FESTIVAL REVIEW: Download 2023
Metallica imperious at festival's 20th birthday bash
There was dust, little shade, long walks to the arena and huge queues for the few water points at Download 20 - the 20th iteration of the UK's successful rock festival. Thank goodness for the music...
Festivals are rarely a comfortable experience. In your teens and 20s, you shrug this off. Once you're in your 30s, like this writer, you begin to feel the aches and pains of the music pilgrimages. Huge kudos then to those much further down the track who dig out their tents and wellies year after year for the lottery that is UK festival season.
Ahead of my maiden voyage to the festival and Donington Park - a venue which has long been part of rock music's folklore and therefore, stirs the senses - there was trepidation. Primarily, this was fixed on the very British preoccupation of weather. Within the group of us going to the festival was a veteran of 'Drownload' in 2016, when downpours saw many leave early and our friend listening to Iron Maiden's headline set from inside his tent.
The other main reason for trepidation was the scale of the festival with 100,000 fans expected. I've been to festivals of similar size, such as Reading Festival, but never camped at one.
The weather would prove to be an issue but not due to rain at least whereas the scale seemed to catch the organisers off-guard with every available inch of grass taken up by tents, whether a suitable grounding or not. The campsite grounds were very uneven meaning some tents were at what seemed like 45-degree angles.
Our group made the wise (in hindsight) decision to get an early-bird pass and set up camp on the Wednesday. Arriving a few hours after the site officially opened at midday, we had already missed out on our preferred camping area and spots filled quickly, so much so that you felt sorry for those seeking a home on the Thursday.
The site's proximity to East Midlands Airport is immediately apparent, planes noisily flying not far above our heads. The Wednesday proves to be a good day for getting used to this with the phenomenon blending into the background the longer we're there.
Having secured our spot for the (very) long weekend, we ventured to The Village - a set-up teeming with food outlets, fairground rides and clothing stalls. Also home to the much-publicised Festival Co-op and one of a few different merch stands, both of these were plagued all weekend with huge queues, only relenting as the festival drew to a close.
The Village is also where the only entertainment of note - for us plebs paying normal price, with RIP-ers (VIP ticket holders) treated to a full day of music (rock 'n' roll indeed!) - was available on Wednesday with various DJ shows in The Doghouse and comedians in (funnily enough) The Comedy Tent.
The Doghouse - a huge tent space worthy of being a music stage at any festival - hosted rock 'n' roll karaoke with volunteers going up on stage to fill in the blanks of on-brand songs and some surprising choices in front of a three-song judging panel holding up green panels in support of the rendition and red otherwise. The high energy of the performances and compering made it an ideal start to the weekend. This was then followed by a DJ playing rock tracks through the decades with music videos and stage dancers focusing the crowd.
A brief foray to The Comedy Stage didn't yield any laughs so back to the campsite and a fitful first sleep...
Excitement made up for the lack of sleep on day 2 as the arena would be open and the first bands, including the first of two headline sets by Metallica.
Battling the omnipresent heat and sun and the trek to the arena from the campsite, we were in!
Cancer Bats kicked off proceedings on the Opus Stage, lead vocalist, Liam Cormier, bouncing around the stage in a black hoodie and shorts revealing his heavily tattooed legs. Their hardcore punk got the heartbeat racing a little quicker but didn't do too much more to stir the senses though you had to feel for them as their sound was cut off at the start of their closing track thanks to an overly officious worker.
Over on the main stage - the Apex Stage - Mammoth WVH - the first solo project of Wolfgang Van Halen - was first up, playing a pleasing set of prog-influenced rock tracks. Definitely an act to keep an eye on.
Ukrainian act, Jinjer, followed, their heavily-tattooed frontwoman, Tetiana Shmailyuk, delivering impassioned messages on the war before dividing vocals between pleasant singing and unholy screaming. Beyond the realms of my heaviness tolerance, I switched back to the Opus Stage to see Hundred Reasons - the only notable band from Aldershot to my knowledge. Alternating mainly between breakthrough debut, Ideas Above Our Station, and recent LP, Glorious Sunset, the band's set was all killer, no filler with songs old and new impressing. 'Silver' and closer 'If I Could' gave me my first singalongs of the weekend - a triumphant return for a band who hadn't released new music in 15 years before this year's Glorious Sunset.
Hundred Reasons in action
Grabbing dinner (acceptable chicken gyros) by the Apex Stage enabled me to catch parts of Halestorm's set which suggested an act worthy of further interrogation.
Progressive metal band, Haken, were next on the menu on The Dogtooth Stage. One of the obvious failings of the festival was signage - whether clearly showing where people should go to exit at the end of the day or simply to point out which stage was which. On the latter point, I went to the other tent stage, The Avalanche Stage, only to ask and be told I was at the wrong stage, with The Dogtooth the other side of the site. Fortunately, Haken are late on and I watch the whole engrossing performance with the band belting out their technical metal and vocalist Ross Jennings displaying a variety in his singing.
Alter Bridge were then treated to a huge crowd ahead of Metallica's opening performance and didn't disappoint with a set of greatest hits and heartfelt words in-between songs from frontman, Miles Kennedy. Good as the songs were, Kennedy conveyed a showman going through the motions, perhaps too cool for this writer.
Alter Bridge in action
Showing more relish for the occasion and a boyish energy belying their years were Metallica who began with Ride the Lightning's 'Creeping Death' after a build-up including AC/DC's 'It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll)' over cheesy images of the band with fans and a scene from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Striding around the stage with a dorky grin, frontman James Hetfield growls and sings through the 16-track setlist with gusto and wins over all packed into the field.
Video intros pepper the set with drummer, Lars Ulrich, relocating to the front of the stage for the 72 Seasons segment. Of the new tracks, 'Lux Æterna' is the standout and likely to remain a mainstay of tours to come. 'Orion' is epic, 'Nothing Else Matters' a beautiful moment and all voices chiming together for 'Sad But True'. Flames accompany closing song, 'Master of Puppets', to bring to a close an excellent headline set. The band sign off by saying 'see you Saturday' and the prospect of a further 16 tracks this weekend is a thrilling one. The other bands had been good on Thursday, but Metallica showed why they are one of the best bands in the world.
Mexican sister trio, The Warning, sizzle in the midday sun, delivering catchy rock tracks which resonate with those not familiar with the band. Despite the earliness of the slot, theirs is one of the highlights of the weekend.
The Apex Stage is then packed for Nova Twins, whose second album won plaudits as Kerrang!'s Album of the Year and one of the Mercury Prize nominees last year. I also was hugely won over by Supernova, but find myself a little disappointed with their set, with it being difficult to gauge what's being played live and what isn't. Vocalist/guitarist, Amy Love, brings swagger to her confident performance as bassist, Georgia South, toils away on her instrument. Live authenticity issues aside, 'Renegade' and 'Choose Your Fighter', soar in the early afternoon.
Nova Twins on the Apex Stage
A large crowd congregate for Elvana - the band known as Elvis-fronted Nirvana. Their performance stands out like a sore thumb - a novelty tribute act failing to justify their standing on the stacked bill.
After taking a break for some shade, there's a first visit of the day to The Dogtooth Stage for Brutus - a Belgian trio fronted by female drummer/singer, Stefanie Mannaerts. It makes for a unique experience watching Stefanie side-on to the crowd and effortlessly playing on the drums while turning to the audience for her varied vocals. The band let the music do the talking to stunning effect.
Brutus at The Dogtooth Stage
From the side of The Dogtooth Stage, I catch a bit of Pendulum's set, happily being witness to 'Propane Nightmares' - the one song of theirs I love. It's a great moment and appears to be a great set on the more electro-side of the rock spectrum.
Sticking on The Dogtooth Stage, excitement builds for new band, Empire State Bastard - the death metal side project of Biffy Clyro's Simon Neil. Adopting a low profile amidst the chants of 'Biffy Fucking Clyro', it's telling how half the crowd leave the mish-mash of high-pitched screams and sludgy metal on offer, while those sticking it out form pit after pit. Despite Biffy being one of my favourite bands and partial to some heavier music, I leave after 20 minutes, deciding this isn't for me.
The final band on my list for Friday is Evanescence on The Opus Stage. Rattling through a greatest hits setlist, the likes of 'Going Under', 'Call Me When You're Sober', 'Lithium' and 'Bring Me to Life' make it more than worthwhile. The set, however, feels a little overlong and too skewed towards ballads - minor quibbles from a great show and a head-scratcher that they weren't on the main stage.
Our group is physically beaten by this stage and the majority of the day is spent eating and drinking in the shelter of The Doghouse in The Village. Sadly, this means no Fever 333, Alexisonfire or Ice Nine Kills, but eventually we make it to the arena for a great show from Placebo on the Opus Stage. 'Beautiful James', 'The Bitter End' and 'Nancy Boy' - the first time live since 2017 according to setlist.fm - are highlights of the set but no 'Pure Morning' or 'Every Me Every You', plus the performance ending 10 minutes early, leaves things a little flat at the end. Still, everything they did play was solid and they join the list of bands requiring further listens.
Lars and co. get stuck in
The second dose of Metallica does not disappoint. 'For Whom the Bell Tolls', 'Ride the Lightning', 'The Unforgiven', 'Wherever I May Roam' and 'One' sound superb and by the time we fireworks accompany traditional closer, 'Enter Sandman', we have grins on our faces being treated to two nights of rock royalty. The one slight disappointment of a stupendous set is 'Whisky in the Jar' which, for whatever reason, doesn't slam as much as their recorded version. The banter between James and Lars is great, Kirk Hammett cements his position as the best guitarist around and Robert Trujillo is bassist supreme. This is why we're here.
Another jaded start prevents us seeing Indian nu-metal troupe, Bloodywood, or The Hu but the shade cravings lead us to The Avalanche Stage and Jazmin Bean. The pop-rock star performs confidently and is a pleasant surprise having discarded her from the schedule in my pre-Download research.
Cleopatrick follow on the same stage with their straightforward rock tracks blending into one, save for a few standouts. Swedish progressive metal group, Soen, are more inspiring on The Dogtooth Stage though mid-afternoon beers mean we only see their final tracks.
Bad Religion have a strong reputation and seem worth a gander. Their meaningful punk tracks occasionally grab the attention but the set doesn't set The Opus Stage alight.
The same stage is swamped for Ghost - a Swedish rock band heavily inspired by church aesthetics. Pyrotechnics go off regularly and frontman, Tobias Forge is utterly compelling as Papa Emeritus IV. Unlike the same slot occupied by Evanescence, the set doesn't feel overlong and it begs the question as to whether the band could graduate to main headliners. With 'Kaisarion', 'Mary on a Cross' and 'Dance Macabre' among the standouts, the performance is high on theatrics, entertainment and fun. Going in with low expectations, they are surpassed emphatically.
Ghost in action
Sadly, the desire to return home at a respectable time means we only see five or six Slipknot songs - most disappointingly missing out on the rare beast of 'Left Behind'. Beginning with a cool video game montage of band members being assassinated to 'Prelude 3.0', they burst into 'The Blister Exists' with the sound of the drums dwarfing nearly everything else. Once the sound issues clear up a few songs in, 'Yen', 'Psychosocial' and 'The Devil in I' sound epic before we say our goodbyes to the festival.
Slipknot on The Apex Stage
So, how to rate Download 20? Taking into account the thoughts of veterans of the festival, it seems the 2023 version saw organisers bite off more than they could chew. Despite the supposed-community feel of the festival, you never felt anything more than a number to be squeezed for profits. As for the fellow festival-goers, that's what makes it a community. I've never been in so many crowds where personal space is respected. Generally, everyone was friendly and easy-going, and it just seems that the punters - who make the festival special - were forgotten about. The music was great but while I can now say I have watched bands on the hallowed turf of Donington, I doubt there will be a repeat performance.