When Sonisphere first opened its doors to a UK audience in 2009 it was perhaps fitting that it set up camp at Knebworth, the stately home of Rock. Having played host to such luminaries as Pink Floyd, Van Morrison, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones in its rather illustrious past, there's nowhere else in Britain with the tradition and history to stage an event that celebrates rock's past and present in such a time and honoured fashion.
The fact this year's event sold out long ago tells its own story, and with at least two of the three headline acts reportedly pocketing one million pounds apiece for their troubles, any talk of music festivals being a dying phenomenon would surely be laughed out of town and back along the A1(M). Of course the fact Kilimanjaro Live managed to pull off a major coup in securing thrash metal's 'Big 4' to appear together on a UK stage for the first time ever may have something to do with it, more of which later.
It's also worth mentioning the remarkably friendly atmosphere here, probably best demonstrated by the fact no arrests were made during the entire weekend, a feat largely unheard of when compared to other major events from Glastonbury to Leeds via T In The Park. Make of it what you will, but the lack of football shirt wearing youths and bikini clad wannabe WAGS in false eyelashes and hairpieces made the Sonisphere experience akin to a nerd-friendly comic convention, albeit set in a field. And with music. Very LOUD music.
As per usual, the weather proved to be the most disappointing aspect of the weekend, with heavy rain proving an intermittent hindrance on all three days. However, thanks to an elaborate drainage system throughout Knebworth's grounds the mudfest that predominantly turns the likes of Glastonbury into a sludgedump never materialises.
With the weekend's big draw ambitiously set for Sonisphere's first night, its a nostalgic touch that the opening set comes courtesy of Diamond Head, a band largely responsible for the existence of this evening's esteemed headliners. While only one original member remains in the current line-up, the Brummie five-piece don't sound dated or out of place at any point. Set closer 'Am I Evil' proves a bludgeoning reminder of what they were capable of back in the day, and the enthusiastic crowd roars its approval back in unison.
Which cannot, sadly, be said for Anthrax. Despite being the most commercially successful of the 'Big 4' (OK, I'll stop using that phrase now) during the mid-Eighties, their music and Spinal Tap-esque stage show hasn't stood the test of time that well. Maybe someone needs to remind them 1989 did happen after all? Megadeth, on the other hand, are a surprisingly enjoyable conundrum. The usually unpredictable Dave Mustaine is in fine fettle from start to finish, displaying all the hallmarks of both a captivating showman and excellent guitarist, even if the double-necked instrument he chose for the set could have been delivered with a mountain of melted Double Gloucester on top.
Slayer may be 30 years old this year, but their hour long set is something of a revelation. Playing tracks from across their entire career (although sadly nothing from 1985's breakthrough record Hell Awaits), the sheer relentless ferocity on display puts many of their younger contemporaries to shame. While smiling frontman Tom Araya and irrepressible guitarist Kerry King are obvious focal points, it's the machine-like tendencies of drummer Dave Lombardo that inspire us the most. 'War Ensemble', Seasons In The Abyss', 'Raining Blood', 'Black Magic' and 'Angel Of Death' pass by with an incessant level of grace and fury. It must be a daunting task for anyone watching in the wings to have to follow, even if you are essentially the biggest heavy metal band in the world today. That Metallica had to resort to blustering firework displays from the outset tells its own story. Despite plundering their back catalogue for divine inspiration, the Lord Mayor's show had already ended over an hour ago, and ultimately reduced the 'Big 4' (damn! sorry...) to a 'Big 1' in the process.
Elsewhere, Blood Red Shoes placing on such a bill may have raised a few eyebrows, but they've added a degree of menace to their melody-driven short sharp shocks, and the fact 50 punters at the beginning quickly rose to 500 and beyond by the mid-point suggests they've become a serious proposition in the eyes of many a hardened rock fan. For Flats, faced with the unenviable task of going head-to-head with Metallica they struggle to attract double figures, which as documented elsewhere is the audience's loss as their back-to-basics old school punk feels like an underground history lesson from Crass to Earache Records and in-between for the uninitiated.
Rounding off the first night's entertainment are none other than Killing Joke, who despite also falling into the veterans category, are fast making a claim as 2011's most consistent live act if recent performances at Nottingham's Rock City and the Camden Crawl are anything to go by. Jaz Coleman stalks the stage in his accustomed beguiling manner, while bass player Youth even submits a knowingly cheeky grin at one point. 'Requiem', 'European Super State', 'Madness' and 'The Wait' all resonate an infectious energy, while the closing guttural funk of 'Pssyche' fills the Bohemia Tent with an unquenchable energy long after they've left the stage.
Having been kept awake all night by noisy neighbours in the next tent loudly declaring their love of all things vodka and Richard Cheese, it leaves us with little option but to get up at the crack of dawn and head for the Saturn Stage where said Mr Cheese will be appearing shortly. However, it seems everyone else had the same idea (or maybe the three bints in the next tent's voices projected around the whole site like human megaphones?) and the combination of several thousand bodies cramped together and a sudden downpour of rain offer us the incentive to head for the slightly less busy confines of Bohemia's indoor stage where Sheffield's While She Sleeps are kicking up a post-hardcore shitstorm, vocalist Lawrence Taylor in particular whose scaling of the tent's gigantic metal frame at the end marks him out as either brave or stupid.
Fellow Yorkshiremen Pulled Apart By Horses also leave us feeling a lot warmer inside than the miserable weather. Arguably the most 'fun' band currently doing the obligatory rounds, they also carry an abundance of tunes within their armoury, several new ones receiving their first airing today. 'Get Off My Ghost Train' is introduced as a song about punching gypsies, guitarist James Brown flaunts health and safety rules by throwing cans of beer into a very welcoming audience and closer 'I Punched A Lion In The Throat' almost causes a full scale riot to break out amidst the flailing melee both on and off stage. Pretty much what festivals like this were made for then, I guess...
You can take the man out of his indie comfort zone, but you can't take the indie out of the man, and the prospect of Weezer entertaining a largely indifferent crowd is like manna from heaven as far as yours truly is concerned. However, despite being placed on a bill with artists with whom they have literally nothing in common whatsoever, Rivers Cuomo and co. deliver a near-perfect greatest hits set. 'Sweater Song', 'Beverley Hills', 'Islands In The Sun', 'Hash Pipe' and 'Buddy Holly' all result in one mass singalong for those of us that bothered to turn out, and even the sun decides to make a long overdue appearance too. When Cuomo announces he'd like to do a cover of his favourite band we're a little unsure of what to expect. When his band launches head first into Radiohead's 'Paranoid Android' and plays the song in its entirety for a full nine minutes or so we're left spellbound. And speechless. Like, WOW!
Having waited over a decade to see The Sisters Of Mercy since catching them in Nottingham in 2000, to say I'm buzzing with anticipation would be something of an understatement. Fashionably late as always, the thick mist of dry ice and vaguely visible lit up Apple Mac logos either side of Doktor Avalanche announce their arrival. From what we can make out, Andrew Eldritch appears to be wearing a cycling top that wouldn't look out of place in the Tour De France. Nevertheless, their set is nothing short of incredible. Backed by guitarists Ben Christo and Chris Catalyst, the Sisters play a set that pretty much encompasses their chameleonic recording career. Slow burning opener 'Afterhours' leads into the frantic 'Train' before early material like 'Alice' and 'Amphetamine Logic' rub shoulders with the heavier likes of 'More' and 'Vision Thing'. By the time 'This Corrosion' closes the encore and a hundred and one human pyramids have been built and collapsed, even Eldritch himself can't help but raise a smile. As triumphant returns go, this is surely up there with the best of them.
Feeling vaguely rough from the previous evening's excessive over-indulgences, we decide to take solace checking out some of the lesser known acts on the bill. On hearing Metallica's 'Hit The Lights' in the distance, our first diversion takes us to the Saturn Stage in the hope that some secret show is taking place by messrs Hetfield, Ulrich and co. to make up for Friday's phoned-in set. Sadly, we're left disappointed by the fact Miami's Black Tide are playing the only song anyone can actually name during their set.
Arcane Roots are a more interesting proposition in that they remind us of Three Colours Red or The Wildhearts, resulting in sudden tinges of nostalgia. For a real blast from the past it's left to House Of Pain, even if front-of-house rappers Everlast and Danny Boy seem to have piled on the pounds since the last time we saw them. Nevertheless, a sizeable crowd has gathered, no doubt in preparation for 'Jump Around', which they do play right at the very end of their 30 minute set. The swines.
While Airbourne do a passable impersonation of AC/DC minus the tunes over yonder, the inimitable trio that is Motorhead are lining up on the Apollo Stage in front of us. Now pardon my ignorance but in 25 years of watching bands it gives me no pleasure to say I've never yet seen Lemmy and co. in the flesh. Fortunately, my debut of sorts does not disappoint. It goes without saying that Motorhead's performance ranks as one of the finest hours of the entire weekend, their set dedicated to former guitarist Michael 'Wurzel' Burston, who sadly passed away the previous evening. They play the classics - 'Iron Fist', 'Stay Clean', 'Metropolis' and 'Over The Top' all arrive early doors. They also play a couple of newer songs from last year's The World Is Yours long player. While Lemmy takes centre stage and rightly so, guitarist Phil Campbell's ever-changing guitars and drummer Mikkey Dee - an unbelievable beast behind the kit of which I've never witnessed before in my entire life - threaten to upstage their leader on more than one occasion. Then for 'Killed By Death', Lemmy introduces a fire-breathing Burlesque dancer "just to make sure everyone's still awake" (his words not mine). At 65 years of age there's still no better showman in rock today. Simply incredible.
In the background we can hear Bill Bailey murdering Gary Numan's 'Cars' and Lady GaGa's 'Pokerface'. Then he plays 'The Hokey Cokey'. We stay and eat Sunday roasts smothered in gravy instead. The real comedy moment comes later via Slipknot. Sorry folks, but eight guys in their late thirties bouncing around in gimp masks and boiler suits to what amounts to a commercially acceptable take on grindcore can be mildly entertaining even if the likes of Carcass and Extreme Noise Terror did this kind of thing so much better 20 years ago, musically at least. Silly half hour exhausted, its time to move onto bigger things, particularly if the rumour mill is to be believed.
The presence of the mysterious Bat Sabbath at the top of Bohemia's Sunday night line-up results in all kinds of speculation as to who they might be, ranging from Slash and Velvet Revolver to Ozzy Osbourne and even a secret show by the Foo Fighters (although that would be particularly difficult bearing in mind they've just taken to the stage at T In The Park some 440 miles away). Of course the name itself should have been a dead giveaway, so when Cancer Bats turn up and play half an hour's worth of Black Sabbath covers, some of us aren't that surprised. Nevertheless, despite the fact they put on a competent tribute act, it does feel like an underwhelming anticlimax to what's been a mainly spectacular weekend of rawwwk action.
Here's to next year...
Live photos: Jason Williamson
Lemmy & Burlesque dancer photo: Mick Carroll