an updated aesthetic which saw the comedy and breaking bands stages enveloped by huge shipping containers that called to mind an illegal rave in a rusty, makeshift warehouse. Combine all that with the best weather that Donnington has seen in early June since (apparently) Download 2018, the weekend was already setting itself up to be an absolute banger.
On the first night of the festival, Download traditionally runs a “Takeover” event on the Doghouse stage catering to the whole spectrum of Download’s musical repertoire, and consequently hosts weird-ass line-ups. Although I was forced to miss all the Wednesday bands in 2019, I made the effort to visit the stage this time around, as it allows a small handful of underground and breaking bands in the UK a shot at performing in front of an audience larger than they are perhaps used to normally. Though the first band I saw perform on it, Fury would have had me fooled for being an up-and-comer, as they commanded the audience with the confidence of a vintage traditional metal band, hitting similar musical beats along the way. I first caught wind of these guys/girls in 2016, when their style was more akin to power metal than the more rugged yet melodic stylings of Saxon and Iron Maiden, but the audience, familiar or otherwise, ate up their rough around the edges yet triumphant stage energy. Not only have they come much more into their own since I last caught them live, but their material has also improved (in my opinion). Absolutely a band to keep an eye on.
Conversely, the headliner of the Doghouse stage; Red Method, sadly left me feeling bitterly disappointed. Although I was initially intrigued by their Slipknot-esque aesthetic, despite not being won over by their recorded material, I still walked away dissatisfied, particularly as they seem to be playing most other UK metal festivals in 2022. Sound issues aside, (wireless microphones seem to rarely work at festivals), the performance itself felt particularly lackluster in comparison to Fury, and the crowd seemed generally less engaged with the band than their predecessors.
Download, in general, is often the victim of accusations within their fanbase of recycling bands when it comes to the Big Names. Perhaps that’s a symptom of the lack of fresh headliners in rock and metal generally, but it’s for this reason that on the Friday of Download, I found myself drawn to the Opus and Dogtooth stages, which are generally home to cult bands and acts that are generally more niche. Now, I’m not a self-professed hardcore fan, but I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t say that Heriot kicked arse when they opened the Dogtooth stage. Their blend of chaotic industrial/noise and classic hardcore trappings made for a violently exhilarating wake-up call that would appeal to even the most casual Code Orange fan. Combined with occasional black metal shrieking from Debbie Gough (guitar, vocals), their set was a brutal standout, and Heriot will no doubt be huge within their respective scene in due time.
I next caught the solo performance of Myles Kennedy on the Opus stage, who was contrastingly mellow, with an uninspired set of similarly paced rock songs, sprinkled with a cover of “World on Fire” as well as a tune from his original band; The Mayfield Four. Don’t get me wrong, the man can sing, and to hear his unmistakable vocals again was an absolute joy as it usually is, but the performance itself felt very one-note and the songs themselves very much of a similar ilk, greatly lacking the balls to the wall energy which characterized his set with Slash and the Conspirators back in 2019.
Staying on the Opus stage, I then caught the double whammy of Italian gothic-metal masters Lacuna Coil and hard rockers Airbourne, both of which were on top form, with the former performing tunes from their new album Black Anima as well as all the big hits (“Our Truth,” “Heavens a Lie,” “Nothing Stands in Our Way” etc). Airbourne, infamous for their vocalist’s stage climbing antics, were clearly aware of health and safety regulations this time around, but still found time to whack their heads against beer cans and throw them out to the sun-drenched audience. Their set was a no-bullshit, hard-rocking treat, and they played to their strengths by playing all the tracks people love (“Back in the Game,” “Runnin’ Wild” etc.) with a new song here and there for the faithful.
To say that I found KISS to not only be the most impressive band of the day, but the best headliner I saw across the entire weekend was a surprise to nobody more than me, particularly at an event where Iron Maiden was playing. As a classic metal fan at heart, I had never been attracted by Kiss’ slightly goofy and radio-friendly sound, but their larger-than-life stage theatrics and gargantuan live sound made their farewell to the UK a completely bittersweet experience for me. From Paul Stanley ziplining out to the crowd, to the horror-inspired visuals played during “God of Thunder,” I realized last Friday why Kiss have always thought so highly of themselves, their music, and their show; because they are that good, great even. If you get a chance to catch them on their End of the Road tour, make sure you see them (If you take nothing else from this review).
Part II coming soon…
WORDS BY MICHAEL MILLER