The Download Festival is Decadent and Well-aged

The Download Festival is Decadent and Well-aged

- By Dan Franklin

Our own Dan Franklin channels his inner Hunter S. Thompson to explore the first full-scale Download festival in three years.

Rain is usually Download’s biggest enemy. But this year it might be the wind. When I arrive on the Saturday of the festival it is blowing strong and warm. It’s more like the Santa Ana winds than anything we usually experience in England. I’ve seen bands foiled by a strong breeze at the festival before, as their sound is buffeted around the arena.

There has been a festival at Donington Park race track since 1980. Back then, it was a one-day event known as Monsters of Rock. I attended my first Donington in 1996 when I was fourteen. It was headlined by Kiss, reformed and wearing their make-up again. It turned out to be the last Monsters of Rock festival at Donington. The tide was turning: nu metal had arrived in the form of Korn headlining the second stage that day. When the festival was resurrected as Download in 2003, Iron Maiden headlined the first of two days. Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith had returned to the band. They were beginning to power out of their self-made doldrums of the late nineties.

One of the first things I notice inside the arena this year is a poster for a recently-released soundboard recording of the 1996 Kiss headline show. Kiss and Iron Maiden are back this year (Kiss for the final time) – both with members in their seventies. They are the elder gods of the festival. Donington is a site of pilgrimage for fans and performers alike, getting older together.

No thanks is given from the fans trekking their way from the campsites and car parks to the arena. They’ve reorganised the site so it is now a fifteen-minute walk.

‘Two years after lockdown and they expect us to do this…’, one woman complains.

But once inside, it’s as if the last two years have been wiped clean. I have to remind myself that I was last here in 2019, three whole years ago. COVID has played havoc with the festival. The main event has been postponed twice and its line-up has shifted several times. They managed a downsized ‘pilot’ festival last summer with only UK bands appearing. Acts are still dropping out the week before this full 2022 edition.

Malevolence // Photo by Abbie Shipperly

Malevolence weren’t about to miss a triumphant comeback to the festival. They’ve been steadily building a following without live audiences. Interest in the band has exploded with the release of third album ‘Malicious Intent’. Their T-shirts to mark the occasion depict the event’s mascot, the Download Dog, about to be executed in a guillotine. The band is remorseless onstage as well. They are very comfortable orchestrating enormous circle pits across the barrier dividing the crowd, for the anthemic “Self Supremacy”. Their early slot on the second stage typifies how many of the younger, more aggressive bands have been assigned to the smaller stages.

The main stage is given over to solid, popular and overall less angular fare. It makes sense that Those Damn Crows, Black Label Society and Shinedown have their places on the bill. Especially when you take in the growing abundance of picnic chairs stretching up the hill that faces the stage. Middle-aged fans find a spot early in the day and stay put. They enjoy the main-stage fare; only getting up for beer runs, and a steady supply of food and ice cream. There is even a red double-decker bus selling fudge.

Also present is an enormous queue for the tattoo and piercings tent. Why miss the bands to get something you can have done on a city high street? Maybe it’s something about the heady sensation of being in the ‘spiritual home’ of metal. Meanwhile the big screens run adverts for the new Pistol biopic series available on Disney +. Comedian Jim Breuer appears onscreen to tell us to make use of the free water refilling stations across the site. I overhear snatches of conversations in midlands accents: ‘He’s dead strong but he just wants to be a wrestler…’

I head to the Avalanche stage to see Liverpool’s Loathe. They are back from a recent US tour with Code Orange. The latter is one of the bands who inexplicably pulled out of the festival earlier this year. Crossing the main-stage crowd, I get a snippet of Monster Truck playing their ode to escaping the city, “Country Livin’”.

I doubt Loathe want to move anywhere soon, since they bristle with the nervy angst of the city. But their jagged opening songs are swamped by the drums. The live mix settles down during the more reflective, even subdued, middle portion of their set. Kadeem France is a fantastic frontman. Even as he trades in the cliché to ‘open it up’, he then enjoins the pit to ‘feel it’. It’s a rare onstage acknowledgement of the emotional component of the physical release of moshing. He thanks Static Dress, present in that pit, and due to open the same stage the following day.

By the middle of the afternoon the bins are full and Zakk Wylde is widdling away on the main stage. I decide to see some of Bush out of curiosity. Coincidentally, I listened to an interview with Pearl Lowe on the car radio on the drive up. She was one of the ‘Primrose Hill set’ from nineties London with whom Rossdale has a daughter, Daisy Lowe. Now 56, Rossdale doesn’t look much older than the period when his band were conquering the US with ‘Sixteen Stone’. Rossdale remarks that their appearance at Donington has been a long time coming. His band treats the crowd to a snippet of the main riff of “Children of the Grave”. Oddly, it is the only piece of Black Sabbath’s music I hear all day.

I shuffle off to the Dogtooth stage, the fourth biggest, which can still hold up to 4000 people. The last time I saw Will Haven was touring with Deftones in 1998. That helps explain why this set has the stupidest mosh pit of the day. The waft of skunk weed is strong in the tent. As they kick into their opener, a large forty-something attempts a cartwheel across the space straight into me. Even in 2022, the Sacramento band are still shockingly heavy. Guitarist Jeff Irwin and vocalist Grady Avenell create an otherworldly, hyper-intense sonic world.

The shock of the not-very-new is most pronounced during minor classics “I’ve Seen My Fate” and “Carpe Diem”. A man in a blonde wig and orange boiler suit dressed as ‘Tiger King’ Joe Exotic enters the fray. He has a cardboard sign around his neck which reads 'God damn Carole Baskin. She killed her husband.' Allegedly.

Bleed From Within

Later on, Scottish metallers Bleed From Within play on the same stage to a packed crowd. Their performance feels like a coronation. A disbelieving look stays on singer Scott Kennedy’s face throughout. Like Malevolence, they are another band breaking through after years of graft. If anyone is due a stage upgrade next time, it is them.

Of all the bands I see today, it is Mastodon that has had the most difficult time at the festival. Fifteen years ago, they were touted as the next Metallica. But I’ve seen them struggle on the main stage here – the intricacy of their songs lost to the breeze. This year they are the penultimate act on the second stage, and it suits them. Before they begin, a shaven-headed Brent Hinds warms up his hands behind a flight case bearing a Slayer stencil. Slayer ended their UK festival life headlining this same stage three years earlier.

So much of whether Mastodon deliver a good show depends on Hinds’s demeanour. Today he is mischievous, frequently talking over bassist Troy Sanders’ song introductions. But he plays with focus. He knows it too, happy enough to make his way to the security barrier to parlay with the audience at one point.

Brent Hinds amongst crowd

If the last two years had been wiped out we wouldn’t have 2021's incredible ‘Hushed and Grim’. The band looks older, wiser and in good shape. Bill Kelliher does a number of high kicks in his skin-tight stage trousers as if to prove the point. That new material sounds great and points a way to a more timeless sound for the band. “More Than I Could Chew” is a particular highlight, all heft and transcendent outpouring of hurt.

I do wish they could figure out a way of bolstering drummer Brann Dailor’s vocals in the live mix. Other than that, they might have discovered an alternative pathway to the top of the festival billing. But their setlist is not all smoothed-over, as “Mother Puncher” attests. Now twenty years old, it still imparts the overpowering urge to assault our nearest and dearest.

It’s a beautiful summer’s evening to hear “My Own Summer (Shove It)” ringing out across the festival site. Deftones were on the Iron Maiden undercard at the 2003 edition of the festival. They seem a curious main support to Iron Maiden today. Chino Moreno implicitly makes the point when he thanks the stony-faced Iron Maiden fans patiently waiting in the front row.

In 2003, Deftones represented metal’s new guard. ‘The little band from Sacramento’ (Moreno’s words onstage today) still play like they are breaking new ground. Their challenge is performing on these shores for the first time in five years without recently departed bassist Sergio Vega. And especially without guitarist Steph Carpenter, who is sitting out their UK and European dates this summer due to COVID concerns.

It’s hard to think of another heavy band where the guitarist is as important as Carpenter. He’s effectively the second frontman of Deftones. His adamantine playing is so distinctive that no-one has got close to ripping it off.

But Lance Jackman does a good job standing in for him. He looks a little like Carpenter and the sticker saying ‘Hi mom’ on his ESP guitar is a nice touch. He comes into the closing section of “Diamond Eyes” a bit early. Never mind, the band laughs off the mistake. A lacklustre stage invasion attempt by one fan during “Ohms” causes a minor moment of drama. Otherwise, we get to marvel at this game-changing (and now long-established) band, whose music is as lush as it is vicious.

I look around at one point during the set and see I’m standing next to members of Holding Absence (who played the Avalanche stage earlier) and Malevolence. Deftones are one of those bands the new generation looks up to. It only begs the question why they aren’t headlining the festival.

By the time Megadeth headline the second stage, the urinals are overflowing and the merchandise queues have finally shortened. Over a decade ago I saw the band play a set at Brixton Academy, where the sound was so bad that people were walking out. Not today – they sound ferocious. Fresh off The Metal Tour of the Year alongside Lamb of God, it’s fascinating to see Dave Mustaine go at it on the same stage as Slayer’s retirement.

He drily explains that the all-time thrash classic “Sweating Bullets” is about an insane friend of his wife’s. I notice an exuberant accompanying performance of “Symphony of Destruction” by the British Sign Language interpreter. The interpreters are provided for select bands by the Performance Interpreting organisation on the accessible viewing platforms. This interpreter's exuberant air guitar only enhances Megadeth’s frenetic guitar solos.

The sun is about to set and the breeze has cooled to a chill wind. I get chatting to a guy who has been coordinating festival traffic over the weekend. He is now a few beers deep into a Saturday night off. He tells me about Iron Maiden’s huge tour entourage arriving onsite at 3am the night before. Rumours were swirling amongst security about Gene Simmons’s antics as well. But I can’t publish those.

This is the seventh time that Iron Maiden have headlined the festival at Donington. Surely an auspicious number for these seventh sons? An extension of the Legacy of the Beast tour, their hugely devoted following is now legion. The band is omnipresent in the T-shirts worn across the festival site and flying out of the merch stands. Their appeal traverses the generations too, with whole families there to see them.

The last time I saw Iron Maiden perform here, in 2013, they had a Spitfire flyover at the beginning of their set. There is nothing so spectacular this time. But the ‘Senjutsu’ stage dressing and Samurai Emperor Eddie stalking the stage leave us in no doubt we are at an Iron Maiden show.

Iron Maiden might be taking a risk front-loading their set with songs from 'Senjutsu'. Their sound is so thunderous it doesn't matter. 'Bluesy!' the soused traffic management guy shouts in my ear whenever Dave Murray takes a guitar solo.

Iron Maiden

Drummer Nicko McBrain celebrated his seventieth birthday this week. It’s a marvel watching him destroy the kit at the age his parents' generation would have taken up a pipe and slippers. Bruce Dickinson is a revelation too – fit as a whippet and that clarion-call voice as good as ever.

As I make the long walk back to my car in the encroaching darkness, it strikes me just how good the day felt. There was zero bullshit in the crowd (Will Haven mosh dodginess aside). More than ever, Download is a holiday weekend for heavy music fans as well as a chance to walk on hallowed ground. My one nagging thought is that it would be great to see some more of the younger metal talent on the outer stages brought into the centre of the arena in the years to come.

With so much good will in the crowd, Download can afford to take some risks to ensure future generations remain engaged with the festival. Because, as good as they still are, even the gods of metal won’t be around forever.

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