FESTIVAL REVIEW: Download Festival UK 2019

Throughout the journey from my home in the North of England to Leicestershire’s infamous Download Festival, I could be sure of only two things as a first time attendee; that I would absolutely see Tool headline, and that I would have to endure what was to become the muddiest weekend of my life in order to reach that point.

As many anticipating the festival probably expected, the uncompromisingly bleak weather conditions of the UK’s biggest rock and metal fest mirrored almost all previous incarnations of the festival in the past decade. The ground was wet, the wind piercing, and mobility was made difficult due to the mud. However, after years of being put off by the awful weather, as us Brits tend to be whenever we make plans to leave our houses, I quickly discovered across the weekend why people seek sanctuary at Download Festival and why, despite the elements beyond the organisers control, I absolutely plan to return in the future.

What I admire most about Download is the sheer variety of bands they book, as while most other rock festivals in the UK remain firmly within their established niche, such as Bloodstock being all metal and ArcTanGent being primarily djent, Download dares to take a stab at everything. And the bands I saw on Friday took me on a journey across three stages featuring different styles of rock.

 

FRIDAY:

Opening the main stage as the sun rose above Castle Donington on Friday morning were righteous heavy metal supergroup Last in Line, featuring former Dio members Vinny Appice and Vivian Campbell, the latter of whom was to perform a second set with Def Leppard the same evening.

 

While it would have been amazing to kick the weekend off with some Dio cover songs as the band had tended towards in the past, the set, which was composed of largely new material, save for an emotional cover of ‘Rainbow in the Dark’ was enjoyable enough, but lacked much in terms of memorability beyond the enthusiasm of the veteran players. Following on from this I took a visit to the Avalanche stage, which as Download’s home to pop punk and emo bands would not typically appeal to me, were it not for a punishingly energetic set from Sumo Cyco, a rising alternative metal/punk fusion foursome from Ontario, Canada who have more in common with the groove laden sounds of Skindred than the stage’s headliners Enter Shikari. Vocalist Skye Sweetnam’s performance was particularly great thanks to her bounciness, punky attitude and incredibly varied voice. The crowd and band energy for anthems such as ‘Fighter’ and the breakdown in ‘Move Mountains’ woke everyone in the tent and was overall a fantastic choice for an early morning set.

While I usually tend towards extreme metal sounds or even power metal before glam or hard rock, the penultimate trio of the Friday main stage consisting of Whitesnake, Slash and Def Leppard’s performance of Hysteria in full (and other classics) made for some of the best sing-a-longs at a gig I have had thus far this year. Beyond Whitesnake’s reliable performances of ‘Here I Go Again’ and ‘Still of the Night’, the material performed from their latest album Flesh and Bone was just as fun to listen to and watch live. But for Whitesnake, it was Tommy Aldrdige’s drum solo that truly impressed. For a band from an era of music where soloing of various instruments were staples of a live set, to see a drummer well into his late sixties go above and beyond what I expected was marvelous and made missing Opeth somehow feel like a good choice. Slash’s set was equally as fun and a real treat for those among us that would prefer Slash to do his own thing than regurgitate Guns N Roses songs with a few originals sprinkled here and there. Cuts such as ‘Call of the Wild’, ‘Anastasia’ andDoctor Alibi’ (performed instead with Todd Kerns on vocals as opposed to Lemmy) offered some speedy Motorhead style riffage before my favourite set of the day was to round it all off. Namely, that of Def Leppard.

After a sign displaying a countdown to Def Leppard’s stage appearance ascended, the silence of a packed field which seemed to go on for miles erupted into cheers and never silence for the next two hours, as the best of British band brought the bulldog spirit and offered hit after hit even beyond the track listing of one of their most successful albums; Hysteria. Songs such as ‘Rock of Ages’, ‘Photograph’ and my personal favourite Let’s Get Rocked were sonic highlights, but visually speaking the set was even more incredible and elaborate, boasting old archive photos of the band on the monolithic screens during ‘Photograph’ as well as a moving video tribute to former axeman Steve Clark. Leppard also made it no secret that Download Festival 2009 was their first live performance following drummer Rick Allen’s unfortunate accident, proclaiming the festival as both geographically and emotionally relevant to Leppard, which made the set feel that much more significant and an “I was there” kind of moment. For all of my anxieties about Download, at this point I could not fault their choice of event level headliners, but the best was yet to come.

Saturday:

Saturday took me first to the main stage where I caught the trio of Alien Weaponry, Royal Republic and Power Trip. For the former of the three, I strongly recall anticipation for their performance circulating in online Download groups, which eventually led to their addition to the prestigious main stage. This made absolute sense to me considering how rammed the second stage for their 25 minute set at Bloodstock was last year. Arriving on stage in Maori fashion with tribal chants and shouts before a pummeling selection of groovy thrash songs, the mayhem only continued to ensue with Royal Republic, who despite an unabashedly campy aesthetic entertained the audience with big hits likeFull Steam Space Machine’ and ‘Tommy Gun’, as well as some very entertaining audience interaction. Joking how not so heavy they are, the band belted out a cover of Metallica’s ‘Battery’ and pulled every self respecting mosher in the crowd to the very front. All of whom likely stayed for the enraging and electrifying thrash onslaught that was Power Trip’s no holds barred set. As one of my most anticipated bands of the weekend, I could not wait to see how this relatively underground act would turn heads on the main stage, and they delivered a fist pumping performance that got everybody moving with all the fiery energy of a veteran Bay Area band straight from the mid 80s. A suitably heavy and varied opening when compared to the Friday’s delicious cake of glam and party rock.

Over on the Zippo Encore stage I took a breather with Animals as Leaders, the infamous trio of prog instrumentals fronted by guitarist musical maestro Tosin Abasi. While their set was sadly only a few songs in length, which within their genre is all you can expect to pack in at a festival, those wanting their tunes on the more complex and mind boggling side were not left disappointed by this band’s ability to perform extremely precise polyrhythmic artistry in the live environment. What they lacked in crowd interaction, they more than made up for it with their engaging playing.

Afterwards, the prog continued with some soaring symphonies and power metal inflections courtesy of Epica, who also despite a short set and some miserable weather offered some beautifully sung and solidly performed hits such as ‘Storm the Sorrow’, ‘Beyond the Matrix’ and ‘Victims of Contingency’. Loved it, but ‘Edge of the Blade’ would have been amazing to see too.

Now we have to talk about the Dogtooth stage, which homes some of the world’s hottest and nastiest extreme metal acts. If I were to be critical of any logistical decisions by Download Festival, it would be to absolutely increase the capacity of this stage, as I saw three bands on this stage and struggled to get inside the tent despite being there early. The first of which was The Hu, one of my favourite discoveries when checking out this year’s bill beforehand. To me, their brand of Mongolian throat singing folk metal seemed way too niche to compete with the likes of Skindred, but I greatly underestimated their appeal it seems, as the tent turned into a tuna can at least 15 minutes before they even stepped on stage. Despite this I rightly decided to wait it out and caught this unique act perform their viral, adrenaline pumping hits ‘Yuve Yuve Yu’ and ‘Wolf Totem’, among some other material from their upcoming debut The Gereg. It was wonderful discovering the band had this much of a live pull so early on in their career, but I would like Download to consider the size of some of these acts before putting them on in a small tent.

A more underwhelming performance came courtesy of the mysterious Polish black metal band Batushka, who I had the pleasure of seeing at Damnation Festival the previous year shortly before the band’s messy and confusing split into two separate projects. While they were amazing back in November when they performed their densely layered and darkly beautiful Litourgiya album in full, I feel their performance at Donington was largely compromised by their insistence on performing material from their yet unreleased Hospodi, which based on the currently released tracks does not share the power or stylistic traits of their debut. As far as the performance went, it was solid, but felt awfully familiar on a visual level, and dare I say boring compared to their indoor performance at Damnation. By contrast, the succeeding act on this stage; melodeath masters Carcass, kept my eyes glued to the stage all the way through as they successfully rammed an entire headline set into a fairly short time frame of 45 minutes. Frontman and bassist Jeff Walker joked that we were only gathered at the “graveyard stage” due to a crap band being on the other one (I’m assuming he meant Die Antwoord), but beyond that, I was there because they know how to bring the live experience.

The Saturday finale of Slipknot’s return to the UK after a three year absence was a much anticipated one for me, and an experience I would urge everyone to seek out come their inevitable 2020 arena tour. Never before had I seen Corey Taylor and the boys in a live environment, and seeing thousands of people get down on the floor and then jump the fuck up for the hook of ‘Spit it Out’ is a moment in my life I would like to experience again. Beyond that, the Maggot crowd were treated a very solid set composing of all the classics like ‘Disasterpiece’, ‘Surfacing’, as well as some rarer cuts like the furious ‘Get This’ and the creepy ‘Prosthetics’. While I felt their actual stage show left a lot to be desired when compared to what I had witnessed on videos of previous Slipknot shows, I am confident that they will deliver a little extra when it comes to their own shows after the festival run.

Sunday:

After a satisfying weekend of great music, cold winds and alcohol fuelled madness, the Sunday of Download finally arrived, and while I had seen much of what I wanted to see at this point, the festival still had a few surprises up its sleeve, and none more so than the fact that alternative metal heavyweights Godsmack were actually really fucking good. To see a band that I had not cared for in many years offer enjoyment beyond my nostalgic desire to see them play the early singles was wonderful. While much of the material played from their latest release When Legends Rise (UMG) failed to strike a chord with me due to their radio-rock style and insistence on the use of the “Wooah” chant that plagues many a song by Imagine Dragons, frontman Sully Erna and sticksman Shannon Larkin’s Batalla de los tambores drum battle was so fun to watch, easily rivalling the Whitesnake solo I saw two days prior. ‘Awake’ and ‘I Stand Alone’ were other highlights of a surprisingly solid set by a band that should not be underestimated.

At this point in the day, the weather had reached scorching levels, and Amon Amarth took to the main stage, taking full advantage of an already sweaty and tired crowd by inducing one of the most lively and sweaty mosh pits of the weekend. Performances of tracks such as The Pursuit of Vikings’ and ‘First Kill’ brought out the viking in everybody, as festival goers fought each other in viking helmets while chugging cheap Amstel from their drinking horns. On tour in promotion of their latest opus Berserker (Metal Blade/Sony), the band also premiered some new material (‘Raven’s Flight’ and ‘Crack the Sky’). While their set was otherwise by the numbers, the band’s return to the UK after 2 years felt well overdue, and their set proved once and for all why Amon Amarth are the perfect festival band.

Another band promoting a new release at the festival, Dream Theater, was another of my most anticipated sets and my final stop before Tool. Like was the case for Animals as Leaders, facing the sad reality that prog bands can only play about 3 or 4 songs at festivals can be depressing, but Download made the right choice in giving Dream Theater an hour long set in which I nerded out to Jon Petrucci’s amazing guitar playing and Mike Mangini’s ridiculous drum fills. The set was overall, an incredible balance of new material featuring tracks both old and new. After the expected performances of brilliant new tracks like ‘Untethered Angel’ and ‘Fall into the Light’, they had the audacity to bring out their instrumental masterpiece ‘The Dance of Eternity’ and the legendary ‘Pull Me Under’, songs that I did not expect them to play at all given their recent rarity on setlists. It was a magical experience and a much needed rebooking, as the band last played at Donington 10 years prior.

My first Download journey finally came to an end with top billers Tool, the ‘elephant in the room’ of the whole festival; a polarising band to say the least, which many were shocked were given the chance to headline in the first place.

Choosing to see Tool over Slayer, one of my favorite bands, was easily the worst festival clash I have ever dealt with in my gig going history. The fact that Slayer’s set at Donington was apparently the band’s final UK show made my decision even more gutting, and felt like a total betrayal of the thrasher in me. But while I was somewhat anxious at first, Tool did more than soften the blow, and offered one of my favourite live experiences of all time.

Without trying to sound too pretentious, I was often watching Tool with my eyes completely shut because I felt like the music was literally flowing through me, and the quality of their sound was so impeccable. Maynard’s impassioned vocals felt like they were ripped straight from the band’s Undertow era, and Danny Carey didn’t even seem to break a sweat on drums for the whole show.

I can only assume my eyes were shut sometimes because I wanted to take in the music I desired to see live for many years, but even those unconvinced by Tool’s sound could not have been any less than awestruck by the visual elements that are the trademarks of a Tool live performance. On the gargantuan main stage screens we had Alex Grey’s album artwork for the band animated to life for songs such as ‘Vicarious’ and ‘Parabola’, as well as scenes from guitarist Adam Jones’ surreally beautiful stop motion music videos accompanying hit songs such as ‘Stinkfist’. On stage physically, we had vocalist Maynard James Keenan boasting a crazy mohawk while doing a weird dance that made him look constipated. It was a beautiful, psychedelic but fundamentally unique experience that I will never forget.

Overall, Download 2019 was a festival that I really enjoyed, and something I would recommend giving a go in the future if you like rock music of any variety. Especially if you can stick the landing of bad British weather, though that can be difficult at times. (Did I mention the festival is muddy?).

MICHAEL MILLER