Donnington Park Circuit
14 - 16 June
“I hear there are a lot of virgins at Download, is that right?”
As far as self-awareness goes at an institution forged on being none-more-black, Elvana – a Nirvana-meets-Elvis tribute project from ‘Disgraceland’ (Newcastle) that is exactly as dumb as it sounds – set the bar high early on. They might have been talking about first-timers watching their little group, but it’s delivered with such a knowing warmth that it perfectly pricks up any lingering scepticism in the air. They then follow it up with a half-crooned, half-croaked mash-up of In The Ghetto and School, doubling down on a performance that is one brilliant punchline.
Knowingly riffing off the typecasts of big, blokey bands has long been a staple of the rock community. From Spinal Tap to Steel Panther, the tropes that cast shadows over the heritage of heavy music are easy to identify and embrace: spiky guitars, spiky hair, spiky attitude to society. Beaten down by sheets of summer rain, a little levity goes a long way here. But it’s still surprising just how deeply this permeates at Download. The bars play Drowning Pool and System of a Down at ear-splitting volume, with staff grinning and headbanging as they pull pints.
Power Trip’s Riley Gale shouts out Terminator 2: Judgment Day, thanking Arnie for his role in inspiring their clean ‘n mean thrash, in between stints wielding a mic lead as if it were an invisible garrotte wire. Amon Amarth take their Viking battle chants to very literal lengths by staging a period-costume Viking battle against a seafaring backdrop while the crowd engages in synchronised rowing movements, before raising antique horns to Valhalla in victory. I lost count of the frontmen over the weekend sliding seamlessly from a guttural gates-of-hell howl to a genteel “wow, thank you so much!”
That politeness is echoed in the crowd, potentially the most inclusive I have ever seen at an event of this scale, with none of the ageism or ableism that you get at more mainstream affairs. Disabled punters are for once not consigned to a solitary vantage point, expression of self is maxed out (Ministry-style body paint, Slipknot-branded boiler suits, the works) and there were so many families, I’d be hard pressed to say whether the average age of those writhing along to Lamb of God’s lecherous grooves were 17 or 47.
Slipknot and Tool are the main draws, both with eye-popping stage designs and performances as faultless as you’d expect. Slayer’s final UK show is a similarly historical hit parade, with dozens of cute son-and-dad combos celebrating Fathers’ Day by shredding along to Raining Blood in unison. But all Kerry King, Corey Taylor and Maynard James Keenan have to do is show up and the crowd are immediately in their court. No one needs asking twice to throw devil horns.
The polar opposite is Sunday evening’s Smashing Pumpkins show, with Billy Corgan trading gallows humour for the demeanour of someone being led to actual gallows. Their set is a riveting downer, hits largely left aside in favour of churning numbers from The Airplane Flies High and Ava, as a ceremonial-gown-clad Corgan stalks the stage with all the unyielding darkness and negative energy of a collapsed star. More than any other act on a resolutely cheery weekend, they channel confrontation and non-conformity, qualities that attract 110,000 black-clad masses to the hallowed mud of Donington in the first place. They are a reminder of what makes Download, and the heavy rock/goth/metal axis at large, so screamingly enjoyable: villainry, immense tunes, and above all, a slice of great theatre.