This is Download’s second year in Australia. The festival has been running in the UK at Donington Park since 2003 as a multiple day event and in recent years has expanded to include events in France, Spain, and Japan. Last year Download’s lineup choice seemed to focus on bands from the late 90’s/early 2000’s with Korn, Limp Bizkit and Prophets of Rage closing out the main stage, but this year the promoters have looked even further back for their headliners with Slayer, Judas Priest, and Anthrax who were icons of the 80’s metal scene. Closing out the night with Ozzy Osbourne would have been the cherry on top but alas it was not to be as he suffered medical complications which led to him cancelling in Australia and Japan. The crowd for this years festival definitely seemed a bit older than last years and I’m wondering whether this was part of the strategy to appeal to a wider range of fans and ensure the continuation of the festival in Australia.

I opened my account at Download this year with Brisbane death metal outfit Aversions Crown on the Ascension stage which was situated on the western side of the grounds. Although it’s a smaller stage than the Red, Black, Avalanche and Dogtooth stages located around the Flemington Racecourse venue the sound was still top quality and the crowd was no less enthusiastic. Fresh off their latest European tour the band put together a crushing set with a huge triple guitar attack and the drummer Jayden rolling double kicks like he was born with pistons for calves. The crowd responded in kind with circle pits and walls of death popping up multiple times within their half hour set. I have a feeling that several punters will be waking up on Tuesday with fond memories and some pretty decent bruises to the ribs.

Heading over to grab a beer and check out Frenzal Rhomb on the Dogtooth stage I made my way past the various food trucks and merch vendors that had set up in the centre of the venue. Midway through I catch a few songs from The Amity Affliction playing on the Red stage as the wind blows the sound towards the centre of the venue. Fortunately the weather gods had smiled on the festival and the Melbourne crowds were greeted with sunshine, but I did notice that during several performances on the main stages the wind was playing havoc with the sound projection. Last year the sound during Korn’s set was so loud it was hard to hear NOFX in the Avalanche stage at the same time. I’m wondering if organisers took this into account and tried to compromise with a more focused system that unfortunately wasn’t able to hold up to the wind factor. Either way, this is only our second taste of Download and here’s hoping that the festival keeps returning and is able to get better every year.

Frenzal rip into their set with a cover of “Crazy Train” and “Bird Attack” which singer Jay announces to the crowd as “about as heavy as we get”. They tear through tracks from their 20 year catalogue with a mix of newer singles such as “High Vis High Tea” and classics from previous albums such as “A Man’s Not A Camel”. The band put on their usual tongue in cheek performance but remain tight as ever. Harmonies were spot on, solos were flavoured with tasty licks and classic rock sensibilities, and at the front, the crowd responded in kind with singalongs and pogos.

Frenzal jokingly remind the crowd that they’re missing The Amity Affliction but when I check my timetable I realise that Rise Against is starting on the main stage. As a long time fan I’m keen to see them again and with an hour-long set there should be plenty of time for the classics. Since the early days the band has changed their sound to a more radio friendly alternate rock vibe and they seem at home on the larger stage. Unfortunately this means that front man Tim McIlrath holds back his scream on “Give It All” which is a little hypocritical to me considering the song’s title but hey, they did play “Chamber The Cartridge” and there was a decent circle pit in front of the stage so I’ll give them a pass on that. The band close out their set with a couple of classic punk covers, Shawna from War On Women joins for “Rise Above” and Spike from Me First and the Gimmie Gimmies joins for “Hybrid Moments”.

Pennywise are no stranger to Australian shores, and a band that have been playing together for as long as these guys have definitely know how to put on a show and they understand what their fans expect and enjoy. During the set Jim, Fletcher and Randy banter on stage in between songs and play up to the crowd. The set includes classics such as “Society” and “Perfect People” but they also manage to sneak in a few newer tunes from last year’s album “Never Gonna Die”. Pennywise are the AC/DC of 90’s punk – you know what to expect and they don’t disappoint live. The new tracks fit into the set like they were always meant to be there and there isn’t that weird moment where old fans are put off by the new material. Finishing their set with “Bro Hymn”, the audience leaves the Avalanche tent smiling and humming the refrain of “whoa, whoa oh oh…..” like a black t shirt wearing crowd of football supporters drunk on victory…….. and alcohol.

Coming out of the Avalanche stage I head over to check out 90’s grunge legends Alice In Chains. It’s still very light outside and AIC have a pretty cool patterned light display on the stage behind them but with the sun setting in their faces it loses a lot of impact. As this year’s Download festival is running on a public holiday which is a Monday in Melbourne, the timetable has been stacked so that everyone is playing pretty early and I can’t help but think that visually this would have been so much cooler in a dark venue or at least after dusk. Holy hell though, William Duvall does a great job in a role that I for one thought would be tough to fill. Layne’s vocals were an integral part of that band and to come back strong as they have and tour again is a testament to their character. I only managed to see the last 20 minutes of their set but I was pretty stoked to hear “Man In The Box” and “Rooster” played in full.

At a festival like Download with multiple stages you’re always going to have a few clashes. I don’t think anyone ever gets to see every band that they want in a day but you have to make the most of the opportunities to catch your old favourites with new bands and stuff that might surprise you. With this in mind I had to choose between Sum 41 and Judas Priest. I initially headed over to check out Sum 41 on the Avalanche stage and was…. underwhelmed. I mean yeah, they were good, but they didn’t grab me – I can’t quite put my finger on why. Maybe I wasn’t close enough to feel the music, maybe it was that with three guitarists onstage the pop punk vibe that I was expecting felt a little bloated or maybe I was getting burnt out from a day in the sun, I don’t know. Others may disagree with me on this one but I stuck around for about 20 minutes and they lost me. Sorry dudes.

Feeling a little disappointed I head over towards the Black stage where Judas Priest are in full flight. Damn. This is proper classic metal at its finest. Rob Halford is 67 years old and he freakin’ slays….. Slays. Richie Faulkner pulls out the best solos of the festival with the greatest guitar tone and Andy Sneap is no slouch either, stepping up to fill Glenn Tipton’s very large metal boots. The band cut through an epic set with all the classics – “Painkiller”, “Hell For Leather”, “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming” and of course use “Breaking The Law” as an encore. This is a band that was formed in 1969 and cut their teeth in the 70’s before finding success in the metal heyday of the 80’s while surviving through numerous lineup changes and personal challenges, and it shows. Judas Priest owned the stage tonight, they were that good that other acts should probably be paying them rent. I hope some of the younger bands here are taking notes.

The sun has now well and truly disappeared from the sky and the Red stage is shrouded in a heavy curtain on which projections of crosses are displayed. As Slayer’s intro music fades in and the crowd roars with anticipation those crosses turn upside down and morph into the familiar Slayer pentagram of crossed swords. As one of the giants of the thrash metal genre and a clear draw-card for many of today’s punters, this performance was sure to be something special. Opening with “Repentless” from their latest album of the same name, the band set the standard early – they promised to be fast, loud, and brutal and delivered in spades. Around 20 minutes into the set there’s a brief pause and frontman Tom Araya addresses the crowd to thank them for coming out. He seems genuinely happy to be up on stage for the final time in Australia and it’s a pretty awesome moment as the leader of a band with a really aggressive image takes a break from the onslaught of noise to thank the fans. With that out of the way, it’s back to the music as the quartet smash through song after song in a 90 minute set that cranks the intensity up to 100 and leaves it there with a killer light show and flame throwers sending walls of fire up into the rafters. Their entire set is a barrage of guitars, drums, bass, and screaming vocals at a pace that is going to be the cause of many a sore neck in the morning.

Again the clash of great bands becomes a factor and after 45 minutes of Slayer I decide to check out Ghost on the Avalanche stage as my final band of the night. The tent is packed but I manage to make my way down around halfway to get a decent view of the stage where seven masked musicians and one very charismatic frontman create a visually spectacular performance with sound quality to match. Ghost are a bit of an anomaly, the face paint of Cardinal Copia suggests something heavier in the style of Behemoth but in reality they have more of an accessible classic rock sound. This band came with some pretty high expectations for an exciting stage show and they really turned it on for the crowd. There’s something about having that many people on stage and in costume, along with the props and lighting effects, that makes their performance seem like a theatre production or epic rock opera in the style of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tours or Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” album. Throughout the set the members of the band are constantly moving around, the lights change with regularity, and the spotlight is fixed on Cardinal Copia who had the crowd eating out of his hand like some sort of satanic themed Freddie Mercury. The band play a set mixed with tracks from their latest album “Prequelle” and previous albums “Meliora”, “Infestissumam” and “Opus Eponymous”. Highlights included the driving bass of “From The Pinnacle To The Pit”, the haunting choral vocals of “Year Zero” and the instrumental “Miasma” which featured the appearance of Papa Nihil on saxophone to the delight of the many loyal Ghost fans in the audience. Through the performance Ghost completely won me over, they were my favourite set of the day and were the most visually engaging band of the festival. Live music needs to be more than just a recreation of a band’s back catalogue and in this regard Ghost nailed the balance between technical proficiency and putting on an entertaining show for their audience.

At the end of the set as the crowds poured out of Flemington racecourse I had time to reflect. Many people who bought tickets to this festival had been hoping to see Ozzy Osbourne live for what would be the final time and his presence was felt with several fans repping t-shirts throughout the day. But I don’t really think the festival was any worse off without him, the lineup was stacked heavily enough for most metal and punk fans to find their niche represented and have a great day. Although Ozzy would have been a great finishing act I don’t think many punters who stuck around for Slayer, Ghost, or Halestorm would have been disappointed with their choice of headliner. Australia was in need of a festival like Download which has the backing to bring the bigger bands out here and provide a platform for developing new talent in the heavier genres. Now with two successful years under their belt, let’s hope Download Australia keeps it rolling for many more years to come and if it becomes the replacement for Soundwave, which many of us are hoping, it could be a godsend for heavy music in this country.