Download revellers are now wise to their fate. The rock and metal festival has fallen prey to bad weather on so many occasions, it’s almost accepted that by day three you'll be swilling knee-deep in the muds of hell.
Right now though, it’s early afternoon on day one and Babymetal, three Japanese, tutu-wearing teens busting out synchronised dance moves, have drawn a huge crowd on the main stage. But as their loony mashup of J-pop and brutally proficient metal begins, the heavens open. And we're not talking a light shower here, this is torrential shit-it-down rain so heavy it sends hardened, hairy metallers running screaming into tents for cover. That works just fine however for Nottingham nutjobs Heck who end up playing their chaotic and jagged, math-y punk to a packed Maverick tent. And it's not long until frontman Matt Reynolds is charging through the crowd, guitar and mic stand in hand, while frantic roadies try to prevent people being throttled by wires in his wake.
Friday headliners Rammstein take a different approach to the weather. Bringing enough flames and pyro to melt the county of Leicestershire, any rain they don’t evaporate, is chased off by their formidable, powerful metal. The German industrialists are as terrifyingly manly as they are brilliantly camp - there's pounding fists and bulging muscles, the riffs are blistering for ‘Sonne’ and ‘Mein Herz Brennt’ and keyboardist “Flake” Lorenz spends the whole spectacle either being fried in an acid bath or walking on a treadmill wearing a glitter suit.
For those of us who don’t have an inbuilt flame thrower, the rest of the weekend becomes a battle against the elements for bands and fans alike. By now, metalcore pioneers Killswitch Engage have an incredible back catalogue to draw on and 'My Curse' and 'Rose of Sharyn' spark some of the weekend's biggest sing-alongs. It's still pouring as they perform and newly returned frontman, Jesse Leach, slips and takes a flying tumble onstage. By the end of Deftones’ beautifully doomy set, vocalist Chino Moreno is as drenched as the bedraggled sea of mud-splattered ponchos in front of him. But there’s nothing dishevelled about a set that includes the downtuned aggression of 'Rocket Skates', minacious ‘You've Seen the Butcher’ or expansive 'Rubicon', confirming just how seminal and innovative their career has been.
Even Black Sabbath, the band who started it all, have to work harder than they ever should have to in front of this kind of crowd. Ozzy Osborne is in energetic spirits and (mostly) fine voice. Tony Iommi’s riffs and Geezer Butler’s bass are monolithic, inimitable. The setlist is iconic; ‘Iron Man’, ‘N.I.B’ ... ‘Into the Void’. The pelting rain only adds to the satanic sense of trepidation but after a two-day soaking, the crowd are rather subdued, the atmosphere dampened. On the cusp of retirement and having just announced their final ever shows, this should have been spellbinding, electric, emotional stuff.
Elsewhere, great performances from emerging bands keep spirits high. From Shvpes' bouncing, infectious metalcore, Cane Hill’s twisted modern-day nu metal and Muncie Girls’ infectious rousing pop-punk, to blackened brutality from Counting Days’ and a vintage thrash assault from Havok, there’s plenty to smile about. And there’s some genuine ‘I was there’ moments which will surely be absorbed into the rich fabric of Download history. Frank Carter is back to his vicious, unhinged self and, backed by the Rattlesnakes, this is the meanest, dirtiest music he's released in ages. ‘I Hate You’ is an anthem of violent brilliance while ‘Juggernaut’ gets a circle pit going around the outside of the tent. And in two foot of liquid mud that’s no mean feat.
Over on the dogtooth stage, Gloucestershire garage punks Milk Teeth are gloriously shambolic with their ‘90s grunge meets woozy slacker rock sound: ‘Swear Jar’ sounds like Dinosaur Jnr doing Hole covers. But set of the weekend goes to progressive alt-metallers Black Peaks. With an eviscerating scream that could peel skin from bone, Will Gardner and co whip up a thunderingly heavy aural maelstrom. Gardner’s voice is even more impressive live than on their stunning debut ‘Statues’ and he holds his arms aloft like an apocalyptic Jesus for thrilling highlight ‘Say You Will’.
The most touching moment of the weekend, however, belongs to one of the biggest characters in the metal world. Following the death of iconic Motörhead frontman Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister, the main stage this weekend has been named the ‘Lemmy Stage’ and on Friday, the slot he should have played is used to pay tribute. There’s no Metallica playing Motörhead covers as rumoured on social media, and rightly so – this moment shouldn’t be about anyone else. Instead, a video plays of Motörhead performances while the likes of Judas Priest, Dave Grohl and Lars Ulrich share their memories of the man who personified the very fibre of rock ’n’ roll. Horns and beers are raised as a single, black, ace of spades-shaped balloon floats high above Donington. For the first time that day, the rain has finally stopped, almost like the heavens parted just for a moment and just for Lemmy.
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Words: Dannii Leivers