Castle Donington Park has long been regarded as the spiritual home of heavy metal and rock festivals in the UK. This despite the reputation of the legendary Reading Festival which preceded it. Every summer as a teen rock fan I packed up and embarked on the traditional trip for what used to be a one-day festival specializing in my favourite musical genre. I went to all the Monsters of Rock Festivals from 1986 right up until they ended in 1995. With the rebranding of the event to Download in 2003 my life had changed course with the introduction of kids, a mortgage, and all those other adult things. My passion for the music never faltered just stamina levels as the event expanded to a three-day event on many and not just a single stage. I attended my first Download Festival last year and while the stamina levels were as predicted founded wanting I had a great time. This year with my relocation to England less travelling would be involved. Thus I found myself standing back on hallowed, and at that point, firm ground within several hours travelling from my front door. Having packed for all eventualities we pitched our tent and walked the conveniently short distance to the arena
First band of the first day-an extremely difficult position for any band to tackle. Royal Republic had that honour and indeed easily conquered. Similar in both dress and musical style to one of my favourite bands The Hives, they delivered a tight set of riff-tastic punchy anthems. Alien Ant Farm were up next. I have to admit apart from the band s famous “Smooth Criminal” cover I was not familiar with their music. Following Royal Republic as another band to further explore I had a great time during their set. (as witnessed in the band’s official YouTube footage of their set). Combining addictively catchy songs with a sense of humour I have already made plans to catch them again on their forthcoming UK tour at the end of the year. Then we were faced with the first dilemma of the weekend. The hype around Baby Metal I personally fail to understand…and was very tempted to seek musical solace elsewhere. Having never seen them live however, we decided to remain and catch their set before dishing up large amounts of critical analysis. In conclusion, that was a mistake – cabaret rather than musical talent was the conclusion. With synchronized “dancing” ensuring more of a visual than musical quality. Overrated and don’t believe the hype I would conclude on that score. However, it is true to say that a small proportion of the audience actually appeared to enjoy the performance. If that’s the future of rock music, I for one, am out!! One of the things I and, to gauge audience feedback, many others had been anticipating was the advertised tribute to the dearly departed Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead. Unfortunately, this proved a wasted opportunity; instead of an all-star band jam on some Motorhead classics, we were offered many stars presenting video tributes to the icon. Many of these were not new and had previously been shown. Calling a stage, the “Lemmy Stage,” should have been a starting point for a fitting epitaph to the man himself. Sadly, that did not live up to the promise and rather fell flat. The man himself and his iconic place in heavy metal history deserved a much better sendoff than a twenty-minute video.
We stayed at the main stage to witness the sonic brutality of Korn. I have seen the band several times over the years dating back to when they headlined the tiny small Kerrang Stage at the Monsters of Rock back in 1995. The band, whether indoors or indeed at a festival in heavy rain (yes the weather had now followed the traditional format), always deliver an energetic and top quality performance. Despite the torrential downpour during their set our good vantage point in the first few rows allowed the PA sound to remain unsullied and unaffected by atmospheric conditions. Suffering through sodden clothing (the day had actually earlier delivered sunburn) energy levels were finally beginning to wane. So it was that we left halfway through a pyro and visually unbelievable experience by first day headliners Rammstein. Unfortunately, the stage flames did little to dry us out and so we headed off back to the relative sanctuary of the guest camping area…well, that was the theory anyway.
Unfortunately, while we were trying to dry out in the Rammstein fires our little base camp for the weekend had developed several leaks and had acquired its own little internal water feature. My travelling companion headed for the safety and dryness of the car while I attempted to catch some sleep. Unfortunately, that didn’t occur and I had an early rise for Day 2. Catching a cooked breakfast and a warm coffee seemed to re-energize us sufficiently to tackle the arena again. Checking our band schedule we concluded that the second stage would be our port of call for today’s first few bands. Inglorious on the third time of seeing them fully satisfied my classic rock needs and I still never tire of hearing the vocal prowess of singer Nathan James deliver the goods. Swedish Rockers Santa Cruz belong to another musical area. Hair-sprayed hair and scarves belong in the eighties but their solid set of anthems still win over a quite substantial crowd. “Guy liner” never fails to win over the ladies it seems…
Change of location and we were back in our main stage vantage point to witness Sixx A.M., a supergroup featuring ex-members of rock behemoths Motley Crue and Guns N’ Roses. Despite having released several albums this was actually my first time seeing the band live. The set itself was a complete hit. I for one eagerly look forward to their return to the UK. James Michael dressed in bright while worked the audience like a ringmaster. Totally having the audience eating from his hand. DJ Ashba and Nikki Sixx putting in the leg work and stage mileage as they tore around. Rival Sons are a band with a blues-based sound. I had my reservations if this would work. I love the band after seeing them several times indoors but did have doubts if their sound would work in a significantly different location. I was wrong – they were incredible. Rival Sons successfully transferred their sound to a festival environment. Metal legends Megadeth were next up – I am a huge fan dating back to the eighties so I knew what would be served up. The set itself offered few variations from the UK date I had seen at the end of last year with Lamb of God. However, the special guest Nikki Sixx being brought on for a “very loose” version of “Anarchy in the UK” proved an element of something different to the set.
Special guests were Deftones and I was very curious to how they would sound. Deftones back catalogue is not too familiar to me, however, one element that can never be in doubt is the incredible vocal range of singer Chino Moreno. What an incredible set – largely consisting of songs “new” to me, it still had me thoroughly entertained. Finally, on Day 2 we were about to worship on the altar of metal legends Black Sabbath. What was initially advertised as their final British gig – and also proclaimed on some official t-shirts! – was actually to serve as a taster for their farewell “End of the Road” tour with UK dates. I have seen Sabbath in many guises over the years, most notably the two initial reunion shows in Birmingham in 1997. All occasions they delivered quality in spades. However, on this occasion, and a bit like the weather, they proved to be the proverbial damp squib at the party. A combination of heavy rain playing havoc with the PA sound and Ozzy delivering his worst vocal performance I had ever heard, had me and many hundreds streaming towards the exits after only 3/4 songs into their set. A terrible letdown after a huge weight of expectation. “Snowblind” was the song that heralded the end for me personally as they rode roughshod over their musical legacy. Not even the combined musical talents of Geezer and Tony were able to rescue the disaster. For those that wish to say their farewells on the final UK dates good luck – I for one will be giving it a firm vote no! Following Sabbath’s set we departed homeward for the comfort of a warm bath, hot food, and some clean clothes.
Day 3 – Despite an early start to travel back to Donington Park, there was major road traffic jams around all the entrances to the arena. This situation wasn’t assisted by the staff that we spoke to on duty who were giving us conflicting information. Car parks were full and after 6 hours stuck in traffic while actually being in the area of the festival we gave up and turned tail and went home. A disappointing end to what had been weather aside a great and entertaining weekend.