Download 2015: Friday
In the weeks and days leading up to Download 2015, an event which marks the 35th anniversary since the very first Monsters of Rock on the now-hallowed turf of Donnington park, Mancunia had been bathed in sunshine. A hot, blissful sunshine that caresses your skin and brightens your temperament as well as the skyline. [Birmingham, as usual, was pretty much grey]. My paranoia was fierce however – it seemed only the people who weren’t coming to the festival were optimistic that the weather would not have worm itself out come gates opening 10th June. Indeed, that beautiful, beer warming weather overlapped onto the Wednesday and Thursday and two days of depleting my beer supply close to the point of extinction – armed guards encircled the last remaining can of Budweiser with eagle like eyes – swiftly followed. I took in the crazy sights of the campsite village, from men in dresses to the poncho wearing Gringos FC winning the 5-a-side tournament on a tonne of tequila. All was well. Lo and behold however, the heavens did indeed open when Friday rolled in and the music proper began.
But we metalheads are tough old bastards and so, bright and early, the masses made their way to the arena – that damn long walk we always forget just how long it truly is in the 360 days a year we’re not at the festival. [Its my first time here, and words can’t describe how convenient the system is at smaller festivals like Bloodstock. The walk, though, is worth it in the end – if not just for the bizarre long-armed, ghoul-faced ringwraith-esque ‘things’ walking alongside us. The dedication to costume here really is something special]
It can’t be easy playing a show as early as All That Remains do, but they go out with bags of energy and musical force to open the main stage admirably. While it’s nothing exceptional, thanks in part to a crowd still waking up, the Massachusetts metalcore quintet have a decade and a half of experience in this game. So, led by red capped vocalist Philip Labonte, they churn out the nostalgic hits. There’s a grit to their sound but it blends well with a lighter melodicism that makes them perfect for this slot.
Above us, the sun is battling with grey rainclouds and together they make the weather somewhat schizophrenic. Under the cover of the third stage meanwhile, Krokodil are enjoying something of a homecoming. It was two years here at Donnington that the band made their live debut and here they rip through cuts from their debut album Nachash. Mud thick guitar tones – oh the irony – gloop out of the PA, their sound an excellent balance of sludgy voraciousness and punk rock punch, there are riffs aplenty to get sucked into. You could perhaps argue that when their three-pronged guitar attack cut to just a solo offering momentarily the sound lost a bit of clarity and character, but when their jointed gung-ho blasts at you it’s hard not to get into this. Clever and sweet harmonies added some sugar to the sourness of their musicality, such as on the twisted and snaking venture that is Sun Riders, Simon Wright taking Biffy man Simon Neil’s vocals and making them truly his own on its more uplifting and spacious chorus. Really impressive.
Throughout the Thursday, as we wandered around the campsite leaving our lack of sobriety wherever we could, Ben would harper on about the need to see At The Gates’ set the following day. A band responsible for A Slaughter Of The Soul, an album he’s crowned the best melodic death metal of all time, the Gothenburg trio had a lot to live up to by the time their mean and sadistic bludgeonings unfurled. But fuck, what a band. It may not have been their most euphoric set, but their low, guttural heavy end and well-crafted musicality injected a real sense of passion and soul into their otherwise brutal offerings.
They owned the stage, a demanding presence drawing in a sizable crowd and they have a fan in me now at least. And this is where Download’s bittersweet aesthetics come into play. First of all, I got to see a band I would never otherwise had done and consequently found a new love, but the incessant clashes meant we had to drag ourselves over to the Zippo Encore stage to catch the end of the Blues Pills’ set. But variety is very much the spice of life and to go from melodic death metal to graceful and hearty blues in an instant show both the broad span of music represented here at Download as well as just how much the sounds within the worlds of rock and metal can differ while still belying kindred DNA.
Unfortunately, At The Gates are plagued by sound issues (I’m looking at you, wind – you tosser) and never really get going in the same way as the two times I’ve seen them previously: Bloodstock 2008 and in a “small” venue in Birmingham last year. The ‘small’ is in inverted commas because it was essentially a microwave with a band and some people – it was maybe the most oversold, sardine-tin show I’ve ever been to. However, on those occasions, Sweden’s finest had the full vigour of the crowd on their side and legitimately played their asses off. Sadly, Download just isn’t their day – in the same way that most death metal bands will never have their day at a festival with a heart of rock and sleazy sleeves.
A band I’ve seen many times now, Blues Pills never disappoint. Where new guitarist Dorian Sorriaux was once very much reserved and in his shell – albeit still spellbinding – here he has blossomed, flourished into one of the true greats of modern blues playing. His tone is outstanding, every note bleeding from his very being while their majestic vocalist Ellin Larsson almost brought a tear to my end during the emphatic and searing set-closer Devil Man; a stunning song that warm your insides when the elements simply cannot. I didn’t cry though, because I’m burly as fuck.
What can be said about Clutch that already hasn’t? They play rock n’ roll with more balls, honesty and intelligence than most these days, and their set here was damning evidence of that. The Earth Rocker album dominates the set list, from the harmonica led boogie of DC Sound Attack to the plodding and powerful The Face, they both manage to pay homage to and deface the classic blues rock template which stands as the foundation to so much of the music going off here this weekend. Fallon’s witty lyrical quips and prowling stage presence, in comparison to his compatriots more reserved performances, is absolutely brilliant. New track X-Ray Visions is an instant head-bopper too, only ramping up further excitement for their forthcoming record, Psychic Warfare. This is a band with the songs, the charisma and blast to headline a festival and it’s a crying shame they haven’t yet been raised to such a pedestal. X-Ray Visions is, in fact, so good that I’m still singing the chorus now, two weeks later, and I’ve still only heard the song once. Now that, my friends, is how you write one hell of a good fucking song. Will Clutch ever write a bad one – I wouldn’t bet on it.
One band which is on a pedestal of great esteem however, is Judas Priest, who played that very first Monsters of Rock all those years ago. This evening, as the grayscale clouds finally buckle under the burgeoning weight of the rain, nothing can deter either the band or fans as they smash their way through a set of songs that defined the genre we all know and love today. Rob Halford may be older now, years of drugs and debauchery may have left his bones in a dilapidated and creaky state, but he performs with more passion than anyone this weekend. Proper hammer and tongue stuff. As you watch him, the sopping downpour seems to disappear, it becomes irrelevant.
KK Downing may have walked out of the band on the back of remarks that the band were deteriorating, that they weren’t pulling their weight on stage anymore, but he younger, fresh blood of axesmith Richie Faulkner seems to have rejuvenated the band. Painkiller is fantastic, Halford’s rasping vocals actually adding an extra grit to the song while Breaking The Law has 40,000 voices singing in unison, hands and umbrellas held aloft. Personally, my favourite moment of this set is Halford’s off-mic ‘MOTHERFUCKER’ which he delivers with so much blind rage that he collapses to his knees, exhausted. I take my hat off to the guy, I really do (metaphorically – although I wish I had a hat during this downpour. I wish I was wearing more than a vest. I really do. Even sleeves would be a luxury.). As the rain reaches its apex, a man emerges in the mosh pit covered in ponchos with a large ‘rain ponchos for sale’ sign which elicits some laughs but mostly envy. Oh for a human condom in these hard, wet, disgustingly moist times.
The rain continues to bleed miserably from a rapidly darkening sky as Slipknot, for the third time, stride onto stage to headline a night at a place fast becoming their home from home. The problem is though, as good as they are, as rambunctious, archaic and anthemic as their songs are, the band is running out of ideas to keep things fresh. It all seems a bit pedestrian at times, a returning and well-loved attraction yes, but there is nothing overly invigorating for those who’ve seen it all before.
New album .5 The Gray Chapter injects new metallic slabs to their towering structure, pyro and their demanding presence capping it all off, but the new songs are lacking that spark that makes Slipknot so indisputably feral and crushing. Perhaps it’s the rain, perhaps it’s a slightly quiet and lacklustre crowd, but it’s only until the encore of (sic), People = Shit and Surfacing that the band really shift through the gears. This is Slipknot, this is a band that has defined a generation – nay, created a generation of metalheads – and it’s bloody brilliant.
So there we are, trudging through the mud, still searching from a real buzz. The weather has been shoddy at best and has hardly kissed our temperaments. Thoughts of beer, warmth and somewhere dry are more important right now and in the campsite village – another traipse of that damned walk - The Doghouse tent is where we find ourselves. Some house had passed, beers sunk and random conversations with passers-by or gleefully hammered punters here in the doghouse had happened since the infamous Iowan nine piece had left their stage.
The drugs are kicking in, their colours adding a vivid vibrancy and fizz to everything as Ronald McDonald walks onto the stage, the Hamburglar in close pursuit. A guitar touting gentleman with a Motorhead fashioned tusked burger as a head and some indiscernible purple blob bassist complete the outfit and they crash into Sabbath’s War Pigs. I stood there, taking it all in, watching the shapes of the crowd dancing all around me in their own circles, watching the band, or whatever the hell they were make their presence known. I was lost. Lost as to whatever I was seeing was in fact reality or some weird, twisted trip the only kind of thing a drug addled writer’s imagination could conjure.
The band are real it turns out and they go by the name of Mac Sabbath – and it’s a good thing fairies are wearing boots tonight because they’d have totally ruined their dainty slippers on account of the inescapable mudbath that makes a swamp of the tent. Sabbath themselves reposted a video of their fast food reimaginings of the band’s classic tracks – I am Frying Pan and so on – on their Facebook page. As a result, the band came up on Download’s radar and here they are, at 2am on a Friday night confusing the crap out of a few hundred people. What kind of gig this band’s making a living out of playing is anyone’s guess – tribute band nights, children’s birthday parties? – but at this time of night to an audience as far out of their mind’s as possible, they’ve certainly found a home.
Words: Phil Weller