Live Review : Download Festival on June 14th 2019

Most reviews you will read of this year’s Download Festival will be from journalists who stayed in off-site hotels and who spent a predominate amount of their time on site in the distinctly less muddy press area. ROCKFLESH is a site of the people, by the fans for the fans, so therefore no such luxury for us. We humped our gear from the sodden swamps of West car park with the rest of you, we spent hours trying to fit three sizable tents into a piece of grass no bigger than a postage site as you all did, we cursed the fact that we seemed to be camped directly at the end of the runaway as everyone else did and we yomped through the mudapocoalaypse brown quokemire that the Village had become with the everyone else.

It all means that we feel we have the right to point out that this year Download struggled infrastructurally. It might not help our chances of being accredited again next year, but there were real creaks in this year’s organisation. The new Arena security firm seemed to be under-staffed and under-trained in customer interaction, the bar queues were ludicrous for no discernible reason (lack of bar staff? Poor queueing system? Less bars? To be honest we couldn’t put our finger on it, we just seemed to spend a LOT more time queueing than ever before) and once again, the bad weather seemed to catch everyone by surprise. Everyone at ROCKFLESH Towers loves Download with every bone in our broken bodies but, but this year it didn’t feel the seamless well run monolith that we have been used to. But we come to praise Download 2019 not bury it, as queues and sludge aside, there were some amazing musical gems to find. 

Our journey started with Norwegian Black n’ Roll royalty Kvelertak and the question on everyone’s lips is whether new vocalist Ivar Nikolaisen could cut it and whether he had the ability to fulfil the owl shaped hole left by Erlend Hjelvik. The simple answer is yes. Ivar is a lanky streak of piss compared to Erlend’s imposing shape, but he possess his very own brand of manic energy and infectious charisma. As always they burn off the stage and to be honest if you close your eyes it is like Erlend never left as Ivar vocal snarl is remarkably similar. Kvelertak play a highly infectious brand of black n’ roll, think Status Quo cover Emperor, and whilst the vocals are all in Norwegian, they still manage to get a sizeable crowd singing along.

Delain just about manage to hang on to the crowd Kvelertak amassed, even though traditionally in this country, symphonic metal bands are about as popular as a porcupine at an orgy. They are resplendent in matching red and white leather and PVC outfits, looking like they are going for the best dressed prize at an S&M party. As always Charlotte Wessel utterly owns the stage. Yes, this is a masterclass in Heavy Metal clichés (Smoke pillars? Check. Synchronised guitar shape throwing? Check. Organised sing alongs? Check) but what Delain have in abundance is the songs. 'Pristine' and 'Don’t Let Go' are both excellent and, in ode to acceptance 'We are the Others’, they have a bonafide anthemic monster of tune that gets the whole field joining in.

My next appointment was meant to be ethereal and haunting SKYND in the Dogtooth but that was well and truly sabotaged by a beer queue that was frankly biblical in both its size and its inability to actually go anywhere. Other Rockfleshers did however see her (or in one case hear her as they were too short to see anything in the crowd) and reported back that she had a fab voice and real stage presence. Our hearing not seeing correspondent apparently kept thinking "just one more track" but was so swept away with it all that they ended up doing the whole set and enjoying it immensely.

However, back in the bar queue that time forgot, I only emerge in time for the living legends that are Whitesnake. David Coverdale is still a star and still possess one of the most magnetic personalities that you will come across. Yes, the voice is not once what is was and yes, his chiselled bronze features are now showing the years, but he just oozes charm and sensuality. He seems to take up permanent residence on the vanity ramp using his laser precision smouldering eyes to connect with an audience that in many cases are young enough to be his grandkids. We get 'Slide It In’, which manages to sound both dirty and classy and 'Love Ain’t No Stranger, which just drip with bluesy goodness. However the stuff from the new album that follows is poor and sound like soulless facsimiles of past glories. And then we get the unthinkable for a mid-afternoon festival set, we get solos, lots of solos. Yes, Reb Beach and Joel Hoekstra are both excellent axe welders but I don’t need both of them to grace us with elongated guitar workouts in order to prove that point. Then Tommy Aldridge does a drum solo and a set that had started out at a lustful blistering pace suddenly shudders to a crawl even slower than the bar queues. Yes, there are all the hits to come and yes, Coverdale is far far sexier than a sexagenarian should be allowed to be, but it is at this point that I jump ship and head for Opeth.

And boy, do Opeth not disappoint. Their fifty minute set is veritable showcase of how complex, intricate and utterly magical heavy music can be. As one the audience stand in open mouthed awe as Mikael Åkerfeldt and his compatriots weave tapestries of lush sound that soar with brutal power and then swoon with subtle beauty. We get five tracks, each from different distinct points in their diverse carrier, but still the set flows as a singular musical journey and you cannot see the join between ‘Sorceress’  warm Prog and 'Ghost of the Perdition’ fierce and majestic Death Metal. Mikael is as self-deprecating and humble as ever and the whole thing is simply bloody brilliant.

Aussies Twelve Foot Ninja have managed to make a name for themselves with a swaggering funky brand of Metal that is both eclectic and highly danceable to. The Dogtooth stage is packed (as it is for most acts this weekend) with both aficionados and curious newbies, but the whole thing becomes a damp squib and complete missed opportunity as technical difficulties mean that they are limited to just 'Coming For You' and 'One Hand Killing’. They are obviously frustrated by this and fail to get into their stride and are off stage again before they make any real impact. A crying shame for a band that are doing such interesting things on record.

Ukrainian sensation Jinjer follow and Dogtooth bursts at its seams and the audience spills out as far as the bar on one side and all the way to the permanently packed Merch stall on the other. There is such a buzz about Tatiana Shmailyuk and her band mates that it becomes impossible to get into the same postcode as them, let alone see or hear anything. I’m 6ft 5 and I fail to see a ruddy thing, but I do get myself close enough to bath in their highly melodic Metalcore, powered by her rich satin drenched vocals that are both exquisite and mesmerising. I suspect they will be back next year and on main stage.

And talking of return visits, it is then off to Sir Rob of Zombie. We don’t get anything surprising or ground-breaking and essentially it is the same show as every other Zombie gig, but what we do get is a highly energetic and passionate performance that is both captivating and entertaining. Senior Zombie is an old fashioned showman and for just over an hour, he does not stop moving, pontificating or whipping up the crowd. For all the horror god façade, he is actually as scary as a Care Bear and comes across more as a highly affable gentlemen who is actually rather chuffed that we have chosen him over Def Leppard. We get everything you expect (as said there are no surprises here) but it is delivered at such a pace and with such gleeful vigour that it doesn’t matter. In the end you know that under all the designer smudges there is a ruddy big grin on Rob’s face as he is clearly enjoying this as much as we are. 

And finally, it is back to Dogtooth for my final appointment of the day and (for me) it is a big one. You see At The Gates mean the world to me and are probably one of the most important bands in our little universe. Not only did they produce ‘Slaughter of the Soul’ (one of the two greatest metal albums of all time), they have managed to buck the trend by being a reformed band that have retained the passion and vitality that made them so brilliant in the first place. There is no wistful daydreaming over what it would have been like to see them in Gothenburg back in the mid-nineties, as you know that they would have been exactly the same whirlwind of un-bridled energy that we see today. We get the brutal 'To Drink From The Night Itself ‘ to start, conclusive proof that they can still write a killer tune and then it’s into Slaughter’s majestic title track and a room of rabid fan-boys all scream GO at each other. Yes, the sound is murky for the initial few songs but this cannot disguise the absolute zeal and conviction that these tracks are played with. At the Gates are simply magnificent live and prove that age doesn’t dent one’s ability to be brutal. And as 'Blinded by Fearrings in my ears I wander off into the mud soaked night and start that epic wander back to my tent as tomorrow is another day.

Saturday to follow.

By Stewart Lucas