FESTIVAL REVIEW: Download Festival 2023 Part 1, Live at Castle Donnington


 

After hearing horror stories about the queues I was pleasantly surprised to arrive at the hollow turn of Donington for Download Festival 2023, and was parked up within 10 minutes. Not to dismiss the stories is it close the rather excellent download festival app a tool which I would find invaluable during my visit constantly advising incoming travellers of reach to avoid owing to congestion.

 

Upon arrival, I then had the arduous task of lugging all of my gear from the car park to the guest campsite all under the ever-present and oppressive baking sunshine which would be a factor throughout the entire stay. This took longer than anticipated as I seemed forever in a Daisy chain of security staff who were unsure of where I should actually go.

Stopping off on the way into the arena what’s my first of many trips to the coop on site. A very welcome addition since my last visit this was definitely the place to go if you wanted things at a reasonable price. Most noticeably my first visit was to stock up on the inevitable things that I had forgotten to pack despite being on my extensive list. This visit was for an £8 pack of antihistamines, and to find out they had run out of sunscreen already, which i was later able to procure from Fat Franks camping supply.

Making my way into the arena and the very first thing that you notice is the sheer scale of the place. What I would discover later would pay this was no ordinary setup, indeed Download 23 had borrowed Metallica’s brand new sound system, consisting of a gargantuan 288 loudspeakers, the sound quality was absolutely crystal clear has anyone within a 15-mile radius would be able to attest.

After the whole process taking considerably longer than expected despite plenty of luck and good planning I missed my planned first band of cherry bombs and arrived in time to catch the tail end of Mammoth WVH on the apex stage. Off to a flying start mammoth WVH were very impressive to listen to as one might expect considering the band’s pedigree. Indeed, you can hear the Van Halen influence, but it’s subtle this stands on his own merit. The guitar playing was excellent, the vocal delivery strong and powerful and All in all it was a great summertime vibe and balancing energy already in the massive arena, which the engaged and enthusiastic crowd were more than appreciative of.

 

Next up on the opus stage are California punk rock band The Bronx. I arrive to find the singer Matt Caughthran marshalling the circle pits, really engaging with the crowd. As is traditional during such things the same riff was going on forever in the background but very soon the build-up reached its climax and the crowds what bouncing around with gusto and they launched back into the song with everyone going nuts. This was a really strong set vocals shouted at the audience, and the audience connected with the band. There’s a really high energy flow to the set list, and the crowd were loving it and pumping in the air everywhere this is absolutely brilliant to see on a summer’s day and they really kicked off the opus stage in style.

 

Back over to the mainstage we have Jinjer, once again doing sterling work highlighting the current situation in the Ukraine, especially in the wake of the recent Kakhovka Dam bombing. It’s a testament to the band’s professionalism that they would be able to put on a show so much going on so much to worry about back home.

It felt kinda strange when singer Tatiana Shamyluk introduced the band because surely everyone knows who they are, the video for “Pisces” being the stuff of legend amongst vocal coach reacting videos on YouTube. Indeed, one of the most notable things like the set is the vocal prowess Tatiana stop

Consummate performers this was a powerful set, clear and strong delivery, although there was little crowd interaction. However, with a band as cohesive and tight as this with, creative arrangements and big stage presence, it’s fine for the music to do the talking. Of particular note with the really flowing basslines flowing throughout the set stop. Download 23 definitely getting off to a great start.

Next up was my trip over to the avalanche stage and it’s fair to say that someone had seriously misjudged the appeal of Punk Rock Factory, for not only was the tent itself full but all of the surrounding area as well. Indeed, the closest I was able to get to the stage was 150 metres away from the outside. This however, did not stop the huge party atmosphere from reaching all the way to the back as they blasted through classics such as Power Rangers, “Under The Sea” (The Little Mermaid), Pokémon, Mamma Mia, and even the Spongebob Squarepants theme. One atmosphere this was the perfect summer party band putting a big smile on my and everybody elses faces brilliant stuff even if I didn’t actually get to see them which would become a common theme over the rest of the festival in the tents.

Back to the main stage I arrive to see Halestorm. I’ll be honest, I’ve seen Halestorm before and they’ve been really good, but never really connected with me in the way that they seem to with most others. It’s safe to say that changed today, I get it now, I really do. Seeing Lzzy Hale absolutely belting vocals out in the opening song was utterly commanding. The chemistry on stage was palpable even at the back of the arena, they just jelled together so well, they absolutely love what they do and it really showed. Drummer Arejay Hale is an incredible performer as well, with drum solos launching sticks impossibly high into the air and catching at every turn this was amazing.

Aside from the showmanship and the talent they’ve also got the songs to match, and in front of them a fast-undulating sea of humanity rocking out, it’s impossible not to get lost in it indeed it was rather hard having to tear myself away to go and catch Puscifer on the opus stage Who were, unique.

 

I watched the whole Puscifer set, can I see here days later still not entirely certain why I actually saw, but being very glad that I did indeed see it. Visually and audibly striking with an 80s synth feel, the Men In Black aesthetic had them looking for alien life amongst us come on it’s safe to say they found it. Fake hair, black suits, and some very impressive dual vocals. The MIB were often scanning the crowd for alien presence.

I was reminded of the watchers from the underrated TV show Fringe. It’s good surreal experience, and to be honest quirky, hard-hitting, industrial beats under very tongue-in-cheek sense of humour. I spent the entire set utterly captivated. In a reviewer’s schedule, it’s unfortunately not often we get to watch a whole set, but watching James Maynard Keenan and friends tap dancing over the line between insanity and genius was definitely one I was not going to miss second off.

I headed over the Apex stage in between sets to catch some of Alter-Bridge’s set. Although not my cup of tea, there’s no denying the talent, Miles Kennedy’s voice is superb, emotive, and powerful, and of course, it was wonderful to see Mark Tremonti play. The need for food and water however meant this was to be a fairly short watch for me before I headed over to watch Skindred, who were stepping in to replace 5FDP.

Skindred started off their set to a huge crowd, with a sea of hands in the air, Benji front and centre showing exactly why he’s hands down one of the very best performers going. The crowd going wild for the Heavy Music Award winners, and seeing the emotional intro to ‘L.O.V.E. (Smile Please)’ being reciprocated by tens of thousands of people shouting back you gotta have love” was nothing short of inspirational.

Dedicating ‘Bruises’ to 5FDP, and the hope they get through their recent troubles, was a nice gesture. By now the temperature had started to drop and there was a distinct chill in the air. That didn’t stop the huge crowd being over-eager to get the infamous Newport Helicopter started. When Lzzy Hale joined them onstage, the place just exploded, so much energy in the crowd, it truly was an incredible sight, one I’ll not forget in a hurry. Immense set!

Download Festival 2023

 

Finally, we have the first of two sets from Metallica, Starting with “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Want to Rock ‘n’ Roll)” by AC/DC as picture montages cycled through the massive view screens. The traditional “Ecstasy of Gold,” seemingly timed with the golden sunset all around, was a nice touch.

 

Now it’s probably safe to say that their more recent albums have been a bit hit and miss, but when they come out to “Creeping Death,” there’s no doubt amongst the audience why they’re one of the best and always will be. I unashamedly welled up trying to shout myself hoarse as they went through at breakneck speed “Harvester of Sorrow,” and “Leper Messiah.” Another moment of welling up after “Orion” as James Hetfield states ‘We miss you Cliff’ with gravitas.

As the set went one, lights filled the sky. The audience filled with smiles everywhere, and they just didn’t seem to put a foot wrong tonight. The set list below speaks for itself, but for my money, it was one of the better setlists of their current tour. It was reported that the set could be heard by people up to 15 miles away, given the size of the PA I’m not surprised. There was nowhere you could stand in the arena that you couldn’t hear everything with crystal clear precision.

What a phenomenal day, and with three more to go, this is already shaping up to be one hell of a Download Festival.

Metallica setlist:

  1. Creeping Death
  2. Harvester of Sorrow
  3. Leper Messiah
  4. King Nothing
  5. Lux Æterna
  6. Screaming Suicide
  7. Fade to Black
  8. Sleepwalk My Life Away
  9. Orion
  10. Nothing Else Matters
  11. Sad but True
  12. The Day That Never Comes
  13. Blackened
  14. Fuel
  15. Seek & Destroy
  16. Master of Puppets

 

Friday

 

Friday starts up with a notable lack of Fenriz wishing everyone a great Friday. The Arena had now started to shake of its “Drownload” reputation and begun to turn into a dust bowl instead. A special note has to be made for the App, as it proved to be invaluable throughout the whole weekend, updating set times, a GPS location on the map which, definitely made navigation and catching bands much easier than those who’d invested in the more traditional lanyards.

It also must be noted that as I was making my way in and navigating more today that better access for disabled people around the arena would be great. I did see some who were along with their carers struggling far too much in the very crowded arena, indeed subsequent to this there have been a number of articles echoing that sentiment.

My first band of the day were the Nova Twins, don’t let the name fool you there were three people on stage. Their sound was FULL, a thundering uproar and Bass booming loud across the field. Having seen them on one of the smaller stages as Slam Dunk last year, and now having them open up the main stage at Donnington can attest to their abundance of energy has given rise to a seemingly meteoric rise. There’s a great chemistry between the band members on stage and they dance around with a swagger that suggests they own the place. The applause from the audience suggests they agree wholeheartedly.

Next up was one of the weekend highlights for me, having been a massive fan of Pupil Slicer since the recommendation from Gav on the Damnation’s podcast, Pupil Slicer are a live force to be reckoned with. The manifestation of chaos played with mathematical precision they are both savage and unerringly precise. Snarling, abrasive, beautifully brutal Pupil Slicer are a force of nature, a raw emotion juxtaposing their mechanical and complex sound. The technicality is amazing, the level of musicianship to play this is phenomenal, made all the more impressive by the way they were throwing themselves the stage like being in the middle of an exorcism.

Finally hydrated and scoffing down a £4.50 ice cream with such glee I had barely the chance to utter the mantra ‘How much?!?’ I sat down at the top of the hill, absolutely loving life to watch Manchester’s Hot Milk, a band who had impressed me greatly last year at Slam Dunk. They’re definitely a great summer band, I’d remembered they’d seemed heavier when I’d seen them before, but then that was in contrast to a lot of pop-punk, rather than the likes of Pupil Slicer. They showed throughout their set a great deal of versatility, each song somewhat different to its predecessor, they seem a band who can not only fit on any bill but thrive, they are it seems a band on an upwards trajectory.

Undeath on the Dogtooth stage at 3:30 were playing a very heavy and intense set of death metal, which was made even more oppressive by the heat in the tent, which made the amount of pitting going on even more impressive. The visit was short-lived for me as I required the first of what would prove to be a great many hydration stops that day, the sun was already beginning to get to me a bit. I’ll definitely be checking them out later this year at Damnation festival though.

Heading over to catch the premier festival food in Bunnyman’s Bunnychow, at an eyewatering £11.50 which was the standard price for a meal this weekend so I might as well grab the best. I managed to catch, although as was to prove a theme for the tents, not actually see the tail end of the set on the Avalanche stage by Crawlers. Crawlers know how to write a catchy tune, and their passionate delivery placed them firmly on the to catch in future lest. Sadly I left before the end to grab some of Asking Alexandria’s set, who unfortunately started their set 20 minutes late, leaving me no choice but to go and grab Pendulum on the Main stage instead, and I’m actually glad I did.

Pendulum were a huge party, the sound coming through that PA was incredible. The crowd reactions to “Propane Nightmares,” was one of the biggest I’ve seen, a sea of dancing people all having an amazing time, was a spectacle in its own right, especially when glancing across to see an inflatable pig dancing HARD with a couple of hot dogs, which also served as a reminder to check my water levels in the heat.

Following that up the supergroup Empire State Bastard (comprising 2 parts Biffy Clyro and 1 part Slayer drummer) seemed positively sedate at times, even if I couldn’t pigeonhole what it actually sounded like. Death Metal riffing, Black Metal shrieks, and Dave Lombardo just being the best. But also mixed with clean vocals, and slowing it down without losing the intensity as the set progressed.

The crowd was much smaller than you’d expect for a group like this, but with Pendulum making its presence felt over that massive PA merely metres from the tent, it’s easy to see why people might not have easily been dragged away, as I head back out into the unrelenting sun, it was starting to look like a scene from the walking dead as people were forming longer queues to grab water. I too took the opportunity for a quick 2 litres of water, and an extra litre to soak the T-shirt in, it was going down very quickly indeed.

With GWAR postponed until the next day, I took in most of Architects‘ set, despite them starting 15 minutes late. The crowd were large and enthusiastic, so enthusiastic indeed, that at one point a fan grabbed singer Sam Carter and wouldn’t let go. They certainly got the crowd going, although they seemed a bit too focused on the fact they were acting as a warm-up for BMTH. There’s was a great set no doubt, and indeed many people have them tipped as amongst the next generation of big festival headliners. I tend to agree, although there was a moment, whereby Sam Carter was chugging on a bottle of what appeared to be Vodka, saying how much he needed it, before launching into a spiel about mental health which was a touch concerning about just how comfortable they might be on that stage at the moment.

Trying to make it over then to Evanescence on the Opus stage proved impossible, the crowds for the two stages, despite a significant gap in distance seemed merged together, indeed it could be argued that Evanescence had the bigger crowd. However, despite my best efforts I simply couldn’t get close enough to the stage to hear the band at all, so I chose to make a strategic retreat to the food vans, much to the dismay of not only my bank manager, but also the people who would be cleaning the portaloo’s then next morning.

I’d heard good things about Carpenter Brut and with my hard-earned belly full decided to check them out on the Dog Tooth stage, and what a revelation that was. I often try not to check out a band before reviewing, not only because of the size of doing such things at download makes that a logistical nightmare, but also because it can ruin those moments of surprise such as Carpenter Brut were about to provide. Nothing but cheesy 80’s style trash rock bangers. The vibe was so reminiscent of the Transformers movie (not the Michael Bay one’s you sweaty heathens) that I kept expecting Optimus Prime to show and start smashing seven shades out of Megatron, who to be clear wasn’t there either, but with this soundtrack you just wished they were. An impressive set, and a new fan was made tonight.

With just enough time to grab a hoody as the temperature dropped significantly in line with the sunset. When you’re stepping it up and competing at the same level as Metallica and Slipknot, then a band is going to have to step it up to make their mark, and it’s safe to say that Bring Me The Horizon did exactly that with a flair for the visual spectacular and also with plenty of humour, as their Resident Evil interludes would attest, A cyber attack devolving the graphics to the standard of N64, with the potential of dropping as low as a Sega Saturn.

This set had everything you could ask for, flames, lights, video interludes, and Oli Sykes is one hell of a charismatic frontman, and he worked the crowd incredibly well indeed. A brilliant show, not being particularly familiar with the band, this was more than I was expecting. Plenty of variety to the set list, and the atmosphere was electrifying. With guest appearances from the Nova Twins on 1×1, and Amy Lee on ‘One Day the Only Butterflies Left Will Be in Your Chest as You March Towards Your Death’ and then ‘Nihilist Blues’

Of particular note was the confidence, they weren’t afraid to let the set breathe, to give it the pacing and quiet moments it deserved, even when the flames were firing off with such intensity I could feel the warmth from hundreds of metres away.

It’s hard not to agree with Oli, that of you were inclined to stay still during the performance, then you were indeed a special kind of knobhead, the crowd were fully into it. One of the most impressive stage productions I’ve seen in a very long time, especially the fake snow after the days relentless heat, and with that Friday drew to a close, and indeed what a finish to a spectacular day.

BMTH Setlist:

  1. AmEN!
  2. Teardrops
  3. The House of Wolves
  4. Welcome to MANTRA
  5. MANTRA
  6. Breach Detected
  7. Dear Diary,
  8. Parasite Eve
  9. Shadow Moses
  10. 1×1 (with Nova Twins)
  11. LosT
  12. One Day the Only Butterflies Left Will Be in Your Chest as You March Towards Your Death (with Amy Lee)
  13. Nihilist Blues (with Amy Lee)
  14. DiE4u
  15. Itch for the Cure (When Will We Be Free?)
  16. Kingslayer
  17. Follow You (Acoustic)

Encore:

  1. Drown
  2. Throne
  3. Can You Feel My Heart
  4. Steal Something.

PART II coming soon

 

WORDS BY RICH PRICE

PHOTOS BY DOWNLOAD FESTIVAL PHOTO TEAM WITH PERMISSION