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Download Festival Reviewed

Download as experienced and shared with you by Ross Baker

Download 2010 was so incredibly good that 2011 could easily have been an anticlimax.  Some ominous warning signs appeared to point in this direction.  The 2011 festival seemed to have less attendees than the previous year and there was the added blow that inflation had caused the price of a pint to rise by 20p.The headline acts also appeared to be less stellar than the titanic triumvirate of AC/DC, Rage Against The Machine and Aerosmith that had the rock public in a frenzy of anticipation last year. However, there proved to be much to enjoy with some memorable performances by new bands like Ghost and also some polished performances from veteran acts.

    Def Leppard headlined on Friday. Their performance was particularly strong on ballads with the highlight of “Bringin’ On The Heartbreak” being particularly pleasing as was the formidable anthem “Rock Of Ages”. This was a set of slickly delivered arena rock that pleased the crowd but did not seem to achieve the peak that their glorious 2009 set had achieved.

    Early on day two, black metal band Chthonic from Taiwan provided a dramatic performance on the second stage. Bassist Doris is a tiny ball of energy who, despite her diminutive size, is a veritable “pocket Venus” who brims over with cool and sex appeal. Songs from last year’s “Mirror of Retribution” album are delivered with a precise, surefooted confidence that should see the reputation of this band continue to grow more and more in years to come.

    Unfortunately, St. Albans mob Rise To Remain did not arouse the same appreciation. Their appeal continues to elude me as their stodgy, screamy metalcore has little in the way of hooks and you can’t help thinking that their success hinges on the fact that front man Austin Dickinson is the son of Iron Maiden front man Bruce. Their act is lively and energetic but there are so many American acts doing this kind of thing right now that a British act aping the likes of Underoath et al. is not required.

Skunk Anansie deliver an excellent three song acoustic set in the press tent, after which it was time to catch a couple of numbers by Welsh raga metal crew Skindred who set the main stage bouncing.
Strange and enigmatic prog doom band Ghost proved to be the best new band of the Festival.
    Strange and enigmatic prog doom band Ghost proved to be the best new band of the Festival. They played a 70s style set which was full of satanic and hypnotic magnificence, made all the more atmospheric by their black robes. Phil Anselmo from Down was clearly a fellow fan who invited the band to guest during Down’s set later that day! Fronted by the mysterious Bishop, rumours of the identities of this secretive outfit continue to circulate online but their striking and memorable image, reinforced by an ethereal set, certainly captured the imagination of the assembled audience. Their sinister cover of The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun” and set closer “Ritual” were proof positive we may be looking at Rock’s breakout band of the year!

    Dan Reed entertained a dwindling crowd on the second stage.  Many of the fans seemed to be taking a beer break at this time of the afternoon and missed a set of pretentious balladry which evoked Brian Adams without the style or sense of performance. Reed was anxious to tell us that he was returning to the UK in October but very few people seemed interested. This kind of act would probably be better received at more mainstream events like Reading or the V Festival. During his act, Hip Hop rockers Hollywood Undead appeared on the main stage and Heights performed over on the Jägermeister stage.

    Clutch provided a welcome injection of vitality. Neil Fallon and co were in tremendous form, ripping through a set of hip shaking rock ‘n’ roll to get the crowd into action again! Opening salvo “The Mob Goes Wild” made the audience go wild, invoking a complete change in their behaviour after the torpor induced by the previous act. “Mice and Gods” and “50,000 Unstoppable Watts” were huge grooving behemoths which you couldn’t help throw yourself into with reckless abandon. This hard working Maryland rock band tour frequently but their performances always feel fresh and non-formulaic. You never feel that they are just churning out another performance.

    This made a satisfactory intro to another ferocious performance from Down. Guitarists Pepper Keenan and Kirk Windstein turned out epic riffs and shaven headed vocalist Phil Anselmo looked like he was having the time of his life. They used the chorus of Pantera’s “Walk” as an introduction to the powerful “Lifer” which was a welcome twist and the audience exploded and indulged in some serious crowd surfing action. Anselmo may have been feeling below par and suffering from a sore throat which he had had “Blessed by the Bishop from Ghost” but this was still a breathtaking performance which concluded with Ghost joining the Down guys onstage for a gut-wrenching “Bury Me in Smoke” which threatened to tear the main stage apart. As they say “The power of the riff compels you!”
...the audience exploded and indulged in some serious crowd surfing action.
    I was eagerly anticipating the Brit rockers Skunk Anansie, who were also playing on the main stage, because of their extremely pleasing short acoustic set in the press tent. Unfortunately, the material from their comeback album “Wonderlustre” lacked the depth and zest of their earlier work although performances of the likes of hit singles “Charlie Big Potato” and “I Can Dream” were still fantastic crowd pleasers. Skin is certainly a great front woman with a strong and distinctive voice but the new songs are by and large slower and tamer, preventing their performance from becoming a real triumph.

    Following that, it was over to the Pepsi Max stage to catch thrash juggernaut Evile who turned in a strong and memorable, if short, set of five songs The Huddersfield crew have grown over the years into an efficient and technically skilful operation with considerable musical depths. Singer Matt Drake’s vocal performance has developed accordingly and although he has kept the savage roar that gives tracks like “Thrasher” and excellent new track “Cult” their atmospheric feel, he is unafraid to use more melodic passages also. The forthcoming album “Five Serpents Teeth” could be the album that breaks them.

    So many great singers have come out of heavy metal but few of them are such ultimate showmen as Dee Snider. The Twisted Sister vocalist continues to perform at maximum warp. The ‘Sister kept the energy levels high, rejecting the ballads in favour of a set of high octane party metal capped off with the timeless “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “I Wanna Rock” which felt like the signature anthem for Donington.

    The finale for Saturday was courtesy of shock rocker Alice Cooper who brought his rock and gore show to round off the day with a pleasurable set. It’s a wonder how the old fellow keeps on going after so many years, considering he dies after every other song!  Mr Furnier, at age 63, runs rings around many younger acts (Hello Marilyn Manson!) with his “Grand Guignol” sense of drama but it was classics like hit single “Poison” combined with newer numbers like the pleasingly heavy “Brutal Planet” and of course the seminal “Schools Out” that kept the audience screaming for more. Cooper is pretty much the Godfather of shock rock and despite his years he continues to deliver a set of quality entertainment.
Cooper is pretty much the Godfather of shock rock
    Sunday morning brought with it torrential rain which unfortunately managed to hang on for most of the day, leaving many a punter drenched and complaining. Those who opted to stay in their tents, however, missed a powerful early set from Biohazard who, despite the shocking departure of founding member Bassist/Vocalist Evan Seinfeld, held their own with a mighty rendition of “Punishment”.

    Continuing with more aggressive acts on the bill, U.K. crew October File delivered a set of snarling quasi Killing Joke post-punk metal which fared well despite a muddy sound mix. Stoner instrumentalists Karma To Burn were a disappointingly missing in action.

On the main stage, Bowling For Soup presented their only memorable song, “The Girl All The Bad Guys Want”.  Their childish between-song banter is like Blink 182’s idiot kid brother. Their “one joke” pop punk soon becomes irksome but fortunately the arrival of Norwegian madmen Kvelertak blew these feelings away. Numbers like the incendiary “Fossegrim” and “Nekrostop” fired up the moshpit, combining hardcore bluster with black metal parts and an almost rock ‘n’ roll feel in places. They were everything B.F.S. were not; fresh, exciting and chock full of dynamite riffs with a swaggering stage presence that converted many a new fan to their cause. Apt that their band name translates to “Stranglehold” as Kvelertak clearly took Download by the scruff of the neck this time.

    Back on the main stage we got the blue collar punk of New Jersey song merchants The Gaslight Anthem. Singer/Guitarist Brian Fallon is a charming guy whether he’s waxing lyrical between songs about listening to Metallica, even pausing to give us a blast of the riff from “Master Of Puppets”, to turning out heartfelt numbers like the powerful “Bring It On”. While being popular with hipsters everywhere, Gaslight Anthem showed they were credible musicians who could hold their own on pretty much any bill now. The rain didn’t seem so bad when they were on stage nor when the sleaze bomb that is Buckcherry performed. I only managed to catch a couple of their later numbers but any act that can get the ladies gyrating the way Josh Todd and co do with numbers like drug anthem “Lit Up” and “Crazy Bitch” get my vote.

    By contrast, Black Veil Brides seemed somewhat lightweight. “Knives and Pins” is ok but they clearly rely heavily on their image as the songs themselves lack atmosphere. They appear to be an 80s glam metal act but seem to have forgotten what made that musical movement so popular back in the day, namely memorable choruses. Sure they have a couple of moments but compared to Buckcherry they just feel too saccharine and clean.

No one could accuse Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy of lacking substance. With a new album on the way later this year, the band looked in better shape than they had for many years. They tempted fate opening with “Rain” which mercifully didn’t see the heavens open up again but even if they had, it wouldn’t have made their mesmerising performance any less enjoyable. With former White Zombie man John Tempesta working away at the drum-kit, the band looked restored and renewed, ending their set with a stirring version of “Love Removal Machine”.

That left only monster man Rob Zombie to end the evening, making his first U.K. festival appearance in over a generation. Shock and awe was the order of the day with giant robots, pyrotechnics and all the props you could wish for. Guitarist John5 was on fine form, shredding impressively and acting as a lynchpin in this gory and bizarre carnival. Ex- Marilyn Manson drummer Ginger Fish pounded his way through the set, including an exceptional drum solo, while bass player Piggy D competently slotted the riffs into place.
...Zombie had the crowd eating out of the palm of his ghoulish hand.
Those people who chose to watch Linkin Park on the main stage during this, the hottest freakshow of rock, missed a treat. From the dirty stripper grind of “Living Dead Girl” and “Pussy Liquor” to White Zombie’s “More Human Than Human” and set closer “Dragula”, Zombie had the crowd eating out of the palm of his ghoulish hand. Zombie looked pleased to be back at Donington and promised the fans it would not be long till he brought his undead presence back to our shores. He certainly provided a dramatic close to an enjoyable, if not classic, year at Donington.

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Ross Baker
22nd June 2011
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