Donington Park opened up its lush, soon-to-be-stomped-to-a-pulp fields this year on the 7th June for its fifteenth hosting of Download Festival. A swarm of 80,000 rockers garbed in the implicit black or ‘get your freak on’ dress code attended this year’s Download in the hope of catching the electrical storm that was predicted to be generated by main stage headliners System Of A Down, Biffy Clyro and Aerosmith. With over 100 acts plucked from the vast spectrum of today’s rock music scene, Download 2017 served a three-day buffet of musical delights that left no one feeling hungry but compelled everyone to crave even more. The British weather deities even approved of the offering, with this year’s festival being less ‘Drownload’, more ‘Downright-nice-weather-load’.
Whilst the weather remained very tame on the first day of Download’s line-up, the music did not. The serene blue and cerise lighting of the intimate Dogtooth Stage provided a moment of tranquillity within the eye of the Download storm before thrash metal monsters Lost Society and Exodus were unleashed. Lost Society presented with the characteristic organised chaos of thrash metal with apparent ease, whilst Exodus let loose a wall of sound that emanated at least ten freight trains hitting you smack on the nose.
Over in the realm of the dust-embalmed Zippo Encore Stage, pop punk Peter Pans Good Charlotte exuded a wash of nostalgia over a sizeable amount of fans. Just as frontman Joel Madden highlighted, the crowd and Good Charlotte “grew up together”, with 15-year-old UK Top 10 tracks “Girls & Boys” and “Lifestyles Of The Rich And The Famous” being greeted by spectators’ inner-teenage shrieks.
In contrast to the punchy, happy-go-lucky tunes performed by Good Charlotte, the Main Stage took a slightly more sinister turn with all-around heavy metal bad-asses Five Finger Death Punch, who brewed circle pits within the crowd with the ease of seasoned warlocks. Emitting tracks like “Burn MF” and “Under And Over It” fronted by Ivan Moody, whose presence could make the most fierce of army generals a quivering mess, the gates to the crypts of hell truly slammed open at FFDP’s command just so Satan himself could cock his ear at the exquisitely metallic high-speed riffs and monstrous bellows befalling Donington Park. With Moody having announced an instant departure from FFDP at a gig in the Netherlands just days after their Download performance, it’s possible that the historic importance of this performance for fans has now increased ten-fold.
Next up came Rage Against The Machine, Audioslave, Public Enemy and Cypress Hill Frankenstein-alike hybrid Prophets Of Rage in their live UK debut. A particularly apt main stage band given the bedlam that followed Thursday’s UK general election, the politically-charged Prophets of Rage unshackled the consistently downtrodden political mentalities of the crowd in an explosion of Tom Morello’s signature overdriven funk riffs via tracks such as RATM’s “Bulls On Parade” and new track “Unfuck The World”. Via the condemnation of Theresa May and Donald Trump and the exaltation of Jeremy Corbyn, the Prophets left the crowd boiling over with resistance, detonating their set with the infamous “Killing In The Name”. However, Prophets of Rage’s set became a little more sedate for their heartfelt tribute to former-Audioslave frontman Chris Cornell, who departed from our world in May, with an instrumental cover of Audioslave number “Like A Stone”. The Prophets left the microphone vacant as a symbol of respect and mourning.
Friday’s Main Stage headlining crown was swiped by System Of A Down. After opening with the delicate Spanish-style guitar fiddling of “Soldier Side – Intro”, lead vocalist Serj Tankian flashed a knowing smile before SOAD ripped off the seal to their package of cacodemonic riffs in the form of “Suite Pee” and “Prison Song”. Cloaked in a dusky night sky and flooded by the light of dozens of UFO-like light beams, SOAD performed their set in a way that can only be described as extraterrestrial. Tankian and vocalist and guitarist Daron Malakian in particular produced sounds that the majority of mere mortals would struggle to conjure from within themselves or via a man-made instrument, such as screams and shrieks not dissimilar to those heard from the blazing Eye of Sauron during Sauron’s defeat in Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Friday at Download truly concocted a musical blow to the head that left a fond scar on many festival goers.
Saturday morning saw suavely dressed Tax The Heat take on the Zippo Encore Stage. Performing a set suitable to widen the hungover crowd’s eyes to the size of saucers, Tax The Heat swaggered their way through expansive riffs characterised by golden, vintage tones. Soon after, the boyish charm of Raveneye ran riot on the Zippo Encore Stage. Employing heavy fuzz tones and playing tracks like “Hey Hey Yeah” and “Hate” that elicited stomps to rival Zulu tribal dancing, Raveneye were a joy to watch, especially when witnessing frontman Oli Brown’s cackle of genuine enjoyment. Brown even skilfully mounted the shoulders of bassist Aaron Spiers in a totem pole of instrument playing, as if reflecting the Download Festival totem poles that frame the Main Stage.
Saturday at Download was brimming with Captain Jack Sparrow rejects in aid of pirate rockers Alestorm, who played a set on both the modestly large Zippo Encore Stage and the teeny Firestone Stage. With tracks such as “Mexico (For Dogs)” (in which their entire song “Mexico” is ‘woofed’), Alestorm provided a bizarre relief for Downloaders from the solemn (yet by no means inferior) performances of bands such as Of Mice And Men. Devin Townsend Project also aimed to inject a comedic spin on stereotypical band performances, such as mocking that all too familiar “I want to see you with your hands up!” order (of which punters must have heard at least three-thousand-and-sixty-two times by this point). However, with tracks such as “Failure” and “Deadhead”, Devin Townsend Project demonstrated themselves as conquistadors in progressive metal, with frontman Devin Townsend demonstrating vocal versatility from celestial operatic expressions to the classic metal growl.
Meanwhile, in the Dogtooth Stage tent, The Lounge Kittens took a very different detour, offering piano bar-style takes on various rock songs equipped with only a piano and three-part harmony. From a pop-punk medley featuring Panic! At The Disco and Fall Out Boy covers to Queen’s “Bicycle Race”, of which they recorded as a charity single to raise money for Nordoff Robbins, Childline and Teenage Cancer Trust, The Lounge Kittens played to a bulging crowd, declaring “I think we need a bigger tent!” – and they weren’t wrong. The One Hundred also took a fresh take on a classic rock genre, combining the basic elements of scream metal with dubstep-style beats and gangster-style rap, as witnessed in tracks such as “Disengage”. Sporting garishly bright Hawaiian shirts as if to highlight their deviation from the status quo, The One Hundred spared no energy throughout their performance, with frontman Jacob Field bouncing around the stage like putty as well as intermittently throwing in hip-hop diva dance moves.
Whilst Simple Plan appeased the masses of teenagers that gathered around the Avalanche Stage in pop-punk communion with preppy, Americanised crowd chanters, Rob Zombie wowed on the Zippo Encore Stage with an audiovisual treat powered by the earthy growl of Zombie’s soil-drenched vocals. Boasting visual debaucheries such as fierce pyrotechnics and several screens displaying various babelicious females and trippy scenes of horror, Zombie pranced across three podiums in the manner of an underground Steven Tyler. Zombie’s eerily spooky guitarist John 5 let loose deliciously sleaze-ridden riffs, as in “Living Dead Girl” and “Dead City Radio And The New Gods Of Supertown”. These were a stark contrast to the crisp, clean guitar heard over on the Main Stage in headliner Biffy Clyro’s set, as in their tracks “Many Of Horror” and “Bubbles”.
However, that is not to say that Biffy Clyro lacked the rigour inhabited within Rob Zombie’s set. With each bare-chested band member of Clyro came the kind of Scottish brute force one might stereotypically parallel with the likes of Robert the Bruce or William Wallace. Utilising an epileptic fit worthy light show that culminated in a stunning firework display in final track “Stingin’ Belle”, Biffy Clyro gave a performance of epic proportions that scarcely faltered from their studio sound. Punctuating the end of Day Two, Clyro and Zombie left ears incessantly ringing in that mystical way that amounts in festival goers feeling as if they are floating through the air as they walk away from the soundwave residue bequeathed to the grounds of Donington Park.
Day Three of Download appeared to be teeming at the seams with attendees even more so than the previous days, perhaps due to a spike in day ticket spectators who were there to catch the last glimpse of American hard rock Goliaths Aerosmith on their final ever UK tour (although Joe Perry has suggested that their current tour may not be their conclusive end). However, with 10 hours between the start of the day and Aerosmith’s emergence, an abundance of tasty rock was yet to be sucked in, chewed up and ingested. Opening the Zippo Encore stage at 11 am were young Brummies Broken Witt Rebels, who were seemingly jet-lagged after their journey from the Isle of Wight Festival to Castle Donington and wished us a “good evening”. Thankfully, their confusion did not hold when it came to instrument playing, in which they combined the hard rock fuzz of Rival Sons and Royal Blood with the laddish indie rock of The Fratellis and The Kooks in tracks such as “Howlin’” and “Low”.
Next, the up-and-coming mini-mes of rock’n’roll giants Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown took to the stage. Bearing the weathered musical edge that can only be achieved by touring with bands like AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses, as mirrored in frontman Tyler Bryant’s battered Fender Strat’, Bryant and co. conveyed a maturity in the rock and roll of their recklessly, yet flawlessly, played music. A particular highlight was their cover of Muddy Waters’ “Mojo Workin’”, of which they added an extra layer of swagger and grit. A now fitfully raucous crowd was fully ready to receive The Dead Daisies, a band characterised by old souls playing freshly stewed rock. Fronted by the understated, yet by no means underpowered, John Corabi, The Dead Daisies did just as their track “Make Some Noise” demanded. Anathema also graced the Zippo Encore Stage, offering up ethereal vocals and atmospherically glacial tracks such as “Thin Air” and “Springfield”.
Today, the Dogtooth Stage was particularly alight with defiant acts, with an especial nod to the commanding performances of Devilskin (who are possibly the furthest travelling act to ever grace Download, having journeyed from New Zealand, FYI) and Aaron Buchanan & The Cult Classics. Devilskin’s frontwoman Jennie Skulander was the embodiment of ‘rock chick’ against the backdrop of Devilskin’s menacingly gruff male instrumentalists. Skulander effortlessly transitioned from powerful diva vocals to metal screams in the likes of “Start A Revolution”, as if a demon was flitting in and out of her soul. Aaron Buchanan marked his post-Heaven’s Basement resurrection with face-melting compositions from new album The Man With Stars On His Knees, performing with flamboyantly jagged arm movements in the style of a new age Freddie Mercury, and cutely nudging his guitarist, sister Laurie Buchanan, onto the centre stage podium throughout their set.
Sunday also brought the Main Stage debut of neo-southern music men The Cadillac Three. At first, the vast stage appeared to swallow the bashful three-piece up. However, after warming up with their grizzly southern drawl riffs, beats and vocals in tracks such as “Bury Me In My Boots” and new track “Tennessee” off of forthcoming album LEGACY, TC3 appeared to nestle more comfortably into their Main Stage glory. Final track “The South” figuratively flew the flag of their beloved Southern culture before they literally flew their own southern-inspired band flag as a visual demarcation of their well-earned pride.
Sunday’s Main Stage line-up was particularly hard to drag oneself away from, bragging a line-up of massive rock names such as Airbourne, Alter Bridge, Steel Panther and, of course, Aerosmith. Aussie chaps Airbourne burst onto the stage as though they had been shot out of a cannon, playing tracks of no-bullshit rock’n’roll like “Rivalry” and “Girls In Black” as if each number in their set was their encore. The usual Airbourne mischief was present throughout their set, with mad lad Joel O’Keeffe performing his classic ‘smash-a-beer-can-open-with-his-head’ stunt, as well as hopping onto the shoulders of a man dressed as a kangaroo with his guitar still in hand, consequently performing in true Aussie style.
Following Airbourne were Steel Panther, heavyweights in distasteful hard rock music. Whilst some may view their obscenely-themed music as a waste of musicianship, many prizes it as a pivotal part of today’s rock scene, as indicated by the vast pilgrimage to the Main Stage in preparation for their stage entrance. Female members of the audience who may be disappointed that they missed out on featuring in Motley Crue’s “Girls Girls Girls” music video got the chance to live out their rock babe performance dreams in Steel Panther’s “17 Girls In A Row”, in which an abundance of chicas were brought up on stage to party with the Panthers.
After the ‘cock and tits’ tornado brought on by Steel Panther, the Main Stage settled down for the highly respected and respectable Alter Bridge. As ever, the distinguishable cry of Myles Kennedy sent shivers down spines, whilst the perilously heavy instrumentation of Alter Bridge sparked a choppy ocean of headbanging across the main arena in songs such as “Crows On A Wire” and “Addicted To Pain”. However, the gentle, soulful caress of “Blackbird”, Alter Bridge’s dedication to Kennedy’s dear, departed friend Mark Morse, melted everyone’s hearts more than it did their faces, whilst the slightly delicate and ever-inspiring “Rise Today” was met with a roar of crowd participation.
By this point, the crowd was practically shoulder-to-shoulder as individuals crammed themselves in every nook and cranny so that they could be as close to the stage as possible for Aerosmith’s imminent arrival. Here, your narrator has to admit with great sorrow and anguish that she accidentally diced with death just before Aerosmith appeared, experiencing a peanut allergy attack and subsequently being rushed to the medical centre. Nevertheless, knowing that the stakes of being sensible and staying at the medical centre included missing out on the live experience of ‘Smith’s musicgasmically incredible bass line in “Sweet Emotion”, your narrator stubbornly walked the 25 minutes back to the arena in an attempt to quench her insatiable hunger for this experience. Boy, was it worth it!
Tom Hamilton’s bassy introduction of “Sweet Emotion” rang out with an almighty buzz like some sort of hypnotic mating call. Thereafter, Joey Kramer’s dominating bass drum in “Rag Doll” shook the bones and souls of each and every spectator. The encore brought the audience “Dream On”, an iconic number which the ‘Demon of Screamin’’ Steven Tyler perfectly recited all the way up to the dizzying heights of those high notes that he first belted out over 40 years ago. Whilst the Toxic Twins Tyler and Perry were ferociously vivacious as ever, there was still a bitter sadness blowing in the bitterly cold air, as the prospect that this could be their last UK show fell upon the crowd like a sodden blanket. However, Aerosmith went out with a cosmic bang, stamping Download 2017 as a historical landmark in UK music history.
Photography by Shayne Friessner-Day
All other photographs by:
Ben Gibson: Aerosmith
Matt Eachus: Feature image, InFlames, Slayer,
Ross Silcocks: Steel Panther, Airbourne, Sabaton
Sarah Koury: AFI
HEAVY TV Video Interviews at DOWNLOAD FESTIVAL
by Jeni Lambert and Mike Brierley