Great music, great people, great(ish) weather; but can Download Festival’s successful streak last?
With an arguably weaker lineup than the past two years, the festival came under more fire than usual as Sonisphere unveiled The Prodigy, Iron Maiden and Metallica, who head off competition from Download’s Avenged Sevenfold, Linkin Park and Aerosmith. With campaign #whynotdyingfetus instigated in response to the choice of Avenged Sevenfold as Friday night headliners, Download Festival looked to be in trouble.
Luckily for festival booker Andy Copping and Live Nation crew, the plethora of stellar performances over the weekend make up for initial concerns, as Friday sees Miss May I (7), Crossfaith (8) and Powerman5000 (8) open with respectably tight sets for a hot and sunburned crowd. Before taking the stage, vocalist and serious dance-stepper Benji Webb intimated that the only fire you’d see from Skindred (9) would be in “the power of the show”, not in fancy pyrotechnics- and he was right. After holding “The first ever metal Harlem Shake”, and sampling a snippet of ‘Jump Around’, the crowning moment is the Skindred-synonymous dance move ‘the Newport Helicopter’ during ‘Warning‘; thousands upon thousands twirl shirts, bandanas and bra’s above their heads, to astounding effect.
This year, the pioneering of the ‘Good Food Awards‘ at the festival mean interesting and tasty vendors are out in force. Moreover, eating green in 2014 has never been so easy with a multitude of veggie options and four specifically vegetarian and vegan vans. If something meaty is more your cup of beef tea, there are suddenly this year a wealth of gourmet grills and cultural feasts to be sampled in the new ‘Food Zones’. All this means that even when sound trouble afflicts the Zippo Encore stage throughout the day, at least fans will have had a decent meal inside them.
Flogging Molly (8) manage to impress despite the questionable sound, inciting grown men and women (yes, even that metalhead with garments a soul terrifying shade of midnight) to dance like breakfast cereal cartoon leprechauns, swinging each other round fearlessly elbow-to-elbow and grinning like lunatics.
On a bill lacking much in the way of female fronted bands, Within Temptation‘s (7) Sharon Den Adel’s melodic and dominant vocals carry far across the site. It’s just a shame that this set is far from extraordinary; the ballads are strangely epic in construction, but boring.
Having played the second stage before, it’s about time Rob Zombie (8) hit up the main stage with his personal brand of chuggy, creepy metal. Skeletal props and walking dead backdrops frame Rob in a shroud of mystery as a heartbeat overlay peppers the between-song gaps. It’s a bit of a shame the clouds have only come to serve a dim grey evening rather than the pitch-black that a Zombie show deserves, and the Friday (the thirteenth, incidentally) Zombie fancy dress crew is both disappointingly thin on the ground. Tearing a few holes in your t-shirt and smearing on some chip van ketchup does not a Zombie make.
Headliners Avenged Sevenfold (8) draw a shamefully sparse crowd, compacted with the start of the inevitable Download rain. Despite this, their extraordinarily detailed gothic stage set and soaring guitar ballads wins the audience over. It’s a shame that The Offspring (9) somewhat overshadow them but as they get settled into a rip roaring retake of third album ‘Smash‘, an influx of skanking masses join the party from the A7X side. ‘Nitro (Youth Energy)‘ suffered a bit of patchy sound and Dexter’s vocals can hardly be heard, but all is well with the run of ‘Smash’ hits as ‘Self Esteem’ sparked an enormous singalong from the crowd. Even the ten minute rainshower couldn’t dampen spirits, with band members joking “this is my favourite song on this fucking album” for almost every song.
Saturday brings a respite from Friday’s heat, meaning While She Sleeps (8) wake up proceedings without breaking a sweat. However, Bowling For Soup (6) and Bring Me The Horizon (7) are lacklustre in comparison, both receiving verbal abuse from those gathered around. Luckily Killswitch Engage (8) and Fall Out Boy (8) don’t anger the judgemental crowd; but it is the headliners who really give the bang-for-your buck festival effect, along with a much improved, much larger crowd presence compared to yesterday. Linkin Park‘s (8.5) ‘Hybrid Theory’ is a blinder, thousands upon thousands of individuals joining Chester Bennington in his bunny hopping antics as hits like ‘Crawling’ are the real feet-movers. Unfortunately the nu-metal oldies slumped after the run-through, as many left rather than hear more uninspired, newer material. Status Quo (8) surprise all with a set that appeals to the young and the old; dads dancing along in onesies next to teens is a magical sight to behold. Meanwhile, Behemoth (9) crush the packed Pepsi Max stage with theatrical black metal, face-paint and all.
Unfortunately, Download 2014 fails to provide much in the way of black, folk or battle metal – unlike previous years, where the likes of Amon Amarth and Turisas have been real festival highlights for fans and new listeners alike – and Behemoth demonstrate that the festival deserves more in this vein; the reliance upon southern-style rock, heavy metal and metalcore (with only a sliver of popular punk thrown in) is arguably a little dry after three days. Although Sunday’s Winger (7) Buckcherry (7) and Richie Sambora (8) are demonstrably great in terms of what they put out, they lack the pizazz they would add to a more diverse lineup.
At least Sabaton (9.5) reclaim the festival for power metal, as a dedicated fan-base witnesses the members promise to play much longer sets on their upcoming tour.
Black Stone Cherry‘s not-so-secret secret set has fans gathering for their return an hour before their appearance. It was hardly going to remain under wraps when two new tour tshirts were being sold on the merch stalls that morning. Regardless the Pepsi Max stage sees it’s biggest crowd of the weekend for a super short but powerful set from the Kentucky rockers, and the return of ‘Me and Mary Jane‘, which made its international debut at Download last year, is the crowning anthem of their show.
While Against Me! (8) play powerful songs that celebrate gender diversity, Steel Panther (6) are the absolute antithesis. No-one is really sure if they’re a parody or truly believe their own nonsense anymore, but getting girls to take their tops off on stage is all in their remit. The film crew will just have to hope everyone there is old enough…
Headline rock legends Aerosmith (9) have the commanding presence only years of being at the top of your profession will garner. They just know they’re good, and it shows. Running through a massive hitlist including ‘Crazy‘, ‘Eat The Rich‘, ‘Walk This Way‘ and the incredibly epic (but also amusingly messed up by Tyler) ‘Dream On‘, Aerosmith prove they’re top dog in spades.
Overall for this festival, while toilets are getting better every year, and more has been made of arty offerings (large junkyard scaffolding has appeared at the entrance, and fans can lean against the big jazzy lettering that spells out ‘Download’ in the main arena) one wonders if Download can keep its premier status. New alternative event Alt-Fest promises much in the way of intriguing art installations, a blacked-out industrial tent and, importantly, has let fans choose its lineup. Meanwhile, Download Festival still has not made cramped pitching in camping a thing of the past, despite the fact that between 10-20,000 less people have turned out for it this year, it is still a sweaty mess in there due to there being only 6 of 10 possible campsites open. Sonisphere’s layout and camping conditions have before trumped that of Download; so the festival has much to watch out for from its new competitors, not to mention threat from cheap flights to overseas festival behemoth, Wacken Open Air.
Download Festival has been and is a superb festival with incredible bands, with a step in the right direction in terms of overall experience improvements. However, if it wants to out-do the fan-led Alt-Fest and the more fan-friendly Sonisphere, it may have to buck up its ideas for next year. A more fan-inclusive ethos would certainly help matters; including Dying Fetus (8) in the line-up was a brilliant stroke, but improving camping conditions, creating more exciting things to see and do and diversifying and tailoring the lineup with the help of fan participation are all things that need to go down on the Download Festival agenda.