It goes without saying that the past 15 months have been difficult for everyone in different ways and in difference degrees, but few industries have suffered as much as music and live events. Though the return of live music is still uncertain for the moment, a brief moment of reprieve is upon us in the form of Download Pilot – a sort of mini-Download Festival signed off to go ahead as part of the UK Government’s Event Research Programme, aiming to offer a clearer view of when and how live events can return once more.
Stripped down to just two stages of exclusively UK based talent across the three day event, and minimised to a maximum capacity of 10,000 instead of the usual 111,000, attendees were required to take a test and produce a negative result with proof shortly before arriving at the site to gain access.
For the first day of the special, one-off event – and first taste of live rock music in the UK in almost a year and a half – Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes are tasked to feed the mosh famished crowd.
DEATH BLOOMS – 7/10
Opening up proceedings for Friday, and by extension being the first band to play a note to an audience at Download Pilot, are Liverpool’s Death Blooms. Their pent up and aggressive brand of nu-metalcore is certainly reflective of how we’ve all felt over the past 15 months: agitated and pissed off.
‘Anger’ pretty much what it says on the tin, and ‘Life Is Pain’ has undeniable groove and stomp that gets the cobwebs dusted off of any head banger worth their salt here today. Vocalist Paul Barrow mentions on a few occasions how choked up and teary he feels that this site and live music is back, at least for this weekend for the foreseeable, and there’s no question that everyone else here feels exactly the same.
MALEVOLENCE – 7/10
Keeping the heavy going on the Second Stage are Malevolence, who though used to the more enclosed rooms appear to thrive in the lofty space under the Big Top today. The groovy, chunky riffs of the likes of ‘Serpent’s Chokehold’ and ‘Self Supremacy’ ignite some of the first notable pits of the weekend, whilst ‘Remain Unbeaten’ and ‘The Other Side’ finally see their live debut after more than a year since their release.
At one point during the set, frontman Alex Taylor takes a moment to encourage people to reach out to their friends who may need help, reminding us all that some of the people we’ve tragically lost during the pandemic have not been to COVID-19, but to suicide. It’s an emotional reminder of the hard times we’ve faced, but with the brute force of their set they offer an outlet that we’ve all needed for so long.
HOLDING ABSENCE – 9/10
With a growing die-hard fanbase behind them, which has only continued to swell during the forced downtime of the pandemic, Holding Absence are easily one of the most anticipated acts on the bill this weekend who aren’t headlining a stage. Bursting out with the aptly titled ‘Celebration Song’, the atmosphere is electric for the Welsh outfit right until the set’s final moments.
The band finally get to showcase their latest material live, with ‘Curse Me With Your Curse’ and ‘Nomoreroses’ both seeing their live debut whilst ‘Gravity’ also gets the full treatment to a live audience over a year since its release. ‘Afterlife’ also sees the room roaring along with vocalist Lucas Woodland, almost overpowering him during its captivating chorus.
One of the most sensational moments, however, is during ‘Like A Shadow’. Woodland stops singing the chorus and leaves it for the crowd to belt out, and belt out they do, so loud that it no doubt rings across the entire Download site this weekend. Being deprived of moments like this for over a year has been criminal.
SLEEP TOKEN – 9/10
The allure alone of the ever enigmatic Sleep Token has managed to catapult them into a cult-like status, with each member masked, costumed up, and their true names remaining completely anonymous still to this day. Though a few minutes later than planned, members of the band begin to emerge one-by-one within the fog canvasing the stage whilst their vocalist, known simply as Vessel, sings solemnly to set opener, ‘Thread The Needle’.
Once the song explodes in its final coda, the mysterious collective have the crowd before them in the palm of their hands until they leave the stage. The to and fro of timid verses and chugging riffs of ‘The Offering’ sucks you into their world, ‘Jaws’ sounds far more grandiose live than on record, helped by the hooded back-up choir vocalists in the background, and the less-than-24-hours-old new single ‘Alkaline’ sets Sleep Token up for a future on a far grander scale than the already lofty achievement before them.
Equal parts dark, fragile, beautiful, and at times borderline monolithic, Sleep Token clearly have their sights set on claiming a reputation as revered as the fictional deity of Sleep that they base their existence on.
FRANK CARTER & THE RATTLESNAKES – 9/10
It feels like we’ve been waiting on the edge of our seats for Frank Carter to finally get the chance to prove his worth as a stage headliner. He’s got the material and he’s definitely got the showmanship, but he’s just never had the opportunity. Though a little smaller in scale than the Main Stage that we’re accustomed to at Download Festival, this year Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes let us all know they have the minerals for the job and close out the Friday of Download Pilot.
It doesn’t take long after he storms onto the stage for Carter to prove why he is rightly heralded as one of the best British frontmen in rock, something that has been true since his days fronting Gallows in the late 2000s. The band’s more raw, hardcore punk tinged side gets the adrenaline pumping early with ‘Trouble’ and ‘Fangs’, whilst the aptly titled ‘Juggernaut’ ploughs through later on, which sees the biggest circle pit of the entire weekend surrounding the sound desk tower.
Carter invites IDLES frontman Joe Talbot on to help him out during their recent single ‘My Town’, and Cassyette gets brought onto the stage later on to help with a currently unreleased song that they’ve worked on together called ‘Off With His Head’. As ever, Carter‘s charisma shines throughout, drawing and commanding the crowd with ease.
With ‘Crowbar’ opted as the song to close out the evening and first day of the special and one-off Download Pilot event, Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes throw plenty of more evidence onto the stack that already exists that they’re more than primed and ready to headline stages this size and much larger going forward.