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Album Review: TBA

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Gig Review: Download Festival 2008, Donington, UK

Before I even begin, there’s one big thing about this year’s festival that needs to be said so let’s get it out of the way first and then we can crack on with the music. With the dates clashing this year with the build up to the MotoGP, plus the fact that a motocross circuit was being built on the old site, festival organisers decided some changes were in order. They made the move to hold the entire festival outside of the confines of the Donington circuit.

Okay. This meant no hill from which to leisurely watch the bands from; no chance to walk the hallowed circuit, sucking up the exhaust fumes of Grand Prix’s past whilst perusing the stalls for a suitable sunhat; and most heinously of all, no Dunlop tyre – the gigantic archway that epitomised the Download spirit of machine and metal, leather and tread, volume and power.

Upon arrival, I see that this year the walk from campsite to stage has become so stretched that now we are expected to trudge through sand, stone, and shit for over a mile (if it’s anything less than a mile then I’m a Frenchman) before we hit the final tent. All this means if you wanted to catch Invasion on the Gibson Stage (11am, Sunday) you’d have to be setting off well before 10am. I have blisters on my blisters, as I write.

There is an upside. The second stage is no longer a tent; it’s now an open-air stage in front of which lies an expansive, rather unforgiving but swamp-free, concrete viewing area. And if you’re really very important, they have buses laid on to transport you from campsite to stage (I couldn’t find them for love nor money!)

Enough – let’s get cracking with the music. Well, it appears that there are so many big names plumping for Reading this year that one wonders whether the organisers are trying to go for a softer, more accessible Download – less brutal metal and more classic and emotional rock. Well, fair enough, considering that so many other smaller festivals are taking up the mantle with Bloodstock, Hard Rock Hell, Damnation & Ghostfest all competing for the most extreme noise bands.

With the Duracell Tent and Monster Bar DJ’s blazing out the “choons” before the first band even take the stage there is plenty of fun to be had and I certainly had my fair share. Favourites included the mosh-inciting anthem ‘Bodies’ by Drowning Pool while Slayer’s ‘Raining Blood’ got a good airing over the weekend. Then, at first light, Friday morning, 50,000 of us donned our walking gear for the tiresome slog down to the arena gates; and there we queued whilst all around us chants of “Donington, what is your profession?” were screamed. Replies of “Ha-OOH, Ha-OOH, Ha-OOH!” rang around and you at last felt part of something special.

As I piled through the security line and approached the Tuborg Stage the raw punk aggression of Zebrahead saw many leap into action, bucking and air-drumming to the beat. It’s pretty impressive stuff and is only topped by the take-no-prisoners rock of Stone Gods. With Robin Goodridge (ex-Bush) stepping onto the kick-pedals of poorly Ed Graham just a few weeks previously you’d think the boys would be taking things a little easier. Hell, no. There’s a furious pace being set and as Richie Edwards screams “Let’s burn the witch”, I double-take in case they really are! ‘You Brought A Knife To A Gunfight’ sees Dan Hawkins strike his familiar rock pose, legs spread wide, as he rips great chords of solid rock into the ether. Jeez, I miss The Darkness’ energy but I sure as Hell don’t miss the spandex, the falsetto or the comedy capers. Stone Gods are the grown-up version and they own us right now.

Already exhausted, I traipse over to catch Seether on the main stage who give us a roaring display of metal-infused rock before pulling a cover of Nirvana’s ‘In Bloom’ out of the bag. The weak ‘Rise Above This’ from the new album is a disappointing climax. Thankfully, Disturbed’s insane poster of a burning monster gets me all excited again. As they blaze through ‘Ten Thousand Fists’ and ‘The Game’ I can’t help but feel something is missing from the performance. It could be the guitars are too quiet but they pick up as they go on with ‘Inside The Fire’ getting the crowd rocking with a big sampled opening.

Ignoring the chance to see (a reportedly lacklustre) Motorhead (yet again) or the immense High On Fire, I find myself being dragged over to The Subways (or as their banner reads “The Subway” (I know the London Underground is sprawling but I didn’t expect a station here at Castle Donington). Well, the band turn out to be one of the best bands of the festival with ‘Mary’ delighting and the anthemic ‘Oh Yeah’ triggering universal chants of “Have you ever seen the light?” The crowd simply lap it up with the bare-chested Billy Lunn egging us on. Most eyes, however, are on the constantly body-jacking Charlotte Cooper, positively shining in her Ace Frehley face-paint. Never have I seen a three-piece make the stage look so vast. Every inch is covered as they fight their way through the dry ice. This surely isn’t the same band that produced such a sugary-sweet limp-wristed album. Is it?

I catch the start of Rival Schools who simply don’t step up to the plate with both crowd and band inactive. They open with ‘Used For Glue’ but after a few songs I don’t feel inspired enough to stick around for ‘High Acetate’ and move on. On the main stage Judas Priest are struggling through a near two-hour set that’s been thrust upon them because of Kid Rock’s sudden admission to hospital (“exhaustion” is cited but we’re all crassly thinking “overdose”). They shouldn’t be struggling with such a vast catalogue of music to choose from but watching Rob Halford stagger about I can’t help but think he’s on his way to joining Kid Rock at Nottingham General. He manages to haul his aging limbs over a Harley at one point but it’s a kind of hollow gesture when all you can do is imagine the rider falling off it. When they do hit their stride, Priest rock like the Gods they are. ‘Breaking The Law’ is a monster and the crowd chant is memorable.

I manage to fit in a few songs of the Kiss “extravaganza” (replete with wires, explosions, face-paint, costumes, a wall of lights and a whole truckload of pomp and circumstance) but I really have to be a party-pooper because I want to see music that excites me. I know I’m in the minority but Dillinger Escape Plan’s staccato mathcore noise and vitriol combo thrill me ten-times more than watching a man painted to look like a cat beating out steady soulless rhythms.

Through smoke and sweat the DEP boys are caning their bodies, spasmodically contorting themselves into unthinkable positions and their music follows suit. When they hit full stride it’s an awesome thing. It’s roaring, flared aggression beyond belief – a mushroom cloud of muscles, angst and instruments. They climb the stanchions, they leap off stacks, they bruise and break our ears with their shattering string and stickwork. As first a stage monitor and then a microphone stand spear their way into the crowd you just know there’s going to be a bloody end for a few in the pit tonight. As the band depart I catch my breath before heading back out to catch a prolonged volley of Kiss fireworks (which are fantastic, by the way, and make me wonder why they aren’t closing the festival on Sunday) and a, by comparison, limp-sounding ‘Shout It Out Loud’ and ‘I Wanna Rock N’ Roll All Night’. I’d rather be a part of the ‘Panasonic Youth’ to be honest.

Saturday dawns and last night’s revelry means a late start. I miss out on the joys of Malefice (which I hate myself for) but catch the end of Skindred and their legendary ragga-metal vocalist Benji Webbe. He bonds the crowd tightly enough to mosh in time whilst he blazes the incredible ‘Nobody’ at them. And after raising such merry Hell he gets out a small keyboard and lulls us to sleep with a sedate tune. Very strange, but very good.

As their set ends the rain begins to fall and, over at the Gibson, Go Audio get a pleasant surprise as their tent begins to fill with sheltering punters. Nodding heads signal that their plodding pop-rock is finding many new fans and ‘Made-up Stories’ is a highlight. The rain relents and I catch the end of Job For A Cowboy. They’ve improved since I last saw them (though they still lack stage presence) with the happy circle pit response proving it to be true. Despite its age ‘Entombment Of A Machine’ gets a huge roar with ‘Knee Deep’ following up and getting the remainder of the crowd nodding along approvingly.

There’s a pre-show crowd bottlefight for 36 Crazyfists but it stops when Brock Lindow walks out to a huge ovation. He responds with “I am pretty sexy aren’t I?” and continues the banter throughout – yep, he’s got the crowd just where he wants them. ‘Heart And The Shape’ and ‘The All Night Lights’ both shine out like beacons and I find myself loving every minute.

Exhaustion hits hard and after the long hike back to the tent and a tin of hot corned beef (looks like crap, tastes like Heaven) I’m good to go again. I make it back just in time to witness Bleeding Through incite a massive circle pit around the sound desk. It’s immense and, somewhere within the ring of bodies, a bewildered ice-cream salesman gives up and cowers in his van.

I see Biffy Clyro are doing that thing they do again – what was it again… ah yes, owning the festival – tearing their way through ‘Living Is A Problem Because Everything Dies’ and the absolutely killer ‘Get Fucked Stud’. They even have time to show off and give us some scorching back catalogue classics. “’Mon The Biffy!” screams a lad in front of me and I’m wholeheartedly with him.

Moving over to the Tuborg I catch the end of Ace Frehley who, as the Wildhearts’ Ginger implies later, is probably more effective as a solo artist. His songs fizz and buckle with rock heart and soul. Following his set there is a noticeable surge and it’s because we’re about to witness the incredible talent of Pendulum. With their even-more-mainstream-than-the-last-album material to perform they have never been closer to being a decent Download headliner. Judging by what they manage to produce over the next hour I’ll be first in the queue recommending them. Epically-charged drum n’ bass with guitars and sweeping samples carry the dancing crowd straight into sonic nirvana. Yep, Pendulum’s pulsing, banging, warping music married to the mesmeric vocal of Rob Swire certainly gives us all a reason to smile.

At the main stage now and Incubus spend way too long crooning and not enough time powering out their hits whilst over at the Gibson I find a tent bursting at the seams with happy Saxon fans. Teenagers need not apply, this is an old man zone, but by gum, it is rocking! I’m only here early for Testament but I find myself caught up in it all and singing myself hoarse. Once Saxon depart and the headliners arrive, I realise that no-one has left. The old folks are all still in… and why not? Hell, Testament are the forefathers of Bay Area thrash! The gloom descends and they power onto stage in a wail of shredding guitars. Chuck Billy’s vocal is slightly over-egged with echo and comes across as not only epic but also difficult to make out. It seems to slip behind the guitar and disappears altogether when the drums really lay waste. Highlights are without doubt ‘Henchman Ride’ and ‘Alone In The Dark’ – both see the crowd finally letting loose and causing mayhem.

Reading’s Exit Ten kick off Sunday with an energetic display of their up and coming metal prowess that deserves more than the polite applause they get. Over at the Main, Apocalyptica, four hairy Finns and their cellos, are delighting the uninitiated. They carry their instruments about like they were mere violins and windmill their hair longer than anyone I’ve ever seen windmill. Inviting Lacuna Coil’s Christina Scabbia to sing ‘SOS’ is a masterstroke but then everything without vocals seems lost once she departs.

Ignoring the promise of a trip across to see Airbourne (who apparently were scaling the lighting rig over at the Tuborg Stage) I stay to witness the corseted ice maiden Sharon den Adel (Within Temptation) smile, croon and captivate. 2007’s ‘The Heart Of Everything’ gets a good airing and by the end I curse myself for not owning it. At last, the band I’ve been waiting for, In Flames, take the stage. I’m keen to see how mainstream their sound has become since the early days – the answer is not as much as has been reported. Sure it’s more melodic, but Anders Friden still sounds like the Devil Incarnate. Although, I’m disappointed by their stagecraft Anders’ occasional monotone joshing with the crowd raises many laughs. ‘The Mirror’s Truth’ certainly goes down a treat with the fans and the Download moshpit responds by finding a new level of intensity.

I see Elliot Minor get a half-hearted bottling for a performance that seems less in keeping with a rock festival than anything else on the bill, and The Wildhearts spend far too long talking. Today, they are the comedy turn with Ginger upset that he’s not getting wet. “I heard that some bottles were being thrown” he inquires before demanding that we “throw anything that isn’t nailed down” at the stage. All through their set he returns to his theme. “If I don’t leave this stage soaked I’m gonna be really disappointed”. After a great deal of good-natured banter and a few scorching rock tracks (including the killer ‘Caffeine Bomb’) they are asked to leave the stage, having overran their slot, which they do with a resigned look on their faces. Jimmy Eat World, meanwhile, are burning through ‘Salt, Sweat, Sugar’ and ‘The Middle’ and keeping us all on our toes. Man, I wish I’d brought my dancing shoes.

One band left to go and it’s a biggie. When Sepultura’s Cavalera brothers had a tiff 12 years ago it sent shock waves around the world. When they reformed it gave the chance for those who’d never seen them play together to witness just how incredible they are live. Cavalera Conspiracy, one album down, headlining the final night of Download Festival – that’s how much their reunited front means to the metal community. Igor is an unmatched force on drums; tearing into his kit like a man possessed he creates double-kick thunder which blasts into those out front. As they run through their album ‘Inflikted’, Max wails each note with a huge grin on his face and, across stage Marc Rizzo yanks at his guitar like it’s done him a disservice. Out front we’re just happy to mosh and circle pit and headbang to every beautiful note. But, there, there in the back of our minds we’re waiting, waiting. We know it’s coming… but when? Then, BANG, there it is – the glorious cover of Sepultura’s ‘Roots’ we’d all secretly been waiting for. The monstrous circle pit says everything about this band, this song and this festival that you needed to know.

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