There's a lot of history for Hard Rock and Heavy Metal in the mud and dirt of Donington Park. August 20th 1988 was one of those dates. Back in 1988 what is now Download Festival was a one day celebration of all that is Metal. The line-up that gloriously wet Derbyshire afternoon was Helloween, Guns N Roses, Megadeth, David Lee Roth, Kiss and Iron Maiden. Tragically, of the 107,000 that were in attendance that fateful day 2 people never made it home. I remember that day as if it were yesterday. I was fortunate enough to be there. I remember it for two reasons. Firstly, for the tragic loss of two. It was and is the only time I've ever been at a music gig or festival where something so sad happened. I also remember it because of the Headline act. There was a lot of controversy about Iron Maiden headlining back then. They hadn't been around long enough. They weren't big enough to be put above Rock icons Kiss on the bill. But they were. In their first UK festival appearance, Maiden left their mark on music and essentially changed the face of live music in one show.
I can't begin to explain what the impact of this gig meant to the music world back then and the changes that moment in time effected that are around today as a cause of it. Besides, this is a review not a history lesson. But you have to understand the history before you can fully appreciate the present.
So, with that in mind, full of anticipation of a repetition of what remains the greatest gig I've ever been to, the walk through the camp-sites, the village, around the track and into the arena begins...
A lot has changed in 25 years. If it hadn't, I'd be worried. While the old Monsters of Rock festivals had their highlights, they also lacked in a few departments; The line-ups were smaller, the amenities were few and far between, the bands were... well less, and the arena was a lot, lot smaller. What it's predecessor lacked, Download had in bucketfuls. It's big here. Very big. And there's a lot of it.
Exmouth based I Divide kicked off the second stage. Now I'm not sure if it was the wind or technical issues, but sound quality was definitely an issue on Saturday. One that would sneak up and bite everyone in the ass on this day. These lads got things rolling and by the time they had finished up there was a buzz around the arena. I head to the Red Bull stage for another Devon band. Idiom. Now, before I go getting all misty eyed, I've seen these four boys before. Quite a few times. I've reviewed them before. However, since the last time I saw them, something has happened. Something lit a fire under four asses and they absolutely obliterated the Red Bull tent. I've seen smaller crowds for bigger bands this year, and for a band that is for all intents and purposes 'small time' Idiom owned their place in Download history.
Black Star Riders took to the main stage, comprising of a who's who of Metal bands, Former Thin Lizzy guitarist Scott Gorham led BSR through a mixture of Thin Lizzy classics as well as their own tracks much to the delight of the crowd. Meanwhile on the Second Stage Swedish Metallers Katatonia didn't own the crowd, they consumed the crowd. Heavy melodies and lyrical poetry from one of the originators of what is now known as “Doom Metal” Katatonia enveloped those, who had come to see them, in an atmosphere unlike anywhere else in the arena.
Back on the Main Stage, Atlanta sludge pedallers Mastodon continued what I can only explain as their unending search for “The Brown Note”. That note so hard and heavy you actually shit yourself listening to them. I've never really been a fan of Mastodon, but it's fair to say with their brutally tribal and technical drumming, deep bass riffs and sludgy guitar riffs, they're well on the way to finding that elusive note, which if nothing else, would make for an entertaining show.
As you may have figured out by now, I've been around a while. I remember grunge when grunge happened, I remember Pearl Jam playing in London to seven people. I remember where I was when Kurt Cobain died. I remember hearing about Lane Stanley's passing. I've been an Alice in Chains fan for a long time and was intrigued to hear 'Check My Brain' when it came out in 2009. This was a good track and I was excited to see them the following year. I like William DuVall, I really do, going so far as to point out to someone that Lane is gone, time to move on and get over it. But I was disappointed by their set this year. Something seems to be missing. Alice in Chains have historically written and performed some of the most pained music I've ever heard. I can't get my head past doing songs like 'Man in the Box' with a smile on your face. The sound doesn't match the picture. It's just weird. Don't get me wrong, they were great. They weren't brilliant, which makes me sad, because they've always been brilliant. Maybe when Jerry Cantrell cut his hair, he cut his connection with their past.
Nekrogoblikon however, were nothing short of exceptional. I do like a bit of Goblin Metal (something which I was oblivious to prior to this year) and what could not make you smile about a Goblin onstage, in a suit, with a Metal Band. Amazingly entertaining.
Thunder have always managed to take me back to a time in my life where things were simpler. Metal was metal, Thrash was thrash, Rock was rock and The Blues were the blues. Sometimes I feel like music can get a little over-complicated. Thunder are simple. They're great at what they do and they're a great band to watch. I'm glad they're still around, and I'm glad I got to see them again. I haven't seen them since 1993, so I was a little reminiscent of 'the good old days' when they all had slightly more hair, with slightly more colour and looked slightly less like Ted Danson. Ted Danson however can't rock like Thunder.
A lot has been made over the last few years about Thai metallers Chthonic. This years set at Download promised to see them perform with a Thai orchestra, which may have proven to be a bit too much for a festival. A lengthy soundcheck seemed to be full of promise, regrettably it fell short from the start for me. It just sounded like there was too much going on, and the engineers couldn't keep up. I've heard Chthonic on album and live. Sadly for them, I don't think the sound for this particular performance did them justice.
The same could be said for rock Legends Motorhead and Queens of the Stone Age. Lemmy isn't talking much these days, but Motorhead still deliver quite the show – it's just a shame the sound quality was lacking and QOTSA just didn't sound very good either, sadly. So, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and go check out a band I know little about. So little in fact, I didn't quite get a joke made about them on Radio 1 the day prior. Enter Shikari have been around a while and not so quietly have got themselves quite a following. I'm being honest when I say I never really gave them a chance. Not really my scene, not really my thing. Or so I thought. Now, I'm not going to jump up and say I'm a convert to the ways of Shikari, but I totally get it. While parts of what they do still isn't my thing, (i.e. I couldn't listen to a whole album) I can see and appreciate why they are where they are and why they have a loyal following. Thoroughly brilliant set, show and performance. I'll make sure I pay closer attention in the future...
I said at the start of this whole thing that this year was about Iron Maiden. For me, it was always about Iron Maiden. I was excited. I felt like a teenager again. And then it happened, a fly over from a Battle of Britain Spitfire. Seriously?!?!?! How good is this going to be...?
Iron Maiden come on to 'Moonchild'...
The sound was awful.
As I said before, I'm not sure what the deal was with the sound today, but this was painful.
I heard afterwards from people at the back who said they simply couldn't hear anything except vocals. If you were at the front, it was all over the place. If you were in the middle, you were pretty screwed.
I'm not going to dwell on what was an issue possibly out of people's control, but I've looked forward to this night since last year, and after Slipknot's performance the previous night this was not great. I've spent some time wondering if I just built myself up too much for it, or if they just can't do it anymore, or if it was just not a very professional set-up. None of these options make sense. I'm pretty sensible about these things, so I get other peoples input when I can. By the middle of 'Can I play with madness' the issues seemed to have settled down, but it's hard to get an atmosphere back once it's been ripped out.
To their credit, Iron Maiden did what Iron Maiden do. They were the showmen that has kept them going and selling out gigs worldwide for almost 30 years. Ripping through The Seventh Son of a Seventh Son album, adding on stuff that they couldn't do 25 years ago, like Fear of the Dark and Afraid to Shoot Strangers, Maiden cranked out the classics from Phantom of the Opera, Number of the Beast, Run to the Hills and The Trooper and the crowd sang their hearts out back. If you've never seen Iron Maiden live, hurry up. I've got a feeling that there's not going to be too many shows left for UK audiences to enjoy.
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