Download Festival 2021 review: the new generation upend legacy focused rock-fest

June 4 - 6, Donington Park: icons-in-waiting, represented by Loathe, Static Dress, Wargasm and many more, run riot at this thrilling pilot event

“This feels right; it feels correct,” guitarist Chris Batten says to a crowd full of singing, dancing, jubilant people during Enter Shikari’s Saturday night headline slot at Donnington Park. Under usual circumstances, similar scenes would be repeated up and down the country over the next few months. But thanks to COVID, of course, there’s still a huge question mark over live music in summer 2021.

This weekend though, 10,000 people returned to the muddy fields of Download Festival as part of the government’s ongoing Event Research Program. The first camping festival to take place in the UK for almost two years, anything goes (as long as you provide proof you don’t have COVID).

After the initial shock to the system, muscle memory kicks in and everything feels incredibly normal – mosh pits, bags of wine and snogging strangers in the silent disco. It’s all soundtracked by the best of British rock too.

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And Enter Shikari are the perfect group to headline. Armed with their most urgent anthems and judging the mood flawlessly, their set flickers between absolute fury and communal hope. Starting with a burst of streamers and ‘The Great Unknown’ (the opening line of “Is this a new beginning? / Or are we close to the end?” couldn’t be more relevant if it tried), Shikari’s intergalactic rave rock show is as colourful and energetic as they come. The aggy stomp of ‘Sorry You’re Not A Winner’ and ‘Arguing With Thermometers’ are thunderously heavy while the more pristine joy of ‘Apocaholics Anonymous’ posits the band as a nu-rave Coldplay.

It’s the first time Enter Shikari have been able to play material from 2020’s ‘Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible’ but they aren’t the only ones with recent albums aching to be played live. While She Sleeps bring the crushing ‘Sleeps Society’ to roaring life and Boston Manor finally get a chance to unleash the true potential of ‘GLUE’ with a Friday evening Main Stage slot.

With slow burning emo anthems tugging at the heartstrings, it’d be easy for the latter band to get lost on such a big stage, but vocalist Henry Cox is a commanding presence with his vocals jumping between anguish and anger at a moment’s notice. The soaring ‘Plasticine Dreams’ sounds like ‘Pretty. Odd’-era Panic! At The Disco and the anthemic ‘Brand New Kids’ is a snarling festival belter while ‘Halo’ sees the band at their most ambitious.

A lot of bands have kept busy in lockdown and this weekend gives us a taste of what they’ve got in store. Yonaka’s guitar-driven alt-pop is full of self-belief – and the reaction from the crowd proves it’s not misplaced – and Trash Boat’s hooky post-hardcore is delivered with rare polish; sandwiched between material from their upcoming ‘Don’t You Feel Amazing?’, though, it’s clear how much the latter band has evolved over the past 18 months. The hedonistic title track goes off while the seething ‘He’s So Good’ comes with vocalist Tobi Duncan telling the crowd, “don’t let anyone tell you how to present or who to love. There are no rules to this game”. They feel like a band about to blow up.

Elsewhere, Creeper’s Saturday night headline set on the second stage is a celebration of brilliant new album ‘Sex, Death & The Infinite Void’, but also kickstarts another new era for the band. Vocalist Will Gould takes to the stage draped in an American flag and throughout the show, there are fireworks, runaway brides and a weaving narrative about love, loss and acceptance.

New track ‘Midnight’ (from the upcoming ‘American Noir’ EP) is perhaps the most direct rock song the band have ever put their name to, and it sees both Gould and Hannah Hermione taking on frontperson duties. Creeper have never sounded this dynamic and there’s even a wailing guitar solo for good measure. Once again, the most promising rock band in the country continues to step things up.

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It’s a similar story for Frank Carter and The Rattlesnakes. Headlining the Friday night, it takes exactly 12 seconds for Carter and guitarist Dean Richardson to get in the crowd, which is the sort of chaos we’ve come to expect from them. There’s more to tonight’s set than kicking and screaming though. IDLES’ Joe Talbot enters the fray for the snarling ‘My Town’ and pop star Lynks owns the stage while performing a blistering new track as does Cassyette; Carter introduces her as a “real fucking rockstar” and she lives up to the promise during her own set on Sunday morning. All three tracks are delivered with a manic grin and back onstage, Carter is clearly in his element. He’s always been at his best when he can bounce off other people, and it seems the band’s new era really champions that.

In fact, there’s a whole lot of new this weekend, another break from the norm. Normally Download is a real celebration of legacy, but that means newer bands are usually kept to the smaller stages. This weekend, however, it feels like the kids have taken over. And of course they run riot.

From Loathe’s impressive melodic nu-metal to Static Dress’s raucous post-hardcore revival, there are a lot of old ideas made new and it does feel like there’s a new generation getting ready to take over. And Wargasm‘s cyberpunk assault on the Main Stage sounds like the end of the world. “By the end of this song, you’re going to be afraid of how much you love me,” says Milkie Way before the carnage-inducing ‘Your Patron Saint’. She couldn’t be more right.

Wargasm’s Milkie Way. Credit: Getty

In contrast, after a weekend of young bands demanding their seat at the table, Bullet For My Valentine’s Sunday night headline set never really gets going. Even an appearance from Skindred’s Benji Webbe for a cover of Iron Maiden’s ‘Run To The Hills’ feels safe rather than surprising. It’s proof of just how different this event is to regular Download; 2021’s event is a much-needed celebration of the future and, hopefully, a taste of things to come.

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