Photo: Paulo Gonçalves
Opening a stage at any festival regardless of its size and stature can be a daunting and towering challenge, even more so when you’re responsible for opening the main stage at the one and only Download Festival. Luckily, Boston Manor (8) both rise to the opportunity and smash it, showcasing their take on pop-punk tinged alt rock with confidence and finesse. Despite the act being atypically associated with the underground circuit it’s simply staggering to see tracks from their 2016 debut Be Nothing sound oddly at home on such a colossal stage. Despite performing on such a stage, their DIY and youthful ethos shines through beautifully in a fashion most subtle, underlining their anthemic structures being presented towards the masses gathered. With the premiere of new single ‘Halo’ showcasing a subtle change in sound that learns towards refined maturity, we may have just witnessed a pivotal point in this young band’s career. A worthy and welcome representative of the UK alt-rock scene.
Cellar Darling (6) have the unenviable task of opening the Dogtooth stage (Download’s smallest) at the festival this year - given they ex-members of folk metallers Eluveitie, it comes as no surprise to find they trade in a folk-heavy sound with Anna Murphy handling hurdy gurdy, flute and others as well as vocal duties. The earthy tones of the hurdy gurdy mix with soaring vocal melodies and sit comfortably atop crunchy guitars; there’s a cinematic feel to the music often evoking images of mountain ranges and beautiful natural landscapes though the instrumentation is light and not overcomplicated. Anna’s voice is truly given space to shine here and the band have a promising future ahead of them.
Following such a serene set is the white-hot, misanthropic aural fury of Plymouth’s Helpless (7) and the band showcase powerviolence in its purest, most extreme form. These are short, scorching blasts of atonality and furious riffing. The band say very little and honestly don’t need to - the music does all the talking for them. Despite only being a three piece the band make some of the loudest, angriest noise of the entire weekend. There’s not a huge crowd - possibly due to an unfortunate clash with fellow hell-raisers Employed to Serve - but the band firmly hold everyone’s attention with their incredibly challenging but utterly compelling noise. Short sets sometimes feel like a band can’t fully hit their stride but Helpless’ knack for writing short, brutal songs works in their favor here and they don’t feel robbed at all. With the strength of their debut Debt only enhanced live, this is a band with a bright, violent future ahead.
Storming on to the biggest crow of the day so far here at the Dogtooth is Savage Messiah (7) who immediately launch into an excellent ‘Blood Red Road’. The crowd are enraptured from the first note here; the band peddle a timeless, classic heavy metal sound that can’t be resisted, drawing grins and furious headbanging from the crowd and band themselves. Talking very little between songs with next to no banter, the band take a no nonsense approach, delivering a killer set packed with songs that invariably get the crowd moving. It’s clear that Savage Messiah’s star is very much on the ascendant, with the tent well and truly packed out and the crowd eating out of the hands. The setlist is culled mostly from excellent new record Hands of Fate but with a healthy smattering of older crowd pleasers thrown in; the new stuff sounds even better live than on record, creating stomping verses and enormous singalong choruses that makes for a rousing, if short, set.
Despite the Avalanche Stage being placed in such a secluded and backwoods area, the masses have truly turned up in force this afternoon for metallic hardcore heavyweights Employed To Serve (9). Threatening and imposing, their mere presence diverges an alarming sense of danger and extremity in which they animate through a strikingly tight and punishing set. Launching into the savagery of ‘Void Ambition’, there’s not a slight moment of respite to be found within this set, with the group laying waste without effort or care. Shrouded in smoke, there’s an air of genuine and legitimate hatred and antagonism within their live sound; an element that many extreme bands strive to achieve but only some obtain. However, this act master such an element, with the sheer bludgeoning grooves of ‘Good For Nothing’ and ‘I Spend My Days’ brutalizing the masses gathered. The bellowing screams of Justine Jones only add volumes to the act’s devastating sound, with her persona amplifying the nihilistic and pessimistic overtones present.
Photo: Caitlin Mogridge
With their roots fully embedded within the global alternative scene, if there’s one act who doesn’t require an introduction this weekend it’s CKY (8). Despite releasing their latest album The Phoenix last year, today was a set concisely containing to their all time hits, with such a set devoted to showcasing the musical contrast and variation within their art. With a care free nature, the funk sensibilities of ‘Flesh Into Gear’ and ‘The Human Drive In Hi-Fi’ blend flawlessly with the more metallic hues and melodies found within ‘Rio Bravo’. However, what’s particularly reassuring is how material from the group’s more older offerings still radiate the sense of youthful and energized vitality associated with their namesake and cult status. Clearly such an atmosphere if infectious, with the devoted down front partaking in jovial aggression, solidifying their status as cult festival favorites.
For those familiar with the work and identity of Andrew WK (8), you can imagine how this set went down. With the clouds above beginning to part, the spiritual lord of the act of partying emerged in trademark white jeans and t-shirt then treated the masses to nothing but buoyant positivity channeled through the art of animated party rock. Vibrant, vigorous and peppy, Andrew WK and his backing band tear through half an hour of compressed and condensed energy whilst delivering a set that is both highly engaging and life affirming, with material from his latest offering You’re Not Alone blending harmoniously with tracks from his energized back catalogue. Whilst an open air environment may have slightly diluted the energy projected, it’s still an explosive and vigorous celebration of life and the music we find within it. Closing with a countdown from 100 for the one and only ‘Party Hard’, Andrew WK doesn’t just know how to whip up a crowd to peak excitement, he’s one of the best in accomplishing it.
Despite the legendary hellraisers Cancer Bats currently whipping up a storm over on the Avalanche Stage, the Dogtooth stage is absolutely rammed to the rafters for Liverpool based collective Loathe (9). Combining enough earth shattering density and heft to make even Meshuggah blush with pliable emotion and melody and hardcore orientated sensibilities, it’s transparent to see why this act have forged an esteemed name for themselves within the UK core based scene. It’s almost if like the group have prospected an untapped sound previously unheard of, with the masses soaking up the dense dynamics presented before them. Tracks from their newly released This Is As One EP perfectly resonate the intense magnitude they’ve become renowned for, with the refined aggression of ‘White Hot’ and ‘Servant And Master’ driving the devoted gathered to a frenzy. In a similar vain to today's main stage openers, this set is undoubtedly a sign of things to come for this act, it’s extremely exciting to see such homegrown extremity flourishing.
Speaking of Cancer Bats (10), these Canadian hardcore upstarts have been around a while now and have consistently churned out massive records and even more insane live shows. Today Bats open with 'Gatekeeper' from latest (and surprise) release The Spark That Moves, Liam bouncing across the stage with wild abandon in front of a tent packed to the rafters. The band immediately follows up with a frankly mental rendition of 'Pneumonia Hawk' off their first record and the band are on absolutely top form. It doesn't hurt that they're celebrating the 10th anniversary of Hail Destroyer, a fact the band gleefully share before raising the roof with the title track that sends the whole place apeshit along with deeper cuts like ‘Pray for Darkness’ as well as stoner anthem 'Lucifer's Rocking Chair' that simply obliterates the place. Closing with the one-two punch of their ludicrously good cover of 'Sabotage' and a barn-burning 'Bricks and Mortar', Bats deliver a perfect set of hit after hit that cements their place as one of hardcore's brightest sparks and possibly Canada's best export outside of maple syrup.
Photo: Sarah Koury
Whilst mid afternoon on the second stage may be a far cry from the towering slots such an artist is typically accustomed to, Jonathan Davies (7) has pulled a crowd mixed with both the devoted and curious. Whilst it may be nothing more than a curious oddity for those seeking the sporadic intensity of the act he’s known for, Davies has distanced himself from the aggressive traits of Korn and presents a refined and inquisitive set that takes influences from a wider musical palate, showcasing a performance that’s sonically unique this weekend. Straying into the exotic world of orchestra world music whilst retaining the traditional dynamics of universally perceived alternative rock, it’s a highly enthralling set but one that doesn’t seem to capture the minds and relatively short attentions of some seeking the aggressive and powerful elements associated with acts playing this weekend. Truly, it’s debatable if an act like this could successfully perform at Download without such a highly loved figurehead at the helm, but either way, it’s an unparalleled set unlike anything else at this festival.
Whilst there’s an air of ambiguity surrounding some acts live, it’s universally known what to expect of The Bronx (8) live. Whilst only a brief experience, The Bronx treat the Avalanche Stage to a condensed history lesson of their extensive career, flinging off hit after volatile hit without effort or struggle. Thrilling, honed and delightfully rowdy, it’s a near perfect demonstration of hardcore tinged punk that doesn't display any of the unnecessary hostilities or foreboding natures associated with the global hardcore genre or scene. Of course, in true vein to the act’s reputation and legacy it’s only a matter of time until vocalist Matt Caughthran is within the crowd, kicking off explosive renditions of ‘Knifeman’ and ‘Heart Attack American’. Whilst this act is more than capable at holding their own on the bigger stages to be found at Download, the intimacy of a tent is truly where the band excels. A kicker of a set from one of the most renowned and crucial hardcore punk bands of all time.
Starting slightly behind schedule on the Dogtooth stage are Igorrr (4) - still sound checking five minutes after the advertised start time, though delays are common at festivals as days go on. They make it on stage shortly after and open with acoustic guitar, belying the chaos about to unfold as they showcase their take on extreme metal. The vocals are an unusual blend of operatic and black metal shrieks accompanied by further acoustic guitar and organ as well as blast beats, furious tremolo riffing and even chugging rhythms and electronica. An utterly odd mix of dance rhythms and black metal, it's interesting from an experimental standpoint but the people who walk in, only to walk out two minutes later say a lot about the difficulty of transitioning such an experimental brand of metal to a live setting.
When Bullet For My Valentine (5) were initially announced as a mainstage sub-headliners, the reception was lukewarm at best. Despite it being 5 years since their last Download appearance, the Welsh act have began to be widely acknowledged as the festival house band, one that is to be expected and predicted. Despite the fact that the group have performed on such a celebrated stage numerous times, the set simply lacks the power, impact and force the band were once renowned for. Whilst the classic from their youth like ‘4 Words’ and ‘Scream Aim Fire’ undeniably remind watchers of the romanticized halcyon days of youthful adolescence, the majority of the reception the act are met with is relatively withdrawn. Even whilst on the cusp of releasing Gravity, their sixth studio release, today feels like the band are simply going through the motions in a monotonous fashion, with only the committed followers at the front presenting any signs of energized emotion being formed due to their take on metal. It’s a shame, Bullet have forged their namesake playing Download over the past decade, so to see them perform once more but appear personally disinterested and reeling off tracks from their career in a banal fashion is ultimately disheartening. With 2 arena shows on the horizon, it’s going to be interesting to see what the future holds for them.
In a way most elitist and ultimately frustrating, there has always been an air of hostility projected towards You Me At Six (8) by the more pompous Download fanatics. However, time and time again the Surrey pop alt rockers have proved the naysayers wrong, with this year’s second stage headlining slot being no different. Anthemic in nature, the infectious passion irradiated by the group is only mirrored by the crowd before them, resulting in a unity of love for pop laced alt rock. Such passion only becomes starkly prominent, as the soaring anthems of ‘Stay With Me’ and ‘Save It For The Bedroom’ wash over the crowd, with every line being shouted back with force and intent. Each track featured and performed builds upon a continuous swing of momentum, with the ever charismatic and alluring Josh Franceschi delivering each line and lyric with near perfect focus and finesse. As the urban stomp of ‘Night People’ makes way for the swaggering swing of ‘Loverboy’, the subtle changes of their growth become apparent, showcasing how the act have refined their concrete pop sensibilities since their youth. Ending with a cheeky shoutout to Mr. Download himself, Andy Copping, You Me At Six not only silence the ever frustrating skeptics, but prove themselves as a Download worthy act once more.
Photo: : Caitlin Mogridge
Tonight the legendary godfathers of grind Napalm Death (8) are destroying the Dogtooth stage; the tent is overflowing and the air of anticipation is palpable as fans eagerly await their arrival. Coming onto a storm of feedback before Barney's distinctive bark cuts through and we are well and truly underway. During our earlier interview Barney was soft spoken but passionate - now the switch has flipped and he is fury incarnate, roaring and growling atop the grinding machine of aural demolition that is Napalm Death. Newer cuts like ‘Smash A Single Digit’ sit comfortably alongside older numbers such as the literally subgenre-inventing 'Scum'. It becomes clear that their longevity stems at least part from their straightforwardness as well as consistency and sheer passion - they simply don't put out bad music, and it all sounds uniquely like them as they have outgrown grind and fused elements of death metal and others to their sound. Their influence on extreme metal cannot be understated and tonight they prove exactly why that is - they have never sounded more urgent, nor more relevant.
After solidifying their status as suitable Download headliners in 2014, the Californian metal titans Avenged Sevenfold (7) have returned to headline once more. Whilst many a skeptic have fiercely debated their right as headliners since then, it almost feels like the act are aware of such a childish debate, ultimately giving the cynics a metaphorical slap in the face by opening with the 8 minute long saga that is ‘The Stage’. Backed by a giant animatronic skeleton and displaying enough pyro to counter Rammstein, the group revel in the lovable cheesiness that is commonly associated with heavy metal, enlivening the Download Festival ethos and ideology in the process. As to be expected, tonight is an extensive snapshot of the acts illustrious career, showcasing their journey from underdogs to global juggernauts of the metal world. As with most festival headliner setlists, the set performed is to be expected, with the live staples of ‘Afterlive’, ‘Welcome To The Family’ and ‘Bat Country’ all being present. However, in contradiction to this, surprise performances of ‘M.I.A’ and ‘Eternal Rest’ do drop the jaws of fans, with the frenzied fretwork of latter showcasing a contrastive yet welcome change of piece of the set.
However, as visually speculator this set is to witness, there are times when the group falter, particularly in the conclusive parts of the set where such issues become prominent. There are moments were the live staple that is ‘Little Piece Of Heaven’ teeters preciously on the verge of collapse and their signature closer ‘Unholy Confessions’ simply lacked the power and vigor it’s typically renowned for. Whilst it’s understandable that M. Shadows may not be able to deliver the vocal power the song demands, the entire closer feels oddly anticlimactic and peculiarly underwhelming. An off night? Possibly, but for a borderline household name to falter in such a dynamic is certainly uncharacteristic and on a more profound level, disappointing. Regardless of such an issue, Avenged have retained their right as Download headliners, and remain an act that embody the Download Festival aesthetic and outlook on life.