The return of rival event Sonisphere to this year’s UK rock calendar meant that Download has to seriously step it up to retain its title of heavyweight champion of rock and metal. The crowded festival market appears to have reduced attendance figures from last year yet there are several tempting morsels on the bill to intrigue the discerning rocker.
Legendary post-hardcore (that’s pre emo for those who weren’t born till the 90s) crew Quicksand manage to make several new converts on the Pepsi Max stage if attendance for their set is any indication. Walter Schreifels hasn’t lost his youthful energy dancing in between the scything guitars of ‘Fazer’ although the absence of anthem of disaffection ‘Dine Alone’ is damn near criminal. This glaring omission aside the band appears energised with bassist Sergio Vega clearly glad to be reunited with the group despite enjoying greater success with Deftones. ‘Landmine Spring’ brings their abridged set to a close. Just imagine what it would have been like if they were firing on all cylinders.
The New Yorkers may not have lived up to the immense hype surrounding them yet they were a good excuse for skipping most of Black Label Society’s set on the main stage. New record Catacombs Of The Black Vatican is decent, but Zakk Wylde’s performance feels contrived with all the over-reliance on pinched harmonics and some indulgent soloing. The former Ozzy Osbourne fret mangler’s status as a highly decorated guitar legend cannot be denied, but today’s performance felt tired like a flower withering in the afternoon heat.
Main stage performance of the day had to go to Symphonic metal act Within Temptation. Rightfully proud of new album Hydra, Sharon Den Adel leads her band mates through a set of rousing choruses and bombastic strings. ‘Let Us Burn’ is as fine an opener as you will find, Den Adel hitting every note effortlessly while encouraging the crowd to join in. Playing both ‘Dangerous’ featuring Devil You Know/ ex-Killswitch Engage vocalist Howard Jones and ‘And We Run’ with rapper Xzibit was perhaps a little ambitious with neither man on hand to deliver his performance in the flesh. The latter particularly gives Sharon little to do during the rap section although it can’t be denied it is a fine slice of pop metal.
If anyone could make the most of a big stage appearance it would be horror rocker Rob Zombie. All the theatrics you’d expect from the man himself are here yet sound trouble and the lack of quality new songs hampers the party somewhat. Club anthems like ‘Living Dead Girl’ still impress and the sleazy grind of ‘House Of 1000 Corpses’ deliver fine hooks but Zombie flings himself across the stage often sounding out of breath as he does so. Zombie certainly knows how to pack in the hits and deliver a thrilling stage show but today’s performance was nothing we haven’t already seen from the groovy ghoul before.
Anathema are simply spellbinding. Transcending genre boundaries with a set of ethereal beauty having again raised the bar with their Distant Satellites opus. The Cavanagh brothers are in fine voice tonight bolstered by a lush sound mix which accentuates every nuance of their performance. ‘Fragile Dreams’ begins a jaw dropping performance of raw emotion while Lee Douglas performance on ‘The Lost Song Part 3’ would make the lips of even the hardest headed quiver, its’ soaring melody both heart-breaking and uplifting all at once. Confidently signing off with the title track of the new record, the Liverpudlians deliver a life affirming performance capable of connecting with so much more than just the traditional rock and metal crowd which makes you wonder why they aren’t headlining arenas the world over.
The dry sardonic wit of Mikael Åkerfeldt remains as sharp as ever. ‘The Devil’s Orchard’ from Heritage still stands up live, but little can compare to the mighty rendition of ‘Demon Of The Fall’ and the crushing ‘Deliverance’. Opeth may be done making death metal records but live the band is focussed on retaining the diehard fanbase they have fought to build up over the years with a set of faithful classics.
Avenged Sevenfold make their debut headlining appearance tonight. They may not have twenty plus years of hits to rely on but you have to credit M. Shadows and company for attempting to step up. Unfortunately when most of your songs lift parts from Metallica, The Misfits and AC/DC liberally it won’t be a set that can retain all in the crowd’s attention. Instead it was time to visit the second stage to witness pop punks The Offspring turn deliver a pleasant if unremarkable feast of nostalgia with a set that included the entirety of their breakthrough record Smash.
Groggily emerging to greet yet another sunny day Saturday sees death metal crew Dying Fetus opening the main stage with their brand of technical death metal yet the real intrigue is in the identity of mysterious masked outfit Iceman Thesis? who manage to perform a song on both the Pepsi and Red Bull stages back to back. Their brand of Metalcore bluster, rumoured to comprise members of Pitchshifter, Funeral For A Friend and Hundred Reasons it will be of great interest to see where this clandestine mob appears next.
Sticking with the Pepsi stage Mancunians Collibus deliver a stellar set of tunes from their rousing opus The False Awakening. Vocal dynamo Gemma Fox is all smiles as she leads the band through a set of intricate yet accessible numbers ably flanked by bassist Rick Kershaw and guitarists Dan Mucs and Stephen Platt with Aliases sticksman Darren Pugh locking down a tight groove. Showing much promise, this progressive metal crew possess the power of many classic metal acts with a knack of producing heavy, groovy riffs. ‘The False Awakening’ itself sees the audience raise their hands in the air to sway along with Fox. It’s an impressive showing from an act who have only begun to give us a glimpse of their potential.
Gaining plaudits from artists like former Metallica bassist Jason Newsted, youthful Brits/Yanks Marmosets pop rock is played with vigour, but Becca McIntyre’s screaming vocals feel over done in an attempt to pander to the more metal orientated members of the audience. That aside the Yorkshire quintet have plenty of catchy melodies despite their lack of power.
If it’s power you are after then it was all about the force of Massachusetts mob Killswitch Engage. Guitarist Adam D has dialled down the quirky banter and onstage goofing off which threatened to overshadow the band’s masterful Metalcore anthems. Instead today we get a more focussed and hungry KSE looking to push themselves back to the top of the food chain.
Tearing ourselves away from the main stage we manage to grab a glimpse of Orange Goblin. Man Mountain Ben Ward is clearly loving the day, drinking in the sunshine and blasting out gritty heavy metal like ‘Scorpionica’. Since quitting their day jobs altogether the Goblin has gone from strength to strength turning in another fine showing leaving the stage white hot for Monster Magnet. Dave Wyndorf is in fine form with acid fried salvos like ‘Space Lord’ still going down a storm.
Clearly Wyndorf is growing old disgracefully but nothing prepares us for how good the Newcastle party machine that is pop rockers, The Wildhearts! Kicking off with ‘Vanilla Radio’ Ginger and company stick to the classics turning out ‘I Wanna Go Where The People Go’ and ‘29xThe Pain’. A truly beautiful moment occurs before the latter when Ginger touches on the passing of acclaimed photographer Ashley Maile dedicating the song to his memory.
When it comes to showmanship however none match the flamboyance and presence of Twisted Sister. Dee Snider and company may not have released a new album in over a decade but you can’t deny that their canon speaks for itself. Few frontmen have such a way with an audience with joking about low flying planes coming into nearby East Midlands airport reminding him of 9/11 while ‘I Wanna Rock’ remains an anthem that transcends generations.
If it is the cutting edge of extreme metal you are after then Poland’s Behemoth are just the ticket. New platter The Satanist continues to be the album of the year for many and on tonight’s performance you can’t fail to see why. The stage is adorned with blazing lamps creating the required atmosphere of evil. What sets Behemoth apart from so many contrived extreme metal acts is the humanity of their performance. Nergal’s brush with death has made him even stronger as an artist and a more dynamic and fearless performer. Older material like ‘Conquer All’ is well received but the rapture that greets recent works like ‘Blow Your Trumpets, Gabriel’ and the spine-chilling closer ‘O Father, O Satan, O Son’ are delivered with a passion and burning intensity that simply cannot be faked. Tonight’s triumphant performance should lure many new converts and whet their appetite for their return to the UK in December.
Another former Ozzy Osbourne fretmangler Jake E. Lee opens festivities on Sunday with his group Red Dragon Cartel. The group have attracted headlines for all the wrong reasons recently with issues with agents, cancelled shows and other Spinal Tap type shenanigans. Looking gaunt and frail, Lee himself still appears an able player but today’s set is embarrassingly loose and shambolic with a murky sound mix that only further hampers proceedings. Retreating after a lacklustre rendition of ‘Bark At The Moon’ Lee and company seriously need to get their shit together before he further damages his legacy.
By contrast Winger are the picture of professionalism. ‘Heading For A Heartbreak’ has the crowd in the palm of their hand and despite the rain beginning to fall spirits could not seem higher. The surprise appearance of The Dillinger Escape Plan’s Liam Wilson at the climax of their set is as heart-warming as it is a shock, with Wilson grinning like a star struck fanboy.
It’s of comfort to know there are some musicians who are unafraid to hog the spotlight and put on a show. Joshua Todd of Buckcherry is one such character, preening and declaring “I’ve got big balls” the heavily inked rocker is a throwback to the days of uninhibited abandonment swaggering through ‘Lit Up’ and sleaze anthem ‘Crazy Bitch’ without a hint of self-consciousness. He’s everything a proper rock star should be.
Unfortunately the fun machine has a spanner thrown in the works when Frankie Palmeri and Emmure arrive touting their puerile, misogynist lyrics and macho bluster. The New Yorkers are everything that non aficionados of heavy music believe it to be. Luddite cretins and immature man-boys who belt out contrived testosterone fuelled detritus with no depth of emotion other than self-hatred and a “woe is me” mindset.
Thankfully Sepultura are on hand to show how it’s done. The Brazilians turn in an admirable shift with Derrick Green and Andreas Kisser looking fired up and ready. A sweet seven song set is highlighted rousing opener ‘The Vatican’ and an expected, but crushing ‘Roots Bloody Roots’.
Quite why rapcore chancers Crazy Town still exist beggars belief. The band plough through their tired shtick about smoking weed and “da ladeez” as if it was still 2002 not 2014. One hit wonder ‘Butterfly’ aside it’s a set with very little entertainment value. Not so secret “surprise” band Black Stone Cherry may have spoiled the surprise with an errant post on their Facebook page but no one seems to care about that. ‘Rain Wizard’ and ‘White Trash Millionaire’ are Southern Rock done right and new single ‘Me And Mary Jane’ has hit running right through it. Big choruses and watertight musicianship.
Philip H. Anselmo is in a playful mood this evening. Blasting out Pantera’s ‘Hellbound’ and featuring a cameo from former bassist Rex Brown on ‘A New Level’ it’s as close as we’re going to get to a Pantera reunion, at least for now. Material from his solo album and Superjoint Ritual are well received, but the crushing finale of ‘Hollow’ will only have fans wishing that Vinnie Paul can be coaxed into returning to the stage with his former brethren.
Today’s main stage has played host to Bon Jovi axeman Ritchie Sambora and Winger giving the hair rock contingent someone to root for. How ironic then to see a band whose purpose was to lampoon the excess of 80s rock further above them. Steel Panther bring bananas, spandex, big hair and the baring of several breasts of female audience members during ‘17 Girls In A Row’. Some may find their antics somewhat juvenile considering that the ‘Panther spend as much time telling jokes as they do playing tunes but their irreverent banter makes for many smiles.
A future headliner for many, Alter Bridge deliver a set of typically uplifting arena rock with Myles Kennedy showing he is possibly the best pure singer in rock right now. The newer material has benefited from an injection of heaviness in the guitars and Kennedy’s model looks certainly have won many admirers. Surely the next album should see them crack the glass ceiling of festival headliner?
Before we get caught up in all the arena rock nostalgia of Steven Tyler and company there is time to check out a few songs of math rock’s enfants terrible The Dillinger Escape Plan. Greg Pucato snarls and flails around the stage, but the bass heavy mix negates the subtleties of ‘Farewell Mona Lisa’. The crowd joins in on the clean chorus regardless but the jazzy textures of D.E.P. songs seem to confuse as many as they convert. Knowing the New Jersey natives penchant for noise terrorism that’s probably the intention.
Aerosmith may not have written a new album in over a decade but the Boston hit machine pull out a mean showing. Defying age, Steven Tyler belts out the notes to ‘Livin’ On The Edge’ in a manner that no sixty something should be able to do. Joe Perry is another story however. Slowly morphing into his hero Keith Richards the legendary guitarist’s lead vocal performance on ‘Freedom Fighter’ is somewhat shaky as is the cover of The Beatles classic ‘Come Together’. This small blip aside Aerosmith remind us of how many iconic classics they have produced from emotive ballad ‘I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing’ to a soaring ‘Dream On’ they make the vast grounds of Castle Donington feel very intimate indeed. Leading the crowd in a chant of “Fuck Curfew” the rebellious rockers launch into ‘Mama Kin’ bringing a hit-packed set to a close. It’s debatable how much fuel “The Toxic Twins” may have in the tank but if this is the last time they headline here they sure went out with a bang. In the face of increasing competition, the UK’s heavy hitter put in another decent shift this year.