Sonisphere - the review

by Richard Chamberlain

With Download seemingly having the hard rock festival market tied up, while Reading and Leeds, Glastonbury, V and many, many more also provide plenty of opportunities for rockers keen to spend a weekend in a mud-filled field, launching a new two-day event during a recession may, on the face of it, appear to be a strange move. Well, until you see the line-up that former Download main man Stuart Galbraith put together for this year's inaugural Sonisphere that is. Metallica, Linkin Park, Heaven and Hell and many, many more coupled with the historic surroundings of Knebworth can only bring success, can't it?
Well, festival openers Soil do little to shed any light either way, as they kick things off with a set of passable nu-metal, which doesn't really get going until their 2001 hit Halo sparks the Sonisphere crowd into life, by which point their 30-minute is fast drawing to a close. Meanwhile, watching main stage openers Alien Ant Farm is like stepping back in time to 2001, with very little seemingly changing for the band since then. Gurning bass player? Check. On stage banter which steps a little too close to arrogance for comfort? Check. Set of two great tunes and a whole lot of filler? Unfortunately, check. Movies, the lead single from 2001's ANThology, is the only highpoint in a fairly drab set, before their cover of Michael Jackson's Smooth Criminal gets Sonisphere on its feet and the turgid filler that went before it is forgiven and most certainly forgotten.
Back over to the Saturn Stage and Skindred pull in a decent crowd which laps up every second of the band's metal and reggae hybrid. Things do not go quite so well for Taking Back Sunday, as their emo sound swirls around in the Knebworth wind, with their pop sensibilities failing to fully win over the Apollo Stage crowd. However, Bjorn Again do manage to win over the crowd with a set as poppy as pop can get. The ABBA tribute act are rapturously received as they run through Waterloo, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme and Super Trooper, before slipping in a cover of Enter Sandman to appease those who will undoubtedly complain that this sort of thing 'doesn't belong at a metal festival'. A mass Dancing Queen sing-along rounds off the set, as what has to be seen as a surprising booking proves to be inspired.
Anthrax quickly snap Sonisphere out of its brief flirtation with pop, as they deliver a bone-crushing set led by John Bush. Bush, who held vocal duties with the band between 1992 and 2004, stepped in to replace Dan Nelson, who recently parted company with the thrash masters. In what is, at the moment at least, expected to be a one off performance, Bush proves that he remains a fantastic choice to front Anthrax, as the band whips through a breathless set, with Caught in a Mosh and Bring the Noise setting a marker for the poor souls that have to follow them on the Apollo Stage. Coheed and Cambria should have been that band, but a missed ferry leaves them elsewhere, although they do make it in time to put on a typically epic show later in the day in the Bohemia tent.
As the heaven's open Aussie upstarts Airbourne rock out with a set of AC/DC-tinged footstompers with Hellfire and Girls in Black going down particularly well with the drenched crowd, especially when during the latter frontman Joel O'Keeffe goes literally airbourne as he climbs a huge rig to the side of the stage, from which point he is able to pull of a guitar solo, admire the historic surroundings and do his bit for English-Aussie relations as the nations do battle in the Ashes.
It is perhaps fitting that the worst weather of the day is saved for while Heaven and Hell are on stage, as if Tony Iommi's trademark guitar sound is enough to summon a downpour. Diminutive frontman Ronnie James Dio soars through a set of his Black Sabbath output and while it's musically spot on, it feels slightly flat and leaves you wondering whether an Ozzy-led Sabbath would have fared any better with a rather subdued audience.
After a crowd-pleasing Bullet For My Valentine close the Saturn Stage for the night with a collection of metal tunes that has the a sea of bodies singing along to every word of the Welsh quintet's barnstorming set, Linkin Park round things off for the Apollo Stage, putting in a solid, if unspectacular, performance. Given Up and Somewhere I Belong are particular highlights early on, before Crawling and In the End drag things out of something of a mid-set lull. Bizarrely, vocalist Chester Bennington brings his side project, Dead by Sunrise, out for the encore, in a move which seems to win scant approval from festival-goers and is seen by many as an abuse of power rather than the special event that it will no doubt be pedalled as. Thankfully, Linkin Park do re-emerge for the second encore, finishing off with a superb One Step Closer.
After a day packed with sun, rain, ridiculously priced burgers and a fair old dollop of metal, those with the energy to hotfoot over to the Bohemia tent are in for a treat. Here Thunder call time on their 20-year career with a storming set filled with classics. Dirty Love, The Devil Made Me Do It and Love Walked In ensure that the classic rockers sign off in style. With the time flying past midnight before the Wildhearts hit the stage it can perhaps be expected that Ginger and co will be met by a weary crowd, however, as soon as the likes of Vanilla Radio, Sick of Drugs and I Wanna Go Where the People Go kick in the place is back on its feet, and despite all kinds of sound problems the boys provide the perfect way for Sonisphere's first day to end.


As the sun beats down on Knebworth Buckcherry are given the unenviable task of opening day two of the festival at a time when many festival-goers are still recovering form the night before. What's more, vocalist Josh Todd is clearly under the weather and not at 100 per cent physically, but despite this he still bounds around the stage with more energy than many of those who will follow him today. Lit Up and Crazy Bitch ensure that the day starts with a bang as Buckcherry's sleaze-drenched sound provides the perfect pick-me-up for those feeling a little sensitive after a night of overindulgence.
Killing Joke then remind everyone just why they are name-checked by so many that have come after then, as a wild-eyed Jaz Coleman, who is incidentally caked in more make-up than you'll see on a night out in Essex, leads them through a storming performance with Eighties – which is dedicated Nirvana, who were accused of lifting the song's riff for their own Come as You Are – very much the highlight of a short but sweet set.
Heavy metal veterans Saxon then battle through sound problems – which include someone seemingly failing to turn the drum mics on for opener Battalions of Steel – as they serve up exactly what you'd expect from them, half an hour of old skool, foot to the floor metal. However, you can't help but feel that they would have been better off with a later slot on a smaller stage, especially as they thrashed out a truly memorable performance on Download's third stage back in 2008.
Lamb of God and Mastodon both put in storming performances high on crowd-pleasing metal, however the afternoons' main talking point comes courtesy of the Apollo Stage slot which is filled simply with the term 'Special Guests'. After two days of campsite speculation no one is too surprised when Machine Head appear, despite having pulled out a week or two back due to being placed below Limp Bizkit on the bill. Not that Sonisphere cares about all of that now, they're here and they put in one of the weekend's most memorable performances, and that's surely all that matters. Rob Flynn spits out lyrics to Ten Ton Hammer and Old with frightening anger and velocity, before saving some vitriol for Fred Durst and co after telling a captivated crowd that Machine Head were begged by the festival's organisers to reconsider pulling their appearance.
After that Limp Bizkit were always going to have their work cut out. But, credit where credit's due, Durst is on top form, with the band very much sticking to the tried-and-tested festival formula of filling your set with as many hits as possible. My Generation, Break Stuff, Nookie and Rollin' are all lapped up, which is all the more impressive considering that much of the 45,000 crowd are here for the likes of Metallica, Nine Inch Nails and Machine Head. Durst even takes time out to extend an olive branch to the latter, before Faith and Take a Look Around end a set which may just have won a few of the naysayers around.
Next up over on the Saturn Stage Alice in Chains show everyone how you replace the irreplaceable. William DuVall has the unenviable job of stepping into the late Layne Staley's shoes, but everything seems to click into place. DuVall takes up vocal and guitar duties, however, Jerry Cantrell also takes a central role, meaning that the weight on DuVall's shoulders is lessened greatly. The band also judge their setlist to perfection, acknowledging their past with blistering renditions of Man in the Box and Rooster, while a smattering of new tracks sound just as impressive and bypass any fears that this is a band living on past glories.
With this expected to be the last UK show from Nine Inch Nails to say anticipation levels around Knebworth were high is a massive understatement. Trent Reznor does not disappoint, with opener The Way Out Is Through setting the standard for the rest of the set, which, despite being made up of the band's more downbeat output, provides one of the weekend's highlights. Reznor shows that he is not one for onstage banter, in fact he barely musters a word other than a thank you before the band head off, but what he does do is prove what a fantastic musician he is. Diving between mic stand, guitar, keyboard and tambourine there is almost a sense of surprise when he doesn't leap behind the drum kit for an impromptu solo. While the inclusion March of the Pigs and Closer would undoubtedly have been welcome, NIN instead stick to their guns and close with a chilling version of Hurt which is a hair on the back of the neck moment if ever there was one.
After such an epic and atmospheric performance, Avenged Sevenfold offer something completely different on the Saturn Stage. Pulling in what is surely one of the youngest crowds of the weekend they stick to what they do best, which thankfully for us is just putting on a downright entertaining show. Bat Country has the second stage really rocking, setting things up nicely for Metallica to round things off, who put in a hit-filled, as tight as tight can be set that reaffirms their status as the kings of all things metal as the first UK showing of what could become the next big player on the festival circuit comes to a triumphant end.


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