A big review for a big day: Download Festival Melbourne 2019

With weather mixing sunny skies & over-cast clouds, we were ready for round #2 of Download Festival Melbourne; lapping up the sights & sounds of a Flemington Racecourse filled with 20,000+ punters & more heavy music than you could poke a stick at.

My blow-by-blow of the Melbourne event below with photos from Digital Beard.

The coolest initiative of Download Festival’s return to Australia in 2019 was the Ascension stage, exclusively playing host to the smaller Aussie talents on the bill. Opening up this particular stage just after noon was Triple J Unearthed winners, Windwaker, who are set to have a big year ahead of them. What with new EP, ‘Empire‘, arriving next week on March 22nd, and this Download set being the band’s biggest show to date. Kicking off with an unreleased song culled from said new EP and 2018’s single, ‘New Infinite‘, the Melbourne locals showed exactly why big daddy J came a-knocking: Will King’s immaculate live vocal performance in both his high-range singing and aggressive screaming, the riff machine that is guitarist Jesse Crofts, and the band just being an air-tight unit with drummer Chris Lalic holding down the pack. All seeing a decently sized crowd watching on too.

While there was a little too much sub in the mix, and while it was clear the band were taken aback by a show of this scale – that slight awkwardness showing in their expressions and on-stage movements – this will hopefully be a great experience for them moving forward. A really good learning curve, if you will.

Newer songs like the recently released ‘My Empire‘ sounded bloody huge, showing that there’s a musical authenticity to this group and their live sound that even some other acts twice the size in popularity and years don’t have. Also showing that Windwaker can hold their own with the best. However, there was one hiccup: guitarist Liam Guinane breaking a string in the first song and taking all of ‘New Infinite‘ to get back out there all snug and re-strung. While that’s unfortunate, it left me puzzled, thinking: “…why would you not have a second guitar on-hand, just in case of emergency, for what is the biggest show of your band’s career so far?” But after that, it was all smooth sailing as the band went through ‘Take Me With You‘ (from 2017’s ‘Fade‘ EP) and ending with their now go-to banger, ‘The Sitch‘. In throwing some beach balls out into the crowd to get some party vibes going, Windwaker wrapped up with their best song and also put their best into what was, clearly, a massive moment for all five of these young men. You heard it hear first: keep your eyes peeled on these dudes in 2019.

Will King, Windwaker.

Let’s not beat around the bush: I’ve been immensely critical of I Prevail over the years, from 2016’s ‘Lifelines‘ LP to their most recent two singles. As such, I’d thought it would only be fair of me to take some time out of my Download experience to catch the band in the flesh over on the main stage. Just to see how they stacked up live. As maybe seeing them perform would sway me a little, y’know? Nope!

With a weird set structure of starting with two bigger, heavier songs like ‘Bow Down‘ and ‘Come And Get It‘ then followed by a slower, almost-ballad type of track (‘Breaking Down‘, dedicated to deceased We Came As Romans singer, Kyle Pavone), there was a lot left to be desired. Namely in Eric Vanlerberghe’s hit or miss screams, doing some weird high-pitched squeaks a la Oli Sykes during ‘Breaking Down‘, which sounded painful and lacking the grit that he aims for on-record.

This really was a nothing set, with no real electricity happening in the crowd nor any signs of life occurring up on-stage with any of the five band members either. Despite the mighty audience that had gathered, no one seemed that stoked on what was happening either, save for some people down the front. Basically, if you missed I Prevail’s set, don’t stress because you didn’t miss anything note-worthy.

Eric Vanlerberghe, I Prevail.

Passing by The Beautiful Monument’s set back over on the Ascension stage, and with Void Of Vision’s George Murphy filling in on drums, they were doing alright. Bassist Amy McIntosh (who also plays in Liberties) had the most presence and energy of the group; making the best use of the stage’s space, looking like she was having fun, and it all feeling natural for her to do so too. Yet that wasn’t really reciprocated in the other members, with guitarists Alex and Andy often looking to Amy as if searching for their cue to move around or head-bang, which made things feel like there was a lack of instinctual synchronicity.

Seeing tracks like ‘Liberated‘, Hostage‘, and ‘Manic‘, vocalist Lizi Blanco was singing more than fine enough, but I think this set – much like Windwaker before them just a few hours earlier – highlighted that The Beautiful Monument aren’t that seasoned or experienced. At least, not yet. Hopefully, playing a show like this will be a healthy new experience for the group heading into fresh material this year, and also how they curate and execute their live sets too.

Lizi Blanco, The Beautiful Monument.

Opening with ‘Burn It Down‘ and ‘We’re Coming In‘, and in packing out the Avalanche tent, The Fever 333 put on a highly physical and energetic set. Something that’s always to be expected given who is in this band. Frontman Jason Butler does what Jason Butler always does: scream his fucking head off, jump into and on the crowd, and climb over shit, like this stage’s FOH tower, as if his very life depended on it. Which is entertaining to watch, to say the least.

While the lack of a live bassist was noticeable, they’re called The Fever 333, not The Fever 444. As it’s just these three dudes: Jason, guitarist Stephen Harrison, and drummer Aric Improta. In that regard, I have zero problems when a backing track is used to enhance a live performance (like this Fever 333 set with the electronic instrumentals and subs), with my only issue being when a backing track is used to heavily substitute a live performance due to musical inefficiency, laziness, or both. (Much like a certain Australian band who “performed” this day.) Stephen does a good job of up-keeping the energy when there aren’t any guitar in their songs, dancing around whilst doing so, and Aric brings so much to the table as a drummer; standing on his kit and climbing over his fold-back during one song, china stand in-hand. Aric also threw in some ad-lib fills and rolls too; a welcome touch from one of the best drummers in the game.

Stephen Harrison, The Fever 333.

Dedicating it to the women in attendance and in using a smoke machine harder than Every Time I Die’s Unify set this year, ‘One Of Us‘ saw the classic “sit down and jump the fuck up” part. (Slipknot will forever do that better than anyone else.) But there were also a couple cringe moments too. Like the band using that Charlie Chaplin speech at one point – y’know, the sample that every heavy band with any form of social-political lyrics has used ever – or like that little beat-boxing moment, where Jason would scat before Aric played it back on the drum-kit, which just went on for a little bit too long.

I really thought that seeing The Fever 333 live would change my opinion of them, that I would suddenly “get it”. But alas, no such luck. The choruses from the songs off new album ‘Strength in Numb333rs‘ still just sound like they’re ripped off Linkin Park’s The Hunting Party‘, and the hip-hop/rap parts sound like a lesser fusion of One Day As A Lion and Run The Jewels. Also, let’s be honest: no one would give half as much of a shit as they do about this band if it wasn’t for the actual people in the band. With the main focus clearly, often solely, been only on Jason. I love and respect what these three men have done in their other bands and as artists, and The Fever 333 do come armed with noble and important activist messages, but the songs themselves just don’t do it for me.

Jason Butler, The Fever 333.

Back on the main-stage, and in catching the last bit of Airbourne’s set, it reminded me exactly why I’ve never enjoyed their brand of true-blue, Aussie-tinted pub rock. Yet the strangest thing about this part of their set wasn’t the music, but rather frontman Joel O’Keeffe saying that it was about damn time our fair country had a rock and heavy metal festival. Which is quite a weird thing to say. Because Big Day Out and Soundwave were both massive nation-wide events that happened within this decade, all less than five years ago. This is why you should never drink too much VB, kids, it affects your memory.

Yet back over on the Dogtooth stage, another Melbourne band who weren’t phoning it in and who really were out-shining most others on the line-up was the always-savage High Tension. All the while as vocalist Karina Utomo unleashed the most ferocious screams of the entire event over the band’s equally fearsome blackened hardcore sound. What a band!

Karina Utomo, High Tension.

Transitioning from AC/DC-jacking hard rock to frosty Polish black metal, the Red stage played host to Behemoth, who are, let’s be real, one of black metal’s biggest acts currently. Great records like ‘Evangelion‘ (2009) and ‘The Satanist‘ (2014) prove this. They are a masterclass band for the genre, and their musicianship reflects this, yet that importance didn’t translate on the day. Squarely because of a sub-par mix and gusty winds scooping out much of the “oomph” of their songs. The heavy usage of pyro and air canons was a nice touch but those bells and whistles can only go so far. It was also an odd setting to see the band in, during the middle-of-the-day and under sunny skies. Behemoth are definitely more of a late night, in-doors band to watch.

Yes, a lot of these inhibiting factors weren’t the band’s fault; they can’t control the weather and can’t really have full say on when their festival set is. However, all of this resulted in their performance feeling like I was watching a black and white 1950’s horror movie during the day, with all of the lights on and all the blinds rolled up: just no impact what so ever. Although, there was a guy dressed in robes as Jesus Christ standing next to me, and the beautiful irony did give me a good laugh. So that’s… something.

Behemoth’s Adam “Nergal” Darski, having a close call with a cheeky pyro boi.

Download Festival was my first time seeing Converge live, so naturally, expectations were through the roof. Yet the American heavy legends delivered and then some! While Converge aren’t the only veteran act to come out of this now-flourishing microcosm of chaotic, dissonant hardcore, by a huge margin they’re still one of the genre’s best bands. This Download appearance was a tight set made up of classics – ‘Concubine‘ and ‘Eagles Become Vultures‘ – along with new blood from 2017’s ‘The Dusk In Us‘ – ‘I Can Tell You About Pain‘, ‘Under Duress‘, and ‘Eye Of The Quarrel‘. Better yet, there were even a couple of really ‘You Fail Me‘ deep cuts, like ‘Drop Out‘ and ‘Black Cloud‘. At all times, it was a blistering live show that was hard to not enjoy. Even if the crowd that’d gathered was mostly static, despite one or two moshers, there was so much love and appreciation hanging in the air for this Salem group.

Frontman Jacob Bannon screamed his throat raw and bloody over the course of their 40-minute set. He’s an energised 14-year-old hardcore kid trapped in a 42-year-old man’s body, and he doesn’t let up when he and the band hit the stage. Guitarist Kurt Ballou is practically a riff-god, and his tone and playing was impeccable; racing through their songs without breaking even so much as a sweat. Special mention has got to go to the band’s current touring drummer, Urian Hackney, who was filling-in for Ben Koller, out due to a broken arm sustained earlier this year. As the band opened with ‘Reptilian‘ and they got right under-way with hardcore matters, I told a mate with me that ‘Dark Horse‘ would be the real test, that if Urian can do that song, he’ll nail any song they play today. Low and behold, ‘Dark Horse‘ was the next song and he crushed it; he didn’t miss a beat. He would’ve made Ben damned proud with playing like this. Be sure to go show the guy some love – what a fucking great drummer.

Converge’s inclusion at Download Festival Australia 2019 also told me something else: a headline tour out here needs to happen sooner than later!

Jacob Bannon, Converge.

After stomaching about four songs from The Amity Affliction’s soulless set (why the fuck do I do this to myself?), I made a far wiser choice: I instead went to go see Code Orange instead.

Now, Code Orange are an interesting band. Namely when drummer/vocalist Jami Morgan decries that they are the “realest motherfuckers” around, and that their band is free from the capitalistic corporate machine. Even though they’re on Roadrunner Records, apparently have a large team behind them, and apparently also got a cosy album advance that had more figures than my bank account will likely ever see. But all of that obnoxiousness and posturing BS completely falls to the way-side when they play their instruments and open their mouths to scream. Because holy shit, they really turned up the heat. This was one of the tightest and toughest sets of Download 2019! This band can sure talk the talk, but they can absolutely walk the walk too. Posers, Code sure aren’t.

Joe Goldman getting some air, Code Orange.

I feel like everyone would agree that someone must have shat in Code Orange’s cereal that morning, as they were pissed and raging throughout their performance. Every member is a domineering, eye-catching force, even Jami, who despite being situated behind his kit up the back, commands attention like the hardest of war generals. Bassist Joe Goldman is a goddamn freak, stomping around the stage like he’d curb stomp anyone who even tried to set foot into their territory. Even though he was mostly confided to his sampler for the set, Eric Balderose’s made sure all of their industrial elements were working fine; still bringing plenty of punk jumps and head-bangs to the proceedings. Guitarist Dominic Landolina was a nutter live, thrashing his guitar around and climbing the stage left PA at one point too. And fellow guitarist Reba Meyers riffed and head-banged away like she’d kill you if asked her to even remotely calm down. This was pure aggression.

As for the actual songs, it was mostly a bunch of ‘Forever‘-era songs – like the monstrous title track, the gloomy alternative cut ‘Bleeding in the Blur‘, as well as ‘3 Knives‘ from last year’s EP. Couple that with the odd ‘I Am King‘ track included for good measure, and this was damned hard set to beat. There were no doubts: Code Orange’s returning Australian trip was a success. You’d all better start working out and getting those gains for when their inveterate next headline run goes down. The hurt may very well go on, but so too will Code Orange.

Reba Meyers, Code Orange.

Rise Against were one of the bands that I looked forward to the most at Download, yet they turned out to be one of the most disappointing. While the band were running through their typical festival material – a who’s who run of ‘Give It All‘, ‘Chamber The Cartridge‘, ‘Prayer of the Refugee‘, ‘Saviour‘, and ‘The Good Left Undone‘, and more – the actual performances let it down.

Frontman Tim McIIrath sounds rather rough these days, and he’s sadly lost that defining character and great tone in his vocals that made him one of the strongest voices in modern punk rock. Another factor that conflated this was how the band often played their songs faster than how they were originally recorded. While that’s not at all an unusual occurrence for a punk band, this did mean Tim was singing faster than he normally would, and at times it felt messy. I’ve got nothing wrong with a real band playing live (unlike another band who played the main-stage that day), so I wasn’t even bothered by Brandon Barnes getting lost for two bars during the middle of a song at one point. However, this sure wasn’t the tightest or most pleasant sounding set; not just from the day overall, but when stacked up against the many times that I’ve seen Rise Against live too.

The real peak of their hour set was when they performed two special covers: one of Black Flag’sRise Above‘ with War On Women’s Shawna Potter, as well as a Misfits‘ take on ‘Mother‘ with the colourful and lovably weird Spike Slawson from Me First & The Gimme Gimmes. These were outright the best parts of Rise’s set and it wasn’t even for their own original songs. To be fair, the band did have some of the biggest sing-alongs of the day and there were many around who just seemed pumped to see them live. So for those people, I sincerely hope they had a great time. As for me? I think I just saw one of the weakest performances from one of my favourite bands. Damn.

Tim McIlwrath, Rise Against. 

I’ve written plenty about Justice For The Damned over the last two years, and if you somehow haven’t gotten the message yet, let me say it again: these guys are fucking sick! They’ve come so far, and their future is looking so bright. So it was annoying that the start of their Download set was severely down-played and made anti-climactic by there being PA issues. As in, there was no PA at all. Seriously, it was so strange! I’ve never seen something like this happen at a festival before. I’m not sure what was going on over at FOH, if there was something up with the guy’s gear, patching, or in-ears, but I feel sorry for whoever was mixing the band; with many punters looking back to him questionably  and some even approaching to suggest fixes.

Thankfully, the PA kicked back on just before the best part of ‘Please Don’t Leave Me’, the savage pit-call of “your violence is a sickness“. From there, JFTD were firing on all cylinders, in what was the most impressive set I’ve seen from them yet. With a good mention of latest single ‘No Brother, No Friend‘, and in ending with ‘Deep Rotting Fear‘, as they often do, Justice have so clearly worked hard on perfecting their live show. It’s clear that heavier touring schedules and heading overseas has put them in a great headspace to further hone their craft. and I think that’s going to be a great sign for what their next album will offer.

After Justice For The Damned closed out the Ascension stage, the final stretch of Melbourne Download 2019 saw three big rock/metal acts conclude matters: Halestorm, Ghost, and Slayer. Three massive names in rock and heavy music, showing that passion and importance is still there in the bands and their fan-bases. Of course, I can’t be in three places in once, so after seeing Lizzy Hale and co. tear it up for a little bit (what a voice she has), I decided to partake in some Ghost.

While I’ve never clicked that much with their albums, I figured Ghost would still put on an entertaining show. And that was the case, at first. With a great light show and really solid stage production, which the Nameless Ghoul members played into well enough, the band exploded out of the gates with ‘Rats‘. However, the band’s cheesy form of glorified Scooby-Doo chase music got audibly old quite quickly. Visually appealing, yes, but sonically lame after the first wave wore off. Frontman Tobias Forge would also yell “Melbourne, are you with us?” even though he’d leave the stage pretty much any-time a solo occurred and often in-between songs. Mate, are YOU even with us? Don’t pull the cliche rock’n’roll frontman bollocks if you aren’t gonna back it up and just seem fully disinterested.

Tobias Forge, Ghost.

A few days before Download kicked off, I received an email from an Australian music publicist asking to please share a piece that they’d put together about Slayer. These PR people are just doing their job and working with their clients requests and favours, of course, but it was bizarre. Weird, as it was one of those emails you get where you just know you’re one of a few dozen other people on that email list who got the same message with the same request to use that same piece as coverage. And secondly, honestly, why would I use what someone else may have written once instead of my own written work? If you want a website to just regurgitate a generic presser or a band’s bio word-for-word, like certain other Aussie media outlets sadly do these days, there’s no shortage of places to visit instead of us here at KYS.

So in that regard, I’ll talk about Slayer from the heart, in my own way. Because they’re such an important band for the history of heavy metal, a band that helped pave the way for so many other acts to follow and who are still a big influence on newer acts today. And they’re a band that has so many records, yet thankfully many of them quite good, with so many of my favourite songs sprinkled over a career nearly four decades long. They weren’t culturally added into The Big 4 for nothing, after all. Their Download headlining position laid down exactly why they can top out an event like this and why they’ve been around for 38 years now. This show meant a great deal for a great many people, myself included.

Slayer’s Kerry King kicking out the riffs.

I’m actually glad Ozzy had to pull out from the festival so that we could get this full, 90-minute headline set from Slayer; an almighty final send-off for the thrash metal titans. It was also perfect that they closed out the Red stage, rained red-hot metal riffs onto the Melbourne masses (the biggest crowd of the night), and raising the fires of hell for the biggest pyro show of the day as well. Even at at their ages of mid-50’s and up, these four guys play harder and faster than most dudes half their age. Time has not withered Tom Araya’s voice, it hasn’t slowed down Paul Bostaph’s feet or hand work on the kit, nor has the passing of the years affected Kerry King’s right-hand-of-god picking technique; chugging out riffs, squealing whammy’s and dive-bombs galore along with Gary Holt and his own self-blood-stained signature guitar.

With the exception of material from ‘Undisputed Attitude‘ (1996), ‘Divine Intervention‘ (1994) and ‘Diabolus in Musica‘ (1998), this was a huge 19 song setlist spanning all of their other main-stay releases. There was something taken from everyone’s favourite record and era of Slayer on this night. Lighting fast cuts like ‘Disciple‘ and ‘Payback‘? Wicked live. Big guns like ‘Mandatory Suicide‘, ‘Chemical Warfare‘ and ‘South Of Heaven‘? Yes please. Getting the crowd to help intro the vile scream of “WAR!” for ‘War Ensemble‘? So sick. Even seeing ‘Hell Awaits‘? Fuck yeah! Getting awesome fan-faves like ‘Dead Skin Mask‘ and ‘Postmortem‘? About it. And that’s not including saving two particular songs that don’t need any kind of introduction – ‘Raining Blood‘ and ‘Angel Of Death‘- being saved for the end to mark a great climax.

The band also dropped numerous banners behind them as well, one for each distinct part of their set. With big cheers arising when Jeff Hanneman’s Heineken-branded logo dropped behind them as well (RIP). It’s not just about the musical legacy Slayer has left, but about the people who helped create it too. Tom also thanked everyone for being numerous times, appreciating their time and presence, because this really was it. Slayer don’t fuck around and when they say it’s their final world tour, you’d best believe it. So no, Tom, thank you for all of the riffs and music over the years. This was a looming end for Slayer, the end of a bloody good reign. And all good things have to come to end. Much like Slayer’s mighty career. Much like Download Festival Melbourne. Well, until 2020 that is!

The man himself, Slayer’s Tom Araya.

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