Six years on from their last appearance at Download and a quarter-of-a-century since their legendary Monsters of Rock headliner, Iron Maiden close Saturday’s events, fittingly, with a set that largely recreates their 1988 ‘Seventh Tour of a Seventh Tour.’

This being Donington Park in June, the sky is overcast and a light drizzle does its best to dampen the enthusiasm of 90,000 metalheads. It’s fighting a losing battle. Out of the clouds ahead of us a plane comes into view. Not unusual as flights from East Midlands Airport are a constant over the arena but the drone and the flightpath are unusual. As the livery becomes visible, a wave of excitement surges through the crowd and the World War II Spitfire roars over the stage to huge cheers. Bandits at 8 o’clock. Well, quarter-to-nine actually. Two more flypasts and an enduring British icon returns to the overcast sky. It was the perfect way to announce the coming home of another icon on the first and only domestic date of their world tour.

‘Doctor Doctor’ begins to play. Sadly it’s only on tape, dashing the hopes of some that we might see a live rendition with members of UFO who played earlier today. VT of Bruce Dickinson rolls on the screens, “Seven deadly sins/Seven ways to win…”, and the guitar-synth intro to ‘Moonchild’ kicks the stage into life and light as the band take up positions and launch into the song proper. They’re here at last. Maiden. England.

‘Can I Play With Madness?’ is an anti-climactic follow-up. Far from the best song on “Seventh Son,” it nevertheless gives everyone a chance to throw their horns and warm up their vocal cords. ‘The Prisoner’ throws us back into the band’s Jurassic period to hear a rarely-played and warmly-received classic.

If the dalliance with warplanes could open Iron Maiden up to accusations from casual observers of glorifying combat then the triple-whammy of ‘2 Minutes to Midnight’, ‘The Trooper’ and ‘Afraid To Shoot Strangers’ (complete with Dickinson’s preamble about the casualties of war) would firmly put them in their place.

For every crowd-pleasing singalong (‘The Number of the Beast’, ‘Run to the Hills’, ‘Wasted Years’) there is a progressive metal masterclass. ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ highlights just how visionary this band was on their 1980 debut album. Yes, they fused punk with heavy metal, but there was also a heavy dose of prog and ‘Phantom…’ was years ahead of its time, paving the way for yer Dream Theater‘s and Mastodon‘s.

The ten-minute-plus title track from “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” is utterly thrilling. Dramatic, eerie and sinister, it will always play second fiddle to its elder sibling, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, but it is no less worthy. A byzantine instrumental section throws everything into the pot: faux-choral chanting, staccato power chords that delay into infinity and a Gothic atmosphere to rival Jerry Goldsmith’s “The Omen” soundtrack, it is the undoubted highlight of the set for many. ‘The Clairvoyant’ follows as if to cement just how great that 1988 album is.

The ubiquitous and, frankly, dull ‘Fear of the Dark’ gives the youngsters a chance to pogo. This old git would have preferred the criminally overlooked (by the band) ‘Infinite Dreams’ or ‘Killers’ from the original tour setlist.

Their similarly ubiquitous but never dull eponymous song closes the main set. Encores are announced, aptly, by Churchill’s Speech and ‘Aces High’ which takes on a new resonance given the spectacular show opener. Bruce gives thanks to the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and the RAF, a sentiment that is greeted with huge applause but even louder is the cheer when he announces at least one more UK show in August.

‘The Evil That Men Do’ and ‘Running Free’ (sadly no ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’) bring us to the inevitable ‘Always Look On the Bright Side of Life’ outro and the tramp through the Somme-like mud to tents and hotels gets underway. With the prospect of another show on the horizon, life is indeed bright for UK Maiden fans. On the basis of their Download performance there is no sign of this band slowing down. Arguably the best metal band there has ever been and they’re currently at the top of their game. It was a good night from Eddie and from the boys.

Iron Maiden – Official Website

Photo credit: Derek Bremner Photography

Download Festival –  Official Website