Normality has rarely felt so euphoric. It’s been three years since rock music’s biggest annual blowout graced Donington Park in its full glory: after being cancelled in 2020 by the Covid-19 pandemic, Download returned last year as a shrunken, government-backed pilot event. The usual 80,000–110,000 capacity was slashed to 10,000, the number of stages was halved to two and every attendee needed proof of a negative PCR test. It was a welcome comeback after 15 gigless months, but it wasn’t the real thing.
The elation to be back is palpable as industrial metalcore hellraisers Heriot open the Dogtooth tent on Friday: their arrival prompts mass chanting, while their screeching riffs incite the first circle pit of the weekend. Representing the more melodic end of the genre outside are Bury Tomorrow, who’ve recently expanded to a six-piece lineup. The increased manpower lets them fill up the main stage, giving them the visuals for arena-level success, and their tunes show similar promise, especially when Black Flame triumphantly darts between singing and roars. It’s infinitely more invigorating than Theory’s misogyny-laden jock rock.
A torrent of party-minded metal dominates the festival. Skindred played the main stage at last year’s pilot event, and appear again this year. “People lost people during the pandemic,” frontman Benji Webbe tells me ahead of his band’s hour of reggae-infused joviality. “I don’t want to remind them of that; I want them to dance.”
Friday and Saturday headliners Kiss and Iron Maiden share that crowdpleasing mentality, both gleefully overindulging during their respective two-hour sets. Gene Simmons et al flaunt all the visual splendour money can buy, from fire-spitting to sky-high platforms. While they complement the opulence with standard and concise pop rock, Maiden are more compositionally flashy thanks to giants like Hallowed Be Thy Name and Fear of the Dark, but repeat costume changes and invasions by their mascot, Eddie, still create compelling heavy metal theatre.
British youngsters Phoxjaw collide sludge metal with gravelly Britpop and ignite their tent, and Bleed from Within sound similarly seismic, despite being downgraded from the main stage slot they enjoyed last year to the smaller Dogtooth. The Glaswegians steal the entire weekend in a death metal fury met with crowd-surfers aplenty.
On the second stage, Mastodon suffer through a hazy mix, the intricacies of their prog metal lost in the fog. UK upstarts Loathe and Holding Absence, on the other hand, are razor-sharp back-to-back in the Avalanche tent, the former’s slicing hardcore juxtaposed with the vibrant emo that follows.
Penultimate on Sunday’s main stage are Korn, whose spotless setlist highlights 30 years of nu-metal dominance, and the band play so tightly that they sound 30 years younger as well. They’re followed by headliners Biffy Clyro, and as arresting as their alt rock is, the trio don’t have the pageantry or audience size of the previous main events so they end the rejuvenated Download on an underwhelming note. That said, tens of thousands of attendees are still grinning as they spill out into the Midlands.
• The subheading of this article was amended on 14 June 2022. Donington Park is in Leicestershire, not Derbyshire as an earlier version said.