“Scream for me Donington!” It’s a rallying cry Bruce Dickinson has uttered at each of Iron Maiden’s seven headline performances to date, made no less potent by the passage of time nor its repetition. If anything, the reliability of that statement has scored it into the grooves of history, as intrinsically linked to heavy metal as inverted crosses, devil horns and kickass guitar solos. There’s a magic and majesty to seeing Iron Maiden back on the throne at the UK’s biggest rock and metal festival, the sheer exuberance and adoration pouring from the crowd to the sexagenarian gentlemen onstage testament to the fact that Iron Maiden are, doubtlessly, one of heavy metal’s most beloved and iconic bands.
Iron Maiden’s Legacy Of The Beast set kicks off with a triple-serving culled from their most recent studio outing, Senjutsu. While the material itself can be a little ponderous in length (the title track alone making a solid run on the ten-minute mark), set against a backdrop of feudal Japanese architecture and with a 12-foot samurai Eddie waving a massive blade around it does a stellar job of setting up the spectacle to come. By the time the band get to Writing On The Wall it feels like the sing-alongs are in full flow, the epic single feeling perfectly at home against the band’s more historic anthems. And there are plenty of those to come, a four-decade plus canon of heavy metal excellence covering nigh-on every era of the band. Our first foray into the past stays spiritually in progressive epic territories, Piece Of Mind cut Revelations delivered with a typical sense of bombast, Dickinson flying from one end of the stage to the other. Admittedly, dosing up on the longer songs so early into the set does feel like the pacing flags from time to time, but Maiden aren’t the best in the business for nothing and their energetic enthusiasm is infectious enough to always bring things back before the attention can wander too far.
Blood Brothers is greeted with a roar from the crowd that could put the 747s of neighbouring East Midlands Airport to shame, Dickinson on commanding form as he leads the crowd through vocal gymnastics worthy of the Olympics. From there, things go stratospheric; a run of Flight Of Icarus, Fear Of The Dark, Hallowed Be Thy Name, The Number Of The Beast and Iron Maiden is exactly what the doctor ordered to underline Maiden’s supremacy over the world of heavy metal, each song somehow more epic and all-conquering than the last.
The couple of Blaze Bayley-era tracks that slip through suggest those eras need some serious re-examination for naysayers, The Clansman and Sign Of The Cross afforded a sense of scale that perhaps escaped the band during their tumultuous 90s period. With absolutely massive anthems Run To The Hills and The Trooper dropping during the encore, it’s fair to say Maiden leave some of their best tricks to last. The big finale comes in the form of Aces High, complete with a spitfire dangled precariously overhead.
Thirty-four years since they first headlined (and just shy of twenty since their appearance at the inaugural Download event), Iron Maiden remain one of Donington’s most beloved acts, their associations with the festival running so deep they are as synonymous with the site as Led Zeppelin and Knebworth or Hendrix and Woodstock. If Slipknot are the ‘Download Festival band’, Iron Maiden are the lords of the land, claiming dominion over the site in ways few bands can – or possibly ever will. Hail heavy metal. Hail Iron Maiden.