Monday, 13 June 2011

Download Festival - Saturday June 11th 2011

By many accounts it’s a confusing year for Download, for a few reasons. Line-up wise it’s been widely considered one of the weakest years yet, and at the risk of sounding like a massive whingebag, it’s easy to see why. The repeat bookings are in thrall this year, and where there isn’t repeats, there’s performances from artists who haven’t exactly been strangers to our fair shores over the past few years, often taking up high slots on the bill. But nonetheless, the Download faithful are here by the bucketload this weekend, and it’s hardly surprising considering the strength of Saturday’s bill (in spite of the aforementioned shortcomings, if you will). The weather is glorious (for the most part), so finding anybody not having the time of their lives at this point is a seemingly impossible feat.

Arriving on site at around 1:30, we’re just in time for Skindred [8] who are by now legendary for their live prowess. Basement or club, arena or mahoosive field, there is literally no environment in which Skindred struggle to throw the fuck down, and you can attribute almost all of this effortless panache to Benji Webbe – ragga-punk extraordinaire and modern day Freddie Mercury. This year’s fantastic Union Black has clearly added some extra fire to their live expertise, and by the time ‘Warning’ rolls around after the inevitable ‘Nobody’ to close the set, there’s not a straight face in the house. Just beaming smiles. But if there’s a crown to catch for live performance of the day, then letlive. [10] don’t even bother with it. Instead, they take the prize for the live performance of your entire life. Jason Butler appears through the crowd as if from nowhere, and within seconds of the set starting there’s a scuffle between singer and stage mangers as they clearly mistake him for a particularly raucous audience member. It’s testament to the man’s unmistakable cool however that he finally winds up on stage with his bandmates at the very second the vocals are supposed to begin for the rousing ‘Renegade 86’’. If you’ve been paying any attention to the underground over the past 6 months, you’d have to be braindead to have not heard of the incredible live entity that is letlive.. Today, in their first major festival performance, their mission seems to be not only to let the uneducated into the circle, but to give every single person crammed into this tent the most intense, the most emotional, and the most awe-inspiring live performance they’ve ever seen. And they accomplish this with all the ease, swagger and downright badassery of veterans. Getting into a fight with the stage managers surely ranks high on the list of ways to open a gig, and it sets the unpredictable tone of the rest of the set; making the beautiful chaotic (and vice versa) and making sure everyone before them feels the most uncomfortable euphoria, whether instruments and mic stands are being flung across the stage during the crushing hammerhead that is ‘Casino Columbus’, or Butler reciting a passionate monologue to segue into a stunning rendition of ‘Muther’. You just cannot take your eyes of the stage for a second. It is the quintessence of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, and it is, above all, an experience. Forget At The Drive-In – letlive. are your new post-hardcore heroes. Your Demise [8] have a tough act to follow, but rather than crumble, they take this in their stride and just do what they do best, delivering an airtight set of articulate hardcore, concluding with the bona fide anthem of ‘Miles Away’. One of the more intriguing acts of the line-up, Trash Talk [7] are the masters of all out brutality. Theirs is a genre that focuses not on music but on pummelling a chasm into the audiences brains through sheer, unmatched aggression. Needless to say however, Trash Talk are not built for stages of this size and nor do they intend to be, given vocalist Lee Spielman’s outspoken distaste for the stage. He instead attempts to make the show as much like an intimate club gig as he possibly can, spending the entirety of the set on the barrier screaming into the faces of an adoring throng (or getting in amongst them). It’s as intense as you can get, but Lee’s closing line of “We are Trash Talk, and we are never coming back” more than expresses the bands misgivings towards the commercialism of the festival.

Elsewhere, Skunk Anansie [6] have the unenviable task of sitting between Down (who I didn’t get to see, but the reviews have been gleaming) and Avenged Sevenfold. In most cases, such unlucky positioning forces bands to up their game and put everything they have into their set, and unfortunately this just isn’t Skunk Anansie’s day. Songs like ‘Weak’ and ‘Twisted (Everyday Hurts)’ should sound massive in the incredible sunshine, but sound issues do the band no favours and Skin’s screechy-but-delicate voice sounds like a damp squib. The same cannot in any sense be said for Avenged Sevenfold [9], who could easily be headlining tonight judging by the rapturous hero’s welcome they receive. An introductory ‘Nightmare’ sounds absolutely massive, and the band are on the form of their lives, clearly rejuvenated by the presence of new drummer Arin Ilejay. The band are now in an envious position, in that they can now fill their live set with 2-3 cuts off each of their albums that are absolute classics in the modern public consciousness. They fire off ‘Almost Easy’, ‘Bat Country’ and ‘Unholy Confessions’ as cocksure and defiantly as they come, and M Shadows’ voice sounds positively gigantic. They clearly acknowledge just how special the occasion is, and that this is their chance to prove their worth as potential headliners for the future, and it’s because of this that the best bits of their set are the surprises. The seldom performed ‘A Little Piece Of Heaven’ is dedicated to The Rev, but it’s in the debut performance of ‘Save Me’, the epic 12 minute long closing track of 2010’s Nightmare that things really kick off. It reinforces just how much the band have progressed over the years, and is a fitting finale to this most triumphant of sets. There is absolutely no chance you’ll see A7X any lower than the headlining position at festivals in future. One more record and they’ll be there, whether you like it or not.

And so it’s over to tonight’s headliners, the long-awaited return of the mighty System Of A Down [7]. Out of all the reformations we’ve had in recent times, System Of A Down has easily been the most demanded, so tonight the atmosphere is predictably at fever pitch. This has the potential to be one of the most memorable performances that has ever graced Donington Park. It’s a shame that what we get instead is something not amazing, not terrible, not life-affirming or ridiculous. What we get is something that can only be described as “alright”. The songs are played well and are met with the loudest singalongs. The band are tight, focused and sound fantastic. But passion? None. Enthusiasm? Zero. Interaction? Don’t even mention it. Despite a brilliant opening to the set in ‘Prison Song’ and the unstoppable ‘B.Y.O.B.’, the band are clearly going through the motions and this is beyond a shadow of a doubt a take-the-money-and-run-tour. Still ‘Chop Suey’ sounds huge and Aerials is just as beautiful in spite of the band’s attitude, so it’s not all terrible. It’s just a letdown that 6 years of anticipation and demand finally culminated in something that, in all honesty, was just rather bland. Don’t be expecting a comeback album.

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