The tragicomic concerns of everyday life rarely spill over into the hard-rocking escapist fancy-dress party that is Download, but this year real events intrude to an unprecedented degree. Following recent festival bomb scares and terror atrocities at gigs, security at the gates is tighter than ever, with airport-style scanners and bag searches in effect. But once inside, a mood of sunny euphoria dominates. It is Friday, the morning after the snap general election, and the metal nation’s massed hordes are still reeling in dazed disbelief. Having courted the heavy-rock vote during his campaign, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is rewarded inside the arena with tribute T-shirts and even a name-check or two from bands.
Battles of a more literal kind provide the inspiration for Swedish power metal warriors Sabaton, who storm the Main Stage with a military-industrial pageant complete with its own full-sized tank. “Available from IKEA, flatpack,” jokes singer Joakim Broden, “article number 666”. Broden strikes a rare sombre note by paying tribute to the victims of the recent attacks in Manchester and London, but otherwise there is very little to take seriously about these roaringly melodic pomp-rock Vikings, whose armour-plated Eurovision anthems are delivered with a lusty Scandinavian gusto that is hard to resist.
Silver-haired, straggle-bearded sex wizards Matador may be less visually flamboyant than Sabaton, but their stripped-down set is still full of combustible drama and wild mood shifts. The Atlanta four-piece run the spectrum from fairly conventional grunge-metal in a Foo Fighters vein, to howling, skull-fucking blasts of exhilarating avant-noise sludgecore; an agreeably molten, ungovernable racket.
Meanwhile, over on the Second Stage, a more poppy and funk-heavy musical menu is unfolding. Machine Gun Kelly – aka Colson Baker – is one of the more unlikely Download debutants, but the Ohio-based rapper gets his youthful crowd bouncing with springy beats and agile rhymes. He also sings a winningly slushy duet with a young woman in the crowd, and boasts about his beer-only diet. “A healthy gentleman’s breakfast,” he grins.
Disappointingly, skate-thrash elder statesmen Suicidal Tendencies seem like a spent force at Download. Despite an illustrious history spanning almost four decades and dozens of stellar ex-members including Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo and Stephen ‘Thundercat’ Bruner, these venerable Venice Beach veterans sound stiff and clunky. Their frontman and sole surviving founder member, Mike Muir, spends way too much of this show barking banal anarcho-punk slogans about thinking for yourself and taking no shit from The Man. Okay. But play the hits, dude.
Great expectations hang heavy over Prophets Of Rage, the rap-rock supergroup that yokes together a Mount Rushmore of famous faces from Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy and Cyprus Hill. Playing their first ever British show, these old-school heavyweights open with Black Power salutes and post-election nods to Jeremy Corbyn, who joint frontman Chuck D suggests is “making the UK rage again”. Sharing lead vocal duties with Cyprus Hill’s B-Real, the 56-year-old hip-hop legend is still a livewire frontman, bouncing around the stage with a loudhailer in hand booming out meaty, rock-heavy reworkings of Bring The Noise, Bullet In The Head, Fight The Power, Killing In The Name and more.
In between tearing jagged funk-metal riffs from a guitar emblazoned with the slogans ‘Fuck Trump’ and ‘Arm The Homeless’, sometimes with his teeth, Tom Morello pays tribute to his “fallen comrade” Chris Cornell with a stirring instrumental version of Audioslave’s Like A Stone, which soon has thousands of Downloaders singing along. “He was a good friend and a sweet guy,” Morello says. Unveiling just a single new song in this set, the subtlety-free chest-thumper Unfuck The World, Prophets Of Rage are clearly resting on their laurels here, relying more on brand loyalty than on sonic innovation. But given the musical riches in their shared back catalogues, plus Chuck D’s formidable stage presence, the Dad’s Army of rap-rock radicalism could hardly fail to deliver a knockout show.
System Of A Down are long-time friends and political allies of Morello, although their protest songs are generally more cerebral, woven into baroque tapestries of miasmic minor-key melody, mountainous power chords, sudden rhythmic swerves and jabbering speed-rap interludes. Back at Download for the first time in six years, these Armenian-American avant-metal giants sadly offer no advance teasers from their first new album in more than a decade, which is reportedly now in gestation. But they do deliver a master class in brooding intensity, a headline set almost entirely devoid of the pageantry and pyrotechnics that define hard rock, yet somehow still spellbinding.
Performing on a giant rug, singer Serj Tankian is a little too laid back at first, allowing his Zappa-esque beard to handle most of the showmanship on shape-shifting epics such as Mr Jack, Hypnotize and B.Y.O.B. Even so, System expertly build up a powerful aura of perfume-drenched mystery, creeping dread and queasy beauty, sounding like heavier cousins of Radiohead at times. Behind them a huge, diamond-shaped video screen blazes with looped montages of dancing women, bullfighters, nuns, occult symbols, barcodes, giant cat faces and nuclear explosions. During almost two hours on stage, the band barely break a sweat and rarely engage with the audience, but their majestic Armenian rhapsodies still summon up a dark magic.
“Look at the sky!” yells Mikee Goodman, SikTh’s dreadlocked impression of Zach De La Rocha having a baby with Imhotep, birthing screams included. We don’t want to look at the sky. “Look. At. The. Skyyyyyy!” he implores, ‘singing’ from the very bottom of his bowels. We don’t want to, the sky scares us. The last time Download and the sky had a row, it shitted a dozen or so Olympic-size swimming pools of water on us inside a couple of minutes. Just leave the sky out of this.
“Lookattheskyyy-ah!” Mikey insists. We look at the sky. It is threatening, but thus far merciful. We guess, with Belzebub so busy tipping his evil works hand-over-fist into the White House, that he feels no need to belch forth the slimy hellpits upon Donington Park again this year, turning walls of death into It’s A Knockout and ‘steampunk stilt-walker’ into the hardest job in rock.
Which makes it far easier to do the Manic Moshpit to Watford prog metal pioneers SikTh and their mathsy, foam-mouthed poundings, interspersed with bursts of heavy artillery bass and the sound of nearby aeroplanes taking off, just in case Download needed more feedback. With Goodman’s throat-scouring growls offset by epic rock choruses from co-vocalist Joe Rosser – a man who looks and sounds like he’s arrived direct from a board meeting at Durst Tower – and the time signature of every song leaping around like a malfunctioning Dr Who DVD, it often feels like SikTh are playing seven entirely different songs at once, but that in itself makes for a compulsive and riveting spectacle. They’re ultra-inclusive, too: “This goes out to any warmongering, hateful fucks!” Goodman says before piling into 2004’s Flogging The Horses. Cheers! Hold our drone-strike trigger, we’re off for a crowd-surf!
Those Downloaders entering their 36th hour of cans for Corbyn, meanwhile, have amassed at the Second Stage to watch Alestorm, those woozy booze-hounds with their jig-rock promises to “drink your beer” and punch “fucking wankers… right in the balls”. With their reeling pirate-metal shanties about landlords of questionable parentage and barmaids of questionable morals, they’re basically The Levellers after 12 flagons too many. Great fun, but in terms of serious critical attention, we think you’ve had enough now, mate.
Which brings us to the eternal Download Saturday afternoon dilemma: go watch the buzz-band of the day – this year Of Mice And Men, delivering cataclysmic emo savagery on the Main Stage – or the one with the most ludicrous name? And so it comes to pass that we find ourselves enduring California’s Suicide Silence on the Second Stage, a band with a name reminiscent of the most awkward moment in any first date. A standard bunch of one-note deathcore hair-flingers, they’re notable (and notably rubbish) for singer Hernan Hermida’s inimitable take on the classic goblin squeal. His lyrics could be full of incendiary political diatribes, but the message is dampened by the horde of chipmunks clearly trying to claw their way out of his stomach via his larynx.
Twenty years on the Vans Warped tour has helped Coheed And Cambria perfect their ultimate festival set, offsetting their more Floydish prog opera pieces with hefty dollops of 80s MOR pop metal early on. Claudio Sanchez, despite the tragedy of being born made of hair from the neck up, plays his double-necked guitar behind his head as he spins and slams his way through a compulsive, upbeat barrage of melodic rock – Mother May I could even have been co-written by Hall & Oates. Yes, their intrinsic tricksiness means they skirt around some open-goal hooks at times, but they’re still more vital today than all those times they filled a festival set with songs called Going On For Aeons XVII: Arse Falling Off.
As A Day To Remember set about concocting the perfect amalgam of stampeding Pixies rock, teen-friendly pool-side pop and brutal landslide metal on the Main Stage (“We got a taste for blood,” howls Jeremy McKinnon on Exposed. Yes, and glitter too), it’s over to extreme noise stalwart Devin Townsend, with his latest Project, who has kindly agreed to review himself. A set of “incredibly awkward, romantically inclined progressive heavy metal” that opens with “a bit of cheesy hand clapping” and ends with the crowd united into “one big hippy family”, he says, forgetting only to note how brilliant and monumental his intensity tsunami is. Stormbending, complete with some almost balletic finger-tapping, appears to be applying for inclusion in the Cloverfield canon – somewhere in the depths of the earth, some vindictive ancient god is stirring after centuries of slumber, wondering why someone’s playing their wake-up-and-kill-everyone song.
As the set grows ever more Wagnerian on Kingdom and the euphoric melodies of Supercrush! shine through the wall of noise, Townsend is his own comic counterfoil; he sings like the bastard metal love child of the Phantom Of The Opera and Shirley Bassey, tries to play percussion on a security guard’s groin and calls the Queen a “quilf”. Glorious, hilarious brutality. In the front row someone waves a papier-mache severed head in his honour.
Tat’s oot and topless atop the Main Stage bill, Biffy Clyro prove yet again that they’re expanding into their role as festival-owning rock titans. Slotting the anthemic Wolves Of Winter from last year’s Ellipsis album ahead of the trademark spike trap attack of Living Is A Problem Because Everything Dies (tonight featuring a tribute snippet of Walk This Way), they revel in the fact that each new record provides fresh festival-pleasing fodder. Statuesque tunes like Biblical (a song so catchy that in an alternative universe it’s on the Mary Poppins soundtrack) and Sounds Like Balloons bolster Biffy’s standing immensely, and they own Saturday at Download like cats own the internet.
Which is not to take anything from Rob Zombie, who turns the Second Stage into a Flaming Lips gig in Silent Hill. Not only does undead glitter cowboy Zombie look like Wayne Coyne has turned to the Dark Side and joined Slipknot, but his stage show is also a psychedelic grindhouse spectacular. As circular screens pump out visuals of topless 60s go-go girls, B-movie monsters and devils shrouded in hellfire, Zombie’s Rocky Horror band of freaks – check out the twisted licks of veteran fretboard-fiddler John 5 with his neon teeth and goo-filled guitars – pump out sleazy glam (Dead City Radio…), sadistic southern rock’n’roll (Superbeast), graveyard shagging tunes (Living Dead Girl) and charming tributes to that special psychopath in your life (The Hideous Exhibitions Of A Dedicated Gore Whore).
Whether Zombie is slipping a cover of The Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Bop into the middle of a visceral Thunder Kiss ’65, blasting out balloons and bubbles over the bubonic blues of House Of 1000 Corpses or sending a couple of inflatable aliens crowd surfing to celebrate the way that Well, Everybody’s Fucking In A UFO has finally got the majority of his Download crowd to openly come to terms with having been abducted and had “a large metal implement inserted into your rectum by an ET”, this is a dazzling carnival of corrosive chaos. Consider Download destroyed.
Orange Goblin are beautiful golden gods masquerading in the forms of men. Their every molten sludge riff is hotter than any sun, their most shite-encrusted denim stud is more wondrous than the Cullinan diamond, and they are without doubt at the forefront of a new and unexpected global uprising in the new wave of the new wave of the new wave of British heavy metal. They are – and this has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that they crowd-funded lost wages for the staff of this very magazine during our recent ‘hiatus’ – by far the best band that has ever existed in this or any other universe. And yes they can put that on the posters.
Ahem. Across the park from where The Goblin are vigorously cracking The Devil’s Whip and making Cities Of Frost sound like the sort of song you’d use to gee up your orc army to march on a dystopian fortress, in the Dogtooth tent London prog-metal newcomers Brutai are making their first Download appearance, shooting for the melodic metal heartlands of Mallory Knox and their ilk with first single Deep and hitting dead on. And over on the Second Stage, Liverpool’s Anathema are proving an anathema to the head-crushing noise, with their pleasant prog shoegaze atmospherics and swelling post-rock sea-churns that smack as much of the Moody Blues as they do Mogwai. At least, that is, until they unleash electronic skitterbeats and delve into Radiohead-ish gloom on Distant Satellites, still forging forward 25 years on.
At which point Classic Rock attempts to conduct an evening-long, one-man wall of death stretching the length of the site. From the crude yet inspired Tap-meets-Blink spandex parody that is Steel Panther, shrieking songs about ‘backdoor’ sex and living the debauched rock’n’roll lifestyle of Tiger Woods, going on about blow jobs and for a full hour and promising to diddle our girlfriends in the back of our own cars (joke’s on you, fellas, we rock the N29 bus) on the Main Stage, we race past the arena of medieval knights twatting each other with axes, to the Second Stage where Clutch are pounding out hypercharged trucker punk and decapitation blues like Led Zeppelin brought back from the grave with a hypodermic of biker speed direct to the primal brain stem. Rump-rattling stuff.
Hanging around to choke down a solid chunk of Opeth’s earnest music-of-the-ancients doom prog peopled by sorcerers, murderers and, um, harvesters (of souls, presumably, not basketed chicken), we tear back across to the main arena where Steel Panther’s all-female stage invasion is giving way to a monsoon of stadium metal hitting the stage in the form of Alter Bridge. Driven by jackhammer bass and Myles Kennedy’s timeless Axl yowl, their powerful, Creed-refined onslaught is developing more space and grandeur on newer songs like Cry Of Achilles, but it’s still the churning chunder of Isolation and the arpeggiated violence of Blackbird that dominate their set, the latter coming on like a demolition crew ripping out the stairway to heaven to install an escalator.
Che-yaaaarge! Back to the Second Stage, where Slayer are being greeted with a mosh-itchy reverence befitting their legend. Still boasting superhuman speed-metal skills well into their 1012th year together, they’re the wizened old warlocks of thrash and mellowed with age. “It’s great to see so many smiling faces being hit on,” a grinning Tom Araya between songs concerning suicide and fights to the death. Between songs he’s kindly rock uncle; mid-song, merciless melter of face. On your knees, Steel Panther. No, not for that.
Stopping briefly at the Avalanche tent to catch the Dillinger Escape Plan’s Greg Puciato twitching and ranting through his demented emotional epics, we finally ricochet back to the Main Stage just as the life and times of Aerosmith parade across the screens to the bombastic tune of Carl Orff’s O Fortuna (the Old Spice ad music, in old money). For tonight’s headline set marks the UK arrival of Aerosmith’s Aeroviderci tour, their kind-of-but-not-really farewell outing due to run until they either cark it or run out of road.
From either side of the ego ramp step the one-time Toxic Twins, having clearly been rummaging in Keith Richards’s dressiest dressing-up box – Joe Perry the heroin cleric, Steven Tyler the LGBT Gandalf. And if tonight really is goodbye, they see us off with a performance worthy of their drug-fuelled youth. Although when Tyler disappears behind a speaker stack during Love In An Elevator, you suspect he’s taking his back medicine.
There’s a whisky-pumped strut to bar-room rock’n’roll openers Let The Music Do The Talking and a thrusting Young Lust, a passion to rock’s best prom slow dance Cryin’, a brazen ballsiness to Livin’ On The Edge that sixty-somethings rarely carry off. Perry pads the set with a couple of Fleetwood Mac blues numbers (Stop Messin’ Around, Oh Well), and he and Tyler take to stools for country stomp Hangman Jury, but they’re forgivable indulgences considering how much febrile oomph they still pack into 1973’s Mama Kin, as fresh and fiery as the day they first snorted it out.
Rather than a mere cheque-cashing dash through the hits, the set celebrates Aerosmith’s impact on the generations, from the psychedelic 70s magic of Sweet Emotion and Dream On – performed by Tyler on a white baby grand piano out on the ego ramp with Perry stood on top – to the 80s rock behemoths Dude (Looks Like A Lady) and the 90s soundtrack stealers of I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing, which sees Download instantly shed its hard-nut exterior and weep like Rylan in a dust storm. The set, and this year’s Download, ends with arguably their most influential song, Walk This Way, the rock tune that helped break rap into the mainstream and cemented Aerosmith’s pan-cultural legend. While the croak has set in for many of their era, they still do it justice. Let’s hope it’s just Aer-revoir.