Download 2019 (VH Festival Review)

Download is the undisputed top of the rock festival pyramid. Since the first time Download rocked Donington Park in 2003, taking over from the old Monsters of Rock events, it has changed the game, putting on top-to-bottom, great line-ups. This year’s edition, with headline sets including the final UK performance by Slayer, Slipknot, Rob Zombie, Halestorm, Def Leppard and the first Donington appearance by Tool since 2006, it was set to possibly be the best yet. That was, as long as heavy rain and thick mud didn’t stop people getting to the music. Let’s find out what happened:

Friday:

The first day at Download opened proper with the distant sounds of Last In Line‘s hair-metal shrieks soundtracking the assembly of a tent but the first band proper and a group that would be tough to beat throughout the entire weekend were Sumo Cyco. Bringing a unique punk energy to their brand of hybrid metal, much akin to ‘Move Mountains’ guest star, Skindred‘s Benji Webb, they not only had the tunes but sheer stagecraft enough to bring the crowd to life in a way few bands would over the weekend. A perfect way to start off the festival.

From here, catching the end of what seemed like a very fun set from Cardiff rock n’ roll outfit, Those Damn Crows and the beginning of a somewhat underwhelming one from Nordic metalheads Kvellertak, the day progressed onwards with South-East London noise-merchants Nova Twins, bringing their brilliant, brutal, bass-heavy dance punk to the Dogtooth stage coming off like halfway between Rage Against The Machine Test Icicles but better than that combination should be. The set did seem to lose steam as it went through but if they can carry that early energy and invention into their future sets, they could very well be something extremely special. Not a slamdunk but certainly someone to watch.

From here, having taken a moment to check in with Japanese Wolf-headed rock experimentalists Man With A Mission, we moved onto the quintessential American rock band, Clutch. From the minute Neil Fallon and his band stepped onto the stage till they left it, the crowd were enraptured by their minimalist rootsy rock, they delivered exactly what you’d hope for: just good, chugging, rock and indeed roll with tunes like ‘Hot Bottom Feeder’ threatening to blow the roof off the place if it hadn’t been an outdoor stage they were playing. Imagine Tom Waits playing with ZZ Top and you’re part of the way to understanding what this set delivered.

Clutch was just the start of a hot streak that would last for practically the rest of the evening with Orange County Punk specialists Zebrahead bringing enough California sunshine to drown out the muck and mire around us. This was followed up with a knockout set by Reel Big Fish full of just the precise right amount of ska punk to lift the spirits of anyone watching. But as good as these three were, it was almost all precursor to the sheer magnetism of Eagles of Death Metal. Providing enough good-natured sleaze to make the Zippo Encore Stage forever unclean, they came in, they played all the possible riffs they could, they brought a few tears to the field with a superb rendition of David Bowie‘s ‘Moonage Daydream’ and then they popped off their flailing arm inflatable tube men and by God did the crowd pop off with them.

Needing a bit of a break and possibly a cold shower afterwards, there was no time to slow down with Me First & The Gimme Gimmes delivering big time with a set of affectionate and never winking covers in their signature punk rock style. From Cher‘s ‘Believe’ to ‘Jolene’, it was impossible to predict what might be next but all of it was delivered with class and panache. While it wasn’t the most memorable set of the weekend, it was probably one of the most fun. Friday night’s last true highlight was Rob Zombie, showcasing a set not just full of good, solid industrial rock/metal fun but also, unsurprisingly considering Zombie’s other day job as a film director, but a distinct and clear visual styling, adding immeasurably to the stagecraft. For over an hour, Zombie and his band held the stage and the attention of Download in such a way that you had to wonder, how could Def Leppard  compete? Ultimately they couldn’t quite but Sheffield’s finest band with a one-armed drummer still brought enough to send the crowd home happy. I mean, they played ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’. What more can you ask for?

Saturday:

There was a far more pleasant start to Saturday as we opened on Sun. Actual Sun! Plus the addition of New Zealand’s Alien Weaponry, perhaps the only thrash metal band I’ve seen open their set with a Haka. Luckily the fun didn’t stop there as they presented a set filled with enough intensity that you would believe they could be headlining not opening the main stage. This level of intensity was maintained by the solid mathcore vibes of Animals as Leaders coming off like Battles if they’d really embraced John Stanier’s past in Helmet, considering this was an instrumental set, they kept the crowd’s attention like every track were a singalong. After this, we were going to go and check out Lovebites but the tent was so crowded we could neither see nor hear them which does suggest good things about the young Japanese group.

However no crowd could stop us from making our way to see Skindred. Easily Wales’ best metal/raggaton/rap/rock act, they delivered a completely unique experience for the festival, transforming a damp main stage into a vibrant dancehall. While they peppered the set with references to other acts such as Max Romeo‘s classic ‘Chase the Devil‘, it was their originals that really shone through with tracks like ‘Pressure’ & ‘That’s My Jam’ sending the crowd into something of a frenzy. It must be said that after this weekend, it does seem no one starts a party like Benji Webb. We were going to follow up this with The Hu but once again, the rain seemed to drive people into the indoor stages so we couldn’t even get close enough to see the entrance. We cut our losses and went to enjoy some of the non-musical delights that Download had to offer.

We returned to the mainstage for perhaps the, acknowledged as such, biggest incongruity of the weekend, South African hip-hop/rave act Die Antwoord. A group known by some more for their music videos than the accompanying songs, they delivered a practically flawless set, the stage was well-laid out and the live production really highlighted the strengths of Yolani & Ninja’s songcraft while also showing them to be two of the most accomplished performers imaginable. Even if their music seemed very out of place with everything around it, their energy was fully metal. Watching them was one of those experiences that truly must be seen to be believed and believe me, it should be seen.

Straight from Die Antwoord and into one of my personal highlights of this or any festival, Pennsylvania’s The Wonder Years. Having truly advanced beyond their humble pop-punk roots, what the band excel at is making heartfelt, raw, openly emotional music that not only invites the audience in but forms a vital connection with them. This is the sort of music that people get the lyrics to tattooed upon them but it never feels like a cynical attempt to create this connection. Also, their sound is a tribute to the virtues of a larger than the standard four-piece band with the addition of a further guitar and keyboards expanding their sonic landscape into new territories. The new, more Interpol-esque post-punk material gelled very well with the classics creating one of those sets where the audience were grateful for what they got but left firmly wanting more.

The evening rounded off with one of the most complete headline set I have had the pleasure of seeing from everyone’s favourite mask metallos, Slipknot. Corey Taylor and friends came to the stage, they played song after damn song of great music, they pounded bins, they had fire, both metaphorical and literal. What really set Slipknot apart was not their music, was not their stage design and it was not their outfits, though all above were excellent. What they really provided was that indescribable feeling that they were a band that belonged at the top of a bill. This was not just a set but a headline set in both name and atmosphere. Luckily, they did indeed have the music to support this with hits like ‘Psychosocial’ sending the crowd stratospheric. Slipknot announced they would be playing a UK tour next year. I’ll be there, if you have any sense, you will too.

Sunday:

If you’ve thought so far that Saturday was surprisingly light in comparison to Friday, that would be because Download has so much more to offer than just music. Beyond simple distractions like the Barclay’s Sensorium which turned out to be some foam noodles, ambient music and mood lighting, there are puppet shows, circus performers and professional wrestling. There’s also a lot of food. I hope this describes why this section has been somewhat lighter, though never fear, a summary of my thoughts on the wrestling will be forthcoming. Anyway, back to music as Sunday began with the hybrid pop sounds of Australia’s Redhook, a group with an energy akin to Linkin Park meets Paramore. The young act traded well off their youthful energy and had some strong dynamics to their songs but occasionally the heavier moments lacked impact. Still, another act with strong potential to really build something.

After this, we went to see Dinosaur Pile-Up, a group I was looking forward to seeing off some very promising early singles. Sadly, this is one of those rare instances where the live experience does not quite match up to the recordings with the songs all being there but a certain satisfaction from the lead singer suggesting he seemed to love the band far more than the audience.

It seemed potentially like Sunday might be a two-band day, with a succession of bands that were fine. Sets from groups like I PrevailStarsetOur Last NightStarset Heart of a Coward were all perfectly fine but none of them did much to set the world alight. That was until the very pleasant surprise that was Black Peaks. Very much a group of their influences, they were a bit Deftones, a bit Mastodonbut also at times reminded of acts from Billy Talent to O’Brother. Even with, they never sounded derivative, building a mood that was brooding, low-key but also full of intense focus. This was the best possible mid-afternoon festival band and a group I expect to see big things from going forward.

When I said that Sunday was something of a two-band bill, what two bands though. The  Smashing Pumpkins took to the stage, underneath monolithic inflatable totems, Billy Corgan, dressed like some form of murder Bishop delivered a blistering set of almost everything you could want. I say almost everything because we didn’t get ‘Today’ or ‘Tonight Tonight’ but ultimately when you have a back catalogue as diverse and strong as theirs, it’s almost impossible to fit everything in. What they did include though, they played to an audience who were grateful to get it. What the set had in spades in terms of musical beauty, it seemed to lack any real audience connection. Sure, the songs were played perfectly but that’s the same on the record and I didn’t need to stand around in a field complaining about my back to listen to that. That said, when the totems turned black and started glowing, that was really cool.

And then there was Tool. There was a palpable energy in the crowd in the minutes before this set, like this wasn’t just excitement, it was a genuine honour to get to see Tool back in Donington. From the moment their pentagram shaped lighting rig rose up, the crowd were ready for this. Then they came out, then they played a set loaded with classics and maybe a new song or two, behind it, they had a set-up of multiple screens playing psychedelic re-dos of some of their music videos. It seems from them, it wasn’t addressing the audience that Smashing Pumpkins needed, it was just that extra something beyond the home record experience. They delivered that with barely a word said between songs. From their positioning around the stage, it was clear this was about the music more than an individual as Maynard James Keenan sang from the back of the stage, next to the drummer Danny Carey who quite frankly must have been exhausted after drumming as he did for 90 minutes. This allowed Adam Jones and Justin Chancellor to take front stage but even then, they stood closer to the wings, keeping centre stage clear, space for the music to breathe.

Tool are one of those bands that defy genre rules and this was a set that defied expectations as I’m sure many had lofty ones that were, if anything, thoroughly exceeded. This may have been a one or two band bill but my God, it was worth it all for this one band. As we left the field, the glorious sounds of ‘Stinkfist’ still ringing in our ears, you knew this was more than just a headline set, this was a celebration of one of the great art rock bands and a triumphant announcement that the best may still be to come.

It’s hard to say if this was the best Download Festival ever as this was my first Download. Can I say it was a great time? Yes. Can I say it was one of, if not the best festival I’ve been to? Yes, probably. Would I have any hesitations in recommending you start saving up now for next year’s? Without a doubt. A near-perfect weekend, one that showed Derbyshire knows how to have a good time and that a little bit of mud won’t stop us from doing so.

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