Live Music + Gig Reviews

Festival Review: Download 2016

10-12 June 2016

Black Sabbath at Download 2016

Black Sabbath at Download 2016 (Photo: Ben Gibson)

God hates us all, as Slayer so eloquently put it back in 2011, and judging by the deluge hitting Download on Friday, He/She/It really has it in for this festival and in particular BabyMetal. To be fair, there’s quite a bit of grumbling about the inclusion of the Japanese metal/pop hybrid from a reasonable proportion of the Download crowd too, based around authenticity and the notion of a mere pop act gaining a little traction in metal. So with the rain Gods – and much of a sodden audience – against them, they deserve a huge amount of credit for putting in a ridiculously energetic and (whisper it) enjoyable performance despite the conditions. Their Fox God might have got a tonking in the deity rankings today, but only a churl could deny the infectious nature of KARATE or Gimme Chocolate. If it’s OK to worship at the altar of Iron Maiden’s giant puppet, it’s equally acceptable to cast ‘authenticity’ to one side for a few moments and give in to Babymetal.

The torrential weather system which appears to have been localised over Donington, meanwhile, is utterly brutal and unforgiving. Although the pictures of a flooded campsite circulating on social media prove to be of 2005’s Glastonbury, submersibles could be needed on the campsite, such is the onslaught. But amid tales of flooded tents, streams of water and mud flowing down the arena, and several punters left shivering like shitting dogs, there are stories of extreme kindnesses amongst the fans, helping each other with dry bedding, clothes and new tents. The familial vibe on site is strong, and although the conditions are enough to make it a very uncomfortable few days, most make it to the end unbroken.

What’s needed in the face of adversity are some uplifting tunes, or at least some seriously awesome grooves. Kadaver’s stoner onslaught has both in spades, but it’s The Wildhearts rousing set, featuring a storming TV Tan and a fevered Caffeine Bomb which gets everyone pepped up and ready to roll. Although the Motörhead tribute over on the Lemmy stage features little more than endless filmed eulogies, it seems a wasted opportunity not to honour Ian Kilmister’s memory with some kind of musical tribute, despite the touching stories on display. Happily, over the course of the weekend, most bands step up to the plate and do the honours; Caffeine Bomb is dedicated to him, and ripped through in suitably speedy fashion, just as he would have wanted.

The man himself makes an appearance on the big screen that hides the performance of Gutterdämmerung. As a beautifully shot film that ruminates on the nature of good and evil (in terribly clunky fashion, it must be said) plays out, the band behind the screen rattle through a series of original compositions and a fair few covers. The film itself features the likes of Josh Homme, Grace Jones, Iggy Pop, and a tank-commanding regalia-clad Lemmy, but it’s Henry Rollins (playing a maniacal puritan preacher hell-bent on destroying rock and roll, obviously) who turns up and adds a live rendition of his part to proceedings. When the film finishes, Rollins appears once again to speak about Lemmy. His heartfelt words on the man (“you might not have met him, but if you knew his music, you knew him”) carry more weight than the tribute film could. The whole thing is akin to watching a slightly berzerk West End musical: not what you’d expect at Download, but the kind of off-kilter programming the festival could do with more of.

Rammstein’s set at the close of Friday is a pyrotechnical wonder. There’s so much fire on show that it could be hoped they’d dry at least some of the field out. Sadly, they fail at this, but such is the force of their spectacular show and thundering tunes that at least the day ends with something to smile about.

Iron Maiden at Download 2016

Iron Maiden at Download 2016 (Photo: Matt Eachus)

Saturday starts out positively: the mud might be unbearable, but for a few moments at least there’s some respite from the rain. The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing possess a smart sense of humour and their genre hopping, cockney-grinning tunes are a breath of fresh air, unlike the focus of their song Miner. Far more serious, TesseracT‘s prog-metal sounds designed by someone with an unhealthy obsession with their set-square and protractor.  Still, they’ve got a fine sense of harmony, piles of angular riffing, and for a moment, the sun is out – a meteorological oddity almost earning them the accolade of set of the weekend.

The puffed-chests and somewhat ludicrous anthems of Sixx A.M. are nothing less than a much needed shot in the arm. It’s big, dumb, but stupidly good fun, which is what you would expect from Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx. Rival Sons’ blues driven rock soon returns everyone to a state of introspection, though: Jay Buchanan is an engaging focal point, but they fail to really set the festival on fire.

The transition from acting to music is not always an easy one – just ask Bruce Willis – but Juliette Lewis appears to have been born to rock, not just playing at being a rock star. Dressed like Evel Knievel, she eats up the stage like a cross between Jagger and Iggy, all of which would be for nothing if she didn’t have decent songs. But the likes of Mind Full Of Daggers hint at The Stooges, whilst her blues chops are capable of standing up to an airing of the Creedence staple Proud Mary. 

Back on the main stage, Megadeth are too busy to acknowledge the adoration of their fans, preferring to roar through a series of songs from current album Dystopia instead. They bring Nikki Sixx out to run through a cover of Anarchy In The UK, but it’s the classics such as Peace Sells, Hangar 18 and Holy Wars that really hit home. Following yet another tribute to Lemmy, which have started to feel more like a browbeating than a celebration, it’s down to Skindred to show everyone how it’s done.

Not just focussing on the metal crowd, they encourage everyone to chant “Bowie, Lemmy, Prince”. It’s a wonderful moment, and an important one because whilst metal often sees itself as an eternal outsider, 2016 has seen the loss of some true musical greats, and music in all its forms brings people together. Bringing music together is what Skindred do best, and they throw everything at the Download crowd: snatches of House Of Pain, bits of Bieber and Metallica, thunderous dub  and, of course, huge riffs combine to create an insane party atmosphere. The t-shirt flailing ‘Newport Helicopter’ only makes an appearance at the close of the set, but Skindred are a remorseless party from the moment they hit the stage. A definite highlight.

Dark clouds hang ominously over the main stage as Black Sabbath launch into the first few notes of their eponymous song. It’s an almost perfect scene, a bible black sky providing the backdrop to the innovators of doom. The end of the road is drawing near for the band, which in some ways is a pity, but as soon as Ozzy opens his mouth many are in agreement: the end can’t come soon enough. The riffs are perfect as always, Iommi and Butler carving grooves in the rain sodden mud, but Ozzy is dramatically off the pace.  He’s still enthusiastically loving to everyone, and his endearing charm remains, but this is not the farewell the band who pretty much kick-started metal deserve. There’s no doubting those riffs though; they deserve a preservation order.

Thankfully, there’s some respite from the rain and Ozzy’s off-key wail with NOFX, whose endless list of jokes and pin-sharp punk provide an uplifting end to the second day just as Sabbath (or God, he’s probably not much of a Sabbath fan either) summon yet another torrential downpour.

Ankle deep in mud and who knows what else is not how most people would prefer to spend their Sunday mornings, but staring at a bunch of dragon heads, gawping at fire and taking in the sheer spectacle of Amon Amarth almost makes it worthwhile, a savoury crepe doing the rest. Moving around the site becomes more and more awkward as the day goes on, the mud geting deeper and the constant threat of getting wet (again) dampening the spirits. The upshot is that most of the crowd appears to be static, preferring to stay put in their own wellington-boot-sucking area of swamp than spend the best part of an hour negotiating their way to a new bit. (Either this, or they’re so out of it, they’ve fallen asleep or turned into actual zombies – a green faced man outside the Somersby Manor is seen staring into the top of his own head, apparently masturbating under his poncho while dribbling for brains.)

But The Temperance Movement’s blues infused rock is muscular and intelligent enough to stop anyone falling into a slumber, with the material from White Bear particularly startling, pointing to a band awash with talent. Moving from The Temperance Movement to the brutal djent of Periphery is, at first, something of a shock, such is the difference in approach. Over time however, the band’s phenomenal precision riffing shows itself to be a marvel; if only more people could have made it across the moat cutting the stage off from the rest of the festival.

Part of the concern of Download is working out who will take over when the rock legends shuffle off this mortal coil, or at least shuffle down to the retirement castle. Once Sabbath have settled into their slippers some time next year, it’s a fair bet Electric Wizard could take over channelling the dark lord and attempting to control the weather systems. Their set today is simply stunning and filled with riffs even Ozzy & co. would kill for these days. It’s a reminder, too, that Download sometimes overlooks the avant-garde and doom fraternities. Hopefully, following the demise of Temples Festival, Download might look to accommodate some of the more fringe acts; we can but hope.

Disturbed are about as far away from the avant-garde scene as is possible to get. But they’re masters at what they do, which is unleashing ridiculously catchy riffs. Today’s set drifts into karaoke territory when they unleash a series of uninspired covers –  it’s an unnecessary diversion, because their own material is more than strong enough to please this crowd. 

Skindred at Download 2016

Skindred at Download 2016 (Photo: Ross Silcocks)

Tributes and weather perhaps define this weekend more than anything else, so it’s apposite for Jane’s Addiction to drop in a cover of Bowie’s Rebel Rebel. Tellingly, it’s perhaps the weakest moment of their set, such is the strength of their songs. Perry Farrell is in fine form, playing the suave, filthy minded charmer with aplomb, and everything a fan could want is played. During Three Days, the sun makes an appearance, a break in the weather we’ve craved all weekend and Jane’s follow it up with an endless stream of perfect moments. Been Caught Stealing is joyous, Just Because well toned and pure gold, but Ted, Just Admit It steals the show: suspending two dancing girls from hooks in their backs, winching them a good 15 feet in the air and casting them out over the audience is one hell of a spectacle. Perhaps nothing’s shocking, but this certainly makes the audience wince as one.

It’s down to Iron Maiden to wrap things up and they do so with the sheer professionalism you’d expect. A mix of new material from Book Of Souls and heaps of old classics ensure Download ends with the bang it deserves. Most importantly, Bruce Dickinson sounds in fine fettle, his voice still capable of stripping paint at a considerable distance as he rattles through Fear Of The Dark, Number Of The Beast and opener If Eternity Should Fail.

Download could easily have ended in a damp squib, but there’s a lot of spirit around the site, even after three days of wading through mud. It’s a festival deserving to be defined not by its shocking weather record, but by its camaraderie, fanbase, and music.

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