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.
Closing this special weekend and brief taste of normality once more are Bullet For My Valentine, and so riffs, head banging and mosh pits are pretty much a given to see the final day out.
STATIC DRESS – 7/10
If you wanted to start off your final morning of music at Download Pilot with some 2000s era post-hardcore then look no further than Static Dress. There’s a sense of intrigue surrounding the Yorkshire outfit, but their intermittent single drops have amassed quite the following already.
Frontman Olli Appleyard sports a fantastic crop top and almost literally throws his guts up within the first few minutes of the set due to the overwhelming crowd before him, but he screams right on through it. ‘sweet.’ scratches that old school Underoath itch, whereas ‘Safeword’ sounds like something that Senses Fail would wish they had wrote themselves.
SAINT AGNES – 6/10
Over on the Main Stage to open it one final time this weekend are Saint Agnes, whose punk stomp is a definite delight. At one point vocalist/guitarist Kitty A. Austin is yelling how her “dick is bigger than yours” during ‘And They All Fall Down’, at another she’s cracking open a can of Guinness down the microphone, and by the end of the set she’s covered in blood.
Admittedly it does feel like the London outfit aren’t quite ready for stages of this size yet and a slightly muddy mix doesn’t help either. Still, if someone tells you that their set isn’t fun then you’re at best being conned.
EMPLOYED TO SERVE – 8/10
Viva la Woking, or something like that. Employed To Serve have built and maintained a reputation as one of the darlings of heavy music in the UK in recent years, and today only solidifies that further. Even more than a year out of the game, the metal quintet sound as tight as ever.
‘Party’s Over’, a single they released over 8 months ago, finally sees its live debut, and ‘Force Fed’ will forever be a monster. There’s several occasions where the band try and get the crowd moving, though the sideways downpour of rain and cold is admittedly making people reluctant. Still, ‘Owed Zero’ devastates whilst new track ‘Exist’ whets the appetite for them to unfurl another album of chaos very soon.
LOATHE – 8/10
The past year has been especially spectacular for Loathe, who’ve been catapulted into the status of metal greats with their latest record, ‘I Let It In And It Took Everything’. With little chance to tour the album following its release, understandably the band keep their set strictly to cuts from that record.
The opening one-two of ‘Gored’ and ‘Aggressive Evolution’ sounds massive, albeit against a slightly messy mix to begin with. Soon enough it all finds its footing, and the trade-off vocals between frontman Kadeem France and guitarist Erik Bickerstaffe are seamless. Sadly sound issues ground insatiable closer ‘Two-Way Mirror’ to an almost complete halt with the instruments all cutting out, but France takes the opportunity to take the chorus a capella with the crowd, and the sound of them singing the words right back is simply magical.
ELVANA – 6/10
As an Elvis fronted Nirvana tribute band, what you’re going to get from Elvana is pretty much explained from the off. Obviously Nirvana classics like ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and ‘In Bloom’ easily get the crowd jumping and singing along, and mashing them aside Elvis Presley numbers is a fun concept.
What the band’s set arguably suffers from however, though admittedly is through no fault of their own, lies in the concept of what Download Pilot is. Sure, an Elvana set is a fun burst of energy for the most part, but it’s hard to not wish that this spot could’ve been filled by a band with original cuts who’ve been deprived from performing to a live crowd for nearly a year and a half as opposed to a tribute band.
TRASH BOAT – 8/10
The big top is absolutely packed out for Trash Boat‘s arrival this afternoon, and the fans are here to give their all for the St. Albans outfit. Indeed, there’s crowd surfing aplenty at many points during the band’s set, and they even get the still unconverted onboard when they bring out their cover of Linkin Park‘s ‘Given Up’.
They opt for some fresh material to close out the set, and it just so happens to be its crowning moment. ‘He’s So Good’ is clearly going to be a set staple for many, many years to come, and with the final moments of ‘Don’t You Feel Amazing?’, it’s obvious that the best to come from Trash Boat is just around the corner.
SKINDRED – 9/10
As expected, Skindred offer up a headline-worthy set to the Download Pilot grounds, something that they seem to do like it’s second nature nowadays. Walking onto the stage while ‘The Imperial March’ from Star Wars plays overhead and dressed to the nines, frontman Benji Webbe is the conductor for one of the best sets of the weekend.
‘Nobody’ still sparks several mosh pits more than 15 years since its release, and ‘Stand For Something’ gets fans singing along nice and early. Webbe gets each side of the crowd to battle off one another before diving into the stomping ‘That’s My Jam’, and at one point he pretends to jump on the phone with the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. Why? To get the clearance that they can get everyone to do the Newport Helicopter; “We can’t do it because of COVID? No one here has got COVID.”
Sure enough, thousands of people take of their jackets and shirts, lift them above their head, and with the count down of 1-2-3 during ‘Warning’ they swing them round and round above their heads in unison. It’s truly something that has to be seen to be appreciated, and just like that the Welsh upstarts leave the stage with a crowd of people smiling from ear-to-ear.
BULLET FOR MY VALENTINE – 8/10
One of the key names when it comes to UK born and bred metal, Bullet For My Valentine are a band who’ve been itching to claim that spot headlining the Download Festival main stage for more or less their entire existence. Tonight, their dream comes true as they deliver what will be the final live performance of music in the UK without restrictions for the foreseeable future.
Indeed, the Welsh boys have quite the catalogue behind them now, and after the opener of ‘Don’t Need You’ they pounce straight into their fresh and arguably heaviest cut they’ve had in years, ‘Knives’, and already pits are erupting right before the Welsh boys’ eyes. Riffs, aggression, and pure metal is the order of the day for tonight’s headliners, and the likes of golden oldie ‘4 Words (To Choke Upon)’ and head banger central ‘Your Betrayal’ deliver these qualities in spades.
Though metal anthems like ‘Scream Aim Fire’ and ‘Suffocating Under Words of Sorrow (What Can I Do)’ are pretty much built for a place like Download Festival, which is something you could say about Bullet For My Valentine‘s entire catalogue really, they throw in a couple of things to make sure that this isn’t your standard run-of-the-mill set from the band. Most notably they bring Skindred frontman Benji Webbe back onstage to sing along to a cover of Iron Maiden‘s ‘Run To The Hills’, and the few people who aren’t singing the lyrics back are definitely singing along to THAT riff.
Bowing out with an encore triplet of part thrash-athon part emo ballad ‘Tears Don’t Fall’, the quintessential and vintage number ‘Hand Of Blood’, and a barrage of riffs in ‘Waking The Demon’, Bullet For My Valentine have evidently been wanting and preparing for this moment for years, and they stepped up to the plate in full force.