Download Festival 2023 Review: Bring Me The Horizon and Slipknot mark 20th anniversary of Donington Park festival

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Download festival is a warm and friendly place for fans of metal and rock music- for the 20th anniversary show I felt like I was back amongst 100,000 friends

Download Festival 2023 has come and gone, and around 100,000 rock and metal fans have made the trip home. In a special four day event to mark the 20th anniversary of Download, we fans were treated to endless iconic performances from bands that descended on this corner of Leicestershire. 

This was my third Download Festival, but I was still in unfamiliar territory with having to get set up at the festival on Thursday as opposed to the traditional Friday. It was pretty warm once the tent was up and we’d had a few drinks, but little did my friends and I know that it would be the coldest day of the weekend. 

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The recent dry conditions had left the fields of the festival dry and dusty- weather conditions which would have a big influence on how certain sets would go down. On to the music…

Welsh rockers Skindred were a last minute addition to the Opal stage due to the unavailability of Five Finger Death Punch to play. They just so happened to be my pick of the first day. 

Always one to put on a good show, their passionate performance saw front man Benji Webbe dictate proceedings in his usual flamboyant fashion. A clinical set for a band that has made themselves a semi-regular name on a Download line-up, Skinred couldn’t leave their crowd without the chance to give a rendition of the now famous ‘Newport Helicopter’.  When this point in a Skindred set comes, Benji lets you know. Thousands of fans took their shirts off and waves them above their heads. No matter the size of the stage, this is a sight to behold. 

Thursday headliners Metallica are one of those headline acts who have become synonymous with Download. The weekend would see them make their ninth and then 10th appearance at the festival (including before its name changed in 2003). Metallica's classic heavy rock sound is one which has stood the test of time, and has gone on to influence new bands across the world. 

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The first of their two sets over the weekend featured iconic tracks such as ‘Nothing Else Matters’ but it opened up with ‘Creeping Death’. The show was one which ebbed and flowed, through some pulsating Metallica-esque guitar riffs and then some calmer moments which sewed things together well. Front man James Hetfield has made it so he is one of the biggest characters in one of the biggest band’s the world has ever seen, and this wit and charm was front and centre during their first performance of the weekend. 

Download Festival 2023 was star studded and memorable (Photo: Maciek Jankowski) Download Festival 2023 was star studded and memorable (Photo: Maciek Jankowski)
Download Festival 2023 was star studded and memorable (Photo: Maciek Jankowski) | Maciek Jankowski

The set was wrapped up with ‘Master of Puppets’ , a song which many people consider to be the top track from the band. An instantly familiar rock anthem, it was a fitting way to close the first day of this mammoth weekend. 

Friday rolled by and another hot morning made any form of lie within the tent almost impossible. Sheffield’s finest Bring Me The Horizon topped the bill in the evening, but not before dozens more bands took to the stage. Keen to leave the anniversary festival with some merchandise, we braced the arena’s merch queue for just under two hours. The sun was often hot, but being within hearing distance of two of the festival’s stages (and more than one bar) made the wait that bit more bearable.  

My day would be spent on the main stage, taking in consecutive performances from bands including Hot Milk, Neck Deep and Architects. Proper, established rock and metal music being combined with bands new on the scene coming together is something which this festival prides itself on- the organisers had not strayed too far from the patch of the 20th anniversary event. 

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Architects gave a blistering display on the Apex stage and one which had singer Sam Carter reaching for a glass bottle of an alcoholic spirit (from my spot in the crowd it was tricky to fully establish what type it was. During what was a raw performance filled with the type of breathless displays Architects fans old and new have come to expect, the band treated the crowd to ‘Nihilist’ and wrapped up proceedings with ‘Animals’- what they delivered in between is just about the perfect performance you would hope for a band setting up the headliners. 

With the brutal heat from the sun fading away into a cool, fresher night, Friday’s headliners Bring Me The Horizon brought fire and brimstone to the main stage. An advert relating to the ‘Church of Genexus’ was shown dozens of times over the first two days of the festival, reminding those in attendance that you could join the cult at their on-site location. In the hours leading up to Bring Me playing, I spotted hoodies around the arena with ‘cult member’ written on the back. Once the band kicked off their display, it all became clear. 

The church of Genexus was a part of the post-human plot which their set was based around. A quick camera shot of the band before they headed to the stage wet the appetite of a raucous crowd. Mosh pits were dotted around the thousands watching on almost as soon as the opening track of ‘Amen’ was played. 

Front man Ollie Sykes has a voice which both angels and devils would love to have, and his tones swept over the crowd. Particularly standout songs for me were ‘Kingslayer’, a song which Bring Me sang alongside Japanese band Baby Metal. 

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The showcase performance was added to with guest appearances by first Nova twins, who performed their own set earlier in the day, and then Amy Lee from Evanescence. Lee joined Ollie and the guys on stage for some of One Day the Only Butterflies Left Will Be in Your Chest as You March Towards Your Death and then Nihilist Blues. The event of a headline Bring Me set doesn’t exactly need spicing up, but this segway did the night no harm. 

Bring Me’s encore saw them send the main stage crowd to bed with ‘Drown’, ‘Throne’ and finally ‘Can You Feel My Heart’ still ringing in their ears. If the performance got fans eager for more bring Me, they would barely need to wait until they’d left the arena to find out the news of the band announcing a UK tour set to take place in January 2024. The end of the Bring Me show marked the halfway point of Download 2023 and a chance for fans (myself included) to rest up weary feet which had jumped, danced and walked all across the vast festival arena for hours on end. 

Bring Me The Horizon headlined the festival on Friday (Photo: Maciek Jankowski) Bring Me The Horizon headlined the festival on Friday (Photo: Maciek Jankowski)
Bring Me The Horizon headlined the festival on Friday (Photo: Maciek Jankowski) | Maciek Jankowski

Day three and super Saturday arrived at Download. Another stifling hot start to the day meant that water bottles were filled and sun cream slapped on not long after 8am. A long session back in the arena would see me take in bands on three of the festival’s stages. 

Ice Nine Kills were one of several bands on the day I was keen to catch. The American band bases its songs on classic horror films, with ‘Psycho’ and ‘IT’ being just two of the influences. Spencer Charnas led the band onto the main stage in full suits/ tuxedos which- as someone trudging along in shorts and a t-shirt, seemed crazy but that’s their look and to be fair- it works. ‘The Shower Scene’ is the song based on Alfred Hitchcock ‘Psycho’ and as part of the on-stage performance, Charnas killed the famous Download Dog mascot. This band are known for their dramatics on the stage and it works so well in taking fans back to these iconic film scenes. 

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 Northern Irish punk rock outfit Enola Gay offered 30 minutes of respite from the harsh mid afternoon sun but also a pulsating set in front of a loyal fan base watching on. There was a different kind of heat within the tented Dogtooth stage for this period of Saturday afternoon. 

The run in towards Metallica’s second headline set of the weekend was on, but not before the growing main stage crowd was treated to a special set from Disturbed. As the intense heat continued to beat down on the festival, Disturbed gave a refreshing performance which included renditions of  ‘Ten Thousand Fists’, ‘Down With The Sickness’ and their famous cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’. 

Disturbed teed up Metallica so well, and then the rock legends knocked it out of the park. For me, this second set was the better of their two appearances over the weekend. ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ was second on the set list, with plenty more gems to come after. Amongst the set of ‘Enter Sandman’ ‘Whisky in the Jar’ and ‘The Unforgiven’ it was another regular feature of the live set which was a personal favourite. 

‘One’ a track which depicts a First World War soldier who has been severely injured by a landmine, is a powerful song both musically and lyrically. It was the band’s first song to get a music video back in the 1980's and, despite the years, its impact as a live performance has not faded. 

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The sun may have set on Download Saturday 2023, but there was to be a hot night ahead. I took a wander to the campsite village where, until 2am, I danced and sang along with thousands of others to a DJ set of classic punk rock anthems. There was even a secret acoustic set from band ‘Simple Plan’ who had graced the festival earlier that day. 

Ice Nine Kills at Download 2023 (Photo: Maciek Jankowski) Ice Nine Kills at Download 2023 (Photo: Maciek Jankowski)
Ice Nine Kills at Download 2023 (Photo: Maciek Jankowski) | Maciek Jankowski

Sunday Funday and the last day of a long festival arrived with an even hotter start. The early afternoon in the arena would consist of a trio of very different, international bands. Opening up the main stage was Indian metal band ‘Bloodywood’. In what was their first UK appearance, the band from New Delhi played rough and tumble metal music with a twist of their own Indian culture. It is a combination which works incredibly well and its fair to say it got the early arena attendees off their feet. 

Staying in Asia, next on the agenda was another UK first performance from Japanese outfit ‘SiM’. A fresh and exciting act, they made a perfect addition to the festival and, with a 2024 UK tour in the works, they’ll no doubt be for many years to come. 

Several days of hot temperatures and mosh pits had turned the ground in front of each of the stages into something of dust bowls. After getting into the mix with my fellow metal heads for Sim’s set, I felt as though I’d been rolling around in the dust. However, it’s all in good spirit and as quick as a flash, the band from Japan were done. 

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Not too quick as a flash I weaved my way through the crowds back to the Main stage to catch a glimpse of The Hu. It’s not every Sunday afternoon you end up with a taste of Mongolian throat singing, but I’d not be against doing it on a more regular basis. It was the sort of music which would be inspiring for when you are heading into battle- and we would be battling the intense heat once again as the day drew on. 

The rest of the festival would see me either taking in main stage bands or hunting down some of the few spots of shade located around the arena grounds. I Prevail played a rapid fire set which led nicely to Australian band Parkway Drive. A heavy, fist pumping and foot stomping set of songs got the dust kicking up with multiple circle pits. I kept my distance for this one, as three days of chaos had all but wiped me out- not that the dust escaped me at all. 

If this was a perfect storm of chaos, then what was last up was unbelievable. Slipknot have played at one quarter of the 20 Download shows to take place, and it was my first time seeing the masked aficionados- and what a treat it was. 

Bursting onto stage with a load of fire and smoke, the metal icons gave everything they’ve got to the thousands gathered to watch on. ‘Psychosocial’ is arguably the most well known track from Slipknot, and hearing it live was special.  Front man Corey Taylor noted that his voice wasn’t at its best, something which I noticed when Taylor addressed to the crowd. When he was singing, it wasn’t as noticeable, but he asked for the thousand to sing along and help him out. They certainly took up the offer- and then some. 

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A brutally tasty set of metal came to a crashing conclusion with an encore which included ‘Duality’ and ‘Spit It Out’. The tunes brought to an end an incredible set and a fantastic festival. The 20th anniversary show of this world renowned festival was a collection of fun and powerful metal and rock performances. 

My final note I want to make is about the fans. Around 100,000 people attended the festival across the weekend, and they make this festival what it is today. I’ve been to several other festivals, but the friendliness and good nature of fans at all of these does not come close to that of Download fans. If you are in the mosh pit and you fall, you’ll have multiple fellow fans there to pick you up. If you need something at your campsite, you’ll find someone around you who will have it. The people of Download are wonderful- and I’m counting down the days until next year’s event.   

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