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Download Pilot as it happened: Music, moshing and a whole lotta rain

Crowd at Enter Shikari
(Image credit: Kev Nixon)

After Download surprised us all last month with the announcement that the festival would be putting on a 10,000 capacity event in June, we’ve spent weeks speculating on what the hell that would actually look like.

With the gates of Donington opening for the first time in two years on Friday, here’s what went down on the first day of a history-making Download.

Louder line break

Sunday

The Download weather actually... kinda... turned out OK!

Even given Friday's solid downpour (which, to be fair, still cleared by the evening), and a bit of drizzle during Enter Shikari's set on Saturday, Download has been far from the mud-laden wash-out we started to anticipate. There's even been sneaky spots of sun over the three days, and today, come the late afternoon, the clouds disappear for good and Donington is bathed in glorious evening sunshine. Now this is what's it's all about.

Saint Agnes are out for blood

Spitting lines such as 'I got a bigger fucking dick than you’, frontwoman Kitty Arabella Austen thrusts, stomps and thrashes her way through a set of rebellious anthems that make one thing clear – Saint Agnes are out to make their mark. With a wicked, lipstick-smeared grin on her face, she howls between songs and gnaws at the microphone, like a caged zoo animal in search of freedom. As the set progresses she gets even more feral, smashing her guitar and smothering herself in fake blood. Well, why not?

Saint Agnes

(Image credit: Kevin Nixon )

Employed To Serve's new song is crushing

Opening with the mighty Eternal Forward Motion, Employed To Serve are relentless in their quest to banish people’s third-day lethargy, Justine Jones ordering circle pits and flashing smiles between screams. A glimpse into the future comes as she orders us to scream ‘THIS IS HELL’ – a line from their blistering upcoming single, Exist. If the rest of their fourth album sounds anything like this, it’ll be special.

Loathe will be back bigger and better 

Having released a pair of gloriously forward-thinking, challenging and eclectic records in the pandemic era, Liverpool’s Loathe have been tipped by many to be one of the weekend's highlights. Unfortunately, today fate conspires against them. 

Frustratingly, the sound is incredibly unbalanced, with the drums and bass drowning out the guitars and making frontman Kadeem France barely audible at all. Audio levels rise and fall throughout their set, robbing the band of the dense, lush and crushing soundscapes that made I Let It In And It Took Everything such a beloved album last year. Even worse, as the band close with Two Way Mirror, the sound cuts out completely, leaving Kadeem to run through the song alone, acapella, with the audience backing him. 

Loathe

(Image credit: Kevin Nixon)

It’s clear the band are frustrated by this turn of events, but there are still positives to be taken from the day. Loathe look like superstars, throwing themselves around with wild abandon, each member with a clear and distinct style and personality of their own. To be perfectly blunt and basic about it: they just look cool, and the jump to a festival main stage looks utterly effortless. Plus, Loathe have more ambition and creativity than pretty much any other band on the bill today, perfectly merging metal and hardcore with their more ambient and shoegaze-y leanings. And, perhaps most importantly, the crowd adore them. The reception at the end of the set is huge, despite the sound not going to plan; the people that love Loathe really, really love them. They will be back, and when they are, expect them to use this experience as fuel to prove without doubt just how great a band they are. 

The Download Dog loves Elvis

Coming across like the weirdest wedding band you’ve ever seen, Elvana dress in 50s gear and cover Nirvana with snippets of Elvis. Smells Like Teen Spirit elicits a joyous, field-wide sing-along, but the silliest moment is a hip-shaking cameo from the Download Dog during a rendition of Hound Dog. Probably not what the King or Kurt had in mind, to be honest, but the band are proud of it. “We are Elvana from Disgraceland!” bellows ‘Elvis’ as they exit. Sure.

Elvana

(Image credit: Kevin Nixon)

Life is a circus and Jamie Lenman is the ringmaster

Jamie Lenman is a born ringmaster and quickly turns the second stage tent into his own bizarre bazaar. An early guest spot for Wargasm on The Future Is Dead sets things off with a bang and from there the sing-alongs fly thick and fast. It's a delightfully riffy set mostly culled from Jamie's more recent output, the likes of All Of England Is A City, I Don't Wanna Be Your Friend, The Road To Right and Long Gone Day (dedicated to Justine Jones of Employed To Serve and, as Jamie points out, a "Number 1 best-selling single in the UK – on vinyl at least!") showing a muscular prowess that quickly has the tent screaming, bouncing and moshing. 

Jamie Lenman

(Image credit: Kevin Nixon)

By comparison everyone else that has gone before that day feels timid as a church-mouse, Lenman roaring, quipping and generally charming smiles onto every face in the tent. "This is a rock Oval and I'm the motherfucking umpire!" he jokes, clearly thriving on the amassed energy. A thundering extreme metal cover of Popeye (yes, the song from the cartoon) offers a perfect summation of Jamie's idiosyncratic brilliance, mixing humour and genius to great effect. There's nobody else quite like Jamie Lenman in Britain and that is exactly why he is such a uniquely brilliant creative force.

Jamie Lenman

(Image credit: Kevin Nixon)

Massive Wagons remind us that rock is supposed to be fun

"When I say Rogan – you say Mosh!" Massive Wagons are as daft as it comes, a delightfully quirky mixture of classic rock riffs, roar-along choruses and Northern humour. The crowd go absolutely wild for it – bouncing, singing and moshing throughout the set with joyful abandon. MW's sheer exuberance marks the difference between a band that want to replicate the Kiss and Cheap Trick records in their collection and a band who truly understand the underlying spirit that made those records so brilliant in the first place. The decidedly Terrorvision-ish The Curry Song proves to be a highlight of the set, apparently making its live debut 12 months after it first appeared on the brilliant House Of Noise album. Massive Wagons played a tent last time they were at Donington too, but judging from today's performance, it's high time they get their shot at wowing the main stage. 

Massive Wagons

(Image credit: Kevin Nixon)

Download Vs The Wildhearts

The Wildhearts have almost been destroyed many times, but their main stage performance seemingly comes closer than 30 years of misadventures with drugs, mismanagement and Thai prison. A meagre gathering in front of the main stage is the least of the band's problems as they fire through a calamitous rendition of Disconnected, vocalist Ginger Wildheart quite rightly pointing out that they sound "like a bag of shit." They certainly aren't the only band to have played the main stage this weekend to encounter such issues, but when the usually bruising Suckerpunch is left entirely impotent by a lack of guitars in the monitors and absolutely no vocal harmonies, Ginger is done with politely soldiering on. 

"Only The Wildhearts could come out into the new world and sound like a bag of shit," he jokes. "But then, all of this is surreal – I keep expecting to wake up in jail sucking cock!" Brusque words with the sound desk bring things flaring to life for a glorious moment - the one-two punch Everlone and – Vanilla Radio actually have real-life guitars and bring that Beach Boys-by-way-of-Motörhead vibe to life – but it isn't enough to save the show and Ginger's initially jocular manner breaks as he decides to cut the set short, simply stating "this is a waste of time – have a nice day". Ironically, deciding to cut and run rather than continue as a pale shade ends up being the most disappointing part of the performance; a rare instance of the band admitting defeat in a career often characterised by dogged determination and survivalism in the face of disaster. 

The Wildhearts

(Image credit: Kevin Nixon)

Skindred remain the UK's official party band

Let's be honest: there was no fucking way a Skindred main stage set at the first Download in two years was going to be anything other than great. And yet, rocking up just as the sun arrives to send the last of the weekend's dodgy weather packing, there's something that feels more than a little like destiny as Benji Webbe et al arrive to bring the biggest party of 2021 so far. Download is ready for them, and from the opening seconds of Stand For Something Donington is a writhing, jumping, fist-pumping, dancing mass of bodies. It's been an emotional weekend, but there have been few happier moments than Skindred's hour on stage – every single second they're here is pure, unadulterated joy.

Skindred

(Image credit: Kevin Nixon)

Benji remains metal's most lovable frontman and has the crowd cracking up at least once between each song, be it gamely taking sides in a classic 'left vs right' crowd face-off or pretending to ring Boris Johnson to demand permission to begin the Newport Helicopter. Obviously, 'Boris' concedes, shirts and jackets come off, and we get a raucous Newport Helicopter two years in the making. What a moment, what a band.

Bullet are a nostalgic triumph

It'd be daft to say a band as polished and experienced as Bullet For My Valentine weren't up to the task of headlining a festival like this one, but given the wholesome, celebratory vibe of Enter Shikari last night and the pure, raw energy of Frank Carter the night before, it certainly feels like the Welshmen have plenty to do to make their mark on what has been a quite incredible weekend. The early part of their set is solid enough fare, squeezing a live debut for heavy-as-hell new single, Knives, in between two cuts from their somewhat patchy most recent record, Gravity. Knives in particular sounds big, but it doesn't all make for the most awe-inspiring start to proceedings. Still, Matt Tuck and the crew look as assured and at ease as ever on the big stage, and an impressive light show does just enough to give the set a Big Game Feel. 

That said, things really start to kick off when Bullet dip into the classics, firstly for a raucous Your Betrayal and then even more so for hallmark Poison anthem, 4 Words (To Choke Upon). The level-up in atmosphere is immediately palpable, and it sets a precedent for the rest of the set. Because make no mistake about it: Bullet For My Valentine have bangers, and when they start dropping, people lose their shit. After a stretch of tracks picked from across Bullet's post-2010 output, a rollocking Scream Aim Fire kicks off a run of classics that reminds everybody here exactly why Bullet became the most hyped British metal band of their generation. Suffocating Under Words Of Sorrow, Hand Of Blood and Waking The Demon all draw huge responses, but it's unquestionably Tears Don't Fall that steals the set. An anthem that soundtracked a whole generation of rock club nights, it gets one of the very biggest singalongs of the whole weekend, the crowd awash with people moshing, pitting and hugging the ever-loving shit out of each other. It's the final, emotional reminder of what we've been missing in a weekend full of them.

BFMV

(Image credit: Kevin Nixon)

Oh, and we should probably mention the quite frankly ludicrous cover of Iron Maiden's Run To The Hills that gets snuck into this part of the show, featuring none other than Skindred's Benji Webbe on lead vocals, who attempts to read the lyrics off of a scrappy piece of paper before giving up and just making them up as he goes along. It's surreal, it's messy and it's fucking hilarious.

We've missed this so much

All in all, Download Pilot was like many other Download festivals we've had across the years – a weekend of many highs, a couple of lows, and plenty of emotion and catharsis. But there was something truly special about this year, not just because of the pandemic-induced circumstances, but because of the opportunity to have a smaller, more intimate version of Download that celebrated the young bands that have moulded the British rock scene into what it is today. It was a stark reminder of how lucky we've been to see so many amazing artists grow up in this country in recent years, and why now, more than ever, they and the venues they thrive in need our support. What the immediate future holds for live music remains up in the air, but one thing's for sure: we'll never take moments like these for granted again, and the next rock festival cannot get here soon enough. Long live Download. Long live music.

Saturday

Costumes are back!

After a slow start yesterday with only a pair of bananas spotted in the pit, the drier weather brings out the extroverts: Angry Birds, a brace of crabs, dudes in Christmas suits, Disney princesses, mad scientists, a witch, priests, a T-rex, plus a giant shark dishing out hugs. It’s fair to say we felt underdressed, but it's nice to see festival silliness back in full swing.

Lotus Eater aren't here to play gentle

Set off like a rabid badger and with breakdowns that sound like someone chucked a woodchipper down a flight of stairs, Lotus Eater don't tread gently around day two's potential hangovers. Metallic hardcore with an almost supernatural sense for nastiness, the band prove the only true cure for a hangover is RIFFS. We even get a T-rex bouncing around in the pit, proof that even an apex predator can't resist getting absolutely bodied to the thundering beats. There is one emotional moment during the brutality, though, when frontman Paul Collins dedicates a song to his dad who passed away 11 months ago.

Lotus Eater on stage at Download

(Image credit: Kev Nixon)

Conjurer might be too heavy for (this) Download

Download is always a festival that goes to lengths to represent rock in all its forms, but without a Gojira or Neurosis-shaped band on the bill, Conjurer feel a little like the odd kids out as they arrive to take their slot as today's first main stage band. Not that it stops them levelling the place, laying down riff after riff of monstrously heavy post/sludge/doom metal. They remain one of our country's most promising young bands, and if there was any doubt they can command a stage this size – with the right bill, at least – said doubts are noisily put to rest.

Conjurer at Download

(Image credit: Kev Nixon)

Bleed From Within brought the fire

With Download Pilot organised in record time and on a smaller site, we didn’t expect much in the way of production, but Glaswegians Bleed From Within did us proud. Jets of flame punctuated their blistering metalcore, the band finally able to air songs from 2020's mammoth Fracture album, as frontman Scott Kennedy riled up the pits and proclaimed it the best day of his life. Finishing with The End Of All We Know, the flames coincided with his scream of, 'LET THE FIRES RISE!', in the most metal-as-fuck moment of the weekend. We'll even forgive Scott running out for said last track in a Scotland kit. The cheeky scamp.

Wargasm are going places

Given that they don't even have an album out yet, the reaction to Wargasm's animated set is nothing short of extraordinary. The band's relative inexperience together shows at times – this is far from the tightest set we'll see at Download today – but when you have a near-delirious crowd screaming along to every word of Spit and Your Patron Saints, what does it matter? Frontwoman Milkie Way is as ready-made a rockstar as the scene has produced this decade, and if they can curate a full-length record to match the level of their output so far, they could turn into a very special band indeed. Bonus points for the raucous cover of NERD's Lapdance with bonus Metallica Fuel segment thrown in.

Wargasm at Download

(Image credit: Kev Nixon)

A are still rock's most ludicrously fun band

Some grossly uneducated heathens have dared to suggest that former Metal Hammer cover stars (yes, really) A are merely one hit wonders. Shame on whoever reduces one of our most uniquely idiosyncratic artists to this! Today, A prove it to be a nonsense. 

Opening with the Queens Of The Stone Age-meets-Banana Splits robo pop of If It Ain’t Broke, Fix It Anyway, frontman Jason Perry enters the stage wearing a Deliveroo box on his back, swinging his arms and yelping his high pitched yelp like an 80s kids TV presenter. It’s clear that A don’t really take any of this too seriously, but to dismiss them as a gimmick band or a dumb, guilty pleasure is to miss the genuine craft of their songwriting. The layered vocals of Old Folks are pure Beach Boys, guitarist Mark Chapman’s riffs and solos on Monkey Kong are impressive enough to feel like Eddie Van Halen has joined The Bloodhound Gang and the propulsive punk clatter of Foghorn still sounds like Pennywise jacked up on blue smarties and Sunny D. 

It’s all pieced together by the sheer enthusiasm of Perry, who gets the crowd to do an “age appropriate” walking circle pit during a fantastic I Love Lake Tahoe. By the end, even those who were just curious have big, beaming smiles on their faces. 

They also play some song called Nothing. It was pretty good too. One hit wonders? not on your nelly!

A on stage at Download

(Image credit: Kev Nixon)

Vukovi are born performers

"I am shitei-ng myself," Vukovi vocalist Janine Shilstone admits a couple of songs into her band's set in the Second Stage tent. You wouldn't believe it though to hear the excitable response from a crowd that hang on her every word. Every inch a born performer, Janine has a down-to-earth earnestness that cuts right through the usual corniness of crowd-baiting to incite an honest and impassioned response. It's also her birthday, and she celebrates by throwing herself headlong into the crowd. With some excellent bouncy pop rock backing her every move, Vukovi feel reminiscent of the weird and wonderful Marmozets while sounding entirely confident in their own identity. 

Vukovi at Download

(Image credit: Kev Nixon)

Creeper are still theatrical

Stepping out to the tolling of church bells and throwing a single rose into the crowd, Creeper are in full-theatre mode for their second stage headline set. Sparks fly – literally – from the off as the band kick right into Hiding With Boys before launching through a brisk set absolutely rammed with bangers from both of their records, as well as a couple of choice cuts from their EPs (including Midnight, the lead single from the upcoming American Noir). Creeper inspire a sense of passion like few bands can and the atmosphere in the tent is positively lightning-charged as fans howl along to Suzanne, Cyanide, Poisoned Hearts and Crickets (featuring Hannah Hermione in a wedding dress). Stylistically swinging between Misfits/Ramones-style punk-powered ragers to intimate sing-alongs and Britpop-inspired flights of whimsy, Creeper mark themselves as one of Britain's most chameleonic sonic entities, emotions running high as the band throw every trick and flourish in their arsenal into a monumental set.

Creeper on stage at Download

(Image credit: Kev Nixon)

Loz can't resist a good climb

Back in 2014, Loz Taylor made headlines when he scaled a production tower, precariously hanging above the crowd with wild abandon. This year he repeats the trick, to the joy of their devoted crowd. Two months after releasing storming fifth album Sleeps Society, the Sheffielders are treated like returning heroes, with chants of 'YORKSHIRE YORKSHIRE YORKSHIRE' ringing out across a packed field as they tear through their highest-energy material, saving new hits Nervous and Systematic for a glorious finish. For a band who have come back from the brink several times, this was a deserved triumph that will be spoken of for years to come.

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While She Sleeps at Download

(Image credit: Kev Nixon)
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While She Sleeps at Download

(Image credit: Kev Nixon)

Enter Shikari are a national treasure

St Albans' finest export seem like a natural choice for a headliner of this kind of festival, and the rave-punk mavericks do not waste the opportunity to remind us why they are one of the UK's most beloved bands. This is a celebratory, career-spanning set, taking in everything from breakthrough anthem Sorry You're Not A Winner to The Great Unknown, the epic opener from last year's acclaimed Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible. A dazzling light show peppered with bursts of confetti gives the set a big-show feel, and the band are evidently every bit as delighted to be here as we are. "I'm gonna take a few chances to take this all in, if that's alright with you," beams Rou Reynolds. Fine by us, pal. We've waited two years for moments like these. 

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Enter Shikari at Download

(Image credit: Kev Nixon)
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Enter Shikari at Download

(Image credit: Kev Nixon)
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Enter Shikari at Download

(Image credit: Kev Nixon)

Friday

Download brought the weather with it

Some things are just meant to be. After three solid weeks of stunning weather, the day before Download saw the heavens finally open and the UK receive an unholy battering of Noah’s Arc-sized proportions. Prayers that the rain would let up come Download day one went unanswered, but it doesn’t matter – there's a vibe around this site as wholesome as any in this festival’s history. Plus, there is a merciful break in the weather come the evening. Phew.

Covid-era festivals run surprisingly smoothly

One of the biggest questions about Download Pilot was: how the hell is this actually going to work? Even for a smaller capacity festival, ushering in 10,000 people while juggling testing, registration and, y’know, tickets and stuff seems like a big ask. And yet, people stream through, negative tests are registered and there’s no noticeable fuck-ups in the system. Come mid-afternoon, the site is bustling and it feels like a festival in any other era. The lack of social distancing and masks once inside the arena almost feel emotional – it’s as close to a normal music experience as we’ve felt in a long, long time.

A smaller Download site is actually hella cool

Fewer fans and bands means a far smaller festival site, and while it means you don’t quite get the pure spectacle of a full-throttle Download, the intimacy and, quite frankly, the ability to nip between both stages, the toilet and the bar in ten minutes flat is a joy. It creates a unique atmosphere where it’s easier to find people, bump into friends you haven’t seen since pre-pandemic and be spontaneous. We dig it.

Death Blooms are greeted like hometown heroes

Liverpool new-nu metallers Death Blooms take on the honour of being the first metal band to play a UK festival in two summers, and the roar that goes up when they finally stroll onto the second stage almost collapses the whole tent. “Sorry for the silence, I’m trying not to cry,” stutters frontman Paul Barrow in between songs. We don’t blame you, mate – we’re choking back a tear or two ourselves. The Scouse crew put on an imperious showing that brings the bounce, and we get our first mosh pits, circle pits and even crowd-surfers of the pandemic era. Bliss.

Malevolence remain one of the UK’s most underrated heavy metal gems

How are Malevolence not fucking massive already? By far the heaviest band of day one, the Sheffield mob’s mash-up of Pantera-sized groove metal and rollocking hardcore sets the second stage alight. The near-endless run of monstrous riffs and brutalising breakdowns only takes a backseat for a short but heartfelt speech by singer Alex Taylor about the unseen effects of the pandemic. “The last 16 months have been some of the hardest shit we’ve all ever had to endure,” he muses. “It’s ok to not be ok. Let’s look after one another.” It’s an unexpectedly emotional moment, and it hits just as hard as every riff.

Malevolence on stage at Download

(Image credit: Kev Nixon)

Something special is happening for Holding Absence

Since releasing their second album The Greatest Mistake Of My Life back in April, there has been a real sense of momentum building around Welsh post-hardcore rockers Holding Absence. The crowd response is rapturous as they take to the stage and it isn't long until we get our first full-tent singalongs of the weekend. "We've waited 18 months for this point," vocalist Lucas Woodland beams. The emotional connection between crowd and band is palpable, the band often settling back to let their fans serenade them with songs that at this point are barely two months old. It's exactly the kind of thing that Download Festival was built around, and this kind of experience speaks volumes to the intangible weight that a successful set at Donington can lend to a band. If it was good enough for Trivium in 2005...

Holding Absence on stage at Download

(Image credit: Kev Nixon)

Frank Carter is a punk hero with heart

The Frank Carter headlining the Main Stage of the first night of the Download Pilot is not the same man that persuaded an audience to create an enormous circle-pit (in knee-high mud, no less) around the outside of the third stage tent in 2016. Five years hasn't so much softened him as changed the shape of his ire, while The Rattlesnakes' venom is replaced with serpentine sleekness. That said, shades of the old Frank still shine through during his set; not least in the fact Sleep Token have barely finished playing and Frank is already wading through and over the crowd. 

Set to the rhythmic pound of bass and drums (especially potent in the set's early numbers), Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes look to be making a bid for the mainstream while still keeping their punk roots alive. Even older songs like Juggernaut are given a tonal and stylistic re-tooling, toning down some of the aggro aspects while dialling up the anthemic quotient of each song. The crowd seem to absolutely love them for it, and in turn Frank loves the crowd; part bear-baiting, part-ringleader, but 100% showman. Frank even cuts one song off just as it gets going to check on the safety of the crowd – getting everyone to back up and give the front row room to come over and grab a breather if needed.

Not that anybody wants to, mind. One mud-spattered fan even gets Frank checking on her personally, not quite believing she can be plastered in mud but still having the time of her life. "Covered in mud, but alright?" he asks. "There's no good place at a show to take a fucking nap you know!" 

There's a whole heap of Donington spirit to be found in Frank's set, guest appearances from IDLES vocalist Joe Talbot and rock singer Cassyette proving that a reduced capacity event won't get in the way of a good ol' fashioned festival team-up. Frank sets the bar high for the rest of the weekend – but then what else would we expect from the same man that galvanised British hardcore a little over a decade-and-a-half ago?

A photo of Frank Carter on stage at Download

(Image credit: Kev Nixon)