Live Review : Download Festival on June 16th 2019

Sundays at festivals are usually greeted with mixed emotions; sadness that it is almost over and adulation that within twenty four hours you can have a hot bath and use a real toilet. I had planned on starting my Sabbath with much feted Glaswegian pop-rockers Lost in Stereo, however less than two tracks in, I decide that they are far too light and frothy for 11.00 am on a Sunday. Their syrupy Weezer like melodies are a bit like nursing a hangover with camomile tea as opposed to nuclear strength coffee, so I abandon them to seek more abrasive stimulation. Sorry Guys.

Cane Hill prove to be much more what I am after. They are by no means original, in-fact if you close your eyes you would swear that Slipknot were still on stage, but they have a level of oomph and conviction that makes them just the ticket for blowing off the cobwebs on a Sunday morning. They are heavy, abrasive and seem very much at home on a large stage. The only criticism would be that they are yet to write something truly memorable that would make them stand out from the crowd of nu-metal wannabes.  

Bizarre as it might sound, this is my first venture of the weekend over to the neon pop-punk crèche that is the Avalanche stage. My destination is Black Futures and they are bloody brilliant. Part Vanishing Point-era Primal Scream, part The Black Keys, part ancient rave pioneers Alt-8 and part final year art school project, they produce probably the most interesting and invigorating twenty five minutes of the entire festival. This is modern day industrial blues (think The White Stripes but played through a filter of Nine Inch Nails). However what they sound like actually isn’t important, what is so remarkable is how it is delivered. This is half gig and half performance art. A squadron of flag waving minions clad in white protective suits and dust masks (looking like they have fallen through a hole in the space time continuum from a rave in field somewhere in Hampshire circa 1988) spend the set in the crowd interacting with the audience. They dance, flirt, crowd-surf, pick fights and generally cause mischief. 

The two musicians/sonic wizards (try as I might, the internet doesn’t give up who they actually are) who make the actual sounds are equally active. The guitar fellow is not just in the pit for sizable durations of the set, he actively participates in the circular action while still managing to play guitar. In fact, at one stage, it seems that he has completely given up on the idea of ever going back to the stage by just setting up shop with us, groundlings. And not to be left out drum boy (who has the most amazing transparent drum kit) is pulling his set up apart, wandering around playing on each individual piece. That is just a flavour of what happened between midday and twenty five past twelve on Sunday in the Avalanche. Whether you think this is true genius or just stupid stunts is up to you. However, what is clear, this is not the last time we will hear of Black Futures

Remember that cover version of 'Another Brick in the Wall pt. 2' in 2010 that had the refrain “Hey Ayatollah, leave them kids alone”? Well that was Blurred Vision. Nine years later, Iranian born singer songwriter Sepp Osley has relocated to London and formed a totally new (aside from him) version of the band. It is all very accessible Dan Reed-esque funk rock and it is all rather unremarkable, to be honest. In fact the most memorable track is the aforementioned doctored Pink Floyd track.

So slightly underwhelmed, it’s back to Avalanche for a double header of two ROCKFLESH favs. The utterly fantastic Black Peaks but first Heart of Coward and mother of god, have they pulled a crowd. For nearly ten years, Heart of Coward have been atop of my one to watch list and heartbreakingly over that time I have watched numerous bands with half their talent pass them by. A couple of years back, I had made peace with the fact that they had run out of gas. They just weren’t going to capitalise on their immense potential. Then suddenly last year, the arrival of Kaan Tasan on vocals gave them a much needed new lease of life. I know it sounds a bit over dramatic but they are a band reborn. The energy is back, the hunger is back and suddenly they are back in the game. The tent is full (where as last time they were here, it was me and a couple of their mums) and they tear up the stage like their careers depend upon it (which to be honest it does). Kaan is superb frontman. He breathes new life into fan favourites such as 'Hollow' and 'Deadweight' and the stuff from just released “The Disconnect”? Well let’s just say 'Ritual' makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. I know I may be counting my chickens and all that, but this time, this time, they may just make it.

The tent just gets even fuller as the second of ROCKFLESH’s band-crushes take the stage. In-fact it was at Download ’16 that I first fell in love with Black Peaks, when their hybrid of a thousand styles was taking baby steps into the world. Three years on they are all grown up, ready to show the world what they have to offer. Today’s show really does feel like a moment, there are thousands of people in here and the band are probably the best I’ve seen them. They are confident, strident, looking like they belong on big stages with pyrotechnics and all. I’ve written loads about their music but needless to say that it is uncategorisable. It is a vast boiling pot of hundreds of influences and styles that ebb and flow together. It manages to be complex and layered but also catchy and highly commercial. This is a high quality beautifully constructed progressive Metal that has the ability to appeal to a much wider audience. Will Gardner’s voice is also on top form. It simply soars tonight. In years to come today will be remembered as the moment they transcended into the big league, as they are nothing short of magnificent.

On the main stage, it’s the arrival of the Viking hordes and Amon Amarth have brought their entire toy box with them. The drum riser is a massive Viking helmet (though don’t get me started on the whole did they actually have horns? debate), the whole show is full of so many props and amateur theatrics that it just about manages to keep on the right side of Spinal Tap. That is the wonder of Amon Amarth. The fact that they get away with treading the fine line between magnificent and ridiculous and still are considered a serious band even though their concept is so bloody silly (see also Sabaton). This afternoon, we get a headline show even though it is not even four o’clock and they are fourth on the bill. Fire, pyrotechnics, more fire, fighting Viking, a bloody sea monster; it’s all here. Most importantly, the band play like they are headlining. They are self-assured and utterly focused, the sun may be shinning but you can tell in their collective minds it is night. This is their crowd. I talked a lot yesterday about extreme Metal band’s crossing over but here is a band that has already done it. Amon Amarth are from the melodeath stables but today they show (as ludicrous as all this Viking stuff is) that they are a mainstream Metal band. The only way is up.

Back up to Dogtooth for short shot of French black-gaze pioneers Alcest. Bloody hell! This place is heaving again. It’s bone dry, so you can’t use the weather as an excuse, so there must be an audience at Download for slight quirky, slightly different forms of Metal. If this is indeed the case, can we please please have a bigger tent next year so we can all get in rather than spend sets craning to see and hear. From my slither of a vantage point (between two geezers who were even taller than me) I can report back that Alcest are at the soaring magnificent best, it just would have been nice to have seen them!

Lamb of God hit the main stage at one hundred miles an hour and just accelerate from there. This is an old skool Lamb of God set with everything (bar two from 2015’s “VII: Sturm und Drang”) lifted from their ferocious mid-noughties run of ‘As The Palaces Burns’, ‘Ashes of the Wake’ and “Sacrament”. Something has clearly rattled their cage and there are angrier and more ant-social than ever. Randy prowls the stage like a captive lion on hot coals. He is clearly agitated about something but takes the stress out on every single note that he ushers forth. He screams, he pounces and he twirls like a man possessed. I have seen Lamb of God many many times, but today they seem intent on leaving us with no doubt that they are the heaviest, most aggressive and noisiest mother fuckers around. New material is promised (though we don’t get to hear any) instead we get a closing salvo of Laid to Rest and Redneck which does the impossible and ratchets the angst and the pace up even more. Then, with a stark warning not to miss on our last every chance to see Slayer, they are gone. Unsettled, angry and obviously troubled, they still managed to be utterly magnificent.

The Smashing Pumpkins starts amazingly. In one single track, 'Zero, they prove why they were always the indie band that it was OK for metal-heads to like. Billy Corgan may have become Uncle Fester and James Idaho may look like he is about to present a daytime U.S. quiz show ,but for those 2 minutes and 41 seconds they are the best band on site. It dips slightly with two back to back tracks from last year’s rather underwhelming comeback album Shiny and “Oh So Bright Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun” but they manage to pull it around again with a stunning 'Bullet with Butterfly Wings. As one, we all scream ‘Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage’ and there is a common feeling that once more, we are witnessing one of the greatest bands of all time. Of course that good-will is immediately cast aside with two obscure tracks that nobody but the most diehard pumpkin-head would have ever heard of. Cue lots of shuffling of feet and a state of boredom starts to spread over the audience. A staggering haunting 'Disarm' brings everyone back to the land of the living, but I start to get a lingering fear they are doing all of this on purpose by being contrary bastards just for the hell of it. And lo and behold, we get a another two slices of obscurity (I knowThe Everlasting Gaze' is from “Machina / The Machines of God”, but really who bought that fucker). There is a half-hearted attempt to win over the audience by espousing on the history of Donington (James even admits to having the Monsters of Rock compilation album), then we are promised a special surprise, just for us. This turns out to be the very pregnant Black Metal queen Amalie Bruun (Mykur to you and me). She takes vocals for an evocative but slightly under-cooked version of Black Sabbath’s 'Snow Blind. Its good, indeed very good, but by this point the Pumpkins are beginning to try the patience of an audience that just wanted to scream along with the hits. 'Ava Adore' and 'Cherub Rock' give us just that, but there is a real feel of too little too late that is compounded by the fact they choose to finish on a really obscure b-side. 'The Aeroplane Flies High (Turns Left, Looks Right)' isn’t a bad track, but concluding with such an unknown song means that set finishes on an almighty anti-climax as they sulk off stage to a splattering of applause and little else. There were moments of utter brilliance here but in the main this was such as wasted opportunity to show why The Smashing Pumpkins were so adored in their day.

Ever since the timetable for Download was revealed, I have had a real existential first world dilemma about whether I went to see Slayer or ToolTool’s presence sealed my attendance at this year’s festival, but it’s Slayer last UK show. After today that’s it. So even as I wander over to Slayer, I am still in two minds about whether I am staying for the entire set or whether I am buggering off after half an hour to see Tool. As with every show on this tour, Slayer are in fearsome form. The fact that the end is nigh, only months away, seems to have invigorated them with new energy. There is little movement from Tom, Kerry and Garry who maintain their positions for the seven tracks I see (spoiler: yes I do head off to Tool after Gemini) but as stagnant as they are, they simply burn off the stage. For me, Slayer has always been about aggression. Powerful aggressive music that for three decades has allowed me to vent my frustrations and channel my anger. Tonight is no exception and no different to all the other times I have seen Slayer, it is at that point and with that realisation that I decide to head off to Tool. This is an all guns blazing Slayer performance but that is what I expect from them, there are no surprises here. So as 'Gemini' fades out, with a whispered thank you and tear in my eye, I head off to the unpredictability of Tool

Slayer may well be saying their farewells on the others side of the trees but here, there is still a distinct feeling of anticipation around main stage. The screens are all off (Maynard and co treasure their anonymity) and twelve years after they last played in this country, Tool are about to return. The intro builds slowly as kaleidoscopic images fill those aforementioned screens (we get no shots of the band during the entire set), suddenly, there they are and we are straight into 'Ænema. It is immediately clear that they are a class above anything else we have witnessed this weekend. Even though I am a good football pitch away, it is still breath-taking to watch them create. This is sophisticated, layered, just unlike anything that has been on offer in the last three days. Its straight into ‘The Pot', a real reminder that as intricate and complex as their stuff is, this is still invocative and invigorating Heavy Metal. A field of fevered devotees leap as one in the air and scream “Who are you to wave your finger? You must have been outta your head  Eye hole deep in muddy waters You practically raised the dead”. Whilst less frenzied than last night’s reaction to Slipknot, it is still one of wide-eyed devotion which shows that over a decade of absenteeism has not abated this country’s adoration for Tool

The set is an ever descending rabbit hole of textured noise. Each track builds, builds then spirals away taking the listener to unknown sections of their imagination. This is far more than music, this is akin to an out of body experience. This feeling of other-worldliness is strengthened by the fact that band itself keep themselves in the shadows or (as in Maynard’s case) unlit at the back. It is as if they don’t want to distract from the music and without clear personalities to fixate on you are left to fully immerse yourself in the music. The shroud of detachment is broken only once, when before 'Part of Me', Maynard mentions that those under 27 would not have been sperm when the track was written. This is our sole piece of communication but it doesn’t matter. Tool live is not about connecting with the band, it is about bathing in a sea of pulsating sound. They end with 'Stinkfist' and then, in his usual understated manner, Maynard picks up his coat and wanders out of our lives again.

I suspect that it won’t be twelve years until we see Tool again but even if it inexplicably is, tonight they proved they are a unique oddity within our world. Their music is rich, challenging and without equal. To produce something this intelligent, this transcendental and make it work in a muddy field is not just an art, it is pretty much witchcraft. As we all drift off into the night to dream of hot showers, we share a collective wow.

PS. I so made the right choice!

By Stewart Lucas