Let’s face it, about two weeks prior to the annual rock and metal pilgramage to Donington for the Download Festival, weather watch becomes a favourite pasttime for a large amount of the festival going community. Having ranged from looking horrendous (ala many of the recent previous years) to not too bad at all, the worst was feared when several members of Team Rock Sins got absolutely soaked when trying to find space to set up camp on the Thursday afternoon, but that was to prove the low weather point of the weekend. And so, as we approached the first day of music, it seemed that, finally, once again, a “Dryload” was upon us.
If you would like to read our coverage from the Friday of Download 2017 on the other stages, please check out the following links as this review applies to the main stage only:
There is something odd about seeing a procession of goths in broad daylight. But when Motionless In White are in town, the undead come to party. This is Motionless In White’s (8) third time playing Download, and they are now on the big boy stage and ready to prove this is where they belong. With a criminally short set, they decide to go for broke and unleash a barrage of hits that sets the crowd off nicely. Chris Motionless seems in his element in front of the faithful and cuts a striking figure as he commands the audience beneath him. He even manages to crack a smile or two. Motionless In White have always had the vibe of superstars in the making and it’s performances like this that drive that point home. The new material from Graveyard Shift slots into the set perfectly and sounds absolutely huge reverberating around the hallowed grounds of Donington Park. Hedging our bets, we would say that next time we see Motionless In White at Download it will be much much higher up the bill. SC
It’s difficult to think of a band perhaps more suited to the early afternoon glorious sunshine than Swedish power-metal titans Sabaton (7). One part bombastic metal stomp, one part Eurovision lunacy and several parts hilarious fun, they immediately set about trying to put smiles on the faces of everyone in the immediate vicinity with their hugely fun set of war-themed anthems. Oh, and they also have a tank named Walter for a drum riser. Unfortunately for the band on this occasion though, it’s not all smooth sailing, as sound issues seem to take several layers of impact off of their usual over-the-top sound and leave things feeling a tiny bit lacking.
Not that those unfamiliar with the band would be able to tell though, such is frontman Joakim Brodén’s relentless enthusiasm as he leads the band through a rousing set mostly culled from 2016’s The Last Stand, with a few fan-favourites thrown in for good measure. The likes of Ghost Divison and Primo Victoria might seem overly-daft at face value, but witnessed in a live capacity with synchronised pyro and other lunacy, it simply works. No, Sabaton aren’t the most serious of bands, despite what their lyrical topics would have you believe. What they are however, are a damn fine band and a wonderfully entertaining band to have on the Main Stage of Download Festival. JFW
Following up such madness could be daunting to some bands but luckily, the next act taking to the Main Stage is no regular band. Mastodon (7) have been a perennial favourite within the metal community for what seems like an eternity by now, and so naturally, their set today draws a rather sizeable crowd. Kicking off with Sultan’s Curse from new album Emperor of Sand certainly does well in whipping said audience into a frenzy, however the momentum doesn’t quite seem to last. That’s not to say that their performance on this occasion is bad, but perhaps where Mastodon have gone slightly astray today is in set choice.
Rather than do what many expected and air a large amount from their three most recent albums (being easily the most accessible in their catalogue to casual punters), the Atlanta natives instead go for a wider selection of tracks from across their career, with oddly mixed response. Instead of the likes of Curl of the Burl, The Motherload and Blood and Thunder, the Download crowd is treated to tracks like Bladecatcher and The Wolf Is Loose, with the overall effect feeling a touch underwhelming. That said, there are still a few strong moments in Mastodon’s set today, including a particularly punchy airing of recent single Show Yourself, with fantastic vocal interplay between drummer Brann Dailor and bassist Troy Sanders. Finishing on Mother Puncher seems to breathe some life back into the crowd too, but as Mastodon leave the stage, it’s difficult not to be left wondering what could have been had they played a slightly different set today. JFW
Away from all the recent troubles that had preceeded them (and indeed, those that were to follow a few days later), Five Finger Death Punch (8) arrived at Download with their game heads firmly on. Ivan and co launched their statement of intent from the off, launching into Lift Me Up which prompted a huge reaction from the assembled Donington masses. When not dealing with his well documented issues, Ivan Moody remains one of the most watchable frontmen in metal and was in typically abrasive form, launching into the likes of Wash It All Away and Burn MF. Meanwhile the man with the kraken beard, bassist Chris Kael imposed himself in typical enthusiastic fashion while guitarist Jason Hook shredded effortlessly.
When a band can finish a set with a triple header like Remember Everything, the always enjoyable Under and Over It and traditional closer The Bleeding, leaving a whole field applauding as Download did for Five Finger Death Punch, you know they are on the cusp of great things. The only question is whether the band can keep it together for long enough to get to the top of the proverbial mountain. JG
There had been a considerable amount of excitement in the lead up to Prophets of Rage (9) first European performance, although they still have a lot to prove in terms of new material with their soon to be released first album coming out in September their performance at Download showed the immense quality they have, drawing on the enormous history that the group has. Flying through a set which could mostly be considered Rage Against the Machine’s greatest hits, including among others as classics Bulls On Parade, Bullet in the Head and Killing in the Name. The crowd reacted instinctively to each hit – dancing and chanting along throughout. Demonstrating the future potential of the band the show kicked off with the self titled Prophets of Rage and included another new song, the aptly titled Unfuck the World. Though both tracks were not so well known, they were well received which bodes well for the future. Added in for good measure was a medley of hip hop classic’s including Public Enemy’s Fight the Power and Insane in the Brain by Cypress Hill.
Bearing in mind the instrumental performances were provided by members of RATM, one outstanding question leading into the show was whether the vocal quality would come close to that of Zach de la Rocha. B-Real of Cypress Hill fame and Public Enemy’s Chuck D delivered standout performances, not trying to directly imitate Zach but making changes to work in combination, fitting their strengths and style which was very well received by the crowd. Unsurprisingly like many bands over the weekend the set was punctuated by a variety of political statements including a blunt ‘Fuck Trump’ sign on the back of Tom Morello’s guitar as well as compliments to Jeremy Corbyn for the general election result before Take the Power Back. To complete the set the band performed a moving tribute to the legendary Chris Cornell following his sad recent passing in the form of an instrumental version of the Audioslave classic Like a Stone leading to a mass emotional singalong from the Donington crowd, providing one of those true classic Download Festival moments that will be remembered for years to come. IW
By now, System of a Down (8) are no strangers to Donington Park, having played here on three previous occasions including a headline slot back in 2011 following the band’s return from a five-year hiatus. Whilst that set was at the time somewhat maligned by sections of the rock press, the band are clearly still very much a big deal, despite still not having released an album in over a decade. Almost immediately after the band take the stage though, alarm bells begin as lead vocalist Serj Tankian informs the audience his voice is “f****d”. That doesn’t seem to hinder him too much though, as the band immediately break into the frantic Suite-Pee. Flanked by a gigantic diamond-shaped screen that will go on to display a colossal variety of trippy visuals throughout the night, the four musicians are simply a spectacle to witness.
One thing that definitely can’t be argued with about tonight’s show is the sheer quality of System’s setlist tonight. On this occasion, over the course of an hour and forty minutes, the Armenian-American four-piece deliver a set almost 30 tracks strong and ranging all the way from their earliest demo tapes (DAM) to 2005’s most recent album Hypnotize (Lonely Day) with barely a dull moment. Such a mammoth set also means Serj Tankian and co. can pull off some of the weekend’s most ludicrous feats like a three-track-run of Prison Song, Violent Pornography and Aerials as the third, fourth and fifth picks in their set – much to the delight of everyone watching. There’s also rarities aplenty, as the band have been reinserting both Pictures and Highway Song from 2002’s Steal This Album back into their set for the first time in seventeen and twelve years respectively on this tour. Perhaps the most ludicrously brilliant moments in System of a Down’s arsenal tonight though are the fact that they can take two tracks like Chop Suey and B.Y.O.B. (both having legitimate claims to being stone-cold classics) and simply drop them randomly into the second half of their set like nobody’s business.
Still arguably the most impressive thing about System of a Down as a band however, is the sheer schizophrenic variance of their catalogue. Over the length of their set tonight, the band go from full-on thrashing insanity (Bounce), to mournful balladry (Lonely Day), and back again (Cigaro) and it feels like they hardly miss a step during any of it. Even the moments mid-set where guitarist Daron Malakian assumes lead vocal duties feel better than in previous years, as the axeman delivers an impressively impassioned performance that manages to keep momentum going and avoid becoming a dreaded “piss break moment”. Yes, Serj Tankian seems a tiny bit lacking in a few parts of System of a Down’s performance this evening, but for every slip-up, there’s ten other moments that make up for it across the performance, and whilst this isn’t quite the triumphant return many had hoped for, it remains one hell of a way to end the first day of Download 2017. Now let’s finally get that new album finished next please lads? JFW
Words by Jamie Giberti (JG), Simon Crampton (SC), Iain Willetts (IW) and Jack Fermor-Worrell (JFW).
Sabaton photo by Matt Silcocks. Prophets Of Rage photo by Matt Eachus. Five Finger Death Punch & System Of A Down photos by Jamie Giberti.