The 20 greatest Download festival sets ever

Various Download Festival sets
(Image credit: Getty Images)

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 all 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 triumphant, double-Metallica-dosing 20th anniversary celebrations following two years later, Download's place atop the UK's rock and metal festival throne remains unchallenged. With 2024's lineup announcing later this evening, here are the 20 sets that have defined its reign so far.

Metal Hammer line break

Metallica – Scuzz Stage, 2003

At the first ever Download, rumours started to circulate that Apocalyptica's slot in the middle of the day on the second stage was going to be filled by metal’s biggest band. For once an on-site 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.

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  an absurd idea, but in 2004 – with Lars a no-show due to anxiety – the band roped in Slipknot’s Joey JordisonSlayer’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.

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.

The Prodigy - Snickers Stage, 2006

Anyone bemoaning the idea of The Prodigy playing a festival like Download simply hasn't seen The Prodigy. Billed opposite a main stage-headlining Guns N' Roses still in their 'Axl-and-friends' era, dance music's most abrasive firestarters brought so many punters to the tent that people were spilling out almost as far as the eye could see. Once the band arrived on stage, the place went ballistic: mosh pits immediately opened up, crowd surfers were everywhere and people were even climbing the pillars. Prodigy would return to play the (now outdoor) second stage once more in 2009, before headlining the whole festival three years later.

Gojira - Snickers Stage, 2006

Not many bands would have been up to the task of filling in for Mastodon in the mid-2000s. Atlanta's finest were fast becoming recognised as one of the most powerful, exciting metal bands of their generation. If you're gonna have to swap them out, though, you really couldn't do better than subbing in Gojira for their first ever major UK festival show. The French extreme metal behemoths blew the roof off the tent with the heaviest riffs heard at Donington that weekend. A new force in heavy music had officially arrived.

Machine Head – Main Stage, 2007

It’s impossible not to think that if Machine Head had carried on the momentum of their The Blackening-era career they surely would have gone on to headline Download. In 2007 they were arguably the best band in metal, and they turned up on Download’s Main Stage in devastating form, making even Slayer (yes, that Slayer) look ordinary courtesy of a pulverising seven-song set that culminated in a staggering rendition of Davidian.

Lethal Bizzle - Tuborg Stage, 2008

If you thought the whingers had laid into The Prodigy playing Download, you hadn't seen nothin' yet. While some welcomed the different flavour that grime heavyweight Bizzle brought to Donington, others just weren't having it, a mixture of genre snobbery and outright racism polluting the reaction that the rapper received as he walked out on stage. Bizzle wasn't afraid of a challenge, though: he stepped up magnificently, playing a rowdy set that won the crowd over so decisively that he was roared back on stage for a quick run through of his verse from Gallows' cover of The Ruts' Staring At The Rude Boys. Lad.

 Slipknot – Main Stage, 2009

When the bill was announced for Download in 2009,  Slipknot were a controversial choice for a headliner (yes, really!). Some suggested that they had yet to earn their place at the top table, despite a decade of near-perfect live shows under their belts. We all know what happened next: Slipknot at Download 2009 was one of those rare moments when a set went into legendary status mere minutes after it finished. The highlights are almost certainly imbedded in your brain at this point; the four-song opening missive from the band’s self-titled debut, the mass sing-a-long that opens Duality and the insane reaction from everyone present, from the front of the stage all the way to the burger vans at the back going crazy. By the time they left with a venomous Spit It Out, Slipknot had Download in the palm of their hand, where they’ve kept it ever since, the idea that they would play Donington as anything other than headliner put very much to bed. 

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, the band delighting longtime fans by being as unique and bizarre as they ever were.

AC/DC - Main Stage, 2010

Download bent over backwards to accommodate AC/DC back in 2010; their name didn’t appear on any t-shirts and they even got to bring their own stage just for them for the day. But once the band got up there all the fuss was forgotten, eclipsed by the joy of seeing the Young brothers onstage at Donington Park for the first time since the old Monsters Of Rock days. And, armed with a bulletproof set of rock’n’roll bangers and an actual train that burst through the stage, AC/DC had 100,000 people eating out of their hands.

Stephen Hill

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.

With contributions from