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These are the 20 greatest Download Festival sets ever

Download Festival
(Image credit: Jo Hale/Getty Images/Rowen Lawrence/Gary Wolstenholme/Redferns/WireImage))

When it comes to modern metal festivals, Download is the big daddy. Donington Park, once the spiritual home of the legendary Monsters of Rock festival, has been the site of an annual pilgrimage ever since Download launched in 2003. The list of bands who have played reads like a Who’s Who of rock and metal, from Black Sabbath, Metallica and Guns N’ Roses through to modern heroes such as Linkin Park, Tool and Prodigy. And it has provided a launching pad for countless new bands – just ask Trivium, who turned in a career-making appearance on the main stage back in 2005.

The pandemic meant Download didn’t happen in 2020, though it returned in 2021 as the 10,000-capacity Download Pilot - a test event to see if it was possible for live gigs to take place in such weird times. It turned out it was – the Download Pilot was a triumph on every level, not least emotionally.

Now Download is back in 20222 at full strength. Headliners Iron Maiden, Kiss and Biffy Clyro will be bring the good times in front of tens of thousands of people. To celebrate, here are are 20 iconic Download sets they’ve got to live up to.  

20. Black Sabbath – Main Stage, 2016

The last hurrah for the inventors of metal, at least at Download. It seems apt that, on a weekend best remembered for the appalling weather conditions, Black Sabbath took their final bow in a field sodden by relentless rain and a sheet of grey sky. Although the surrounding were grim, it perfectly suited Sabbath’s bleak,  doomy classics and there was no way a little drizzle was going to stop 80,000 metal fans paying their respects for the final time to one of the world’s most iconic band.

19. While She Sleeps - Main Stage, 2021

After over 12 months of utter silence, live music came roaring back to Donington in June 2021 for the Download Pilot. Emotions ran high across a weekend stacked largely with homegrown talent, but it was Sheffield's While She Sleeps who pulled one of the biggest - and most passionate - crowds of the weekend, putting their Sleeps Society to full use. Massive sing-alongs like Suicide Silence and Brainwashed were howled with a passion that all-but erased the previous year's doom and gloom, if only for a moment, while vocalist Loz Taylor clambered up the rigging like a metalcore King Kong. 

18. Metallica – Main Stage, 2004

The image of a procession of nervous drummers waiting patiently, sticks in hand, to have their shot at sitting in the most prestigious drum stool in metal will never be forgotten by those who saw it. Metallica without Lars Ulrich seems absurd an idea, but in 2004 – with Lars a no-show due to anxiety – the band roped in Slipknot’s Joey Jordison, Slayer’s Dave Lombardo and Lars’ drum tech Flemming Larsen to play a set that was even faster and more frantic than they had sounded in years. For drama alone it was a landmark Metallica show, and certainly like no other show they’d ever played.

17. Prodigy – Main Stage, 2012

Considering that year’s other Main Stage headliners were Metallica playing The Black Album in full and the return of Black Sabbath, you could be forgiven for thinking that The Prodigy’s Friday night bill topping slot might have been forgotten. That would be to underestimate their live prowess as a live band, as the first clear non-rock headliners, the Essex crossover crew, winding down the touring cycle for career best album Invaders Must Die, treated Download like they treat any other festival: by tearing it to the ground.

16. Faith No More – Main Stage, 2009

It had been 12 long years since Faith No More disbanded, although the legend and influence of their brand of idiosyncratic funk rock had only grown during that time. No one expected a reunion, so when they announced they would be returning to headline Download it blindsided everyone. Their performance saw frontman Mike Patton hobbling out on a cane, doing pushups onstage and slipping bits of Lady Gaga’s Poker Face into the set, delighting longtime fans by being as unique and bizarre as they ever were.

15. Rage Against The Machine – Main Stage, 2010

At the end of 2009 a campaign from UK rock fans, sick of Simon Cowell’s X-factor guff monopolising the Christmas No.1 for so long, took Rage Against The Machine’s Killing In The Name to the top of the British charts. The band agreed to thank Britain with a free show at Finsbury Park, but their greatest moment in this period was a week later when they headlined Download’s Main Stage. With no pyro or light show and a crowd twice the size of Finsbury Park RATM put on an ferociously intense and electrifying spectacle.

14. Metallica – Scuzz Stage, 2003

At the first ever Download, rumours started to circulate that the unoccupied slot in the middle of the day on the second stage was going to be filled by metal’s biggest band. For once the rumour proved to be true. Metallica stepped out and decimated a packed tent, before heading off into the distance. It was too much to believe for some. A shell-shocked Nathan Gray of Boysetsfire, the band directly on afterwards, asked: “Did Metallica just support us?” Yeah mate, they actually did.

13. Iron Maiden – Main Stage, 2016

Download 2016 felt like the end of days – almost certainly the worst weather that the festival has ever had to endure. By the end of the Sunday the site was a quagmire, all rivers of thick mud and endless damp patches as far as the eye could see. For the hardy souls that stuck it out though, the payoff was a set from Iron Maiden, promoting their latest album The Book Of Souls, that stuck two fingers up to the conditions and rewarded those committed enough with a set of uncompromising heavy metal brilliance.

12. Slayer – Zippo Stage, 2019

The final UK show from one of the greatest metal bands the world has ever seen. After over 35 years of destroying metal fans’ vertebrae, we finally said goodbye to Slayer with their headlining slot on the second stage in 2019. Far from getting sentimental, Kerry King and co did what they had spent their career doing, namely powering through a set of warped speed thrash with not a pause for breath. We’ll never see the like again.

11. Trivium – Main Stage, 2005

Trivium were basically kids when they were added as the opening act of Download 2005’s Main Stage. When they looked out at the empty field at 10.58, two minutes before their set was due to start, they must have felt a felt tinge of disappointment. It was a different story as they stepped out to start playing and were greeted by the sight of thousands of metal fans careering down the hill toward them. Matt Heafy and co then played the set of their career, instantly establishing themselves as metal’s most exciting new band.

Staff writer for Metal Hammer, Rich has never met a feature he didn't fancy, which is just as well when it comes to covering everything rock, punk and metal for both print and online, be it legendary events like Rock In Rio or Clash Of The Titans or seeking out exciting new bands like Nine Treasures, Jinjer and Sleep Token.