When was the last time rock’n’roll felt this important? With the world starved of concerts, all eyes are on Download Pilot to roadmap the future of live music post-Covid. Granted, the three days are a shell of the festival’s usual fare; only 10,000 – one-11th of Donington Park capacity – descended upon a shrunken site this year, with the number of stages halved to two.
However, within the arena itself, the normality feels overwhelming. Masks and social distancing have been rendered archaic – every attendee has submitted proof of a negative lateral flow test – replaced by a hunger for heaviness that pervades the air every year.
“It feels ethereal,” says concertgoer John-Joe, a longtime Download regular. “I’m comfortable about it since everybody’s had mandatory testing. With it being a government-backed pilot scheme, this is the only guarantee that you’re going to see a live event this summer.”
“Everyone’s really respectful as well. Nobody’s gonna come up and lick your face,” laughs fellow attendee Chloe, who’s at her first Download after previously being put off by the festival’s size. “I’ve heard the walk between camping and the arena used to take half an hour. It’s just so intimate this year.”
For the bands, meanwhile, there’s nothing but unmitigated joy at returning to the stage. Not only are the musicians doing what they love once more after at least 15 stagnant months, but it hints that touring income – the only true profits an underground artist can enjoy in the streaming age – is on the horizon. Nu metal troupe Death Blooms are the first act of the weekend, peddling stomping anthems derivative of Korn and Mudvayne. They face their task with gusto, although frontman Paul Barrow does admit he’s overwhelmed to the point of near-tears.
“Within lockdown, you almost lose yourself mentally,” Loathe vocalist Kadeem France explains backstage. His metalcore crew were a vibrant highlight of the Sunday, with luminescent shoegaze choruses occasionally ascending from their heavy metal quagmire. “At the time, I was like, ‘Should I even be doing music?’ I feel like playing Download was a make or break moment for me. It made me remember why I’m doing this.”
Even notorious punk iconoclast Frank Carter is feeling the gratitude as he headlines Friday. “We are so lucky to be performing for 10,000 of the most dedicated rock fans on the planet,” he declares. It seems the only person not enjoying himself this weekend is Twin Atlantic singer/guitarist Sam McTrusty. He’s audibly disheartened by technical struggles with his microphone, and his bandmates aren’t charismatic enough to compensate. Their eyes are down and feet still, lending their 45 minutes all the pomp of a soundcheck.
There’s a rare moment of tenderness from Alex Taylor – singer of hardcore brutes Malevolence – on the second stage on Friday. Amid their otherwise-breakdown-laden might, he assures: “It’s OK to not be OK,” acknowledging the loss and mental health struggles countless have endured in the year before this moment.
Following that emotive precedent, the hardcore genre feels well represented throughout the entire weekend. While She Sleeps blend it with metal and synthpop to triumphant effect on Saturday, in what is undeniably Pilot’s finest hour – if not the finest in the entire Download lineage. Their set is crammed with scorchers, and they master their environment effortlessly, instigating such spectacles as frontman Loz Taylor hanging from the sound tower. Subsequent headliners Enter Shikari can’t compete, even as their erratic LED light show wows. Genre stalwarts Employed to Serve exude venom early the next morning, despite apathetic onlookers. It’s frustrating, considering their songs spotlighting millennial strife should have found their ideal demographic here.
The height of musical brutality is felt on Saturday morning, during the back-to-back extreme metal mainstage sets by Conjurer and Bleed from Within. The former, especially, obliterate in a hurricane of riffs and roars; their compositions are equally creative and relentless, running the gamut from thrash to headbang-inciting sludge. Is it any wonder why so many dub them British metal’s brightest hope?
Set to round out the festival on Sunday evening were Bullet for My Valentine, once touted as future stadium titans thanks to their emo-metal floorfillers, but fumblings with radio rock and nu metal have dismantled that promise; and Skindred, so reliable at invigorating any audience with their reggae rock jams that no festival summer is ever complete without them.
It’s an open secret throughout the entire weekend that we 10,000 are guinea pigs, thrown in at the deep end to measure just how and when the live music industry can return. That said, the weekend never once feels like a clinical experiment. Once inside the bubble, Covid feels like a distant memory – and nothing else has provided that much relief since the pandemic began.
• This review has been updated to clarify that Bullet for My Valentine and Skindred’s performances took place following publication.