LIVE: Download Festival Pilot 2021 – Friday

By Yasmin Brown

It’s been a long, long time since Punktastic have been able to cover live music as we’ve always known it, and to be able to dive back in at the one and only Download Festival is more than we could ever have hoped for.

The crowd was smaller, as was the lineup, but after 15 months away from the pit and even longer away from the fields, this reduced capacity Download was all we could ever have hoped for and more.

Pulling together some of the greatest British talent, not even the rain could bring us down as we threw ourselves happily into muddy mosh pits, screaming until we had no voice left at all. Leaving all the weirdness outside the gates, it wasn’t long at all until it felt as though we’d never been away. And we, among our 10,000 peers, were so happy to be home

Thank you, Download – what a triumphant return this was.

Words: Yasmin Brown; Images: Matt Eachus

Death Blooms

How can you accurately articulate just how it feels to see your first proper live set in 15 months? How can you possibly put that feeling, that experience, into words? It’s 5pm on the first day of this pilot festival, and the tent is – rightfully – packed. You can almost feel the excitement that’s radiating off the people around you and honestly it could probably have been the Teletubbies doing metal covers and everyone would still have been stoked. Thankfully, that isn’t the case and this historic event is, in fact, to be kicked off by the mighty Death Blooms. Usually this isn’t an enviable slot, but today Death Blooms have the unwavering attention of thousands of (soon to be) fans, all ready to let loose in a big way. The first filthy notes play and that’s all it takes for bodies to slam together, newly purchased beer to be thrown into the air, and inhibitions to be left way, way behind. It may be general festival excitement that amps up the crowd in the first place, but it’s Death Bloom’s expert musicianship and commanding stage presence that keeps them engaged throughout the full 30 minute set.

So yeah, Death Blooms could have been anyone, but the fact that they were Death Blooms only made our return to live music even sweeter.

Hot Milk

Potentially an odd choice for what is otherwise a heavy rock and metal festival, Hot Milk garner more support than you might expect. Their bubblegum pop punk is seized by the packed main stage crowd, energy bouncing back and forth between band members and flailing bodies with neither taking a second to breathe. Despite being a little more Slam Dunk than Download, Hot Milk make the very best of this situation, clearly loving every second of their short time on stage and giving their performance everything they’ve got. As with every band that is yet to come, there’s an unspoken understanding that we don’t know when this opportunity may arise again, and no one in attendance is taking it for granted. With huge hits like ‘Candy Coated Lie$’ and ‘Awful Ever After’ it’s impossible to have anything but the most fun with these guys on stage, and after a year that’s not been that much fun at all, that’s all we could possibly hope for.

Boston Manor

Where to begin with Boston Manor? If they’re a band you’ve ever caught live before, you’ll be well aware that front man Henry Cox is a force to be reckoned with, his boundless energy and fierce confidence combining beautifully with his strong yet sweet vocals to make him as close to being a faultless performer as you can get. Their set is made up of old hits, as well as live debuts of songs from ‘GLUE’ – the band’s latest album released shortly before the first 2020 lockdown – and fans are chomping at the bit to be thrown haphazardly on top of the crowd, as has become unspoken custom at any Boston Manor show. Their wish is BM’s command as the band kick off with the album’s first single, ‘Everything is Ordinary’, its chaotic energy acting as the perfect opening to what will unwaveringly continue to be a set defined by utter carnage. It’s hard to tell who’s having more fun as the band members launch themselves across the stage (with the obvious exception of drummer Jordan Pugh), only ever briefly pausing to grin at the endless sea of crowd surfers making their way forward, limbs grappling for stability.

Cox is spot on when he notes that this pilot is a testament to British music, and this is one British band made for the main stage. Their presence and aura is undeniable and we can only hope that once international talent returns to our shores, this extraordinary band remains at the forefront of our minds and at the top of our lineups.

Holding Absence

If you’ve kept your shit together up until now, first of all, kudos, and second of all Holding Absence are about to be the band that first bring tears to your eyes. It just takes two words – ‘I’m alive’ – and you’ll feel your heart beat a little harder and a little faster because it’s true, man. We are alive and for the first time in a long time, we believe that it’s true. Emotive music aside – and make no mistake, Holding Absence pretty much define modern emo – it’s the humility that radiates from this band that really gets you choked up, exuding not just through the words they speak, but also through the very fabric that makes up their performance. Front man Lucas Woodland belts out notes that would melt even the coldest of hearts, and its clear every member of this band is putting every last fragment of their soul into this haunting and powerful performance. Take one short look around and you’ll see the impact Holding Absence have had on their ever growing community of fans, as arms reach determinedly into the air, hands clutch at chests, and smiles appear on tear stained cheeks. This isn’t just a fanbase, it is a family, and whether it’s a festival slot or a headline show, fans and band members alike turn up with immeasurable levels of passion. We can’t think of a better band with which to celebrate the return of our scene.

Sleep Token

Sleep Token are one of those bands whose music only really comes to life in the live environment, an unfortunate fact given the last 15 months, but an absolute benefit for the fans that fill the second stage tent tonight. Dressed in dark robes and masks, and doused in smokey red lighting, Sleep Token maintain their anonymity throughout – continuing the band’s endless performance that extends well beyond the borders of Donington Park’s grounds. The band’s front man, known only as Vessel, lifts this band with his uniquely soulful yet soft vocals, which, when combined with the show’s eccentric theatrics, create an ethereality that is only furthered by his band mates. While Vessel’s voice creates a religious experience for members of the crowd, it really is the instrumentals and breakdowns that steal the show here, encouraging members of the crowd to close their eyes and let the music take you beyond any tangible or solid state of being. It’s during these moments where you may find yourself being able to fully focus on the experience, feeling every electric spark that pulses around your body and ignoring any possible distractions. This isn’t a show that you see or hear, necessarily, it’s a show that you feel with every part of you, as it fills you up until you simply are the music. While it may sound glib to admit, Sleep Token’s shows are a religious experience and we only hope they continue to be able to share this heavenly spectacle with others in the not-too-distant future.

Frank Carter & the Rattlesnakes

Frank Carter has had plenty of experience commanding the crowd, but this evening proves just how far he’s really come since his humble days as the leading member of Gallows. Even before his set kicks off, the crowd are eating out of the palm of his hands, beyond excited for not just their first headline set of the weekend, but of the past 18 months. There’s no doubt that this is going to be really bloody special.

Our suspicians are realised almost immediately. The stunning musicianship of Carter and his Rattlesnakes is a given these days, but this technically perfect performance still hits hard as they make their way through the 16 song setlist. With charisma like his, a Carter show could never be boring, but the excitement is amped up as we’re treated to guest performances from fellow Download artist Cassyette and the incredible Joe Talbot of IDLES, two appearances that only further the incredulity of this phenomenal set.

As always, Carter’s set goes far beyond what’s happening on stage as he works hard to make the women in the crowd – of which there are many – feel safe by inciting female only pits and asking the men in the crowd to respect their fellow humans. But if you are a guy, never fear, you can join in the fun soon when Carter requests that everyone start running around the sound tower, a request that’s followed without questions. It’s at this point that the energy hits its absolute peak, and all you can do is take a step back and take in every last moment of today’s near finale. We’re so lucky to be here, and so lucky that Frank Carter and his crew are the ones closing out this historic day.