Download festival review – Slayer cast dark spells with ferocious swan song set

Parramatta Park, Sydney
British hard rock festival brings angst, anger and a lot of black lipstick to western Sydney’s peaceful parklands

Without the Prince of Darkness, Ozzy Osbourne, who sadly cancelled his appearance at Download weeks before kick-off, expectations run high for the long-running heavy metal festival’s Sydney premiere. Held in Leicestershire, England since 2003, and trialled for the first time in Melbourne last year, it has now come to Parramatta Park. Usually home to tranquil family picnics and games of hacky sack, today the park has been infiltrated by skull tattoos, black lipstick and enough green hair to cause fainting spells among a boatload of grandmothers. Slayer, apparently on their final world tour, are the band most punters are here to see.

With vomit on my shoes courtesy of a young gentleman named Jimbo, I arrive in the mosh pit shortly after lunch time. Fever 333 formed a year into Trump’s presidency and boy are they furious. Jason Aalon Butler’s lyrics take in homicidal police, inequality and racial injustice. Midway through the set Butler climbs the rigging, before leaping back on stage to howl into the microphone about Rodney King.

Behemoth appear on stage as rain begins to fall. To experience these Polish goths and their theatrical black metal at three in the afternoon is near-hallucinatory. While the band’s high camp stylings raise eyebrows among several Sum 41 fans, they too are soon enthralled.

Anthrax hold court with the blunt-force guitars and chugging pedal points that have propelled them from the beginning, while Joey Belladonna’s presence is unflagging, his voice sounding just as ripe and bristled as on 1988’s State of Euphoria. But before the next act appear, the strong scent of urine comes over the crowd in waves, blown westward from a string of portaloos that become known to the crowd simply as the Sewer. If there’s an entrepreneur out there who can solve the peeing necessities of festival goers, I imagine they could make a fortune.

The audience quickly forgets the sewer, though, as The Amity Affliction take the stage. On Drag the Lake, Ahren Stringer and Joel Birch finish off each other’s lyrics with unbridled rage. Not many metalcore bands can pull off that peculiar mix of skate-punk harmonies and screamo. But they show how well they’ve mastered the art on the set highlight Pittsburgh, a prayer to an absent God regarding the trials of mental illness.

The crowd at Download festival.
The crowd at Download festival. Photograph: Supplied

During Devilskin’s highly infectious Start a Revolution, someone begins shouting “Fuck Instagram” in response to the small army of punters restricting the view of the stage with their phones, while down the hill Halestorm open with Black Vultures. Few voices in rock are as dynamic as Lzzy Hale’s. Her range takes lesser bands to the cleaners and then tosses them roadside from a 1972 Pontiac.

After Rise Against leave the crowd pummelled and sweaty, Alice in Chains slow things down. With the twin voices of William DuVall and Jerry Cantrell emulating founding vocalist Layne Staley, who died in 2002, it’s hard not to picture the noirish Seattle featured in their early video clips. Grimy classics like, Man in a Box and Rooster, are interspersed with more recent tunes, such as The One You Know from the much underrated album Rainier Fog. Cantrell’s brand of abrasive blues, mixed with Mike Inez’s trawling basslines, casts a spell on the crowd unlike many of the festival’s heavier acts. The band may have started out in the dive bars of America’s Pacific Northwest, but this performance shows they are equally at home in a festival setting.

As the sun sets, a handful of bats scatter overhead (surely nature’s tribute to Ozzy), as the crowd steel themselves for Judas Priest. Frontman Rob Halford, sporting a downy white beard and clad head-to-toe in chain mail, will soon be 70, but shows little sign of fading. Straddling a Harley Davidson centre stage, he gives a blistering rendition of Priest’s catalogue, culminating in the defiant Breaking the Law. To witness these stalwarts from West Bromwich up close definitely feels special.

When the curtain finally opens on Slayer, the crowd are spellbound. Beginning with the pure adrenaline rush of Repentless, the band move through War Ensemble and Postmortem with ferocious speed. As the set segues into the dark ambience of Seasons of the Abyss, it becomes clear just how complicated and challenging Slayer’s brand of thrash metal is – and why so many acts fail to replicate it. Although there had been considerable doubt that the band could continue after the death of guitarist Jeff Hanneman and the departure of drummer Dave Lombardo in 2013, Gary Holt and Paul Bostaph prove that this band still haunt the chapel like no other. Closing on Angel of Death amid dazzling pyrotechnics, some diehard metalheads begin to choke up. If this is truly to be Slayer’s farewell tour, may they reign in blood forever.

• Download festival is on at Melbourne’s Flemington Racecourse on 11 March


Nathan Dunne

The GuardianTramp

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