The 20 greatest Download festival sets ever

Ghost - Pepsi Max Stage, 2011

Mere months after their debut album had set the underground scene alight with excitement, rumour and confusion, Ghost made their Download bow halfway through Saturday afternoon in the confines of the roofed third stage. Shrouded in smoke and lurking around the stage, trusty thurible in hand, the OG Papa Emeritus announced himself to a bewitched, packed-out tent, surrounded by his mysterious masked cohorts. The full-hearted singalongs that greeted Ritual proved Ghost were far more than a fun gimmick, setting the stage for Tobias and his crew to become their generation's breakout metal band.

Iron Maiden - Main Stage, 2013

Any time Maiden come to Download you’re looking at something memorable, but 2013 had it all. With the band on their Maiden England Tour, revisiting 1988’s Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son setlist, it was a set of heavy metal manna from heaven, chocked full of some of the most anthemic songs our genre has ever produced. From the moment a Spitfire flew over the heads of the crowd at the start of the set before the band launched into opener Moonchild, this became a show for the ages.

Linkin Park – Main Stage, 2014

For fans of a certain age, Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory is a landmark album, a record that introduced an entire generation to guitar music. Fourteen years after its release the band rocked up at Download having agreed to play it in its entirety. Their set pulled in one of the largest crowds in recent memory, and gave 80,000 people an unforgettable nostalgia trip, made even more poignant with the passing of frontman Chester Bennington a few years later.

Babymetal - Second Stage, 2016

After Download's organisers initially baulked at the idea of booking the sugar-sweet kawaii-metal sensations, Babymetal snuck onto the bill for a surprise appearance in the third stage tent with Dragonforce in 2015. They went down such a storm that they were brought back properly a year later, playing outdoors to a huge crowd, with an atmosphere that grew from curious to delighted as the show went on. Even some typically horrendous English festival weather couldn't dampen the fun, consolidating Babymetal's status as Download alumni forever more.

Tool – Main Stage, 2019

The seemingly endless wait for new material and some UK live shows from music's most enigmatic and mysterious band had gone on so long that many fans believed that there was to be no return from Tool. So, the anticipation that hung in the air on the last night of Download 2019 was palpable. Maynard James Keenan and co didn’t disappoint, using the video screens for their own psychedelic images and playing a set of transcendent, ethereal post-metal, the band turned a field in Leicestershire into a religious experience.

Slayer – Second 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.

Skindred - Main Stage, 2021

Announced at short notice and featuring a British-centric lineup, the Download Pilot event was a more intimate but desperately needed version of the festival after the pandemic had KO'd the previous year's edition. It was an event full of emotional, heartwarming moments as UK metal fans were able to frolic in a field together once more, but few summed up the weekend better than Skindred's marvellous early evening set in the Sunday evening sunshine, a thunderous Newport Helicopter putting the cherry on the cake of a historic showing. 

Spiritbox - Avalanche Stage, 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.

Evanescence - Second Stage, 2023

16 long years since their last appearance at Donington, Evanescence drew an astonishingly huge crowd to the Opus Stage for a stunning, career-spanning set that dished out plenty from latest album The Bitter Truth, but still threw in enough all-time classics to make sure Amy Lee and her crew drew some of the biggest singalongs of the whole weekend. If ever there was evidence needed at just how important this band were to a whole generation of rock and metal fans, this was it.

Bring Me The Horizon - Main Stage, 2023

At Download's biggest weekend ever (literally: they had four bloody days), Bring Me The Horizon finally got the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Slipknot and Avenged Sevenfold before them in proving once and for all that they had the chops to headline the UK's biggest rock and metal festival. They seized it in style, bringing the most grandiose, retina-singeing stage show of the weekend and a career's-worth of hits, underlining their importance to both the British metal scene and to the progression of heavy music in the 21st century.

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