by Howard Keogh – Cardio King of Rock N’ Roll
Over the last few balmy summer weeks, the countryside of the east midlands has enjoyed an expectant air of serendipity. Birds sing, as the gentle summer breeze whispers through the long grass however the stillness is destined to be short lived. Soon a legion of metal-heads is set to march upon this sacred
ground where many of their predecessors have gone before, for this undulating English countryside is none other than Donnington Park where thousands of rockers assemble to pay their personal homage to the rock gods.
This site has hosted rock festivals since 1980 and has become synonymous with hard rock and heavy metal music. In more recent times the gathering has rebranded itself under the Download name and today attracts musicians across the board from across the spectrum from those looking for a break, to the behemoths of rock and metal. Five stages all running in parallel poses the fan with a conundrum in deciding what acts to watch with a delectable selection to choose from.
Day 1 – Friday
Our Friday begins with Cellar Darling who comprise the phoenix that rose from the ashes when Eluveitie broke up in 2016. Eluveitie were Switzerland’s most successful venture into the world of metal, having toured extensively. Cellar Darling however take a different approach with a more folky feel, interspersed with epic riffs. This forms the perfect platform for singer Anna Murphy to showcase her multi-instrumental talents on vocals, hurdy-gurdy, and flute. The set today includes "Avalanche" from their 2017 album This is the Sound. This song gives away the bands roots as we are treated to a little yodeling.
Next up on the main stage is Dragonforce who have just released their seventh album Reaching into infinity and today’s performance is only their second show of 2018. We are treated to the single "Judgement day” from the new album, and singer Marc Hudson announces that the band are filming the whole set. In a uncanny twist of fate however, the set is plagued by technical issues. Hermann Li‘s guitar issues force him to leave the stage leaving the remaining band members to amuse the crowd. Things deteriorate further as there are even threats of showing the crowd the second guitarist’s "thing" and a chant "Show the thing" ensues. Hermann returns just in the nick of time with sound. The band make a good recovery on "Carry on" with bassist inverting his bass to reveal a f*** off sign, however as for the video footage, well…sometimes things just don’t go your way.
London based band Savage Messiah are next up on the Dogtooth stage. After an extended sound check the strains of "The day the music died" filter through the speakers as their intro. Their set features the song "Scavengers of mercy," and the crowd reacts well to their classic metal sound. The band join Exodus this summer for a number of dates across Europe.
Volbeat make a welcome return visit to Download as part of their current tour. Their main stage appearance has attracted a huge crowd, and we are treated to a great set which includes “The devil’s bleeding crown,” “Lola Montez,” and “Sad mans tongue,” which serves as a tribute to the late Johnny Cash, who along with Elvis, were huge influences on the band. After asking if there are any Danes in the audience the band launch into "For Evigt." Later, Barney from Napalm death, (who apparently was asleep in Volbeat’s dressing room when they arrived onsite) comes on as guest vocals on “Evelyn.” This evenings set also includes gems like "Black rose" and "Seal the deal."
Finally Avenged Sevenfold put in a polished performance, with an elaborate set to the delight of the crowd. The backdrop shows scenes of bombers dropping bombs on poppy fields, while during "Hail to the King" a massive inflatable effigy of the skeletal remains of a former regent rises from behind the speaker stacks. The song is dedicated to England, who embraced the band at the start of their career.
The set also includes moving film footage of former member of the band Jimmy The Rev. Sullivan, who sadly passed away in 2009. He tells how it felt like the band were pitted against the whole world, and that they all loved each other and their camaraderie saw them through. This performance is as mature and accomplished a set as you will get from any band headlining a major festival.
Day 2 – Saturday
Proceedings are running a little late this morning, as the Von Hertzen Brothers take to the Zippo encore stage opening with the “War is over” the title track from their 2017 album of the same name. This Finnish band, formed in 2000 have carved out a niche for themselves, with complex vocal harmonies backed up by powerful riffs creating a unique and individual sound. As their set is cut short due to delays, they play some older material that has had some UK airplay. "Flowers and rust" is pumped out followed up with the foot tapping finale “New day rising” which ends their set all too soon.
Monster Truck bring their infectious brand of Southern rock to the main stage, opening with "Don’t tell me how to live," followed by some new material "She’s a witch," and the recently released "Evolution." Their singer Jon Harvey announces a new record, “True Rockers” which is scheduled for release on Mascot records September 14th, and from it they play the title track "True rocker," which is well received by the crowd. The new album features a guest appearance by Dee Snider, former front man with the sadly missed Twisted sister. The band return to Europe for more dates in November and will end the year with a selection of dates across the UK in December.
Over on the Avalanche stage we just have time a few songs from The Faim, a good pop rock band hailing from Perth, Australia. They are currently on a whistle stop debut tour of Europe before heading home to Oz for a series of concerts there. The band have expressed their delight at managing to secure an appearance at Download, saying that they never dreamed it could materialise. They play a good set but a heavily bass laden mix does their sound no favours. Nevertheless, these guys are ones to watch, as they are on a rapid upward trajectory.
Thunder add another appearance to their long list of Download shows this year. A huge crowd have assembled to hear their clean brand of classic rock. Early in the set we are treated to a master-class in guitar ably provided by Luke Morley. The set rattles out many old favourites like "Higher ground," "Love walked in," "Low life in high places," and "Dirty love." Mid set Danny Bowles takes time out to wish the bands long time soundman Pete Russell a happy 74th birthday.
The next act on the Zippo encore stage are Japanese band Babymetal, who are a bit of an enigma. It is not clear whether it is the rise in Japanese gaming culture, cartoons, and music, or the attraction of pretty girls dancing onstage in short skirts is responsible for their popularity. But love them or hate them, they have a massive fan-base. The concept of the band is based around Japanese idols and a fox god who passes messages to the band who then in turn pass them on to humanity. The concept has been hailed as ground breaking by some, while others have dismissed it as a transient phase, however it doesn’t seem to be going away. The acrobatic antics of the girls is backed up by relentless churning metal provided by the backing band, whose make up adds to the whole feel of being immersed in a computer game that has become real.
Saturday night’s headliners Guns ‘n’ Roses start their set early in beautiful sunshine. Opening volleys include the classics from the Appetite for destruction album, like "It’s so easy," "Mr. Brownstone," and "Welcome to the jungle," which is extended to give Slash a chance to strut his stuff. This trip to Download marks the 30th anniversary of the band’s last performance in Donnington. That occasion was unfortunately tinged with great sadness after an incident during Guns n Roses set where tragically two fans lost their lives and we were sadly there in 1989 to witness the terrible event. The set list loses some momentum with extended versions of some songs becoming tedious. Further classics are rolled out including "You could be mine", "Civil war" and "Sweet child o’ mine". Axl Rose‘s voice sounds strained at times and "November rain" is delivered from the most ridiculous prop which comprises a piano stool in the shape of a Harley Davidson motorcycle. "Knockin’ on Heaven’s door" and “Night train" are there also, however the set feels a little stop-start. Perhaps it may have been better to cut the set length and roll out Appetite for Destruction in its entirety. But then things are never straightforward when Axl is involved, as apparently the rider for the show included a Porcelain toilet and silky soft toilet paper. Guns ‘n’ Roses release a special Appetite for destruction anniversary pack on June 29th. Available in a number of formats the pack comprises a whopping 73 tracks 49 of which are previously unreleased material. Proceedings are brought to a rapturous close with "Paradise city."
Day 3 – Sunday
Sunday morning sees the eagerly anticipated Greta van Fleet arrive on the Zippo encore stage for their set. The band who hail from Michigan were formed in 2012 and comprise three brothers Josh, Sam and Jake Kiszka and Danny Wagner on drums. They take their name from a little old lady in their home town and their music is reminiscent of classic Led Zeppelin. Some critics have said the similarities are too much, however judging from the assembled crowd, there is still a healthy appetite for this type of music. They have even stirred the interest of festival organizer Andy Copping who watches intently from stage side. Before launching into "Highway song," vocalist Josh Kiszka tells the crowd he hopes there is some coffee in their beer. Next up is "Safari song," during which we are treated to a guitar master-class courtesy of Josh’s twin Jake. Closing your eyes you time travel back to the hey-day of a certain Jimmy Page. We also hear the single "Black smoke rising" from the 2017 debut EP of the same name. The bands’ short set even squeezes in some overhead guitar playing and a drum solo. These guys are on a rapid rise to fame and play dates in both the UK and Holland before returning to the U.S. Catch them if you can!
The bright sunshine may not be exactly appropriate for the next act on Main stage Cradle of filth rattle off favourites like "Heartbreak and séance" and "Born in a burial gown" as all the while guitarist drools down his beard and stares menacingly at the crowd. During the set, Jesus pays a visit to stage, courtesy of a crowd surfing fan, dressed in flowing robes. He even gets a welcome from vocalist Dani Filth. Come to think of it, this is one of the most entertaining parts of the Download ambience and spirit of good fun. People take the trouble to dress for the occasion as throughout festival so far it has been possible to bump into, Dorothy, tin man, and the wicked witch of the west, a complete American football team in full uniform, three Umpa lumpas from Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, to name but a few. The set is brought to a close with the atmospheric "Nymphetamine," which features the wonderful voice of Lindsay Schoolcraft.
Dead cross play the next slot on the Zippo encore stage. The band features Dave Lombardo ex Slayer on drums and Mike Patton formerly of Faith no more but do not expect either bands influences to shine through. The vocal style is raw and the guitars are put to work more as percussive instruments than musical instruments. Not for the faint hearted. You have been warned!
The main stage is set up with a mini marquee, which serves as a makeshift wardrobe for vocalist Maria Brink of Los Angeles’ finest In This Moment. As smoke billows across the stage, two handmaids emerge from the tent carrying skulls, followed by Maria in headdress reminiscent of religious icons of the Madonna. Today’s offerings include "Blood" and "Roots," followed by a brief interlude of Metallica‘s "For whom the bell tolls," which facilitates a wardrobe change. The remainder of the set ups the ante, with recent single "Black wedding," and the eponymous "Whore" to close a great set. In this moment are constantly developing their image courtesy of the vision of Maria Brinks and are destined for even greater things. Watch this space!
Myrkur, which means darkness in Icelandic, is a black metal project fronted by Danish actress and musician Amalie Bruun. They play a set on the Dogtooth stage mainly comprising material from their recent Mini album. The music is an ethereal mix of Folk with Viking and Norse influences. The set includes "Ulvinde" one of three singles released from Mareridt which means nightmare in Danish. Amalie showcases her talents throughout, giving a pitch perfect unaccompanied vocal performance, playing guitar, and wielding an ancient Norse percussion instrument like a shield maiden. Myrkur have been critically acclaimed by many, with good reason. If you find them playing your town, go and savour the experience. The band play a number of dates across Europe in the coming months.
Marilyn Manson are the penultimate act on the main stage. This sunny day is not the natural habitat of the band and the audience is instructed to Deal with daylight. All the favourites are here including "New shit", "Disposable teens", "Dope show", "Sweet dreams" and ""The beautiful people" During the song "Kill for me," a girl with an "I would kill for you" flag is invited onstage to embrace Mr. Manson before she is quickly dismissed. Marilyn Manson continue their Heaven upside down tour through Europe until the end of June and resume touring in America in July.
Ozzy Pic: Credit Ross Halfin – All Rights Reserved by Ross Halfin
So to the festival finale. The main stage speakers crackle to life, and a small boy stares out of the video monitors. That small boy is none other than a certain John Osbourne, now better known to us as Ozzy Osbourne. His solo band has not headlined a festival in Donington since 1986, and it is the first time he has headlined Download in his capacity as a solo artist. The familiar Carl Orff intro music floats across the arena and the video screens flashback pictures from throughout Ozzy’s career. Excitement builds and Zakk Wylde launches into the opening riff of "Bark at the moon." It is great to see some old band mates back together as Tommy Clufetos takes his place on the drum stool with Zakk skillfully looking after guitar duties. The repertoire available to choose from for an Ozzy Osbourne concert is massive, and tonight’s selection takes us through from the bands’ early material to more recent hits.
The high points of the set include “Mr. Crowley,” “No more tears,” and the inevitable “Crazy Train.” Ozzy is on top form tonight, and the crowd are lapping it up. We are even treated to a couple of Black Sabbath tracks, “Fairies wear boots” and “War Pigs.” The encore includes “Mama, I’m coming home” as a bonus before a scorching version of “Paranoid” closes the set. Then as the band take their bows “Changes,” the duet performed by Ozzy and his daughter Kelly, is played through the speakers as the night sky is lit up with a massive fireworks display…….and so draws to an end another Download festival.
Download continues to evolve and develop every year and we welcome that change. Andy Copping has managed to keep the festival relevant to today’s audience whilst not alienating any of the older metal fans. This in itself is no mean feat. Hard work, determination and a keen eye for great acts ensure that Download remains one of the finest rock festivals in the world. Long may it continue.
Mr Copping, We Salute You!