4th – 6th July
By Alex Loach
It has been three long years in the making, but the touring festival behemoth that is Sonisphere has finally returned to its spiritual home – the hallowed grounds of Knebworth house in Hertfordshire. As the organisers have delighted in reminding people in the run-up to the event, this is a celebration weekend, marking forty years of live music at this location. The likes of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and erm… Robbie Williams have all graced (and disgraced) these picturesque grounds at one time or another.
The band given the honour of opening proceedings is London’s own The Defiled (7), who’s industrial tinged punk metal, draws a fair sized crowd for an opening act. Although their creepy aesthetic loses some of its impact in the baking sunshine, they manage to produce the first proper “rock ‘n’ roll moment “ of the weekend when Vincent Hyde decides to smash up his bass mid-set. Things do turn a bit Spinal Tap when he struggles to find a replacement though. Anti-Flag (7) continue the fast paced ferocity, throwing themselves around the stage whilst churning out some of the finest modern punk anthems on offer. Somehow even the drummer ends up in the crowd for their departing number.
In stark contrast, Gary Numan’s (8) moody proto-industrial metal is delivered in Numan’s trademark cool-as-a-cucumber style with minimal fuss. An initial problem with the big screens means that those further back miss out on some of the show, but this is soon remedied, meaning that the more vertically challenged of guests are able to appreciate ‘Cars’ and (as one person puts it) “The IT Crowd Theme Tune”.
There’s no denying that Band of Skulls (5) don’t really fit in on this already diverse line-up, their sleepy riffing and poppy vocals probably more suited to a Reading/Leeds crowd. To be fair to them, they give it a good go but this is not their audience. HIM (4) are, to put it bluntly, a bit shit. Beloved by teenage goth girls everywhere, frontman Ville Valo sounds distinctly dodgy today. Seemingly incapable of hitting the high notes. The rest of the band keeps it together but it’s not enough to save the performance. Sub-headlining the main stage today is the band everyone loves to hate, the perennially ridiculed Limp Bizkit (8) and you know what? They fucking smash it.
As an introduction to the Bizkit set, Southampton trio The Lounge Kittens, perform a short rendition of their cover of ‘Rollin’’, which proves enough to get the already psyched crowd singing along. Ol’ Red Cap himself shortly makes his appearance sending the crowd into raptures, proving that it’s now officially OK to like Limp Bizkit again! (Oh come on, like you ever stopped really). The hits are all there, ‘My Way’, ‘Take a Look Around’, ‘Nookie’, and the band even throw in a frantic cover of Rage Against The Machine’s ‘Killing In The Name’.
After the set time is up, their audience won’t let them leave and the band oblige with a break-neck run through of fan favourite ‘Break Stuff’. While those of a ravey disposition remain at the main stage for tonight’s headline act, people in search of something heavier filter out to the smaller stages. Luckily for such metalheads, India’s first sons of heavy – Demonic Resurrection (9) are playing an absolute blinder over on the Satellite stage. Originally booked to play here in 2011, visa issues led to a last minute cancellation (that’s got to be fucking soul-destroying).
This time they made it though, and fucking hell do they make their thirty minute set count or what?! The Mumbai five-piece unleash their relentless “Demonic Metal” on this tired, sunburned crowd and almost instantly, every head in the place is banging like there’s no tomorrow. It’s hard to describe their sound accurately, but the closest you can get is as a mixture of black and death metal with power metal sections. It’s melodic yet brutal and delivered with an unashamed enthusiasm and confidence. Easily the band of the day, no shadow of a doubt.
Saturday, and the early risers nurse their hangovers and tend to their aching necks from yesterday’s revelry. It’s lucky then, that this morning seems to have something of a fun theme about it, a few less serious acts to ease people back into the swing of things. Today the second stage is open for the first time, and kicking things off here in suitably ludicrous fashion are Scotland’s finest pirate metal act: Alestorm (6), who’s shanties of tavern wenches and mead are well received by plastic sword wielding nutters in the first row.
A distinct problem with the sound quality (possibly owing to today’s onset of wind and rain) prevents them from being tip-top, however. Next up over on the main stage, arguably one of the most anticipated acts of the weekend, Babymetal (???) make their European debut to a crowd of devotees and curious onlookers. The verdict? Fucking bonkers. The jury is still out on whether the Babymetal phenomenon will have any long term effect, or if it is just a gimmick that will go away eventually.
For the uninitiated, their act consists of three teenage girls chirruping in their native Japanese whilst performing some pretty weird dance moves, all while backed by (an admittedly, impressively tight) death metal ensemble. They have taken their home country by storm, and look set to do the same here, definitely something to keep an eye out for. Chas and Dave (8), in the pouring rain, next to a stall which proudly declares “PIES”, has an altogether more British feel to it. Hearing a field of metalheads happily singing along to ‘Snooker Loopy’ is probably one of the highlights of the entire festival, and the lads themselves (looking a little out of place on the poster) receive a fantastic reception, in what is one of the strongest adverts for the diversity within the rock scene these days.
A rather more sombre, yet somehow equally preposterous affair are Ghost (7), who along with their zombie-faced papal frontman, bring the joyous drone of 70’s inspired occult rock to the party. It’s not exactly knees-up music, but it does provide a nice break from the hectic goings on of the day so far. Supergroup trio The Winery Dogs (6) see off the last of the rain, unfortunately their set is difficult to enjoy due to the same sound problems that plagued Alestorm earlier in the day. Also, while technically proficient, their songs do have a tendency to descend into self-indulgent guitar wankery at times. Which is all well and good in certain settings, but it’s not really ideal for a bunch of damp festival attendees.
Over on the Bohemia stage Reckless Love (3) inexplicably play to a packed out tent. Like an unexciting Steel Panther without any jokes, they embarrassingly amble through their mercifully short set to make way for The Virginmarys (7); a band who play an enjoyable yet unremarkable brand of modern hard rock. While not especially exciting, it’s decent festival fodder and easy enough to have a good headbang along to.
Black Spiders (9) follow, and give the previous two acts a masterclass in how modern hard rock should be done.The band aren’t even fully onstage before the shouts of “Fuck You Black Spiders” (something the band actively encourage) begin to emerge from the gathered masses. Their signature songs ‘Stay Down’ and ‘Kiss Tried to Kill Me’ are the best received, however the standout track ‘Balls’ is easily the best thing the band have written, and is performed live with the swagger of a young AC/DC. It’s fair to say, the Sheffield mob could probably start a party in a morgue, given the chance.
Back on second stage, the murmurs that Slayer (5) might be past their best after the departure of Dave Lombardo and the tragic passing of Jeff Hanneman, might have some foundation in reality. The guitars sound tinny and sloppy, Tom Araya looks a bit like he’s lost the plot, grinning frantically at everyone before uninterestedly introducing the next song. It’s a sad sight for fans of the once revolutionary thrashers. Never a band to be upstaged, tonight’s headliners have organised a WWI style dogfight to take place a couple of hundred feet above punter’s heads, one of the planes being flown by Jack-of-all-trades and master of many, Mr Bruce Dickinson himself. It’s a wonder he has any time or energy left for his main responsibility.
Of course it’s Iron Maiden (10) who just so happen to be on the form of their long and successful career. Tonight is the last night of their epic Maiden England tour, which has seen the band travelling to all corners of the globe, playing some of their best loved, classic tracks to huge audiences, and this one is just a little bit special. It is hit after lung-busting-sing-along hit with all the spectacle which makes a Maiden show truly magical. Pyrotechnics, superbly designed stage sets and of course, more Eddies than you can shake a stick at. You just can’t fuck with a setlist that contains ‘The Trooper’, ‘Run to the Hills’ and an absolutely breath-taking rendition of ‘Seventh Son…’. There is no other band on earth that put on a show quite as well as these masters of their craft… Except maybe tomorrow’s headliners. Yet as people file out grinning ear-to-ear, it’s obvious that the Bay-Area thrashers will have to accomplish something spectacular to rival this.
The final day, and hooray! It’s sunny again. Unfortunately for some unknown reason, the stage times have been completely fucked around. Meaning that for at least the first part of the day, getting to see who you intended is a tricky thing to plan. Either way, the eternally mad-as-a-box-of-frogs Devin Townsend Project (9) takes this in their stride, playing some of Hevy Devy’s best loved songs. All of which, it has to be said, sound absolutely fucking massive.
Devin’s stage banter is spot on, heartfelt yet a little bit unhinged at the same time and the songs from the band’s masterpiece album Epicloud, are some of the best you will ever experience played live. The only thing preventing this from being a perfect performance is that Anneke van Giersbergen is absent, meaning her vocal parts have to be piped in. Otherwise though, simply flawless. Following this, Aussie Hellraisers Airbourne (9) put in their usual high-octane performance. Their no-nonsense rock was made for beautiful festival days like this, singing along with a beer in hand.
Irrepressible (and eternally bare-chested) frontman, Joel O’Keeffe gets up to his usual Spiderman-inspired antics. Seriously, someone buy that man a climbing frame. Over in the Jägermeister tent (which by the way, wins the award for most stupidly positioned stage ever. A massive support pillar right at front and centre is in no way ideal), Irish classic metallers, Sweet Savage (7) power through a set of old and new material, unfortunately for them, their biggest cheer comes when they play a spirited cover of ‘Whiskey In The Jar’.
Back over on second stage, Dropkick Murphys (7), while good, seem to be lacking some of their usual energy and fire. Celtic punk, with added bagpipes should be a sure-fire way to start a party. The hardcore faithful down the front seem to get into it, but sadly, the only song that seems to get the rest of the crowd worked up is their departing (geddit?) number ‘I’m Shipping Up To Boston’. It’s a similar story for old school Punks Anti-Nowhere League (6) over at the Jägermeister stage, the die-hards love it, but no-one is making any new fans here today. Once again it’s only really one song that people have an appetite for, the Metallica-covered ‘So What?’ which is foolishly deployed half-way through the set.
After which a throng of people can be seen leaving the tent, satisfied. Closing the second stage for the weekend are the supremely talented progsters Dream Theater (8) who start with an impressively dramatic intro video, journeying through each of their iconic album covers. The band themselves are on stunningly good form, the virtuosity on display from each of the musicians involved is spectacle enough, but when they combine to create the well-oiled machine that is Dream Theater, something truly special happens.
Even vocalist, James LaBrie (often criticised for weak live performances) sounds sensational tonight. It also has to be said, that despite the rather obvious rapturous reception for ‘Pull Me Under’, the newer material is easily the strongest that the band have written in years, possibly ever. The American five-piece have always nestled snugly, somewhere between the underground and mainstream, but on recent showings, they could finally make that surge to become real world beaters. Speaking of which, has anyone heard of a band called Metallica (9)? Because they happen to be headlining the main stage tonight.
Yes, fresh from their recent appearance at Glastonbury of all places, the biggest heavy metal band in the world make their third UK Sonisphere appearance, and it’s one that people won’t forget in a hurry. What’s unique about this tour is that attendees have been able to vote for the setlist in advance, meaning that the show is entirely chosen by the audience. The result of this is a concert such as tonight, where every song is a fan-favourite and is belted back at the band with aplomb. A couple of dodgy moments aside (sit down Lars, for fuck’s sake; concentrate on keeping time instead!), this is easily the best Metallica performance on these shores for a long, long time.
The relentless barrage of hits does help, but the spectacular visual effects and frickin’ laser beams all contribute to what is a magnificent showing of what heavy metal is all about.
Thank you Sonisphere! Let’s hope that the next one doesn’t take quite as long!