By Jake Richardson
Gene Simmons has on several occasions claimed rock music to be dead. And, controversially, I think he’s sort of right.
Before you head to Twitter to tell the world what a dickhead I am, let me explain: the type Simmons is referring to – classic rock and classic metal – are dead. But rock music; loud, visceral, guitar-based – that’s more alive than ever. Although you wouldn’t know it by looking at the U.K.’s current crop of festival headliners.
Glastonbury is the big beast in the British festival market but, given it’s a multi-genre performing arts festival booking anyone from Metallica to Major Lazer, it’s worth setting it aside. On the next rung, we find T In The Park, Reading & Leeds, and Download. Both T and R & L book headliners from the rock world, as well as indie, pop and alt acts, but Download is the U.K.’s main attraction in the rock and metal festival market. The self-proclaimed “spiritual home of rock and metal” is the place in Britain for a weekend of big riffs and bigger hair, but it’s also an event which embodies two of rock’s biggest problems in 2017: a shortage of festival headliners, and the scene’s attitude to new bands.
This year, Download is headlined by System Of A Down, Aerosmith and Biffy Clyro. The booking of Biffy Clyro has apparently left many Download-goers unconvinced. Biffy have been festival headline material for several years now, topping the bill at Reading twice since 2013. But what seems to concern many Download punters is the band’s perceived lack of heaviness, or rock ‘credentials’.
This belief betrays a narrow-mindedness that is a common problem among Download attendees (or at least, the most vocal of them). The Scottish trio have some riff-laden tunes that are heavier than anything to which Aerosmith have ever put their name; the problem seems to be that they choose to not only write great hulking rock songs. Should we really still be having the ‘right type of rock’ debate in 2017? Given that rock and metal are constantly evolving, and their fans should be open to evolving with them. Rock fans should be embracing bands like Biffy Clyro who can pen an intensely heavy song as well as they can a pop hit. But they’re not.
Suicide Silence were recently confronted with a petition to prevent the release of their fifth album because some fans objected to them changing their sound; My Chemical Romance and Black Veil Brides were both met with a barrage of piss and heckles when they played Download. If metal lovers will reject any such attempts to diversify , it’s unlikely Download booker Andy Copping will ever see his professed wish of Paramore* and Blink-182 – both unequivocally popular enough to headline – topping the bill any time soon.
Despite this ignorance, Download is looking more towards the future of rock this year. Metallica, AC/DC and the like aren’t going to be around for much longer, and Copping is aware of the need to for fresh faces. The new Avalanche Stage could become the proving ground for rock’s future stars. Essentially a mini Slam Dunk (the U.K.’s version of The Warped Tour), this third stage is crammed full of potential. Sticking with the Slam Dunk comparison, it’s worth considering that festival’s target market: 14-25 year-olds, the next generation of rock fans. Enter Shikari and Panic! At The Disco – two of the biggest bands from a scene populated by passionate rock kids – have headlined Slam Dunk recently, and they’re the kind of acts that should be championed as future Download headliners.
This hasn’t escaped the notice of its bookers, and it’s possible that The Avalanche Stage is their foray into that market. Packed with Shikari and Panic!’s peers, there’s not a classic rock or metal band in sight, because the young music fans at which this stage is aimed aren’t precious about genres that were started 50 years ago.
They care about bands like Code Orange, who are redefining what it means to be a heavy band in 2017. They care about Basement, a band beloved by indie kids and punk kids alike, who’ve just been signed to a major label. They’re into State Champs and As It Is and their joyous take on pop-punk. Almost every band playing the Avalanche Stage is a relatively new and exciting face in the scene; there’s over 20 bands there who represent the youngest generation of rock fans, and these are the people who we’ll be relying on to keep the genre alive over the coming decades.
Download-goers could learn a thing or two from the attendees of Slam Dunk, a festival that used to be primarily a pop-punk and ska event, but now takes in acts from metal, hardcore, alt-pop and more. There has never been the kind of bickering amongst the Slam Dunk crowd on the changing face of the festival in the way that has been observed from the Download lot. It is from the diverse and welcoming Slam Dunk scene that a new generation of Download headliners can be born.
Andy Copping knows this, and it’s reflected in the festival’s wider make-up this year. Saturday’s Main Stage is a bold booking: A Day To Remember, one of rock’s most likely next headline-level bands, are main support to Biffy, and they’re preceded by Pierce The Veil, Of Mice & Men and Creeper. A quick glance over the Download Facebook page uncovers what some think of that: one charmer describes PTV as “cancerous wannabe metalheads”. You might not see them as the most creative or challenging band out there, but Pierce The Veil are a huge deal in the modern rock scene. This is a new, young band who are making a splash, and Download should be welcoming them.
Rock fans in general should be welcoming these bands too, because they are opening up the potential for much more variety in future festival headliners from the world of rock and metal. The death of rock’s old-guard and the birth of this new wave of acts could see rock festivals blossom into events of great diversity and choice, but it requires an acceptance of the changing nature of the genre.
There’s so much to be excited about in rock right now. We’ve got Creeper bashing down the doors of the mainstream; Ghost threatening to become a colossal metal band; Code Orange, Employed To Serve and the like breathing new life into heavy music… and that’s just the bands. Younger festivals like Slam Dunk and 2000trees are growing every year, and interesting critical mediums like That’s Not Metal and Gold Flake Paint provide an alternative to the music journalism status quo. Rock is a truly invigorated scene in 2017.
Download can be the beacon for all of this, but the festival and its fans need to move with the times. They need to continue to give these bands a shot and do it on a bigger scale, because if they do, then the current scepticism and division in the rock community can begin to dissipate.
*Editor’s note: this piece was written prior to the release of Paramore’s fifth album, After Laughter, whose 80s-pop aesthetic probably precludes them from headlining Download in the near future.