Download Festival 2014 was a tamer affair than in previous years, largely owing to the event's tightened alcohol and drugs searches, bands being instructed not to encourage the crowds to mosh, more mainstream main stage headliners, fewer boobs being shown on the live camera feed, and the sombre tone of the renamed 'Stephen Sutton Stage'. Instead of holding a silence for the cancer-struck teen, festival attendees took part in a minute of respectful applause, which was paralleled by comedy pop punk band Bowling For Soup's tribute to the late comic, Rik Mayall.
In memoriam sections aside, the festival managed to transform what could be perceived as a weaker line-up compared to its preceding year into a three-day celebration of a broad range of the rock spectrum, filled with bespoke performance gems and quality heavy metal memories. First night closers Avenged Sevenfold brought a larger stage to Donington than they'd ever taken out of the US and combined imposing crypt-inspired adornments with an explosive set that proved on a world stage that they are worthy successors to titans Metallica and Iron Maiden.
The beady-eyed punter will have had a ball spotting the odd and hilarious happenings across the weekend, including a "face-melting" washboard solo from Berlin faux cowboys The BossHoss, punk's immature popsters Bowling For Soup asking a knight to decapitate a giant inflatable sheep, full contact medieval fighting from Battle Heritage, and Killswitch Engage's Jesse Leach inviting the crowd to "dance responsibly" to a particularly heavy breakdown. Ribs were probably broken in the latter instance.
Linkin Park, the rap/rock filling to the Download sandwich, played a rare run-through of their seminal nu-metal debut, 'Hybrid Theory', in a faultless and life-affirming performance. Snipping away their lack-lustre music of recent years, the group ripped through 'Crawling', 'In The End', 'Papercuts' and the rest like it was 2001 with Chester Bennington's vein-popping yells melding seamlessly with Mike Shinoda's smooth and focussed rapping.
Instead of the festival closing with its usual mosh-inducing riff frenzy some fans would have liked to have seen again, classic rockers Aerosmith were given the duty of bringing the festival to a close with a bang. The US group's mainstays were present and correct along with surprises and rarities, including a cover of The Beatles' 'Come Together' and a spine-tinglingly atmospheric rendition of live favourite 'Dream On.' Supposedly to prove their devotion to the British event, the band performed in front of large backdrops reading "England" and images of London, but this gesture seemed tacky alongside the group's carefully-honed, all-American stadium rock.
Friday's daylight hours brought the dual delight of Skindred and Rob Zombie, as well as more unusual acts such as the Drenge, Turbowolf and the long-awaited returners, Within Temptation. Zombie's horror show set was dripping with tortured industrial rhythms, creepy lyrics and the most extravagant microphone change we've ever witnessed, whereas Skindred's fifth DL set was the usual fare from Wales' most famous reggae metal unit. Showman lead Benji Webbe in his Union Jack suit worked the crowd into a sweat, ordering them to participate in such hijinks as "the first metal Harlem Shuffle" whilst guitarist Mikey Demus' fingers effortlessly fluttered across his fretboard to produce the robotic riffing of hits 'Pressure' and 'Nobody' as well as new tracks from the group's upcoming album 'Kill The Power'.
Despite at least three major costume changes for lead singer Sharon del Adel, Within Temptation's first DL appearance in nearly a decade was a disappointment. Sounding more like the kind of cheesy and uber-dramatic pop countries like Estonia would bring to Eurovision, the melodic, goth-lite music of the Dutch group was uninspiring with even the glamorous del Adel looking a little disengaged as she moved wearily about the stage whilst digitally-generated flames surged behind her.
Former 'Gossip Girl' Taylor Momsen's The Pretty Reckless was always going to get stick from hardened rockers no matter what, but during their Sunday sub-headline set on the Zippo Encore stage it would have been hard to say the actress-turned-singer didn't encourage it. Appearing in a greater state of dress than usual, a possibly inebriated Taylor emerged to a lengthy soundclip of orgasmic gasps, which drew titters from the crowd, before dry humping most areas of the stage. The set was still solid with sing-a-long fan favourites 'Make Me Wanna Die' and the new 'Heaven Knows' giving an appropriately higher decibel reading than usual. Momsen's husky voice and star-power may be what gives the group its distinctive edge but it's Ben Phillips' authority over the guitar and timbre of the songs that really binds the music as bassist Mark Damon and drummer Jamie Perkins disinterestedly keep time.
If you'd heard a warm, southern and slightly growly voice coming from the Pepsi Max stage on Sunday afternoon, you'd probably be at the back of the colossal crowd that had gathered in time for Black Stone Cherry's secret performance. The lamentably short slot only left enough time for little more than a few of the Kentucky blues rockers' hits, but it was enough to get the group's sea of devotees swaying and singing to Chris Robertson and co.'s deafening drive confined to just seven songs, topped off with the crashing '30 Seconds of Death Metal.'
Whether or not comedy rock is your thing, Steel Panther were a sight to behold on the classic rock-focussed Sunday stage. Michael Starr and his spandex-clad quartet of parody hair metallers were on filthy form, using every opportunity to cajole the women in the crowd to show off some boob or make out with each other. Although their songwriting revels in its lasciviousness, the untameable LA-based band's redeeming feature has always been that they have an astounding instinct for a catchy hook with pitch-perfect hair metal nuances. They debuted material from their new album 'All You Can Eat', which is absolutely as rude as it sounds.
Fall Out Boy may have seemed slightly out of place on the DL billing, but the 'Dance Dance' hitmakers were met with clamorous excitement as they subheadlined on Saturday. Bringing their friendly brand of amped-up pop, Stump, Wentz, Trohman and Hurley delivered heavier renditions of their hits such as 'This Ain't A Scene' and 'Thnks fr th Mmrs.' However, that teenage label refused to be shaken off and those in the crowd less keen to relive the mid-noughties remain cross-armed and unimpressed.
Few main stage morning opening acts have been buzzed about as feverishly as Dying Fetus; the product of an online campaign for better representation of the heavier metal genres at Download as well as a backlash against the perceived softening of the main stage acts in recent years, the death metal unit were brisk yet brash in their eagerly-anticipated set. Blending the genre's characteristic ballistic drums and deep, staccato growling with blurry fretwork and gore-filled themes, the Maryland trio delivered a sincere and compelling performance that set the crowd's pulses racing. Drummer Trey Williams made a relentless pace look effortless as he bashed away at an enormous kit. "Together, we can put death metal on the map," roared lead John Gallagher. To us, looking out across a sea of windmilling metalheads, it seems like he just did.
Photo Credit: Andrew Whitton
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