As a happy and noisy sea of black clothing, metal enthusiasts flowed into Flemington Racecourse. On this overcast public holiday, Download Melbourne had officially begun, and black band shirts were our ‘uniform’ showing our particular strain of heavy metal worship, regardless of age or walk of life. With events like this, especially with a line-up with such a long historical span of existence, a love of heavy music unites!
It was the familiar melody of Voyager‘s “Ascension” that billowed across the grounds, sonically welcoming me as I made my way up rose-lined roadways toward the action. Coupled with a smooth and friendly entrance to the festival and a gentle breeze blowing, I couldn’t think of a better start to the day and a smile on my face said the same.
Applying complementary sunscreen to the soundtrack of Luca Brasi‘s “Let It Slip”, I found my friends and got my bearings of what was located where – specifically the five different stages. For someone with a pretty dodgy sense of direction, having pretty much the same layout as Download 2018 (with a few changes) was a life-saver.
Ascension Stage was one of those changes, established where the inflatable church was last year. The new stage was the site of my first official set of Download 2019: Windwaker. The Melbourne locals have amassed an affectionate following, and it was great to see a crowd form to see the locals in action. They played “Reject” early in the set, a song I’ve come to know and love from (painstakingly/slowly) moving my way through the band’s upcoming EP Empire. Regardless of the lack of familiarity, heads were bobbing and people were bouncing along happily to the band that came across as lively and engaging.
There were some minor technical issues, but they didn’t mar the set at all. Windwaker kept crowd attention and curiosity high with their combination of hectic melodic guitar and easily shifting between growls and shining melodic choruses. Recently released single “My Empire” was belted out and sounded great. Windwaker are truly onto something good with their new music, and it was an absolute pleasure taking in these fat and brutal breakdowns amongst beautiful/sweet tones.
I ducked away to have lunch with friends from Brisbane who were lured to visit courtesy of the big name metallers on the lineup. I left Windwaker in full festival mode with beach balls bouncing around the crowd and groovetastic single “The Sitch” billowing from the stage. This band are on an upward run and it’ll easily continue once Empire is released, I have zero doubts of that.
Sitting on the lawn with my noodles between the Avalanche Stage and main stages, I could hear Slaves nailing it with brash punk intensity. In contrast, I Prevail came across a little weaker with their brand of pop-polished choruses and grit, but nonetheless attracted a sizeable crowd.
Running into Depth’s first ever Melbourne photographer Corey Bonadiesi for a moment, I headed back over to the Ascension Stage in time for The Beautiful Monument. It was instantly captivating, with intriguing riffs coupled with beats you could bounce to, or just lose yourself to the more atmospheric moments. Vocalist Lizi Blanco dropped to the stage floor for quieter and more tender song sections, before propping a foot on the speakers on the bigger anthemic chorus moments, seeking for us to join in.
With cool breezes blowing by, and Lizi crooning, while bass heavy rock tunes were played – it all crafted a really full and enjoyable atmosphere. I appreciated the vibe of the dance (sorry, ‘boogie’!)-inspiring music, which still maintained a seriousness surrounding the subject matter shared. This seemed to sum up the fresh Greyscale Records signees in a nutshell; dark and intriguing, yet feelgood and strong songs. The Melbourne band were clearly having a good time on stage and nailing their breakdowns. A standout song for me of the set was “Liberated”.
Heading back up the rose-lined walkway alongside hundreds of other black-clad people, I made sure to get to the Fever 333 set at the Avalanche Stage on time. With vocalist Jason Aalon Butler stationary and silent in the middle of the stage, and a black bag over his head, it was an impactful, perhaps breath-holding moment. Bag ripped off, it was very quickly an explosive start to what would be a non-stop action packed set for the Californian trio.
“BURN IT” from Fever 333’s STRENGTH IN NUMB333RS album saw a very loud crowd shift from captivation to joining in emphatically with the combo of electronic crunch and hectic paced rock heaviness. Screaming and wild on stage, spontaneous hand clapping, singing, and finger pointing joined in with this sample-heavy, multilayered experience that calls for responsibility and awareness. There seemed to be no physical limits to the Fever 333 demonstration that Download attendees were soaking up before them. Stage diving and crowd surfing were part of this world, where the mic cord was stretched to its limits and scaffolding was dangled from.
Gaining attention with their intensity of performance as well as passion behind the music’s message, the entire set was ‘whoa’ levels of full-on. Jason and guitarist Stephen Harrison left no inch of the stage untouched; both striding across it and completely owning the space. Though drummer Aric Improta was limited in physical position, a spotlight on him and a moment of drum-tasia showcased his ridiculously impressive skill as a musician. It was a reminder that this band are amazing musicians doing incredible (and important!) shit. The roar of voices from the crowd (such as “WHERE WE LAND IS WHERE WE FALL”) indicated we were all fully aware of this fact, and fully part of the 333 movement.
Heading to the.. amenities.. Airbourne were at the main stage area and hit home a clear message that everyone there could attest to: “heavy metal is alive in fucking Australia!”. The Warrnambool band sure know how to put on a show, and I found that what I briefly saw of their set was easily inviting for people to join in and have a good time with them – even if we didn’t know the tunes.
Catching up with and meeting new industry friends, I managed to see a sliver of Behemoth in action. Matching their band name to a T, the Polish band’s set thundered out over the arena, coming across in resolute strength with their face paint and stage presence.
Sirens wailed to herald the start of Anthrax, while punk vibing anthems wafted down from Me First And The Gimme Gimmes doing their thing at the Avalanche Stage. Asking us if we were ready to get our asses kicked (yes, please), Anthrax rocked the place. Though I’m not hugely into ‘old school metal’, it was an undeniable good time for a full crowd of all ages who were there taking the set in. Black hair billowed in the breeze while Anthrax hit metallic heights and vicious guitar mastery, inviting us all to join in. With a punchy pace and fat riffs delivered with smiles (and vocalist Joey Belladonna wearing his band’s merch), the set inspired me to continue to live my passion from hereon into forever! Age is no limitation!
The Amity Affliction followed on the neighbouring Red Stage, opening cleanly and somewhat sedately with the melodic and chiming start of “Drag The Lake”. The last time I saw this band was at Unify Gathering 2018, and I walked away from that set feeling annoyed at the performance that had seemed insultingly apathetic. Though I was much further away from the stage at Download compared to Unify, the band sounded strong playing tracks from Misery, and I enjoyed hearing the live rendition of “Ivy (Doomsday)”.
Falling silent mid song, Amity’s set was paused due to an incident in the crowd. “This Could Be Heartbreak” launched things back into action though, and it was a party vibe and a half. Breakdowns accompanied by flames added some punch that didn’t seem to otherwise be there, for my ears anyway. I do believe it was Albert’s set of the day, though and his photos come with a lot of love.
Rise Against vocalist Tim McIlrath is hard to ignore; his stage presence and voice is seeking and connective and easily pulls attention. Happy crowd interaction seemed to be a given in response, with fists punching the air along with the music, and fans soaking up the infectious punk vibes coming from the Black Stage.
Thunderous drums and punk ‘whoa-ohh’s wailed out from the stage and the songs were nailed. At one point, it felt like Tim was leading a choir as he joined the crowd and was soon after faced by a sea of handclapping. Though the crowd seemed to get progressively more sparse as the set went on, I suspect Rise Against made their fans very happy at Download!
I headed over to the Dogtooth Stage for the first time, keen to see Polaris in action. In my experience, the Sydney band have never put on a bad show, and Download soon proved to be no exception. Huge from the get-go with “Casualty”, a circle pit kicked up dust, and smoke machines on stage added to the atmosphere. Fierce and full, this set starter came at us with djent fire and full energy beaming from the stage.
I fucking love this band, to be honest, and every member seemed to be in high spirits and having a good time. Jamie Hails easily worked the crowd as frontman and his energy was an infectious inspiration to be as much of a part of the set as the band were. “The Remedy” is just a really great song, and watching an enthusiastic crowd enjoying it, coupled with Polaris in their element (including Jake Steinhauser impressively nailing sky high vocals seemingly every time) was one of those moments when I couldn’t not smile.
As a stand-out set of the day for me, it was a good time with sheer brilliance via guitar from end to end. Stage banter was kept short and sweet, intended to deliver us as many songs as possible, and we took in the incredible experience as the sun started to set over Download. Even when sound dropped out through “Crooked Path” for a moment, the intensity never wavered and a cheering and bouncing crowd were there alongside Polaris, passionately joining in on the “I CAN’T UNDERSTAAAND” lyric. With fans up on shoulders, a wall of death, and cans thrown into the air, it was all an attempt to express how much this band mean (and also how incredible The Mortal Coil is as an album). “Lucid” took the set home and yet again proved just how great Polaris are.
While I grabbed some food, Alice In Chains were delighting fans on the Red Stage, including my Brisbane pals. As far bigger Alice In Chains fans than I am, I’m sharing the words of a friend who’d like to be known as ‘Metal Maresy’:
“The notes to the first song roared across the Red Stage and I could not be happier to hear “Bleed The Freak” – a personal favourite. The sound was loud and tight and I thought to myself ‘I’m in for another stellar performance from these Seattle giants’. My anticipation for this band was high. They were a voice of a generation that wanted music that was more than just a good time. Alice In Chains broke onto the scene with lyrics to make you think, and a sound that demanded attention. At Download, all that was on the stage was the band: Jerry Cantrell (a man that can make his guitar sing like no one else), his comrade in drums Sean Kinney, bassist Mike Inez who joined in 1993, and (the latest member who joined in 2006) William DuVall, and their instruments.
What followed was a great mix of songs across many of their albums. But the best of the middle of the set for me was when they played another favourite, “Down In A Hole”, transfixing me with its harmonies. Even though William is not the original singer of this song, the essence of Alice In Chains of old still clearly remained.
The whole crowd erupted to the start of “Man In The Box”, a break out song from the grunge era. Next, a nod to the latest album with “The One You Know”, and then another classic from the infamous Dirt album “Would”. And to quote the man himself, they finished with “a song about a chicken, not a chicken”, “Rooster”. It was played with a raw emotion and intensity that most bands never reach. As the last note rang out, was I impressed with the set? The answer is ‘hell yeah!’. No need for gimmicks or elaborate stage antics from this band because quite simply they blew everyone else off the stage.”
Heading over to the Avalanche Stage again, it was Sum 41 coming at us with a nostalgic punk attack. It’s 6 years since they were last on our shores, but regardless they had the crowd easily in the palm of their hands and were flagged as a must-see for many Download attendees I’d spoken with. The show was made even more special for three lucky fans up front who were chosen to spend the duration of the set on stage with the band!
Anthemic tunes were shared to a captive audience while CO2 cannons blasted now and then. Killer bass tone on tracks like “Motivation” was a stand-out to my ears, as was the use of shifting pace to keep us intrigued and in anticipation. Song after song, this set seemed designed for a good time in a live setting, and the bouncing happy fans on stage snapping photos and movies added to the joyful vibe.
Slowing it down at times, dreamy spinning and rotating spotlights set a lighter mood and bouncing turned to swaying. Singing along, it was a sweet serenade courtesy of crowd and band combined. Sum 41 showed no fear in hitting pause during their songs to draw attention to parts, or ask for particular fan responses. This could give the impression of a shitshow of a set, but instead it was a precise and polished affair, accented by wild and skilled guitar work.
In the meantime, ‘Metal Maresy’ caught Judas Priest and shared her notes with me:
“Even before this set began, homage was paid to another Birmingham institution with the Black Stage blaring out “War Pigs” by the seminal band Black Sabbath. Then the heirs to the metal throne entered the stage: Judas Priest. The man who owns the moniker “Metal God” was last to take the stage, in one of his many metal outfits that only he wears best. As anticipated, they began with the title track from their latest killer album Firepower. Followed by songs spanning 45 years of studio albums. When the mighty “Turbo Lover” began and you could feel every rev head and metal lover in the place sing as one.
Of course Rob Halford had to arrive on stage on his motorbike and the crowd went wild especially for the song that defines the uniform of metal fans: “Hell Bent for Leather”. We then screamed for “Painkiller”; one of the best metal songs ever written. As it began, you could feel the excitement in the crowd. We all know this song builds to a metal crescendo (that has no equal!) until the final relentless drum beat dies and the word “pain” is sung by the metal God. And then they were gone.
The set had it all: Great stage set up, and homage paid to Glen Tipton via visual footage. The current guitarist Richie Faulkner sure had the look of the Priest of old. The workhorse of the band Ian Hill played his bass like a professional, and the drumming was masterful by Scott Travis. And even though Rob Halford is challenged reaching the massive range that he created in metal singing, you know you are in the presence of metal royalty. A message did flash across the screen saying “The Priest will be back” and I for one am so thankful! Long live Judas Priest.”
On the neighbouring stage, Slayer then followed, beckoning us into their set with thick riffs. Download is part of the band’s final world tour, so it was a must-see for fans of the Californian veterans of metal.
They set a galloping pace in the darkness, with the night cold well and truly set in, and a crescent moon shining above. Monotonous quickfire intensity hammered outward at the attentive crowd, and we were urged to join in with our voices. Of what I saw, the set featured driving riffs, layered vocals, and hectic guitar solos, bolstered by flame-filled visual intensity. One heck of a farewell show!
Feeling worn out and sunburnt, I was ready to head home, but made a point to see Ghost on the way past the Avalanche Stage. I have zero regrets! It was immediately ‘wow’ with the stage setup with chapel backdrop and bricked platforms. This set-dressing combined with the majestic harmonies and drawing riffs of “Rats” made for an incredible set starter. I’m fairly uneducated when it comes to Ghost, but this was one of those “I need to listen to this band more” moments of the festival for me.
Theatrically presented, this set flowed easily of both sound and sight. Bathed in spotlights, we were gifted musical stories by masked musicians. And it was just a bit (wonderfully) surreal to have a gloved and besuited gentleman telling us to SCREAAAAM.
Fabulously dramatic, and easily winning hearts with their divine show, the Ghost set was the perfect end to my experience of Download 2019.
With perfect mild weather and the absence of rain, you couldn’t have asked for a better day for Download in Melbourne. With so many stages, there was something for everyone to revel in nostalgia, or inspire some new listening. Metal fans demonstrated their reputation for being community focused and the festival atmosphere was one of inclusion and happiness. Download Festival was a perfect excuse to spend all day immersed in good music and hang out with good people. See you next year!
All photos courtesy of Albert Lamontagne.