The day of a heavy festival always just feels a little bit like Christmas. The flood of band merch that hit Parramatta just felt like such a comfortable sight to see, while cars drove past blaring their favourite bangers for everybody to hear.
Headlined by Slayer on their final world tour, the excitable buzz in the air was unmissable as punters made their way into Sydney’s first ever Download Festival. With a stacked lineup, I daresay that to many metal fans, this day would be a dream come true. Being someone who was never really in tune with the metal genre though, I still arrived excited to see plenty of bands that found their way to my ears too.
Opening up the Avalanche Stage, Californian rockers New Years Day were the first band to grab me for the day. Even if I had planned to miss their set I don’t think I could’ve, with frontwoman Ashlee Costello’s trademark black and red hair unmissable, while her vocals were undeniably impressive. All in all, after only making their way on to my ‘to see’ list earlier that morning, it was a damn good way to start the day.
After catching a glimpse of Alien Weaponry’s set, in which I went from never having heard of the band to thinking they were insanely cool, the time for Polaris dawned upon the festival. With a big ole’ drum fill to preempt the set, the tame crowd erupted into a pit immediately while crowd surfers decided their time to wait was over as they barrelled over the barrier. As a sing along erupted for the opening lines of “Lucid”, the Sydney five-piece made it their mission to set the bar as high as possible for anyone to follow and I can assure you that they were successful.
While you could easily make the case for Polaris to be playing a later slot, their faithful fans still made it out early enough to see them, while the crowd unfamiliar with them were very quickly getting a crash course in Polaris. A rigorous touring schedule has turned the band into a fantastically polished outfit, and every onlooker at Download was the beneficiary of that.
Opening their set with the classic “Let It Slip”, Tasmanian punks Luca Brasi were presented the near impossible task of backing up after Polaris. Though they were unsurprisingly excellent, their fit in the festival could be questioned with most punters seeming slightly disinterested in music that you couldn’t sacrifice your unborn child to. Regardless, some keen onlookers watched on, yet the set just seemed to pale in comparison to the energy and intensity of Polaris’ just moments earlier.
After a brief stint watching Luca Brasi, I slipped over to the Ascension Stage for the first time of the day to check out The Beautiful Monument. Drifting effortlessly between pop infused rock to some really dirty heavy moments, the Melbourne five-piece pulled an impressive crowd despite clashing with some very notable bands. After seeing the newest addition to the Greyscale Records roster for the first time, it’s easy to see why they’re quickly picking up steam in the Australian scene.
Moving on, Melbourne extreme-metal outfit High Tension were the next on my list. While a band that I’d heard good things about but never really indulged in, the band were nothing short of impressive. Frontwoman Karina Utomo stands above the crowd, looking down on them with a stare that would strike fear in anybodies heart. Even diving into the crowd at one point, the band left no stone unturned during the set, with a set that showcased everything that Download is all about.
Despite enjoying High Tension’s set, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t eagerly awaiting their finish because it meant one thing and one thing only: There’s a mother fucking fever coming! Bringing their first ever demonstration to Sydney, Fever 333 took to the stage to bring the festivals most dramatic and energetic set and ultimately my highlight of the day. I could go on forever about Fever’s set, and maybe I damn will.
After being marched on to stage like a hostage, frontman Jason Butler stood eerily still while soundbites played through the background. Butler, formerly of letlive. was soon joined by bandmates Stephen Harris (formerly of The Chariot) and Aric Improta (Night Verses) before the trio ripped into “Burn It”. Butler and Harris dashed across the stage while Improta drummed furiously as the band burst through a monstrous set.
Taking moments to address the crowd, Butler spoke on the struggles of minorities all across the world. “We’re not asking you to subscribe to an agenda, just to challenge those in place” he said, describing that where we are now is a product of the past, and often at the expense of others. Taking time to call out the patriarchy as well, the set brought an enormity of cultural and social issues to the fore which remained unsurprising due to the band’s political and social motivations.
With both Butler and Harris leaping into the crowd at times, the set was incredibly engaging, and phenomenal to all those witnessing it. Maybe I have some bias as an enormous Fever fan, but their performance at Download was one of the best sets I’ve ever seen.
Needing a moment to return to my senses after being blown away by Fever, I waited patiently to see Code Orange. Having never seen the hardcore outfit before, it didn’t take long to understand why the band received a Grammy nomination for best metal performance. With more breakdowns than I could even count, the band’s dynamic performance and distinct flavour was enjoyed by one of the days biggest crowds yet.
I just want to say that I only briefly watched Behemoth. Let me tell you though, it only took about five minutes and I was definitively terrified of what I saw. If I thought Code Orange were heavy, this was the absolute next level of gargantuan heavy music. It is devastating how dirty and heavy this set is and even though I didn’t, I could’ve stood there and watched it for so much longer.
Possibly one of the day’s starkest contrasts, there was no way that I could say no to seeing the Newcastle sweethearts in Eat Your Heart Out for a second day in a row. Backing up from their kick off show with Sum 41 the night earlier, it was much of the same for the five-piece. Regardless, the outfit’s undeniable charm and musicianship was as enjoyable as ever albeit a ridiculously different vibe to the Behemoth set I had just witnessed.
Moving back to the Dogtooth Stage I took the time to see what the buzz around hardcore punks Converge was about. For another band that I’d heard so much about but never truly explored, it was easy to see why Converge are considered pioneers of the metalcore genre, while for a band that’s existed for nearly 30 years, they damn well know how to put on a show. The crowd lapped up their frantic brand of chaotic hardcore and honestly, so did I.
With a little bit of time before the next set I had planned to watch, I stuck around the Avalanche Stage to take up a friends advice to check out Me First And The Gimme Gimmes. A band that specialises in cover songs I was lucky enough to witness not only their incredible stage attire but also their fantastic rendition of Cher’s “Believe”. A nice reprieve from the heavy bands gracing the stage before them, there was no need to throw hands during this set, everyone was just having a dance.
I’ll be honest, if I didn’t feel like throwing hands during that set, I think I might have during The Amity Affliction. While I knew I’d be unfamiliar with some of the set due to my inability to enjoy their latest album, I found the set just lacked energy and paled in comparison to everything else I had seen during the day. It felt uninspired, and at times I couldn’t tell the difference between what vocals were live and what was straight off a backing track. Unsurprisingly, I’d have to call it my least enjoyed set of the day.
In their favour however, tight production with fog and pyro made up somewhat for the lacklustre sound whilst a setlist with a few of the hits including “Open Letter” and “Death’s Hand” gave me some reason to celebrate and enjoy rare moments of it. With quite a large crowd there to watch the set, I just hope not everyone walked away as disappointed as me.
A band that seems to always surprise me, Thy Art is Murder easily put on one of the best sets of the entire festival. Both sonically and in terms of production I walked away from it ridiculously impressed, and, unlike their friends in The Amity Affliction, seemed to put their money where their mouth was in justifying their billing on the festival.
With frontman CJ McMahon at his menacing best, he even commanded a circle pit around the sound tent to which the crowd happily abided. While there was no burning bible in the middle of the circle pit unlike the last time I saw the band, I was positively satisfied in picking up what they were putting down.
In the meantime, Ivan snapped Rise Against in action.
Playing after that set would’ve been no easy feat for any band, but somehow Halestorm made it look easy. With an intensity and ferocity second to none, they became yet another band to leave a great and lasting first impression on me. Having to compete with Alice In Chains was another challenge in itself for the rockers, but they won my vote, and the votes of plenty more who had filed in to watch the set.
Pulling myself away from Halestorm’s set, I made my way to see the kings in Justice For The Damned. It felt like Blacktown all over again as a huge chunk of Sydney’s hardcore scene turned out for the set, spin-kicking and two-stepping their way through one of the day’s heaviest additions. While the set seemed marred by sound difficulties early on, most had been rectified by its conclusion as the Sydney crew closed off the Ascension stage in the best way possible.
Judas Priest took to the Black Stage and Ivan snapped these incredible photos.
Just like Eat Your Heart Out, there was no way I could stop myself from watching Sum 41 two nights in a row. As the stage lights turned on to signal the start of the set, the crowd erupted into cheer, just as they did the night before. Unsurprisingly, seeing the band playing to an enormous crowd as opposed to to a 500-cap Crowbar was a wildly different experience, yet the energy and buzz of nostalgia felt no different at all. Asking three lucky fans to join him on stage for the entire set, it was looking it was destined to be a memorable time for all.
While the Sum 41 set was where my heart was at, I took a brief journey away from the stage to bask in the glory of Slayer. As far as timing goes, I think I did well to ensure that the first time I ever watched Slayer would be the last opportunity I would ever get. With insane production, the metal kings rightfully pulled the day’s largest crowd while there was no doubt in my mind that although they’re hanging up their boots soon, this band is undeniably still in their prime.
Waddling back to catch the ending of Sum 41’s set, I was very surprised to see an inflatable skeleton with glowing red eyes staring back at me. Getting to catch the hits of “In Too Deep” and “Fat Lip” for the second night in a row was well enjoyed, while watching the enormous crowd lose their minds to the songs was a sight that I’ll doubt I’ll forget.
Bringing proceedings to an end on the Avalanche stage, I think I had the greatest feeling of unknown anticipation for Ghost’s set. Gracing Australian shores with Cardinal Copia at the helm for the first time, the band were an interesting to say the least. Before they even walked on stage you could tell how insane the set’s production would be, yet it seemed to go to another level when they actually took the stage.
With his nameless ghouls at his side Copia took to the stage, unleashing his character for all watching. As a frontman, he has so much charisma and charm in the most uncomfortable way possible, while his presence and demeanour is so commanding. Every member of the audience watches on, transfixed on the spectacle and the band are aware that everyone is eating from the palm of their hands.
If Download Festival 2019 was Christmas, then we are all ridiculously spoilt children. With a lineup that spanned generations of heavy music from the kings in Slayer to the newcomers in Fever 333, the festival’s first time in Sydney seemed to go off without a hitch.
For me, the day was like a crash course in bands that I have always been aware of, but never familiar with. From Slayer, to Converge, to Halestorm, the chance to experience bands that have been hugely influential on music itself was incredible. I hope you’ve got a few spare pairs of underwear ready Melbourne, because you’re going to need them.[All photos courtesy of Ivan Souriyavong]