The 20 greatest Download festival sets of all time

Greatest Download festival sets
(Image credit: Mick Hutson/Redferns/Brian Rasic/Getty/Kevin Nixon/Future)

The line-up for Download 2023 has been announced, and it’s a monster. Slipknot, Bring Me The Horizon, Disturbed, Ghost, Evanescence… oh, and two Metallica sets - yes, Britain’s biggest metal festival will be celebrating its 20th anniversary in style. 

Download isn’t just the biggest rock and metal festival in the UK - it’s hallowed ground. A spiritual successor to the legendary Monsters of Rock, Download’s 20-year history has seen it bring together the great and good of rock and metal in a veritable Who’s Who that has made many a career.

From booking reunited legends like Faith No More, Soundgarden and Rage Against The Machine to “farewell appearances” from Black Sabbath, KISS and Aerosmith (we’re still not sure we’ve seen the last of them!), Download has made its reputation on creating one of the most exciting and vibrant rock’n’roll experiences year-in, year-out.

Even when the festival calendar was decimated in 2020, Download didn’t just survive; it thrived, returning the following year with a 10,000 capacity test event titled Download Pilot, a triumphant celebration of live music that ushered in a return to normality. With its 20th year now upon us - and a four-day extravaganza promising more music than ever, we’ve dove into the archives to pull out the 20 best sets in Download history.

20. 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. 

19. 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.

18. 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.

17. 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.

16. 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.

15. 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.

14. 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.

13. 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.

12. Spiritbox - Avalanche Tent, 2022

Almost two years after they became a viral sensation with Holy Roller, Spiritbox proved the buzz wasn’t purely digital when they packed out the Avalanche Stage tent in 2022. With a howl of “Cut down the altar”, the Canadians wasted no time in showing what they were made of; gigantic riffs, scream-along anthems and one of metal’s most commanding new frontwomen in Courtney LaPlante ensuring Spiritbox first UK show was the most legendary Download debut since Trivium played the Main Stage in 2005.

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.

Rich Hobson

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.