Sonisphere has been missed at Knebworth over the past couple of summers. Based at a site with almost unparalleled rock heritage, and one with numerous practical advantages over many of its competitors (including location and size), the festival has been absent for two years thanks to a disaster of a 2012, in which the event was cancelled thanks to some late, and rather curious, headline bookings. The cynical will point out that Sonisphere only returns to Knebworth now, 40 years after the first live music was held here, thanks to the undiminished pulling power of metal’s two biggest bands, Iron Maiden and Metallica.
Judging by the gradual swelling of the crowd over the course of the weekend that might well be true, but Sonisphere has made a pretty good fist of providing a line-up with genuine strength in depth this time around. There is a great mix of the heavy and the crossover/alternative on this bill, and the friendly atmosphere makes for a weekend that’s more relaxed than most festivals on this size are ever capable of being. There are the usual major festival gripes (drink options and prices uppermost amongst them) but it’s certainly safe to say that Sonisphere has most bases covered. Even the weather stays fine most of the time. Who would have thought it?
Turning up to a festival just in time to see Gary Numan take to the main stage in a late afternoon slot isn’t the worst way to start a weekend, but it’s October File who really get things up and running over in the Jägermeister tent. Their industrial-leaning metal blows away any cobwebs left over from the festival’s last outing. Atari Teenage Riot, meanwhile, terrorise the Bohemia tent, managing to scare away a fair few curious metalheads in the process. Unfortunately those who flee are confronted with the mundanity of HIM on the main stage, who struggle to engage a largely indifferent crowd. At least Band of Skulls, preceding them, have a degree of Feeder-esque likeability to win over a mostly unfamiliar crowd. It’s still early days but they might just belong on stages this large.
The Satellite stage hosts a spectacularly woeful half hour set from Little Matador, the side project of Snow Patrol’s Nathan Connolly. Managing to make Connolly’s main gig appear like an imposing cross between Slint and Psychic TV is some feat, but not one I want to bear witness to again anytime soon. US deathcore quintet Carnifex are much more visceral but, the first ten minutes or so aside, scarcely more entertaining. There comes a point in every death metal band’s career when they need to realise that songwriting is just as important as sheer ferocity and, given that Carnifex’s set mostly sounds like a blastbeat gone sentient and let loose in a studio with too many pro tools guitar plugins for a weekend, I think it’s reasonable enough to assume that ship has sailed for these Californians. I should have watched Anthrax play Among the Living in Bohemia instead. Judging by the size of the Carnifex crowd, everyone else is.
On the plus side, at least I didn’t have to suffer Limp Bizkit on the main stage. Even hearing them from the other side of the arena is enough to send me scurrying back into the Satellite tent for local alt-rockers Scholars. Their pop punk inflections can grate on occasion, but they put their all into a performance that mixes earnestness and hooks in equal measure. Bohemia headliners Electric Wizard are the complete opposite. It’s not as loud as it should be, but it’s certainly slow enough and makes a nice alternative to main headliners The Prodigy, whose spectacular light show doesn’t quite mask a seemingly rather by-the-numbers headline set that’s far from enthralling enough to convince a non-convert such as myself. If any band wins new fans tonight it’s 65daysofstatic, whose hour long set in Bohemia sees even the security guards dancing and leading the crowd on in cheers and applause. Proof that some bands are just too good to not to be well received, even when placed in atypical circumstances for their style.
Somehow having conspired to miss both Chas & Dave and current pointless teenage fad Babymetal, it’s Ghost who kick off Saturday for me. I’ve never really ‘got’ why metal fans go crazy for the band on record and it’s safe to say I’m still clueless. Yes the costumes are nice but the music is astonishingly polite for the most part. It’s always nice to hear a Roky Erickson cover though. The Winery Dogs, a sort of Blind Melon for prog fans (by virtue of featuring ex-Dream Theater sticksman Mike Portnoy behind the kit), are about as enticing a prospect as a tin of cold soup on a wintery day so it’s back to the Satellite stage for The Safety Fire. These young British prog metallers (or Meshuggah acolytes, depending on your interpretation) could be set for big things in the years to come, having an ease to their stage presence that compliments their wilfully complex, but surprisingly anthemic, songs.
Anthrax, who are seemingly obliged to play the main stage every time Sonisphere arrives at Knebworth, run through a selection of hits, covers and new material. They seem a bit tired after the previous night’s efforts, however, with ‘Indians’ suffering in particular. Carcass don’t do tired, but they do sarcastic brilliantly, with Jeff Walker rightly suggesting they should have a bigger crowd given their huge influence on metal over the last two decades. Thankfully cuts both new and old are delivered with aplomb. It’s good to have them back. The transition from their set to Frank Turner’s at the other end of the arena is one of the odder moments I’ve ever experience at a festival but it’s far from the disaster some speculated it would be, with Turner’s arena-headlining status clearly having earned him plenty of fans in the metal/hard rock world. He’s an easy target for cynics everywhere but there’s no shame in appreciating the fact that he does have some genuinely brilliant songs and, no matter what your view on him is, he has worked a lot harder to get to this position than most would ever be prepared to. 'Welcome to show 1,585', he announces halfway through an enlivening ‘Photosynthesis’. He’ll be back at Knebworth for another sometime if the positive reception here is anything to go by.
Hundred Reasons are back (again) scarcely 18 months after their ‘farewell’ shows in 2012. Ideas Above Our Station hasn’t aged as well as records by contemporaries Hell is for Heroes and Reuben but it’s still a nice enough nostalgia trip to see them run through it one last time. The small crowd is indicative of a rather curious bill placement however. Deftones finally emerge on stage after a WW1 dogfight reenactment, including one plane flown by a certain Mr Dickinson, makes for an awkward 15 minute interlude. Watching planes circling above a field a fair distance away isn’t really a spectator sport. Deftones very much are. Chino is on fine form vocally and the setlist is full of massive tunes from across their back catalogue. It’s not just the old stuff that gets the crowd moving either, with ‘Poltergeist’ and ‘Rocket Skates’ getting particularly strong receptions.
Slayer get a huge welcome as well, because they’re Slayer, but without Dave Lombardo on stage there is definitely something missing in the performances of classics like ‘War Ensemble’ and ‘Dead Skin Mask’, and the way they’ve dumped him so readily since the sad passing of original guitarist Jeff Hanneman still leaves a bit of a bad taste in the mouth for me. Thankfully Iron Maiden arrive to put the world to rights with the final show of their three-year ‘Maiden England’ tour. Every song is received with joy by the assembled masses, although it’s noticeable when skirting off for some food that there are plenty of attendees not watching them. Maybe stick somebody else on at the same time as even the biggest headliners in future Sonisphere?
Gojira opening the main stage are delayed on Sunday morning thanks to the slow construction of Metallica’s special staging. Thankfully when they do arrive they are on brilliantly pummeling form as ever, emphasising their status as one of the very best metal acts in the world. Protest the Hero seem rather cheesed off by the delays affecting their stage time, and the usual energy of their performances is lacking even if the technicality is not. The proggy feel continues with Devin Townsend Project, but it’s becoming clear that Devin’s wacky persona is becoming increasingly more significant than the music, which is a shame because there remains some brilliant work in his arsenal.
Truckfighers don’t need wacky stage personae in the Bohemia tent because they have riffs to spare. It’s stoner rock at its most basic, perhaps, but they’re a perfect festival band for that very reason. Bo Ningen are equally suitable to festivals, their Japanese psych striking the right balance between Fushitsusha freakouts and pop-tinged accessibility. Back in the open air and Aussie prog stars Karnivool provide a set laced with moments of real genius. Their style of music is never going to be cool, but it’s damn good, and, as a long-term fan, it’s great to see them playing bigger stages.
Last time Sonisphere took place, Gallows were outside, and Frank Carter was leaving the band behind. Now they’re in the Bohemia tent and former Alexisonfire man Wade McNeill is at the mic, but their fans still go equally crazy and their new material sounds like the best they have ever done. All’s well that ends well. Mastodon have recently unleashed their latest record on the world and, judging from this rather underwhelming main stage performance, it doesn’t quite have the hooks of The Hunter or the sludge factor of the Leviathan / Blood Mountain days. Thankfully, back under cover, the reunited Kerbdog have stage presence to spare and, even if their songs have aged, they’re still great fun.
Equally enjoyable, as ever, are The Bronx, who tear Bohemia apart for 40 minutes whilst Alice in Chains plod through classics outside. Jerry Cantrell doesn’t exactly look thrilled to be on stage, and most of the excitement that surrounded the band’s convincing comeback in 2009 has well and truly disappeared now. Therapy? are everything that Alice in Chains aren’t on stage. The Northern Irish trio are clearly having a whale of a time and their performance of Infernal Love in full is a much needed reminder of one of the nineties’ most underrated alt-rock records from one of its most deserving bands. A closing double salvo of ‘Potato Junkie’ and ‘Screamager’ sends Bohemia absolutely wild as well.
It’s left to Metallica to round out the weekend. Having won over Glastonbury the previous week they arrive at Knebworth for the third time armed with the promise of a fan-voted ‘By Request’ set. The problem with such a proposal is that most people have just voted for the songs they play all the time anyway and, no matter how much I love ‘Master of Puppets’, ‘Fade to Black’ et al, the first three times it does get progressively less exciting hearing such songs live every time. The majority of the crowd lap everything up, however, and the fact remains that there are few more convincing ways to end a festival weekend than Metallica having a huge audience in the palm of their hands. Hopefully, after this triumphant comeback, Sonisphere can return for another successful weekend in 2015. See you there?
Photo by Jenn McCambridge