An impressive contrast awaits those who rock up to Download‘s inaugural Sydney event at the opening of the gates. The dual main-stage is kicked off by two heavy Australasian acts that, although considerably different in many ways, reflect the prosperity and sonic diversity in the scene’s immediate vicinity.
Perth’s Voyager are in their 20th year as a band, although their cult status has rarely translated into greater mainstream success. Watching them tear into their tightly-executed half-hour has one genuinely questioning why that is – it’s memorable, inherently accessible and packs considerable punch. By means of contrast, New Zealand groove-metal trio Alien Weaponry weren’t even born when Voyager formed. These prodigious teens were hitherto unheard of by the majority of attendees, but their passion and energy ends up making them one of the day’s key talking points. They fearlessly rile up the audience right from the get-go, performing a traditional Haka and soon calling for the day’s first wall of death. What chutzpah from these brash and bold young men – ones we’ll certainly be hearing more of Australia-side in the years to come.
Across the field, the next hour belongs to fierce and uncompromising feminine presence. Baltimore’s War On Women are today playing their first ever show in Australia, and a small crew of dedicated fans are wagging index fingers and dancing to their heart’s content up the front. The band’s steely, melodic take on modern punk rock is well-received, ensuring the band feel at home despite being as far from it as they’ve probably ever been in their lives. Vocalist Shawna Potter suffers no fools, drawing explicit battle lines in her lyrics and between-song banter to ensure all those in attendance know which side of the proverbial war they’re on. Choose carefully, comrades.
If that wasn’t enough, the dystopic down-tuned riffage of High Tension soon ruptures from the speakers and Karina Utomo’s unmistakable growl lands like an atom bomb. Being the only act to have played both Australian versions of Download, the Melbournites are quick to amass a sea of thrashing manes and writhing bodies – all of which Utomo herself promptly throws herself into during ‘Bully’. As the first signs of rain start from the overcast skies, High Tension are the perfect soundtrack to the doom and gloom hanging above our heads.
Although this is FEVER 333‘s debut in Australia, it’s far from their first rodeo. Vocalist Jason Aalon Butler and guitarist Stephen Harrison have made unforgettable Soundwave appearances as part of previous bands – letlive. and The Chariot, respectively – and they bring that exact same chaotic energy here. For lack of a better phrase, energy at this point of the day is at fever pitch – something that’s entirely exacerbated by the band’s big-swinging rap-rock hybrid, full of huge leaps and a swelling moshpit. When Butler screams “We’re coming in, motherfucker” directly in the face of punters – during “We’re Coming In,” naturally – you’d best believe that’s not some flowery metaphor.
Most 41-year-olds celebrate birthdays with quiet drinks down the local with close mates. Lindsay “The Doctor” McDougall, however, isn’t most 41-year-olds. He’s celebrating the best way he knows how: Getting together with his dickhead mates in Frenzal Rhomb and serenading a crowd of Western Sydney bogans with songs about swooping birds, coughed-up lungs and punched faces. Oh, plus an obligatory troll cover of ‘Crazy Train’, because why not? None of this is a bad thing, either – if anything, it’s a testament to how beloved Frenzal are, and how they can still make us laugh as well as singing loud and proud after all these years. See you next time at the Collector Hotel, fuckers.
Code Orange arrive on-stage all guns blazing, demanding movement from their captive crowd and getting plenty of it. Their cacophonous, dissonant take on metallic hardcore is truly something that has to be heard and seen in order to be believed, and even the quote-unquote “quiet” moment of the set – the alt-metal anthem ‘Bleeding in the Blur’ – has fists in the air and heads promptly banging. Although it was disappointing to not get to see the band at a small club show – an environment in which they truly thrive – to get to see them at all is a privilege in and unto itself.
The same can be said for the beloved hardcore heroes Converge, who today perform in Sydney for the first time in over six years. The crowd is disappointingly thin for the first few minutes, but things quickly pick up with the intense one-two of ‘Dark Horse’ and ‘Aimless Arrow’. Their intricate, hard-hitting metalcore doesn’t quite translate to the broad strokes of your average festivalgoer, but that’s by no fault of their own. Besides, everyone who wants to be here really wants to be – the punters screaming the words back at vocalist Jacob Bannon could easily compete sonically with any main stage crowd. Bonus points, too, go to Rough Francis drummer Uriah Hackney for filling in while Ben Koller sits out with a broken elbow – these are not easy songs to play, but he made it look like child’s play.
Outright aren’t here to make friends. The Melbourne quintet, much like War On Women before them, know exactly where they stand and aren’t going to mollycoddle you into agreeing with them. You’re going to shut up and listen, and you’re going to show this band the respect that they deserve. From the title track of their exceptional 2014 debut Avalanche right up to new single ‘No Fear’, the band’s belligerent hardcore stylings are greeted with a rousing reception, as are the impassioned speeches given by vocalist Jelena Goluza in-between them. If this band isn’t already a part of your life, make it a priority to rectify that.
Rise Against have always been a serviceable festival band, and their set certainly has its moments reflecting that – the blistering ‘Prayer of the Refugee’ and the anthemic ‘I Don’t Want to Be Here Anymore’, for instance. That said, something feels a little off-kilter here – it’s as if they can’t get on the good foot for more than a few minutes at a time.
A lot of it boils down to frontman Tim McIlrath, whose past self would surely kick his arse for breathlessly stumbling through ‘Give It All’, and who inexplicably introduces ‘Drones’ as being a song from 2002’s Revolutions Per Minute – which, for those of you playing at home, it is absolutely not. Setlist decisions also hindered the performance – there was somehow room for two covers (three if you count the tease of ‘Paranoid’), but they just straight-up did not play ‘Ready to Fall’, perhaps their single most festival-friendly song? Maybe sit the next couple of rounds out, guys. We love you, but we’d love you even more at 100%.
By means of contrast, Alice in Chains is a well-oiled machine. They don’t place a foot wrong here, and they know exactly how to pace a festival set for all its peaks and valleys. Of course, the past looms over the band with everything they do, but it’s entirely to the band’s credit that they never shy away from it – in fact, the lion’s share of the set comes from 1992’s beloved Dirt, much to the joy of those watching. ‘Them Bones’ sports a riff that still hits like a Mack truck, and the pogo mosh that ensues for the bouncy ‘Man in a Box’ is as lively as it would have been back in their 90’s peak.
William DuVall is all rockstar confidence and showmanship, using his platform to pay tribute to the late Layne Staley rather than merely impersonate. The newer material blends right in, too, showing that the band still have plenty to offer in a contemporary sense. One of the few true goosebump-inducing moments of the entire day arrives during closer ‘Rooster’, which sees the crowd convert into a makeshift choir cooing out the wordless refrain. Ain’t found a way to kill them yet, indeed.
Let’s get something straight: Judas Priest are not cool. A great band, absolutely. But cool? Fashionable? Trending? Not their thing. If you’re a Priest fan, you’re not in it for scene points or credibility – you just love loud, headbanging heavy metal done the old-fashioned way. It’s for the love of the game. With this in mind, Priest have assembled a crowd that wears their uncoolness on their sleeve – quite literally, as many of the bombers and vests will attest to. We’re here to have fun, and as long as Rob Halford and co. are here, we’re gonna have plenty of it.
While we’re on the subject of Halford, let’s take a moment to appreciate he’s 67 goddamn years old and is still out here on the frontlines hitting high-notes that most of the twenty-somethings across the stages today could only dream of. Plus, you don’t see any of these other bands riding motorbikes out onto the stage, do you? From Firepower all the way to ‘Breaking the Law’, Priest are as entertaining a prospect as they have ever been in the live setting. Who needs to be cool when you have classics like ‘Painkiller’ in your arsenal, anyway?
As sad as it was to have Ozzy Osbourne depart from the bill, there’s really no other way Download could have ended than with a farewell to one of the most important bands in the history of heavy metal. There’s a very strong chance that many, many acts that were a part of today’s festivities that wouldn’t have so much as glanced at a guitar were it not for Slayer – and, judging by the 400-plus Slayer shirts counted across the day (literally), they’ve impacted plenty of metalheads’ lives along the way too. Tonight is their night, and from the second they kick into ‘Repentless’ the rest of the day feels small in comparison.
Parting is such sweet sorrow, as they say, but Slayer were never the types to sit around moping. Hell, they barely even talk to the audience – this is about letting their body of work speak for itself, which it does so more than adequately. We shriek the word “war” to the heavens above during ‘War Ensemble’, only about ten minutes after shrieking “God hates us all” during ‘Disciple’. Fists, horns and claws are raised for ‘Seasons in the Abyss’ and ‘Hell Awaits’. The second the unmistakable “DUN-DUN-DUN” warns of ‘Raining Blood’s arrival, the crowd enters a total frenzy. Consider that many in attendance have been here for nearly 11 hours at this point, and they’re still going for it like absolute animals. That’s the power Slayer have – hell, that’s the power they’ve always had.
At the conclusion of a blistering ‘Angel of Death’, each member of the band walks to the front of the stage to say goodbye. A graphic paying tribute to the late, great Jeff Hanneman is displayed behind them. Vocalist Tom Araya says one last thing: “We’re gonna miss you guys”. It’s more than apparent this feeling is entirely mutual. For many, this will be a moment to tell the grandkids about. Something of which to say “I was there.” How many festivals can honestly say they’ve given people something like that?