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FESTIVAL REVIEW: Download Pilot 2021

Earlier this month the ten thousand capacity Download Pilot event witnessed the welcomed live return of a full camping festival as part of the UK Government’s pilot scheme to help open-up live music. It was the sense of undeniable unity and community that Download does so well, which joined ten thousand jubilant festivalgoers together for the first time in over a year. It came at a time where live music has been battered, bruised and brought to its knees with artists desperately adapting to live streams in the wake of postponed tours, live crews out of work and music venues facing forced closure. 

The premiere UK rock and metal festival under normal times takes place annually and pulls in a capacity of one hundred thousand, but this event featured a heavily reduced capacity. However, as soon as the sight of tents started to pop up and the live music started blaring for the first time in two years in the Donington grounds, the pilot event picked live music up again, dusted it off and brought it back with bigger mosh pits, more raucous noise and lashings of mud and rain that didn’t dampen any kindred spirits found throughout those sacred Donington fields. 

Whilst the festivals line-up was revealed a short four weeks before the festival was set to take place, it was a small factor in the grand scheme of getting live music back. Due to uncertainty surrounding travel restrictions, Download put on a display of some of the best-established British bands around, from headliners Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes, Enter Shikari and Bullet For My Valentine down to the modern-day talent taking the rock and metal scene by storm such as Death Blooms, Boston Manor, Holding Absence, WARGASM, VUKOVI, YONAKA, Static Dress, Saint Agnes, Loathe, and Trash Boat amongst the many. 

Opening the Friday line-up and the second stage of the scaled down festival, were Death Blooms who are part of the new wave of alternative music trailblazers and ensured their set will go down in the festival history books. The first emergence of people in close proximity, mosh pits and mask-free faces came pouring out during the Liverpool bands nu-metal foot-stomping opening song. During this moment singer Paul Barrow stepped onstage to stare out at the daunting but emotionally overwhelming task ahead of the bands thirty-minute seething set. 8/10

No stage time clashes across the festival meant no mad dashes or missing out on not to be missed bands like Manchester’s Hot Milk. Opening a rainy main stage didn’t dim the dual-fronted quartets energy, which is headed up by Han Mee and Jim Shaw. They performed the punchy hook ladened new single I JUST WANNA KNOW WHAT HAPPENS WHEN I’M DEAD alongside sugary pop tune Candy Coated Lie$ before closing out with sing-along anthem Glass Spiders, a moment in which Han Mee poignantly points out to a main stage crowd “You can’t kill this connection, you can’t kill this community and you can’t kill this thing that makes our heart beat” 8/10

“Difficult to put into words what yesterday meant to us. It was like waking up from a weird dream. Thank you so much for the energy & love you gave us & to @downloadfest for allowing us to play this landmark event. Live music is going to return & we will all be arm in arm sweating & smiling together soon” posts Blackpool born band Boston Manor to their social platforms after performing to a sold-out Download Pilot crowd during their early evening set. Bringing tracks taken from full-length GLUE to the stage for the first time since its release last year, the British pop-rockers seamlessly translate popular songs Everything Is Ordinary, Plasticine Dreams, You Me & The Class War and Brand New Kids from the studio to a live music setting. 8/10

“I’m alive, I lived to see today/I lost so much along the way” sings Holding Absence vocalist Lucas Woodland during the bands live debut of Celebration Song, taken from the melodic post-hardcore quartets second studio album The Greatest Mistake Of My Life. A song with a symbolic message all too many people in that packed-out second stage tent could relate to in the past year of isolation, loss and emotional turmoil which has seen them reach this moment of euphoric live music that has somehow eased the pain of the past fifteen months for everyone present. Much like Celebration Song, many other songs got the live debut they deserved, with the dreamy Curse Me With Your Kiss and hard hitting nomoreroses performed side by side with album singles Afterlife and Beyond Belief. These were belted out in disbelief of the support system the band have rapidly built over The Greatest Mistake Of My Life’s album cycle, unfolding in front of the bands own eyes. “Download you are incredible. We have been waiting 18 months for this moment” concludes Lucas Woodland before set closer Wilt, which is where Woodland’s vocals ooze gratitude, intensity and passion at their most brilliant best. An air punching, first pumping and completely cathartic display deserving of a main stage slot, Holding Absence are at the forefront of breakout rock bands tapping into something special. 10/10

Classic pop-punk anthems filled the fields of Donington at Download courtesy of Neck Deep. Taking to the Friday main stage line-up, a short time before headliners Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes, the Welsh pop-punkers put on a performance of feel-good singalong songs spanning their back catalogue. From opener Sonderland taken from 2020 record release All Distortions Are Intentional which like for many bands the album was a product of time well spent during lockdown to fan favourite December from second studio album Life’s Not Out To Get You and closer In Bloom off 2017’s The Peace And The Panic. Neck Deep, whilst self-proclaiming to be a little bit rusty (“I’m going to need some help, it’s been two years” requests Ben Barlow) provided the UK Government with some serious statistics during their mosh pit friendly performance. 8/10     

Having meant to fill a place on the main stage at Download Festival 2020, having Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes as the Friday night headliner felt fitting. Taking to a comic book backdrop, Frank Carter and co stomp onto the stage for hard hitting punk-rock opener Trouble, as frontman Carter and guitarist Dean Richardson’s direct actions speak louder than words. As the pair work their way down to the ten-thousand capacity crowd immediately getting stuck in straight off the bat, with Carter finding himself upside down amidst a pile of sweaty bodies desperately trying to hold him up; a sign that says a big do one to the social distancing restrictions that lie outside in the harsh realities of the real world. Running through a sixteen-song set full of staple & The Rattlesnakes cuts from Wild Flower where “You’ll never witness a happier mosh pit” proclaims Carter, encouraging the women of the crowd to feel comfortable to crowd surf and partake in mass mosh pits, to the slinky swagger of Kitty Sucker and the quietly sinister Lullaby to damn right raucous Devil Inside Of Me. Collaborative onstage guests filled up a further three tracks, as new number My Town enlisted IDLES’ Joe Talbot for a full throttled display of some of the most unapologetically boisterous vocals in rock music from both Carter and Talbot, whereas Off With His Head called on “future rock and roll hall of famer” Cassyette and later London based artist Lynks. “We are so lucky to be performing for 10,000 of the most dedicated rock fans on the planet” realises the normally steely frontman who shows nothing but heart tonight as they are nearing the end of the band’s blazing headliner. Complete with Juggernaut and closer Crowbar which are two bruising tracks that produced some of the most mammoth mosh pits from that audacious, bold and noisy performance in all the best possible ways from Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes. 10/10 

Second up on Saturday’s second stage, six-piece melodic post-hardcore outfit As Everything Unfolds are one of those rising bands destined for higher festival slots. Having just dropped their debut record Within Each Lies The Other this year, the Download Pilot event proved to be the perfect place to give some of the most streamed songs from the album their time in the spotlight. Opening with the majestic Take Me There to closing with the anthemic On The Inside, ultimately it was vocalist Charlie Rolfe who was front and centre for the duration, in the middle of a backdrop of pounding drums and punchy breakdowns. 8/10 

WARGASM, VUKOVI and YONAKA all follow in short succession of one another on Saturday’s afternoon line-up. The first in this formidable string of British bands dominating the alternative music scene right now are WARGASM, and whilst the fiery duo don’t have a debut album under their belt yet, that doesn’t mean they didn’t bring the fire, intensity and high-octane energy despite the set being a bit scrappy sometimes. Relying on their short string of singles as a slight crutch, never the less new ones PYRO PYRO and Your Patron Saints alongside hit Spit packed a substantial amount of force to forget about the lack of a full-length record during their stay over on the main stage. 8/10

Elsewhere, experimental rockers VUKOVI came, conquered and caused chaos over on the second stage. Opening the mosh pit up to perform the manic La Di Da, the circle pit pandemonium and constant flow of crowd surfers continued into recent releases KILL IT and SLO, never slowing down for a split second throughout the unstoppable set. 10/10    

Seizing their main stage slot, Brighton quartet YONAKA brought their exhilarating brand of heavy rock riffs and melodic hooks to Donington. Despite struggling with sound difficulties during second song Punch Bag, this situation provided a snapshot into the reality of the lack of live shows for unrehearsed bands over the past year, as YONAKA’s Theresa Jarvis jokes “First time back and you couldn’t hear a thing”. Keeping their promise to “Give one hell of a set” despite the substantial setback, YONAKA powered through the seven remaining songs Call Me A Saint, Punch Bag 2.0, Ordinary, Teach Me To Fight, Raise Your Glass, Rockstar and F.W.T.B. like true class professionals. 8/10

Strutting out onto the main stage as bold as brass sporting Scotland’s football strip despite a draw on the Friday of the festival, Glaswegian trio Twin Atlantic fronted by Sam McTrusty lacks a little bit of energy for their forty-five-minute slew of old and new hits. From the upbeat drive of Novocaine to alt-rock banger No Sleep and festival ready swayer Heart And Soul to the explosive Edit Me, Twin Atlantic’s show spanned the course of the bands last four albums Power, GLA, Great Divide and Free, not including any material performed from the first Vivarium. Feeling like a look back through the band’s journey, from a small colour restricted support band to stadium-sized Scottish hometown radio rock heroes; Twin Atlantic delivered to neutral levels of satisfaction. 8/10 

For a band that have spent the best part of their career confounding standard industry practices and defying the definition of modern metal music by means of mixing crushing guitar riffs and soul-destroying vocal screams with melodic sounds, Sheffield’s While She Sleeps wouldn’t have been a surprise booking if they made it to headliner status at this smaller scaled version of Download. Second from the top on the main stage suited the five-pieces live ferocity to perfection, putting on a blistering display from their heaviest back catalogue choices. Starting off with SLEEPS SOCIETY, a blazing title track taken off the newest record saw pits popping off left, right, and centre and bassist Aaran McKenzie crowd surfing, supported by the strong turnout of the SLEEPS SOCIETY themselves. “It feels so good to see your faces” screams Loz Taylor to the packed-out Download crew, before launching head first into SO WHAT? tracks ANTI-SOCIAL and THE GUILTY PARTY. Midway through the set, Taylor scales the sound desk tower situated halfway up the Donington field in an act of sheer daredevil and defiant behaviour, hanging atop of the tower to take in the sheer scale of the crowd below. Completing the band’s blazing performance with new numbers NERVOUS and SYSTEMATIC, While She Sleeps main stage stay at the Download Pilot is one of relentless intensity. 10/10   

Creeper have had something as monumental as a headlining slot waiting in the wings of their career for a while now. Ever since issuing their first full-length Eternity, In Your Arms, this Southampton six-piece have always had a flair for the dramatics, and their compelling performance at the Download Pilot is no exception to their all-round grandiose artistry. The band wander out to a backdrop of the Sex, Death & The Infinite Void’s lightning bolt artwork, as sparks fly from the stage to the sounds of wedding day hymns. Vocalist Will Gould, draped in an American flag in celebration of the bands upcoming EP American Noir throws a singular red rose out into the crowd of Creeper’s dedicated following, coming in with Eternity opener Hiding With Boys. “It’s been a hot minute, we have taken you to heaven so we are going to take you to bed” says Gould, as Creeper perform a string of perfect songs Born Cold, Cyanide, Poisoned Heart and Naplam Girls collected from second studio album Sex, Death & The Infinite Void. Interlaced seamlessly with Eternity, In Your Arms favourites Suzanne, Poison Pens, Black Rain and Crickets, a solo acoustic moment for Hannah Hermione, acting as the blushing bride adorned head to toe in a white wedding dress. Single Midnight follows this perfect succession, with the piano-tinged track adding even more emotion to this already moving performance by Will Gould and co. Completing their compelling headliner with closer Annabelle, it’s clear to hear the depth of Creeper’s gothic-punk and glam-rock material and to see the dazzling theatrics on display throughout Creeper’s truly cathartic live experience. 10/10

“We are here to celebrate community” comments Enter Shikari vocalist Rou Reynolds, standing teary eyed at the foot of ten thousand non-socially distanced fans during the bands triumphant Saturday headlining slot. This was one of the many meaningful sentiments echoed throughout the finest British bands in rock and metal music on the bill at the hallowed grounds of Donington Park over the weekend during the momentous and history making event. Cementing their place in the top tier of British alternative bands, Enter Shikari showcases such a status during their Saturday night dazzling light show display of a headliner. Bringing new material to the big stage in the form of sixth, boundary breaking album Nothing Is True & Everything Is Possible, the St Albans four-piece walked out to the triumphant bellows of the trumpeted version of Live Outside and a roar of applause from an audience who have been waiting all day in eager anticipation for this career-spanning set. With the band’s smiles brimming from ear-to-ear knowing they are back where they belong, before bursting into set opener THE GREAT UNKNOWN. Continuing on this trail of new tracks comes live debuts modern living, satellites** and { THE DREAMERS HOTEL }, with song satellites** receiving a confetti-filled and captivating rainbow coloured production; the pinnacle moment of the quartet’s whole set. Classic Shikari songs didn’t go a miss, with the staples Juggernauts putting Sparky to good practice, a frantic two-times faster remix of Anaesthetist getting Donington dancing in quick motion and Sorry You’re Not A Winner witnessing a ten-thousand capacity crowd clapping in faultless synchronicity. Soaking in every single moment of the set, Enter Shikari basked in the non-replicable atmosphere of a live show, taking elongated pauses between songs to relish in the precious moment that was in front of them. As Rou Reynolds states “We’re going to take a few moments to take this all in”, take all the time you need Rou; take all the time you need. The eclectic electro-rock rave was a long-time in the making, Enter Shikari’s Saturday night slot proves this band have the back-catalogue, showmanship and technical know-how to pull off a fantastic festival headliner. 10/10    

Starting off the Sunday of the Download Pilot at an early 11.30am are Leeds newcomers Static Dress, with a succinct set of seven songs which are a taste of modern-day emo and post-hardcore music. Brutal singles safeword, sweet., for the attention of… and clean. bring a brutal blend of shocking vocals and blaring instrumentals to the Download Pilot tent, alongside an unknown three extra songs make their illusive debut, leaving you wanting more from this up-and-coming four-piece long after their set is done. 8/10

Bringing their shockingly gory gothic image to a main stage platform, Saint Agnes captivate the crowd with their weird and wonderful Vampire world. Starting off with the downright disturbing EP cut Daughter Of Lucifer, it was clear to see that this band is out for blood straight off the bat and this opening song is just a small taster of what is in store. Mid-set, vocalist Kitty A. Austen takes commanding control, kicking over an amp and smashing up a guitar to smithereens in an act of pure adrenaline and rebellion throughout twisted trash metal tracks This World Ain’t Big Enough and standout Repent. By the time closer Brother rolls around, Kitty is covered in crimson blood, topping off a brilliantly terrifying Download Pilot set in chilling style. 10/10

“We have been waiting for this day for so long, this is unreal” frontman Kadeem France comments during Loathe’s deserved mid-afternoon main stage performance. Like many bands releasing an album during lockdown without the live shows to bring the songs to life, Loathe’s third full-length The Things They Believe finally gets its first ever live outing since its February release. Nu-metal bounce mixed with melodic metalcore is the sound of Loathe’s material bringing an unmatched energy to Donington, for a thirty-minute set that showcases one of Liverpool’s proudest heavy acts out there. 8/10  

For a band that has been put through the mill of many member departures like Cambridge collective Lonely The Brave have, a festival appearance even the often-overwhelming size of a scaled back Download felt fitting for the five-piece. Newish frontman Jack Bennett naturally radiates confidence, charisma and looks completely comfortable up on the mainstage, bantering back and forth about subjects such as veganism asking “Have we got any vegans out there? Oh, here he goes talking about veganism again” an apt remark to make given the plant life patch self-sewn onto his turquoise dungarees. Bennett’s conversational wit is matched by his heartfelt grit, pulling off newer songs he’s had a hand in curating such as anthemic Keeper, Bright Eyes, Bound and The Harrow.  Whilst lending his distinctive tone to older melodic ones Blackmire, Backroads and Black Saucers, immediately casting aside any doubters scrutinising his position in the band. Fronted by one of the best vocalists in this new age of radio appealing alt-rock, Lonely The Brave gave a beautifully blissful set designed for a Sunday afternoon slot. 9/10 

A band on the brink of hitting the big time, St Albans’ own Trash Boat’s invigorating Download Pilot performance comes at a pivotal point in this band’s burgeoning career. Gearing up to dropping third record Don’t You Feel Amazing? in the next few months, Trash Boat’s setlist sported singles Silence Is Golden, He’s So Good and Don’t You Feel Amazing?. Their more crushing industrial sized post-hardcore sound and catchy vocal pop leaning sensibilities present in this new material, making its long-awaited live debut under the second stage tent down at the Donington grounds. 9/10

A blazing, ferocious and unrelenting display of what it takes to be inducted into the historic Download headliner history books are metal veterans Bullet For My Valentine who complete the hat trick of headliners with a career-spanning set. Satisfying the new and the old Bullet fan, new number Knifes is heavy to its core and old timers Don’t Need You and Waking The Demon packs out a ninety-minute stage time, with Michael Paget’s monstrous riffs and Matt Tuck’s no-nonsense vocals. Over twenty years together as a band, Bullet finally got the Download headline slot they have been dreaming of since ’98. 10/10

In a short four-week turnaround, the Download Pilot pulled off a first of its kind festival that put live music firmly back on the map. The best of British bands in the scene right now, live music, moshing and much much more, ten thousand people escaped from the real world that lay outside those Donington Park gates and lived in an emotionally surreal Download Pilot dream for three treasured days. 

10/10

Written By: Katie Conway-Flood

Katie Conway-Flood
Katie Conway-Flood is a music journalist, music publicist and general band enthusiast. For several years, since graduating university with a first class degree in music business, Katie has written single, album and live reviews, and regularly contributed to news stories and feature pieces for a plethora of online music publications. Katie is otherwise a pop-punk, pop-rock listener and ethical vegan.