Live Review: Download Festival, Melbourne

Download Festival Australia
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Download Festival

Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne
Monday 11 March 2019

It’s not always easy settling on what you need for a festival. Is it going to rain? Should I pack a poncho? Sunglasses? Will they have sun block and water available? I know that at a recent festival in NZ attendees were not allowed to bring drinks, and the site ran out of water on a dangerously hot day. Will they accept a driver’s licence for ID, or do I need to take my passport?

Clearly most people didn’t put as much thought into it as I did. Melbourne had hit 38c just a week ago, but the black-clad crowds obviously didn’t seem fazed. But then again, this is Download, a descendent of legendary Donington – a Mecca for fans of heavy music from around the globe. It was a fairly stereotypical metal crowd: tattoos, studded belts, combat boots, leather and denim jackets adorned with patches. And of course: the obligatory black band t-shirt. Slayer was the most common name emblazoned on shirts that I noticed today, clearly influenced by the headlining act.

Download Dog

Upon arrival my friends and I took a quick photo inside the inflatable dog head (the festival mascot), and made our way to the mainstage for Luca Brasi. The Tasmanian punks had drawn a decent turn out for so early in the day, and judging from the amount of people singing along, many were long time fans.vin The attempt at a light show was entirely redundant in the middle of a sunny day, but the music was fun and set the tone well.

Like many festivals, the main stage was actually two stages stationed parallel [Red and Black], allowing for near continuous music. Stage techs on the left could set up and sound check while bands on the right performed, each side alternating throughout the day. The stages were flanked by two totem-like statues featuring the Download dog mascot, and a large screen was installed in the centre, allowing punters at the back a better view of what was happening.

We had a quick look around the rest of the site. It was fairly typical really: a selection of stages, plenty of food trucks selling future diarrhoea, a few stalls selling clothes and nerdy nic nacs, a merch stand, lines of port-a-loos, and plenty of bars. Great to see that the festival management were good hosts and made sure that water, sun block and ear plugs were freely available.

Next up we went to Slaves at the Avalanche stage. The Avalanche stage was a big tent, and easily the best stage at the festival, taking me back to the Boiler Room at Mt Smart, or Main Stage at dunk!festival last year. The reasons that tents like this work so well is because they provide shelter and shade from the elements, protecting us from sun/rain, and meaning there are less variables like wind that affect the audio mix. Light shows are also more effective during day time, seeing as they are darker. The downside is that the capacity can be more limited than an open air stage, and I’m guessing that it requires more set up, but I never thought this stage overcrowded when I was there throughout the day.

Slaves certainly had a unique approach. There were just two of them, both topless and heavily tattooed, giving their all with intensity. Isaac Holman played drums whilst standing – having converted a kick drum to a floor tom. Laurie Vincent played guitar.  The two shared vocal duties. It was high energy and reckless, the duo throwing themselves about the stage, bouncing off speakers and launching themselves into the crowd.

Fever 333 at Download

Next up were Fever 333, who followed on in a very similar vein to Slaves. Lead singer Jason Aaron Butler was led on stage wearing a jumpsuit and a bag over his head – imagery that wouldn’t look out-of-place in Guantanamo Bay. He was joined by guitarist Stephen Harrison and drummer Aric Improta. All three of them have played in other successful bands, and their experience showed. It was a hectic brand of impassioned hardcore fused with extra intensity and politics. Many of the messages were about fighting – fighting to make shows a safe space for women, fighting against the NSW government who are trying to restrict live music, fighting for the rights of black people.

All three of them jumped around like mad men – even Improta, who jumped up on his drum throne on the regular. They even had us jumping – asking everyone to crouch down, and spring into the air after a countdown. One great section involved a “drum off” between Butler beat-boxing, and Improa on drums. Then Butler dived out into the crowd, ran the length of the tent and climbed the rigging for the lighting tower. I have no idea how long his microphone lead was, but I’m guessing at least 100 feet. Not to be outdone, Harrison began to climb the rigging on the side of stage, until he became slightly stuck, so jettisoned his guitar down onto the stage below. I loved the ferociousness of it all, and I think it’s fair to say the rest of the crowd did too. Easily a highlight of the day.

Whilst offering decent value for money, and an opportunity to see a range of artists play, festivals sometime feel less satisfying when the band you really want to see can only play a stunted set. But I didn’t feel that today, with many bands having a decent enough time slot to put on a good show.

Back out into the sunlight, and Polish death metal act Behemoth were on the mainstage. Not my thing. Looking at the crowd, many people love the Satanic shtick, but to me, raspy ‘evil’ vocals just sound pathetic, especially when you compare them to punchier shouted hardcore/punk style vocals. I’ll hand it to them though, their imagery made them stand out (spooky face paint and costumes) and they had cool pyrotechnics. The gimmick of being ‘shocking’ and ‘extreme’ just feels dated.

Time for a recharge: get something to eat and drink, reapply sun block, and risk the port-a-loos.

Truth be told, punk covers band Me First & The Gimme Gimmes were my prefered act for this time of the day, but I’m seeing them play a full set in Wellington this Thursday, so I thought I’d try something new. Many of my friends are big fans of Converge. I’ve tried listening to them in the past, and didn’t like it, but some bands are better live. I stayed for a few songs, still couldn’t get into it, so went to Anthrax.

Anthrax are one of the Big 4 – the four most notable thrash metal bands. The other three are Slayer (the festival headliners), Metallica and Megadeth (fronted by original Metallica guitarist Dave Mustaine). Now I don’t listen to a great deal of any of those bands, but when the opportunity presents itself, you’d be foolish not to see them.

They were great, clearly veterans of the stage. In true metal fashion, the drummer had double bass drums and an excessive rack, and guitarist Scott Ian played a Flying V – the most metal (and one of the least practical) guitar shapes. You could see that they loved their job, with the leathery singer Charlie Benette and Ian taking turns to hype the crowd up. Their style of thrash is still centred around fast, heavy riffing, but takes a note from epic NWOBHM bands like Iron Maiden as well. Ian insisted on crowd participation. You can go nuts in the pit, you can nod your head, you can pump your fist, but everyone must move! They didn’t play many songs, but they sure hit the spot.

Amity Affliction took the next slot on mainstage. They played a decent set, although an incident up the front interrupted the set and caused the band to cease for some time. I think someone had fainted in the pit, and security we trying to remove them, but I couldn’t say for sure what happened. Despite the hold up, they played a suitably dynamic set, with great sound, and a mix of heavier songs to get the crowd moving and clean sing-alongs that elicited just as much involvement.

I met up with my friend Jason who had been tour managing Slaves earlier in the day, and we caught some of Alien Weaponry and Rise Against. A few years ago I had earmarked Alien Weaponry as the next success story, but never anticipated the extent to their success. They’ve spent the past year touring Europe and America, playing festivals and joining the likes of Ministry on the road. It has been almost a year since I reviewed their début album , and judging from the amount of views I still get from that article, I can tell that they are sustaining steady growth.

They may have played the smallest stage at Download, but the crowd was spilling out of the confines of the allocated space. I am proud of them for bringing their unique style of Māori-infused thrash metal to the world, and it was a blast shouting along to their rallying war cries as they played.

I’ve seen Rise Against four times in the past, and although they are one of my favourite artists, I think they’re stronger as a studio band then as live performers. That said, the sound mix at Download was better than I’ve come to expect from them, and they still come across as seasoned players. Nothing is ever as good as listening to some of your favourite songs from your formative years, and they made sure to touch on a mix of songs new and old. Special mention to the section of Black Sabbath‘s “Paranoid” that they slotted into “Savior”, likely as a tribute to Ozzy Osbourne, the billed headliner who had to cancel due to health issues.

Grunge giants Alice In Chains were one of my big drawcards to this event. I’d read good reviews of their Auckland show the previous week, which only served to whet my appetite even more. And boy, did they deliver! Lead singer William DuVall will never be able to escape the shadow of original singer Layne Staley, whose substance abuse and subsequent death effectively ended the band in the 90’s. And although Duvall has recorded as many albums with AiC as Staley had, people still ask if he is fit to fill Stayley’s boots?

Short answer: yes. He nailed the older material. He didn’t try to emulate his predecessor, but made the songs his own while remaining true to the what the fans knew. As you can imagine, tracks like “Down In A Hole”, “Would?” and “Rooster” all went down a treat, but I can attest that new material stood up just as well alongside the classics.

It was just approaching dusk toward the end of Alice In Chains’ set, finally rendering the stagelights effective. An some of the original giants of metal: Judas Priest sure made the most of it.

When it comes to Judas Priest, everything is excessive. The stage set, the costumes, the drum kit, the sheer power of the music… it’s all epic. Rob Halford reappropriated the leather and studs from gay culture and pioneered the eternal metal wardrobe. And tonight he showed us how loyal he was to that look, with aviator sunglasses, leather gloves, and a range of leather jackets.

They’re a quintessential metal band, with the sound and look dialled just so. I was loving every minute. But I had a tough call to make. As great as they were, I’ve already seen Priest play at Westfest in Auckland a few years back. And my teenage nostalgia was craving some Sum 41, who I’ve never seen live. It’s the scheduling clash I struggled most with, but I think I made the best call I could have.

We timed it perfectly, arriving at the Avalanche tent just before Sum 41 played “Walking Disaster”, my favourite song of theirs. Sometimes you need to be strategic about which acts to see at a festival, and thankfully I could use Setlist.FM to look up sets from the Download Festival in Sydney on Saturday to inform my choices.

Singer Deryck Whibley commanded the stage like a pro, controlling both the band and the crowd at his whim. It was even more fun than I’d hoped – the great music combined with well rehearsed showmanship. Like Rise Against, they threw a few covers into the set (Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall”, Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”), the most notable being Queen’s “We Will Rock You”, which was so punked up that I didn’t recognise it until they hit the chorus.

They concluded with hits “In Too Deep”, “Fat Lip” and “Still Waiting”, which is what most of us were hoping to hear.

It was a hard decision missing most of Judas Priest’s set. I didn’t see Halford ride his Harley Davidson, but I did see them play “Breaking The Law” upon returning to the main stage, which was a great consolation.

Sadly for me, the night had peaked by that point. I got to shout silly things like “metal” and “Slaaayer” in falsetto when Slayer came on, but they didn’t have enough groove or dynamics to make we want to stick around.

I had been trying to figure out Ghost’s appeal leading up to the festival, and hadn’t worked out why people like them yet. Was it the same lame Satan shtick? Because at least Behemoth sounded plausible. Ghost’s sound didn’t match their image or reputation. I’d been watching Ghost videos on YouTube and it’s like they were trying to emulate Dynasty era KISS by playing disco tunes while dressing spooky.

Thankfully they fared better live. They had a decent stage set, which always helps (Rammstein are worth seeing for their stage set and pyro alone, even despite their music). The drums and bass sounded good, and riffs stood out a lot more than in the videos I’d heard. The singing was still a joke though. I said I’d give them three songs to prove themselves. Well, they were OK – better than I expected, but still not interesting enough to warrant sticking around any longer.

Halestorm proved to be the most worthwhile of the last three bands of the night. They played hard, shredding away and putting on a performance that focused on musicality over presentation. The drummer had some interesting tones from a slightly unconventional set-up, and the guitarists clearly knew their stuff. unfortunately singer Lzzy Hale was losing her voice. She put a heroic effort in, but wasn’t quite hitting her mark. This didn’t take away from the overall experience though.

All in all, it was a fantastic day. My friend and I discussed our day on the train trip home and we realised that we hadn’t encountered any dickheads. No aggro, no shoving, no spilling beer on us. People were respectful, gave space when they could, and all looked after each other. And that’s better than I’ve come to expect from most gigs, let alone one the size of Download. But it all came together: the weather was good, the line up of bands was excellent, the crowds respectful, and the overall experience was excellent.

It’s a real shame that Ozzy Osbourne couldn’t play. He had been one of the big drawcards for me. But you can’t hold it against anyone that he got sick, and it was still a fantastic event.

I may just have to fly back to Australia for Download next year as well!

 

Joseph James

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