On Hallowed Ground: The Download Festival celebrates its 20th birthday
This year, I made the Download Festival a game of two halves. Celebrating its twentieth anniversary, the festival had been extended to four days. It began on the Thursday rather than the Friday. This gave Metallica the opportunity to headline the Thursday and Saturday as part of their two-night, no-repeats world tour. Friday was headlined by Bring Me The Horizon and Sunday was closed by Slipknot.
Attending Thursday and Sunday felt like joining a party when it had just started, skipping out, then returning in the early hours. Most of the event's 90,000 or so attendees were present on Thursday. There was a relaxed, excited, celebratory atmosphere. Well-earned in most cases, because of extraordinary difficulties reaching the site by car on the Wednesday. Some traffic delays lasted up to eight hours in the last few miles to reach the site.
Download has reconfigured the site a few times over the years. This was mainly in response to the rain that can afflict the festival in early June. 2016's edition has gone down in infamy as 'Drownload'. This year's festival saw no such problems – quite the opposite. The site was bathed in sunshine throughout, which died off to a chilly evening on Thursday night. Otherwise, the first heatwave of the year in the UK meant that sunstroke was a bigger concern than getting soaked over the weekend.
Enough about the weather (I'm British, It's important). The big contrast in the bill was Thursday's mainstage lineup of big singers and classic rock hooks, versus Friday’s metalcore headliners. James Hetfield jokingly complained about the caliber of the singers preceding him on Thursday. Tatania Schmayluk of Jinjer, Lizzy Hale of Halestorm and Myles Kennedy of Alter Bridge all pushing each other. Slipknot's have ascended to headline the Sunday night (often reserved for 'classic' acts like Def Leppard, Aerosmith and Black Sabbath). This recognises how metal has evolved in the last twenty years as part of the festival.
The first time Slipknot performed at the festival was the second edition in 2004. It was a fateful year, as Lars Ulrich was rushed to hospital and Metallica had to improvise a set with a revolving cast of drummers. These included Dave Lombardo and even their drum tech. But then Joey Jordison stepped up to save the day. He played the majority of Metallica's set with a ferocity that peppered the songs with new fills and gatling-gun bursts of double bass drum.
On this hallowed ground, where a metal festival first took place in 1980 as the Monsters of Rock (headlined by Rainbow) there were questions. What does this iteration of the festival mean after twenty years? What does this twentieth anniversary tell us about the health of heavy rock and metal twenty years after its near-death experience in the wake of nu metal, Billy Corgan proclaiming 'Rock is dead!', and the internecine bitterness of the Napster era?
On arrival, I took a near-ninety-minute perambulation of the site in search of the right box office. Twenty years in, and event security is still liable to send you in the wrong direction. But it gave me a chance to survey the campsites that extended for miles around the North quarter. Metalheads trundled in laden with bags, pillows and food supplies. Exaggerated groans went up as yet another overloaded trolley broke down. There were murmurs of complaint about access throughout the weekend – particularly from disabled fans.
My recommended daily steps for the day achieved by merely entering the site in the late afternoon, I arrived at the Opus Stage. Hundred Reasons were playing, revivified in the last couple of years. In 1999 they were part of a loosely connected group of bands pushed by Kerrang! and other magazines as the future of British rock. Singer Colin Doran still sounds remarkably like he did when the band released Ideas Above Our Station in 2002, though his hair is somewhat less voluminous. Hundred Reasons always looked like regular blokes from their town of Aldershot. Age has not diminished this impression and the melodic bite of their songs still stood out. Particularly "If I Could", which ended their set in rousing fashion.
It's quite the contrast with Lizzy Hale, who has 'rock star' written all over her, and wore a particularly fetching orange leather jacket when Halestorm arrived on the mainstage. I have to admit I can find some of Lizzy Hale's maximalist approach to her vocals somewhat garish. Comparable perhaps to the baggy, purple tie-dyed trousers guitarist Joe Hottinger decided to wear onstage. But when they do modulate things and take it down a couple of notches, as they did on "The Familiar Taste of Poison", they hold a candle to any of the rock behemoths that stalked the site in the eighties.
Not averse to the brash and overblown himself, Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan appeared this year on the second stage with the kitsch and playful Puscifer. On a reasonably catholic bill, Puscifer was a genuine oddity. Smeared with red lipstick, Keenan was joined by co-vocalist Carina Round, both cosplaying as Men In Black. Joined by weird, masked humanoid accomplices, they surveyed the crowd for alien potential. This was the end of the week where the presence of UAPs on Earth once again hit the headlines. Silliness aside, as Puscifer's set went on, consisting of songs largely from 2020's Existential Reckoning, Keenan began to hit his stride. His plangent, unique baritone drifted over the site with customary elegance. Drummer Gunnar Olsen was also something to behold in action.
Alter Bridge didn't need time to ease into their set. They debuted at the festival in 2005 and have grown with it. One of Mark Tremonti's guitar stickers bears the image of Dimebag Darrell, who played the festival with Damageplan in the year he died. Damageplan swapped slots with a delayed Slayer and got to slam on the mainstage. The ghosts of days gone by, indeed. "Cry of Achilles" and "Isolation" showcased their range – from sledgehammer gallop to accessible, heavy FM rock. "Sin After Sin" reverberated around the arena – downtempo, grandiose music perfect for their sundown set time.
Myles Kennedy took a moment to reflect on when he saw Def Leppard headline the festival alongside his photographer friend Ashley in 2012. He dedicated the mournful anthem "Blackbird" to his friend's memory, embedding the song in the history of the festival itself. Bizarrely, someone in front wrenched open a box of white powder which flew everywhere during the song. I hope it wasn't someone's ashes. As the air cooled after their set, it also thudded with the bass density of Perturbator on the Dogtooth stage.
After Metallica took the stage, James Hetfield informed us this was their ninth time playing at Donington over its two incarnations. There was something amusing about Metallica headlining a festival called Download a few years after the Napster crisis. When any band asks in 2023 whether the audience ‘picked up’ their new album, it's an odd question. Surely the vast majority will simply stream it? Perhaps it's in deference to this that Metallica are playing two-night dates as part of their M72 tour. It guarantees at least a few deeper cuts and they duly delivered that night with "Leper Messiah" and "King Nothing". Troubled album St. Anger, itself twenty years old this year, was unacknowledged on both nights they headlined.
Metallica are showing their age these days, but seem to be embracing it. Hetfield is now firmly 'Papa Het'. He is a cool great uncle, chomping a cigar and mischievously chiding Kirk Hammett for being slow on a guitar change. Where Lars Ulrich missing double-bass drum hits or playing less elaborate fills has caused consternation over the last decade, post-Covid there's just an overwhelming gratitude that we can still see these elder statesmen in action. Ulrich even broke a snare during “Fade To Black”, suggesting he was really putting some effort in. People around me struggled to chant along to the rousing strains of "The Ecstasy of Gold" intro tape. Many of them were too choked up. When Metallica rolled out "The Day That Never Comes" from Death Magnetic, someone to my side exclaimed, 'Made my life!', without a shred of irony.
The feeling is mutual. Hetfield commented after "Fade To Black" just how much he still enjoys playing the song. 'Thank you for keeping me alive,' he said to us, evoking his struggles with addiction. A fitting finale then to have the snarling anti-cocaine "Master of Puppets" conclude the evening.
The following day, the police reported that they received noise complaints from people over fifteen miles away. Well, stranger things have happened. This was partially thanks to a mainstage PA upgrade, with all the headliners sounding monstrous.
By Sunday, the heatwave had set in. The site is very exposed and tired attendees huddled next to fencing to catch some shade. The queues for drinking water were long. The whole event felt post-apocalyptic: Waterworld without the water, or like the thunderdome from the third Mad Max movie.
With the sun beating down, Mongolian act The Hu brought their own thunder to the mainstage. They blend native instrumentation, throat singing and their folk tradition with amplified bass and guitar. They even covered Metallica’s “Sad But True”. The song is so established, so widely known, it's part of metal's own folk tradition.
Retreating to the shade of the Dogtooth stage, it resembled a field hospital for the sunburnt and hungover. Essex duo The Meffs brought their own form of culture shock to the stage. With records produced by Frank Turner, their punk is filtered through the hyper-fuzz of Fu Manchu. It worked well for songs like “Modern Life”. Vocalist/guitarist Lily told a story about how Libertines frontman Pete Doherty misheard the song as being about a peacock. She made a strong case for providing the LGTBQIA+ representation she wanted to see in punk during her youth.
In sharp contrast, Behemoth brought the theatricality back to the mainstage in the late afternoon, as the sun began to ease off. Sporting an impressive array of headgear, Nergal delivered their set with a searing conviction. “Bartzabel” spoke back to a tradition of blasphemy and disobedience that stretches to the earliest festivals on the site. That Behemoth can make this mainstage fare on a Sunday afternoon is all the more impressive. The first storm clouds of the day began forming during their set. Perhaps someone up there was displeased by their appearance?
They weren’t the only people in the field bearing impressive face paint. I stopped to take a photo of two men dressed as members of the Baseball Furies gang from Walter Hill’s The Warriors. The occult theme of the afternoon continued with Green Lung on the Dogtooth stage. They make it their mission to let us know the Old Gods still thrive in a heathen land.
“Wooden Rites” and “Reaper’s Scythe” had singer Tom Templar cresting their classic rock-infused doomy metal with his Ozzy-ish voice. Hugely talented and poised to release their third album later this year, Green Lung will be moving out of this tent soon. “Graveyard Sun”, from 2021’s Black Harvest, proved they could flex the mood and tempo of their set. And Scott Black should be everyone’s new favorite guitar hero. The mosher dressed in an inflatable pig costume seemed to think so.
On the mainstage, I Prevail kicked up the intensity with a vortex of dust for a snippet of Slayer’s “Raining Blood”. Their cover of System Of A Down’s “Chop Suey!” combined with the dynamic of vocalists Brian Burkheiser and Eric Vanlerbleghe, showed that nu metal’s legacy still shines brightly in today’s scene.
As the cloudy, humid evening set in, Parkway Drive got the bodies flying with “Soul Bleach”. They seem delighted to be finally out of Australia following the Covid layover. Winston McCall, dressed all in white in a stab-proof vest, has an Aussie-next-door charisma which is a winner for British crowds. In the day’s most arresting image, he walked into the crowd and orchestrated a circle pit to whirl around him during “Idols and Anchors”. But to grab the headliner crown he’ll need to work on the vulnerable clean vocals of “Darker Still” in the live setting, which fell somewhat flat.
I Prevail and Parkway Drive woke everyone up. Suddenly thousands of people were trickling into the arena from their sun-drunk wallowing in the campsites. A preposterously large number of them formed the congregation for Ghost’s set on the Apex Stage.
Hatebreed sounded fantastic on the Dogtooth stage, dedicating “Perseverance” to Terror and blazing through “Smash Your Enemies”. Jamey Jasta asked the crowd who was actually alive in 1995 when they wrote it. He encouraged the veterans at the fringe of the crowd to come of retirement to join the mosh pit.
It was a tumultuous build-up to the festival for Slipknot. But if any band’s development tracks that of the Download Festival, it is theirs. Since they were given their big break in 2009 headlining the festival, this is now their fifth time topping the bill. The band’s blend of psychotic aggression, yearning melodicism and sheer spectacle make them the band of the Download era. And the place is packed out to see them – the arena seems sold out and then some, circle pits erupting everywhere.
What are we to make of the band using “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds as build-up music before they drop the banner in front of the stage? Or redeploying “Prelude 3.0” – with its refrain of ‘Now it’s over’ – as their intro tape? It’s strangely nostalgic for me, because the first time I saw them at the festival was in 2004, touring Vol. 3: (The Subliminal Verses).
They ripped into “The Blister Exists” and, lo and behold, there was clown present and correct on his drum riser, sporting a bright white mask. It wouldn’t be right to play the marching-band snare outro of the song without him. Their set is a celebration of what they’ve become and what that represents. Whereas Joey Jordison famously filled in for Lars Ulrich in 2004, Jay Weinberg now fully owns “The Heretic Anthem”. He unleashed outrageous fills across the song that had me laughing out loud. Corey Taylor complained about the state of his voice, but led the whole festival site in a stunning mid-set drop of “Snuff”. Delving into the past to unearth “Left Behind”, and the truly unnerving “Purity”, made this the best Slipknot set I’d seen in years.
This festival, held on a racetrack next to an airport, has now generated enough psychic charge to make this year’s edition more than a 20th birthday party. Despite the issues – the traffic, the heat, the water supply issues, the reports of food poisoning – this is a vital annual gathering at the center of the country that birthed metal. We should celebrate its mythology and allow it to grow.
There are bigger, maybe even better festivals, in mainland Europe, but multiple bands – Slipknot and Metallica included – only call this place home. I, for one, am happy to share it with them.