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Reviewed: Download 2017

June 16th, 2017 by Dave

Well, we went, we rocked and we made it back alive – unlike my camping stool, which finally gave way after five years of supporting my increasingly overweight arse. Oh well, such is life. Anyway, why dwell on the negatives when there were so many great performances at Download 2017? Here’s the story of our weekend at Donington Park…

FRIDAY

We head over to the Avalanche Stage to check out M O S E S – four young guys armed with scratchy, punky tunes and seemingly boundless energy. They certainly make the most of their slot, and manage to part the lunchtime clouds in a way that would make their biblical namesake proud. Pretty handy, as BLACKWATER CONSPIRACY kick things off on the Zippo Encore Stage with the kind of bar room rock n’ roll that tips its hat to the southern US, but sounds just fine here at Donington Park.

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SABATON are quite the spectacle, with their tank-shaped drum riser, and all six members clad in black t-shirts and navy-style combats (vocalist Joakim Broden, in particular, looks like he could command a SWAT team as readily as he fronts his band). Initially, strong winds rob the Swedes’ power metal anthems of much of their power, but the sound improves enough to make the closing ‘To Hell And Back’ a suitably grandiose, none-more-epic finale.

Not your cup of tea? Never fear, because CODE ORANGE could not be more different. We can only fear for the Avalanche Stage tent’s foundations, as they unleash discordant, twisted sludge metal riffs and into a danger zone of a pit, co-vocalist Eric Balderose displaying an impressive disregard for his own safety in the process. One of the most uncompromising bands of the weekend, we leave with sore necks and a sense of unease… but then we wouldn’t have wanted anything less.

MASTODON, of course, are no slackers in the riff stakes themselves, giving the Main Stage PA a stern testing with several cuts from recent album ‘Emperor Of Sand’. We’re in the mood for something faster, though, and SUICIDAL TENDENCIES are just what the doctor order. Having last seen them headline the 3rd stage at Download ’07, we’re pleased to discover that Mike Muir still dances like an octopus trying to fight its way out of a giant blancmange, and when he’s not sharing hard-learned life lessons with us, he’s leading ST (now with Dave Lombardo on drums!) through a barrage of skate-core classics that refuse to age.

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Back to the Main Stage, for the debut UK show from PROPHETS OF RAGE. The RATM/Public Enemy/Cypress Hill super group’s debut ‘The Party’s Over’ EP falls some way short of their ‘main’ bands’ best efforts, but when you bring this kind of talent together, you’re always going to get some magic. They wind back the clock in fine style, focusing mainly on Rage songs, with Chuck D and B-Real trading rhymes as forcefully and skilfully as you’d expect from these seasoned veterans. Download 2017 will surely see more savage pits, but it’s doubtful that any other band will make us bounce and – yes indeed – dance like Prophets Of Rage do today, and the closing ‘Killing In The Name’ is no less powerful for being predictable. A triumph all round.

Friday headliners SYSTEM OF A DOWN don’t come close. They too are relying on old songs, not having recorded any new material since 2005, but turn in a disappointingly workmanlike performance, with bassist Shavo’s occasional grins the only sign of a band remotely enjoying themselves. Full credit goes to the crowd, who go nuts throughout, and almost drown out Serj’s vocals on the likes of ‘BYOB’, ‘Sugar’ and (of course) ‘Chop Suey!’
Overall, though, if this is the best System can do live, then they probably shouldn’t hurry back into the studio.

The night ends on a high, though, as we scamper over to the Dogtooth Stage in time to see EXODUS finish a scorching thrash attack, and make a mental note to check out ‘Bonded By Blood’ as soon as we get home.

SATURDAY

Crossfire wakes up around 10am with a mild headache, a rumbling stomach and not much of a plan. DEAD LABEL’s impressively savage death metal bludgeon soon drowns out the noise of aforementioned stomach, but it is the bluesy hard rock of TAX THE HEAT that really hits the spot. Certainly not lacking in confidence, they draw a pretty decent-sized crowd for this painfully early hour, and the fact that the chorus of ‘Under Watchful Eye’ is still rolling around in our heads as we write this is testament to their appeal.

Okay, so CREEPER didn’t attract the legions of dark minions that we’d predicted, but they’re clearly headed for greater things. Like AFI (who are playing on the Main Stage later today), they bring a sense of drama and theatricality to proceedings, but beyond the epic choruses there are bursts of the kind of full-tilt hardcore that made vocalist Will Gould’s previous band Our Time Down Here such a formidable live force. Of course, few traces of hardcore remain in the AFI of today; here’s hoping that Creeper don’t airbrush it out of themselves. London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire beckons in December, and on today’s evidence, they’ll easily rise to the challenge.

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Over on the Avalanche Stage, it’s surprising and heartening to see just how many fans TRASH BOAT have gained; and a passionate and energetic bunch they are too. “This is our second show back in the UK after two months with New Found Glory in the States, and it’s great to be back!” declares vocalist Tobi Duncan, following the melodic post-hardcore blast of ‘How Selfish I Seem’, and if they can keep writing songs this good, they could well steal NFG’s crown one day.

A back drop featuring bananas with swan heads and feet? Bass drum skins with a Fray Bentos pie design? Download is about to take a turn for the silly, courtesy of ALESTORM. Their pirate-themed power metal shenanigans would probably wear thin over the course of a headline set, but for today’s forty minutes, we all grin like village idiots and sing along to some of the best drinking songs of the weekend. Arrrr, that feels good!

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Lunch is calling us, so off we go to find it, and return to the Zippo Encore stage in time to see KVELERTAK feed 70s AOR melodies through a hardcore blender. The Norwegians’ triple guitar attack sounds amazing live, and whilst they deserve the pit that forms down the front, this is a band whose music you sometimes have to just step back and feel.

However, if you’re in the mood for going nuts, MAX AND IGOR CAVALERA are more than happy to provide the soundtrack. The Brazilian brothers are re-visiting Sepultura’s ‘Roots’ album today; not their best record in our estimation, but a lot better and more imaginative than the majority of the nu-metal crowd they were lumped in with at the time. Whipping up a storm with the opening ‘Roots Bloody Roots’, they don’t let up in intensity throughout their set, and a turbo-charged cover of ‘Ace Of Spades’ (in tribute to Lemmy, natch) leaves us breathless.

Time now for something more intricate, in the form of THE DEVIN TOWNSEND PROJECT. We’re more familiar with Mr Townsend’s work as the frontman of industrial/prog/death/whatever merchants Strapping Young Lad, but whereas the latter’s music engulfed you like a sonic tidal wave, the Project slowly draws you in with a heavy yet somehow ambient sound that soothes and punishes in equal measure. Holding our attention as if we’re caught in a musical tractor beam, the band mesmerise without veering off into musical self-indulgence, in part thanks to Devin’s razor-sharp and lightning-quick wit. Superb stuff.

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Biffy Clyro may have drawn the lion’s share of the festival for their Main Stage headline set, but ROB ZOMBIE has brought his trashy industrial metal party to see out the Zippo Encore Stage for the day, and that’s an invitation we can’t refuse. With video screens spewing twisted visuals across almost the entire stage, a generous helping of pyro and riotous renditions of ‘Living Dead Girl’ and ‘More Human Than Human’, this is one hell of an assault on the senses, and Mr Zombie is the consummate band leader of his own frazzled parade. One minute he’s lobbing inflatable aliens into the crowd during ‘Well, Everybody’s Fucking In A UFO’, the next he’s balanced atop the crowd for ‘House Of 1000 Corpses’. Shame he finishes about 10 minutes early, but after a Terminator-strength finale of ‘Dragula’, complaints are few and far between.

SUNDAY

Did we mention that the weather’s been great? An hour or so of drizzle aside, this has been a world away from last year’s ‘Drownload’ washout. You’d struggle to find a friendlier crowd, too; one that’s more than ready with hugs and high fives for kindred spirits.

Fozzy kick things off on the Main Stage with a melodic hard rock vibe, but ultimately pale against the might of ORANGE GOBLIN. Not only do the London quartet have some of the Main Stage’s heaviest grooves, they’ve also got a frontman – Ben Ward – who’s arguably even happier to see us than we are him. Ever a band of the people, they deliver a horns-throwing, foot-stomping, head-banging Sunday sermon of a set, and exit to roars of approval.

Over on the Avalanche Stage, BLOOD YOUTH have a whole lotta angst, but use it to effective ends, whipping the crowd into a frenzy with ‘Making Waves’ and ‘Failure’. The Lincoln quartet seem to have mastered the art of crafting fists-aloft anthems without resorting to saccharine clichés, and the large (and loud) turnout is a just reward.

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The most annoying clash of the weekend for us is DEVILDRIVER vs. IN FLAMES; Dez Fafara’s crew get off to a suitably fearsome start, but ultimately we decide we’d rather have our metal Gothenburg-style. “Ok, here’s some more disco music for you” quips Anders Friden, clearly aware that there are heavier offerings elsewhere on the bill, but ‘Cloud Connected’ and a closing ‘Take This Life’ still have one hell of a sting in the tail.

Those who are craving more industrial metal thrills after Rob Zombie’s set are surely as sated as they’ll ever be once MINISTRY are done with us. It’s easy to wonder just how Al Jourgensen is still alive, let alone stalking the stage like some kind of demented preacher, but it’s impossible to deny the effect the pounding beats and riffs of ‘Psalm 69’ and ‘Just One Fix’ have on the crowd, with a great big slam-dancing mess down the front and pumping fists as far back as we can see. Regarded as godfathers of industrial metal, today they justify that tag, and then some.

The weekend suddenly starts to catch up with me, to the extent that I wander off to find a place to lie down, and promptly doze through half of CLUTCH’s set. Sleeping during a Clutch set – how will I live that down? Answers on a postcard, please. Happily, we can report that the Maryland quartet are still masters of the groove, and – for the most part – keep the musical noodling on a tight leash.

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And then it happens. I am reinvigorated, revitalised, reborn. No, not through coffee (although that did help). SLAYER. Last time we saw Tom Araya’s crew (at Sonisphere 2014), they were hampered by a sub-par sound, and arguably also by the crowd’s expectations of what was their first UK show since the death of founding member Jeff Hanneman. This evening is different.

The sun hides behind a cloud as the intro music kicks in, and as the band rip into a ferocious opening salvo of ‘Repentless’, ‘Disciple’ and ‘Mandatory Suicide’, the crowd goes utterly apeshit in a way that most bands can only dream of. Make no mistake, this is Slayer firing on all cylinders, loud and malevolent as they should be, and delivering an almighty middle finger salute to any notions of comfortably settling in as thrash metal’s elder statesman. This is a band with something to prove, and as Kerry King and Gary Holt trade buzzsaw riffs and squalling solos on the likes of ‘Dead Skin Mask’ and ‘Hate Worldwide’, we feel kind of foolish that we ever doubted them. It’s tempting to imagine that if there was a nuclear holocaust tomorrow, Slayer would probably survive it, write a song about it, and then deafen all the cockroaches with it.

And hey, if that all sounds a bit too sinister for your tastes, consider the added bonus of Tom’s giggling fit midway through ‘Seasons in The Abyss’ – which in turn sets us off. Maybe he saw the girl moshing in a Pikachu onesie.

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As far as we’re concerned, Download 2017 could finish now, but there’s still AEROSMITH to close the Main Stage. In summary: too many covers, and too much blues-rock jamming, especially in the first half. ‘Love In An Elevator’ and ‘Dream On’ still make for a great sing-along, though, and Steven Tyler is a born showman. If this does indeed prove to be their last ever UK show, it’ll have made for a decent Aero-vederci (their words, not mine), and a fitting end to another great weekend at Donington Park. Cheers for having us, guys.

Words: Alex Gosman
Photos: Matt Eachus, Ben Gibson & Ross Silcocks

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