Download Festival 2022 review: metal’s fearsome energy rages on the smaller stages

Donington Park, June 9-11: the likes of Sleep Token and Wargasm show the scene's in rude health. As for the dinosaurs taking up the main stage: Kiss off!

“You wanted the best – you got the best,” says the all-too-familiar voiceover introducing “the hottest band in the world” to the main stage of Download Festival on the Friday night. Glam-rockers Kiss were the party-starting kings of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll but tonight is their fifth and final time headlining Donington Park, with the group retiring out of “self-respect”. Their two-hour set tonight is a fire-fuelled celebration of their impressive legacy but it does pose a question Download Festival – back after a stripped-back, COVID-friendly ‘Pilot’ event last year – has always avoided. What comes next?

Regulars Iron Maiden close out the Saturday night for a record-breaking seventh time but all the leather trousers and lunges in the world can’t stop their thundering war anthems and the occasional speech from Winston Churchill from feeling outdated. Elsewhere, main stage appearances from Korn, Volbeat and Shinedown feel just as tired – and the less said about pirate metal band Alestorm, the better.

When Biffy Clyro headlined in 2017, they were seen as a risk following a string of radio-friendly pop-rock hits that sat at odds with Download’s heavy metal spirit, but they proved the doubters wrong then. On Sunday night, they’re welcomed back with open arms. Their 90-minute set is dynamic, confident and comfortable, with material from 2020’s ‘A Celebration Of Endings’ and 2021’s ‘The Myth Of The Happily Ever After’ sounding ferocious. From the sci-fi rage of ‘DumDum’ to the sprawling cinema of ‘Cop Syrup’, Biffy’s set had a wonderful sense of surprise that no other headliner offered.

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Following last year’s storming set at the Download Pilot, Frank Carter And The Rattlesnakes return to Donington on the Friday night to close out the second stage, filling in for The Distillers, who cancelled their European tour in April. “I’m nervous and that’s never happened to me,” admits Carter, but that only seems to fuel his gleeful sense of anarchy even further. Making it known he wants to “upstage Kiss”, Carter throws streamers, confetti and a back catalogue of mosh-pit-inciting punk anthems at his set.

“A moment of silence of all the other bands we just murdered,” he says with a grin, proving that risks do pay off. Those chances are few and far between at Download 2022 though, with the vibrant, exciting future of metal kept to the smaller stages.

Canadian group Spiritbox were due to play their first UK show in March 2020 but COVID had other plans. It’s been a long two years and fans are clearly impatient, chanting their name long before they take to the Avalanche Stage. Their 30-minute set “is a good first date” ,according to vocalist Courtney LaPlante, but it feels far too short to fully show off the brilliance of their progressive, energised metal. Opener ‘Circle With Me’ sees LaPlante flicker between soaring, dreamy vocals and blood-curdling screams while fans clamber on shoulders and sing back every word. By the time the title track to debut album ‘Eternal Blue’ closes things out, there’s a never-ending stream of crowdsurfers coming over the barriers.

Spiritbox were originally scheduled to play the smaller Dogtooth Stage before being upgraded due to demand – but even that wasn’t enough of a jump, with the tent overflowing before they even start. Full of ambition and sounding incredible, they scream main stage band.

It’s been more of a slow burn for Welsh mob Holding Absence but their set on the Avalanche Stage feels like a real moment, with their spiky, emo rock uniting the packed tent, while Creeper have clearly learned a thing from their recent tour from Alice Cooper. There’s a new sense of purpose to their flamboyant anthems, with the likes of ‘Cyanide’, ‘Thorns Of Love’ and ‘Midnight’ proving that the band are only getting better.

Over the past few years, Yonaka have evolved into a swaggering rock band offering self-empowerment by the bucketload and their Sunday night set was sleek, precise but full of heart. Likewise, Trash Boat’s latest album ‘Don’t You Feel Amazing?’ may have been a departure from their frantic punk back catalogue but the likes of ‘Bad Entertainment’ and ‘Alpha Omega’ prove that big choruses don’t stop a song from going hard.

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Across the weekend, Sleep Token’s EDM-infused metal, Grandson’s political rap-rock and Dana Dentata’s alt-punk all draw huge crowds of existing fans and people discovering them for the first time. It’s proof that the Download crowd are ready for something new.

Case in point: Wargasm’s opening set on the main stage. It might be brunch time on Sunday but the duo run riot and inspire just as much chaos in the pit. “We are Wargasm; who the fuck are you?” goads guitarist and vocalist Matlock after opening with a new song the pair have only rehearsed twice. Their set at the Download Pilot last year seemed to split the crowd – but today everyone’s onside as the band tear through ‘Rage All Over’, ‘Backstreet Bastards’ and new song ‘D.R.I.L.D.O’.

Punters at Download Festival 2022. Credit: Getty

It’s a fearless, frantic and fun performance that sees the pair kicking down the door and hopefully inspiring the new generation of metal greats to follow. “This will be a nice wake-up call for you Donington,” grins bassist and vocalist Milkie Way. Let’s hope the organisers were listening. The next generation is simply too good to ignore any longer.

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