You can’t deny it, something out there really has it in for Download Festival. It’s the same story every year – burnt for the first two days camping and then incessantly soaked for the rest, it’s like… metal is the music of the devil… or something…
Campers have been steadily pouring in since Wednesday, setting up epic tent-collectives with all manner of décor (bra-bunting is a particular favourite of mine) and it’s set to be a belter of a weekend, even though we’re probably all going home with trench foot and hypothermia. The Village, the hub of the camping area, is home to weird and wonderful acts such as The Wall of Death, The Inflatable Church, The Circus of Horrors, Zorbing and the fire-wielding Area 51. Oh and hilariously British pursuits like Bogan Bingo, a quiz and five-a-side football, if that’s more your speed. Head over there at night for after-hours bands, DJ’s and even catch a movie in the Cinema or laugh your arse off in The Side Splitter comedy tent.
It’s clear Download’s commitment to becoming a bit more of a well-rounded festival is working, the out of hours entertainment, things to do and see and the much improved food options mean a nicer festival experience for all, without taking the emphasis off the music at all. With the now extensive shopping and food outlets you’d better have cash on you this weekend, as despite last years’ ‘breakthrough’ technology claiming to take all the hassle out of on-site payments (which of course did not go to plan) Download have well and truly ditched the idea of RFID tags and have gone over to… er… all normal methods that you can do in the real world.
Friday sees a dry start and Alien Ant Farm are failing to get anyone interested in anything other than Smooth Criminal, and Babymetal (half an hour late) draw a massive crowd for their J-Pop inspired metal, which is frankly just about the oddest thing ever. They’ve stuck to their goth-loli look and eardrum piercingly high vocals for Gimme Chocolate but actually the new album tracks seem a bit more developed and musically interesting rather than gimmicky. We do wish Herman Lee could have popped up for Road of Resistance, but the two girls down the front who have made a massive effort to dress like the band seem to be loving it, alongside some very big bearded men who appear to know ALL the words.
On the Encore stage, Christian rock band Skillet are killinit (see what I did there?) but the Lemmy/Motorhead tribute video on the main stage is in all honestly a bit lame. We all know Lemmy partied hard, but is it really necessary for people to recount exactly what variety of drug he offered them? Only Brian May appears to talk about him in a painfully honest way, saying “I miss him very badly”. Apart from a stage naming and a tshirt on the merch stand, it’s weirdly unspoken for the most part… maybe it’s all a bit soon for most of the bands.
Grabbing possibly the most English food available for lunch (Duck fat roast potatoes with gravy, followed by apple crumble…) we hit up the absolutely packed Maverick stage for Geordie rockers The Wildhearts who have everyone jumping to I Wanna Go Where The People Go. Over on the main stage we’re treated to a dose of Jonathon Davis’ chicken dance (hold mic, flap arms) as Korn blast out the likes of Coming Undone and Freak On A Leash. The rain is absolutely hammering down now and it kinda fits the grungy nu-metal feel, the arena is full of swamp-people whipping their hair everywhere. Amidst the seriousness of purpose that Korn portray, it’s hard not to giggle at the Lebowski-esque rug that has been laid down to stop Davis stacking it in front of everyone.
Finally it’s on to the main event, and the bedraggled but excited masses have gathered for the ever sinister yet playful German powerhouse that is Rammstein. Running through scores of hits like Sonne, Du Hast, Ich Will and Feuer frei there’s nothing missing from this incredible set. The expected but always insane pyrotechnics just keep coming, with fire breathing face-cages, firework body suits and a giant pair of angel wings, there’s just nothing these guys won’t do for a show.
Entering the arena today it’s obvious some effort has been made in the way of soaking up the sludge, using a ton of hay and woodchips, there’s a much boggier/safer quality to the underfoot feel, but it probably won’t last.
Over in The Kennels area, a queue is already forming for new addition WWE NXT stage, live wrestling shows hosted by Triple H, whilst self-proclaimed Swedish circus freaks Avatar are bringing some life to the main stage. Wearing what I can only describe as resplendent outfits inspired by the Vatican Guard and yelling “Bang your heads English men!” they put on a rowdy first set of the day, and gain a few more followers with their tight riffs and synchronized hairwhipping.
Beartooth’s punky tones soar across the arena to a decent sized crowd for In Between and Black Peaks are totally smashing the Maverick stage. Turbowolf take the baton next yelling “For the next half an hour, this is our home” before tumbling headlong into the likes of Rabbit’s Foot and Solid Gold.
Danko Jones starts out with classic Play The Blues which actually gets kind of a cold reception from the crowd, but soon he’s telling us “…everybody at Download gets to call me… delicious” and saying “I am a whore for that sound you make with your hands” everything starts to get lively. A fan in the front row passes up a flag requesting Sex Change Shake but Danko goes on to play Cadillac instead citing “…it’s the same three chord structure anyway… so this is like, Shake Change Sex”. There is something ridiculously fun about Danko Jones, in an overwhelmingly cheesy way. They are so uncool they’re cool. They’re the Fonz of rock.
Lawmower Deth however, are exactly the kind of godawful rubbish we should (and do) love, this time with an added Brucey Bonus of being joined by… and I can’t believe I’m writing this… Kim Wilde for Kids in America. It could not be more bonkers and everyone LOVED it.
Rival Sons bluesy cali rock has the arena up and dancing with their beers, soaring vocals and a stellar set – we loved closer Keep On Swinging. On the Encore stage Juliette and the Licks hit hard with Hot Kiss and Credence Clearwater Revival cover Proud Mary, J-Lew is just as enigmatic on stage as on screen. Megadeth are joined on stage by Nikki Sixx for Anarchy in the UK before Nikki steps out with his own band Sixx: AM for a completely different sound. It’s a strong set and a hell of a lot of people have come out to watch. Despite the sea of hair and black tshirts this weekend, it’s clear the pop-punk kids have been hiding in plain sight as the hoarde heads towards the Maverick stage for rowdy Welsh band Neck Deep, but they aren’t even going to win Taffy of the day with Skindred tearing it up over on the Encore stage. Despite the now constant rain, Skindred have drawn a huge crowd for their completely-weird-but-totally-works reggae-metal and the whole crowd is getting down and dirty for Doom Riff and Pressure. With an unsolicited play of Bieber’s ‘Sorry’ mixed into Trouble, they’ve singlehandedly outlined exactly which people we should push in the mud later, but not to worry as there’s an epic and extremely wet swirling of tshirts for Warning. We love a bit of a Newport Helicopter we do.
The rain is now unashamedly heavy and regardless of the plastic ponchos, raincoats and really fucking annoying golf umbrellas, pretty much everyone is soaked through. The crowd is built right up the main stage hill and the anticipation is palpable. Fan or not, there’s no denying that seeing Black Sabbath on their last ever tour (no really, it will be the last this time… right?) is pretty special and important. Though it’s clear throughout the set that Ozzy’s voice isn’t the best (was it ever?) the songs are heavy and hit the nerve of nostalgia so hard. Snowblind, War Pigs, Iron Man and Paranoid are obvious highlights, but no less great because of it. With the downpour drastically thinning the crowd, the views are spectacular and it’s the kind of closing show you hope for – full of hits, none of the new stuff. They will be missed.
With the early morning news that GHOST have cancelled their set today and nightmarish state of the main arena (seriously, it’s the kind of goop bodies arise from in the Walking Dead) today’s bands have to compete with the drowned-rat temperament of all those who’ve camped. Luckily there’s crepes for breakfast, a champagne tent and… hold up, what? I’m down with crumble but there’s no place for Moët in Metal. Come on.
Looking about as country as you can get, Whiskey Myers ease us in gently with Early Morning Shakes on the Encore stage before Amon Amarth give us growly Viking battle tunes from their dragon longship style stage set-up and giant fire canons. It’s even more awesome than it sounds, honestly. Whiplash back to bluesy rock with an inexplicably American sound for Glasgow vocalist Phil Campbell and The Temperance Movement. It’s an unrelentingly great set with a few tracks from the new album but finishing up with Ain’t No Telling from their first, we’re glad to see them back at Download.
On the Maverick stage, Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes are, well, doing what they do. There’s a huge mosh pit and lots of people seem to be enjoying themselves, but lots of other people seem to be screwing their noses up and walking away. So we head on over to the main stage for the eponymous Halestorm who have grabbed a massive crowd and are belting out Amen, I Am The Fire and I Miss The Misery. There’s no doubting Lzzy Hale’s vocal prowess but there’s something very Nickelback about them, massively produced and clean, it’s hard to put your finger on it.
Shinedown have that crowd-participation approach that we Brits love to hate, like panto – they want us to jump, so at first we do it sarcastically… then again to reinforce the joke… before you know it everyone is pogoing like a complete tosspot to a band they don’t even really like. Either we’re a very very susceptible nation, or Shinedown are actually doing a good job. I’ve no idea at this point. Delain on the Encore stage have drawn all the raven haired goth girls for a good old headbang but there’s a bit of power missing behind it all. On the Maverick stage Electric Wizard are heavy in a way that makes your stomach drop but it's Gojira who really make our skin crawl, in the best kind of way.
Disturbed are actually forcing joy out of otherwise non-fans today with the likes of Simon & Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence – a stalwart of their tour repertoire. In an epic hit-to-hit continuous play we get; U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For with Lzzy Hale, The Who’s Baba O’Riley with Blaze Bayley and RATM’s Killing In The Name with Benjamin Burnley of Breaking Benjamin. Where else are you gonna see that kind of mash up? Let’s be honest though, we’re all waiting for Down With The Sickness, and Disturbed give it to us with a cry of “I think it’s apparent the entire United Kingdom has been infected with sickness…”
Nightwish are plagued from the off with the heaviest downpour of the weekend but that’s never done anything to quiet this truly epic band before. Lords of the symphonic circuit, Nightwish have been the subject of more drama than any other band, public shamings and bootings aside – they seem to have bounced back each time. In Floor Jansen they’ve found a vocalist capable of traversing Tarja Turunen’s operatic realm and the rock sound they’ve been moving steadily towards over the last few albums, and she hits the stage dressed like a Valkyrie, which I guess, is the point really. With giant bursts of fire from stage canons, Nightwish (and the now extraordinarily drenched fans) power through some of the strongest numbers of the entire weekend. Nemo’s the one everyone has been waiting for, and though it will never quite be the same without Tarja, it packs a punch and remains a fan favourite. It seems Download loves Nightwish, no matter who’s fronting. Especially that dude vogue-ing the shit out of it at the back.
Headlining the Maverick stage Saxon get more than they bargained for – the tent is bursting at its seams with the soggy and groggy, warming themselves up for Maiden with the Yorkshire boys. 747 (Strangers in the Night) is melodic-shreddingly amazing, And The Bands Played On is the perfect description of what Saxon seem to intend to do… forever… and Wheels of Steel has every single person singing along. Biff’s voice and determination is as strong as ever.
As is typical of Sunday headliners at Download, there is very little crossover of other stages, and Iron Maiden also joining us a little later than intended means the arena is absolutely COVERED in bodies. Thankfully the rain has stopped just in time for the screens to switch over to Eddie TV and Bruce Dickinson to emerge from centre stage for If Eternity Should Fail. Through a Book Of Souls heavy set we are well and truly smacked with the fact that Bruce’s throat cancer surgery has done nothing to dull his vocals or his enthusiasm, he races the stage with the same wild abandon he has always had. In the wake of Black Sabbath’s ending, it’s sort of comforting to know that Maiden have no plans to quit any time soon. Hell, they just got a new plane.
Old favorites The Trooper, Hallowed Be Thy Name and Fear Of The Dark are every bit as heart-stoppingly brilliant as we’ve come to expect, the stage sets and animatronics just can’t be rivaled. With an epic encore of The Number Of The Beast, Blood Brothers and Wasted Years, Maiden came, saw, conquered. With a long speech regarding this weekend’s tragic events in Orlando, an incredible set and more energy than any one of us can muster after three days in a field – Bruce may as well have done an actual mic drop.
So what to make of Download 2016? As always controversy over headliners is rife for this sort of festival. With a genre so diverse, with arguably warring factions – there’s always going to be something you love, and something you hate. That’s kind of the point right? If you loved the whole lineup everything would clash. If you hated the whole lineup, you wouldn’t buy a ticket. This year, Download seemed to have secured bands from a whole heap of genres without one heavily dominating the others and let’s be honest – seeing Rammstein, Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden on the same bill is really pretty incredible when you think about it. But who the hell is going to top this? Roll on DL2017’s announcements and the ensuing forum arguments we will inevitably be part of…
All photographs © A. Hyams, please do not use without permission.