Following the unqualified success of last year’s inaugural event, the local Download Festival franchise expanded into Sydney this year, taking over the green and usually passive expanse of Parramatta Park. The last minute loss of headliner Ozzy Osbourne to illness was ameliorated somewhat by the elevation of Slayer to top billing on the occasion of their final ever Sydney appearance, and the weather god was smiling on the thousands of (mostly) metalheads who poured into the grounds for almost ten hours of the biggest music festival in this city since the last Soundwave in 2015.
Parramatta Park is quite the space for a festival with a vast open area for the two gigantic main stages and two smaller ones at the base of a huge natural amphitheatre. It was mild and overcast – perfect weather at a place with so little shade (for a park) – and the cops were on their best behaviour, quite a few of them looking thoroughly bored by the end of the day with so few people to bust for tiny amounts of pills, although it became clear that several tons of weed had managed to make its way through the gates by late in the day.
After a couple of brews at the nearby Woolpack Hotel, having its best Saturday morning in a while with hundreds of metalheads propping up the place, the Loud Download Experience began with Baltimore punks War on Women ripping into the crowd from the Avalanche Stage. Vocalist Shawna Potter was a white t-shirted blur, leaping and cartwheeling as she delivered her band’s strident anarcho-feminist message. On the neighbouring stage, High Tension then exploded across the field, Karina Utomo unleashing her banshee-wail fury in front of a band serving up a walloping noise before finally launching herself into the crowd at the peak of intensity.
A wander through the park to find the VIP area revealed I Prevail handing down some trope-ridden metalcore from one of the main stages; back at the amphitheatre, the incredible Fever 333 were literally smashing things up as Jason Butler appeared to go completely insane. Irreverent festival veterans Frenzal Rhomb stepped up next, launching into “Bird Attack”. Ever dependable, Jay Whalley’s timing with guitarist buddy Lindsay McDougall was spot on even though he’d stepped off a plane from Belgium only hours before, making jokes at Parramatta’s expense in between splats of feverish punk rock pisstakes. “Russell Crowe’s Band” got a huge roar, but pretty much everything else they did too.
Back up at the main stage, Airbourne were still cruising through their big-hearted stadium rock, fist-pumping and beer-swilling, air-raid siren screaming performance. It’s derivative but it’s enormous fun and Joel O’Keeffe puts every ounce into it. Then it was time for some mid-afternoon theatrical death metal thunder as the heaviest band of the day so far hit the boards. Behemoth blasted out with “Wolves ov Siberia”, the unholy warriors of diabolic metal, face-paint, flash pots and columns of smoke adding import to the crushing weight of their set. “Bartzabel” brought further dramatics to the Behemoth show and “Blow Your Trumpet Gabriel” would have lifted off the roof had there been one to lift. It was a short stay, but a memorable one.
The tireless if not ageless ball of frenzied thrash energy that is Anthrax burst forth soon after, ripping into “Cowboys From Hell” by way of a tribute to their fallen friends from Pantera before switching it up to “Caught in a Mosh”. Scott Ian and Frank Bello stomped out every second they were on stage as the band tore through a short, tight and hit-heavy set that never let the energy drop. Joey Belladonna roused singalongs with every chorus, finishing with the almighty “Indians”, a hearty close to what was honestly an astonishing performance from a superior live band. It meant missing Converge though, and then it was time to chill out with a couple of spiced rum and gingers while watching Me First and The Gimme Gimmes do SoCal punked-out covers of Billy Joel and Elton John. There was even a ukelele version of “Most People I Know” which was nuts.
Twelve Foot Ninja sounded huge in front of a very healthy crowd who had chosen to see them instead of The Amity Affliction, and the lads did not disappoint, with a high-energy outpouring of groovy funkified heavy rocking tunes and stage athleticism.
It was time now to find a good vantage point before the main stage for Alice in Chains. Ahead of them, Rise Against were bringing “The Good Left Undone” to a close on the neighbouring stage, then an invitation to Shawna Potter to come out for a scorching run through Black Flag’s “Rise Above” followed by the Misfits’ “Mother” with Spike from the Gimme Gimmes was a mini-highlight of the late afternoon.
Further highlights were to come as the first of the main attractions took to the stage: breaking the awed hush that had fallen over the site, Alice in Chains rolled out “Bleed the Freak” to introduce themselves and a chorus of voices replied. As their brooding melodies and dark riffs floating over the park, bats began to circle the stage and night closed in. A couple of the newer songs, especially the latest album’s title track, seemed to drag on a little, but as the opening notes of “Down In a Hole” ascended, the set lifted as the atmosphere darkened. From there it was a journey into shadow and light, Wil DuVall and Jerry Cantrell trading lead vocals and melody lines while Cantrell worked through each memorable solo, flicking a guitar pick to a dude in a wheelchair being held aloft, embracing their gloomy muse. Set down for an hour, the time came and went as they blasted into metal mode for “The One You Know”, the genre-defining “Would?” and finally, a transcendent version of “Rooster” with everyone there joining in on the chorus. Sublime.
Four years ago Judas Priest were doing a short mid-afternoon set at Soundwave. Tonight they were afforded the honour their status and prestige deserves, a full length performance under darkened skies! In contrast to AIC’s simple stage dressing, Priest’s set up was the whole nine yards of LED screens and backdrops in the vibrant flame and fire theme of their latest album. Touring on the back of the scorcher that is Firepower meant a good third of the set was dedicated to it, opening with the title track before the classic but rarely played “Delivering the Goods”. Rarely played certainly seemed to be their theme, skipping Stained Class and Sad Wings of Destiny completely for tracks like “Sinner” with its enormous guitar shred and the laid-back “Desert Plains”. Touring guitarist Andy Sneap is quite content to let Richie Faulkner hog the spotlight as he tears strips from his guitar, Rob Halford shuffling around the stage and hunching over the mic as he looks for the high notes. On their last tour here, he was nailing those notes but tonight he’s struggling – the band is on fire, even Ian Hill’s bass sound is huge, but their singer can barely keep up. Still, the motorbike rolls out for “Hell Bent for Leather”, Halford somehow manages to sing “Painkiller” without busting a valve and “Breaking the Law” closes things out tumultuously. Good but not great.
Down in the amphitheatre, Ghost were closing the night for those (surprisingly many) who had not come to farewell Slayer. Drawing scorn and derision from across the music world, what Tobias Forge and Ghost does is theatrical rock not that far removed from what Alice Cooper and King Diamond have been doing for decades and their Satanic schtick isn’t that different from Behemoth’s – just less po-faced. Tonight they seemed to be going for some kind of Rammstein-meets-Bowie-as-the-Thin-White-Duke sort of vibe with Forge’s vaudevillean caricature dancing macabre amongst three (or was it four?) guitarists, two keyboards players, a drummer and a percussionist. It’s entertainment, damn it.
At the main stage, the moment of truth had arrived for a huge percentage of the audience – Slayer’s last ever performance in Sydney. Like a gathering storm, the crowds surged around the Red stage, pumped up from Priest and waiting for the tension to break. At last the massive curtain dropped to the floor and Slayer savaged the crowd immediately with “Repentless”, the first of a relentless onslaught of ferocious thrash raining down from this band for the last time in this part of the world. Close to the front it was bordering on dangerous as Slayer maniacs went ballistic to their favourite band one last time, “Blood Red”, “Disciple” and “Mandatory Suicide” ripping into them with calculated ferocity. For all of their veteran, legendary status, Slayer can sometimes be an unreliable live band. But not tonight. Tonight they were unsurpassed, a diabolical force of nature laying waste to all they touched with their arsenal of flesh-rending riffs, ear-splitting solos and Tom Araya’s nerve-shredding howls and shrieks – weapons of aural destruction set to destroy: “Born of Fire”, “Dead Skin Mask”, “Hell Awaits”, “Raining Blood” – one furious thrash assault after the next. A devastating and epic set done, Araya stood alone on the stage as the crowd roared, a giant banner bearing the late Jeff Hanneman’s name looming above. It was done. Slayer was done, and Download Sydney in all its debut metal glory was over. We can only hope for a return in the future.