Live Review: Download Festival 2023 – Castle Donington, Derby 09.06.23

Phil Pountney

As I entered the arena for day two I decided to take myself to the Dogtooth Stage in preparation for Pupil Slicer and in doing so I managed to catch the last 3 songs of Mancunian outfit, Witch Fever, and their brand of post punk measured chaos, and from the moment the anarchic and frenzied riffs hit my ears I was impressed by the controlled disorder with which it was being delivered from the stage. The vocals were rabid and feverish with the guitar work being punchy and effective, each holding a distinctive style yet merging with the other to create a unity which all sat proudly on top of the beating heart of the machine, the pulsating drum work which was pounding and beating with a genuinely impressive ferocity and intensity. As the set closed, it was met with a notable cheer from those in attendance and obvious gratitude and elation from the band themselves as they departed the scene, they may have been broken battered and bruised from the shift they had just put in but if you asked any one of them if they would have changed it for the world, I’m sure you would have been met with a resounding “hell no”.

A brief turnaround on stage and we were then poised for a violent lesson in brutal mathcore courtesy of the UK’s very own Pupil Slicer. From the off, we were hammered and pummelled by a force reminiscent of a huge tsunami. Davies spat the vocals out with delirious intent and force, each word delivered with pride and authority, while the fretwork from Davies on the six strings and Fabian on the chunkier strings complemented each other with raw aggressive tendencies throughout. Andrews on the skins in the shadows put in a shift of notable magnitude and then before we knew it they were closing out with the final offering, the set was a success from start to finish and with them now having clocked up both Bloodstock and Download under their belts I’m sure that Pupil Slicer will continue the momentum and become a bigger and bigger household name with the months and gigs that tick by.

It was time to then make my way over to the Opus Stage in preparation for Epica and by doing so I managed to catch the back end of Elvana and their rendition of ‘Negative Creep’ which was interesting, to say the least. The size of the crowd for this mid-afternoon slot was sizeable, to say the least, they had attracted thousands upon thousands and each and every one of them seemed to be living their best life, but unfortunately, the fun was cut short when the set stopped abruptly mid song, apparently due to the band running over their allotted slot, perhaps due to a delayed start, who knows.

The moment had come, it was time for the Dutch Symphonic masters Epica to grace the stage anddeliver us a set of titanic proportions.Opening with ‘Abyss Of Time – Countdown To Singularity’ Simons and the rest of the band didn’t let up one iota. The set progressed with highlights such as ‘The Final Lullaby’, ‘Beyond The Matrix’ and the huge ‘Unleashed’ before it drew to a close with ‘Consign To Oblivion’. Mark Jansen and Delahaye orchestrated with weaving and swirling guitar leads, intertwining with each other to create majestic and enthralling riff work and chord structure while the muscle was injected by way of Van Der Loo and Van Weesenbeek with the charismatic Coen Janssen being his usual energetic self, infusing the keys to the intricacy of the structure of the songs with overflowing gusto and enthusiasm. Simons seemed to grow into the set, her voice grew stronger and stronger with each passing moment, portraying more confidence with each track that was delivered and by the time the end bars of ‘Consign To Oblivion’ rung out it appeared as if the Opus Stage had been her home for years and years. My only observation from the set was that while I appreciate they only had a limited time to deliver their wares, there were some obvious omissions from the set, where were the likes of ‘Cry For The Moon’, ‘Feint’, ‘The Phantom Agony’, ‘Dance Of Fate’, ‘Solitary Ground’, ‘Chasing The Dragon’, ‘Never Enough’, although to be fair I could go on but I’m sure you get the point. Nevertheless, all things considered, it was an impressive Epica set and one which I certainly hope will be repeated in the not too distant future, please just give them a longer set next time. 

I stood my ground and waited it out for North Yorkshire’s very own Asking Alexandria, and their imminent arrival sparked an influx ofeager revellers who invaded the ground in front of the stage in preparation for the metalcore which was about to ensue. As the band hit the stage all hell broke loose on and off the solid structure, vocals were being delivered with military precision and each word was being lapped up by the devoted hordes who had assembled. The aggressive and violent musical outpouring was absorbed and used as direct energy to encourage the pits to become even bigger and more rampant. Clouds of dust and dirt were being kicked up into the blazing afternoon sky and choruses were being sung with a volume and passion that warranted nothing short of pure respect. The positioning of the band on the line up acted as an outlet for the aggression and violence in between two of the biggest Dutch symphonic metal bands, but they fit the equation just right and once you were in the middle of it all it just simply made sense. A perfect change of direction if only for a mere forty five minutes. 

Highlight of the day for me next on the Opus Stage, Within Temptation, and their sublime brand of symphonic metal. As Churchill started to address us over the PA it could mean only one thing, top song off my wishlist, the powerful ‘Our Solemn Hour’. Sharon et al then burst into sight and it was nonstop from there. Jolie and Helleblad led the charge on the axes, delivering guitar leads and powerful riffs with intricacy and luxury, Van Veen was an absolute beast on the crushing bass and sat alongside the thumping drum work of Coolen with absolute ease and perfection. The set seemed to concentrate on more recent material, only taking ‘Stand My Ground’ from ‘The Silent Force’ and a muscular rendition of the title track from ‘Mother Earth’. ‘Paradise (What About Us)’ was simply stunning and ‘What Have You Done Now’ was a standout track from the set, absolutely phenomenal and flawless in equal measures. Sharon’s voice was delectable throughout and didn’t falter through any of the melodies or intricacies, she led the cavalry from the front and put on a spectacle for all to be enchanted by. 

I decided to cut my time short on the Opus Stage and make my way over to the Dogtooth Stage in order to catch the last five or ten minutes of Empire State Bastard, being a huge Slayer fan I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to catch Dave Lombardo in such an intimate setting (well at least compared to the other stages !!) and the bit of them I did catch, they did not disappoint. They were raucous and riotous, confrontational and commanding, Simon Neil stalked the stage like a man possessed and the kit was well and truly in safe hands courtesy of Mr Lombardo who seemed to batter it within the inch of its life while keeping it intricate with a dexterity that seemed superhuman at times. Their set was short lived although I’m sure they will have made a few new friends tonight to go alongside the Biffy Clyro and Slayer faithful and everyone in between. 

I then hiked my way back to the Opus Stage so that I could commission a spot for Evanescence, and judging by the numbers stood around me, most of the festival had the same idea. The crowd had swelled to an eye watering size and when Amy Lee et al hit the stage the whole place erupted. Opening with ‘Broken Pieces Shine’ closely followed by ‘Made Of Stone’, they demonstrated that they were here to absolutely rock this place to its core. Classics such as ‘Bring Me To Life’, ‘Going Under’, ‘Imaginary’ and ‘My Immortal’ all got an airing and the fresher classics such as ‘Lithium’ and ‘Call Me When You’re Sober’ were well received with a loud and dedicated crowd. Amy Lee looked well at home on the modest stage and used every inch of it to good effect, if the reception they received at Download today is anything to go by, the team in charge of booking the bands need to rebook Evanescence fairly sharply and bump them up to the main stage without even batting an eyelid. 

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