Donington Park, Castle Donington
Thursday 8th to Sunday 11th June 2023
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DOWNLOAD FESTIVAL 2023 REVIEW
This weekend is a celebration of twenty years of Download Festival. Stepping into the void left by Monsters of Rock not just at the hyped spiritual home of rock Donington Park but to the whole UK rock/metal scene, Download has become its own monster.
This year is truly monstrous as the event is fully sold out with record breaking numbers of attendees coming to partake in the celebration. Those celebrations get off to a rough start though with unprecedented traffic problems souring the event for many before it even properly begins.
Once the music starts though a lot if not all of those problems subside. There is a stacked bill for the anniversary party including two nights of Metallica, a closing set from Download icons Slipknot but most vitally a new headline act Bring Me The Horizon.
The gap between Monsters of Rock and Download caused a vacuum in ability for bands to hit headline status with many acts from that era missing out on that status, Korn being one such act often thought of as passed over. Think about it, if they’d headlined at Donington Park in the late nineties, they’d no doubt still be that rank higher than they are now.
In the early years of Download, a number of bands had an opportunity to cement themselves at the top level, think Audioslave, Linkin Park, System of a Down and My Chemical Romance.
Playing alongside stalwarts like Iron Maiden, Metallica, Black Sabbath and Kiss gives bands credibility and elevates their stock. 2009’s Slipknot set is still heralded as the best example of the ‘bump’!
The problem is since then only Avenged Sevenfold in 2014 have really been given that opportunity and Download has become a bit of a clichéd round robin of the likes of Def Leppard, Rammstein, Aerosmith and other favourites already mentioned.
Perhaps then the most important booking in a celebration of the past is the look to the future with Bring Me The Horizon finally getting the top spot. Whilst Download probably should’ve got in before Reading and Leeds, it’s hopefully a sign of a subtle change of tact from the festival.
That’s because the line-up is also graced this year by the likes of Hot Milk, Nova Twins and Bob Vylan in prominent slots. Mixing this with the likes of classic Download bands Disturbed, Alter Bridge, Halestorm and Skindred gives the line-up a fresh but familiar feel.
Sadly beyond the bookings of Metallica and Slipknot plus the additional day there isn’t much done to make this year feel special for those who have made Download Festival part of their lives.
Whilst the organisers could have done more both in terms of that something special and in certain ways just the very basics, they have provided a top tier line-up, so let’s take a look at the highlights!
Cancer Bats get the ball rolling on day one for us over at the second stage (now dubbed the Opus stage). The band get those that have made it into the arena pumped up with a early set packed full of ragers that ultimately ends prematurely when the sound is cut during ‘Hail Destroyer’!
Soon thereafter, Mammoth WVH get proceedings underway on the main stage (or Apex as it’s now called!). In some ways it’s fitting having the Van Halen name on this stage, in others it’s very ironic as the legendary band are often referred to by lead booker Andy Copping as one that got away.
Wolfgang and co show that with or without the last name, they have the talent needed to conquer stages like these. From start to finish it’s an excellent showing that places the band on the potential list for future festival stars.
Next up on the Opus stage are Hundred Reasons who are riding the wave of their stunning return album, ‘Glorious Sunset’. The band open with the title-track before running through a series of classic tracks much to the delight of those gathered. Hopefully this isn’t a victory lap for the band as creatively and onstage they are as good as they’ve ever been!
As we focus on the future of the festival, two names often linked to future headline status are Halestorm and Alter Bridge. It’s fine booking then to see the bands back to back next on the Apex stage.
Halestorm deliver another flawless set that seems to finish before it begins given their short allocated slot. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though given the old saying of leave the fans wanting more. Halestorm certainly do that and with a headline date pencilled in at Wembley Arena this December, the next time the band grace Donington you’d hope to see them in the sub-headline spot.
That’s the spot filled by Alter Bridge who have played in this position multiple times before; a sense perhaps then of always the bridesmaid and never the bride! Today though the band give it their all to show what they have to offer.
Watching the crowd, the set seems to be really well received which is a good sign. The band after all are always technically superb, so if enhancing that audience connection is the missing piece to progression then today’s set will have gone a long way to creating that link!
All that’s left on this special Thursday then is the first of two headline performances from the biggest metal band on the planet, Metallica. The two sets will be completely unique, giving fans the chance to see far more than a standard Metallica set list.
Night one has a good mix of hits like ‘Creeping Death’, ‘Fade To Black’, ‘Nothing Else Matters’, ‘Sad but True’ and ‘Master of Puppets’, deep cuts such as ‘Leper Messiah’, ‘King Nothing’ and ‘Orion’ plus new material from ’72 Seasons’.
Friday is a huge day for the future of heavy music with a number of hotly tipped bands performing on the main stage including headliners Bring Me The Horizon.
We start on the Opus stage though with a debut UK festival appearance from Mexicans The Warning. The sister trio deliver an assured performance which belies their position on the bill. The set is another case of leaving the audience wanting more and you have to imagine that they’ll be back very soon.
Nova Twins take to the Apex stage soon after and absolutely own the stage. The duo are able to show just why they have so much hype with a performance that should be talked about as one of the best of the weekend.
Hot Milk have the unenviable task of following the pure energy that was Nova Twins, and thankfully for the band and the crowd they are up to the task. With a debut album on the way the band are on the cusp of something special and this set will again not doubt be one of those “I was there” moments.
The effortless cool of Demob Happy delights the Avalanche stage next as they showcase their stunning new album, ‘Divine Machines’.
Back on the Apex stage with the run of younger bands, next up for us are Neck Deep who are perennial contenders for bigger things. Today they have tens of thousands of people singing back the likes of ‘December’ and you have to consider Neck Deep’s set another victory for the new breed of Download band.
It’s a short and sharp blast from the past next as we pop to the Avalanche stage for the return of The Blackout. The band perform like they’ve not been away and receive a hero’s return from the audience. With the tease of more live dates to follow, it looks like The Blackout are back and back with a bang today!
It’s a quick bolt over to the Opus stage next for Within Temptation who are clearly playing a slot below their stature. The performance the band give is headline worthy not just of this stage but of the main stage. The band has a wealth of experience and use all their tricks to deliver a masterful set full of their best crowd pleasing hits.
By the time Evanescence grace the stage, the mass of humanity in attendance is a clear indication that the band should have been on the main stage. Viewing points are few and far between but wherever you are stood the band sonically deliver. A mixture of old and new is greeted well regardless but it’s mega hit ‘Bring Me to Life’ that has the entire place singing their hearts out.
It’s then time for that set. Bring Me The Horizon take over the main stage and prove any remaining doubters wrong. Making Metallica appear average, the band give their all both aesthetically and musically and produce possibly the greatest headline performance in the twenty years of the festival.
As we said earlier, the band should have been given this slot years ago, but if they had then this moment wouldn’t have existed. Their show tonight is the proof needed that the next wave are ready now and the gatekeepers need to move aside.
This set is historic not just for the theme of the weekend or for the stature of Bring Me The Horizon, it’s historic as a watershed moment for this festival. New headliners of the future should personally thank Bring Me The Horizon for breaking through that proverbial ceiling!
On to Saturday now and nobody mention the weather! A celebration of twenty years of Download would have fittingly seem some rain and mud, and from this point on the festival is so hot that many would probably have willing traded the sun for some rain.
After last night it almost feels an anti-climax for the festival to continue, but another Metallica set should never be scoffed at. Thankfully there are still some fresh new bands breaking through lower down the bill today, and first up we catch Static Dress who seemingly channel the energy of Bring Me The Horizon with the fantastic opening Opus stage set.
One of the best bits of a festival for a publication passionate about new music is stumbling across a surprise gem on one of the side stages. This year that is ANTISAINT who simply storm the small Dogtooth stage with a ferocious set and definitely leave with more fans than they had going in.
The new look FEVER 333 then take to the main stage and deliver another memorable moment with Jason Aalon Butler scaling one of the massive towers erected in the main arena. That moment though shouldn’t take away from the already phenomenal set the band had delivered.
Lake Malice are next for us back in the Avalanche stage who are able to continue the run of top tier performances we’ve caught thus far. Whilst some of the organisational elements of the festival have been lacking, the music has been of the highest calibre and Lake Malice are another band you suspect will be back in a bigger spot sooner rather than later.
Next on the Apex stage are Ice Nine Kills, whose theatrics create a spectacle on the main stage, but musically they feel a little flat, perhaps being the first underwhelming set of the weekend.
Clutch who follow then also suffer both through technical difficulties and the energy sapping heat which probably negatively impacted Ice Nine Kills as well. The lack of enthusiasm from the crowd doesn’t help and it’s probably a good thing we are headed to a tent next.
We are set now for another one-two punch, this time in the Avalanche tent with Kid Kapichi and Bob Vylan on tap. It’s Kid Kapichi up first and they instantly raise the intensity levels with opener ‘Sardines’. Each song that follows is just as rewarding and by the time the band finish with ‘Smash the Gaff’ they’ve done just that!
One of the most exiting acts on the bill this weekend are Bob Vylan. The mention of ceilings earlier is relevant because this duo haven’t just smashed ceilings they’ve proceeded to stamp the shards into dust. Their performance to a packed crowd today is further evidence that new acts can make Download their home. That’s exactly what Bob Vylan do here as to repeat another cliché they completely own the stage.
It was always going to be hard to follow that suckerpunch and next on the main stage with the intense heat still sapping all energy, Disturbed deliver a plodding set. The set list is fine, the performance is far from phoned-in but with the audience struggling and the band following the ferocity of Bob Vylan, Disturbed feel distinctly average today.
We then head to the Opus stage expecting Placebo to also struggle to engage the tired and weary crowd. After all this is the third day which would traditionally be the home straight, and Placebo are not known for their crowd pleasing set list choices.
Pleasantly though those making the effort are surprisingly rewarded not just with an energised performance from the band but also a excellent set of songs including a very rare outing for the superb ‘Nancy Boy’. On their day Placebo can be an incredible live act and today they are at the peak of their powers which re-energises the previously zombified crowd.
It’s then time for night two of Metallica’s no repeat weekend. There are some great choice cuts in the set tonight such as a tour debut for ‘Whiplash’ plus ‘Until It Sleeps’, ‘Wherever I May Roam’ and Thin Lizzy cover ‘Whiskey in the Jar’! The finale of ‘One’ and ‘Enter Sandman’ ensures that the hits are accounted for as well as Metallica deliver another slick and graceful set.
The final day feels like a step too far, most definitely compounded by the unrelenting heat, but once again when lost in the music all those issues somehow disappear – the power of music!
Bloodywood start the day off with an engaging performance on the Apex stage, before our recent Podcast guests Blind Channel deliver on their promise to bring the energy to Download. The sight of many metalheads singing along to a rendition of Anastacia’s ‘Left Outside Alone’ is a real sight to behold and set closer ‘Dark Side’ has everybody with their middle finger in the air.
Lorna Shore then suffer again from a lack of enthusiasm from the crowd and their sound getting swallowed up by the enormous space. Joey Valence & Brae though have neither issue in the Avalanche tent with a rambunctious and fun-filled slot.
As the heat and the excesses of the weekend catch up on the crowd it’s telling that for this afternoon outdoor sets like The Amity Affliction and Avatar whilst technically great feel like a struggle. Whereas tented sets from Joey Valence and Brae and the brilliant The Meffs are able to revive the crowd and thrive on their rejuvenation.
Thankfully things start to cool as clouds begin to take over the sky as we get ready for Dinosaur Pile-Up on the Opus stage. Sadly technical difficulties shorten their set to just five songs, but those five songs sound fantastic!
I Prevail have a huge slot on the main stage and make a good impression although you do again feel something is just lacking today. Not to flog a dead horse any further but it may be the low energy levels today or the enormity of the stage swallowing the heavier sound but it’s hard to truly get into their set today.
Thankfully the smaller outdoor Opus stage seems to have a lot of energy and Bad Religion are able to take advantage of that next with a typically slick run of punk rock anthems. Opening with ‘American Jesus’ the band able to hold your attention throughout before finishing with a rousing rendition of ’21st Century (Digital Boy)’.
Next up on this stage are Ghost who really should be headlining the main stage at this point. Musically and theatrically they are on another level and you have a sense of the Bring Me The Horizons about then. Hopefully Download Festival will strike while the iron is hot because everything about their performance today is perfect.
Ghost are so good that you also feel it unnecessary to watch Slipknot, but as soon as the band hit the stage you are glad that you stayed. The history between the band and festival is huge and it’s great that they are one of the few acts that seem to properly acknowledge that this weekend.
A standard (which is great) Slipknot set follows with some sentimental set choices and an enthralling stage show. It’s really fitting for Slipknot to close out what has been an intense weekend of celebration.
The busiest and longest ever Download Festival will last long in the memory for reasons both good and bad. As we said at the start, this festival is a true monster now and has enough dedicated customers to ensure that it will never go down as its predecessor did. It has however become rather soulless and corporate and it feels like the identity it created over the first decade or so could be lost.
Hopefully the event will use this success to both maintain its heritage but also to now really push for the future headliners and top acts to come through. So, congratulations Download on twenty phenomenal years, and here’s to many many more to come!
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