Download Festival Sydney lands with an explosive first year!

There’s a political theory that whenever a power vacuum opens, something or someone will rush to fill it in a matter of time. After the capitulation of Soundwave in 2015, many assumed that Unify was to be that filler – the event which would cement itself at the forefront of heavy music festivals for the country. While said festival has indeed had a pretty substantial impact on the live heavy music scene in Australia, particularly at a local level, there is simply no question that Download Festival – only in its second year down under and now with it’s first ever interstate expansion – will reign as the ruler of the roost. 

I know what you’re expecting from a live festival write-up. However, I’ll leave that bigger, blow-by-blow to our very own Alex Sievers for his recent Download Melbourne coverage. Instead, I’d like to take a wider-lens live review from Sydney’s first ever Download Festival, breaking down it’s individual parts. So let me get right down to brass tacks. [PC: Brooke Harley].

Aussie acts are a real feature now!

The amount of homegrown talent on Download Festival this year was something that should make every local punter proud, and also every up-and-coming band damned well excited. With a 1pm set feeling a tad too early, Aussie heroes Polaris pulled a huge turnout for their opening set on the Black stage, bringing in raucous metalcore sing-a-longs to cemented new classics like ‘The Remedy‘ and ‘Lucid‘.

Over on the Dogtooth amphitheatre, Melbourne’s High Tension produced an explosive 30-minutes of strong cuts from their vicious 2018 ‘Purge’ record, with frontwoman Karina Utomo grabbing the whole bloody event by the throat in set opener ‘Red-White Shame‘; snarling, growling and screeching away to the sheer delight of those assembled. Of real note was the sheer joy in the countenance of drummer Lauren Hammel, who thrashed away like a mad-woman with a burning sense of dynamic and groove over the quartet’s wild crossover of blackened hardcore.

The one and only Thy Art Is Murder were back for yet another big, tight festival outing, bringing their usual pandemonium. Which is code for: plenty of throwdowns (‘The Purest Strain of Hate‘ is a dangerous three or so minutes in the pit), and of course, a good ol’ wall of death for the always-massive ‘Reign of DarknessThey also pulled a giant circle pit around the FOH area and that’s a win in my eyes.

Meanwhile, Melbournian hardcore outfit Outright was bringing some classic, no-punches-pulled hardcore to the small but charmingly DIY Ascension stage, with frontwoman Jelena Goluza giving a fearsome performance that didn’t dip in energy one iota. Watch this band.

Over on the main stage, Airbourne had all of the fire, the VB’s and the bluesy rock riffs, drawing a massive turnout of punters that seemed half-overjoyed with their presence, and half passer-by’s who found their stage presence and antics surprisingly enjoyable. Twelve Foot Ninja also drew a huge crowd for their 5pm slot, getting everyone bouncing along to mental cuts like ‘Postmortem‘ and ‘One Hand Killing‘.

This year truly was an Aussie invasion of all things heavy, and it was both equally impressive and pride-inducing. Australia has always had the acts, it just seems like now, everyone is well and truly aware of the party.

Don’t forget about the smaller internationals:

British act Slaves were a bit of risk for this festival. With largely no profile in Oz (but a huge following in the U.K. courtesy of supports under Foo Fighters), their 1pm slot still drew in numbers over it’s duration, largely in part due to the standing-drummer-smashing-bass-and-snare-while-singing factor, as well as their outrageous stage energy. All making the Avalanche stage feel like an intimate, grimy dive bar. With some filthy riffs across cuts like ‘Fuck The Hi-Hat’, ‘The Lives They Wish They Had’ and ‘Magnolia’, the group brought the artful trashiness of Japandroids colliding with the arrogant pomp of the Sex Pistols, and it was a wonder; a true highlight!

Likewise, other international acts to the touring circuit drew a refreshingly strong amount of support from the keen beans who were through the gates before 1pm. For instance, Kiwi metallers Alien Weaponry represented New Zealand proudly by putting on a strong showing for their main-stage slot, opening proceedings to an appreciative throng that got the mosh started far too early for the olds over 21.

Meanwhile, LA glam-core crew New Year’s Day were infectious with both their stage presence and passion, showing that they really wanted to be there to win over as many new fans as possible. Despite having an unenviable 12:30pm set, the band were ferocious from the get-go, presenting a unique blend of poppy, L.A. rock and heavier post-hardcore. The only downside was singer Ash Costello proclaiming a sacrifice to the “metal god’s”. Which was perhaps a little early for such cliché, but you do learn to roll with it. And roll with it the crowd did, welcoming the band’s first ever set in Oz with open arms.

Heavy fans seem more open-minded than your traditional festival crew:

I’ll never forget seeing Lorde at Splendour in the Grass, putting all of her creative energies into crafting a beautifully conceptual set… only to see half the amphitheatre leave after staples like ‘Royals’ and ‘Sober.’ There seemed a desire to be there only for the ‘hits’, and not for that real creative moment. This could not be said at Download, with fans flocking to early, largely unknown acts and staying for full sets instead of running away once their favourite tunes were played. Which is always great to see. Well done, everybody!

Thy Art’s circle pit; still a safer action than most other festivals.

It really shows when you’re just going through the motions:

There’s nothing worse than when a band is just turning up to work and running around the hamster wheel for all to see. There were two standout sets of disappointment in this regard, with both Rise Against and Anthrax largely rejecting their new material, instead robotically marching through the tried and tested classics.

Rise Against mostly just seemed bored onstage, with frontman Tim McIlrath performing his usual routine with lacklustre points, unconvincing punk jumps (tough for when you’re past 40, to be fair), and a general vibe of just doing everything for the thousandth time. The bite has definitely gone out of this band now.  Even two very cool covers with some very special guests – Black Flag’s Rise Above’ with War on Women’s Shawna Potter and Misfit’s Mother’ with Spike Slawson of Me First & the Gimme Gimme’s – couldn’t save what seemed like a sinking ship. Tim even introduced ‘Drones’ as ‘Revolutions Per Minute’ (oops), and his out of time intro to set closer ‘Saviour’ cemented the title of ‘horrid’ performance for the day.

Anthrax, on the other hand, had the energy and enthusiasm that was well beyond what their years would suggest, yet they played things safe by providing almost the exact same setlist as their last visit in 2013. ‘Caught in A Mosh’, ‘Indians’, ‘Got The Time‘ and ‘Madhouse’ were all repeat offenders – song’s that are classics for the band, but are frustrating inclusions when latest record, ‘For All King’s’, has a wonderful collection of new tunes showcasing the veteran thrash metal band at their best.

Still, it was impressive to see the ginormous crowd they drew, no doubt showing the strength of the thrash metal legions assembled to witness a later swansong.

The power of experience cannot be understated:

It’s wild to think that Behemoth are 11(!) records deep into their esteemed black metal career. The band feel like they’re sitting squarely at the forefront of the contemporary metal movement, and their latest LP, 2018’s ‘I Loved You At Your Darkest’, has made huge waves in the broader heavy community; crossing the boundary between the “black metal trve” and more casual listeners. It really showed when their set rolled around on Saturday, with all manner of short-haired, ‘normal’ music fans squashed into the main stage area to witness the polish black metallers deliver one of the sets of the year.

Kicking thing’s off with ‘Wolves Ov Siaberia‘, Nergal and his band of merry corpse-painted men tore through their set with something that only experienced hand’s can provide – finesse. Drummer Inferno was particularly stunning, ripping through blast beat frenzies ‘Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel’ and ‘Conquer All’ with masterful deftness. It never seemed like the band were burning themselves out, despite clocking speeds north of 250 BPM’s regularly. Add in some lashing pyro effects and you have proof why this band are finally getting the recognition that they deserve.

Alice In Chains have certainly been around the block a few times, but they sure as hell know how to put on a cracking show. And they still seem to enjoy doing it too! With enormous sing-a-long’s greeting every song (‘Check My Brain’ and ‘Dam That River’ were deafening due to crowd participation), it was hard to not be intoxicated by front man William DuVall’s seamless energy and power. Seeing the aforementioned Nergal partying to ‘Rainier Fog’ side of the stage, glass of wine in hand, was slightly distracting, but the riff-fest of ‘Would?‘ and ‘Angry Chair’ soon brought back my full attention. Finishing with ‘Rooster’ was always going to be a tad predictable, but it’s impossible to not admit that it’s exhilarating crying out that chorus in tandem with thousands of others (and getting hugged by a weeping stranger next to you).

Likewise, Judas Priest certainly aren’t getting any younger (Rob Halford, Scott Travis and Ian Hill aren’t at least) but they boasted an enormous amount of firepower (cringe) that was genuinely shocking. Halford in particular was in rare form, cracking out some ear-splitting shrieks that were wonderfully in-tune and delighted the Download throng. What was great about this set was that newest album, last year’s surprisingly solid ‘Firepower’ was kept front and centre, with cuts like ‘Lightening Strike’ and ‘No Surrender’ slotting in wonderfully next to old bops like ‘Turbo Lover’ and ‘You’ve Got Another Thing Coming’.

The motorbike gimmick is now pretty cheesy, to the point of being cute with this band, and Halford even started swinging a light-sabre around at one point, but it was all part of the fun of a genuine NWOBHM band keeping the spirit alive. Finishing thing’s off with the one-two of ‘Electric Eye‘ and ‘Breaking The Law’, it felt like the power party metal set of the evening, despite the average age being older than usual.

Even without Ozzy, Download had the perfect headliners:

Losing Ozzy Osbourne was a massive blow to the festival, yes, with the vintage rocker no doubt now at the tail end of his touring years. However, the sets delivered by headline acts Slayer and Ghost were damned hard to top.

The theatrics of a satanic pop band with seven nameless ghouls and an occult version of the pope with a touch of John Trivolta swagger will never cause Ghost to fade from the public eye. Kicking thing’s off with ‘Rats’, the Grammy winners strutted through a wildly entertaining set, with cuts like ‘Miasma’, ‘From The Pinnacle To The Pit’ and, of course, ‘Dance Macabre’ drawing huge reactions from those who opted to miss Slayer. When the band cracks out the saxophone though, you can’t really be thinking that you’ve made the wrong choice.

The only downside to this set was frontman Tobias Forge shouting ‘SYDNEYYYY’ every two bloody seconds. Hopefully, the next time they pay us a visit, there’s a tad more substance in the stage banter and crowd interaction, but it seems like their Pale Tour Named Death world run is well worth the price of admission.

Ah, Slayer. We all have a Slayer story. I was lucky enough to witness the rage of Slayer fans when their set was cancelled at the 2011 Soundwave (meaning I never got to see Dave Lombardo play), but catch their ferocity at the 2013 edition. This was something else entirely though.

From the opening thrashy lines of ‘Repentless’, the crowd was evidently not going to pass up the chance to thrash out to the band one last time, at the expense of the safety of others. I myself only lasted 4 song’s before heading to the back like a true old man, with the circle pit action of tracks ‘Disciple’ and ‘War Ensemble’ being a bit too much for the end of the evening.

It was a vintage set, stacked with all thing’s Slayer. From Tom Araya’s calm smile making him look the most zen frontman in the game; Kerry King’s out of control convulsing (reaching peak exorcism levels during ‘Jihad’); Gary Holt’s now iconic Kill The Kardashian’s shirt; and a ruthless performance by Paul Bostaph behind the mighty skins, all capped off with an insane amount of fire; this band truly left no stone unturned. Because some absolute classics got a run, with ‘Show No Mercy’ classic ‘Black Magic’ even having some air time. ‘Postmortem’ and ‘Seasons In The Abyss’ were other fantastic inclusions, standing up excellently alongside classic headbangers ‘Mandatory Suicide‘ and ‘Hell Awaits‘.

Thankfully, the band opted not to finish with ‘Raining Blood’ (which still got one hell of a circle out), instead opting to bow out with the classic one-two of ‘Chemical Warfare’ and ‘Angel of Death’; the latter featuring the classic late Jeff Hanneman Heineken Beer stylised banner falling behind the band, with ‘Still Reigning’ shown front and centre. It was an emotional way to wrap up, with Tom standing alone onstage after the final kick drums had finished just starting out at the Sydney crowd, taking things in for one last time. Despite their age, truly no band thrashes harder and faster than Slayer. They will be sorely missed.

The End:

As 11pm ticked over and the masses began making their way to the gates of Parramatta Park, it was impossible to not feel a sense of nostalgic happiness. Like how leaving Soundwave after an incredible day of seeing some of the world’s best was always a wonderful feeling. Given the way that Download festival was run, it felt like the premiere heavy festival for our country was fully up and rolling now. With a stronger gender diversity in the line-up than your average heavy festival, to a wonderful mix of old and new, capped off by plenty of Aussie artists, Download Festival 2019 can take a solid bow. Brisbane, you’re surely next!

Lizzy Hale.

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