Download Festival, Donington Park – Day 1 – Thursday 8th June 2023


Twenty years in any business is a long time, but in the topsy-turvy world of music festivals, it’s an eternity. Over the past two-deacdes Download has become the UK’s premier rock festival, and a highlight in any self-respecting metalhead’s calender, and the faithful are rewarded with an extra day in honour of Download’s auspicious milestone. In what promises the be the biggest and best-ever Download, The Midlands Rocks were there to capture the events, along with photographer Philip Piskor.

An extra day in honour of Download’s bone china anniversary means there’s much more rock to pack in, and an air of celebration and expectation hangs heavy as the gates open and the crowd mill around Donington’s hallowed turf waiting for the action to begin. Getting my day off to an explosive start are Nevada’s Cherry Bombs who deliver a kind of heavy metal burlesque; sometimes dressed as anime characters, sometimes as witches, or performing impossible rope tricks whilst suspended mid-air, and all to a soundtrack of classic rock. As a metal purist I initially had my doubts about this kind of show, yet the band soon won me over with their effervescence, and looking around, it seems I’m not the only one and in terms of energy expended, this is one show that’s going to be hard to beat.

Riding high on the success of their eponymous debut album Mammoth WVH hit the stage full of confidence and their raucous brand of rock, liberally marinated in groove, seems tailor made for a Saturday night, and that’s exactly what they turn this Thursday afternoon into. As you’d expect from a band featuring Eddie Van Halen’s son, the harmonies they deliver are simply divine, and the touring band lock in tightly to make Wolfgang’s vision three-dimensional. Mammoth WVH have a sound that’s rooted in Americana, yet it transfers very well to the rolling hills of Leicestershire, and today’s set offers a tantalising glimpse of riches to come.

To call Los Angeles’ The Bronx a force of nature would be something of an understatement. Hitting the stage like a force nine gale, they proceed to tear it apart (metaphorically speaking, of course) with vocalist Matt Caughthran turning himself into a human pinball and he bounces around with reckless abandon. Constantly riling up the crowd and instigating all sorts of insanity, Matt certainly knows how to work an audience, but the whole band are whirling dervishes and the energy they expend is highly addictive and it causes all but the frail and infirm to shake their stuff. Such is the frenetic nature of The Bronx that when their set ends, we’re left feeling battered and bruised (but in the best possible way).

If ever there was one band tapping into the current zeitgeist, then it’s surely Ukraine’s Jinjer. Their brand of metalcore is the soundtrack war and pestilence, yet there’s an uplifting edge to the band’s sound that offers a ray of hope in these dark days. Vocalist Tetiana Shmailyuk covers every inch of the stage while unleashing some unearthly screams as the band create an impenetrable wall of sound that incorporates everything from soul to groove metal, which sounds like a strange mixture, but the band push with such confidence that it actually works. With the band and crowd feeding of each other’s energy, things get pretty hectic, pretty quick, and the waves of affection radiating towards the stage are not only for Jinjer, but for the Ukrainian nation too.

Known for their tireless work ethic, it seems that Halestorm spend their entire life on the road, yet there’s no signs of fatigue as they appear and launch straight into ‘I Miss The Misery’. It’s a set that touches all points along their career, but it’s tracks from their latest record, Back From The Dead, that make up the biggest slice of the pie. It’s such a great album, and it finds the band riding the crest of a creative wave, and that filters through to today’s performance. Lzzy Hale’s voice has aged like a fine wine, and cuts such as ‘Bombshell’ and ‘Wicked Ways’ are the perfect vehicle. My only real gripe is the inclusion of a drum solo; when a band has limited stage time, they should just stick to delivering punchy number after punchy number (of which Halestorm have plenty in their arsenal). However, looking around I see I’m the only one concerned with such issues, and as closer, ‘The Steeple’ fades into the ether, the band’s set is rewarded with rapt applause.

Over on the Dogtooth stage, progressive metallers Haken make an appearance and their magnetic force soon draws a large crowd. One of the greatest delights about their music is not knowing in which direction they’ll veer, and their songs are crammed with so many ideas that they are veritably bursting at the seams. Throwing thrash and mosh parts around with seeming abandon, Haken are a sextet who make a huge sound, and while their signature style is not easy to replicate live, they do an admiral job with the heavy sections being particularly brutal and the lighter, airy and lithe. Proggy in the truest definition, Haken take the listener on a musical journey with the title-track of new album Fauna being rather feisty.

Despite a brisk wind throwing their sound around, Alter Bridge deliver a masterclass in metal, and from first note to last, they’re bang on the money. As you’d expect from a band of their vintage, they known how to piece a set together, and this one ebbs and flows perfectly. Hitting all the right notes, they move as one, as if a strange organism and rip through a 10-song set that touches nearly all points along a 20-year career. Stopping by Castle Donington as part of their Pawns & Kings tour finds Alter Bridge operating like a well-oiled machine with pistons pumping and exhausts firing. From opener ‘Silver Tongue’ to closer ‘Metalingus’, Alter Bridge have raised the bar for all who follow.

For an old fogey such as I who remembers the old Monsters Of Rock as being a solely metal event, it’s quite an eye opener (though not unpleasant) to see just how eclectic the bill has become over the years. Both eccentric and electric, French synthwave artist James Kent (aka Pertubator) has his roots in various black metal bands, and he brings that aesthetic to play in this current project. With a bunch of beats and motifs that are totally addictive, Pertubator soon has the crowd punching the air and chanting in unison. Mixing electronic and organic instrumentation to great effect, he proceeds to build huge sonic structures in worship of some strange pagan deity, and has all present bowing down at his alter.

Photo: Matt Higgs

Throughout a career that’s found San Francisco’s Metallica reaching every kind of peak, it seems there’s no mountain left for them to climb, but in one of many firsts, they become the only band to headline Download twice in one weekend. In what’s billed as two “no repeat” sets, to say the assembled throng are excited would be a massive understatement. Using AC/DC’s ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top’ as an introduction tape was a smart move, and it certainly gets the crowd in the right frame of mind, as does Ennio Morricone’s ‘The Ecstasy Of Gold’, and both stretch the air of anticipation to almost unbearable levels. This means that when the band appear bathed in blood red light and launch into ‘Creeping Death’, the sense of relief is palpable. It evidences a band at the top of their game and they set about pummelling the crowd with suitably heavy renditions of ‘Harvester Of Sorrow’ and ‘Leper Messiah’. Making the perfect vehicle for Robert Trujillo’s bombastic bass playing, ‘King Nothing’ shakes the very earth beneath our feet, while Kirk Hammett still cuts the figure of a guitar god and lets rip a series of fine solos, most notably on ‘Fade To Black’. You get the feeling that there’s a sense of harmony within the band that’s been absent for several years with Lars and James locking in tightly as rarely before. Theirs is a set that places the thrash-tastic ‘Blackened’ next to the groove-orientated ‘Fuel’, yet despite the sonic shifts, they nestle together remarkably well. ‘Seek & Destroy’ and ‘Master Of Puppets’ bring things to a cataclysmic conclusion, and any sadness we feel at the set’s finale is tempered by the fact that they’ll be back in 48 hours.

Metallica Set List:

1. It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock N’ Roll) (Introduction)
2. The Ecstasy Of Gold (Introduction)
3. Creeping Death
4. Harvester Of Sorrow
5. Leper Messiah
6. King Nothing
7. Lux Æterna
8. Screaming Suicide
9. Fade To Black
10. Sleepwalk My Life Away
11. Orion
12. Nothing Else Matters
13. Sad But True
14. The Day That Never Comes
15. Blackened
16. Fuel
17. Seek & Destroy
18. Master Of Puppets

See review of Day 2

See review of Day 3

See review of Day 4

* Photography by Philip Piskor.