Traditionally taking place on the second weekend in June, Download has established itself as the most popular festival of its kind in the world. And with good reason. Since the inaugural event was launched in 2003 at the height of nu metal's prominence, it's grown to the colossal behemoth standing before us today, regularly selling out of weekend tickets well in advance before the full line up has been announced.
Not that its booking team from Live Nation led by the inimitable presence of Andy Copping would ever let their audience down. Most of the biggest names in rock and metal have graced the festival at one time or another, and while a number of its peers have fallen by the wayside in an increasingly saturated market, Download continues to go from strength to strength.
While the rain clouds may have gathered over Nottingham, by the time DiS has finished its half-hour journey along the A453 they've been replaced by glorious sunshine which lasts the entire weekend. Which dispels the Drownload myth of recent years and will herein be known as Dryload instead.
Not that anyone really cares about the weather once they're onsite. Donington Park has been widely regarded as being the home of metal ever since Monsters Of Rock first opened its doors here in 1980. As with previous editions, this year's event boasts a stellar line-up that caters for all areas of rock and metal's vastly populated sphere, while those in need of a respite from the onslaught of live music can always head over to the WWE NXT arena - making it's third appearance here - for a spot of wrestling action that unsurprisingly draws the punters in droves over the course of the weekend.
Indeed, it's only when visiting the wrestling and Avalanche (third) stages that one experiences the entire scale of the site. Venture onto the public campsites and you'll enter Download village which offers more entertainment for the festival's revellers. Opening on Wednesday night some 48 hours before the main programme begins, it's a sight to behold in itself.
With such an internationally renowned line up its perhaps ironic the first band to make an impression on Friday hail from Woking. Employed To Serve are part of the Holy Roar stable and make brutal hardcore that sits somewhere between the high octane riffage of Suicidal Tendencies and Rolo Tomassi's feral rasp. Playing a mid-afternoon slot on the Avalanche Stage in the furthest corner of the site would be daunting to some, but not this energetic five-piece. Screaming at the audience to "Fucking liven up!", singer Justine Jones elicits a full-on stampede befitting of a headliner and if they carry on in this vein, that's a realistic possibility in years to come.
Of course, Download's audience are no different to those at every other festival in that they've come to party. And when all's said and done, there's no one more suited to bring the party than Andrew WK. These days more renowned for his production work as well as being a television and radio presenter of some merit too, WK delves into his back catalogue as if it were yesterday and plays into the hands of the huge crowd assembled out front from the off. His fourth album You're Not Alone came out earlier this year and while 'Music Is Worth Living For' off the new record goes down a treat, it's left to 'We Want Fun' and a riotous 'Party Hard' at the end to remind us why we fell in love with him first time around back in 2001.
Matt Caughthran from The Bronx told us the fun thing about putting together a festival set was they got to play all their favourites in one go when we spoke to him last month and he wasn't wrong. Playing the teatime slot on the Avalanche Stage, Caughthran and his band plow through a greatest hits set of sorts at breakneck speed, 'Shitty Future' in particular ensuring the security team at the front didn't get a spare moment.
Over on the Dogtooth (fourth) Stage, Napalm Death also turn back the clock with a performance belying their thirty-seven years as a band. Singer Barney Greenway denounces the far right in between songs with a rant as brutal as his band's music. As innovative go, very few can compete with these when it comes to rewriting music's rulebook.
Meanwhile, on the Main Stage, it's left to Avenged Sevenfold to close the first day. Headlining Download for the second time having also topped the bill four years earlier, their accomplished if slightly functional set not only brought the house down, but also an outbreak of tears when frontman M.Shadows pays tribute to the band's late drummer James Sullivan who passed away in 2009 by way of a poignant 'So Far Away'. They also perform an emotional cover of Pink Floyd's 'Wish You Were Here' (the first of two versions we hear on the main stage this weekend) that suggests they've matured into a genuine stadium rock band during the interim period between headline slots.
The next day, DiS heads to the arena bright and early. We're here to see Lawnmower Deth, local heroes from Ravenshead just up the road whose comedy metal has never worn thin even after three decades. Last time they played here Kim Wilde joined them onstage. This year there was no Ms Wilde or 'Kids In America' in the setlist. Instead, we get Sumo Rabbit and a host of other characters wearing all kinds of costumes including four people dressed as trains. That was for a song called 'Urban Surfer 125' which lasts all of about two minutes; 'Egg Sandwich' and 'Sheep Dip' are even shorter. Its silly and shouldn't really work but does. The serious stuff can wait.
Although not that long, which means its time for L7 to turn back the clock and show the large crowd who've come to see them why they're still renowned as pioneers. It doesn't get off to a great start for them. Drummer Dee Plakas broke her arm just twenty-four hours earlier so Adam Ant's drummer Jola steps in as a last-minute replacement. Also, the Zippo Encore (second) Stage is running approximately twenty minutes late and unfortunately L7 draw the short straw and have their set cut to an alarmingly short six songs. Which is a crying shame as their ferocious mix of punk and metal (aka grunge) provides an all singing, all dancing mid-afternoon soiree in the sun.
Thunder were also around at the same time as L7, but that's where the similarities end. The London outfit's soft rock being a staple of daytime radio in the 1990s when they were at their commercial peak, they sound slightly dated now when pitted alongside some of the more illustrious company on this year's bill. Which isn't an accusation one could ever throw at Babymetal. Drawing by far the biggest crowd of the weekend to the Zippo Encore Stage, they're an amalgam of costume changes, pyrotechnics, and stage props. Their music can be described as sounding like Aqua covering Slayer (or vice versa) and when they launch into the 'Megitsune' megamix which trades Japanese folk classic 'Sakura Sakura' with riffs out the Kerry King guitar handbook, it sums up the next forty-five minutes to perfection. They're also an incredibly wonderful band that we'd challenge anyone that's ever witnessed them perform to not walk away smiling.
The last time yours truly saw Guns N Roses at Leeds Festival in 2010, they came on stage over half an hour late, Axl Rose was the only original member and the guitarist wore a KFC bucket on his head. It's probably fair to say it wasn't their finest hour, so when the schedule saw them allocated with a three-and-a-half hours slot, many cynics suggested at least half of that time was to allow for their notorious lack of punctuality.
How wrong they were, arriving at precisely 7:20pm as stated, they launched into an opening four-song salvo that was as good as anything Download has ever hosted. Nowadays a seven-piece, the T2K18 model of Guns N Roses is a professional, lean and actually quite invigorating machine. With legendary guitarist Slash and Peter Pan-like bass player Duff McKagan now back in the fold alongside the aforementioned Rose, there's a feeling of unfinished business not to mention air of confidence which can only come from a band capable of dispatching 'It's So Easy', 'Mr Brownstone', 'Chinese Democracy' and 'Welcome To The Jungle' within the first quarter of an hour. In fact, this set has everything we'd expect and ever want from a Guns N Roses show. A plethora of elongated guitar solos courtesy of Slash, lots of costume changes from the charismatic Rose, and a showstopping drum solo from Frank Ferrer, now the longest-serving sticksman in the band's history. And an impeccable choice of covers slotted in with what is a near perfect, career-spanning set.
We notice Axl Rose hit one bum note. Just ONE. Over the course of three hours during the opening bars of 'Live And Let Die'. The rest of the set he and his band are flawless. McKagan sings lead vocals on a cover of The Misfits' 'Attitude' and it works, likewise Rose's touching renditions of 'Wichita Lineman' and 'Black Hole Sun'. There's even a cover of 'Slither', perhaps the best-known song Slash's post-Guns N Roses outfit Velvet Revolver ever recorded, and they drop in a couple of rarities for good measure in the shape of 'Coma' and 'Patience'. And yes, they work. Closing on 'Paradise City' after a whopping twenty-eight songs and three-and-a-bit hours, we're left speechless by what we've just witnessed.
The next day we're told Download recorded its largest crowd since 2010; with over 100,000 people descending on Donington Park. Duff McKagan is also spotted at a miniature railway in a local village the following morning. But then that's Guns N Roses. Preposterous, unexpected, and on this form unequivocal. Welcome back.
The Sunday morning wake up call is provided by Starcrawler, a band already carving out a reputation as one of the most exciting live acts on the circuit right now. Taking to the Zippo Encore Stage at 11am and playing to a few hundred people, they deliver one of the weekend's most memorable performances. Thanks in no small part to singer and obvious focal point Arrow De Wilde, whose set includes giving oral sex to microphones, smearing fake blood over television cameras and leaving the stage mid-song to the bedazzlement of her bandmates. Indeed, if they didn't have the songs to back it up cynics would describe them as a gimmick. Thankfully they have, and with the likes of 'I Love LA', 'Ants', and 'Used To Know' there are elements of the New York Dolls, Rachel Stamp and The Black Angels, which can only be a good thing.
On the other hand, Cradle Of Filth have been around for nearly three decades and amassed a loyal following on the way, so it shouldn't come as a surprise their midday jaunt on the Main Stage is watched by tens of thousands, all ready to worship at the feet of Dani Filth. With songs called 'Born In A Burial Gown' and 'Nymphetamine' one would like to think they don't take themselves too seriously and if Filth's "dad jokes" (as he calls them) in between said ditties are anything to go by, neither does he. They're also one of the most theatrical, visually entertaining and musically taut bands to grace the festival and we leave after they exit the stage, suitably impressed.
Turbonegro also have a cult following, particularly on the garage rock scene and judging by the fancy dress costumes and fake moustaches in the audience that greet their arrival, a fair few have made the trip to see them today. Dressed in attire that could have been borrowed from the Village People, their brand of high energy rock and roll goes down a storm. As do All Them Witches, a four-piece from Nashville whose sonic attack would probably be just as well received at Levitation or Primavera. Playing doom-laden psychedelic rock the way it was conceived when Black Sabbath were just starting out, they make an unholy racket that fills the Dogtooth Stage far and beyond its canvas entry point.
One thing we're always open to at DiS are recommendations and the name on every other person's lips we've spoken to this weekend is that of Shinedown. Having formed at the turn of the century and put out six albums since, it would be churlish to describe them as new. However, judging by the sizeable audience they attract and retain for the entire duration of their set, there's definitely a feeling that Shinedown have the potential to emulate Avenged Sevenfold and headline the Main Stage one day, while in frontman Brent Smith, they have a forceful presence even if his preachy Bono-isms prove a little grating.
Next up is Marilyn Manson, making a welcome return to Download after his headline set on the second stage in 2015. Ever the showman, over the course of the next hour he'll change costumes more times than a shop mannequin, have numerous fall-outs with his microphone stand, instruct a roadie to put a pair of sunglasses on his face and at one point, sing from a raised platform at the back of the stage like some newly ordained monarch. He also delivers an impeccable set full of highlights that includes inviting a girl carrying a banner adorned with the words "I Would Kill For You" onstage for 'Kill4Me', duetting with Dani Filth on 'The Beautiful People' and ending in the most dramatic fashion by covering 'Cry Little Sister' from the 1987 film 'The Lost Boys'. Any other year he would have probably closed the festival. Not this time.
With the Sunday night headline slot reserved for rock legends, they don't come much more legendary than Ozzy Osbourne. Making what could be his farewell appearance at Download and backed by a four-piece band including guitarist Zakk Wylde, a long time associate and collaborator on his solo works and Rick Wakeman's son Adam on keyboards, Osbourne and co. deliver an epic finale.
Looking healthier now than he has done in years as he approaches his seventieth birthday in December, Osbourne is up there alongside Keith Richards and Steven Tyler as one of rock's great survivors. Embarking on what is meant to be his last ever tour - aptly entitled No More Tours II - ensures the next ninety minutes become a career spanning celebration of a true innovator. We get the songs you'd expect to hear both from his own solo records ('Bark At The Moon', 'Mr Crowley', 'I Don't Want To Change The World') and the Black Sabbath catalogue ('Paranoid', 'War Pigs') not to mention the odd rarity ('Fairies Wear Boots') thrown in for good measure.
Zakk Wylde takes centre stage on more than one occasion, most notably during a midset instrumental medley that seems to last half the set, while the rumoured appearance of one or two special guests ends up being just that; rumours. Nevertheless, if this is Ozzy Osbourne bringing the curtain down on a glorious career, he couldn't have picked a better time or place to bow out.
Photos by Mick Carroll