Following the mud-soaked shenanigans of 2012 it could all have gone so wrong this year, what with the random deluges drenching the festival goers through Thursday, Friday and Saturday, but for all the mud and chaos that comes with it, Download 2013 went off with a bang thanks to some truly searing performances, a hell of a lot of work on the side of the dedicated team of organisers and a spirit amongst the crowd that, aside from a miserable few, remained resolutely undaunted throughout the weekend.
Kicking off the year with a trip to the second stage, Uriah Heep did a grand job of rocking with a ferocity unmatched by bands half their age. A classic rock band in every sense, tracks like ‘easy livin’’ will surely never get old. Looking at the line-up there seemed to be something of a nu-metal renaissance going on this year, what with Limp bizkit, Korn, Coal Chamber, P.O.D and Papa Roach all gracing various stages over the weekend, and it was Papa roach whom we caught on the main stage first, bathed in watery sunshine following a downpour that seemed briefly biblical in its intensity. Time has not been overly kind to Coby Dix and company, and whilst a sizable crowd had amassed by the time the band departed the stage it was only really uber-hit ‘last resort’ that seemed to truly get things going. In contrast Down offer the sort of festival experience that make you grateful you braved the weather. Phil Anselmo is, and always has been, a devastatingly charismatic frontman and as he stalks the stage, laying down the law over the band’s taught groove, the crowd are hypnotized by the immensely psychedelic experience the band provide, Down’s swamp-inspired brutality a perfect match for the oozing mud only just beginning to appear under foot. The highlight of the short set is surely ‘Bury me in smoke’ (surely a festival anthem?!) but ‘hail the leaf’ and ‘pillars of eternity’ are also storming tracks which highlight the skill and inventiveness of this doom-laden monster band.
I’ll be honest, I had though Korn’s best days were behind them, right up until the point they took the main stage and laid waste to it. Particularly following on the heels of Down, I had feared they would sound tired and yet, with a lean, mean Jonathan Davis firing on all cylinders (and sounding better than ever) the band raged through a set which was heavy on the hits (a particularly vicious ‘coming undone’ was a highlight, as was the evergreen ‘blind’) and by the time Korn had unleashed a couple of the more recent dub-step fuelled numbers to a wildly enthusiastic crowd, they had the whole of Download eating out of their hands. Korn – forgive my lack of faith, you absolutely ruled.
Hiding far, far away from the horrendousness of bullet for my valentine who still sound like nothing more than the Lost Prophets with tattoos, there is only one band who truly deserve to headline the stage on Friday and Slipknot step out like the metal royalty they are for a set that is heavy on classic ‘knot tunes and delivered with a piercing clarity that is far removed from the chaotic live experience the band presented in the early 00’s. Delivering a set that was comparable in quality to the band’s legendary ’09 show was always going to be tough, and yet the band delivered, unleashing furious barrage after furious barrage, whilst Corey Taylor’s ability to control the crowd has lost none of its magic. Highlights? Forget highlights – the whole set was a masterpiece of intensity, ferocity and those occasional melodic flourishes that make Slipknot such a compelling experience. Hearing the whole crowd singing ‘duality’, the unhinged riff-fest that is ‘psychosocial’ and the ‘Vol 3’ highlight that is ‘the blister exists’ – all of these things were awe-inspiring – but ultimately the whole set flowed so well (brief pauses to fix the maggot-smashed barricades notwithstanding) that nothing felt out of place or lacklustre. Korn, Down and the Heep may have rocked, but Slipknot truly owned the day – a near perfect show.
Friday night is characterised by a heavy rain that continues into the early hours of Saturday. Whilst alcohol does much to dull its force, waking up on the Saturday morning to witness a far greater degree of mud and toilets that resemble the trenches is far from pleasing, although the festival organisers did what they could to ameliorate the mud bath with fresh hay dropped where possible and the problems never became as unpleasant as the previous year. The line-up for the day, however, was incredibly pleasing with an array of brilliant bands turning out to promote new albums and/or deliver classic sets. Thus we are treated to Mastadon early on in the day unleashing their thunderous progressive-tinged metal with plenty of fire and Brimstone to spare. In all honesty, forty minutes is just not enough time to appreciate the majesty of a band like mastodon and it seems like they’ve only just warmed up before they’re gone… longer next time please! Alice in chains, in contrast deliver a perplexing set that offers plenty of highlights (the opening one-two punch of ‘Dirt’ in the form of ‘Them bones’ and ‘Dam that river’ being blasted out back to back for example) but seems to be rife with technical problems and even gets cut unceremoniously short. A band of this stature really should be higher up the bill and whilst it was grand to hear plenty of classic tunes, it would have been good to hear more tunes from the storming new album ‘the devil put dinosaurs here’.
Motorhead are their usual rocktastic selves, so it’s off to the acoustic stage for a shot of Devin Townsend acoustic. Sadly, while his choice of songs is eclectic and his humour effervescent (Julaar’ is particularly wonderful, as is ‘hyperdrive’) the stage is directly wedged between Motorhead’s brutally loud antics (a fact Devin plays off with cheeky humour) and the tiny Red bull Stage meaning that much of Devin’s beautiful material is lost amidst a heavy metal battering with which the tiny acoustic stage sound system just can’t compete… a better location for it might be advisable next year. It’s been a long time coming, but the new QOTSA album is an absolute belter and, with a set that plays heavily off ‘songs for the deaf’, so are QOTSA in the flesh. Kicking off with perennial festival anthem ‘feel good hit of the summer’, the band are on fully rocking form with songs like ‘sick,sick,sick’ dispatched at deafening volume, there is no doubt that the sun that comes out to tickle our senses has been coaxed there by the magnificence of Josh Homme and his merry band of reprobates. An awesome festival experience, the Queens rock and are the perfect warm up band for Iron Maiden who, like Slipknot the night before, are so utterly experienced and so possessed of a remarkably memorable back catalogue that the stage could only belong to them. Recreating the stunning ‘Maiden England’ set, the band beging proceedings with a real life Spitfire buzzing the festival (Roger Waters must be kicking himself for not getting there first) before running through the bulk of musical master piece ‘seventh son of a seventh son’ alongside key cuts from earlier efforts (‘run to the hills’, ‘the trooper’, ‘running free’ etc) as well as a slightly out-of-time ‘fear of the dark’ which threatens to ruin the entire field’s vocal chords as a mass sing-along take place. Surely no-one can work a crowd better than Bruce Dickinson, a frontman who is both effortlessly commanding and cheerfully charming at once, whilst the band are on top form throughout. Maiden, in the words of Beavis and Butthead, rule… and once again, at Donnington (surely the band’s second home?) they demonstrate exactly how they’ve stayed in such high regard over the years.
Sunday is possibly the weakest of the three days line-up wise and as we struggle into the arena feeling as if we’ve been hit over the head with a bottle of jager, we realise we’ve already missed Coal Chamber (more idle curiosity than anything) but are rewarded with a touch of the stoner might of ‘Masters of reality’ who still sound utterly out of this world, even first thing in the afternoon. Amon Amarth have far too short a set, belting out their brutal Viking metal from a stage set that belies their mid-day appearance on the second stage and whilst the faithful are rewarded with a fine set, it is more notable that those audience members who were initially unconvinced are seen edging ever closer to the seething pit as the band’s all too brief stint draws to a close. Rival sons are always amazing live, and their festival appearance is no exception. Seemingly solar powered, the band seem energized in the bright sun and lay waste to the assembled throng with their vintage grooves with songs like manifest Destiny (part 1), ‘pressure and time’ and ‘keep on swinging’ all sounding as fresh and vital as the day they were first heard.
In contrast ghost never really seem to ignite, despite the ornate ceremony of their appearance, and whilst their sound is relatively strong the crowd seems to lose interest, marking time before Airbourne take to the stage to deliver a set which captures the untamed rock ‘n’ roll spirit of Bon Scott-era AC/DC, causing the crowd to swell dangerously as more and more revellers are drawn in by the band’s unashamedly retro rock moves. Songs like ‘ready to rock’ are pure festival anthems whilst ‘black dog barking’ is every bit as awesome as its album counterpart and ‘raise the flag’ all but guarantees that the next time Airbourne are here they’ll be headlining the stage rather than broiling in afternoon sun. Confident, exciting and clearly as popular as an ice cold beer stand in the desert, few bands have the confidence, the hooks and the stage presence to compete with Australia’s second greatest band.
Avoiding the insipid 30 seconds to mars was always the plan, although drifting past the stage allows us to endure a few moments of winsome awfulness and it’s hard to imagine a less appropriate band to provide chief support to the mighty Rammstein, a band whose headline set is possibly the only one that could compete with the majesty of Slipknot and Iron Maiden on Friday and Saturday respectively. Rammstein, however, are concerned by precisely nothing and as their jaw-dropping stage set is revealed to saucer-eyed fans it is easy to see why. Rammstein not only have a stage show that is pure theatre, they also have the advantage of a riveting back catalogue of tunes that are so ingrained into the consciousness that, German language or not, the entire audience know them back to front. The first foreign-language band to headline Download, it is a curious honour in itself, but with a stage show that boasts more fire than ‘raging inferno’ as well as acts of simulated sodomy, wild masturbation and even a giant, foaming penis canon (topped only by the beastie boys’ priapic stage sets of the 80s) it is clear that Rammstein have both the stage presence and the songs to turn the Sunday night into an unadorned triumph. Songs like ‘Sonne’, ‘mein teil’ and ‘Buck dich’ sound as towering live (possibly even more so) than they do on record, and several people were heard to comment on the band’s immense sound. Quite how they managed to sound so utterly commanding is a mystery, but Rammstein provided an excellent close to an excellent festival, leaving the audience overawed at the pyro-heavy spectacle they had just witnessed.
With a line-up to die for, a vastly improved set up (although the stupendously long walk from campsite to arena is still a monumental pain in the ass and the toilets were still less than pleasant) and plenty to watch, drink and do, Download 2013 turned out to be an excellent festival and it’s only a matter now of waiting for next year’s line up to be announced in the unlikely hope that they somehow top this year’s excellent bill.