Following on from two, somewhat damp (albeit excellent) years, things did not bode well for Download 2017 when rain for much of the week prior to the event saw the ground reach saturation. Understandably there were some festival goers who were put off by the heavy rain fall, particularly of 2016, and their fears were compounded by a line up that was somewhat controversial at the time of announcement. Offering a markedly less metal line up, particularly on a Saturday headlined by Biffy Clyro, than previous years, some predicted that the festival would suffer. However, despite a lower turn out on the Saturday, a packed Friday and Sunday and a stellar line up across the stages on all three days resulted in Download 2017 proving to be a pretty spectacular success with various improvements made to the site and facilities and a great atmosphere prevailing.
The first thing that people will be keen to know is the extent to which changes, such as the much-vaunted new drainage, made an impact upon the Download festival experience, especially in the light of the poor weather which led up to the festival itself. Happily, the organisers did a fine job of learning from past experience and the site is now far better laid out. Simple changes, such as moving the toilets away from the main concourse (thus avoiding issues of spill over in wet weather) and providing a more clearly separated food area (complete with covered seating), made the festival experience better than ever and although there’s no avoiding the queues for bars and toilets at peak times, they were (for the most part) well managed and moved quickly. As for the drainage, typically contrary weather meant that it did not get a thorough test this year as the weather, despite occasional moments of bluster, remained quite fine from Friday onwards, even allowing for occasional bursts of sunshine, and hardened Download attendees were to be seen pinching themselves on Sunday as they found that the ground had remained resolutely hard throughout their stay. It’s not all perfect. The toilets closest to the Zippo Encore stage remain heavily oversubscribed, and the damp conditions of Wednesday and Thursday certainly took a tool on the camp sites, but on the whole Download showed continuous improvement in terms of comfort and facilities.
One major change, which was not planned for, was the massively upgraded security that had been laid on in light of the events in London and Manchester, not to mention the terrorist threat that suspended Rock am Ring. First and foremost, I’d like to say that the security were excellent throughout the event despite clearly trying conditions. With increased searches of everyone heading into the arena, some queuing was inevitable, and yet the security, tasked with rifling through the possessions of impatient festival goers, remained professional and even friendly throughout. A different approach could have rendered the experience intolerable, but the entire Download security team deserve a massive vote of thanks for their remarkable patience in the most trying of circumstances and they did a fine job of making the festival seem as safe and secure as it could possibly be.
Last, but most certainly not least, there seemed to have been an upsurge in the general quality of the food and drink available with a number of decent outlets offering everything from Ostrich burgers to Churros. Alcohol choice remains somewhat limited, although the festival ale was pretty tasty and not as appallingly priced as it might have been. For those seeking non-alcoholic refreshment, a number of artisan tea and coffee stalls are also on hand, the best of which remains the Motley Brew – the perfect place for a relaxing cuppa and pretty much omnipresent at metal festivals. All hail the Brew! There was also a considerable amount of non-musical entertainment on offer including the now ubiquitous wrestling which drew sizable crowds each day. In short, despite the increased security, Download has lost none of the ramshackle, Barter Town charm that draws event goers back year on year and there is more than enough variety in the music on offer to provide something for everyone on each of the three days.
Arriving early in the arena, we head over to the main stage to check out Motionless in white. The band recently released the ‘Graveyard shift’ album, clocking an impressive Billboard chart position in the process, but they do little to set us alight. The main problem is that, while the band’s stage moves seem to have been carbon copied from Marilyn Manson from the clothes to the mannerisms, the music lacks the potent bite that albums like ‘Antichrist Superstar’ so successfully carried and it’s all rather forgettable. It’s very professionally done and the band clearly have a very vocal audience up front, making it easy to imagine them having a higher stage slot on the bill in the near future, but they just don’t resonate with us in the way that Marilyn and his creepy cohort did. 4
Melodic metallers The Raven Age have spent the last year touring with Iron Maiden and recording their awesome debut album. The band are youthful and yet already experienced and their stage presence is impressive. With a lighter vocal touch than many of the bands playing today, they bring a memorable melodicism to proceedings and it’s easy to imagine them going far. 7
I’ll be honest, I’ve never really got Sabaton in the past, but today, in the blazing sun and surrounded by a passionate crowd, they really make a convert of me. As the band take to the stage (adorned with a massive tank) as if they’re headlining it, they proceed to put an energy and vigour into their set that is entirely irresistible. Songs like ‘Shiroyama’ and ‘To hell and back’ are classic heavy metal anthems in waiting and by the time the band have delivered their last hammer blow (complete with retina-frazzling pyro), a large number of the audience are equally won over. I’ve learnt my lesson and won’t miss Sabaton again. 8
With excellent new album ‘Emperor of sand’ recently released, Mastadon are back on form after what was, arguably, a slight misstep with last album ‘once more time around the sun’. It’s not that that album was bad, but it lacked the innovation that marked out ‘Crack the Skye’ as one of the best albums of the last decade and ‘Emperor of sand’ sees the band moving out in front of the baying pack once more. Sadly, that punch doesn’t quite translate to the band’s live performance and although they play a varied set with plenty of energy, the poor sound diminishes what should have been a slam dunk. Opening with ‘Sultan’s curse’, one of the highlights of the new album, and also offering up the stunning ‘ancient kingdom’, ‘steambreather’ and ‘show yourself’ alongside a handful of classics such as ‘colony of Birchmen’, Mastadon would quite possibly have carried away band of the day if only the sound hadn’t stripped the bite from guitar and vocals alike. 7
A collaboration between Cyprus Hill (B-Real), Public Enemy (Chuck D) and Rage against the machine was always going to bear interesting fruit and so it should be no surprise that the arena fills up considerably as Prophets of Rage take to the stage for their first ever UK show. Kicking off with the eponymous ‘prophets of rage’ and plunging headlong into the foaming rage of ‘testify’, Prophets of Rage are as good a prospect in reality as they are on paper and, over the course of an hour that flies by in mere minutes, Prophets of Rage reduce Donnington to so much rubble. Bringing something for everyone, we get crushing run throughs of RATM songs like ‘Guerilla Radio’ and ‘take the power back’, a heart breaking instrumental version of Audioslave’s ‘like a stone’, mind-altering hip-hop courtesy of a medley that includes ‘insane in the brain’, ‘dr greenthumb’, ‘I ain’t goin’ out like that’ and, of course, all the big singles from RATM’s ground breaking debut (come on, you know which ones), concluding with a monstrous ‘killing in the name’. If I have one slight criticism it is simply that B-Real and Chuck D, although both far better rappers than Zack, can’t quite carry the visceral rock screams with the vibrancy that Zack did, although they give it a damn good shot. Nonetheless, Prophets of Rage most certainly deliver the goods and their own songs (including the brilliantly unhinged ‘unfuck the world’) stand shoulder to shoulder with the classic cuts they pull out. 9
After such a lengthy absence, it’s hardly surprising that headliners System of a down are greeted with wild enthusiasm. A band that, at one time, seemed poised to take over the world, their quiet dissolution came as something as a surprise and it’s wonderful to see the band take to the stage once more, still wildly eccentric and brutally heavy. However, from the start something is not quite right and the massive screens hanging at the side of the stage show frontman Serj looking increasingly pained as he delivers the vocals. The rest of the band step up wonderfully, and I’m not sure I’ve ever heard them play with more precision than tonight, but it’s noticeable that the guttural screams that peppered their songs are truncated or absent entirely except when delivered by Daron Malakian and even his contributions seem more muted than in the past.
Does this mean, then, that it’s a bad show? Good lord no! This is System of a down, after all, and, even with health issues, the band still deliver like the consummate professionals they are. Track after track flashes by and it’s amazing how many of them have ingrained themselves in the consciousness of heavy metal fans in the twenty years or so since the band dropped their debut album on an unsuspecting world. Highlights include dips into lesser known songs such as ‘Mr Jack’ (from ‘Steal this album’) which demonstrate the band’s great versatility, whilst tracks like ‘Violent pornography’ manage to stick in the brain for pretty much the whole weekend. ‘Aerials’ is dispatched early on, but then it’s easy to forget just how many stone cold classics the band have at their fingertips and even a show stopping ‘Chop suey!’ appears at the mid-point rather than at the show’s conclusion. Still furiously innovative, it’s an amazing moment to System of a Down back on stage once more and we can only hope that this renewed live activity presages the long-mooted sixth album at long last. 8
Despite the fact that today’s line up on the main stage predominantly offers more to satisfy the casual rock fan (culminating in a performance from Biffy Clyro), the good thing about Download is that there’s always plenty to see and do and, if the main stage isn’t your thing, there’s an absolutely astonishing line up on the Zippo Encore stage to sate the most metallic of appetites.
Nonetheless, things get off to a good start on the main stage with Hacktivist whose short slot gets the party started early. Offering hard hitting nu-metal with plenty of stage presence, Hacktivist certainly have a vocal set of fans at the front and songs like ‘Hate’ and ‘False idols’ go over well despite the early hour. 6
Next up are creeper, who have been making waves recently with their debut album ‘eternity, in your arms’. Similarly minded to AFI, who are scheduled for later on in the day, Creeper do little to hold the attention and after ‘black rain’ and ‘poison pens’, we head off in search of more challenging sounds. 4
Next up on the main stage are Sikth, the Watford bruisers, who take to the stage with hunger burning in their eyes. Despite their clear glee at playing the cavernous main stage, the band still don’t make it easy for the bleary-eyed audience, tearing into the likes of ‘hold my finger’ and ‘Philistine philosophies’ like men possessed. It’s great to see the band utilising the full space on offer, the dual vocalists engaging with the crowd and enhancing an already impressive reputation and it’s a mighty performance. With new album ‘the future in whose eyes?’ out now, expect to see much more of this progressively minded band as the year wears on. 8
Seriously, I don’t care about the dull, so-called controversy, I love the new Suicide Silence album and, as the band have maintained all along, little of the new material sounds out of place in the band’s impressively ferocious live set anyway. Accusations of ‘selling out’ are ludicrous in light of the band’s resolutely uncommercial sound, and I’m glad to see the band have kept faith with the new material, offering up bruising performances of ‘YOLO’ to get the crowd going before a searing ‘Doris’ rips across the Zippo Encore Stage like a tsunami. From then on, it’s a blistering set with a good mix of old and new keeping things moving at a brisk pace. ‘Run’ remains a highlight from the new album, with Eddie getting the crowd jumping, whilst ‘hold me up’ is even more punishing live than on record. However, the real highlight of the show is a bittersweet rendition of ‘Conformity’, with which the band end the show. Characteristically brave, the song, a dark ballad, comments perfectly on the expectations people have of metal bands and it’s a thought-provoking set closer from a band clearly eager to continue their musical evolution. Suicide Silence were fantastic from start to finish. 9
I’m afraid I don’t really get Kvelertak. The singer, who arrives on stage decked out in an owl mask, seems to think he’s in a metal band whereas his band seem to be more inclined to fuzzy, old-school rock in the vein of AC/DC. It’s an incongruous mix and while the band clearly have fans in attendance, for many it’s an opportunity to sit back in the afternoon sun rather than a band upon whom to focus the attention. 5
Despite being a huge fan of Sepultura, both pre and post Max, there is something truly special about seeing Max and Iggor Cavalera reunite to play ‘Roots’ to a fiercely excited crowd. Songs like ‘Roots’, ‘Ratamahatta’ and ‘Straight hate’ sound as fresh now as when they were first laid down and the duo’s performance is both brutal and yet strangely emotional, particularly for an audience who were raised on the ‘Roots’ album. Little is wrong with the band’s set, although ‘Lookaway’, an album highlight, suffers from a poor vocal mix (and the inevitable absence of Mike Patton and Jonathan Davis who sang on the original), but, that churlish gripe aside, it’s a remarkably uplifting experience (especially considering how heavy the material is), seeing the brothers reunited in ‘Roots’ once more. 9
A guaranteed highlight on any stage, Devin Townsend Project are transcendent as they arrive at the Zippo Encore stage. The sheer weight of the riffs, coupled with the sublime melodies that Devin now employs, makes for a hugely moving musical experience and, over the course of one short hour, Devin and his band combine emotion and exceptional musicality for the performance of the day, if not the weekend. Opening (most appropriately) with ‘Rejoice’ and then charging headlong through ‘stormbending’ and a phenomenal ‘failure’, Devin dials back the chatter so as to utilise every moment to deliver crushing track after track. Like James Horner competing with Carl Orff and Ministry, there’s a classical sensibility to Devin’s work that rolls over the sun-baked field and stimulates the emotions, so that, by the time we reach ‘Higher’, the elegiac set closer, there’s a sense of love and unity amidst the crowd that few artists can hope to stimulate. We leave feeling elated at having borne witness to a set of such musical and emotional power. 10
There’s no questioning the excitement of Rob Zombie in the live environment. A master showman, he brings his spook house to the UK, treating the audience to an audio-visual extravaganza complete with giant screens, fireworks, enough flame to chargrill the back rows of the massively swollen audience and, of course, Rob Zombie himself, revelling in his master of ceremonies persona. From the moment he kicks things off with ‘the last of the demons defeated’ (heading straight into a blistering ‘dead radio and the new Gods of Supertown’), you know you’re in for a thrill ride of immense proportions. From then on it’s a non-stop parade of hits including an earth-shaking rendition of White Zombie’s evergreen ‘More human than human’, an eerie ‘house of 1000 corpses’ (complete with stomach-churning scenes from the film showing on the giant screens) and an exceptional finale of ‘Thunder kiss ‘65’, ‘blitzkrieg bop’, ‘school’s out’ (segueing back into ‘thunder kiss’) and, of course, an encore of ‘Dragula’. Rob Zombie is a master entertainer throughout and the result is that his lengthy set shoots past leaving the audience exhausted and yet elated by yet another of the weekend’s many highlights. 9
Kicking off at the hangover unfriendly hour of 11:00, Broken Witt Rebels bring their southern charm to bear on an aching second stage. It may be early, but it’s hard to imagine these hotly-tipped youngsters will be in so lowly a position for long with tracks like ‘bang bang’ and a crowd-pleasing ‘guns’ delivering the goods. A band for whom it’s always worth making a little extra effort, Broken Witt Rebels represent the future of blues-infused hard rock and, if they can stay the course, they’ll only get better with time. 8
Fozzy are certainly effervescent, despite their unfeasibly early slot, and they get the audience going as the sun beats down upon them, and yet it’s not as satisfying as it should be. When the band swing, they really deliver the goods, but all too often the songs aired lack the bite of, say, ‘god pounds his nails’, and tracks like ‘sandpaper’ just can’t compete. 6
Happily, the gods of heavy metal are smiling down upon us. If you don’t love Orange Goblin then you have no place at a rock festival. These veteran rock gods take to the stage as if they’re headlining the entire day and Ben Ward remains heavy metal personified as he sets circle pits racing on either side of the gigantic main stage. Songs like ‘Scorpionica’ and ‘the devil’s whip’ are riff monsters, but things only get better when the band unleash ‘cities of frost’ and ‘your world will hate this’ back to back in one long, neck-snapping session that leaves no head un-banged. Leaving the stage following a monstrous ‘red tide rising’, Orange Goblin are all-conquering heroes to all those present and it makes for one hell of a start to the day. 9
Off the back of cracking album ‘only ghosts’, Red Fang take to the second stage and slowly build a wall of fuzz which envelopes the crowd. It’s a short set, unfortunately, as Red Fang are a band who need time to draw the audience in, but the undeniable highlight comes with the airing of ‘Flies’ and ‘cut it short’, the opening tracks of the new record which sound even more densely hypnotic live than they do on record. A cracking set, my only regret is its brevity. 8
Back over at the main stage, In Flames deliver a blistering performance. Although the line-up has shifted numerous times since what some might term the band’s glory days, the super-clean sounds of ‘battles’ are perfectly suited to the main stage, whilst older tracks (albeit none predating ‘reroute to remain’) are driven home with considerable force. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the set leans towards the newest material with ‘Deliver us’ emerging from the Tool-esque might of ‘wallflower’ and tracks like ‘before I fall’ doing battle with ‘all for me’ and ‘the end’ leading into a satisfyingly crunchy ‘take this life’ (the only song, alas, from the excellent ‘come clarity’). It’s not a set, then, for old school Jesterheads, but for those who have followed the band as their sound has evolved, it is a particularly pleasing one. Amusing complaints about the quantity of beer allotted to the band aside, the band deliver a focused and impressive set to a crowd considerably expanded from the somewhat quieter Saturday audience. 9
It’s back over to the second stage for the sublime prog-rock of Anathema. With new album ‘the optimist’ just out, the band’s transformation from gothic-doomsters to neo-prog superstars is complete and their set underscores this point with the glorious likes of ‘distant satellites’ and ‘untouchable, part 1’ weaving dreamily across the sun-dappled field. Like Red Fang, if I have any reserve, it’s simply that Anathema do not have the time necessary to fully entrance the listener before they are forced to leave the stage and we are snapped rudely back to reality, but for the time that they are with us, they are truly magical. Even taking time to air new material from the quite astonishingly good ‘the Optimist’, Anathema are a band to treasure. 9
It’s difficult to imagine a more contrary band to follow the gentle prog of Anathema than Al Jourgensen and his rolling hate machine Ministry. Appearing on stage to the pseudo-hymnal strains of ‘Psalm 69’, there is no let up as the band unveil the repetitive hell of ‘punch in the face’ and revel in the bile-soaked ‘antifa’. The best is saved for last, however, as the band deliver a triple blow in the form of ‘N.W.O’, ‘Just one fix’ and ‘Thieves’ in quick succession. With democracy hanging in the balance and political forces on both sides of the Atlantic seeking corporate dominion overall, it’s all the more important that artists like Al are on hand to rouse the forces of rebellion and Ministry devastate all who fall within the grasp of their churning riffs. 9
It’s probably hard rock heresy to say so, but Steel Panther are a joke that’s wearing thin. Sexual innuendo, the occasional gimmer of genius in tracks like ‘death to all but metal’ do not a great band make and their tedious set on the main stage only makes you wish for more bands of substance like Prophets of Rage. 4
Whilst on record Opeth may have toned down the deathly roars, live they still know how to pace a set so as to represent their present and capture their past. A band with at least three bona fide classics to their name (that’d be ‘Blackwater Park’, ‘Watershed’ and ‘sorceress’, in case you were wondering) and a number of other albums that certainly contend for that title, there’s no way that the band can please everyone with a mere forty-five minutes, and yet they do a damn good job anyway. Opening with ‘Sorceress’, the stupidly good opening track from the new album and only getting better from there, we are treated to ‘ghost of perdition’, ‘cusp of eternity’, ‘era’ and a brain-melting ‘deliverance’ with a minimum of stage chatter. Another band that could do with longer to really weave their magic upon the audience, there’s still a sense that Opeth’s set is something truly special and as the sun starts to sink towards the horizon, Mikael Akerfeldt and his band deliver a majestic performance that is quite impossible to fault. 10
With their set cleverly timed to avoid a clash with festival closers (and American institution Aerosmith) Slayer continue to leave a trail of devastation in their wake. One of their best albums in years, ‘repentless’ is rendered even more brutal in the live environment and the band also play plenty of classics, keeping the faithful happy. We even get to see the remarkable sight of Tom Araya struggling not to laugh during ‘Seasons of the abyss’ as two randomly dressed characters go head to head in the mosh pit. When Tom laughs, you know it’s not a normal night. Nonetheless, unintentional hilarity aside, we get a typically frantic showing from the band with tracks like ‘war ensemble’, ‘hate worldwide’, ‘mandatory suicide’ (YES!) and, of course, an encore that includes ‘south of heaven’, ‘raining blood’, ‘chemical warfare’ and ‘angel of death’. It really doesn’t matter how often I see the band bring these classics out, it’s never quite enough and Slayer leave the audience both exhausted and elated with their unholy thrash. That said, I really did miss their backdrop of fire-belching Marshall amps… 9
It’s all been building up to this. Whilst the band may have succumbed to a desire to lay down chart-hugging ballads of late, there is no doubting the legacy of Aerosmith whose influence lays so heavily across the American hard rock scene that it’s hard to imagine a world without them. Fired up and ready to go, the band may be aging (dis)gracefully, but the fire that they bring to the live performance is unmistakable and for anyone who saw the live video from Download 2014 and wished they were there, this is an opportunity to right that wrong before it’s too late.
Steven Tyler remains the primping, preening epitome of rock stardom that he’s always been whilst Joe Perry oozes cool as he coaxes licks out of his battered Les Paul. This is a band whose hits are so written into the fabric of rock ‘n’ roll’s DNA that even those who can’t claim to be fans know all the tunes (and most of the words) and so Download 2017 ends on an almighty singalong, and one not devoid of emotion considering this could be our last chance to see the band in the flesh.
From the start, during which Steven and Joe appear at the end of the runway asserting that they’re going to let “the music do the talking”, it’s clear that this is a set that aims to celebrate the band’s many musical achievements. Shorn of the massive, attention-seeking staging of Biffy Clyro and the audio-visual overload of Rob Zombie, the band simply get down to business, tearing out hit after hit with glorious abandon. Steven must surely have a portrait in his attic getting older, his lithe frame a blur of constant motion as he belts out the high notes on classics such as ‘young lust’, ‘cryin’’ and a monumental ‘livin’ on the edge’, a track that has lost none of its power when it comes to the booming thunder of the drums that see the chorus return after a false ending. The band don’t put a foot wrong over the course of their lengthy set, with tracks like ‘Mama kin’ and ‘sweet emotion’ still boasting that same unassailable cool that made the band an unstoppable force in the 70s.
Highlights are heavy on the ground but, for me, the set closing triptych of ‘Rag doll’, ‘come together’ (still the definitive version of the Beatles’ classic) and ‘dude (looks like a lady)’ is pretty much a rock ‘n’ roll dream come true. That the band then return to deliver a heart-stopping ‘dream on’ is simply icing on the cake, although there’s simply no beating the grand finale of ‘walk this way’ and, with that, they’re gone. No fireworks, no wild goodbyes, just a fantastic set of amazing tunes reminding the audience that Aerosmith, for all of their high profile bust ups, are one of the biggest bands in the world because of a musical talent that has steadfastly refused to age. Few bands can ever hope to be so good and yet Aerosmith made it look easy. 10
With improved facilities, a great atmosphere and a cracking line up, Download 2017 was a fantastic success and a huge amount of fun. The opportunity to see Aerosmith in the flesh was not one to be missed and a number of bands turned in exceptional sets, not least Opeth and Devin Townsend, the latter delivering what was unquestionably one of the sets of the weekend. Where security issues could have taken their toll, smart organisation and an exceptionally professional staff kept things moving with remarkably little disruption. Roll on Download 2018!