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Download Festival: Mud, Metal and SCREAMing

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These are my people. They just don't know it yet. I'm on a packed train out of London, surrounded by black-shirted music fans; all of us bound for Castle Donington and a weekend of the heaviest of all metals.

I've never been to Download before because it is too far away and I am simply too damn idle. With typical southern ponciness I assume the journey will take a good three hours plus. It's an hour and a half.

My motivation for going this time is simple and twofold: I bloody love rock music and my friend who works there tells me it's her favourite UK summer festival. Download is a notch above the rest she says because it's the friendliest, the best organised and if any of the bands aren't cutting it you can just stand back and behold the splendid examples of humanity passing you by.

She had me at friendliest. And the instant chatter that breaks out across the impersonal East Midlands carriage before we have even pulled out from St Pancras is immediate testament to that. Matey banter, magazine swapping, babysitting your neighbour's tent under your feet; the heavy metal world is inclusive, easygoing and very personable. Damn, these are definitely my people. I must just restrain myself from enveloping them in an over-friendly hug quite yet.

We arrive at the venue, not only spiritual home of heavy metal but also to ear-splitting racing cars. How apt. Naturally the weather decides it's been summer for far too long (three days) and how would we fancy a dash of gales and a light lashing of rain? This doesn't deter my 100,000 new best friends who have dressed to have fun, not to fit in with the UK's petty meteorological whims, godammit.

Because people don't muck about when it comes to dressing up here. Apart from the obligatory band T shirts and sensible cagoules, there are some awesome sights. At the entrance, huddled under the miniature castle next to an insalubrious burger van stand a group of pirates, brave-hearted girls in vests, tiny shorts & wellies combos and a petite figure in red Slipknot boiler suit and S&M 'dicknose' mask selling her spare ticket. The trademark 'Knot suit is ideal festival gear as it's essentially the onesie you won't get called a wuss for wearing.

Over the course of the weekend I will get to meet that well-known trio of Freddie Mercury, Thor and J. Christ who are hanging out together, delivering benedictions to a mud-spattered faithful. I shall admire a Strongbow knight, whose full-body armour, helmet and fiercely brandished double-edged axe are entirely constructed from cider box cardboard. And I will rejoice in madly-painted faces, increasingly crumpled Mohican scare-cuts and WWII German helmets adorned with big-ass Devil's horns.

The fantastic DIY wardrobe is not lost on the acts either. "Either I'm on LSD" says QOTSA's Josh Homme, "or there's a dude out there dressed as a Super Mario Brother." Honourable mentions also go to the bald guy in the red Baywatch fat suit and an immaculately-tailored five-member Spanish Inquisition. Who could have expected them?

All the bonkers outfits and animal costumes are a fast-track to getting your mug on the jumbo TV screens either side of the main stage. Which brings us to the "T.O." camera man and the First Law of Download. If you are a girl sat on the shoulders of your friend and should the "T.O." camera ever be focussed on you, it is imperative you whip up your top and jiggle what your mother gave you. Ideally sans bra. Avec is a poor second and, quite frankly, cheating. This is metal's equivalent to the Mexican wave and gets everyone through even the most proggy guitar noodling or endless that's-me-at-the-bar drum solos. Who first laid down this law in the statutes of metal? Almost definitely Ozzy Osbourne, while summoning demons with Jimmy Page and Alice Cooper at Aleister Crowley's hunting lodge in 1970.

Now to the music. To be utterly crass and glib for a moment, one can make an arbitrary divide between those bands that veer towards more classic rock sounds of operatic yowling vocals coupled with widdly guitar wig-outs and those that favour guttural roaring and down-tuned guitars. Simply put: Guns n Roses and Iron Maiden are in the former camp, Korn and Slipknot in the latter. That's not to say that many bands don't do both, but it's the broadest of brushstrokes to give you a basic picture. Yes alright, metal fans. Abuse in the Comments section, if you please.

Now I love a healthy dollop of nu-metal, screamo and inhaled vocals but this weekend I found myself erring towards the classic rock end. Maybe my ever-quickening age, or it could be because guitar solos and singalong-able choruses tend to feel more involving in a festival atmosphere. Anyway, that's the way it went and what led me to my surprise band of the festival.

Uriah Heep. Yup, still going. Yes, looking like 100 year old wizards. But delivering such a freaking good time thanks to the singer's Valhalla wailing and Gandalf-guitarist's nimble fretboard fingery. They made me smile from ear to ear, had me hollering like a Jack Black loon (so this was his inspiration!) and brought a sentimental tear to my bleary eyes. Or was that still traces of the 'liquid' that someone jettisoned over our heads during the last chorus?

"Where were you in 1974?" asks the singer. The young guy next to me tries to work out whether his Dad was born then. In this write-up I refuse to call them or anyone else "veteran rockers". And that stands for all the bands I saw over the weekend. Whether they are fresh-faced young uns or grizzled war horses, age is just a number. You either rock or you don't. And Uriah Heep rocked.

As did Black Star Riders (effectively Thin Lizzy without Phil Lynott), Queens of the Stone Age ("We'll play you something to get laid to"), Europe (still blinded by Joey Tempest's snow-white teeth), Motorhead (Lemmy's voice almost inaudibly glued together with whiskey, fags and phlegm), Slipknot, Iron Maiden, Black Stone Cherry and Gogol Bordello (who could power an entire festival by themselves) to mention just a few. And watch out for new kids on the rock block, Lonely The Brave. Their vocalist has a mammoth arena-filling voice and it will only be a matter of time before they do so.

And so the highlights? The whole thing I think it's sick. You really have to experience Slipknot once before you die. I've seen them twice already but the menace and "dark positivity" that emanates from them is worth a bad case of festival-knee and achy breaky back from standing for hours on end. They may have lost their beloved bassist Paul but they still create a compelling rock-horror show that defies you ever to look away.

As well as the myriad of bands, unique sights, sounds and smells over the weekend, Iron Maiden kicking off their set with a Spitfire fly-past has to be somewhere at the top. If Bruce Dickinson had parachuted out, leaving the fighter plane to crash into nearby Donington Hall things would have been topped off nicely, but it certainly set the seal on a good-natured, riff-roaring and screamed-hoarse weekend that had my Midlands-tanned face grinning daftly all the way back home.

"Take care of yourselves, Downloaders" says the miked-up security guard manning the traffic lights as we head through drizzly darkness for the exit. "And remember. This isn't rain. It's the cleansing waters of metal."

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