FESTIVAL REVIEW: DOWNLOAD PILOT FESTIVAL 2021 Live at Donington Park, UK – Day 1 (Friday)
With last year’s Download Festival cancelled due to Coronavirus, it’s been two years since the hallowed ground of Donnington has been graced by an assault of blast beats, monstrous riffs, and the stomping feet of rock and metal’s die-hard fans.
This year the festival’s capacity has been stripped down to 10,000, less than a tenth of a typical year. It’s a miracle that it’s happening at all, though. Almost every major festival has been canceled again this year. The upcoming August festivals such as Bloodstock and Reading are expected to announce whether or not they will manage to go ahead this year in late July. There’s a feeling in the air this year that this event is special; not only is it the first time the bands and fans have got to experience live music in two years, it’s also a testing ground to prove that live music can safely go ahead while the pandemic lumbers on seemingly without end. Negative coronavirus tests are mandatory to be allowed in. Still, once through the gates, masks are off, social distancing is gone, and we’re given a glimpse of what normality looks like once again.
The job of welcoming us back to live music has been given to Death Blooms, and the packed second stage tent, a rare sight for the first band of the weekend, shows just how much fans have missed it. Fortunately, the Liverpudlians are well suited to the job. Before long, their signature blend of nu-metalcore has the pits opening and thousands of heads banging. It’s a beautiful sight.
With the tone set for the weekend, it’s over to the main stage for Manchester’s Hot Milk. The duel vocal harmonies of Hannah Mee and James Shaw are perfect for the open-air stage, and their pop-rock sensibilities foster a sense of camaraderie. Strangers can be seen wrapping arms around each other to belt out the chorus of Glass Spiders, and tens of thousands of feet dance as one to the band’s infectious beats. It’s something of a surreal experience after nearly two years of social distancing. With today’s show, Hot Milk show, they’ve got the goods to bring people together, and I’m sure they’ll be making their way back to the main stage in future years.
Malevolence are up next, and it’s one hell of a tone change; this band is heavy, and it’s clear they revel in the insanity they unleash in the crowd. Equal parts hardcore and groove metal riffs reminiscent of Pantera or Lamb of God, Malevolence are crushing. Plenty of bruises are accrued as people fly through the air and pits erupt over all the tent. Sadly, with the frenetic pace rarely slowing, it feels like it’s all over far too soon. Still, if all goes well with this Pilot, hopefully, it won’t be long before we can do it all over again.
Boston Manor are one of the bands I hadn’t listened to much before, so I came in without any expectations. While they clearly draw influence from the pop-punk bands of the late 90s and early 2000s, the bands stand out due to their ability to write songs catchy enough to grab the slipperiest of earholes and their experimental blending of other genres into their songs. Closer “Halo” is a veritable anthem, and by the end of the set, I’d wager they’ve gained more than a few new fans.
Holding Absence have been marked out as one of the UK’s big up and comers. Lucas Woodland’s vocal gymnastics are undoubtedly a big reason for this, and he doesn’t miss a beat live. While I must admit their style isn’t really up my street, it’s evident that they have a captivated crowd. The amount of people singing along is easily the highest of the day so far, and the cameras catch more than one fan with tears in their eyes. I have no doubt they’ve got a bright future ahead of them.
Neck Deep are another band that I wouldn’t be likely to add to my Spotify playlists. Despite that, they manage to tickle my Sum 41 nostalgia bones with their catchy brand of pop-punk, and by the time their forty-five-minute set is over, I’ve been won over. Neck Deep are a band that knows how to have fun, and it’s clear the crowd enjoyed it.
As the sun begins to dim, it’s back to the second stage tent for Sleep Token. It’s the perfect atmosphere for their eery, almost ethereal sound. Sleep Token sounds like no else; despite not being particularly heavy, there’s an incredible sense of force behind their songs; combined with Jordan Hunt’s passionate vocals, the band create an absolutely mesmerizing show. If I had to choose only a single band from this lineup that’s destined for greatness, I’d be hard-pressed to choose anything else over Sleep Token.
Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes are tonight’s headliners, and they move about the stage like they were made for it. Frank Carter is undeniably one of the greatest frontmen of modern music. He rips through his set like a demon-possessed. There aren’t many bands that can get a circle pit going around the central sound stage or who’d stop a sing midway through to make sure a fan’s alright, but it all feels natural with Frank at the helm. Tracks like “Lullaby” and “I Hate You” were made for nights like tonight, but it’s an “Ace of Spades” cover that Lemmy himself would have been proud of and “My Town” replete with a guest vocals appearance from Idles frontman Joe Talbot that really seal the deal. What an incredible way to close out the first night of live music in over sixteen months.
While Day 1 of Download Festival was a shorter one, with bands starting at 5 pm, it’s hard to find any way it could have been improved. Not a single band disappointed, and the sound of live music has never sounded so good after nearly two years of absence.