LIVE: Download Festival 2023 – Thursday

By Fiachra Johnston

British etiquette dictates that when it’s miserable outside we complain that we miss the heat, and the second the warm weather arrives we complain that it’s too hot. That’s just the way it goes. With that said: how about that heatwave? Softly nestled between two torrents of rain sat four blissful days of unadulterated sun. Crack open the Cornetto’s folks, it’s festival season. With purported crowds anywhere between 100,000 -130,000, it was anyone’s guess then as to whether Live Nation’s crown jewel in the UK would be properly equipped to handle a sold out weekend, or whether they would fall prey to the same pitfalls from which Slam Dunk festival suffered just weeks prior.

So, with this year marking 20 years of Download Festival –  and 53 years of festivals at the esteemed Donington Park – how did Download fair with so many eyes turned towards the fabled Apex stage? It certainly wasn’t an uneventful weekend, as the usual classic rock and metal of past festivals was instead blended with a cavalcade of new genres and some surprising new faces. While our sunstroked staff couldn’t cover every blistering high and searing low over the weekend, we did have some favourites in between lashing on SPF 50…

Words: Fiachra Johnston.  Images: Penny Bennett and Download Festival  / Andrew Whitton

Cancer Bats

If you want a Download started properly, you bring in Cancer Bats. This is their sixth go around at the festival, and despite working with equipment borrowed from their friends in Graphic Nature, Liam Cormier and the Ontario outfit are just as explosive as they were in 2007. ‘Sorceress’ gets the crowd into a suitably aggressive mood, with the energy only spiraling upward as Cormier incites them to form greater and greater pits during ‘Let It Pour’. The band are just what a sleepy Thursday afternoon needs, with even tracks like ‘Radiate’ from their newest record resonating with a hungry audience. Their thundering cover of Beastie Boys’ ‘Sabotage’ isn’t meant to be their closing track but alas, before they have a chance to launch into finale, ‘Hail Destroyer’, they are cut off due to time constraints. Undeterred, they press on – cut off by the sound team but still just about audible over the roar of a supportive crowd – until at last they are forced to move by an oncoming stage tech team. They won’t be the last to suffer the curse of the Opus this year, with many groups taking to the second stage suffering from a swathe of technical issues and delayed sets, but if you thought a band called Cancer Bats were ever going to surrender the stage without a fight, well, that’s on you.

The Bronx

As you’ll see from a lot of our choices for Thursday, Opus stage is where the energy is at. While Haken and Perturbator turned Dogtooth into Download’s own underground club, and State Champs cranked up the heat at Avalanche, Matt Caughthran and The Bronx are whipping up the first of many dust storms to come. The always popular ‘Heart Attack American’ sees the crowd properly dive into the chaos that is Californian punk rock, guitarists Ford and Horne’s riffs throwing the crowd back to the days of Tony Hawks’ Pro Skater 2. ‘Knifeman’ sees Caughthran jump into the crowd to supervise the circle pit himself, much to the chagrin of the poor stagehand left to figure out how to stop 30 feet of microphone wire becoming a 40 person tripping hazard. Sadly, their eight track set contains nothing from their three albums of mariachi music, so we have to settle for the otherwise gnarly, dusty and manic punk set that aptly sets the tone for the rest of the weekend.


The Apex stage was no letdown on day one, with Download classics such as Halestorm and Alter Bridge making their return to Donington for its anniversary. You’ll no doubt hear about how wonderful their sets were (with good reason; Lzzy and Myles rarely disappoint), but in what will be one of the Apex’s most underrated performances, Jinjer – on tour as ambassadors of Ukraine – make quite the statement, launching into ‘Perennial’ as if they’ve always been a DL mainstay. This year saw Download’s signature lineups of classic metal acts merge with more ‘scene’ genres and bands, and with their blend of melodic metal and Tatiana Shmailyuk’s truly impressive hardcore vocals, both young and old show-goers are invigorated as ‘Colossus’ puts Apex’s speaker system to the test. Shmailyuk marches across the stage during ‘Copycat’ and ‘Teacher, Teacher!’ as if she’s the main event of the night, promoting peace in their country throughout the show but causing an absolute riot in the pit with her vocal performances. It’s a short set but an impactful one and while they might have come into this show as an afterthought, Jinjer leave day one as a future must see.


Maynard James Keenan is a weird fellow, but he by no means rests on his laurels. Between a deluge of hobbies and three touring bands, he still finds time to attend Download, added to the lineup with the cancellation of their Brixton date. Maynard and Puscifer, or rather, Agent Dick Merten and the spooks from the “TMZanon Division of Pusciforce” take to the Opus stage looking for signs of alien life in the crowd. In between conspiracies that singer Wendy O Williams faked her death and returned as the frontman of Tool, and fellow agent and frontwoman Carina Round squat-lifting the frequent “alien visitors” that attempt to interrupt their set, Puscifer finds time to deliver an altogether excellent performance of both newer tracks and remixed renditions of older classics, such as the Versatile mix of ‘Momma Sed’. The multileveled stage setup, the multimedia aspects, and some truly incredible riffs from guitarist Mat Mitchell (‘The Remedy’ live is something that must be see to be believed) all support Round and Keenan’s antics. Their manic energy and choice of the band’s most off-kilter tracks such as ‘Apocalyptical’ and ‘Man Overboard’ leave this one of the weekend’s most surreal experiences, only hindered by how much needs to be cut from their usual set to fit the festival time limit.


Oh Benji, what would Download be without you? The Opus stage headliners aren’t even meant to be here, filling in at the last minute for a sadly unavailable Five Finger Death Punch. This brings Newport’s resident rockers to Download for an incredible fourth year in a row. Of course there are people who may be displeased but most, if not all, complaints melt away the second Skindred take the stage. Charismatic to the nth degree, Benji Webbe holds the crowd in the palm of his hand like no one else can, deftly moving between tongue-in-cheek Harry Styles samples to heartfelt monologues to their classic reggae infused metal. With a new album on the way, new songs like ‘If I Could’ and ‘Set Fazers’ inject new life into an otherwise ancient setlist, and not content to leave DL20 without a surprise, Apex stage’s Lzzy Hale joins them in a hellacious rendition of ‘Warning’. It isn’t the second stage headliner we expected, but there’s a reason Skindred are Download’s MVP.


Eight headline shows. Eight. If there’s ever a band that embodies the spirit of metal at Donington Park, it would be Metallica. First appearing at 1985’s Monsters of Rock, James Hetfield and co have spent the better part of four decades thrashing their way into our hearts. It’s unknown if the end is near in sight for juggernauts of thrash; if the M72 World Tour, with its massive schedule of double shows spanning the length of 2024 signals some kind of last hurrah, but for tonight at least Metallica are content to remind the world while they are one of the greats.

As AC/DC’s ‘It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)’ blares over the speakers, a montage of tour photos from the last 20 years appears on each screen, slowly dissolving into Metallica’s tradition Ecstasy of Gold intro, before all hell breaks loose as the opening ‘Creeping Death’ sets the crowd alight.

Yeah, Metallica still have it. Hit after hit, nary a word said until ‘King Nothing’, where the introductions are brief before Lars counts the crew into a double hit of new material in ‘Lux Æterna’ and ‘Screaming Suicide’, tracks that, despite their youth, flow surprisingly well into their classic material. Metallica still have an aura like no other, commanding the stage with the stoic presence of a steel giant, but there’s perhaps a sense of seriousness that separates it from previous tour sets. James makes some wisecracks at Lars’ utterly mangled snare after ‘Fade To Black’, and a jab at their newest line of merch (“Yellow on a t-shirt, it’s… eh it’s maybe not our best”), but otherwise they are wholly focused on the performance tonight. There are any number of factors for the lack of levity, but it is missed, and when it makes its return on the Saturday set (spoilers!), even for a brief moment, it’s much celebrated.

There’s a little bit of something for everyone tonight. ‘Orion’ makes a welcome return to the setlist, and a ripping rendition of ‘Blackened’ manages to keep the crowd alight even after a near two hour performance. Yet even after closing with the ever popular ‘Seek and Destroy’ and ‘Master of Puppets’, this may go down as the weaker of the two sets. Even then, nearly 40 years removed from ‘Master of Puppets’, Metallica deliver one of the most impressive live performances in the industry. The titans of thrash are beyond needing to prove themselves at this point, and as the last of the pyro turns whatever clouds remain in the midnight sky into vapor, we leave Thursday wondering how we could ever have doubted them.

If you were unfortunate enough to have been caught up in the hell that was Wednesday’s rush for parking and camping space, Download’s first day provides ample opportunity to recover. Cooler, calmer, and shorter than the following three days. It’s no secret that this extra day only exists to support Metallica’s current schedule of two shows per tour location, but given the quality of the acts Download has built around it, the fortuitous timing of the festival’s anniversary and how hectic the remaining days were expected to be, this day makes for a well needed buffer to allow the crowd to truly get into the festival spirit.