What happened when Metallica headlined Download 2023

Fire and fun: Metallica bring the party to Download for the festival’s opening night – and the band’s first of two headline sets this weekend.

What happened when Metallica headlined Download 2023
Emily Carter
Andy Ford

“What am I doing here?” asks James Hetfield, following Metallica’s first three songs tonight. “I’m trying to sing – that’s what I’m doing! You’re gonna practice with me…”

He’s being modest, of course. At the metal icons’ ninth visit back to Donington Park (and their first of two sets this weekend), the frontman is on genuinely incredible form. There’s no need for any practice required here, with Papa Het not only sounding better and more fired-up than ever, but also bringing an endearing level of playfulness to the band’s otherwise imperious performance.

It all starts somewhat ‘normally’ for Metallica. AC/DC’s It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock’N’Roll) and the iconic The Ecstasy Of Gold play out over the PA to a giddy and totally packed-out crowd, while photos of the band throughout their career are displayed on six huge towers they’ve brought in especially for the weekend.

Then, they step out to a delirious reception. With skull artwork on display and bathed in cool red lights, Creeping Death kicks things off spectacularly, before the frontman grooves and grins his way through Harvester Of Sorrow. “You’re all fresh, you’re feeling good, you’re smelling semi-decent…” he pauses to tell the crowd after Leper Messiah, opting for some more light-hearted onstage patter than too much of the usual ‘Metallica family’ stuff. And in fact, whether it’s tearing through Orion as he smokes a cigar onstage, or jamming the intro to The Day That Never Comes while casually perched atop a bright yellow ’Tallica amp, seeing him have so much fun onstage is the real joy here.

That’s not to say James’ bandmates aren’t on the same impressive level, obviously. Lars Ulrich’s thunderous double-bass through Lux Æterna can be felt deep in fans’ chests for miles. Kirk Hammett, meanwhile, brings literal outfit sparkles along with his dazzling riffs, and Rob Trujillo’s spinning-while-shredding shtick is effortlessly badass.

Being part of Metallica’s M72 World Tour and with the promise of two totally different setlists at Download, we also get some right treats, from killer 72 Seasons newbies like Screaming Suicide and Sleepwalk My Life Away to Reload banger Fuel, complete with literal fireballs exploding after James yells the immortal line, ‘Gimme fuel, gimme fire, gimme that which I desire!’

The one-two of Seek & Destroy and Masters Of Puppets close things out with the ultimate metal party. Even missing huge-hitters like Enter Sandman and One – which will inevitably be played on Saturday night – this feels like a genuinely perfect Metallica headline set. We already can’t wait for round two.

Read this: The big review: Download Festival 2023

Metallica’s M72 World Tour, live from AT&T Stadium in Arlington TX, comes to cinemas worldwide on August 18 and 20 via Trafalgar Releasing. Tickets on sale now at

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