Loading Sydney's first instalment of Download to Memory was a Damn Powerful Time
Photos by Genevieve Gao
When one of the godfathers of heavy metal, Judas Priest's Rob Halford, says there's a powerful heavy community keeping the faith alive in Australia, you listen. That and the cool, slightly drizzily weather was also keeping the faith - and the music - going strong.
There was a buzz hanging in the air as we walked through the entrance of the fest. Whether it was the prospect of seeing off mighty thrash pioneers Slayer, getting to discover a new favourite band, or the gravity of attending a heavy festival in the country... There was a special feeling deep in our bones.
While they were the first act caught on the day, discovering a gem in New Zealand metal trio Alien Weaponry was a lasting treat. Formed in 2010 by brothers Henry and Lewis de Jong, nine years later the group injected a refreshing shot of heaviness to the vein, powered by their Māori roots. 'Whispers' from 2018 record Tū, the song dubbed as the moment the guys were "getting political" (the track tackles the lingering effects of colonisation on their ancestors) particularly went off.
The group brought alive a deadly combo of melodies and aggression, and as the set was being watched, Alien Weaponry was added to a studio playlist.
Now Melbourne's High Tension have been on the bucketlist to catch for a while, and hell was it worth all that time. Although the crowd wasn't that big out near the Dogtooth stage at 2pm, those that did turn up were die-hard fans (also the relatively small pit transformed immediately when the four-piece started playing).
Photographers crowded around vocalist and onstage tigress Karina Utomo as she stalked across, to the front and on top of the crowd. The intensity of her range, from low growls to spine-tingling high screams, contrasted well with the sweetness she regarded and addressed the crowd with. A must-watch band for years to come.
Over on the Avalanche Stage, California fever was certainly being sweated out during Fever 333, a heavy fusion of nu-metal, punk and ska vibes featuring Letlive's former frontman Jason Butler.
Now Airbourne, if we were actually in hell, you certainly broke us out of it on the Black Main Stage.
There was a certain air of making up for lost time, one that made the set from the rock 'n' roll veterans of regional Victoria unforgettable. We were blasted with a smattering of tracks spanning their debut album, Runnin' Wild (2007) to third record, Black Dog Barking (2013) and then latest release, Breakin' Outta Hell (2016).
Highlights? Frontman and all-round funny bloke Joel O'Keeffe being carried on the shoulders of a punter while shredding, and also opening tinnies and chucking them to all the "little guys" in the mosh. One chick impressively caught a can one-handed and proceeding to drink from it - The cheers across the site as the moment was captured on the main stage cameras were almost as massive as the set's pyrotechnics. Almost.
Wandering over to the Red Main Stage, Polish black metal juggernauts Behemoth were a sight to behold, bringing a devastating sound and hefty stage presence across the fest site. Then to the left, Anthrax certainly 'Got The Time' (yeah there were just a few time puns made during the icons' set).
Backed by the razor-sharp edge of guitarists Scott Ian and Jon Donais, it quickly became apparent as to why the band's music stands the test of time (understood if the joke's been made too many times now... Okay let's stop).
There was also an unrivalled charisma with which vocal legend Joey Belladonna used to control the crowd in the palm of his hand. From starting circle pits, to pretending to bench-press the mic stand while looking amused at a fan on his right, he was the force to be reckoned with.
6:30 was upon us, and with that came Sydney's Thy Art Is Murder.
Watching this band demolish the Avalanche Stage hit particularly close to home, with the guys starting out in Blacktown, and having chatted with guitarist and good guy Andy Marsh about the departure and return of longtime band brother CJ McMahon. It was good to see him still tear through those screams, while measuredly prowling around the stage.
Now the last time Pennsylvanian rockers Halestorm - a personal favourite - came to Australia in 2017, they didn't have their latest record, Vicious (2018) out. So this experience as the sun went down was particularly special, with the band debuting fresh, ballsy bangers 'Black Vultures', 'Uncomfortable' and 'Do Not Disturb' live to Aussie fans.
Drummer and risk-taker Arejay Hale got the packed crowd to go even crazier during his mainstay solo, taking out a gigantic set of sticks to play with while jumping up and down. As fast as the lights moving frantically on him. Although the group could've fit another song in and cut back on their extended jam on 'Amen' (from 2015's Into The Wild Life), Halestorm proved yet again that their 'Rock Show' is always a damn good time.
Ah Judas Priest.
The quality of their show was like a fine wine aging rapidly, but at just the right speed for the night. The power of Halford's voice escalated throughout the set, and seemed to particularly rev up a few notches after he addressed the crowd nearly halfway through the hour, showing his appreciation for Australia's dedicated metal community.
Scott Travis (also Thin Lizzy and Racer X), the legend behind the kit was also the most charismatic of the group. He called out appreciatively to the crowd, claiming he couldn't hear us since he's a drummer, before the icons launched into a series of hits spanning Priest's impressive catalogue. What a show.
Then a few pentagram and cross projections on the deep blue curtain.
Bring forth Slayer (had to at least attempt to sound as big as the band in that one).
There were tears (or at least moisture for those eyewitnesses disputing the fact) shining in the eyes of lead singer and bassist Tom Araya. The gravity of the one-and-a-half-hour show was enormous, purely from the fact that this was the last time the 'Big Four' legends would play in Sydney, and then in Melbourne on March 11, 2019.
Open spaces between songs invited a flurry of different screams of 'Slayer' from die-hard fans, witnessing the end of an era. 'Raining Blood' and 'Angel of Death', both from seminal 1986 album Reign In Blood produced some of the biggest fest singalongs. Guitarists Kerry King and Gary Holt more than held the fort, bringing an aggression and tightness unmatched by most bands in their prime.
As the lights were dimming on the set and overall fest, with the other Slayer members having departed the stage, Araya walked very slowly across the stage. Not saying a word. The silent appreciation that went both ways spoke volumes, long precious minutes that will stick in our heads and in our ears for decades.
Thanks for everything Download Sydney - for bringing here bands legendary and rising, and joining together heavy music fans old and new, from all walks of life.
Let's keep creating lifelong memories, because who would humans be without them?
Keep updated with all the latest Download news via the fest's socials below, and stick up for each other out there, Melbourne fans.
-Gen and Aless x