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Download XXI (Day One): Mayhem in the Mud with Heilung, Royal Blood and Busted [Photos]

Download XXI: Controversy, mud, and Busted. 70,000 fans rock through day one of the staple of the UK rock festival calendar…

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Heilung @ Download
Heilung, photo by Graham Finney Photography

This year’s Download Festival sadly has hints of controversy surrounding it. This controversy comes in the form of one of their sponsorship partners, Barclays. The bank is well known now for its investments in Israeli companies that are aligned to funding the ongoing war in Palestine. Regardless of what side you fall on this intensely fiery divide, it has seen many bands listed on the bill, including Scowl, Zulu, Pest Control, Ithaca and SPEED withdraw from the festival as a result.

It is a huge blow for organisers but something that hits fans harder. I have strong personal views on this conflict however, for the sake of this article I have decided to remain neutral as I am acutely aware there are strong views on both sides. I am also aware that by taking a neutral stance could draw condemnation from both sides, but for the sake of the music and the fans, this is my position. Also, I will encourage all to stay true to their personal stances but don’t let your beliefs contribute to more hate or worse violence!

Thankfully, during this year’s festival, Barclays withdrew from the partnership with Download as well as Latitude and the Isle of White festivals. This was a result of artists with more clout pilling on the pressure to a degree that simply could not be ignored. Both Enter Shikari and the legendary Tom Morello were taking additional action in the background to ensure that music was not affiliated with genocide.

Now that the politics is over, let’s talk bands, weather and letting loose!

Although the hardcore amongst us had been out in force since Wednesday enjoying the action, deejays, bands, bars and debauchery District X had to offer, it was Friday when everything officially kicked off.

For the first time, in what felt like an eternity, I found myself in a position to see an opening act. This was unheard of because, in the past, there has always been traffic of some kind thwarting my efforts (the less said about the last year, the better). This year, however, I sailed into the car park with zero effort. Momentarily I wondered if I was parked in the wrong field, but I this was the case, there were other festivalgoers in the same position!

First to take to the Opus stage, and open up this year’s festivities was Hanabie from Japan. What a way to kick this off! One by one each member of the anime-inspired metalcore band arrived on stage. With each entrance, the cheers grew ever louder hitting their apex when vocalist, Yukina, ran to the centre waving the Union Jack. “Download” she screams, “are you ready?” before wasting no more time blasting into “O*TA*KU Lovely Densetsu” with brutal force. The six-song setlist was a powerhouse collective of some of the band’s best tunes including “We Love Sweets” and “Girl Talk”.

Hanabie is one of the best discoveries of 2024 for me, and their live set was no letdown! Also, for anyone out there thinking they can be compared to BabyMetal, I declare now, that you are wrong! Whist Baby Metal are great and have their place in rock, whilst also earning their strips, they are in a completely different league to Hanabie. I urge you, to check them out and do it now!

With the sun fighting through the clouds, I was questioning if I had made the right call choosing wellies and my footwear of choice given the ground was currently dry(ish). Hanabie had also commented on the good weather! Sadly, as Halocene took to the Opus stage, dark clouds started to descend on the hollowed grounds of Download.

Halocene, in the past at least, were better known for their covers, but in recent years the husband-and-wife team has produced their own incredible songs. Vocalist Addie Nicole looked outstanding with her red angel wings but sounded even better. This is a woman who can do almost anything with her voice, I have not heard such skills in a long time!

Although Halocene is known primarily for their covers, they only gave two during their set; “The Kill” by 30 Seconds to Mars and “Unholy” by Sam Smith, both of which Nicole added her own twist to. The most iconic moment though came when she introduced “Just Won’t Die” Dedicating the tune to her mother for whom she had written it for having been in an abusive relationship. As the tune began, it was at this moment the heavens opened drenching Downloaders, but the accompanying tune created an atmospheric experience with the rain complimenting the very nature and tone of the tune. There was not a dry eye in attendance but may be because everyone was now soaking wet!

Scene Queen is one of those acts who epitomise everything about the new breed of Download bands this year. Mixing pop, electronic and alternative rock, the hugely popular singer is a ball of colour, energy and attitude on stage, even in the rain and, from underneath the various ponchos and umbrellas protecting the front rows, you could see plenty of rain-sodden faces singing the words. The polar opposite to everything a Download crowd would have wanted ten years ago, Scene Queen is one of several artists heralding in this new generation of rock and making the hallowed turf of Donington their own.

However, as much as Download XXI was about the new breed, there was plenty of space on the bill for the icons of rock and who is more iconic than Faith No More vocalist Mike Patton and his experimental project Mr.Bungle? Joined by Anthrax guitarist and equally legendary Scott Ian, Patton offers up a bewildering mix of experimental metal, grindcore and noise rock to a crowd who will literally lap up everything this man has to offer no matter how bonkers.

After fulfilling today’s interview obligations, I headed back out to a now-transformed Download. Gone was the greenery replaced by brown sludge thanks to the ever-changing weather. It truly was a confusing weekend for weather that would carry through to Saturday (Sunday was a good day for weather, sadly by this point the ground had become marshland).

Royal Blood made their presence known entering onto the Apex stage to “Simon Says” by Pharoahe Monch and delivered a blisteringly good set starting with “Out of the Black”. Sadly, due to technical difficulties, Mike Kerr ceased playing part way through the second song, “Come on Over”. From the ground all seemed fine, so came as a shock when the tune abruptly ended partway though. A similar interruption came during fan favourite “Little Monster”, but Kerr held things together like a true professional picking up directly where he left off.

Royal Blood delivered a set full of hits and fan favourites including “Troubles Coming” and closed with “Figure It Out”. Despite the mishaps, the performance was outstanding and earned the duo a festival’s worth of new fans.

One of the more unusual acts to grace a stage at this year’s festival was the pagan-inspired Heilung. This tribal collective is difficult to describe, and the very nature of their performance makes it hard to identify any specific tracks, but suffice it to say, this was an unmissable show!

It was a truly mesmerising performance and the most metal thing to occur all weekend (ironic given not one note of rock played out) with the set acting more like an abstract performance piece than a music show. There were moments when an entire army was on stage looking like they were about to go to war with the audience, the chants were both powerful, yet oddly intimidating. There was also what appeared to be a human sacrifice and then resurrection, again all to heart-pumping beats.

Heilung was a hypnotic, mesmerising, terrifying and thought-provoking experience and one of the big highlights of Download 2025.

One of the more controversial additions to the bill, at least this year, saw UK pop-punk chaps Busted appearing on the Avalanche stage as headliner for the Friday night. Now, while it may have been an announcement that split opinion amongst Downloaders and almost crashed the internet when the news dropped, the reality was that, by the time Charlie Simpson and Co hit the stage, you had no chance of getting near the tent.

Could it be that the sheer size of the crowd at the third stage shows the shift in demographic in terms of the Download audience or maybe most were here for another Daphne and Celeste style riot? The screams which went up as Charlie, Matt and James walked out onto the stage and flashed the devil horns would show that it was an addition to the bill which had very much worked for Download. A hit-laden set saw the tent bouncing because, even though we all don’t like to admit it, we know every single one of the hits and, yes, I include the guy in the Hatebreed t-shirt dancing at the side, we can see you.

Headlining for the first time at Download was the well-respected Queens of the Stone Age. As I walked down the hill from the Opus stage still contemplating what I had witnessed during Heilung and now also my very existence on this rock we call Earth (yes, that show was that powerful), I couldn’t help noticing how sparse the space in front of the Apex stage was. Now, I’ll confess, that I am not a huge QOTSA fan, I like the occasional track, but live, I find that a tab is boring. Still, they have their fans and those fans are passionate! Opening with “Little Sister”, was a good start despite the turnout.

Josh Homme appeared to want to deliver a great show for fans, but for some reason (at least for me) didn’t quite deliver). Going a cappella for “Emotion Sickness” and getting the crowd to sing along fell a little flat due to the long chorus. The return from the crowd sounded more like incoherent ramblings and it was clear not all in attendance knew this word for word despite Homme providing the lines to the crowd. It was just too much to remember for many! Thankfully QOTSA brought up the tempo for “Go with the Flow” and got the crowd back on track.

As mentioned, there are only a handful of tunes by the band I like, and eventually I zoned out opting to doom-scroll various socials on my phone and then listen. It was at this point that the group I was with made the collective decision to abandon the soaking field and head for the warmth of the tented guest area bar. As we trudged our way through the mud conversations remained on the topic that QOTSA just didn’t feel like a great choice as a headliner. They fully deserved to be on that stage, but for us, not at the top of the bill.

Read our coverage of Day Two and Day Three here. Download Festival returns in 2025 and you can pre-order tickets from the Official Festival Website.

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