The two words on everybody's lips leading up to Download Festival 2017 were 'safety' and 'weather'. The former due to the recent events was fair comment. As I drove towards the site on Friday morning I was greeted by an armed Land Rover parked on the central reservation flagged by two heavily armed police men, making a very public show that they were ready to act if needed. And the security guys were on the ball with thorough searches of everybody as they entered the site. Nobody grumbled in the queues as they understood the need.
The latter word due to the weather which has notoriously dogged this festival almost every year since it began in 2003. So much so that's it's adopted moniker has become 'Drownload', thanks to torrential downpours and flooded campsites on many occasions. Again remedy was in place with improved drainage dug across the site this year by the organisers. These guys are completely on the ball and don't seem to have missed the detail in any corner of the site.
So where to start with my Download debut? Well I'm English so it has to be the weather! It was decent most of the weekend with plenty of sunshine giving me a healthy red glow on my face and neck, with just one shower over the Friday night as we slept. Several people commented about this bizarre situation, especially those dressed for the apocalypse complete with wellies, maks and umbrellas. Even the lead singer of Swedish metal band Sabaton said between songs on the goliath main stage he couldn't believe that it took their eighth appearance at the festival to finally see blue sky. But it wasn't perfect weather either, with a good amount of grey cloud skudding accross the sky, and I needed my hoody a couple of times, but where else would you want to spend the second weekend of June than at the wonderful Donnington Park watching some of the finest metal and hard rock bands on the planet?
Mentioning bands, let's talk the headliners; First up on Friday night were the incredible Armenian/American alternative hard rock giants System of a Down, a band I'd never seen live. Often a Marmite band, as one who loves a bit of black yeast extract I thought SOAD utterly nailed their set. They have a unique style and sound, and after so many years in the business they know how to work a crowd and managed to squeeze an impressive 31 songs into their set.
Second up, the Saturday night saw the controversial booking of Biffy Clyro. "They're not metal" seemed to be the complaint, not helped by the fact they said in a TV interview that they didn't even realise they were playing the festival this year?! A fairly spacious crowd meant the crowd had voted with their feet and stayed at the other stages or in their tents. It was a shame as they happen to be one of my favourite bands and gave a blistering performance, aided by their amazing 3D stage set up which I was lucky enough to also catch at Reading last August. Biffy not being given enough of a chance by the majority is my only gripe of the weekend towards the wonderful metal community.
Finally the Sunday night saw the final ever UK performance by rock legends Aerosmith. What can I say? I thought they were pretty terrible myself, but the humungous crowd disagreed as they lapped up cheesy anthem after cheesy anthem. I guess the sight of a bunch of very old men on a stage trying desperately to convince us they've 'still got it' is ok to most, but I think they should have given up decades ago, alongside the Rolling Stones, but let's not go there.
Maybe I was tired (I was tired), maybe I just needed a proper bed and a wash, who knows. But I wished Aerosmith had played mid afternoon, with one of the better and more relevant bands getting top billing.
That leads me on to some advice I'd like to give to those reading this with a view to attending this amazing festival in 2018. The camping. As one who was very fortunate to be granted a pitch on the media campsite I got a very blinkered experience of it, but the toilets were decent and we even had free use of six shower cubicles. However. And this a big 'however'. I hadn't taken into account the adjacent East Midlands airport, and the fact Donnington Park is directly underneath the path of the planes as they take off, very, very noisily, every ten minutes or so up to approximately 1am, and beginning again at what seemed like 5am. If this type of thing does not bother you, or you're expecting to consume enough alcohol to get a gorilla drunk and pass out in your tent, then great. But if you're a miserable old bastard like me then think about bringing some earplugs.
Now for some words on the site itself. I think it is very well thought out and the organisers have made use of some natural dips in the ground to place the two big outdoor stages, giving the crowd great views of the bands. The main stage sees a gradual slope moving away from it for a good two hundred metres meaning even at a distance you can plonk a chair down, or sit on the grass (or probably mud!) and enjoy the bands on the three giant screens. And the second stage, or The Zippo Encore Stage as it was known this year, is in a dip up the hill to the left of the main stage again meaning you will probably get a decent view of the stage, albeit with much smaller screens.
The fourth stage, or the Dogtooth Stage, is in a vast blue tent right at the very top of the hill with a view of the main stage in the distance, and hosted some up and coming bands, alongside some very decent, harder or alternative bands . And lastly, but definitely not leastly the third stage, or the Avalanche Stage, is right at the far end of the site in another big ol' tent, past the Zippo meaning it is a decent trek, but one well worth making to see more excellent bands.
As I was lucky enough to have a media pass with access to the photography pits in front of the third and fourth stages I spent most of my time in them, and between them. So many miles were racked up. Which reminds me, check out all my photos which have been uploaded on this site in the gallery!!
So which bands did I get a chance to shoot? So many, and I won't bore you with a list of them all but hopefully you'll recognise a few from the gallery. For now I'll just give you the highlights including a band who were new to me live, but not to the many younger metal heads wearing their T-shirts over the weekend; The Dillinger Escape Plan who headlined the Avalanche Stage on the Sunday night, closing it out. And I understand why as they were utterly brutal and flayed the skin off the faces of anybody close enough to the speakers with their hardcore punk/metal core assault. I'm surprised the tent stayed up to be honest. Their super energetic performance under minimal lighting made them extremely difficult to shoot, but I got a couple of good ones including lead vocalist Dimitri Minakakis diving into the crowd, and one of bonkers guitarist Ben Weinman jumping off a speaker at the back of the stage, getting a good five feet of air.
I thought I had seen it all, but clearly not as TDEP have a punishing sound which even had some of the hardest looking punters turning round to their friends giving their best 'what the f*ck?' faces. I lost count of the amount of crowd surfers being chucked over the barriers in front of the stage and being whisked past me by security, just to dive back into the tribal, crazy mosh pits. Pure insanity.
Speaking of insanity, check out Code Orange some time. They are terrifying. Their main vocalist Jami Morgan is also the drummer, with centre stage being dominated by bassist Joe Goldman. A crazy, giant bald guy with a ginger beard. He charges across the stage like a Viking berserker. If he was armed with anything other than a bass guitar I'd have left the tent and not looked back. And then there is the fearsome Reba Meyers. She is their guitarist and occasional vocalist who well and truly holds her own against her vicious looking band mates. Excellent band.
Over at the Dogtooth Stage I caught the spooky Wednesday 13, the former Murderdoll front man and his band of ghouls. His website describes him as a purveyor of balls-out horror punk insanity, spreading his credo of grave-robbing rock n roll debauchery across the globe. Couldn't have put it better myself, and I'll be having nightmares for months. Check out the gallery as I got a few good snaps of them, and kudos to them of being one of very few bands over the weekend who allowed us photographers to shoot their entire set.
Also in the Dogtooth I caught the extremely heavy British punk-metal band Krokodil. Their lead vocalist Simon Wright dominating the stage, screaming throughout the full hour long set. It was extreme stuff, and I enjoyed every second. Again, some decent shots were taken as they covered every inch of the stage.
At the Zippo Encore stage I enjoyed the full set by Devil Driver. Formed after Coal Chamber dissolved, they are metal through and through. Some say Nu-metal, some say death metal. Either way they are technically excellent and delivered great head banging guitar riffs, awesome drumming and ferocious vocals. It was great just to watch them from the periphery of an utterly savage mosh pit without the pressure of taking any photos (well a couple from a distance) and just take it all in.
On the Sunday I was lucky enough to do the same thing with Slayer too. They can truly deserve to be called legends after pretty much inventing thrash metal in the 80's and did what they do best; delivered a perfect, heavy, merciless set whilst Kerry King shredded his guitar and Tom Araya screamed, as well as offering some heartfelt messages between songs.
Finally the main stage lower order. To be honest I didn't spend too much time there as I didn't have access to the photography pits and the permanent vast crowds meant I couldn't get too close to the bands, but I did stop for a while to enjoy Pierce the Veil (future headliners for sure), Swedish legends Sabaton, the brilliant Mastadon and AFI.
But the highlights were Five Finger Death Punch (also potential future headliners) who were probably the most enjoyable band of the weekend musically for me as well as gaining big brownie points for mocking pop weasel Justin Bieber, and Prophets of Rage who delivered my favourite song of the weekend; Killing in the Name of, which of course they are allowed to being comprised of members of Rage Against the Machine, Cypress Hill and Public Enemy. Two bands I didn't know much about last week but who I will now add to my Spotify list and check out properly.
And an honourable mention to Steel Panther who were brilliant and hilarious on Sunday afternoon in the glorious sunshine. Their between song banter is the best in the music business, and they offered the second Justin Bieber diss of the weekend by professing their desire to kick him in the balls. Good for them. You must check them out live some time as they will thoroughly entertain you, as well as deliver some excellent 80's style stadium rock.
So what were the people like? Well, it is difficult to generalise 80,000 of them/us. Obviously there were armless denim jackets-a-plenty covered with badges of favourite bands, horned helmets, coloured and spiked hair, band hoodies, gothic makeup, the occasional zombie and a million tattoos. This would be enough to terrify most straight laced suburban types. But as so often in life the scariest looking people are the biggest teddy bears. I honestly have never been to a friendlier festival (and I go to Latitude every year). I enjoyed many conversations with all kinds of people over the weekend, and shared plenty of good natured banter too. Their aggression was released in the mosh pits and on the stages, with none aimed towards other punters as far as I could see. The atmosphere across the entire weekend was completely welcoming to all.
If you love your music on the head banging end of the spectrum this is the festival for you. All types of metal and hard rock are covered, with a bit of punk thrown in for good measure. Yes every fence seemed to be a urinal, yes there were some highly intoxicated kids vomiting here, there and everywhere, and yes the occasional tooth was knocked out whilst crowd surfing. But this began as a metal festival, and despite the recent growth of the VIP camp sites and stalls selling ostrich burgers, it remains a proper metal festival visited every year by proper metal heads who want to let off some steam. Over the years every decent metal band on the planet has played there, and it is considered by the artists as THE best metal festival on the planet. You just can't consider yourself to be metal if you haven't experienced Download Festival at least once.
Published on 16 June 2017 by Paul M. Jones