Download festival review – 20th birthday brings double Metallica, occult glam and a new breed

Donington Park
After travel chaos this proves to be an epic four-dayer, with an eclectic mix from Bring Me the Horizon to AA Williams plus Metallica spanning their career

You can’t blame anyone that rocked up to Download 2023 in a huff or in a hurry. British rock’s biggest weekend has grown even bigger on its 20th anniversary, adding a full extra day and boasting a lineup so stacked that the festival is completely sold out for the very first time. However, 100,000 people descending onto rural Leicestershire is a surefire formula for chaos, and horror stories such as six-mile drives taking six hours are frequently spun across the weekend.

The good news is that every single road-weary festivalgoer will have something to make that trip worthwhile, with Metallica’s legions being especially spoiled. The biggest metal band ever headline the main stage on Thursday and Saturday, yet none of their four hours feel wasted. Must-hears Enter Sandman and Nothing Else Matters, long-untouched singles like King Nothing and beloved album cuts from Welcome Home (Sanitarium) to Battery make the twin sets the quintessential career recap. Given frontman James Hetfield’s recent on-stage lamentations about getting older and Metallica’s ever-slowing touring schedule, this feels like a victorious yet bittersweet apex for metal’s elder statesmen.

Imperious … Metallica play Download.
Imperious … Metallica play Download. Photograph: Jason Sheldon/Junction10/Shutterstock

The closest competitor for “band of the weekend” are Saturday’s third-stage headliners Coheed and Cambria. The New Yorkers wrap prog, pop, emo and metal sounds into one anthemic whole. They’re infinitely more versatile than Disturbed, who lean so heavily on their jock-metal formula that several songs become indistinguishable.

Bring Me the Horizon are first-time main-stage headliners on Friday. Between modern metal hit Shadow Moses and the electro-pop of Die4u, the band sound confused about whether to emulate Bullet for My Valentine or Justin Bieber, but the northerners earn their place with an extravaganza of pyro and lavish video imagery. A host of similarly pop-minded acts grace the main stage the same day, of whom Pendulum are by far the best. Despite their newest album being 13 years old, Self vs Self and Watercolour prove the five-piece still have dynamism and dancefloor chops.

Fans in the mosh pit watching Pupil Slicer.
Fans in the mosh pit watching Pupil Slicer. Photograph: Christopher Bethell/The Guardian

By contrast, the most under-seen main-stage band of the weekend are Alexisonfire, whose dynamic post-hardcore lurches between brute force and sensitivity. AA Williams nears similar levels of emotion on the fourth stage, that is, until nearby hard rockers Halestorm drown out her tender goth crooning. On the second stage, Carcass appease Saturday’s death metal acolytes with their snarling vocals and slicing guitar leads. More extreme batterings come from Behemoth on Sunday, with the facepaint and fire adding lashings of theatre on top.

There’s a spread of auspicious Download debuts, as well. Metalcore upstarts Pupil Slicer and Graphic Nature both ignite moshpits inside the fourth stage’s jam-packed tent. Most promising of the new breed, though, is Bloodywood: the New Delhi trio imbue righteous nu-metal with Indian folk in front of a rapt main-stage crowd.

Download comes to an aptly eclectic close as Ghost, whose occult glam fuses the best of Abba and Candlemass, segue into final headliners Slipknot. Despite being down keyboardist Craig Jones (who mysteriously left the band on Wednesday), The Nine still rage on full power, blasting through a set of largely turn-of-the-millennium bruisers. “Good! Night!” vocalist Corey Taylor screams – and the thousands before him pray it won’t take another six hours to get home.


Matt Mills

The GuardianTramp

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