As the daddy of all rock festivals, Download's reputation is all but sacrosanct. Spawned from the legendary 'Monsters Of Rock' events that ran for a total of seventeen years between 1980 and 1996, its siting at the aforementioned's spiritual home of Donington Park ensuring its credibility remained steadfast among fans old and new. Currently celebrating its tenth anniversary, having first opened its doors as Download in the summer of 2003, this year's event sold out as the headline acts were announced, with approximately 120,000 people heading to the site next to East Midlands airport over its five-days long extravaganza.
Certainly there was a lot to look forward to - not least the mouth-watering return of Black Sabbath. Even the much publicised spat with original drummer Bill Ward couldn't dampen the enthusiasm, with emotions running higher than ever with over 100,000 revellers willing on cancer stricken guitarist Tony Iommi. With five stages in the arena jostling for attention with numerous stalls selling all kinds of products ranging from tea (Motley Brew wins stall name of the weekend hands down) to records, Download 2012 lived up to its promise of being the biggest and best of its kind yet. Though the weather was predictably wet and miserable - well, it is the middle of June after all - it didn't stop those that made the trek through the muddy fields and soggy terrain from having the time of their lives.
However, before getting down to showering down plaudits galore on the many artists responsible for creating such an enjoyable weekend, there's a couple of gripes to get out the way first. Not least the road access onto the site. Normally, for yours truly, living a mere ten miles from Donington Park in the sleepy South Nottinghamshire village of Wilford, it would be just a fifteen-minute drive along the A453 at best to reach said destination. Unfortunately, due to there being just one road in and out of the festival, combined with weekend holidaymakers and Friday's early afternoon beat-the-rush-hour traffic, it took us five-and-a-half-hours to reach the site. Seriously. That's TEN MILES. In FIVE-AND-A-HALF HOURS. Now, without being the proverbial party-pooper wishing to throw a spanner in the face of tradition, one point surely needs raising; if the road networks and infrastructure around Donington Park aren't suitable enough to contend with 120,000 people converging on it at the same time then surely the sensible option would be to move it somewhere that can? Like Knebworth. Just an afterthought, but one that would maybe relieve several hours of stress. And maybe even allow us to arrive in time to see some bands. Or, in the case of at least one band, make it possible for them to turn up in time to play their slot? Also, the "guest experience" upgrades for paying punters (£100 on top of the price of a weekend camping ticket) seem a little unfair, particularly when the majority of said guest area is then cordoned off to those with the "special" wristbands, making the experience for the rest fairly harrowing, especially when queuing for the bar or toilets.
Nevertheless, there was more than enough happening in and around the arena to forget such irritants for the most part.
Friday 8th June
Without going over old ground of the ten-mile five-and-a-half hour trip already documented, it would be an understatement to say Friday is something of a washout. In more ways than one. Stuck in traffic cursing everything from the weather to the minor roads leading in, not to mention lack of signage detailing where each individual car park is, news filters through of several band cancellations due to a combination of adverse weather conditions (Rise To Remain & Cancer Bats, although the latter made an impromptu headline appearance on the Bedroom Jam stage later) and lack of access from the airport (Europe).
Upon arrival, wristbands obtained literally minutes before accreditation closes for the day, DiS catches the last song of Chase & Status' set. On paper something of a bizarre choice for what is primarily a rock festival, judging by the enthusiastic reaction they're well received. Long gone are the days when bottles of urine (and worse) would be hurtled at bands not fitting the stereotypical criteria. Oh hang on a second...
Yes, The Prodigy are met with a mixture of rapturous cheers and numerous objects. Maybe it's the new sign of adulation? Thankfully DiS has come prepared with its umbrella. Sadly, despite an impressive, lively start - Keith Flint his usual hyperactive self menacingly prowling the stage - their set tails off slightly towards the end. We get 'Poison', 'Their Law' and 'Voodoo People' but no 'Out Of Space'. Or an encore, and surprisingly Friday night's main stage events are brought to a close some twenty-five minutes earlier than scheduled. Tomorrow will be better...
Saturday 9th June
Having ventured home for a good night's kip - sorry folks but when home's on the doorstep that camping malarkey can do one - to return bright and early the next day, DiS makes its way to the accreditation area as it appears we've been issued the wrong passes. A little while later, after being accused of "doctoring the accreditation email" (how? why?) we make our way back to the arena, bored of arguing the toss for what seems a pretty pointless exercise. After all, we are here to watch bands, right? Right.
San Diego's As I Lay Dying are perhaps a little too heavy for this ungodly hour of the morning. So without further ado, we move across to the Zippo Encore stage where Birmingham's Page 44 play the kind of punk pop that doesn't make us want to throw crockery at the television. Coming on like a youthful Alkaline Trio, they're a sprightly kickstart to the day's proceedings that set the good ship DiS up nicely for the rest of the day's activities.
We watch the first two songs of Avosetta's powerfully anthemic repertoire before heading back over to the Main stage where Barnsley veterans Saxon await. Now featuring just two original members - singer Biff Byford and guitarist Paul Quinn - they charge through a career spanning set as if their lives depend on it. 'Wheels Of Steel', 'Denim & Leather', '20,000 Ft.' and last year's 'Hammer Of The Gods' are all reeled off impeccably. No one notices (except us) that they don't play 1980's breakthrough hit single '747 (Strangers In The Night)', so dynamic is their performance. By the end, Byford's Cheshire cat grin tells its own story. Colossal.
Indeed, much of today is about following the nostalgia trail, and being an avid follower of The Wildhearts back in the day, Ginger's appearance back over in the Zippo Encore area is greeted with an equal sense of enthusiasm. Sadly, while 'Suckerpunch' still sounds as visceral as ever, a new song is aired that clocks in at what seems like ten minutes long, attention spans and legs veering elsewhere as a result. "We have the best fans in the world because they get so much shit for liking us" announces Black Veil Brides Andy Biersack somewhat proudly. We kind of agree, swiftly reaching the conclusion that maybe any animosity should really be directed towards his poor excuse for a Motley Crue tribute band.
OK, so it's not big, and it's not clever, but the Anti-Nowhere League are actually a pretty brutal force when all's said and done. Having emerged from the second wave of punk alongside bands like The Exploited, GBH and Discharge, they've enjoyed a second lease of life - some cynics would argue lived on - thanks to Metallica's endorsement in covering the band's early puerile b-side 'So What'. It's their other songs though that really stand the test of time to these ears. 'I Hate People' (sample lyric: "I hate people, I hate the human race, I hate people, I hate their ugly face, I hate people, I hate their fuckin' mess, I hate people... And they hate me!"), 'For You, 'We Are The League' and a rousing cover of Ralph McTell's 'Streets Of London' all resulting in limb crushing moshpit action aplenty. Venturing outside, Tenacious D are on the main stage. Now, I love Jack Black's stand-up routines and 'School Of Rock' as much as the next man but his decidedly unfunny collaboration with Kyle Gass really has passed its sell-by date by at least a decade.
Who's that sounding maudlin on the Jeigermeister acoustic stage in the distance? Why, it's only Tyla from Dogs D'Amour gurgling his way through 'How Come It Never Rains'. If only Tyla, only... Local heroes Lost Alone have been making a right old name for themselves across Europe, yet couldn't sell cheese to a blind man here, as is demonstrated by the half-full Bedroom Jam tent that greets their homecoming. Which is a crying shame because the Derby trio put on a blistering, adrenalin-fuelled set which sees Fearless Vampire Killers, who follow them onstage, declare them their "favourite band of the weekend."
Sometimes every festival line-up creates a few headscratching moments, largely due to artists being on bills that probably weren't designed for them. Step forward Cockney Rejects. When singer Jeff "Stinky Turner" Geggus greets the influx of skinheads here to see his band with a warcry of "Fuck knows what we're doing here with a load of long-haired cunts" you kind of get the impression this could be an eventful forty minutes. Debut single 'Flares & Slippers' is delivered early, followed by numerous songs about West Ham United Football Club ('We Are The Firm'), violence ('Fighting In The Street') or both ('War On The Terraces'). Walking across the back of the field we spot Metallica in the distance. The Black Album is great and all that but doesn't hold a candle in these eyes to Wayne Hussey and The Mission. As one of the first "big" bands this then-teenager ever set eyes on, their greatest hits set is nothing short of delightful. 'Beyond The Pale' and 'Serpent's Kiss' still sound magnificent, 'Deliverance' a bombastic call to arms, 'Tower Of Strength' the REAL catalyst of indie dance. We could go on listing their set all night, except we'd rather dance and reminisce instead. Then gleefully head home, Hetfield and co.'s impressive firework display crackling away in the background.
Sunday 10th June
With the sun making its first appearance of the weekend, DiS perches itself on the dried mud in front of the main stage as DevilDriver open the day's entertainment. Now forgive me for my ignorance, but prior to their appearance at Download I was blissfully unaware of their existence. Approximately thirty-five minutes later, I'm completely hooked. Brutal, intense, and incredibly exciting, while frontman Dez Fafara stalks the stage informing the increasingly large crowd the next number is going to be a love song, it's the twin axe duo of Jeff Kendrick and Mike Spreitzer that really steal the show, regaling memories of Hell Awaits era Slayer in the process.
In the guest bar we exchange pleasantries with a couple from Middlesbrough who after entering into a long rant about the extortionate food prices onsite, politely inform us that "dance and indie shite" has no place here at the "home of metal". Taking their advice, we re-enter the arena to see Black Label Society only to end up wishing we hadn't. Zakk Wylde's self-indulgent exercise in guitar wankery winning several awards for pointless solo of the weekend. That out the way, Virginia's Lamb Of God are a stimulating breath of fresh air. Having first set eyes on them at Norway's Hove Festival five years ago, their heavily orchestrated concoction of thrash and grindcore is a welcome tonic, even if Randy Blythe announces every number as "Here's one you should all know the words to" followed by "RAAAAARRRRRRRRRR!!!"
With 2012 seemingly the year of reformations, one reunion that hasn't received the mainstream coverage it deserves is that of Swedish hardcore legends Refused. Arguably responsible for inspiring nu metal at least a year before its rise to prominence thanks to 1998's pivotal The Shape Of Punk To Come, the subsequent cancellation of Sonisphere made them a late coup for Download's organisers, even if it meant squeezing them into the teatime slot on the Zippo Encore stage. What's most apparent is that Dennis Lyxzen and co. haven't aged a jot, and from the first few notes of 'Worms Of The Senses/Faculties Of The Skull' through to a raucous 'New Noise' that closes their set, the pace is nothing short of relentless, their comeback utterly triumphant. Now let's have a full UK tour please on top of the two dates in August.
Soundgarden may not be everybody's cup of tea, but tonight as main support for the main stage headliners they're nothing short of a revelation. Frontman Chris Cornell is ably assisted by fellow founder member Kim Thayil on guitar, their career-spanning set reaches several high points, the more familiar likes of 'Jesus Christ Pose' and 'Black Hole Sun' rubbing shoulders with an angelic blast from the past as 'Hunted Down' from debut EP Screaming Life finds itself dusted down and delivered with immaculate precision. On any other day this would be a perfect finale to the weekend's activities. But of course this isn't any other day. It's the day of the Sabbath...
With emotions running high, due in no small part to the alleged "sacking" of drummer Bill Ward, not to mention Tony Iommi's battle with lymphoma the return of Black Sabbath to Download after a seven-year absence proved to be a major talking point of the weekend. Apart from trying to predict the setlist, rumours emanating around the site suggested Iommi would only make a brief appearance at the beginning and end of the show (he didn't; he managed to complete the entire set) with Slash and Jack Black being two names apparently waiting to step into the breach. Meanwhile, recently recruited drummer Tommy Clufetos may not be Bill Ward, but his powerhouse performance behind the kit suited the band's eloquent playing to perfection. And then there's Ozzy. Geeing the crowd up from the word go via a mass of football-style chants ("Ole, Ole Ole Ole, Sabbath, Sabbath") and tributes to his bandmates ("Introducing the real Iron Man, Mr Tony Iommi...") while throwing in a plethora of classics stretching over a forty-year period, even the false intro to 'Sabbath Bloody Sabbath' that becomes 'Paranoid' during the encore is forgiven as 100,000 revellers celebrate the original pioneers of metal. If this is the last time we ever get the chance to see the legendary Black Sabbath then they can be satisfied in the knowledge their idols bowed out in style. And some.
As on the previous night, their exit is signified by an extravagant firework display marking the end of a largely successful - from a musical point of view at any rate - Download 2012. Now for the unenviable task of getting out of the carpark before sunrise...
Photo of Refused by Gary Wolstenholme via Thrash Hits. Visit Thrash Hits for full Download coverage.