Download Festival 2017 Day One: System of a Down, Prophets of Rage and Mastodon

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The first day of the Donnington Park bash saw rap-rock, metal behemoths and a beautiful tribute to the late Chris Cornell

Things are different at Download this year. The festival layout has had a rejig, naturally the security has heightened and the queues are beyond long, but it doesn’t even begin to hamper the Download spirit. As ever, this 120,000-capacity race track venue is filled to the brim people who like their music heavy (imagine the word heavy being written in a dripping blood font.)

Machine Gun Kelly might appear to be an odd choice for a metal festival. And that’s because he kinda is. Rap has always had and always will have a place at heavier festivals because of the historic crossover (good example: Public Enemy and Anthrax, bad examples: well, Limp Bizkit.) And even though he’s a huge star in a more mainstream music charts, his smaller crowd know something key: he’s actually pretty darn talented. He drops a tonne of his big hits like Bad Things and The Gunner – but seeing him live you see the influence heavier bands have had on him. The stage show is LOUD AF, and he’s by no means the lightest act to grace the Zippo stage today.

His crowd however, is nothing compared to the swarms of people gathering to see metal behemoths MastodonA distinct vapour begins to fill the air, the sun starts searing down on the black-clad crowd (goths everywhere start to melt) and beer cups are raised in the air. Even if you’re not a huge fan, it’s easy to appreciate their skill and way the fuse elements of proggy guitars with brilliant hooks. They dive into The Wolf Is Loose from 2006’s Blood Mountain which is brutal and malevolent in an excellent way. Whilst their older stuff does contrast with slightly more hook-based material from their just-released record Emperor Of Sand the progression isn’t jarring. And the psychedelic-ness of Ancient Kingdom that really shines live in the blistering heat as drummer Bran Dailor and Troy Sanders vocal flirtation dials the pace down a tad. They follow that with Black Tongue from seminal record The Hunter (2011) before cranking out another belter from the new record – Show Yourself which fall into the poppier category of rock – but still sounds utterly sublime. Whatever way you slice it – this band just slay.

Sometimes you judge a band before you’ve even heard them – case in point, supergroup Prophets Of Rage. With members of Rage Against The Machine, Cypress Hill and Public Enemy this might seem like karmic joke handed down by the gods of metal. But let me tell you pals – this weird revisionist ensemble is entirely real – and they’re unexpected brilliant. That’s partly because they play the stuff people want to hear – namely all the hits from their respective bands – and rather than sounding like past-it rock karaoke, it’s totally compelling.

Prophets of Rage

Rage tracks like Take The Power Back and How I Could Just Kill A Man, are note-perfect with Tom Morello showcasing his eminent guitar skills. And the addition of B-Real from Cypress Hill on vocals is pretty charming. When Chuck D does a rendition of Fight The Power it’s a brilliant moment for the power of music to rally against the establishment – it feels especially relevant now (post election). They rip through a few Cypress Hill songs (notably Insane In the Membrane) and House Of Pain’s Jump around. But their lyric-less touching version of Audioslave’s Like A Stone is utterly beautiful (some of RATM were in the band) and dedicated to the Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell who passed away a few weeks ago. They finish on Bullet in the head – and everyone leaves on a total high.

Even if you loathe the upbeat melodies and joviality of pop punk, you will not fail to be caught up in State Champs joyful bounce. The New York band has a loyal following who relish their clever melodies and sincere, distinctive vocals. And who can really blame them – tracks like Remedy and Elevated from 2013’s debut album The Finer Things – which is perfect from start to end) rip through the crowd like a wave of joy. They also drop All You Are Is History matches the weather with it’s sunny disposition and pop-laden melodies. If you’re not a fan yet – they could be your new summer soundtrack.

Finally, System Of A Down take to the stage and the Main Stage is a sea of bodies. Their nu-metal vibes seem to transcend the decades they’ve been around, and the crowd sing every word of the ethereal Aerials back to them in word-perfect unison. Nobody here sort of half likes this band – like they might do for say Aerosmith, headling on Sunday night. People LOVE them. Tracks like Violent Pornography, Radio/Video and Needles are sung back to the band in unison, but towards the middle of their nearly two-hour set there is a lull. Thankfully, they pick up towards the end and crank out the hits – like Chop Suey, Toxicity and Sugar. Truthfully that’s what everyone wants to hear.